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.)
7Labels Hunt for Unique Voices
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.
6They Have Minions for You
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.