In this article, I will attempt to shed light on a sensitive topic that many people within the music industry who hold power positions conveniently gloss over, even when they are directly questioned——is music industry success about talent or gimmick or both?
Now, I don’t want to point fingers and name names, but I have sat on many music industry discussion panels where industry experts and taste-makers greater than I, have been completely dumbfounded by this very question. Everyday, there is an artist standing on the ledge ready to jump. It’s not that they are desirous of ending their physical life, but they are on the verge of committing career suicide without jumping to their death.
The state of death, I’m referring is the death of their music career and it manifest itself by taking two distinctive actions. The first action is simple because it requires artist to literally toss in the towel, admit defeat, give up on their life’s dream and quit the music industry forever. I know famous artists who at the end or cooling down period of their music careers put so much distance between themselves and the industry that if you saw them in public, you wouldn’t recognize them.
Quitting the Music Business
Every artist at some point in his or her music career has contemplated trading in the drum machine for a shirt and tie, pawning the guitar for a briefcase, or even giving up the microphone to become the head roast beef cook at Arby’s. You know its bad when artists who have angelic singing voices won’t even take part in Karaoke night with their co-workers. The other action requires what 90’s hip-hop artists called “Selling out”.
Selling out is a dangerous proposition, because it involves submitting to the “man”. Once the “man” has taken a liking to you, it is the beginning, of the end of your music career. As the music industry’s “it boy or girl”, you are now raised to superstar status and all that is left for you is the ride back to the basement. Again, once the man gets his fat greedy little hands around your neck, his pockets get fatter, your ego gets inflated and you begin to part ways with reality. Who is the “man”, I keep referring to, you ask?
Well I’m surprised that you don’t already know, but for the record, the proverbial “man” is the music industry complex that controls every major and minor label within the music industry. To be more specific, if we need to give the “man” a name—-I would say it would be Lucian Grainge—-chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group (one of, if not the largest record company on the planet).
I’m not blaming one man and his company’s stranglehold of the music industry. All of the problems within the music industry are far greater than the deeds of one man, one company, and the actions of all the copycats within the business that follow suit. The problem or should I say epidemic stems from a culture of disposable music and pop idolatry that causes normal fans to become Barbies, Little Monsters, Stans, or even Zombies.
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Trading Your Soul for Success
The music industry has cornered the market on selling self-esteem and essence they are adding to the collective delusion of fame and fortune, which many artists would gladly sell their souls to gain. Material success is an illusion so strong that when an artist’s star begins to fade, they will lie, steal, cheat, and kill to stay relevant. In recent news, a former child rap star, Lil Bow Wow, was exposed for lying about ownership of a rented Ferrari he drove to the Grammy Awards. To impress other people who don’t really have the wherewithal to afford a luxury sports car, he pretended the Ferrari was his until the rental company removed his veil of deceit.
The moral of this tale is to illustrate the fact, the fame and fortune of most artists in the music business is a charade. You would think, currently, artists wouldn’t be so easily sucked into an endless void of despair, but fame is a sexy beast! When the machine has selected you as the “chosen one”, a feeling of immortality takes over you. Artists have gotten away with things normal people would be thrown under the jail for, and I’m not just talking about musicians either.
Nevertheless, I have been to the party and tasted the forbidden fruit, and can tell you first hand that it is a house of cards. Is there a secret agenda to create pop stars the way an automobile factory assembles cars? Maybe there is a secret factory hidden in the concrete jungles of LA and NYC, but let’s not focus on that. Let’s talk about the drug of music. Yeah, I said drug! A drug is defined as a substance that has a physiological effect introduced into the body.
Music alters your brain chemistry and unlike heroin, it doesn’t require smoking, snorting, or injecting. In fact, music is often used as a form of depression therapy.. Equally as important, music is an invasive drug that enters the mind through the ear canals and without permission. Once it as enters your subconscious, music makes a permanent home within your brain.
