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Lost and Unwanted: How a Disastrous Record Deal Can Fuck with Your Mental Health

Like so many musicians, Willis Earl Beal and Clare Maguire both signed life-changing recording contracts, but neither were prepared for quite how life-changing they would be.

by Nick Levine
May 19 2016, 9:00am

This feature is part of The Noisey Guide to Music and Mental Health (in association with Help Musicians UK). You can read more from this series right here, and follow 'Mental Health Awareness Week' on Twitter here.

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When Clare Maguire signed a major label recording contract in 2009, her friends and family struggled to process it. After all, Maguire was an “ordinary” girl from Birmingham who’d been told pretty bluntly by a secondary school teacher not to entertain unrealistic ambitions of becoming a professional singer. She was working at Topshop when she began posting home-recorded demos on MySpace, using pots and pans as percussion in her beats. After those demos began to attract industry interest, her main motivation for signing a deal was strictly practical: she wanted enough money to be able to move to London and pursue music as a full-time career.

Looking back now, Maguire admits she didn't really understand the gravity of what was happening to her. How could she? It's rare to read unbiased information about the practical implications of signing a major record deal. Contrary to popular opinion of it being a popped bottle of champers and a dream come true, it is a lot more complicated and drawn-out than it seems; there are lawyers, red-lined contracts, several over-friendly lunches, expectations, and all manner of tiny but important clauses. Yet it’s the psychological impact of signing a record deal that’s been documented even less. What happens when an artist doesn't meet the enormous, money-related expectations that've been placed upon them by their label?

With the deal signed and a sizeable advance in her bank account, Maguire's label set about recouping their investment by booking her studio time with proven hit-makers. "For me, this felt bizarre, because I grew up in an Irish Catholic family where you didn't say anything to anyone – you kept your mouth shut," she recalls. "So when I suddenly found myself in this situation where every day I was having to meet new people and talk very openly to them about my emotions so we could write songs together, I wasn't okay with that. I was insecure, shy, and very on edge about being honest with myself. I didn’t know what to say, or even want to say anything about myself, so I was just repeating myself all the time lyrically. I didn't really know myself."

Maguire admits she was a heavy drinker before she moved to London, but alcohol became an even bigger crutch once she was isolated from friends and family in Birmingham. She also felt overwhelmed by label pressure and what she felt was a lack of self-identity. When heads were turned, she'd top off the apple juice she drank at recording sessions and record label meetings with miniatures from her handbag. "People like producers kind of figured it out very quickly that I had an alcohol problem but I didn't accept that I did," she says now. "It was just my coping mechanism really."

Maguire was considered a “big priority", so her advance had been large, and as time rolled on her label continued putting her in recording studios with big-name producers in the hope that something might stick. "I was being told daily that nothing was good enough," she says. "Then, a couple of years down the line, I did a session with the producer who ended up doing my [debut] album. I remember I was pissed at my flat, looking at my red wine lips in the mirror, when the A&R guy rang me and said, 'You've done it.' I was like, 'What have I done?' And he said, 'You've made your first hit.' He put the track on over the phone and I just remember being kind of confused." After that, the A&R guy told Maguire to "go in and do another 10 of those [tracks]" with the same producer. A couple of months later, she had a debut album.

While she was making the album, Maguire would drink a bottle of whisky and two bottles of wine a day. She was so out of it that she often didn't remember how or when a recording session had ended. "The people at the label who wanted the record didn’t particularly care. They just wanted the record," she says. "But at the same time, I don't fully understand why they didn't try to get more involved in terms of actually sitting me down and talking to me about it."

Photo by Suki Waterhouse

The eventual album, Light After Dark, came out in February 2011 and made number seven – a respectable result, but perhaps not quite as high as the label had been banking on. During this time, Maguire's drinking got progressively worse. She toured the album constantly, mainly in support slots, and alcohol was causing her voice to deteriorate until finally she ran out of steam. "I went into the head of the label and told him, 'I really cannot do this any more.' He was like, 'That's fine. I think you can do so much better, so let's just end it now.'"

