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Music Is Politics
"He's about to learn the most important lesson in the music business: don't trust people in the music business."
Homer Simpson, The Simpsons, "A Star is Torn"

So, you're a man/woman/none-of-the-above, and you're probably thinking that all you really need to make it in the music industry is to be an exceptional singer/rapper, songwriter, and a very good, technically skilled musician, right?... WRONG! It's not that simple at all.

You see, the promotion of music is politics, and a lot more goes on behind the scenes. It's way more complicated than walking into the studio and recording your Magnum Opus. You (or more accurately the record company) have to worry about image, artistic directions, demographic considerations, marketing, censorship, courting radio and music networks through legal or, um... non-legal means, and paying close attention to trends. It's never just about music, for better or for worse. In the end, you could end up with disillusioned artists and fans.

In the end, artists have to be not just musicians, but also lawyers, accountants and managers. If not they're likely to get taken advantage of by Corrupt Corporate Executives who screw them out of royalties and rights to their music because they were ignorant to the business side of the industry. Not to mention being stuck with a terrible unfair contract that more or less makes them slaves to the label. Young upcoming artists are more prone to becoming victims of these types of shady record deals. Rappers of the late 80's and early 90's were also victims of these deals. See analysis for more possible causes.

Compare Horrible Hollywood.

Related tropes and subtropes of this include:

  • Blame Game: Usually happens when a album fails or under performs, But the ultimate issue is usually over money, music rights, and royalties etc..
  • Creative Differences: Disillusionment over industry politics eventually leads to this.
  • Contractual Purity: An artist could be a slave to this thanks to this trope.
  • Development Hell: Darkly speaking Creative Differences (and contract disputes) can eventually lead to this trope as a form of punishment if the label doesn't get what they want. Essentially shelving the artists album till the contract expires which could take years and make it impossible to jump labels. Also making it nearly impossible for said artist to reestablish themselves in the mainstream. Ever wanted to know what happen to that artist that dropped that great album and then disappeared?...well this is probably what happened to them.
  • Executive Meddling: Created a bad ass track list for your album?, Plus it has a recurring theme, and message through out?...Too bad because you're gonna do it all over again whether you like it or not. Sometimes you're forced to shoehorn in songs (or even another artist) that the label wants thus derailing the theme or style of your whole album.
  • Executive Veto: Same as above, most artist don't even have final say so over their OWN track list.
  • Hotter and Sexier: Often enforced on female artists, mainly to acquire a male Periphery Demographic. But could also very well be voluntary thanks to Money, Dear Boy.
    • Sex Sells
    • Sexy Packaging: Could also double as false advertising. Especially if the album has nothing to do with sexual themes or topics.
    • Can also be used as a form of Artist Revolt by a younger artist attempting to break free from the aforementioned Contractual Purity. Because honestly you can only go so far making sugar pop songs and albums while in your early to mid 20's without looking ridiculous. Of course opinions vary on whether or not hotter and sexier (or Darker and Edgier for that matter) is a good way to go about breaking free of contractual purity.
  • The Last DJ: In the literal sense if a DJ refuses to adhere to the play list. Alternatively, it could happen to the artists themselves if they refuse to compromise.
  • Lighter and Softer: Usually enforced on Rock & Roll, Heavy Metal, and Hip Hop artists. But, just like Hotter and Sexier, this could also very well be voluntary.
  • Misaimed Marketing
  • Money, Dear Boy: The cause of all of this.
  • Troubled Production
  • Radio Friendliness: If you wanna get played on the radio your song better not be too dark, too controversial, too political (even if music is politics, that doesn't mean politics is music), too long (gotta fit those commercials in), or too niche.