Earlier today, while in the grocery store, a Smokey Robinson song was playing over the loudspeaker at just the right volume. As I turned to go down the aisle, I found myself singing the song and as I approached a woman at the far end of the aisle, she was singing to song as well, which further proves that music has a drug like property. Overall, it is easy to see how the music industry capitalizes off the retail value of the psychology of music.
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Welcome to the Real Dope Game!
During my music career, I’ve seen way too many talented artists get tossed to the side, overlooked, ignored, or shut out because they aren’t what pop culture deems visually appealing. What do I mean by visually appealing? In order to sell dope, you have to make a convincing argument that the person who ingests the dope is going to get high. People get high to run from their problems, cope with anxiety, or even take a euphoric vacation from the real world.
As a dealer, your product must be attractive to your clients; therefore, your packaging must stand out above the rest. It is arguable that I have made a loose analogy here, but all should agree that I’m fishing in the right pond. The music business is all about visual appeal, if not, music videos wouldn’t be necessary. Having mass appeal sells more records, and this is why artists who if they were ugly, wouldn’t be talented enough to sing in a school play let alone a sell out concert.
Hell, I’m not saying that every homely overweight artist is a music virtuoso, but not every super talented artist is a looker. What’s more, why is it necessary that such mediocre talent’s have outrageous marketing budgets, control over the radio, and broadcasting in such a way that it feels like an anal suppository is being shoved up your ass? It’s because they are visually pleasing or at least, as the industry folks say, “editorial”. Music companies can afford to sell fans the pipe dream because they are counting on selling the sizzle, despite the steak being tasteless.
Force vs. Discovery
I know this article is beginning to sound like a conspiracy theory, which we all can agree exists on some level or another. Likewise, I believe people are force-fed music as a marketing device to push an even greater agenda, which includes total consumer control. Have music companies and labels resorted to using gimmick and device to capture fans attention, sure, they have. It seems the more an artist’s life is spinning out of control, the more popular they become.
The more popular they become, artist begin latch their sense of identity to external attention thereby linch-pinning their self value to the falseness of fame. Chaotic device is the order of the day, especially when the media loves to exploit out of control artists (just ask Kanye). Music companies rake in hefty profits when their artists are in the tabloids, blogs, and TMZ., The world has stood by and watched many artists plummet in the pit of self-destruction, including the late “King of Pop” MJ. Drama and gossip, sell news. Artists know this and so do music companies.
Smart artists seem to know how to pimp the media at will and do so by creating alternate artistic personalities. If this were not the case, why does Beyoncé have the alter ego Sasha Fierce? Isn’t Beyoncé talented enough not to need all the extra attention, certainly? What about Miley Cyrus? We’ve watched her transform from the wholesome, Hanna Montana persona, into a tongue wagging twerk machine that grinds on Madonna (ill, that’s like getting a lap dance from your grandma)? Is gimmick necessary to sell music today, or are music companies pandering to the lowest common denominator?
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Desperate to stay in the news, some artists have been known to create rumors about themselves or leak their own music and stories to the press. If they are willing to go to these measures, should we believe everything that we read or hear in the media? As a fan, how do you separate the truth from hype?
The media sets the expectation of belief because controversy is a marketing tool. Whether true or false, their news reports are difficult to decipher. Who do we blame the media outlets, the music companies, or the artists? In some cases, they are all to blame. For instance, let’s discuss the antics of Rihanna. If you formed an opinion about her by what you read in the media, it is easy to believe she is drug addict and a THOT.
If you Google search for images of her, you would find that in most of her pictures, she is doing drugs, drinking, or something sexually inappropriate with a male or female. In this case, the media is not to blame, since almost all of the photos posted on, the “Good Girl Gone Bad’s” Twitter and Instagram profiles are her own handy work. Social networks like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, allow artists to control their own media. Artists must take responsibility for what is posted on their social networks, because the “my account was hacked” excuse has been over used. In Rihanna’s case, much of the hype and gimmick is due to her own actions.
