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Should Record Labels or Artists Decide What Music to Make?

Updated on September 19, 2014

Should record labels or artists get to decide what music we hear? And does label interference in the music making process actually benefit the recording companies? Music making has become a combination of art and business decisions. Not surprisingly, singers and labels will often clash when the artist's vision is at odds with what company bosses think is best for business.

Prince infamously showed up at the 1995 Brit Awards with the word SLAVE written on his face to highlight his frustrations with his label. These are some examples of record labels trying to control artists that ended up being a lose lose for everyone.

Ke$ha and Kemosabe Records

One of the latest clashes to occur is between pop singer Ke$ha and her Kemosabe label. Record company interference has hurt her career and led to possibly tens of millions in losses for RCA/Kemosabe. Everyone lost including fans, the artist and the business people.

Die Young Vs. Meet Me In Space

Ke$ha's vision for her Warrior album was watered down when Dr. Luke insisted she write and record songs like Die Young. Meet Me In Space is a scrapped pop track that is one example of what Ke$ha wanted her album to sound like. So, which do you prefer? Dr. Luke's desired party track Die Young or Ke$ha's Meet Me In Space about adult disillusionment and a desire to hold onto a youthful magical view of life?

Which of the following songs do you prefer? (Listen below)

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Die Young Versus

Meet Me In Space (Unfinished Demo)

The trouble started when Ke$ha began working on her sophomore album Warrior. Her first album was dance/electropop. She wanted Warrior to have a more varied sound with pop, rock and country. Her label boss Dr. Luke (Łukasz Gottwald) stepped in and scrapped a lot of her early songs telling her she couldn't do songs that she wasn't "known for." Warrior ended up being a compromise between what Ke$ha wanted and what Luke thought would be good for business.

Their relationship went downhill when Ke$ha revealed that she was "forced to" sing her smash hit Die Young and her songwriter mother retweeted an angry fan's "I hate Dr. Luke" tweet. Apparently Ke$ha was sent back to the drawing board to come up with generic dance pop and party songs that she didn't want to do. Her frustrations likely grew when party songs were chosen for singles. None of her meaningful songs like Love Into the Light and Last Goodbye would make it onto radio.

Despite being one of the best pop albums released in 2012 and despite mostly positive reviews from critics, Warrior flopped hard. The 2nd and 3rd singles were also major flops. Die Young was the only success of the era. Warrior has only had 1/5 of the sales of her debut Animal. Ke$ha's debut song Tik Tok has almost certainly made more money for her label than the entire Warrior era.

When left to her own devices with Animal, Ke$ha created a smash album and a string of top 10 hits, including one of the biggest selling singles of all time. The business people foolishly interfered in an attempt to try to recreate that success. Many people are judging Ke$ha by her singles and they think Warrior is simply a rehash of Animal, even though it's very different and overall a better album with a mix of dance, rock, country, and alt pop. The album didn't fail because it's bad. It failed because of people's preconceptions of what it would be like based on the singles. Forcing Ke$ha to continue doing what she's "known for" in terms of single releases backfired.

Ke$ha tweeted that she was forced to sing Die Young
Ke$ha tweeted that she was forced to sing Die Young

Not Everyone Supports Artistic Freedom

You would think most people would side with the artist over the business people, right? While most of Ke$ha's fanbase seems to be supportive of her desire to change and grow musically, these are some disheartening comments I found on a forum.

She needs to be locked on that contract for YEARS and do NOT give her any control in her career because the route she would take would not be pop.

I'm here for Ke$ha being a slave if it means I get me some Animal type tracks.

I like this, surprisingly [Meet Me In Space]. But I still want her chained to Dr. Luke.

Basically, these fans want Ke$ha to be nothing more than a front for other people's music. In that case, she would be completely disposable since anyone can sing corporate created songs. For me, it's Ke$ha's lyrics, melodies, artistry and creativity that make her an artist worth supporting.

Pink Floyd, KISS, Peter Gabriel and Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin said:

Ke$ha is one of the most talented singers I have ever worked with - and she is more than that: she's a real artist. In our business, this is rare and must always be celebrated and allowed to flourish.

There are more than enough corporate puppets in the music industry. Why insist that a talented artist like Ke$ha become another one? And why insist that she devote her life to making music that leaves her unfulfilled and unhappy? Especially since few people are even interested in buying it. Any fan who wants Ke$ha to make Animal 2.0 may be asking for the quick demise of her career because that type of music is not as commercially viable now.

Nanci Griffith's Early Sound

Late Night Grande Hotel

Nanci Griffith and MCA

Ke$ha's label worried about her new sound being too different. In Nanci Griffith's case, it was her label that made her switch to a radically different sound. Griffith is a folk artist who was signed to MCA for several years. In 1991, MCA decided to send the then 38 year old on a radically different musical path. They wanted to get her a crossover audience and replaced her acoustic sound with synths, keyboards and electronic organs on the album Late Night Grande Hotel.

Griffith had been struggling commercially with her previous albums. So, MCA tried marketing her as a country singer. She found increased, although still not significant success with her country album Storms. Some fans were understandably upset about the sonic departure from her previous albums. But Storms still sounded like a Nanci Griffith album. It allowed her to crossover to a new audience.

MCA felt they could do even better and build an even bigger crossover audience two years later in 1991. The album Late Night Grande Hotel ended up having a country pop sound and it really didn't sound much like a Nanci Griffith album. The album did so badly, MCA decided to cancel her contract.