Fictional examples

Anime & Manga
  • This can be seen in the manga/anime Gravitation. The band Bad Luck, originally a duo, becomes a trio when the director of the record company decided that Shuichi should take front stage without being constricted behind the keyboards. Then the former band of the keyboardist reunites again, so the director imposes a new keyboardist, and in the same move changes their meek manager for another, this one a bit more... forceful.
  • In Nana, BLAST and Trap Nest deal with their need to be profitable for the labels — smoothing out their sound, changing their style, and dealing with the paparazzi in ways that help their bands along,
  • The parts of manga BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad that aren't about Character Development and The Power of Rock are about this trope. The titular band could have triumphed easily since the beginning due to their sheer talent, but their leader unknowingly ticked off both a mobster and a fellow musician who became major before him, and both men, on their respective sides, have pulled off and cut whenever thread of influence the band could have used to move to the next level.
  • In the Hentai anime Cool Devices, there is a young pink-haired Idol Singer named Rina, who starts off with a wholesome Girl Next Door image. Her manager, knowing that Sex Sells, wants to make her image Hotter and Sexier to generate more revenue. But he isn't satisfied with just an Unnecessary Makeover here, or a sexy photoshoot there. No, he basically starts pimping her, and by the end of the vignette, she masturbates on stage with the microphone.
  • The plotline of Interstella 5555 is about a band of teal-skinned aliens being kidnapped from their homeworld, changed to look like (and have the memories) of regular human beings, and forced to work for a Corrupt Corporate Executive in the music industry.

Film
  • The Queen Latifah film Brown Sugar had a subplot based around the politics of the music industry.
  • This trope was a major part of Dreamgirls story.
  • One of the themes in That Thing You Do!.
  • Parodied in the Josie and the Pussycats movie, where not ignoring the Evil Plan got you in trouble with management.
    • The movie was more or less about this trope.
  • The movie Slade in Flame is about an idealistic young rock band who are gradually disillusioned by their manager's dirty dealings, which arise entirely out of his desire to squeeze as much money out of the band as possible.

Live-Action TV
  • California Dreams on occasion deal with this.
  • A large part of the show Instant Star is about the Idol Singer lead character battling her record company over her artistic direction.
  • Smash covers some of this in terms of Broadway stars.

Western Animation
  • Jem arguably has shades of this.


