Why So Many Massively Talented Acts Just Don’t Sell
We spoke to a bunch of people in the industry about how marketing pop stars in the wrong way can end up fucking them over.
Brilliant singer and composer Laura Mvula, who was dropped by Sony this year
What do you reckon is the least respectful way to get fired? Text? Instagram DM? Being sent an envelope filled with belly button fluff containing a card that screams "YOU'RE FIRED" when opened? For Laura Mvula, MOBO Award-winning, BET and BRIT Award-nominated songwriter and singer, it all started – and ended – with an email. The gesture had all the casual nonchalance of a "sorry lol I've just been busy" breakup WhatsApp, or whatever ghosting method people born in the 2000s are now using. "I didn't see anyone, I didn't hear anybody's voice," Mvula later said, quoted by the BBC. "I just read words. It felt so cold and cruel. Not even the fact that I was dropped, the way that the whole thing happened. To be treated like that doesn't feel quite just."
You can see where she's coming from. I've heard of people getting fired from office jobs and only finding out when they couldn't access their work email accounts – this scenario is so extra that it leaves a similarly metallic taste somewhere in the back of my mouth. It's now been almost six months since Sony subsidiary RCA chucked Mvula off their roster with the (forwarded, it turns out) email. In that time, she's played several tour dates both in the UK and abroad. She's won the coveted Ivor Novello Best Album award for her songwriting on 2016's The Dreaming Room. And, at the time of writing, she's still unsigned.
So how does a major label artist like her, for whom critics have been pounding out breathlessly positive album and gig reviews, end up cut off and left to fend for herself? Well, you've got to look beyond Mvula altogether to find out. Once you do, you start to realise the potential for this pattern to develop, where artists whose work is hard to pigeonhole find themselves smashing against barriers to sustainable success. The optics of that are magnified in Mvula's case, because of the template set out for black women artists that tends to box them into R&B, soul or being "street". If someone of Mvula's calibre – who exists outside those racialised categories, well-respected, playing high-profile gigs and neither a buzzband nor tiresome industry plant – can end up using one sad tweet to share the news that they're basically unemployed, there are more intricate dynamics at play.
I put this to experimental pop/soul performer and songwriter Andreya Triana, one of many musicians including Seinabo Sey and Kimbra, who swooped in to tweet their support in response to Mvula's "I just got dropped" social media memo. "Normally I hold back about these sorts of things," Triana says, "but I'll tell you as it is: I tweeted because I got dropped as well, after my last album, so I really empathised with her." Now putting out music on a label founded by her management company, this is her first time speaking publicly about being dropped by Ninja Tune imprint Counter. Hearing Mvula's news was, then, "a shock to me, but I knew how it felt."
When I prod, Triana pauses briefly, before going on: "Similar to her, I was dropped in a really kind of … not a very respectful way. You kind of feel like you're in the middle of the ocean; like there's nothing to hold onto, you're going to sink. So I sent her a massive message to show her my support." You can hear a gentle defiance in her tone. She doesn't seem bitter or angry in the slightest. But you just know that she's had the time to reflect on what can happen when the people who've been hired to look after your career seem to retreat into a bush, Homer Simpson-style, and leave you exposed. "When those kinds of things happen, which are very 'industry', I go back to the essence of what I do and why I do it. If you have talent and people love what you do, you can go and do a gig anywhere – that's it. You can share your gift."
That seems to be the route Mvula's taking for now, continuing to work as though nothing happened. As Triana and I speak, it's hard to get a simple answer on why Counter let her go. But an idea that crops up, somewhat tentatively, relates to how she was handled and marketed. Looking at Mvula, if you hadn't heard her music and lived in the UK, you'd likely think she was making standard soul or R&B. Her marketing had a 'cute aunty at the function who may break into song' vibe to it, which is actually wildly incongruous to her orchestral pop: music that swells and swoops with an intensity that has no place being spoonfed to a Radio 2 drivetime crowd. The beige, floaty illustrations you might associate with a particularly fetching John Lewis cushion cover dampen the effervescence of her compositions.
