by Aaron Tian
In the business of music, artists walk a harrowing path on the way to salvation. The path is laden with uphill battles against mainstream goliaths, record company snakes, illicit temptations, and most of all, oneself. Taking lesson from those who came before, it seems clear: Nobody is immune to the industry. No matter the heights one reaches or what the record sales look like, there are always demons, both external and internal, to fight.
From Notorious B.I.G.’s Ten Crack Commandments to Common’s 7 Deadly Sins, plenty of great MC’s have flipped Biblical passages into their rhymes. We’re going to put our own spin on the concept, taking you through the greatest forces of corruption that musicians face on their rise to success.
“These are edible, right?”
Starting a career in music to impress the opposite sex is an incredibly elaborate way to fail at both of your goals. The cheesey guitar-playing singer/songwriter archetype has been replaced by the painfully un-self-aware SoundCloud struggle rapper and the untalented wannabe DJ. If you’re not really about the music, then you might be in the wrong business.
To be clear, there is a difference between making songs about sex and making songs for sex. Sexuality can be a powerful tool in music (what up Madonna), but it’s one that can bite you if you’re not careful. D’angelo got a huge boost in popularity with the steamy video for Untitled: How Does it Feel? off of Voodoo, but ultimately regretted his new status as a sex symbol rather than a musician (more on D’angelo’s story here.
Female artists especially can profit off their sexuality, but that knife cuts both ways. Too often, famous women get discredited as unintelligent or untalented for marketing their beauty. Just a short while ago, Nicki Minaj found herself wrapped up in controversy after she got snubbed in the VMA nominations. Despite her Anaconda video breaking VEVO records upon its release, many anonymous online heads were quick to cite her use of sex appeal to shame or mock her. Disregarding the race issues that Minaj brought up in her argument, slut-shaming has been a prevalent phenomenon in the commercial music industry ever since female performers started showing ankle. If love and sex are going to be selling points in your public persona, make sure you proceed with the proper caution.
Indulgence is an ugly thing. If you’re lucky enough to enjoy success in the industry, keep yourself in check. Even the greatest artists can collapse under the weight of their vices: For DMX and Scott Storch, it was drugs. For MC Hammer, it was excessive luxury. For countless others, it was simple neglect and ignorance.
On a smaller scale, indulgence of your friends and family’s support will grow old fast. Treat investments from your loved ones (whether they be monetary or otherwise) with the same reverence you would treat a deal from a major label. Consider it good practice: If you can’t get a small group of friends and family excited to promote your music, what are the odds you can do it in a pool of industry sharks?
“You got a sharper knife?”
No matter what stage of development you may be in right now, focus on putting more onto the table before you start eating. For further inspiration, peep this video of once-wealthy rapper Mike Jones (who?) making a sad appearance in a commercial for an Alabama lawyer of the same name many years after his rap money ran dry.
This one basically explains itself: Heartless endorsements, paid club appearances, half-assed merchandise and other miscellaneous cash grabs are a disappointing indication of where an artists’ priorities lie (we’re looking at you, Pitbull). Day-one fans always have their antennas out, waiting for the first minute sign of “selling-out” so they can turn their backs. Don’t give them a reason.
Money is a resource, so treat it like one. Managers, publicists, designers, video teams, and anything else that contributes to your art is a business expense and should get priority in your budget (after the bare essentials). It won’t come overnight, but if you consistently put your money to work for you, you will see progress.
At the peak of his career, Jay Z was not selling as many records as Nelly or Ja Rule (an anecdote we ironically pulled from an interview with recently defamed rapper/butt of memes Meek Mill). Pop industry vessels and one-hit wonders come and go, but real artists make their shit last. All this is to say that many times the quickest path to profit isn’t the best or longest lasting.
Musicians don’t get paid to make music. They get paid to make music, build up an audience, carve out their public identity, promote themselves through blogs and local shows, make videos, open up for bigger acts, build up connections, sell T-shirts, and work day jobs until all that other stuff starts paying off. Even well-established acts can lose a lot credibility over laziness in showing up late to shows, throwaway verses, or missing album deadlines.
During The Renaissance, people known as artisans would fund budding artists that they believed in, allowing them to devote 100% of their time to their craft. Much like Latin and wooden flying machines, those don’t really exist anymore. If you work hard enough, your music will find its way into the right hands. But even then, almost all of the motion surrounding your craft and what happens to it will have to come from you, and that’s a good thing.
Musicians today should be thankful that at the very least, they can sidestep shady industry heads and reach audiences independently. From Macklemore to Raury to Chance the Rapper, indie artists have been on the rise.