Real Life Examples

  • The documentary Before the Music Dies covers this.
  • The documentary Electric Purgatory uses this trope to explain why modern black rock musicians have such a hard time breaking into the mainstream during the last 30 years or so. Long story short — the record labels didn't know how to market them to mainstream white listeners, since most of them weren't interested in listening to "black music". So the labels found their white counterparts. T'was done before that as well during the 60's with white counterparts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
  • Tomica Wright (CEO of Ruthless Records) brought this up in a interview, in which she said "I like giving young artists a chance, but i can only be a player in the game. I can't save Hip Hop." That quote pretty much sums up this trope.
  • This is covered extensively in The Mixerman Diaries, which is about what really happens at a big-budget recording session.
  • The Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up And Sing, which showed how actual politics plays into this within Country Music.
  • One of Ko Rn's music videos covers this.
  • Alternative Rock band The Red Jump Suit Apparatus was unhappy with their former label, Virgin Records, because of this and had the golden opportunity to leave without it hurting their career, and leave they did. They are on an independent label now and are as successful as ever with complete creative control.
  • Prince was/is very bitter over this. So much so he once changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in order to get out of a record contract.
  • Kelly Clarkson's album My December was a victim of this trope. She publicly battled with BMG honcho Clive Davis over creative control of her album, then suffered a vengeful smear campaign by her own label. My December only sold 800,000 copies (a disappointment compared to Breakaway's huge success). She canceled her tour and fired her management after the My December debacle.
    • Recently, she was allegedly pressured to lose weight.
  • New Edition learned this the hard way when they were first starting out.
  • Rapper Chamillionaire discuses this trope with his fans via video chat, basically explaining why his album Venom was stuck in Development Hell. It's been permanently shelved due to an agreement with Universal in order for him to be able to leave the label.
  • OutKast experienced this after their record label got bought out. The executive who signed them was excluded from the merger, and the new executives didn't have the same understanding. Because of this the Idlewild soundtrack wasn't marketed properly, and despite having a significant buzz built up around the songs "Mighty O" and "Hollywood Divorce" they weren't able to record videos for them. Things got worse, when Big Boi decided to record a solo album he butted heads with executives for various reasons such as them taking away his creative control, and trying to get him to copy other artists. The album was held up for three years. Eventually the label let him out of his contract, but under the stipulation that Andre3000 can't collaborate with him on his solo records, as the label wanted exclusive rights to OutKast.
  • Five Iron Frenzy's song "Blue Mix" denounces the practices that some touring bands use to screw over their opening acts (namely, having the soundboard guy deliberately mix the opening band badly, or forcing the bands to mark up their merchandise).
  • Project 86 felt they had been ripped off by their record label, so as soon as they went independent they recorded the album Songs to Burn Your Bridges By to vent their anger over the whole incident. Interestingly, they ended up reconciling with the label soon afterward, and re-released Bridges on that same label.
  • Payola bribes, and radio station consolidation.
    • The scandal hasn't hurt Jennifer Lopez' career though. As she was a huge part of that payola scandal (circa Rebirth album), which would explain a lot of her musical success actually.
    • On a similar note, there's a few people who believe viewer participation shows like Total Request Live and 106 & Park are/were rigged.
  • A large number of R&B fans think this trope is in play every time a sexy, not-too-black female singer whose talent lies more in dancing than singing becomes popular. Unfairly or not, these people like to point at Rihanna, Beyoncé, Kristinia DeBarge (though this has more to do with whether or not she's using the DeBarge name to get successful), Keri Hilson, the Pussycat Dolls, and even Aaliyah (until she died), among many others, as examples of "industry whores". Of course, these artists all have fans, and they will come out in droves to defend them. Detractors of the aforementioned singers will accuse them and the industry of impeding the success of more "pure" and "mature" R&B/Soul singers like Conya Doss, Amel Lareaux, Heather Headly, India.Arie, Angie Stone, Corinne Bailey Rae, Vivian Green, Jill Scott, and so on.
    • To add insult to injury. Some of the latter artists were either writers or back-up singers for the former to help them sound good. They were basically languishing in the background helping arguably lesser artists, and the only reason they even got a deal was probably because they were promised one by the company for their work with the former R&B/pop artists. The former, artists get the most attention and their albums are fast tracked (That's if they don't fall victim to this trope themselves) , while the latter artists sometimes see their albums get shelved, or under promoted.
  • Some see Miley Cyrus's Hotter and Sexier look as this. Basically she's just trying to sell records, and get attention through the controversy. Let's be honest here, it's not like she didn't know this would cause controversy. Could also make the argument that she likely did it to get out of Contractual Purity which she might see as holding her back. In addition to all the above she's also maturing and getting older. So this and all of the above are all reasons for the new look. But it's hard not to believe that record sales aren't the real goal.
  • Most people don't know that Alicia Keys has been around since the mid '90s. She languished in Development Hell because the labels didn't know what to do with her.
  • Mandy Moore had to deal with industry politics when she got older and wanted more creative control over her music. She now views the two teen pop albums she put out when she was young as old shames, and has offered refunds to anybody who purchased them.