Griffith was then signed to Elektra, which took her back to her folk roots. The first album she did with them was the fantastic all covers album Other Voices, Other Rooms, which is one of my favorite records. The album earned her the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. She followed it up with another commercially successful album Flyers.

If MCA had marketed Griffith for what she was, a contemporary folk singer, she could have had the commercially successful albums she enjoyed with Elektra. Instead, they forced her to become something she wasn't and everyone lost.

My December

Kelly Clarkson Versus RCA

American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson's fight with RCA head Clive Davis began when she was getting ready to record her third studio album My December. She had already had two hugely successful albums with RCA. Her debut Thankful sold 4.5 million copies and her follow-up Breakaway sold 12 million copies. During the tour for Breakaway, Clarkson was having many personal difficulties:

Everything caught up with me in a bad way. My body was wearing down, and my emotions were wearing down. I was trying to get over someone. I hadn't seen my friends and family for a while...I was 24, and that is pretty young to be the boss of so much. And it caught up with me. I couldn't smile. I couldn't do anything. I broke down. I cried so much I couldn't speak...It was the lowest point of my life and my career.

Clarkson poured her emotions and frustrations into some of the songs that would make up My December. Clive Davis thought the album was too negative and didn't want it released. He asked for the replacement of five of the songs but Clarkson refused. Davis also said she was a bad songwriter. This claim met with an angry reaction from radio host Howard Stern:

I always find it sickening when management guys like to set the record straight about how f--king creative and what geniuses they are. And, like, this guy's trying to diminish what she does? Doesn't he have enough in life? Can't he sort of tell his story without f--king degrading her and putting her down? I think she has an amazing voice, and the girl has worked hard to get to where she is. I don't understand Clive Davis' motivation for knocking this chick down.

My December was released but the label refused to support it. This despite strong opening sales on par with those of her first two albums, mostly positive reviews from critics and the lead single debuting in the top 10 with strong sales. Without RCA support for the song, it quickly fell off radio and no follow-up was released. The album went on to sell a million copies. My December had the potential to be a commercial success. By not supporting it, the label lost out just as much as Clarkson did. After all, Clarkson was the fourth biggest artist signed to RCA at that time. Davis may have been trying to punish her for defying him and may have wanted to "prove" how right he was. But the business he was running took a financial hit as a result.

My December
My December

Kelly Clarkson


Labels Versus Artists

Some people insist that labels have a right to interfere because they're investing millions in their artists. Only about 10% to 20% of artists signed to big labels are profitable. Big artists support the smaller artists. However, you would think this would be an argument for, rather than against, labels respecting their big earners by giving them more creative freedom. And it ignores the fact that labels often make stupid decisions. While labels should have their say, the relationship with major artists should be one of mutual respect.

Ke$ha, for example, was not trying to move away from making pop music. She was trying to diversify her sound by bringing in more influences from other genres. Three out of the four demos that have leaked were pop and pop/rock songs. The only rock song had one of her signature ultra-catchy, ear worm choruses. She wasn't trying to make any radical move away from pop at all. She's now enjoying a hit with the song Timber, which fuses bluegrass with dance proving that the direction she wanted to go in was the right one. Ke$ha would not only have taken Warrior in a more mature and artistic direction but she would likely have taken it in a more commercially successful direction as well.

It was foolish for MCA to ever sign Nanci Griffith when they clearly had no idea how to market artists like her. And I'm sure she regretted her decision to leave her indie label behind and sign with a major label. Elektra succeeded where MCA failed because they had lots of experience with contemporary folk artists.

It didn't make any sense for RCA to withhold support from My December when the album was clearly getting off to a good start and when the feedback from both fans and critics was mostly positive. Even if the album hadn't been as big as her first two releases, it could still have been a commercial success. And Clarkson was one of RCA's biggest selling artists at the time. Surely, she had earned the right to release a more personal album.

With music constantly evolving and public taste constantly changing, it's simplistic to think business people can use charts and graphs to somehow determine what people will like. Maybe it's better to let the artists create within some reasonable limits rather than having antagonistic, dictatorial relationships with them.

Kelly Clarkson described the recording of her 5th album as a positive experience:

I think it's because everybody knows each other better. Everyone's on the same team, no one's fighting with anybody.

I think it would be a big win for labels, artists and fans if this was always the case.

© 2013 JoanCA


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    • profile image

      Simon 2 years ago

      Record labels are clueless. Hopefully we'll reach a point soon where they become obsolete and artists can go it alone.

    • JoanCA profile image

      JoanCA 4 years ago

      GL, that's true. Kemosabe seems to be a little behind the times.

    • profile image

      GL 4 years ago

      Bonnie McKee's American Girl was very outdated as well. She's also on Kemosabe.

    • JoanCA profile image

      JoanCA 4 years ago

      Sam, that's true. These kinds of stories are very common.

    • profile image

      Sam K 4 years ago

      These are all interesting stories. And sadly there have been a lot like them since the birth of recorded music.

    • JoanCA profile image

      JoanCA 4 years ago


      He definitely needs to let her take risks. Hopefully, he's admitted to himself that his way didn't work, so she can tap into what actually sells for the next era. The good thing is, radio has become more diverse musically, so she can explore several genres and still have a hit album.

    • profile image

      Marianne 4 years ago

      Dr. Luke is such a huge hitmaker. I can't believe he played it so safe with Kesha. It's astounding that he won't let her release ballads or serious songs as singles when every other pop girl does. He's seen the success these songs have had with others yet he wouldn't allow his own protégé to release them. And he continued to do this even when he knew it was upsetting her. I really want to see Kesha taking risks with singles on her next album.