Over the last couple of months that I’ve been blogging about music, I have noticed something that’s interested me about the product an artist sells for their music releases and the person behind the product.
Music that is often in popular rotation on the radio airwaves consistently promotes songs with arguably generic messages about falling in and out of love, turning up the club, bragging about your bank balance, covert sexual messages and so on. I guess if it’s popular it makes financial sense to continue to sell these type of songs but I do believe that songs about deeper messages are often overlooked. However, it cannot be forgotten that the music business is just that a business so artists have to exist within a model that requires them to supply and demand.
Thinking to when an artist releases a single, album or E.P. it serves as a product that has several purposes. It has to initially entice the customer enough so that the consumer feels as if it’s a good investment to put money towards purchasing this product and in doing so, the product ultimately has to satisfy the consumer. Looking at it from this perspective, the more a product appears enticing the more the consumer will feel inclined to invest and reap the return.
Products are marketed in various ways whether it is through humour, drama or even anthromophised (attributing human characteristics to objects). However, for over 100 years in advertising, sexual imagery has been a prime enticer for consumers due to us being more responsive to sexual stimuli.
This is referred to in psychology as priming which means that when people are presented with media stimuli our thoughts and feelings are immediately activated to help us to decide what to process and remember what we witness.
We are constantly exposed to different media stimuli every day from what we see on social media, the T.V and when out on the street but we only remember what we see if it’s significant enough. What we see then forms discussion on platforms like Twitter, Instagram and even with our friends and lately the strongest indicator of popularity is how quickly something is turned into a meme.
Interesting Fact: Research has reported that what we hear in music or rather what we think we hear, is actually affected by what we see. I’m not surprised as even before I’ve heard a song, I don’t necessarily have to find the artist attractive but if I don’t get their style or their artwork isn’t great, I actually struggle to either listen to the track or even won’t play it. After writing this it seems mad that such an aspect can stop you from enjoying music but it does happen.
Interestingly, if we find the musician more attractive we hear their music as so much more appealing to listen to. Researchers found that musicians perceived to be physically attractive are rated higher in terms of their stage presence and quality of music than their counterparts who are not deemed to be attractive enough (Wapnick et al., 2009). With findings like this is it no surprise why we are constantly appeased by provocative imagery than entice our senses.
Additionally, psychologists have described something called the Objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) that suggests that sexual objectification “Is the experience of being treated as a body (or collection of body parts) valued predominantly for its use to (or consumption by) others” (p. 174).
Studies have found that music videos often reinforce the stereotype of women as sex objects for the pleasure of the male gaze (Aubrey & Frisby, 2011). This has affected the way people view women and men in music, reinforcing gendered stereotypes about how they should behave, look and sound like.
I do think I should mention that when looking at music videos that objectified men such as Elle King’s Ex’s and Oh’s it had an overwhelmingly large number of dislikes and disatisfied comments unhappy with the portrayal of men in the video but that was not the case for videos where women were being sexually objectified. Hmmm, food for thought!
Additionally, cultural and industry expectations of how artists should market themselves and their music has been found to motivate them to readily participate in their own sexual objectification.
Reasons for this could be wanting to display a mature image which we’ve seen before when the good Disney girls (Brtiney, Christina, Miley & co.) attempt to go ‘bad’, the need to sell more records or even empowerment could be thrown in as an excuse however I’m not convinced it’s always as genuine as that.
This is just one of the pressures artists face, so if they are to function successfully in an industry that objectifies them and the work they do, what happens if that product fails to reach it’s intended profit margin? Is it still remembered that there is a person behind the product?
If one individual connects with their work then I would argue their job creatively is done because it means that their work was powerful enough to resonate. However, the music industry is a business and so, that one person unless their Richard Branson is not going to feed all the people involved in the project. So simply, if you don’t sell enough you are branded a ‘flop’. Lady Gaga received a lot of coverage for her first lead single ‘Perfect Illusion’ to not reach the Billboard Top 10.
