One of the most notable and least examined aspects of the music industry is how many songs that seem on their face to be songs about dysfunctional romantic relationships end up being about the dysfunctional relationship between musical acts and their record labels. It is not exactly clear why this should be the case, except that there seems to be persistent pressure from music labels on artists to produce commercial music, while artists tend to want to create music based on their own creative muse rather than at the dictates of what is popular or likely to sell well. This is a classic artistic dilemma, but one that many of us creative people solve by simply creating the art we want and not expecting to make a living out of it. The dilemma comes from wanting to make a good living out of art that is personal and authentic, where the label provides the money that makes it possible to make a living as an artist but also has demands for the creation of art that at least makes it most possible that they will profit from the arrangement themselves.
One of the more striking aspects of the dysfunctional relationship between artists and labels is just how many of the songs about this relationship end up being released as hit singles. Whether one thinks of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” Wheezer’s “Pork & Beans,” Lisa Loeb’s “I Do,” or Sara Barellis’ “Love Song,” to name a few of many, many examples, the label does not seem to be bothered that the artists in question wrote and performed and recorded songs that reflected their own hostility to label demands for commercial material or compliant behavior. The labels were not bothered that they were being criticized for being overly demanding of artists, but were only interested in rewarding compliant behavior by releasing said songs and promoting them, often so that they became big hits for the artists in question. While the artists claimed to be defending artistic integrity in the lyrics of the songs, the existence of the songs demonstrated compliance (however unhappy) with the directives of the label for salable material, and that is what mattered to the labels.
There are, however, boundaries to what music labels were willing to accept when it came to criticism of their behavior, and the boundaries are interesting to explore. When John Fogerty, for example, wrote the song “Zanz Kant Danz,” for a solo comeback album more than a decade after the acrimonious breakup of Credence Clearwater Revival, he found himself sued by record label head Zaenz, who happened to own the rights to the songs he had written for his old band under his old contract. Here we see that by not making money over a song that was critical of his profiteering ways, Zaenz decided to live down to the criticism by trying to steal more money from Fogerty, leading to a self-plagiarism trial.
Another example of this can be found in the tragic history of the power-pop band Badfinger. Due to the shady financial machinations of the band’s manager, the group found themselves with an unreleased album and the prospect of financial ruin in the mid 1970’s. Desperate for an advance to allow them the chance to make a decent living as a recording at, the band hurriedly recorded another album, one whose lyrics deal poignantly and repeatedly with the situation of business pressures and label behavior that the band was suffering under, but the label refused to release the album and one of the songwriters of the band committed suicide in despair (the other would do the same years later in the midst of further band turmoil). Even if the band itself had not been responsible for the problems that kept its music from being released and from making the income they deserved as successful artists, they still suffered from the business side of the music industry. When listening to songs about such matters, it is important to recognize that there can be serious consequences to the tension that exists between art and commerce.