Sending Negative Messages
I’m not suggesting that Rihanna should be arrested by the morality police, but I am suggesting that as a role model to impressionable young women and girls, she considers the effect her deviant behavior (at least publicly) has on her fans. As a parent, I pray my daughter never follows in the footsteps of Rihanna, but maybe Rihanna is a victim of the fame monster, a puppet controlled by the “man”, or too caught up in the illusion of music business success to feel she can be held accountable.
The question remains, is the real Robyn Rihanna Fenty a bad girl or is her image a product of media hype and gimmick? Maybe if she weren’t good looking, her music career would have been short lived, because God knows she cannot sing. Perhaps, if beauty weren’t the standard of measure for talent in today’s music industry, so many talentless artists would not exist.
A Question of Morality
Never compromise your values in exchange for fame or fortune. For many female artists in a male dominated industry, it is difficult for virtuous women to compete with women who are willing to do anything to gain an opportunity. For the record, this is not just my assessment, but this story has been shared with me by countless female artists I have worked with or counseled in the past.
When a woman is unwilling to shake her ass and show her titties, she can often times find her opportunities limited. If a woman is against objectifying herself or pretending to be something she simply is not, fame and fortune can be in short supply. Remember, LaFace records tried to make the artist Pink into a white female R&B singer, and although she pulled it off, it was very different from how she saw herself or envisioned her music career.
Some could argue that the majority of music superstars implement a gimmick or two into their marketing mix; ranging from Kiss to Madonna to Prince; however, most fans can easily separate gimmick from the authentic persona. Prince, is by no means pretending to be sexually ambiguous, it is who he is.
On the other hand, artists like Rick Ross, are a prime example of an imposter. Rick Ross borrowed his name and rap persona from the infamous drug dealer, Ricky “Freeway” Ross. In his music he makes claims of being a boss-level dope dealer, while in reality, he is a former Miami-Dade corrections officer. Ross’s gimmick is so slick that millions of fans believe him, but even the real Rick Ross made it clear that the rapper was a pretender and filed a lawsuit against him for using his name and likeness.
This flagrant charade begs the question, in what other industry can a former corrections officer pretend to be a drug kingpin? Well, outside of the movie industry, I tend to draw a blank. The truth is, Rick Ross is actually quite talented as a rapper; however, would he have become a superstar, without the gimmick?
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Beware of the Power of the Dark Side
I have spoken with artists who make a compelling argument for having a gimmick and others who feel music should only be judged on talent. What happens when talented artists succumb to the dark side and focus their attentions on creating a gimmick? Well, truth be told, when artists conjure up false personas, create fake backstories, or adopt a Vaudeville element to their live performances, they run the risk of being exposed as a fraud. Sure, some artists experience instant fame and fortune, but it is temporary.
Once the mask is removed and fans see them as frauds, they move on to the next band. Even the artists who feel that “selling out to the man” is a great business strategy find they are only pawns in the game controlled by corporations that promote economic enslavement and control of art.
When the puppet master pulls the strings, you have no choice, but to react to his movements. Sometimes when artists sign on the dotted line, they not only sign away their freedom to create without limits, but they also sign away their morals. I know I have made music companies out to be villains, and some are, while others are not, it’s just a matter of perspective.
When Your Music Career Begins to Fall Off
As the puppet master exhausts all of his options, and he has squeezed every penny out of your music career, the desperation begins. Music companies don’t want to lose money on artists with dwindling star power, so they campaign to keep the artists relevant.
Case and point, it seemed both R. Kelly and Lady Gaga were fading in popularity until they pulled a stunt at the 2013 AMA’s (American Music Awards). Kelly, the impresario of sex and Gaga the queen of drag, performed a duet that can be described as an “old black pervert and a middle age Jewish housewife dry humping on national television”. Kelly, who still writes songs about humping, has resorted to buying his clothes in the same places, as Justin Bieber.
