Getting a record deal is the musician equivalent of a high school ball player making it pro, only with fewer head injuries and lower odds of an overdose. Two albums into my career as a rapper, I had a hit song, and the recording industry whisked me off to Hollywood. My fairy tale lasted 11 months before they abruptly dropped me from my recording contract without ever releasing my album, despite my first single going gold (selling over 600,000 copies in just a few months).
In that short time, I got a crash course in the recording industry: how it works, how they exploit and manipulate young talent, and how to go from having nothing to everything to nothing again in a very short period of time. My name is Spose, and this is an inside look at how the sausage is made.
(DISCLAIMER: This is a collaborative article written by the Cracked Staff based on multiple interviews with Spose.)
My first hit song blew up on the radio first. "I'm Awesome" got picked up by the local alt-rock station in my town, the radio station I'd grown up on. It quickly became the most requested song there and then jumped to the local pop station. Keep in mind I'd only self-released two albums at this point. I was very new to the game, and suddenly the two biggest local radio stations were playing the shit out of my stuff, which was unprecedented. No local artist had ever broken through at pop radio in my area (Portland, Maine, is not exactly known for its burgeoning rap game).
PhilipC, via Wikimedia
We lost a lot of guys during our East Coast/West Coast beef with Portland, Oregon.
The way the world works now, if you're blowing up on the radio, you're killing on iTunes, too. I think there's an intern at Universal who goes through the regional iTunes charts every week, from Des Moines to Albuquerque, and looks for outliers.
"We know all the other guys on here. Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Ke$ha ... who the hell is Spose?"
So this intern looked at the Portland sales and saw that I had the #1 song. I doubt I cracked the top 200 nationwide, but that was enough to get their attention. At this point, I was 24 years old and totally broke, delivering pizzas and raising a newborn. The day Universal sent me a $35,000 check for signing on with their label, my bank account was at -$800. I couldn't even buy gas for my car without overdrafting my account again -- one generally doesn't hear Jay-Z rapping about bank fees and bus passes.
Frank Micelotta/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
"99 Overdraft Fees" just doesn't have that ring to it.
The labels do a great job of making you feel like the center of the universe when you're recording. Every studio I've worked at in LA and New York had runners. Usually we'd arrive at 3 p.m. and go till 3 a.m. Sometimes we'd make one song, sometimes four. The runners were there to keep us from needing to ever leave. We'd say, "We need Heineken, Seagram's Seven, ice cubes, a venti iced coffee with whole milk only, a quarter ounce of weed, Backwoods cigars, and we're also going to need sushi." A half hour later, the runner would come back with a bag full of all that stuff, courtesy of Universal. That means Universal has a designated weed guy.
I mean, at least try to look surprised.
"Can we list this as a business expense?"
I met a lot of people who were caught in the record label game. This dude Matt Toka was one of the writers they brought in to help us. He could play guitar and sing and had some cool ideas. We wrote a song called "Party Foul" together. I think a lot of guys like Toka get signed for their writing abilities, even if the label doesn't see any star potential in them. But they don't say that, of course: These guys all want to be stars, but writing lyrics FOR stars and up-and-coming artists pays the bills. There's probably a thousand musicians who could've been like the biggest star in Duluth, or wherever, but chose to play the label game in LA instead.
They're not foolishly throwing away their lives or anything -- it's just that they get barely enough hope to carry on in the background instead of doing what they really want to do. And they do carry on, because not all of these dudes wallow in label limbo forever. For example, my lawyer also represents Bruno Mars, and for almost 10 years Bruno Mars was one of these writers, contributing his ideas and scratch vocals to other people's hits, before ever getting his shot at personal stardom. They'd take Bruno's vocals and search for a "real star" to replace them. The irony is that now those same A&R dudes would kill to have Bruno Mars singing their hooks, because he won the "background guy" lottery.
