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When Jared Lipscomb saw the conservatorship that controls Britney Spears had been described in court documents as a “hybrid business model,” Lipscomb knew that he wouldn’t be listening to his idol’s music anytime soon.
Lipscomb and other members of the movement now known as #FreeBritney had already been suspicious of the conservatorship, which was first placed on the iconic performer in 2008 and has since left much of Britney Spears’ finances and life under the legal authority of her father, James Spears.
They’d combed through court documents and financial transactions, struck by Spears’ inability to spend her money—her allowance is reported to be around $2,000 a week, compared to her roughly $60 million estate and status as a wildly successful pop star. So if one of Spears’ co-conservators was copping to the fact that he was literally in the business of controlling Spears, then Britney’s fans had to make sure that business tanked.
“We knew money that Britney Spears the brand was receiving was not going to Britney Spears the person,” Lipscomb said. “The moment we saw those documents, the diehard Free Britney advocates, we started putting it out there on social media: Do not consume the music. Do not consume the product. Do not consume anything from Britney the brand.”
Last month, for the first time, Spears spoke up about the conservatorship extensively, pulling back the curtain on a bizarre legal arrangement that, according to Spears, has led to her being pressured into working and even barred her from removing her IUD. This week, a judge granted Spears the ability to pick her own attorney. That new lawyer, former federal prosecutor Mathew Rosengart, has promised to move aggressively to take James Spears off the conservatorship.
Spears’ condemnation of the conservatorship threw gasoline on the already-explosive Free Britney cause. Some supporters of the movement advocate for a total boycott of Spears’ music and merchandise because it contributes to what they—and Spears herself—believe to be an abusive conservatorship. And although Spears’ conservatorship may be unique in pop music, the ethical questions it raises are age-old: How much should we separate an artist’s personal life from their work? And if we profess to be fans of an artist, if their work has changed and bettered our lives, what do we owe them?
Pop music has been forced to wrestle with the first question, to mixed results, over the last few years. Take R. Kelly and Dr. Luke, who have both faced their share of legal battles but taken sharply different paths in the court of public opinion. While R. Kelly is now set to stand trial and you’re unlikely to hear “Ignition (Remix)” on the radio, the producer once known as Lucas Gottwald has continued to work with rising stars like Doja Cat, Kim Petras, and Saweetie. (R. Kelly has denied abusing anyone. Accused of rape in a lawsuit by Kesha, Dr. Luke has denied the allegations and is now suing her for defamation.)
“The moment we saw those documents, the diehard Free Britney advocates, we started putting it out there on social media: Do not consume the music. Do not consume the product. Do not consume anything from Britney the brand.”
“We’ve decided as a society to be conscious around other things, whether it’s energy use and any number of other things. That’s wonderful,” said George Howard, a professor of music business management at the Berklee College of Music who also teaches ethics. “We have not, for whatever reason, decided to be conscious of the ways in which money flows to people who create so much of the art that actually is really deeply meaningful to us.”
But men like R. Kelly and Dr. Luke, presumably, want fans to continue consuming their music; supporting them means listening to it, arguably the path of least resistance. In the case of Spears, who is not an abuser but the alleged victim, Free Britney supporters are facing the opposite conundrum: They’re driven to help Spears because her art resonated with them so deeply—but offering that help, fulfilling their debt to the artist, means cutting themselves off from her art. (For the most part. If you’re really craving some “Toxic,” you can probably find a shady version on Youtube that doesn’t profit Spears’ estate.)
The closest analogue to Spears might be Taylor Swift. In 2019, after Swift departed her original label Big Machine Records and set up shop with Republic Records and Universal Music Group, Scooter Braun acquired Big Machine—and the masters to Swift’s first six albums. Swift responded with a passionate plea on Tumblr where she attacked Scott Borchetta, Big Machine’s founder, and Braun, who she accused of “incessant, manipulative bullying.” (Braun has denied wrongdoing.)
Swift stopped short of calling for a boycott of her past work, but she did promote her then-upcoming album “Lover” as a “healthier option.” Since then, she’s also started to fulfill a promise to re-record her old albums, giving herself a new set of lucrative masters and fans a way to consume what they see as ethically sourced Swift. There is arguably no such thing when it comes to Spears, since the money that Spears makes off her music ends up in her conservatorship coffers.