Let go from her label, Maguire fell deeper into alcohol addiction for another three months, until she eventually hit rock bottom. "There was this bottle of champagne that the producer of the album had given me that I said I'd never open because it was a gift from him," she says. "But one morning I woke up and saw I'd opened it. I remember looking at it and just feeling like it was over. I knew in myself I was dying; I could feel it in my body. I was supposed to have a meeting that day but I rang my manager and said, 'I can't, I’ve got to go to rehab'." Before she checked in, a doctor told Maguire that if she didn't stop drinking, she'd be dead within a month.

Rehab was ultimately a positive experience for Maguire. "When I went in, I was really frightened. I didn't really know what I was doing and at this point, I still couldn't really talk to people. During the first couple of weeks of meetings, I just sat there saying nothing, but then I remember one meeting where this woman said something that I really understood. I was like, 'That's me.' At that point I started talking and once I started talking, I felt better. People understood and supported me and I remember laughing for the first time in years. I think just realising that you're not the only person in the world going through this helps. In fact, a lot of people in rehab were going through shit much worse than me.'"

When Maguire left rehab after about three months, she reconnected with her old manager, who had always stood by her and remains with her today, but her old record company team weren't so supportive. While Maguire was figuring out what to do next, she remained signed to the same major label umbrella, but wasn't part of any particular imprint.

Photo by Marc Sethi

Maguire's experience is unique, but she's hardly the only artist to have discovered the darker side of signing a supposedly "dream" record deal. Willis Earl Beal also felt out of his depth when he inked a recording contract in 2012, not with a major label like Maguire, but with a subsidiary of a well-respected independent label. He'd been working at FedEx and moonlighting as a professional musician in Chicago when a profile piece in one of the city's newspapers sparked industry interest.

"All of a sudden I was being compared to Robert Johnson, Daniel Johnston, and Tom Waits. It was kind of a feeding frenzy before I'd even figured out what kind of artist I wanted to be," he recalls. "The only type of recording I'd done at this point was on a karaoke machine by myself. I hadn't had any real studio experience and I didn't know shit about SoundCloud or the Internet. I hadn't done any actual touring, and I'd never really performed with other people."

Beal freely admits that he signed the deal because he needed the money. "A lot of promises were made to me by this man [at my label] – he told me he was going to make my dreams come true. When you tell that to a poor man, he gets stars in his eyes. At this point it was like I’d won the lottery. I was gonna be a rich rock star and my whole mentality changed. Admittedly, I was not in a good moral place, but I had never even had so much as a bank account before."

Like Maguire, Beal felt overwhelmed and says he sought solace in alcohol. "I drank a lot and I hadn't really drunk a lot prior to having a music career. The man who signed me wanted me to be a rock star and he didn't discourage it initially. But then once he felt that I wasn't generating the sort of interest he wanted me to generate, he started using it against me. I felt that was a bit hypocritical."

Beal says the man who signed him was "kind-hearted at first but also an opportunist and a free spirit. He wanted me to be trendy and he wanted the credit for it. So they pushed me out there as far as they possibly could and I was more than willing to do it because of the huge advance they gave me. But the problem was, I was never given a chance to develop as an artist."

He shares his story today without bitterness and insists, "I don't want to paint myself as the total victim in this situation." He says the problem was that "all parties involved were uneducated. It was a totally chaotic situation with a brand new, uneducated artist and a lot of money and no clear idea of what to do with it." He admits he didn't look at the terms of his recording contract closely enough and was under the impression, wrongly, that as an artist, "You could basically record and release music whenever you want."

