The Good and Bad of Artist Development Lands at #1

This guest post was submitted by Max Willens, the editor of We All Make Music, a website dedicated to helping musicians thrive in a post-label world.

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Last week, Atlantic Records artists sat atop the U.S. and the U.K. In the U.S., B.o.B.’s B.o.B. Presents The Adventures of Bobby Ray landed in the top slot, while the U.K.’s top spot belongs to Plan B’s sophomore album, The Defamation of Strickland Banks.

For Atlantic, the event seemed worth celebrating, so its parent company, Warner Music Group, sent out a press release heralding the achievement as “testament to Atlantic Records’ deep commitment to long-term artist development,” and in this case, they’re both totally right and totally wrong.

“Artist development” is one of those terms that can mean a lot of different things. Depending on the artist, it can mean anything from paying for dancing lessons to sending an artist to Lisbon to learn about kuduro.

The ambiguity lies in the intentions of both artist and label. As often as not, the development has less to do with art than with the creation of a more palatable entertainment figure.

In the case of Plan B, a British rapper whose debut, Who Needs Action When You Got Words, was filled with dark, occasionally violent and often angst-y rap backed by acoustic guitars, the “development” was both artistic and market-oriented. The Defamation of Strickland Banks is basically a blue-eyed soul album with some rapping on it, and a surprising turn for an artist whose previous attempts at singing were confined to screaming through “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in concert.

But it turns out B (real name Ben Drew) can actually sing, and Strickland Banks, which features lots of him singing (and rather well, at that) might never have happened without Atlantic’s major label money and contacts.

But if Plan B’s development represents all the positive things that major label backing can represent, then B.o.B.’s skews the other way. The Atlanta-based Bobby Ray Simmons, who eschewed the tired "gangsta" sound and persona, clawed his way to the top of the southern hip hop hotbed with booming, electrified tracks like “Mind Got Blown.” It earned him attention from everybody from XXL to Pitchfork, and cross-over success seemed assured.

It's all the more puzzling, then, that Adventures came out so anodyne. Or, as influential hip hop blogger Andrew Nosnitsky put it, “pure Disney Radio shit, Now That’s What I Call Music music.”

In Nos’s view, The Adventures of Bobby Ray “isn’t simply a sell out record. It might be the most selling outest sell out rap album to ever sell out,” and in light of the rumors that B.O.B. was strong-armed into this new sound, Atlantic’s crowing about its commitment to artist development starts to sound a lot darker. It all depends on what you listen to.

It's tough to know who was at the wheel in B.o.B. and B's studio sessions, but a bigger question remains: if all the money the major labels spend on artist development is ultimately concentrated in the hands of a few, powerful, profit-minded people, then how helpful is it for the artists, really?

And would it be so bad if suddenly that money wasn't there anymore?

-Max Willens, the editor of We All Make Music


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