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Labels definitely seek out young people, and they are extremely good at making you simultaneously feel like their top priority and like you're fighting against a ticking clock. When they called me the first time, they offered to fly me to NYC. I was at Suffolk University at this point; I stepped out of class and saw that I had like 15 missed calls and voice mails. I Googled the name of the dude from the voice mails, because that is the gift the Internet gave to the antisocial, and eventually called him back. He picked up and immediately gave me both barrels of enthusiasm: "We'll fly you and anyone else you want out, first class, to NYC, right now." If my Myspace had said "I like the Celtics," they would have had me courtside that very night.
Alex Trautwig/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
"You want Rondo's jock? Cause we can get you Rondo's jock."
They flew Monte Lipman in to meet me in NYC. He's one member of a tiny group that runs the record industry, and he came over to chill with me and have dinner. Because that's not going to inflate a broke 24-year-old's ego. He asked, "You wrote this song all by yourself?"
I said yes and he started flipping out, telling me to get my passport ready because I was about to be huge, flying all over the world in a private jet fueled by raw hip-hop.
Then he sent me an email on the weekend, mainly to let me know that he never sends emails on the weekend. "I want to get this signed by Monday morning. Your song played huge when we tested it in Miami, we want to sign you and fly you down." But at the same time, he was like, "These references are VERY current and your record will expire really soon. YOU HAVE TO SIGN IMMEDIATELY."
"No time for a pen; better use blood."
I'm sure that's a common trick. (Although the record industry does shut down completely by 5 p.m. on Friday. That's a fact. Hip-hop apparently keeps DMV hours.) It was all just smoke being blown up my ass. Monte sent excited email after excited email about how big I was about to be and how we were "just getting started." I think the last "just getting started" email hit about a week before the label dropped me. I guess he was trying to type "We're just getting started on the process of firing you" and hit enter too soon.
When I was making music by myself, I'd make a song and show it to my friends, and if they liked it, that was enough. I'd do it in my live show, put it on an album, and then roll about in piles of literally dozens of dollar bills.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
Then I'd have to lie and tell the bank they went through the washing machine.
But in the recording industry, you might make 25 songs and none of them ever see the light of day. You develop real thick skin. I'd pour my heart into a song, spend all day making it, everyone in the recording room would be feeling it ... my friends, my family, management, engineers. We'd all be stoked, and then I'd send it to Universal in an email, and a few minutes later: "Ehhhh ... not really what we're looking for." To get that response to my work for the first time was A) shocking; B) disheartening; C) a wake-up call; and D) oddly erotic if you get off on unhelpful apathy. I realized then that we were at the "you either win a Grammy and sell lots of records or get the fuck out of Hollywood" point. I sent them songs that are now somewhat classic fan favorites, and my A&R dude responded with "Yeah, that's not it" more often than not. Super helpful criticism! I didn't realize I had sent you the "not it" song, when I clearly meant to attach the "it" file.
Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"Damn Windows 8."
I grew up idolizing Biggie and Jay-Z, artists with real, intricate lyrics. And that's part of what I love about music -- great descriptions and verses. But that's the opposite of what my label wanted. I got in the studio for the first time and spent like five hours writing what I thought was one of my best songs yet, only to hear:
"The lyrics don't even matter, write that shit tomorrow. We just need the hook. All Universal really cares about is a catchy chorus."
And that's what the industry runs on. The label comes up with a chorus, a pre-chorus, and a melody, and then they fill in the blanks with people like me. In pop music, artists are like those Styrofoam packing peanuts, just there to make sure nothing shifts around too much in transit. When it comes down to the music, the labels have a very narrow idea of what they want, and no new artist is going to change their minds. The producer they paired me with did a lot of dance music. You know -- "bottles in the club, bitches on my junk, Cadillacs literally infesting my house" type stuff. I don't do that, and the song that got me noticed was nothing like that. But once I was signed, that's the only thing they wanted from me.
"Our research shows that E minor is by far the crunkest key."
Universal picked me out of the crowd because I had a unique style. Like a fool, I thought that meant they wanted me to keep making my style of music. But they just wanted to take my name, my sorta-notoriety from one hit, and plug "Spose" into a bunch of pop songs. Probably because it's really easy to rhyme with "hos." They're playing the long game, those keen, strategy-minded record producers.