In Restraint Of Trade

We tend to think of music labels and traditional publishers as being in the business of releasing art and literature to the general public, but in reality these gatekeepers serve in restraint of trade rather than in the business of increasing the supply of products to buy. It is not too hard to think of why this may be the case, since the promotion of albums (and the singles within those albums) within a given era, or the promotion of books, is expensive and both the funding and the labor required to engage in such promotional efforts are limited. It should be noted that the time and attention of people are limited as well, and so traditional promotional methods have been a way of getting a limited amount of product that is saleable to a market that does not want to expend a high degree of effort in making itself familiar with what is available.

Most of the time, this does not draw attention, but there are a great many cases where the desire of people to release material has been hindered by the refusal companies to provide products that there is likely a market for. This has been especially troublesome in the world of music, where it would be impossible to list, much less explain the stories of, the many artists who have found their careers shortened by a situation in which they have been held to contracts that in order to be fulfilled require a certain degree of output while also giving the labels the discretion to approve or reject the music that is provided to them, even to the point of being able to approve whether or not a given set of music can even count towards contractual obligations. I have spoken and written about several such cases [1], and will not try to repeat myself again in this present discussion with those previous times I have discussed such stories.

One such example trended today that fits along with the previous examples I have been familiar with. During the height of her fame, Mariah Carey recorded an album that was a response to (and possibly an example of) the sorts of grunge albums that female artists released in the 1990s to general success and spots on the Lillith Fair tour, for example. While one might expect this sort of material from your Liz Phairs and Beth Harts of the world, it was not expected for Mariah Carey, and her label, wanting her to explore safe and profitable musical veins and not daring and risky ones, predictably shelved it in the hopes that the albums would never see the light of day. After some decades, the masters were recently rediscovered, and since Mariah Carey is in a later period of her career, the album appears to have a future as an examination of where Mariah Carey was at during the period between Dreamlover and Fantasy as she was growing more discontented with her personal and professional life.

What is the goal of restraining trade in such a fashion? It appears that in many cases a music label in particular does not think that a given project will sell well, and that it will harm the “property” (that is the brand of the musical act) for an unsaleable album to be released. While a label has no qualms about releasing material for an artist that has left the label and getting some money while sabotaging their present efforts, as has been the case with artists as diverse as Badfinger and LeAnn Rimes, for example, artists do not like to see the unpopular creative direction of a band destroy the profit they had hoped to make. In extreme cases, like that of Talk Talk, labels have even sued their artists for creating anti-commercial music, even though in the case of Talk Talk that music was amazing and groundbreaking in establishing the post-rock movement. None of that mattered, though, because such music has always had a small audience (even if it includes me). Only time can tell what sort of music Mariah Carey made during her grunge phase during the mid-1990’s, but I am curious to hear it, and since Mariah Carey is no longer selling many millions of copies of albums but only hundreds of thousands of them, this sort of project is something that may appeal to people and improve her brand, even as it allows her a late-career strike into a different direction. And you know what, Mariah deserves it. Good for her.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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