  • Many would argue (and she basically confirms this in a 60 Minutes interview) that Lady Gaga's fame came as a result of her being Genre Savvy enough to work the system to her advantage. She spent several years writing for other artists before trying to make it on her own. As a result, she knew to play by the record label's rules by pumping out ridiculously catchy songs about love and success, and when she made it big she was pretty much given license to do whatever she wanted. Compare her first album, The Fame, to her second, The Fame Monster, which more or less deconstructs all the Sex Sells and Money, Dear Boy tropes used in the former.
    • She wouldn't be the first one to get famous by this method, although she is the most notable one right now.
    • This method doesn't always work out though, as the Kelly Clarkson example proved.
  • This might be the cause of LeAnn Rimes' latest album stalling.
  • Former winner Steve Brookstein has suggested that there is an element of this in the career of The X Factor winners. Certainly, the "battle" for the Christmas number one single position has shades of it; Joe McElderry's singing career seems to have been a non-starter after he lost that spot to Rage Against the Machine.
  • R&B/Soul singer Heather Headley switched to indie/gospel music due in large part to record execs wanting her to be Hotter and Sexier.
  • This depressing interview by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's Krayzie Bone explaining why Bone will never be able to reestablish themselves due in part to internal conflict and this trope combined.
  • Many people, especially haters, feel that Justin Bieber is only famous because he is relatively good looking and sings inoffensive radio-friendly songs, and not because of any actual talent. Of course, said Hatedom, notably on YouTube, provides the sort sought-after cultural recognition money can never buy.
  • The funk-Pop band Rose Royce imploded because of this trope.
  • Motown Records was plagued by this.
    • In fact it's rumored that Motown sabotaged Mary Wells' career out of simple spite due to the fact she left the company. (Popular web critics Wilson & Alroy snarked back that one listen to her cover of "I Can't Take My Eyes Off You" is enough to disprove that theory.)
  • Happened with contemporary r&b singer Phylis Hyman when she butted heads with Clive Davis, who wanted her to do crossover pop. Ms. Hyman was a R&B singer and didn't like to be forced to do fluffy pop. Clive eventually moved on to a younger singer whom he could have more control over...Whitney Houston.
  • Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg collaborated on a rap called "Dre Day," which was a Take That directed at Eazy-E, (who used to be in the Gangsta Rap group NWA with Dre) following a falling out. In the music video, a character portraying a rapper trying to start a solo career finally gets to meet with a record company, and is told to "Sign your life...I mean, your name on the contract."
  • This trope is taken to an extreme in a conspiracy theory involving Michael Jackson. Michael told family members that the various problems he had from the Turn of the Millennium onward — his declining sales, arrest and trial on child molestation charges, etc. — stemmed from Sony Music, his label, plotting to render him financially destitute so they could buy his half of a valuable song publishing catalog that he co-owned with the company. When they couldn't manage to ruin him, he believed that they would try to kill him, and sister La Toya has gone on to claim that his sudden death in 2009 (as he was preparing a farewell concert run in London) was an assassination masterminded by Sony and concert promoter AEG Live, who knew he was worth more dead than alive.
  • Laura Izibor was seen as a prodigious talent in her teens, and has spent the better part of four years being groomed for success. The official line is that it's been spent perfecting her long-awaited debut statement to the world. But Allmusic said given that much of the music on her debut has been floating around in some capacity for the better part of two years, the delay seems to actually be a result of uncertainty over how to market her.
  • This article discuss how this trope changed hip-hop. Originally posted on the blog of former Bostonian rapper and blogger Dart Adams (from his blog Poisonous Paragraphs).
  • Female R&B super group TLC was a victim of this, according to all three members of the group. They claimed despite them creating a number one selling album in Crazy Sexy Cool, they didn't see a dime of the money because of extreme expenses cost—the result of a poorly written business contract. They even famously walked out on stage with their pockets hanging out during the middle of an award show, symbolizing that despite the praise and popularity, they were still broke as artists. And after winning many music awards, their after show interview was mostly how they sold millions of albums but were still poor. The group ended up filing chapter 11 bankruptcy shortly afterwards.
  • The TV One show Unsung is stuffed with all kinds of sordid tales regarding politics and the business side of the music industry. Barry Gordy might be the worst depicted person in the docudrama.
  • This Cracked article
    • Here the rapper Spose tells his story about his disheartening 11 month experience with the music industry. It ends on a happy note, though: he can make a name for himself (and a satisfactory amount of money) without their "help".
  • Nine Inch Nails is a notable example due to Trent Reznor fighting back against this on multiple ocassions. Firstly, after the first album Pretty Hate Machine was released in 1989, it initially didn't make much of an impact in terms of sales (the record label expected "Down In It" to become a radio hit). As a result, TVT Records ordered Trent to make a more successful album. Despite this, as NIN toured, the album grew in popularity, recieving airplay on MTV and a large following. As NIN's popularity increased, TVT then changed their mind and ordered Trent to create another Pretty Hate Machine due to the album's success. When TVT began to take over creative control, and refusing to terminate the contract, Trent refused to release another album. However, he secretly recorded the Broken EP in this time, which was delibartely made very loud and abrasive as a "fuck you" to the labelling of NIN as synthpop by TVT. At that time, Jimmy Iovine of Interscope Records, in discussions with NIN's manger, John Malm (who wasn't part of TVT) managed to transfer him to Interscope, at the same time giving him creative control as well as his own vanity label, Nothing Records. Broken was finally released in 1992. Then in 2004, Trent Reznor sued John Malm after he accused him of owing him $2 million, and it emerged that Malm had taken advantage of Trent during his alcohol addiction. Trent won the suit, and Nothing Records collapsed. In 2007, he then left Interscope after a dispute over the label's overpricing of Year Zero in Australia, and afterwards going independent. However, in 2012 he returned to major labels due to issues with promoting independently, albeit with a specially negotiated contract.
