#3. You Write Songs by Committee
Music is a big business, too big for something as expensive as a pop song to hang on the shoulders of just one dude. We all like to imagine the songs we like being penned with a shaking hand by some weeping artist staring out at the sunset and letting the muse guide his soul. But when it comes to pop, it's much more likely that those lyrics were banged out by a conference room full of writers trying to rhyme "make it rain" with "hand grenade" because it's late and they're working against a deadline. I'd always written my own verses before, but when I hit LA, they invited me to a session with Mike Caren (the head of A&R at Atlantic), a producer, and four writers.
It seemed like a weird way to do things, but I gave it a shot. Sticking a bunch of creative people in a room together and letting them write can work pretty well. Just ask Breaking Bad. But it's the kind of thing that only works out when everyone more or less has the same vision for what they want to write. Stick Vince Gilligan in a room with all the writers from Glee and you'd wind up with a real different series. Perhaps ... a better one? Who doesn't want to see Mike rock some Journey?
Sony Pictures Television
At least the "Born and raised in south Detroit" line doesn't feel too far off.
Anyway, when I came in for my first session, the other guys were already clustered around the table, listening to the melody they'd picked out and trying to figure out what sort of song should go with it. Finally Mike said, "You gotta make it about a party ... a party you, like, filmed. You filmed all these chicks! And the hook can be "... and I got it on caaamera." They started getting deeper and deeper into brainstorming this song.
Then I pointed out that this wasn't at all the kind of music I did. In fact, it was the exact type of song I'd gotten famous for mocking. It was like I'd sucker punched the whole room. You get caught in this downward spiral where everyone's a yes-man to the producer and the producer's a yes-man to the label. A producer decides he wants to do a "caught it on camera" song and no one wants to contradict him, so they just build on this idea that has nothing to do with anything the artist has said, thought, or even mumbled to himself in a stoned haze and immediately rejected when the cold light of sobriety dawned the next day.
Nick Daly/Digital Vision/Getty Images
"OK, new idea: We ditch the whole music thing and retool you as a hip-hop mime."
So the next time you're barreling down the highway listening to some overproduced piece of pop crap, don't blame the artist. If pop music is the aural equivalent of a sausage, most singers are nothing more than a clear casing ready to be stuffed.
That sounds way dirtier than I intended.
#2. It's a Ridiculous Numbers Game
For people in the recording industry, the whole world revolves around the "second single." I recall one specific email exchange between Mike Caren and Imran Majid, who is now the head of A&R at Columbia. We'd just made four songs in a night, and they were convinced that one of them was my "second single." And in the course of a single week, they made me do 60 revisions of this song. I have them all in my iTunes still: "Don't Let This Be Over (Version 44)," "Don't Let This Be Over (Version 5538438)," etc.
There was this guy named Owl City who got signed around the same time as me. We reached out to see what he thought about the label, because his song "Fireflies" had been a big hit and he was in the midst of trying to find his second single. Universal stuck with him, but he didn't end up finding it for a couple of years. Then Carly Rae Jepsen came out with "Call Me Maybe," and on her second big hit, he sang backups. I'm not saying that reflects on him as an artist at all, just that it's weird. That was the big break the studio wanted to wait years for: "Guy in the back of the Carly Rae Jepsen song. No not that one, the other one -- you remember the other one? No? Nobody?"
I think it had something to do with The Dukes of Hazzard.
For every Macklemore who has a hit song and follows it up with another, there's at least 20 more who never have a second hit. And I'm one of the latter. After 11 months, they didn't find a second single -- even though a bunch of the songs I made then still sell well today -- and a new VP came in and dropped me.
You can make great, heartfelt music with a sound all your own that thousands of fans love, but none of that is going to convince Universal that you know better than they do. If you want to break into pop music, you'd better be ready for hundreds of hours of failure. The labels aren't looking for brilliant artists to drop fully formed beats onto the radio. They want someone who'll help them Frankenstein some hybrid pop monster from the stitched-together corpses of originality. And that's how we wound up with the Black Eyed Peas.
Scott Gries/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Everything's suddenly coming into focus.
#1. There Is a Blessing for One-Hit Wonders in 2014
Today, failing to follow up on a big success with a second single doesn't mean you're back to spinning signs for mattress sales on the street corner. My first big video, "I'm Awesome," got something like 10 million views. When the single released on iTunes, 850,000 people actually paid to download it. When I released a mix tape recently, about 8,000 people bought it. So I was able to keep, like, 1 percent of the fans that "I'm Awesome" attracted. It might sound grim, but do the math: If you put out something for $10 and 8,000 fans buy it, that's a pretty solid year's salary. My album The Audacity came out in 2012 and sold the same number, $10 apiece. iTunes took a small chunk, and then the cost of making that album (production, printing, studio time) was probably $6,000. So I made a profit of $70,000. And that's before royalties from Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube come in quarterly for years to come -- hell yeah, that's where the real "make a modest living" cash comes in. We're gonna make it rain! With actual water -- because this motherfucker can afford his water bill this month, baby.
Plus a handful of other essential bills.
I reinvested about $40,000 in new projects, but that left enough to cover rent and food and Scotch and a nice Christmas. It's not small-yacht-in-the-pool-of-a-bigger-yacht money, but I don't have to play that game of trying to keep up appearances with fancy clothes and cars. That's part of traditional rap nonsense, and my fans don't expect that. My "brand" is just being me. A regular dude. So, thankfully, for my finances' sake, the more I relate to my brokest fan, the more albums I sell. Which is good, because there's like a million things that rhyme with "Hot Pockets."
Tony Branston, via Wikimedia
But none that capture the magic of the original.
I released the songs Universal hadn't wanted in a free album called Yard Sale and used that to advertise my Kickstarter. It brought in $28,000. And now that I have that small, loyal fan base, I'm able to make the music I want to make without spending 300 hours per song pleasing a bunch of record executives. I make all the money from my iTunes sales now, too. I pay $35 to list it and get close to $1 per sale. When I was with the label, I made 16 cents per sale. If you're Lady Gaga or Ke$ha, the recording industry is one big blank check for a life of unfathomable luxury and custom-tailored meat clothing. For the rest of us, connecting and selling to the people who like our music is a little less soul-crushing and at least sort of profitable, and at no point do you ever have to talk to a guy who describes you as "the next Fred Durst" and means it as a compliment.
Spose has a free mixtape available for download and you can also purchase his album The Audacity. He has a website and you can follow him on Twitter. Robert Evans can't rap or sing, but he can write and if you've got a story you can tell it to him here.
Related Reading: For more Cracked looks inside unique lives, click here. You'll learn about the shockingly gross life of a submarine technician. You can also click here, for the dark reality behind the troubled teen industry. We've also talked to a drone pilot and a legal prostitute. Because Cracked knows its audience, baby.