Saturday, November 9, 2013

special comment: cancelling 'lip$ha' was a terrible business decision

In 2013, after the release of pop star Ke$ha's second album Warrior the previous year, Wayne Coyne, the frontman of critically-acclaimed psychedelic rock act The Flaming Lips released an interesting press release, suggesting that he and Ke$ha would be collaborating on a full-length album. The album would be titled Lipsha, a portmanteau of the two acts names and would be a full blending of their styles. The response to this development was expected: some eyerolls from Flaming Lips fans who only knew Ke$ha as the singer of 'Tik Tok'; some general jubilation from Ke$ha fans anxious for new material; and some reserved interest from music critics who were intrigued by how such a collaboration would develop. It would not be the first time these two had worked together: on the Flaming Lips album The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, the opening track '2012' was a collaboration between the two acts and one that well-received by critics and fans alike. As was 'Past Lives', a song included on the deluxe edition of Warrior, co-written with songwriter Ben Folds and, once again, a favourite of fans and critics  And thus, many were waiting for the release of Lipsha with baited breath - they weren't sure if it was going to be good by any stretch of the mind, but it would certainly be interesting, given the half-insane creative impulses of both acts and yet the incredible talent to realize such visions.

That hope came to an abrupt conclusion today, as Wayne Coyne sadly informed the public at large through Twitter that 'Lipsha was no more'. And it wasn't difficult to discern what went wrong - Ke$ha and Wayne Coyne have a friendly relationship, but Ke$ha's relationship with her label was much rockier. In an interview with Rolling Stone on October 24  of this year, Ke$ha made a statement that was bound to infuriate her record label, which I will read in full. The question was, 'You don't have any creative control now?' Her response:

'Not really. What's been put out as singles have just perpetuated a particular image that may or may not be entirely accurate. I'd like to show the world other sides of my personality. I don't want to just continue putting out the same song and becoming a parody myself. I have so much more to offer than that and I can't wait till the world really gets to hear that on the radio.'

Well, one can be certain that won't be happening now, and with the cancellation of Lipsha, one can easily surmise that this was not a voluntary withdrawal by Ke$ha, but an act of coercion, a move by backing label RCA Records to attempt to assert control over her image, and more importantly her brand. The sad fact is that music only plays a secondary role in this particular story, and Lipsha is only an unfortunate casualty in an increasingly turbulent relationship between Ke$ha and her record label. However, the choices that RCA Records are making with regards to Ke$ha - who is still a bankable star with sold-out tours and an increasingly angry fanbase (and none of the anger is directed at Ke$ha) - are not just affronts to artistry and the creation of music, but a monumentally stupid business decision on behalf of the label that could potentially do far more damage than it prevents. So this Special Comment is not directed at fans of Ke$ha or The Flaming Lips - this is a message directed straight at the record executives who chose to make an absolutely boneheaded decision out of fear of loss of control - or worse. And here's why.

My first point: Ke$ha's previous album Warrior was terribly marketed. Now I've gone on the record saying that Warrior was the best pop album of 2012, and I'm willing to stand by that decision - but the mainstream public wouldn't have known that given the absolutely calamitous marketing of that album. Putting aside my critical acclaim of Warrior, the mainstream entertainment press was mostly positive on the record, especially the deluxe edition. The album was a masterstroke of genre-hopping exuberance that showed wide creative possibilities for Ke$ha going forward.

And RCA Records blew it. After 'Die Young' was unfortunately tainted by the Connecticut shooting, the label chose to double down on Ke$ha's established brand and not move away from it under any circumstances. Songs like 'Dirty Love', a electro-punk shot of adrenaline with Iggy Pop and 'Only Want To Dance With You', a rollicking rock song reminiscent of The Strokes and even featuring frontman Julian Casablancas, or 'Last Goodbye', a heartfelt folk-inspired track, or 'Gold Trans AM', a song that would have easily fit on country rock radio - all were ignored. Instead, we got 'C'Mon', a passable song but nowhere near her best, and 'Crazy Kids' with a tacked on guest verse that only served to insult the intelligence of everybody. The issue here is a matter of brand: if you don't diversify and expand your brand to fit with changing climates, the brand will suffer.

And this leads directly to my second point: As one of the unfortunate individuals who had to suffer through and review his critical abortion of a solo album #willpower (which would receive a 2/10 from me, the lowest score I've ever given an album), I can comfortably make the statement that's influence in the music scene of 2013 has been absolutely toxic. 'Scream And Shout' and '#thatpower' might have achieved mild chart success, but accusations of plagiarism and his perpetuation of the most aggressively stupid and banal pop music in existence was absolute poison - and in 2013, the majority of the mainstream public realized it too. 