It seems lately it doesn’t even matter if you’ve been in the industry for a long time, you are not safe from criticism or delays. Usher tried several times with different singles from 2014 to 2016 starting off with Good Kisser (2014) which was intended to launch his album, at the time but failed to go into the top 10. Subsequently, he released numerous other singles all of which until his album Hard II Love came out this year, failed to achieve a top ten placing.
Now I’m one of the firsts to say that chart places aren’t everything, I’m way more concerned about the quality of the music but this case example of label delays has happened many times before and will continue to occur.
If the initial product teaser usually in the form of a single fails to entice a consumer, the album is delayed further with the hope that potential buyers become interested. Even with streaming involved it often takes longer for some singles to do well. These certain delays on an artist who just wants to share their music for their fans to enjoy must be emotionally challenging.
Additionally, artists having to deal with the constant pressure to be objectified, to sell enough of their product to make a profit and the fear of not succeeding must not be easy. This is not even half of it, add dealing with trolls on social media, the many challenges artists of ethnic origin face in a favoured Eurocentric industry, the sudden change in lifestyle and personal relationships, the physical and mental demands of touring, the expectations to be a positive role model and pose for a smiley selfie on demand is a mighty long list. This is something I know I couldn’t handle so I have such a respect for artists who are able to cope.
However, there are some that do not cope which reminds people that they are more than just marketable product, they are humans who experience real life issues.
- 67% had experienced depression or other psychological problems
- 75% had experienced performance anxiety
- 68% had experienced loneliness or separation from family and friends
Results of the survey were attributed to the lifestyle of an artist- antisocial hours, strained relationships due to frequent touring and worries about financial instability which singularly can cause psychological issues and so imagine experiencing that all at the same time.
Additionally, artists have been found to experience something called Post-Performance Depression (PPD) which is a lowly feeling of sadness after experiencing the ecstatic high of performing. Pyschologist John C Buckner explains that in “In normal day-to-day life, biochemicals are released and rest/recovery follow, causing the typical ups and downs of life. In the case of PPD, the process is more extreme with higher highs and lower lows.”
Also, speaking with the Guardian about the dark side of touring Grammy-nominated producer Mat Zo said “Ninety-nine per cent of touring is the airports, the hotels, sitting in a metal tube for up to 16 hours at a time…It’s easy to let your mind and body slip into decay…For those with anxiety, hotel rooms are like prison cells.”
These quotes helpfully portray some artists’ experience for someone like me who has never experienced something like this. It’s all very well me writing about how this issue in unfair without ever living through it it but quotes like this help me to understand how the care to ensure good mental health in the industry is not where it should be.
Encouragingly, a growing number of artists this year have been more vocal about experiencing mental health issues especially anxiety, which has prevented them from performing.
Salmon (1990) defines performance anxiety as: “The experience of persisting, distressful apprehension about and/or actual impairment of, performance skills in a public context, to a degree unwarranted given the individual’s musical aptitude, training, and level of preparation.” It has been found to affect the way artists think and experience their emotions on stage causing them to experience overwhelming negative feelings and thoughts.
Recently, Rapper Kid Cudi announced he was taking a break from his music career to concentrate on getting better by seeking professional treatment for his depression and anxiety. His decision to post an honest letter to the world, was bold and inspiring but what struck me was how apologetic he was.
He spoke about being “ashamed” and “sorry” even describing himself as a “damaged human”’. This was tough to read because in no way should Kid Cudi feel the need to be ashamed of himself at all for being human and in no way damaged. There is such a stigma attached to mental health so much so that it’s not even widely acknowledged that everyone has a mental health (No Health Without Mental Health is a great read).
Especially, when you discuss race and mental health within the black community there’s not a lot of open discussion, with many having the view that having a mental illness is a weakness or a curse. This is not surprising with findings from a study by Alvidrez et al., (2008) which found that a third of black people sampled suffering from mental health issues felt that mild depression or anxiety would be considered “crazy” in their social circles.