Anger is like cholesterol. A little bit is good to help keep you moving, but a lot will clog you up from the inside out and make your heart swell into the size of a melon. A lot of artists set out to disprove those who doubt them, whether they be scornful past teachers, salty ex-girlfriends, or the ever-amorphous “hater” that seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once. In many cases, the impact that these concepts have within artists’ psyches can be more damaging than their physical manifestations.
Dante once described wrath as “love of justice perverted to revenge and spite” (what up Wikipedia). That’s exactly what this psychological conception of the hater is. It’s the perverted idea of a fan, the theoretical person whose constant attempts to detract from one’s art force the artist to continue excelling. However, these phenomena can mystify or misguide artists based on their own self-perceived weaknesses (as incarnated in the idea of the hater).
“Haters say I don’t _______ enough” or “Haters say I’m too _______,” well THIS will prove them wrong!
Why would you let this type of idea drive you and your art? Why would you not just think of your fans, or better yet, just think of yourself?
Insecurity and frustration degrade you from the inside out. Sure, the world is mean and the industry is full of bullshit, but that’s what you signed up for. Anger against your audience, your team, and yourself won’t get you anywhere but blacklisted, shouting aimlessly into the abyss of the internet.
Envy is a force that lays dormant in us all; A plight of fantasy, a way of spicing up a boring day. I wish I had a million dollars, or I wish I could be Kanye West. If you’re going to envy, at least shoot for the stars with it. Envy someone like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, or Lil B. Once you start feeling that creeping jealousy for your competition and the people around you, that’s when you start to fall apart.
People (successful ones especially) are your greatest resource. If you prematurely cut yourself off from their good graces by approaching them with unwarranted negativity, the odds are you’ll spend your whole life in petty jealousy.
The strangest thing about jealousy in this industry is the emphasis that young artists seem to place on attention as a commodity. It’s no secret that artists want attention (spoiler alert: we all do). But when you publicly display your thirst via social media or angry rants, the whole “any publicity is good publicity” mantra doesn’t really pan out. It’s what old folk might call a red herring. Getting attention won’t make you famous, fame won’t make you rich, and money won’t make you happy. For every celebrity exception you can come up with to this generalization, there are 5 billion salty Tweets in mentions saying “Ya’ll doing a piece about ________ but won’t cover my music????”
This isn’t to scorn or dismay young artists who are mystified by this corporate machine. Getting people to give you an honest chance is genuinely difficult. In one (admittedly over-sentimental) social experiment, people were more likely to give money to a man in a business suit than the same man wearing ragged clothing. Though attention in the industry doesn’t work in exactly the same way, the point remains that people like to hop on bandwagons that look like they’re headed somewhere. It’s the same reason why the pretty girl in your class would rather date the cool football player than the insecure nerd who yearns so deeply for her affection. Moral of the story? Fake it ‘til you make it.
The last sin on our list is perhaps the trickiest. Anybody can tell someone not to be greedy, envious, or lustful, but what does it mean to not be proud? In the Biblical sense, it means that it is sin to hold oneself above one’s neighbors, family, or worse, God himself. But it would be nearly sacrilegious for most rappers to* not *think of themselves so highly. Hell, thanks to Kanye it’s even become common practice for rappers to literally call themselves God.
You constantly hear people talking down on artists with no pride in their work: The sell-outs, the lazy-asses, the shameless dumb-downers, etc. So why, then, would we ever advise you to not have pride?
To paraphrase my high school English teacher, it’s because art is about showing, not telling. If you make something great, you have to sit back and let the world realize it for themselves. Your art is (at the risk of sounding incredibly cliché) like your child. You spend your time with it, you make it as good as you can, you release it, and then it goes off to be a part of the world. People out there are going to love it for different reasons than you did. They’re going to watch it, use it, hate it, love it, chop it up, and make it their own in ways that will make you uncomfortable if you try to cling onto it. The worst thing you could do would be to rob them of this experience by priming their first reactions with your own opinion on the project, no matter how great you think it is. As put by Phil Collins, “Beyond a certain point, the music isn’t mine anymore. It’s yours.”
Every good parent has their own way of doing things, but there’s a healthy medium between hard-head dictator and laissez-faire. Pride is knowing that your approach might not be perfect. Pride is knowing that your kids probably didn’t come out perfect, but that they’re still beautiful. Pride is defending your family, but not going after people just because they’re not rocking with them like you are. So is pride good? Honestly, I don’t know. But at least I don’t have too much pride to admit that.