Protest songs: Record labels aren't listening [Blowback]
Singer-songwriter Sheila Nicholls responds to The Times' Dec. 25 article, "For politically aware songs, the '00s were all for naught." If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy.
Reading the article about political music in the '00s, I found myself biting my lip.
First, let's be clear: As a person who recently spent two months camping outside City Hall at Occupy L.A., I have always been somewhat of a "radical." When Disney's Hollywood Records approached me in 1999 and wanted to sign me to a recording contract, I refused, even though doing so would have helped changed my residency status after having been here for nine years illegally (I'm a Brit). After some moral deliberations about taking Disney blood money and the illegal alien thing becoming somewhat tiresome, I negotiated a deal in which I asked for final creative say across the board and the full ownership of my master copies, both of which I got.
My point is this: It was not that political songs were not being written between 2000-10; it was whether you could convince a conference room of Ivy League boys that there was any money to be made releasing them. I can only imagine what it was like for artists with no creative control.
Knowing that capitalism is still the only game in town, the dilemma for a non-capitalist often becomes: Do you engage and try to change it from within? Or do you fully disengage and move to the woods? As an avid Ani di Franco fan at the time, I heeded the former under her sound counsel of "smile pretty and watch your back."
The problem is, there are certain things that don't mix well with a system that focuses primarily on profit and acquisition; to name a few, education, healthcare and art. In the case of art, music or otherwise, when artists are forced to also contextualize themselves and what they do as product, it changes the nature of the artist and the art. Big record companies want formulaic, smiley fodder, and large corporations will never fund social change, as it is completely against their interests. So even though I am a good songwriter who appeared on all the late-night shows and so on, you will not have heard of me because I refused to write the three-and-a-half minute, 114-beats-per-minute tracks that record companies wanted.
Of course, there are a few exceptions. Rage Against the Machine had already created its own huge fan base, so a profit for its record label was essentially guaranteed. Pink was already famous before she wrote "Dear Mr. President," a great but relatively safe song.
My relationship with Hollywood Records was a weird period of my life because I feel I did, at times, compromise myself. I am so glad to be done with the record labels' ridiculous prism of a reality. So in short what I'm saying is that Bob Dylan would never have been signed today -- or yesterday for that matter.
Rarely taking artistic risks in the '90s, let alone the '00s, the music industry is shrinking because it has marginalized itself. Prioritizing kickbacks and large salaries makes what they do interchangeable with any other corporate executive. Instead, we need fearless stewards who think deeper than profit margins, to hold a space for developing and encouraging true freedom of speech in an artistic form. Indeed, songwriting is a vital forum that fundamentally is of the people.
Good art is from the heart, and it is channeled from somewhere else. It forces the rest of us into new perspectives, which is one of its traditional purposes and functions in society, even if it is uncomfortable. In the past there was no middleman dictating its direction; popularity and relevancy were determined by the collective will. Music and cultural change are traditional bedfellows; we just forgot because we marketed our own delusion to ourselves -- a metaphor, really, for why the whole economic system is failing.
If I had conformed, I would probably be just as intolerable as the next self-indulgent celebrity. Luckily I'm still on the ground, where I am of more use as I can fully relate to my peers and my conscience is clear, which keeps the integrity in my writing. This is priceless to me.
One profound takeaway from my experience during Occupy L.A. was that the gathering was one big piece of performance art. Beyond the meetings and new levels of social intimacy experienced, you should have heard some of the music created after dark -- profound, eloquent political and socially conscious songs. We all cried and laughed together.
Hooray for real cultural fabric and creative spirit. No one needs a record deal to legitimize these things anymore. Life is art. You can't package it. It always seeps out the sides. We are the 99%, and this is only the beginning.
-- Sheila Nicholls
Photo: An Occupy L.A. participant plays the guitar in front of his tent at the camp surrounding City Hall on Nov. 22. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images