Therefore it was heartwarming to see a wealth of support for KidCudi in the form of the empowering #YouGoodMan Twitter movement to move away from the fear of discussing mental health amongst black men.
Honestly this response is inspiring, thankfully these artists have not been ridiculed for their issues, not be criticised for letting people down and not had their experiences be ignored. They have been treated more than products and being accepted for the way they are. Their courage has probably helped their fans who have experienced something similar and fellow artists and professionals in the music industry to also be as brave.
However, the media’s reaction to artists suffering from mental health issues has not always been as positive. Artist’s psychological breakdown in the past has been seen as entertainment as part of their product, their brand and their music. The fact that there is a person behind the sensalisation of their issues who just needs help, was grossly overlooked. It was quite tough going through google images seeing how disrespectful some of the images that were capturing some musicians at their most vulnerable were. I hope things don’t get as low as that again but the realist in me knows it will be done again.
In the face of the pressures of the music industry perhaps we should be looking for alternatives. Enter Hatsune Miku, a 16-year-old Japanese pop star with over 2.6 million facebook fans, who has performed to sold out shows across Asia and America, opened for Lady Gaga and has been a muse for the designer Marc Jacobs, impressive right? Just one thing I thought I’d mention, she’s not even real.
Created by Japanese company Crypton Future Media, Hatsune Miku is described as a vocaloid which is a singing synthesizer program. Her name translates to ‘Sound of the Future’ which isn’t hard to believe, she is a computer programme that is able to perform and sing ‘live’ as a hologram for thousands of global fans who create her music themselves by writing and submitting material. They can also decide the way she looks and what songs she sings, therefore the product is in their creative control and Hatsune Miku can be as perfect as they wish.
You can see why this is a reliable concept, as Hatsune isn’t a human being there doesn’t need to be any concern about her suffering from the pressure of being in the industry, cancelling shows or experiencing a public meltdown. However, that’s the thing, she’s not human so she can’t intuitively sing about her life experiences as an artist, can’t give interviews and the element of surprise for fans is completely removed if they are the sole creators of her creative direction. As a music fan, I’m not quite interested in concepts like this that removes a real life artist completely away from a product as I appreciate when songs discuss real life issues that they go through.
It’s important that artists are able to have a voice and the creative ability to express themselves. I looked for quotes from artists that either turned away from major label monopolisation or made it work for them, which in turn affected how they presented their brand and felt empowered enough to recognise the power they have. Ultimately, creating a relatable synergy between a product and person in the music industry that doesn’t take away the fact that they are humans with a story to tell.
So in response to my earlier question, can an artist be more than a product in the music industry. I truly believe they can as there are a growing amount of artists intent on making their real voice heard. I don’t think they can completely remove their perception as a product because the way that some artists are perceived in their music videos and artwork is very much still rooted in objectification but the good thing is that this narrative is not being told by all artists.
Logically, there wouldn’t be a piece of music to sell without an artist spending time to cultivate one so, the industry should work more to create a healthier environment that fosters good mental health, provides adequate support and works with the media to promote positive messages about artists being humans with highs and lows . The changing attitude towards mental health within music is a positive indicator that things are moving forward and I hope that movement continues to grow.
Alvidrez J, Snowden LR, Kaiser DM. The Experience of Stigma among Black Mental Health Consumers. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved. 2008;19:874–893
Aubrey, J. S., & Frisby, C. (2011). Sexual objectification in music videos: A content analysis comparing gender and genre. Mass Communication & Society, 14, 475–501.
Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T-A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward an understanding of women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173–206.
Wapnick, J., Campbell, L., Siddell-Strebel, J., & Darrow, A. (2009). Effects of non-musical attributes and excerpt duration on ratings of high-level piano performances. Musicae Scientiae, 13(1), 35-54.
Salmon, P. G. (1990). A psychological perspective on musical performance anxiety: a review of the literature. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 5, 2–11.