In 2002 Virgin Records dropped Mariah Carey from her massive four-record deal after she had a nervous breakdown that led to poor sales of her Glitter album—this was a time when shifting 500,000 copies could be classed as poor sales. Mariah walked away with a tidy $30 million in her pocket and almost immediately signed another multi-million dollar deal with Island Records. Never had a nervous breakdown been so profitable. That’s the sparkling, butterfly filled Mariah Carey universe though—the reality for most artists that find themselves axed or forced to walk away from their major label deal isn’t quite so glittering.
Signing to a major in 2015—Universal, Sony, Warner, or any of their key subsidiaries—is a bit like taking your pay check to the betting shop and putting it all on Kimmy K's Selfish to win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. And then confidently promising to buy the cashier a package getaway to the Dominican Republic with your certain forthcoming profits.
Of late, a stack of promising artists—Heavenly Beat, Bebe Black, Chloe Howl—have all been cut loose by their labels. Hyped Manila-based artist Eyedress tells me he was recently dropped by XL Records in the middle of his development stage, while still writing his album. So how does an artist get dropped or forced out of a label? What causes it and can you bounce back? I decided to contact a few who have fallen prey to the major label clearance sales in the past to get a feel for the industry’s cruelest and quietest kiss of death.
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Being dropped is often stigmatized, to the extent that it’s usually understood to reflect the ineptitude of the artist in question. Either they were petulant, their sales weren’t great, or, the most common misconception, that they just weren’t good enough. But the truth is, being dropped by a record label isn’t always as cut and dry as it seems; it’s not like being fired from a job. Often, the artists in question have been forced out by new management, phased out by priority programs, or just dragged into such a spiraling black hole of rising costs that the only option left is to walk away.
“My first record deal I probably signed in some fancy restaurant with champagne, I felt like I made it,” smiles Victoria Hesketh, a.k.a. Little Boots. The British electro-pop chanteuse, and CEO of her own label, left her deal with Atlantic Records after disagreements. “They wanted me to repeat what I did last time” she told Fuse in 2013 regarding how she should progress her career following her debut album. “My latest record deal I signed on the floor in Stanstead Airport. My first deal was terrible, and if I’d understood the small print I would not have signed it.”
It’s no secret that the easiest way to have a long-term sustainable career with a major label is to be sensible about the amount of money that’s spent. The glitch here is that many artists don’t feel like that spending is really under their control. “For my first record I probably made over a million pounds,” asserts Little Boots, “but I was in the red because they spent so much on marketing and that was out of my control. So it’s not like you’re a business partner really, it’s more like someone’s running your business for you, and they are doing it badly.”
Hesketh had found herself in what’s called a “360 deal,” which was a pretty new concept when she signed, but has since become industry norm. Terms change from deal to deal but essentially, these deals give a cut of everything you do as an artist to your record label, whether it’s sales, touring, merchandise, or even that Tampax commercial you were in. On the surface it sounds fair enough, but a label’s entitlement to profits from revenue streams that they really involved in resulted in murky ground for Little Boots.
“Any work in the entertainment industry that could be connected to my brand they would take the profit.” Little Boots elucidates. “You’re playing shit corporate gigs to pay off this massive debt that you’ve got from someone else. They were spending the money your record’s earned on anything from five star hotels for marketing people to presents. They they just spend without my permission on things I would never spend money on.”
For other artists, the root cause of the split from their major label can come down to the transient nature of staffing at majors. As a result, one of the most common scenarios leading to breakups is that the A&R who originally signed them ends up sacked or replaced.
“This is a very typical story,” Nanna Øland Fabricius aka the Danish born Oh Land tells me. “The people I worked with got laid off one by one so the whole system got completely replaced—new President, new A&R, new marketing, new everything. Suddenly there were all these new people who had no idea who I was. They were seeing me and saying, ‘She’s nice but it would be great if she did this and was like that,’ like I was some kind of capsule and they could replace the contents. I was the leftovers of some former president and then someone else had to make an omelette out of me.”
Oh Land says that moving to America and signing her deal with Epic Records/Sony Music was actually incredible in the beginning. “I had no clue about the music industry so it was all just this big fairy tale. A lot of people might have been sceptical about some things but for me it was just YES! I had a team that I loved and it was a combination of being lucky and doing things that really felt right.” After her team were sacked from the label, they literally stopped answering her calls overnight, Oh Land tried to continue working with the label playing by their rules.
“I was willing to work something out and try producers that were a bad fit to show some goodwill. Play that game and see if I could some how make something that I loved and they loved. They were flying me around making me work with all these producers that I had no real interest in working with. I tried to see it as an adventure but ended up doubting myself. It was like they tried to make me some kind of Ke$ha.”