And yet the record labels did not realize this - and that's not surprising, because speaks the same language as they do. The man has a reputation as a marketing savant, and he's extremely literate in the language of business. He has a shameless and terrifying affinity for brands and marketing in the vein of Don Draper. At this point his artistic output is less music and more corporate jingles (this is the guy who included an Intel sound effect in his music), a pseudo-Warholian provocateur of making art out of commercialism. But this year, both the critical press and the mainstream public at large clued into that fact, and like with 2011 being a bad year for the Black Eyed Peas, 2013,was a really bad year for The fact is that people react overwhelming negatively to obvious, in your face advertisement, especially when it's immediately revealed to them.

So coming back to Ke$ha, her third single 'Crazy Kids' was projected to be released - and then a guest verse was demanded in the misguided and myopic belief that it would drive more sales. And it backfired big time. Critics universally thrashed's haphazard, slurring, offensive verse and combined with a terrible video, 'Crazy Kids' flopped. And instead of blaming - an appalling stupid lyricist who was widely getting condemned by everyone, the label blamed Ke$ha and refused to release any additional singles.

And now we should look at the current Ke$ha single 'Timber', with Pitbull. If you're not familiar with Ke$ha's work, it would sound like a departure from her typical style... except it's not. 'Gold Trans AM' was a country rock song that was quite analogous to this, albeit superior and quality. Now keep in mind I like both songs - 'Gold Trans AM' is better, though - but I'm sure there's somebody at the label who is scratching his head and wondering why the hell 'Timber' is becoming a decent hit for her and continuing to rise up the charts. Well, that's an easy question to answer: the pop scene has changed in the past few years in a big way. The club boom where Ke$ha made her initial fame died out at the latest in 2012, with the mainstream breakthrough of folk and indie rock. All of a sudden, guitars and texture weren't dirty words in mainstream music - and wouldn't you think that RCA Records would have wanted to capitalize on that? I mean, there's this song 'Last Goodbye' that Ke$ha had prepared and was widely cited by both fans and critics and the artist herself as one of her best songs, and it would easily fit with the chart aesthetic... so why wasn't it released?

Or let's go a little further into this year, with the country explosion on the charts with songs like 'Cruise' by Florida Georgia Line... hmm, doesn't Ke$ha already have songs like 'Gold Trans Am' or 'Wonderland' that would be perfect to slide into country radio, a scene that Ke$ha freely admitted that she likes? Hell, her mother was a country songwriter! Why on earth did RCA Records think that continuing to focus on club brag rap was a smart idea, particularly in comparison with the charts this year? Really, the release of 'Timber' is probably the smartest thing RCA Records did, trying to capitalize on the folktronica bandwagon that Avicii started - and surprise surprise, it's selling well and will probably hit the top ten! Gee, wouldn't they have liked to have that success throughout the year and sell even more records? And RCA Records has industry analysts watching these developments, so they're not uninformed idiots - so where did everything go wrong?

Well, here's my speculation: RCA Records saw Ke$ha experimenting and working with Alice Cooper, The Flaming Lips, Ben Folds, and Pat Carney of the Black Keys, and they got worried, particularly when their terrible promotion efforts didn't lead to huge opening sales for Warrior. So they did what scared executives do when they see someone trying a new idea, particularly one that doesn't coincide with the branding expectations they're trying to create and they want to avoid taking any responsibility: the coward's way out. They chose to double down on her existing brand in order to wring out as much money as they could, then they booked her on tour with Pitbull under the assumption that the mainstream public would like to see two club superstars together.

There are two huge problems with this. Number one, when you choose to anchor your brand to a dying trend like the club boom, no matter how much doubling down you do, you're ultimately going to lose, particularly when you're not putting the best material forward. Secondly, did any of those RCA Records executives go to any of the Pitbull/Ke$ha concerts this year? 'Cause I was there, and you could easily tell the difference between the Ke$ha crowd and the Pitbull crowd - Ke$ha's crowd were looser, younger, significantly more wild, and in an entirely different demographic than the older, more conventional, more Jersey Shore-esque Pitbull crowd. This shows that once again, Ke$ha's audience understands her appeal better than her record label, and they would also be a group much more open to her going in offbeat or weird directions. They're also the crowd, by the way, who are pissed to high heavens Ke$ha doesn't have the creative control that, say, Lady Gaga does.

If anything, RCA Records should be taking lessons from Lady Gaga's label Interscope. The two artists have followed a similar direction, after all - but while Lady Gaga was given everything she could have wanted after the chart success of The Fame and The Fame Monster, RCA chose to limit and fight creatively with Ke$ha at every turn - and for the life of me, I don't understand why. Ke$ha proved that she had real pop appeal, populism, a cult of personality, and serious songwriting chops just like Gaga - so why did Gaga get away with releasing the country-rock burlesque Queen-homage 'You and I' while Ke$ha was blocked? I have no idea.