For Spears fans, the specter of a behind-the-scenes, money-driven man wielding legal authority over a creative woman, in perpetuity, may feel all too familiar. For Howard, the two situations also highlighted a deeply common trope in the record industry: “the idea of the artist being used as a pawn for other people’s gains.”
“So many of these artists who just sold so many records, so many tickets, end up being like, ‘Wait, how can I be broke?’” he said. “Eventually, someone comes in and says, ‘Well, you’re broke because you signed these deals early on.’”
“If I’m gonna choose to not listen to Britney’s music, then I am going take to whatever megaphone that I have and explain why.”
Spears has not publicly thrown her support behind fans’ boycott of her music, but Britney Spears the individual has pretty much already embarked on a boycott of Britney Spears the business. Originally scheduled to launch a second Las Vegas residency in 2019, Spears instead abruptly cancelled the residency—a decision that, at the time, she attributed to her father’s poor health.
And when Spears’ longtime manager, Larry Rudolph, resigned in the wake of Spears’ explosive testimony, he said that the singer had told him more than two years ago that she intended to take an “indefinite work hiatus,” according to Deadline. The day he resigned, Rudolph said, he’d learned that Spears “had been voicing her intention to officially retire.”
Spears’ apparent refusal to perform is a far more staggering boycott than anything her stans could ever mount. Any money she may glean from streaming also pales in comparison to what her tours and Vegas residencies would have brought in, according to Howard.
“The streaming royalties, whether it’s to the songwriter or to the performer, are really, really low. Much lower than people understand,” he said.
If you do want to stop listening to Spears’ music, Howard said that people have an ethical obligation to talk about it—loudly. “If you confront an ethical dilemma, one of your duties is to talk about it,” he said. “If I’m gonna choose to not listen to Britney’s music, then I am going take to whatever megaphone that I have and explain why.”
But if anyone was surprised to hear that a woman heralded as the Princess of Pop only has about $60 million in the bank, Howard said Spears’ relatively low net worth is likely not due to exploitative contracts. At this stage in Spears’ career, he said, she’s probably established contracts that are far more favorable to her than they are to most other artists. Instead, Spears may be shelling way too much money to people attached to the conservatorship.
“It’d be interesting to see how much she’s generating and then how much of that gross money has been reduced by all of these people that have been kind of living off of her earnings, potentially,” Howard said. “If there is a discrepancy, it’s probably because of the amount of people that are taking a percentage of her income before it hits her bank account. For most other artists, it’s that they just ended up having to sign the deal that some would contend is extortion.”
Right now, Lipscomb isn’t worried that a fan-led boycott would imperil the size of Spears’ estate. “We know from financial records that the estate is not in trouble. If anything, they are very well-off,” Lipscomb said. “I’m thinking very short-term, because I truly believe she’s gonna be out of this conservatorship within this year. So if it were something that the judge ruled no, this is gonna be an indefinite conservatorship, then I would have to rethink my relationship to Britney Spears’ music.”
“I feel horrible. I wish I could right now write a refund check and give it to her and mail it to her.”
The ongoing sacrifice is a bit easier to bear now that, after Spears’ allegations of conservatorship abuse, so many of Spears’ lyrics are now simply unsettling to hear. “Piece of Me” was released in late 2007, before the creation of the conservatorship, but it was framed as Spears’ comeback. If she was canny enough to criticize the media storm around her, the thinking went, then she was once again an in-control icon.
But now, in light of Spears’ professed lack of power, the song sounds less like a battle cry and more like an offensively empty marketing ploy—and lyrics like “I'm Mrs. ‘She's Too Big, Now She's Too Thin’” hit different after Spears’ allegation that even her diet is controlled under the conservatorship. Was it just the media who obsessively chronicled Spears’ weight, or did her own father join in?
Lipscomb still grieves over the fact that he went to Spears’ concerts before he learned more about the conservatorship. He’s repurposed the Britney Spears shirts he bought into Free Britney signs, or sent them to shelters that need reused textiles.
“I tell my friends every single day: I wish nothing more that I didn’t go to that stupid Vegas residency. I wish nothing more that I didn’t go to the ‘Circus’ tour. Twice, I went to the ‘Circus’ tour,” he said. “I feel horrible. I wish I could right now write a refund check and give it to her and mail it to her.”