My first hit song blew up on the radio first. “I’m Awesome” got picked up by the local alt-rock station in my town, the radio station I’d grown up on. It quickly became the most requested song there and then jumped to the local pop station. Keep in mind I’d only self-released two albums at this point. I was very new to the game, and suddenly the two biggest local radio stations were playing the shit out of my stuff, which was unprecedented. No local artist had ever broken through at pop radio in my area (Portland, Maine, is not exactly known for its burgeoning rap game).
PhilipC, via Wikimedia
We lost a lot of guys during our East Coast/West Coast beef with Portland, Oregon.
The way the world works now, if you’re blowing up on the radio, you’re killing on iTunes, too. I think there’s an intern at Universal who goes through the regional iTunes charts every week, from Des Moines to Albuquerque, and looks for outliers.
“We know all the other guys on here. Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Ke$ha … who the hell is Spose?”
So this intern looked at the Portland sales and saw that I had the #1 song. I doubt I cracked the top 200 nationwide, but that was enough to get their attention. At this point, I was 24 years old and totally broke, delivering pizzas and raising a newborn. The day Universal sent me a $35,000 check for signing on with their label, my bank account was at -$800. I couldn’t even buy gas for my car without overdrafting my account again — one generally doesn’t hear Jay-Z rapping about bank fees and bus passes.
The labels do a great job of making you feel like the center of the universe when you’re recording. Every studio I’ve worked at in LA and New York had runners. Usually we’d arrive at 3 p.m. and go till 3 a.m. Sometimes we’d make one song, sometimes four. The runners were there to keep us from needing to ever leave. We’d say, “We need Heineken, Seagram’s Seven, ice cubes, a venti iced coffee with whole milk only, a quarter ounce of weed, Backwoods cigars, and we’re also going to need sushi.” A half hour later, the runner would come back with a bag full of all that stuff, courtesy of Universal. That means Universal has a designated weed guy.
I mean, at least try to look surprised.
“Can we list this as a business expense?”
I met a lot of people who were caught in the record label game. This dude Matt Toka was one of the writers they brought in to help us. He could play guitar and sing and had some cool ideas. We wrote a song called “Party Foul” together. I think a lot of guys like Toka get signed for their writing abilities, even if the label doesn’t see any star potential in them. But they don’t say that, of course: These guys all want to be stars, but writing lyrics FOR stars and up-and-coming artists pays the bills. There’s probably a thousand musicians who could’ve been like the biggest star in Duluth, or wherever, but chose to play the label game in LA instead.
They’re not foolishly throwing away their lives or anything — it’s just that they get barely enough hope to carry on in the background instead of doing what they really want to do. And they do carry on, because not all of these dudes wallow in label limbo forever. For example, my lawyer also represents Bruno Mars, and for almost 10 years Bruno Mars was one of these writers, contributing his ideas and scratch vocals to other people’s hits, before ever getting his shot at personal stardom. They’d take Bruno’s vocals and search for a “real star” to replace them. The irony is that now those same A&R dudes would kill to have Bruno Mars singing their hooks, because he won the “background guy” lottery.
Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images
Labels definitely seek out young people, and they are extremely good at making you simultaneously feel like their top priority and like you’re fighting against a ticking clock. When they called me the first time, they offered to fly me to NYC. I was at Suffolk University at this point; I stepped out of class and saw that I had like 15 missed calls and voice mails. I Googled the name of the dude from the voice mails, because that is the gift the Internet gave to the antisocial, and eventually called him back. He picked up and immediately gave me both barrels of enthusiasm: “We’ll fly you and anyone else you want out, first class, to NYC, right now.” If my Myspace had said “I like the Celtics,” they would have had me courtside that very night.
Alex Trautwig/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
“You want Rondo’s jock? Cause we can get you Rondo’s jock.”
They flew Monte Lipman in to meet me in NYC. He’s one member of a tiny group that runs the record industry, and he came over to chill with me and have dinner. Because that’s not going to inflate a broke 24-year-old’s ego. He asked, “You wrote this song all by yourself?”
I said yes and he started flipping out, telling me to get my passport ready because I was about to be huge, flying all over the world in a private jet fueled by raw hip-hop.
Then he sent me an email on the weekend, mainly to let me know that he never sends emails on the weekend. “I want to get this signed by Monday morning. Your song played huge when we tested it in Miami, we want to sign you and fly you down.” But at the same time, he was like, “These references are VERY current and your record will expire really soon. YOU HAVE TO SIGN IMMEDIATELY.”
“No time for a pen; better use blood.”