And yet – as Triana says plainly – one of the biggest mental shifts you have to make as a musician is that you're both a person, an artist and a product. You are being sold in a marketplace. Mvula – who declined to be interviewed for this piece – herself has said she was "definitely naive in the beginning. When I was signed, I thought when someone says, 'we love you and we're with you until the end,' that's what they mean. It doesn't work like that – it's business." What that really means is that you have to be willing to position yourself in whatever way you can to play the industry game. But Mvula's sudden dropping seemed odd, given how well-received her work to date has been.
I turn to Robbie Semmence, a digital marketing manager at Absolute Label Services – a company that essentially does the work of a traditional label without owning the music artists record. At the start of the year Semmence had also noted Mvula's very public RCA exit. Does he think she'd been mis-sold in a way that didn't reflect her music? "She's a hugely respected artist," he begins, "both in the industry and among fans. Then I did a bit of digging into the figures, and saw the huge difference between the first album and the second album. And I was genuinely a bit shocked about it."
He's right. 2013's Sing to the Moon debuted in the UK album top 10, reportedly selling at least 100,000 copies to date in the UK, topping the UK R&B album chart and just missing out on the top 20 of the US Top R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart. Its follow-up peaked at number 21 on the UK albums chart, but it didn't chart in the US at all. So maybe it comes down to numbers, and Sony not wanting to bank on a critically lauded artist who wasn't a consistent commercial success. "It could be the way the label positioned her and marketed her music, but it's hard to say," Semmence continues. "I'm personally a huge fan of grime, so its whole second coming has been really interesting because I think what killed it in its 'first generation' were labels marketing it in a way that was totally unnatural to what these guys were about."
The difference, obviously, is that grime came galloping out from the underground at a BPM that still sounds like a sped-up ringtone and straight into your uncle's car CD player; Mvula started straight off with a six-album deal on one of the only three major labels left. It's hard not to consider the task Sony faced: presenting to the casual-listener British public an artist who didn't follow conventional rules, from her haircut (amazing natural hair, too) to the layered arrangements that had people likening Mvula to Billie Holiday fronting the Beach Boys.
Genres and divisions – useful as they are for the lads who stack CDs in the last remaining HMV stores – can ultimately tank a career. And at a time when younger listeners flit between styles and aesthetics, dipping into whatever sound grabs them, hard distinctions can feel stilted – borderline archaic. "Some people want to be known as a country singer, a blues singer, whatever," says equally hard-to-categorise Memphis musician Valerie June, speaking over a crackly line from Texas. "I just want to be known for sharing what I have, as a gift: like Tom Waits or Norah Jones or Stevie Nicks. I can't tell you what 'kind' of music Stevie Nicks sings; I can tell you that I like it! It would be so wonderful to be able to walk into the world one day and just be allowed to be me, and not have those types of titles." But, she goes on, people writing about music feel they need to have those markers to help direct readers towards something they might like. And, in a way, that's not too far off from how Spotify uses algorithms and your past listening behaviour to nudge you towards similar-sounding artists.
So where does that leave the outsider musicians like Laura Mvula? Ultimately it's about gambling on the traditional label model – with its focus on recording music – then touring to promote releases, building up a sturdy fanbase who'll be up for watching the artist play for years. Touring is where the money's at, after all. And that means counting on word-of-mouth, playlists, radio and co-signs to nab more open-minded listeners so you can eat right off your tour earnings.
Months before that email had arrived, it's almost like Mvula had seen it coming. "It's very much the case that I'm likely to be one of those artists where I won't be recognised until I'm dead and gone," she told the Irish Times last year. "It would be really nice to be celebrated in the mainstream and have chart success and all that, but really, a lot of talented people spend a lot of time figuring out why they haven't. Sometimes there's no justice, and that's fine. The way I sleep soundly at night is knowing that it makes sense to me."
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