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.


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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  1. I think it’s unfair to base the ‘selling out’ accusations on only one source/quote.
    I’m always weary of observers saying stuff like that unless the artist comes out and says it. It’s all about opinion and lets face it artists are never going to please all their fans.
    However I do get your point about the way in which labels push artists. The fact that so few can have so much power is worrying when you think about the difference in how they feel music when compared to the fans who consume it.

  2. I’m going to have to disagree with the B.O.B. statement. Being in the south, yea, we did hear some of his more bottom heavy music hit the streets first. That is probably because his manager runs one of the largest record pools for southern hip-hop music. B.O.B. was always talented and writes most of his own music, plays the guitar and sings. This is evident on his mixtapes and releases in the past.
    And in hip-hop, collabs with pop/mainstream artists are nothing new.
    I also don’t think Atlantic can take much credit. I think B.O.B. and his team working the records and hitting the road played a larger part than Atlantic. They just get to sit back and claim victory (of a #1 album that didn’t push 100,000 units.)

  3. Thanks for the comment, Joe.
    I tend to think that accusing an artist of “selling out” is a little thorny. It’s ultimately their prerogative, and lately, when the new paradigm is basically “the musician as entrepreneur,” they’ve got to be able to get whatever they can.
    The Nos quote was meant mainly to show that Atlantic’s “development” had alienated a very significant, and important ally he’d had in one of his early adopters.

  4. Totally agree with you that Atlantic can’t take much credit, Greg.
    The last thing a label did that’s helped push an artist’s sales was when Columbia put Susan Boyle’s album on sale at QVC and Walgreen’s.

  5. I gotta disagree guys. Atlantic handed all those songs fully completed over to BOB to record. So not only did he not write any of them except for his raps but they built his album from the ground up. That is a little strong arm a&r’n but they are as much if not more of the creative process than the actual artist… just check the songwriting credits..

  6. I’ve been a fan of BoB since his first vids hit the net a few years back. His songwriting and musical talent cant be so blantantly ignored. He’s not gonna please everybody but he’ll def make one song that someone likes.
    The article kind of upset me because although I did feel BoB’s debut was a cookie-cut product of the machine, it certainly showed off his versatility. The Disney comparison seems a bit extreme, but understandable, considering many of these songs are actually catchy (which doesn’t always mean “bad”) songs. Either way, he’s got a bright future.

  7. long term artist development as in “not doing a damn thing, but if the artist gets big in a few years, we’ll take credit”?

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