Popping The Question: How Much Control Should An Artist Have Over Their Own Career?

Inspired by Alexander Bard’s comments that only the “genetically chosen few” have the talent to write a great pop song, I have been thinking about the never-ending tug of war between artists and record labels over how much control the performer should have over their own music and career decisions. It’s a complex question because the decisions made will, in the public’s minds, reflect on the artists far more than anyone else involved, but will actually affect everyone involved, ranging from the manager to the make-up artist, the sound engineer to the PR.

A successful artist generates income for more people than anyone outside of the music industry could imagine, and one bad decision could put many of those people out of a job. However, if they are good at their jobs they are unlikely to have difficulty finding more work. The same is rarely the case for the artist, whose career can be permanently ruined if the mistakes made are severe enough. This conundrum is the reason why artists feel that any major decisions over the direction of their careers should be theirs to make, yet the others involved with the project all believe that each part of it should be governed by the person who knows it best.

Having worked on a few pop projects now myself, within management, publishing and social media companies, I’ve certainly found myself wishing that the artists would stick their noses out of areas that they have no expertise on. As my main passion when it comes to a pop act is the music itself, I feel particularly strongly that if the singer or group were not signed because of their talent for songwriting, they should leave that task to a professional.

It’s certainly possible that an artist can learn to be a good songwriter, especially through working with talented writers, but if the songs they come up with are not of equal standard to the others on the album they should not be included. If it’s a choice between two equally good songs, one written by the artist and one not, then it does make sense to choose the one the artist was involved with as they will be able to perform it with more genuine emotion than a song they’re not personally attached to. But no-one is going to buy an album full of rubbish songs, however heartfelt they are. (Then again, Ed Sheeran is successful…)

Another reason that artists want to write their own songs, and why management companies (who take a percentage of ALL the artist’s earnings) in particular would encourage it, is the extra money to be made. Songwriting is one of the most lucrative areas of the music industry, and songwriters can end up making more from a hit song than the artist. Songwriters (and the publishing and management companies they are signed to) make money every time a song is played or performed, but recording artists only make money when people buy the MP3 or CD, and have to rely on other areas such as merchandise and touring for the bulk of their earnings. Some powerful artists have managed to get around this by making dodgy deals with songwriters, where they only agree to record and release the song if the artist is given a writing credit, even though they did not contribute anything to the songwriting process.

In the same way that artists should not write their own songs unless they are qualified to do so, neither should they take an A&R role, in my opinion. Unless an artist was signed because of their creative vision, I believe they should leave decisions about which songs should be recorded and released to those who make such decisions for a living. Even if the artist does have a strong sense of who they are and how to appeal to a wide audience with their music, they should still listen to the advice of their record label. If they knew so much better, wouldn’t they have made it without a record deal? And if they don’t listen to the advice and the next album is a flop, they will either be dropped or lose all creative control over future releases.

It’s easy to believe that artists only want control over their careers because it flatters their egos, but actually the main motivation for a lot of artists is to personally make sure that the decisions being made are in their best interest. It’s very common for artists to be screwed over because of music industry politics. Most of the decisions you see record labels make which seem inexplicable do actually have reason behind them, but they are often based on favours owed or petty rivalries. Labels frequently put their own interests ahead of their artists’ best interests, and favour certain “priority acts” over other signings for reasons that have little to do with how much potential for success each act has.

If an artist is intelligent and business-savvy, they should definitely keep a close eye on every aspect of their career, but if they are not then it is crucial to choose a management team who are genuinely on their side and not afraid to stand up to the label, and extremely knowledgeable about the music industry. As with every other aspect of an artist’s career, management (which basically boils down to overseeing everything the artist is involved in) should be left to those who have a talent for it. You wouldn’t encourage a manager to become a pop star just because they know how to manage a pop career, so why would an artist be encouraged to become a manager just because they know how to be a pop star?

In conclusion, I believe that an artist should not have direct control over every aspect of their career, but they should make sure that they put their career in the hands of the right people. In that way, they do have ultimate control over their own destiny, but also have the time and energy to focus on what it was that attracted the interest of those record labels and management companies in the first place: being an amazing pop star.

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