Remember when Death Grips leaked their own album? They weren’t happy with how their label, Epic Records, was dealing with it, so they took things into their own hands. “The label will be hearing the album for the first time with you,” they tweeted, before uploading No Love Deep Web and distributing it for free download online.
Oh yeah, and the album cover was a picture of band member Zach Hill’s dick.
I was all for it. Fuck it. When I was a kid and I saw Kurt Cobain on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a homemade t-shirt that said “corporate magazines still suck” on it, I accepted the naturally tense relationship between artists and the corporate entities that make money off art. That’s kind of the way it’s supposed to be. You don’t need to be involved with the music industry to relate when Q-Tip says, “Industry rule number 4080: Record company people are shaaaaaady.”
But in the past couple of decades, we’ve seen less and less of that. We don’t have any Kurt Cobains. These days, majorly successful artists are trained to deal with the media and programmed to avoid any kind of rebellion that’s bad for business. When they lash out, tweets start getting deleted and PR-concocted statements are sent out. Everyone knows exactly where that line between edgy and offensive is, and they are careful to stay very, very far away from it.
Death Grips seemed detached from all that. They weren’t whoring themselves on social media or sitting down to do interviews every other day. They certainly didn’t seem like they were seeking to please anyone. As music continues to get looked at more as a product than a form of art, Death Grips seemed genuinely invested in the integrity of what they were doing in a way that few other major label acts have in the post-internet era of music. At the risk of sounding corny, it felt pure. So when Death Grips decided to say, “Fuck you” to the label and put their music out there for free, it felt in line with the Death Grips ethos and it felt honest, which is increasingly difficult to find in major label artists.
But what are the consequences? What happens when a major label takes a chance on a loud, abrasive, antisocial noise-rap group called Death Grips and gets the middle finger in return?
In 2001, after three albums, Wilco decided to make Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It was the band’s most experimental project yet, a far cry from some of their early alt-country-tinged pop rock. When they turned it in to Reprise Records, a Warner Music Group branch, the label refused to release it. Wilco decided to release the album for free before eventually putting it out through Nonesuch Records (another WMG affiliate), and it ended up being the most critically acclaimed and best-selling album the band has ever released.
Throughout the history of the music business there are a few stories like Wilco’s, but there are even more of artists who suffer album delays and the loss of creative control at the hands of an industry that has come to understand that the easiest music to sell is often the least challenging.
When Death Grips got signed by Epic Records, they had the chance to put a big dent in this mentality. In a post-Odd Future era, things could be different. There’s value to a cult following that drives business in a way that first-week album sales don’t reflect. The most challenging music may be the hardest to sell, but it’s the easiest to build a cult following around. Fans who don’t associate with the mainstream are often the most engaged of them all. They are the active listeners. They want to be a part of something that not everybody gets. And unlike 20 years ago, they’re not hard to find and bring together.
But the gap between these active listeners and the major players of the industry that serves them is getting wider. With so many new options on the internet, music fans can discover and enjoy new sounds without any influence from The Big Three. (Also, how sad is it that there are only three major record labels who control such a huge majority of the industry?) This has further separated the major labels from the active music listeners who care about music enough to seek it out themselves. Just look at the Hot 100. Ask any record collector or music junkie what they think of the top 10 songs in the country.
The truth is, artistic integrity is a phrase that probably doesn’t come up often at major label meetings, and the reason is because artistic integrity doesn’t translate to dollars.
But it could. Look at the business built around Odd Future—it’s not just sales; it’s touring, merchandise, pop-up shops, television, and advertising. There are brands to be built around niche acts who stir up fervent fan bases, and if major labels learned how to take advantage of this, we might see the mainstream music world start to get interesting.
When I think back on Death Grips and their short, explosive career, I’m glad they existed. Whether you loved them or thought they were pretentious assholes, they stirred things up in a way that few artists nowadays do. And yeah, I enjoyed watching their fallout with Epic Records go down, but I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if things played out differently.
What if, instead of taking that dick pic and giving out No Love Deep Web for free, Death Grips sat down at a meeting with their label representatives and said, “Let’s figure out how we can both be happy with this album release.” What if, after that, they toured and built on their already strong cult following? What if they expanded their vision and held art exhibits throughout the country instead of skipping tour dates? Maybe this was never the plan, and maybe Death Grips simply didn’t want to do any of this shit, but you have to wonder what a successful relationship between a major label in 2014 and a group like Death Grips could have yielded.
Instead, major labels learned something: Investing in a group like Death Grips isn’t worth the trouble. And for those of us sitting around waiting for that gap between art and business to stop getting wider, that’s a tragic lesson.