Photo by Marc Sethi

Beal released two albums with the label, 2012's Acousmatic Sorcery and the following year's Nobody Knows, but as newer, trendier artists arrived on the scene, he became less of a draw and had to cancel a European tour that wasn't selling. He wanted to release a free EP to apologise to the fans who had bought tickets, and after "what felt like pulling teeth" his label eventually agreed. But when he uploaded some more new music to SoundCloud, the label who already viewed him as a "problem artist" got even angrier and Beal decided to cut ties so he could go it alone. The advance money which he feels was "mismanaged" was long gone and for a while he was homeless, a situation which triggered more severe mental health problems, and he began to experience suicidal thoughts. "Look, it's either you kill yourself or you don't," he says. "And I contemplated killing myself many times.”

Both Beal and Maguire have since managed to turn their lives and careers around. Last year, Beal released an album he's immensely proud of called Noctunes on a smaller independent label based in Portland. With his girlfriend joining him on the road, he’ll tour Europe again later this year. "At this point the interest has waned greatly," he admits. "But I know exactly who I am as an artist now, and I’ve become a better actual musician and performer. I don't drink alcohol excessively any more. I smoke a lot of weed, but hey, it helps me with anxiety. It took me a 3-4 year period to know what's good for me."

Maguire is preparing to release her second album, Stranger Things Have Happened, on a different imprint of the major label that signed her in 2009. She's now totally sober, lots of fun to be around and completely in control of her recording career. At her lowest ebb, Maguire says she couldn’t bear to listen to music because it had become a joyless job for her – but now she chats passionately about everything from the return of All Saints to Beyonce’s Lemonade. “Every single artist deserves to be given more than one chance to do something," she says today, clearly relishing her own second opportunity.

There are clear parallels between Beal and Maguire's experiences and obvious differences too, but both artists give similar answers when asked what their record labels should do differently in future. "They should take into account the fact that they're dealing with a human being. They should always be looking out for the wellbeing of this human being and potential artist," Beal says. "And they should be aware that this artist might not yet have a real shape to what it is they want to do. But people involved in entertainment should know that it's primarily about people, not profit. Profit will come if the support group is there. If the support group is there, you have a happy artist and then a happy label – that's the way to do business."

"I think first and foremost," begins Maguire, "they need to look at every artist as an individual. Some people, even if they're very young, just know how to walk into a room and deal with people. Some people are a little more reserved: they clearly have a talent but they need more time and some nurturing. Maybe don't give these people huge record deals instantly; maybe just give them an allowance so they have enough money to live on and can develop naturally. Help them figure things out for themselves instead of putting them into situations that aren't good for them. For people like me, it's not good for us to be sent here, there and everywhere every day giving away a piece of ourselves. I totally lost myself. By the time my first album came out, I was a shell of a person."

The stories of Willis and Clare are unique but they are not as rare as you would like to think. Since the music industry began, there have been execs willing to push piles of cash into the faces of the talented, only to then see their promise go unfulfilled for any number of reasons. How things are then dealt with when things go wrong is probably one of the music industry's biggest ongoing problems and most exploitative qualities. As an anonymous major label employee told us last year when we first investigated the ramifications of being dropped: "It's taboo, nobody mentions their name ever again." When it comes to the mental health of an artist, there must be more awareness around the psychological implications of a huge or high pressure deal, the context that is being pushed onto an artist, and the support for them when things don't go as planned. The pick up and drop culture needs to be eradicated.

"When you're a musician and you sign to a major label it's the biggest thing in your life and it's a huge ego moment," says Richard Robinson, Chief Executive of music charity Help Musicians UK – who are launching initiatives throughout 2016 to look at mental health within the music industry. "When the dream hasn't happened, to be dropped and vulnerable, there needs to be a way for the industry and us as individuals and Help Musicians UK to provide support for those musicians."

You can follow Nick Levine on Twitter

This feature is part of 'The Noisey Guide to Music and Mental Health'. You can read more from this series right here. If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, talk to Mind on 0300 123 3393 or at their website, here. And if you would like to know more about the work of Help Musicians UK, you can visit them here.

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