Dude is almost fifty and dresses like a teenage rapper. Lady Gaga, who now is fat and middle-age-looking, gets weirder by the minute. Who thought it would be a good idea to get these two together. Both artists are extremely talented singers, but the two of them together are like mixing Vodka and Vomit.
As difficult as this is to digest, some fans liked their performance, but for me it was another gimmick gone wrong. Kelly and Gaga aren’t the music industries biggest offenders, this outright idiocracy ranges from Miley Cyrus twerking in a mouse costume, to Kanye West comparing himself to Leonardo De Vinci and making threats to President Obama, to anyone from the cast of Love and Hip Hop who is desperately struggling for a piece of an imaginary pie.
Am I being to harsh, perhaps, but if unsigned artists expect to cut through all of the noise and clutter called music marketing, then they better have a helluva show to go with their business or they will be a hiccup in music history or possibly, a future candidate for “Where Are They Now?”
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Change on the Horizon
I’m calling for a reformation of the entire music industry. We need to burn it to the ground and start from scratch. Maybe by taking a do-over, the industry can abandon the gimmick philosophy, which will allow talented artists to stay focused on creating unique and compelling music rather than becoming imposters.
Just as Hollywood continues to tell the same stories year after year, the music industry seems to churn out replicas of what was popular in the past. C’mon seriously? Is “One Direction” not the reincarnation of the Backstreet Boys, which were the New Kids on the Block, who were the white (pop) version of New Edition, who were the 80’s version of the Jackson Five.
I can go on and on, but there are far too many examples to keep this article from becoming a novel. GOD doesn’t always make talented people beautiful or beautiful people talented, which explains why there is so many good-looking people in the music business that can’t sing. Where do we find a middle ground?
Might I suggest that we make artist success more about the voice and musical talent than the beauty of marketing? Wynnona Judd, Kelly Price, and Adele are all plus-sized women with even bigger voices; however, do they receive the same media attention as their skinny, bootylicous, and model-esque counterparts? Women who are outside of what society deems as beautiful, often have to work much harder for fame, acceptance, and recognition than female artists who have store-bought lady parts and aren’t afraid to show some skin. In the music business, image is everything and even males who are overweight or unattractive share the same fate, despite their talents.
Recently, Gwen Stefani took heat for posting a picture of herself as a teenager, where she referred to herself as being chubby. The picture clearly depicted a younger and seemingly heavier Stefani, but she was by no means overweight or chubby. As a result, her fans called her out for her obvious disregard of ethical accountability. As a role model for women, Stefani sent a message that it is not okay to be a little heavy, which could have greatly impacted her fans that suffer from body issues.
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Time to End the Madness
Artists and fans must work together to end unrealistic stereotypes in music, movies, and media. Together we can help to reduce the numbers of young girls who suffer from anorexia, adult women with body issues, or women who are risking their lives to get back-alley breast implants and booty injection shots.
As optimistic as it seems, I do realize this is a pipe dream, as consumers will continue being brainwashed by their favorite artists and continue to desire the fabulous life and equate fame and fortune with happiness. In a world where we make ordinary ego driven people famous for associating with celebrities, we are left with what we’ve created, people who are famous for taking bathroom selfies, sleeping with famous people, acting crazy on television, or public self-destruction.
Maybe, I ‘m asking too much of an industry that gives so little back to the people whose music they market for profit. Perhaps, I’m an optimist, but I hope that artists are aware that many pitfalls await them and heed my advice.
Find a happy medium between selling out to earn a paycheck, your personal morality, and the integrity of your music message. If the music company you sign with forces you to use a gimmick to sell music, hope like hell, that your talent lives up to the hype the marketing team creates.
© 2014 Wealth of Thought LLC | Written by Sahpreem A. King
If you are interested in reading more on my music industry perspective, check out my book, Dude, I Can Help You! 18 Mistakes Artists Make and How to Fix Them, at or follow me on Twitter @sahpreemking.
You can hire me to critique your music or as a expert music consultant at http://fluence.io/sahpreem-king