The crunch came when she confronted her label president, his response in Oh Land's words was, "I don’t give a shit about Coachella, I want to have a top 10." After the meeting Oh Land says she, “Just felt like a prostitute.” In a bold move she demanded that she finish her album with Dave Sitek. “It was basically like firing myself—it was clear that we had split the waters and there was no real future in us working together.”
Initially, finding a major label to give their take on the process was next to impossible. One employee told me off record that “it is the most taboo thing possible here, when people are dropped here no one ever mentions their name again!” This extreme label attitude spreads into the journalist and public perception of artists who have been dropped, labeled quite rapidly as damaged goods. Little Boots was apprehensive about walking away from her label deal, and it took her a long time to regroup and figure out her next move. “It takes a lot of strength, determination and self belief, cheesy as it sounds, to pull yourself together and say ‘right where did this go wrong and how can I fix it, what’s the next step?’" The truth is, just because someone had a relationship with a massive corporation that didn’t work out doesn’t mean they’re not a great musician and don’t have a fan base. Azealia Banks split with her label, managed to keep hold of her song rights, released her album on her own, and still managed to hit number 30 on the Billboard 100 Chart.
“Some of the most successful artists I’ve ever worked with will have been signed and dropped by another label” explains President of Music at Virgin EMI, Mike Smith, who was one of the few to take time to speak with me. He feels it’s important that debates like this are transparent. “I signed Mark Ronson after he’d been dropped by Elektra. He went from selling 40,000 records with them to over a million records with me. I can see how some people can see it as the end of the world. I appreciate you can get into a spiral of depression; I think that’s where it can be really tough. The important thing to remember is if you’ve been able to get a record deal once you get can get one again.”
The long held belief of major label deals is that managers should push for big money to be spent on a record, believing that the more they get from the label, the bigger the commitment is and the harder the record company will work to get that money back. But Mike says that’s one of the great myths of the music industry. “The record company,” he explains, “will work hard if they believe they can have success with the record, but they will not chase something that is not working. An act signed for half a million is not going to get any more focus than an act signed for 60,000. At the end of the day, the act that has the best chance of success will be the one that get priority.”
One thing Smith is clear about, is that artists need to establish their own level of autonomy, so that their reliance is not entirely on the label. “Now more than ever it’s beholden on an artist and a manager to put the artist in a place where they are not vulnerable. The more work that an artist can do themselves, the stronger they’ll be. Because, what often can happen is an act can get signed on the vision of an A&R person but there just aren’t enough other things going on.”
Basically, whenever an artist enters any situation with a major label, they need to keep grounded, and keep their own worth at the forefront of their minds. Things need to be treated like the negotiations they are, rather than a golden ticket opportunity. It’s an attitude echoed by JMSN aka the Detroit born Albanian-American Christian Berishaj. He has worked his way through two major label deals (under former moniker Christian TV), before graduating onto new found success by self releasing his new work as JMSN through his own label White Room Records. He proffers that there’s a new business model labels are adopting, aimed at cutting investment and development costs for labels but capitalizing on artists self-generated success.
“An artist gets it to a point where they’re already self sustainable and then labels swoop in and there’s going to come a point where these artists realize the reason why they’re swooping in and giving them all this money is because they can make ten times as much if they just keep doing what they’re doing,” JMSN says. “Take Chance the Rapper, he’s been offered million dollar deals and turned them down because obviously if they’re offering you million dollar deals then labels know they can make a whole lot more than that from you. When I meet with labels I ask, ‘What can you provide me that I’m not able to do myself?’ and more often than not there’s not a solid answer besides radio. Who the fuck is going to radio to discover music anymore? We live in a different time.”
We totally do live in a different time and this is where label service models like Kobalt (which both Oh Land and Little Boots work with) are stepping in and providing flexible contracts and services (distribution, syncing, publishing, management etc) that help artists keep control of their work and the money it makes.
Oh Land says that what she learned about touring and releasing a record from her major label deal has been invaluable, but she clearly cherishes her newfound freedom. “Now I can do whatever I want, I don’t have to satisfy anyone else apart from myself and my listeners. Their opinions mean everything to me, I don’t have to put something on the album because of politics or their relationship with a certain producer. That’s the reason I started making music it gave me freedom and when you let go of that it’s not as fun any more.”
The truth is, being dropped is a common occurrence in the modern music industry, and it shouldn’t be seen as a full-blown rejection. Thanks to the digital revolution, there is a whole world of opportunities and avenues out there for the contemporary musician, once one focuses on how to sustain a career as an artist rather than how one gets as big as possible as quick as possible. Hell, maybe the act of being dropped has even become a part of the modern artist’s career that should be expected, another layer of experience to take forward.
So many artists said yes to talking to me for this feature and then bailed and I don’t blame them no one wants to look like a loser, but sharing your experiences can be a powerful thing. So if you’re an artist and you’ve recently found yourself sat at home watching day time TV mourning the days when your phone was buzzing and your diary was all mapped out for you, then hear this: just because you got dropped does not mean you should stop.