Sometimes, ‘polite pop stars’ are stifled by this business

The following MBW op/ed comes from Contributing Editor, Rhian Jones.

In June, RAYE had had enough of being a ‘polite pop star’. She took to Twitter to vent her frustration at being signed on a four-album deal to Polydor for over six years – and not having been allowed to release one album. 

Whichever way you look at the situation, it’s clearly unfair and frustrating – and it’s undoubtedly a good outcome that she’s now able to pursue her career independently without being reduced to a set of statistics that a finance department isn’t happy with. 

Lots has been written about this, so I won’t delve into the specifics of the situation here, but what is worth examining closely is the idea that RAYE felt she had to be a ‘polite pop star’ in the first place. 

Back in 2017, mega manager Sarah Stennett delivered an impassioned speech at Midem on the subject of how today’s budget-focused music industry doesn’t allow for the kind of risk-taking that allowed legendary stars like Sid Vicious, Debbie Harry and Keith Richards to flourish.

The thread that ties these names together is a spirit of rebellion, she said: “They are usually outsiders, difficult and stubborn, with a very clear vision that seems unorthodox and doesn’t fit in.”

This attitude is often essential, added Stennett, in order to fuel something culturally groundbreaking, and is sorely lacking in today’s business. 

“If you walk into certain offices today in the music business and you’re not playing ball, told to do this and that, and it’s very clear you’re going to be disruptive, you’re going to see consequences for sure,” she explained further.

“The business as a whole takes that disruption, youth culture and rebellion, as a sign of unreliability. I think all of us as a business have to be more open. If you want disruptive influencers that lead the way, you’ve got to accept chaos.” 

“The music business as a whole takes disruption, youth culture and rebellion as a sign of unreliability.”

Sarah stennett

RAYE has spoken about how stifled she felt within her major label deal on an excellent episode of Spotify’s Who We Be podcast. She didn’t want to be confined to one genre, whereas her label only allowed her to follow one, and it wasn’t the one she was naturally drawn to (dance, when she started out as an R&B artist).

Still, she did what she was told and played ball, until she broke.

I understand the business reasons for this approach. It’s tough to break through in today’s faceless streaming age where tracks, rather than artists (unless you’re a superstar), deliver market share. Dance bangers are more likely to offer faster results, than, say, an artist who is experimenting during the development phase.

Still, the music business often touts itself as an incubator (and partner) of artist careers, which seems wholly disingenuous when it’s this approach that’s favoured. As Stennett pointed out, it’s the artists who are allowed to be authentic and take risks that have always stood the test of time. 

There’s another, more sinister, element to this ‘polite pop star’ issue. Music business companies and executives are powerful. They seemingly hold the keys to an enchanted kingdom of superstardom that young artists think will make all their dreams come true.

Young artists will remain on their best behaviour at all times, regardless of the unfair and sometimes dangerous situations they are in, for fear of being expelled into obscurity and blacklisted within the business. 

“Young artists will remain on their best behaviour at all times, regardless of the unfair and sometimes dangerous situations they are in, for fear of being expelled into obscurity and blacklisted within the business.”

I recently spoke to one artist whose (self-funded and produced) album had been blocked from release by her independent label for two years. She says she thinks it was partly due to the content, which focused on ‘female issues’ that they’d expressed discomfort about, but also because she’d complained about the inappropriate sexual conduct of two artists who were signed to the label (one of which was a big money maker).

“I think they felt as if I was somebody that wasn’t on the team. I see it as a mechanism of control to try and silence me – and punish me to an extent – for having spoken about some things that I saw happening that I thought were not okay,” she said. 

Another artist I’ve interviewed recently, who was stuck on the shelf at a major label for five years, said she’d been told to “lay as low as possible” in order to protect her security. “I was told to act like I didn’t exist.”

During that time, she didn’t get to release any music and was left in limbo for a significant portion of her twenties — a time when her career should have been gaining traction.

Yet another interviewee, also signed to a major label, said the music she was writing by herself was ignored while whatever was created in the studio with a male producer wasn’t. “I didn’t have any say. And if I had any say in it, I was made to feel like I was crazy, like I was difficult – all the things a woman is when she says no.” 

I’ve heard concerning evidence of this misguided ‘artist being difficult’ attitude from executives, too.

When the Kesha and Dr. Luke trial was ongoing, a female music executive in the US felt the need to point out that “Kesha has always been a difficult artist”, like that had any relevance to the extremely damaging situation she’d been involved in at the hands of someone else (which, I’d argue, would make anyone act in a ‘difficult’ manner). 

When RAYE went public with her grievances, another senior female music exec in the UK told me that it seemed to be a “mental health issue”. Yes, RAYE has spoken about how her mental health was suffering, but that wasn’t the problem, it was an understandable reaction to the difficult situation she was in — ie. the actual problem.

Since she left the situation at Polydor, RAYE told Spotify that she’s done “a literal 180” from not wanting to leave her room for two weeks to feeling grateful and positive about her future. 

Although the examples I cite above are all female artists, men will be silenced, too. However, I would say there’s strong evidence that it disproportionately impacts women, and could be one of the reasons why there is a gender disparity in music.

I know the BPI and BRIT Awards are currently doing an extensive study that looks into the impact of gender on a career as a recording artist in the UK and I hope the attitudes outlined above are closely examined as part of that. 

How much rancid behaviour from the business side of music gets swept under the carpet because artists don’t want to harm their careers so don’t speak out?

How many artists don’t get to reach their full potential and miss out on years of their lives due to being in business arrangements that act as dictatorships? This culture is not conducive to the industry growing, improving and landing in the 21st century. 

Aside from the ‘difficult’ behaviour that might just mean someone is in a shitty situation, I’d also argue that it’s a good thing if an artist has a strong sense of self and isn’t afraid to articulate that, because it’s often conducive to good art and cultural development, like Stennett was talking about earlier.

“The music business is dealing with people, ‘difficulties’, opinions, and all, and that’s the attribute that stands it apart from any other product-making industry.”

(There will be, of course, artists, and people, who genuinely are a nightmare to work with and can make the jobs of their teams very difficult, but I suspect this is in the minority.) 

The music business is dealing with people, ‘difficulties’, opinions, and all, and that’s the attribute that stands it apart from any other product-making industry. Celebrating and supporting those people makes sense both morally and from a long-term business perspective. So why isn’t it being done?

This article originally appeared in the latest (Q3 2021) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.

MBUK is available via an annual subscription through here.

All physical subscribers will receive a complimentary digital edition with each issue.Music Business Worldwide

Related Posts