  • At least according to recent (reputable) biographies on the artist, Elton John was a victim of record label politics and legal issues in much of The Eighties. He left his original American distributors, MCA Records, in less-than-friendly terms, him feeling that they had done a poor job promoting his late-1970's releases (though it did not help matters when Elton laid off most to all of his classic band by 1975, stopped working with producer Gus Dudgeon by 1978, had little involvement with original lyricist Bernie Taupin and had by 1976 come out as bisexual, costing him much of his market in Middle America and rock radio in the process. Elton sued MCA for breach of contract for not paying for Elton's next album, 1981's The Fox. Elton joined Geffen Records in 1981, hoping that the then-new label would treat him better. The counter-lawsuit MCA gave Elton alleged that part of The Fox was comprised of 1979 recordings made during the production of 1980's 21 At 33, when Elton was still signed to the label, meaning that MCA would have the rights to release the album. Geffen felt it in their best interests not to heavily promote The Fox to make it less commercially attractive to convince MCA to settle, or to make it less of an incentive in case MCA won the rights.
    • There were also rumors that Geffen's founder, David Geffen had invited Elton to appear at be the premiere of Cats in 1982, which Geffen helped to finance, only for Elton to politely turn the invitation down as he was rehearsing for a tour. This supposedly angered David so much that he might have sabotaged promotion of Elton's albums and singles from then on, and though Too Low For Zero was a resounding success and he had a few more hits in the decade, the albums sold (and were promoted less and less). By the time of the end of Elton's contract in 1986, he had released the Contractual Obligation album, Leather Jackets, an experiment in '80's synth-pop, and an inconsistent commercial failure. He rejoined MCA in 1987.
  • Averted and awesomely flipped on its' head by Jay-Z, whom nobody would sign when he started out, decided to start his own record label - Roc-A-Fella Records - in 1995 (releasing his debut Reasonable Doubt a year later). The album was a success, and since Jay was one of the 3 execs (at the time) who had control over his music, this never happened, nor has ever in his career (to the point where he bought out his contract at Def Jam - a company which he was previously CEO of - for $5m, to run his own label - Roc Nation - again). To add the icing on the cake, Jay's tenure at Roc-A-Fella helped to establish a lot of the superstar rappers of the early 2000s (admittedly however, only one has had a lasting mainstream career), and his tenure at Def Jam helped to establish artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kanye West (all of whom are also signed to Roc Nation).
    • That being said, Jay still plays the Music Is Politics game by choice, and most of his closest collaborators (all three above, for starters) do so as well.
    • While Jay-Z might have averted it, this didn't stop him from victimizing his own signed artist and partners, that's if what Damon Dash, Beanie Sigel, and Memphis Bleek among others have said is true.
  • David Bowie faced this problem several times.
    • Spendthrift manager Tony Defries helped him make his commercial breakthrough in The Seventies, largely by presenting him as a star with limos, an entourage, etc. before he really was one. But as time passed Bowie saw little of the money his work was generating, and the litigation required to break away from this relationship lasted him the rest of the decade.
    • As well, his label RCA wasn't happy with his choice to move into less-commercial artistic realms with Low in 1977, the first step towards his choice to break away from that company in The Eighties.
    • At EMI, he had the biggest commercial success of his career with 1983's Let's Dance, but choosing to continue with that mainstream album's style as the label pressured him for another blockbuster proved artistically unsatisfying for him; critics and fans regard that stretch of The Eighties as a Dork Age. He left the label when it had reservations about a second album he made with his Hard Rock group Tin Machine.
    • 1993's Black Tie White Noise went to #1 in the U.K. but was overlooked in the U.S. — partially because the distributor there, Savage Records, went belly-up the month after its release.
    • The Missing Episode Toy (which focused on remakes of his little-known work from The Sixties, pre-Space Oddity) was supposed to be his first album after hours... but wound up shelved by EMI/Virgin Records.
  • This could be chalked up as the reason why All Shall Perish was essentially forced to throw Hernan "Eddie" Hermida out after he joined Suicide Silence, as the latter band's management apparently tacked on some outrageously restrictive conditions regarding All Shall Perish's activities in relation to Eddie, namely that ASP could not play shows with him until he was "well-established" as the new Suicide Silence vocalist. This apparently would require Suicide Silence to both have a new studio album out and to be well into the touring cycle, which would have been well over a year of inactivity from ASP at the very least. Both that and the potential consequences of running afoul of Suicide Silence's management would have killed the band, and they were forced to fire Eddie for their own survival.
  • Billy Joel signed a deal with unscrupulous manger Artie Ripp in 1972, giving Ripp control over the rights to Billy's music and productions, as well as little in the way of royalties for the singer. Joel stayed out of the limelight while working at a piano bar while his new managers negotiated to get Joel out of the deal; one comprise Joel made would be that Artie's "Family Productions" logo would be applied to each of Billy's albums for the following ten years, and a potion of Billy's royalties awarded to Ripp even when Ripp had little or nothing to do with Billy's management or direction.

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