I’m sure that’s a common trick. (Although the record industry does shut down completely by 5 p.m. on Friday. That’s a fact. Hip-hop apparently keeps DMV hours.) It was all just smoke being blown up my ass. Monte sent excited email after excited email about how big I was about to be and how we were “just getting started.” I think the last “just getting started” email hit about a week before the label dropped me. I guess he was trying to type “We’re just getting started on the process of firing you” and hit enter too soon.
When I was making music by myself, I’d make a song and show it to my friends, and if they liked it, that was enough. I’d do it in my live show, put it on an album, and then roll about in piles of literally dozens of dollar bills.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
Then I’d have to lie and tell the bank they went through the washing machine.
But in the recording industry, you might make 25 songs and none of them ever see the light of day. You develop real thick skin. I’d pour my heart into a song, spend all day making it, everyone in the recording room would be feeling it … my friends, my family, management, engineers. We’d all be stoked, and then I’d send it to Universal in an email, and a few minutes later: “Ehhhh … not really what we’re looking for.” To get that response to my work for the first time was A) shocking; B) disheartening; C) a wake-up call; and D) oddly erotic if you get off on unhelpful apathy. I realized then that we were at the “you either win a Grammy and sell lots of records or get the fuck out of Hollywood” point. I sent them songs that are now somewhat classic fan favorites, and my A&R dude responded with “Yeah, that’s not it” more often than not. Super helpful criticism! I didn’t realize I had sent you the “not it” song, when I clearly meant to attach the “it” file.
Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images
“Damn Windows 8.”
I grew up idolizing Biggie and Jay-Z, artists with real, intricate lyrics. And that’s part of what I love about music — great descriptions and verses. But that’s the opposite of what my label wanted. I got in the studio for the first time and spent like five hours writing what I thought was one of my best songs yet, only to hear:
“The lyrics don’t even matter, write that shit tomorrow. We just need the hook. All Universal really cares about is a catchy chorus.”
And that’s what the industry runs on. The label comes up with a chorus, a pre-chorus, and a melody, and then they fill in the blanks with people like me. In pop music, artists are like those Styrofoam packing peanuts, just there to make sure nothing shifts around too much in transit. When it comes down to the music, the labels have a very narrow idea of what they want, and no new artist is going to change their minds. The producer they paired me with did a lot of dance music. You know — “bottles in the club, bitches on my junk, Cadillacs literally infesting my house” type stuff. I don’t do that, and the song that got me noticed was nothing like that. But once I was signed, that’s the only thing they wanted from me.
“Our research shows that E minor is by far the crunkest key.”
Universal picked me out of the crowd because I had a unique style. Like a fool, I thought that meant they wanted me to keep making my style of music. But they just wanted to take my name, my sorta-notoriety from one hit, and plug “Spose” into a bunch of pop songs. Probably because it’s really easy to rhyme with “hos.” They’re playing the long game, those keen, strategy-minded record producers.
Music is a big business, too big for something as expensive as a pop song to hang on the shoulders of just one dude. We all like to imagine the songs we like being penned with a shaking hand by some weeping artist staring out at the sunset and letting the muse guide his soul. But when it comes to pop, it’s much more likely that those lyrics were banged out by a conference room full of writers trying to rhyme “make it rain” with “hand grenade” because it’s late and they’re working against a deadline. I’d always written my own verses before, but when I hit LA, they invited me to a session with Mike Caren (the head of A&R at Atlantic), a producer, and four writers.
It seemed like a weird way to do things, but I gave it a shot. Sticking a bunch of creative people in a room together and letting them write can work pretty well. Just ask Breaking Bad. But it’s the kind of thing that only works out when everyone more or less has the same vision for what they want to write. Stick Vince Gilligan in a room with all the writers from Glee and you’d wind up with a real different series. Perhaps … a better one? Who doesn’t want to see Mike rock some Journey?
Sony Pictures Television
At least the “Born and raised in south Detroit” line doesn’t feel too far off.
Anyway, when I came in for my first session, the other guys were already clustered around the table, listening to the melody they’d picked out and trying to figure out what sort of song should go with it. Finally Mike said, “You gotta make it about a party … a party you, like, filmed. You filmed all these chicks! And the hook can be “… and I got it on caaamera.” They started getting deeper and deeper into brainstorming this song.
Then I pointed out that this wasn’t at all the kind of music I did. In fact, it was the exact type of song I’d gotten famous for mocking. It was like I’d sucker punched the whole room. You get caught in this downward spiral where everyone’s a yes-man to the producer and the producer’s a yes-man to the label. A producer decides he wants to do a “caught it on camera” song and no one wants to contradict him, so they just build on this idea that has nothing to do with anything the artist has said, thought, or even mumbled to himself in a stoned haze and immediately rejected when the cold light of sobriety dawned the next day.
