5The Labels Convince Naive Kids They're Rock Stars
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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.
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"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.
4They Are Casting a Role
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.
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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.
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"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.