So I've already illustrated why RCA Records' inept management of Ke$ha and complete myopia when it comes to the charts has proven widely detrimental and how this mismanagement (for which they refuse to take responsibility) is damaging Ke$ha's career and their bottom line - so one can't exactly be surprised why they cancelled Lipsha. After all, it's a move in a deliberately anti-commercial direction and one could make the reasonable argument that it would not chart a single hit, so why should she be allowed to make it, particularly if she discovers she wants to push her brand in that direction in the future? No, best hamstring her career now and confine her to her brand as a one-trick pony in a pop marketplace that is no longer interested in that brand!

But here's why this decision is absolutely imbecilic as a business direction for RCA. For starters, record creation, production, and promotion would be a lot simpler than the average process of putting together and promoting a pop album. I mean, have you met Wayne Coyne - the guy is a walking studio who drops multiple records a year, he's the Robert Rodriguez of the music industry! He and Ke$ha could probably bang out a coherent, interesting, and likely marketable album in two weeks, a month tops - the two work that well together. Then you send the two of them onto the festival circuit where they will be a huge draw because of their insane live shows brought together. Not only are you bringing together two mostly separate audiences - the long-cultivated Flaming Lips fans and the younger, equally as weird Ke$ha fans - you bringing together two of the acts with the best live spectacle currently in the music industry! And there's also the critical factor that's being ignored - with the rise of Pitchfork and the culture of music criticism, a Flaming Lips/Ke$ha collaboration would draw attention from that group, and while critical acclaim isn't always enough to move huge amounts of records, it can work in Ke$ha's favour as well by reinforcing her brand and winning over some of the hipster set.

And at this point, most industry analysts would not be able to make a justified prediction that a Ke$ha/Flaming Lips single wouldn't chart. Keep in mind The Flaming Lips have a strong populist streak of their own, which Ke$ha would only improve, and in a year where Macklemore, Avicii, Daft Punk, AWOLNATION, Lorde, and Imagine Dragons were some of the biggest charting successes of the year, you can't predict that 'weird' or 'different' would not be a selling point. Yes, even for Ke$ha - because if the music is good (and odds are, it would have been), the existing fans will love it all the same and she stands a chance at shifting the mainstream idea behind her image, which will improve and modernize her brand! Thus, Ke$ha stays marketable, sells out another slew of tours, justifies her existence with chart and critical success, and RCA Records makes a truckload of money off of merchandising and sales - EVERYBODY WINS!

So, let's assume this discussion came up in the RCA Records boardroom (if it didn't, they're morons) - why on earth did they choose to kill the Lipsha project, then? Well, that's simple: fear. They see an artist wanting to try something new and go in a different direction - even though said direction would have netted them success if they had marketed it properly - and they get anxious because they want to protect their increasingly irrelevant jobs. They know they need Ke$ha a lot more than Ke$ha needs them - at this point, she's made it public that she hopes to get dropped from the label! She's made it clear she'd release her music to her fans for free if she could! This is an artist who is proving rapidly uncontrollable by her label because they're sticking to a brand that has already proven irrelevant in the mainstream marketplace, so they opt to kill a passion side-project of hers because they think that'll knock her back into line, even when that project could make the label a fair profit - and yet they're too scared to see it. But here's the thing: not only does Ke$ha have the immediate moral support of a rabid and increasingly riled fanbase, plus a reality show where she has further exposure and distressing honesty, she's also the sort of woman and artist who will not back down. She's also not one who needs to be controlled or directed, like a Britney Spears or a Rihanna or a Katy Perry - no, Ke$ha is much more talented and intelligent enough to know what she's doing, and she's not the sort of person to kow-tow to the company line without a fight.

And yet there shouldn't be a fight - there doesn't need to be a fight. RCA Records needs to wake up and give Ke$ha the creative control she deserves, because with the success of songs like 'Timber' and the unfortunately unrealized potential of some of the songs on Warrior, it's clear she knows what she's doing a lot more than you do. She hasn't made the career-crippling decisions that would suggest she doesn't want to attain some level of success, and I've categorically proven that if Lipsha was allowed to be made and released, it could have netted RCA Records an impressive profit. And in an era where record labels are becoming increasingly irrelevant, this choice was a monumentally miscalculation, and one can only hope that it's resolved before it ruins more careers.

And Ke$ha, if you happen to see this video... when I met you in person, before the concert in Toronto during the summer, I gave you a book, an anthology of short stories. In that book was a story I wrote titled 'Last Call', one that your work and your career inspired. It was dark and twisted and confusing and I don't know if you ever bothered to read it - but right now it's proving eerily, sickeningly prophetic. I don't want to see everything in that story come true, so don't give up. Please.

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