stick it to the man

What do songs about the music industry tell us about the music industry?

When it comes to the music business, the artists voice can be drowned out by commentators, execs and journalists even though one could argue the artist has the most valid voice of the lot. As I compiled this playlist, it occurred to me that through listening to these songs in chronological order, it may well tell a story about how the music industry has changed from the artists point of view.

It perhaps doesn’t surprise that the majority of songs about the music industry come across as bitter, bamboozled or both — artists being pushed & pulled in all directions until they are twisting in the wind. Many of these songs capture the unfathomable business end of the industry very effectively. However, more recent tracks suggest the times are a changin’, embodying a sense of artist empowerment and control in stark contrast to songs from the industry of the previous century.

The playlist runs in vaguely reverse chronological order, and is broken down into four phases. That’s after our introduction to Mr & Mrs Record Industry by Jill Scott, because we just had to start there. Let’s take a look…

Phase 4: The Industry Right Now — Kojey Radical’s not all about the numbers

The current crop of songs about the industry paint a picture of the continuous hustle, but a hustle now with analytics! In Sigrid’s ‘Business Dinners’, it’s all about “pictures, numbers, figures yeah” and that is the modern industry — very much a numbers game. In Weezer’s Can’t Knock The Hustle “If you give it a five star review, we’ll give you one too” indicates the game is more one of contra promo deals these days than extravagant marketing budgets. True dat. There are so many references to numbers in this phase, that I guess the modern artist is expected to be more excited about data dashboards than drum patterns. But check the lyrics, artists don’t really care about the numbers.

There are some knowing lyrics here, not least in Kojey Radical superb rap on ‘Pure’ (a focus on the “360 though them numbers just look shifty”). Meanwhile, Sylvan Esso has a real dig at ‘Radio’ and the relentless promotional machine (only for the song to be embraced by radio and become her biggest hit to date, boom!). Well, it is a great song. This era also has a defining business trend, that of artists (in particular rap & hip hop) starting their own labels or ‘imprints’ in real numbers, as J Cole nods to in ‘Let Nas Down’. It’s another banger.

Indeed, one thread running through this whole collection is that while the industry sometimes frustrates artists when it comes to doing business, it certainly inspires them to conjure up some truly monster tracks.

Phase 3: The Turning Point — Lorde, Jessie J and the age of artist empowerment

While the most current songs show artists as empowered, the origins of this new attitude came a few years earlier, with Lorde ‘Royals’ and before that, Jessie Jay ‘Price Tag’.

These songs came the message that the trappings of fame are nothing compared to creative freedom. That sentiment gave Sam Smith an early success (both creatively and commercially) with ‘Money On My Mind’, still one of his best tracks.

Tracks from this era let us know how savvy artists have become about their own brands and what they define as success. Authenticity is to fore, and it’s the artists in control. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis dissect the deal, while Twenty One Pilots refuse to be boxed in to one style or another for the sake of commercial success (which they have achieved nonetheless thank you very much).

In a business in which creative direction and commercial success are an ongoing tussle, what seems to truly matter is clarity of vision. This era tells us that the industry is still full of pain points and pitfalls, but can be tamed, circumnavigated or subverted by savvy artists with self-belief.

Phase 2: Cracks in the Pavement — Radiohead revolts and the industry shifts

In the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Wilco find themselves dropped from their record label, only to be re-signed by a label owned by the same company. It gives a suitable backdrop to their wonderful song ‘Company In My Back’. That same year, Tom Petty dedicated his entire 11th studio album to his feelings about the record industry, captured best of all in ‘The Last DJ’.

This was the age of crazy corporate decisions and cracks in the pavement, the music industry approaching the brink of collapse as file-sharing peaked and legal downloads never quite filling the industry’s leaky buckets. It’s a cynical period, reflected by the tunes. Radiohead Dollars & Cents and Coldplay Major Minus seem to capture the mood, as does Spoon’s skewering of the A&R process in ‘Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now’. “All I want to know is, are you honest with anyone” is Britt Daniel’s pleading lyric. Listen also to Aimee Mann ‘Nothing Is Good Enough’, and a lesser-known Aha B-Side ‘Company Man’ — both prime examples of how artists can articulate the industry better than anyone. In this phase, the empowerment age hasn’t quite arrived, so disgruntled artists have few alternatives but to suck it up. But streaming is just around the corner and all problems will soon be solved…right?

Phase 1: Rage Against The Machine — But write me a hit!

During the 70s & 80s, much vitriol was aimed squarely at record labels’ fixation on the money and the charts (including in the UK, the critical role of Top Of The Pops, as namechecked in The Kinks superb 1970 track). Nothing perhaps captures this period quite like Pink Floyd ‘Have a Cigar’ (the cigar toting ‘record man’ is the cliche of the era and very much misrepresents the industry these days). Depeche Mode ‘Everything Counts’ may appear to be the classic statement of the industry’s boom decade, with its twin mantras “grabbing hands grab all they can” and “everything counts in large amounts”, though technically speaking, the song was written as a protest against Thatcherite corporate Britain rather than aimed directly at the music industry.

However, it wasn’t all rage against the label machine. Radio too came in for criticism, in the form of Elvis Costello’s cynically penned ‘Radio Radio’, again ironically, becoming a breakthrough radio hit for Costello in the US. Managers are not excused either. We have Queen’s protest song ‘Death On Two Legs, Dedicated to…’ (their first manager Norman Sheffield), but The Beatles got their first with their tribute to fame, ‘Baby You’re Rich A Man’ reportedly about manager Brian Epstein.

The Three Minute Song — where the music industry starts and carries on!

The hit song threads through the entire history of the recording industry, from the critical role of the single (the ‘Three Minute Hero’ according to The Selector) in the 70’s through 90’s (Joe Jackson wrote about the ‘Hit Single’ 1992 and absolutely failed to have any more of them), to its very recent resurgence in the current streaming era. Three minutes? Isn’t it now seven seconds before we need to hear that hook?

Some of these songs are testimony to the complex formulas of the industry, or as Elbow’s frontman Guy Garvey calls it “The Mangle” — the hard to decipher machinations of how & why decisions get made about creative direction, audience growth, sales and ultimately ‘success’.

Surely most artists have something to be grateful for? There aren’t many songs written yet about making music for the tech giants (is that really any improvement on record labels one wonders) but sooner or later there will be. We await the artists’ testimony on that!

The record industry scenes in Bohemian Rhapsody are among the most fascinating and entertaining, and reveal how commercial and creative tensions work together to make superstars, cultural icons that last forever. That, surely is still the most relevant role to be played by what we know as the ‘recording industry’.

Playback notes. If you want the story from now into history play this reverse order playlist, in order, whereas it would be cool if you could play in non-reverse, but we’re not sure there is a functional button on the streaming services for that! Make sense? Trust us on this…just press play and do not skip…all 30 songs are sure hits! For the longer read see TSS Medium blog.