Nick Daly/Digital Vision/Getty Images
“OK, new idea: We ditch the whole music thing and retool you as a hip-hop mime.”
So the next time you’re barreling down the highway listening to some overproduced piece of pop crap, don’t blame the artist. If pop music is the aural equivalent of a sausage, most singers are nothing more than a clear casing ready to be stuffed.
That sounds way dirtier than I intended.
For people in the recording industry, the whole world revolves around the “second single.” I recall one specific email exchange between Mike Caren and Imran Majid, who is now the head of A&R at Columbia. We’d just made four songs in a night, and they were convinced that one of them was my “second single.” And in the course of a single week, they made me do 60 revisions of this song. I have them all in my iTunes still: “Don’t Let This Be Over (Version 44),” “Don’t Let This Be Over (Version 5538438),” etc.
There was this guy named Owl City who got signed around the same time as me. We reached out to see what he thought about the label, because his song “Fireflies” had been a big hit and he was in the midst of trying to find his second single. Universal stuck with him, but he didn’t end up finding it for a couple of years. Then Carly Rae Jepsen came out with “Call Me Maybe,” and on her second big hit, he sang backups. I’m not saying that reflects on him as an artist at all, just that it’s weird. That was the big break the studio wanted to wait years for: “Guy in the back of the Carly Rae Jepsen song. No not that one, the other one — you remember the other one? No? Nobody?”
I think it had something to do with The Dukes of Hazzard.
For every Macklemore who has a hit song and follows it up with another, there’s at least 20 more who never have a second hit. And I’m one of the latter. After 11 months, they didn’t find a second single — even though a bunch of the songs I made then still sell well today — and a new VP came in and dropped me.
You can make great, heartfelt music with a sound all your own that thousands of fans love, but none of that is going to convince Universal that you know better than they do. If you want to break into pop music, you’d better be ready for hundreds of hours of failure. The labels aren’t looking for brilliant artists to drop fully formed beats onto the radio. They want someone who’ll help them Frankenstein some hybrid pop monster from the stitched-together corpses of originality. And that’s how we wound up with the Black Eyed Peas.
Scott Gries/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Everything’s suddenly coming into focus.
Today, failing to follow up on a big success with a second single doesn’t mean you’re back to spinning signs for mattress sales on the street corner. My first big video, “I’m Awesome,” got something like 10 million views. When the single released on iTunes, 850,000 people actually paid to download it. When I released a mix tape recently, about 8,000 people bought it. So I was able to keep, like, 1 percent of the fans that “I’m Awesome” attracted. It might sound grim, but do the math: If you put out something for $10 and 8,000 fans buy it, that’s a pretty solid year’s salary. My album The Audacity came out in 2012 and sold the same number, $10 apiece. iTunes took a small chunk, and then the cost of making that album (production, printing, studio time) was probably $6,000. So I made a profit of $70,000. And that’s before royalties from Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube come in quarterly for years to come — hell yeah, that’s where the real “make a modest living” cash comes in. We’re gonna make it rain! With actual water — because this motherfucker can afford his water bill this month, baby.
Plus a handful of other essential bills.
I reinvested about $40,000 in new projects, but that left enough to cover rent and food and Scotch and a nice Christmas. It’s not small-yacht-in-the-pool-of-a-bigger-yacht money, but I don’t have to play that game of trying to keep up appearances with fancy clothes and cars. That’s part of traditional rap nonsense, and my fans don’t expect that. My “brand” is just being me. A regular dude. So, thankfully, for my finances’ sake, the more I relate to my brokest fan, the more albums I sell. Which is good, because there’s like a million things that rhyme with “Hot Pockets.”
Tony Branston, via Wikimedia
But none that capture the magic of the original.
I released the songs Universal hadn’t wanted in a free album called Yard Sale and used that to advertise my Kickstarter. It brought in $28,000. And now that I have that small, loyal fan base, I’m able to make the music I want to make without spending 300 hours per song pleasing a bunch of record executives. I make all the money from my iTunes sales now, too. I pay $35 to list it and get close to $1 per sale. When I was with the label, I made 16 cents per sale. If you’re Lady Gaga or Ke$ha, the recording industry is one big blank check for a life of unfathomable luxury and custom-tailored meat clothing. For the rest of us, connecting and selling to the people who like our music is a little less soul-crushing and at least sort of profitable, and at no point do you ever have to talk to a guy who describes you as “the next Fred Durst” and means it as a compliment.
Spose has a free mixtape available for download and you can also purchase his album The Audacity. He has a website and you can follow him on Twitter. Robert Evans can’t rap or sing, but he can write and if you’ve got a story you can tell it to him here.