While music was once used to convey powerful social messages and mobilize political action, in recent decades the music industry has become increasingly concerned with the bottom line. And sometimes that means not only selling records, but selling an image -- even if that image does not reflect the reality.
Earlier this week, performer and activist M.I.A. revealed that her upcoming record “Matangi” was rejected because it was deemed “too positive” by Interscope records.
"I finished it and then I handed the record in, like a couple of months ago... At the moment, I've been told it's too positive,” she told Australia’s Gold Coast. “So we're having a bit of an issue at the label. They're like 'You need to like darken it up a bit. [...] It's like, 'We just built you up as the public enemy No. 1 and now you're coming out with all this positive stuff.’”
"I'm taking my time to decide what they mean. It's an interesting one for me," she added.
M.I.A. gained worldwide attention following the release of her 2010 album “Maya.” Since then, she has established herself as a tough-talking and no-nonsense artist whose songs tackle such issues as global poverty and political violence.
What's more, her sometimes shocking behavior has repeatedly made headlines and in some cases sparked a media firestorm.
While nine months pregnant, the star famously refused to sit out her 2010 Grammy performance, which fell on her due date. She also flipped the bird during the Super Bowl halftime show, tweeted the phone number of a truth-bending journalist, and released “Born Free,” one of the most controversial music videos in recent years.
Upbeat tracks aren’t known to be her forte, and clearly record execs don’t want them to be.
So why would a top-selling artist, who has been nominated for Grammys and an Academy Award, be forced to tailor her record in order to please music moguls? It’s not surprising that a performer would be discouraged from reinventing her sound. Like many stars, M.I.A. is being instructed to rehash a formula that has proven successful in the past.
According to Laurena Marrone, who runs the music publicity company Grit PR, music execs are primarily concerned with an album’s marketability and don't want to take any chances.
“The (music) industry is afraid to take risks, even with established artists like M.I.A.," Marrone said. "In today's music world, the labels want the ‘tried and true’ music handed to them so that they do not have to invest the necessary marketing dollars it takes to either break a new artist, or re-establish an artist in a new genre or ‘mold.’
“If the record company does not believe that what the artist delivers to them will be an easy sell, it is often rejected,” she added.
Jay Frank, a former digital music executive for MTV Networks and Yahoo! Music who founded the indie label DigSin, agrees.
"The music business is certainly more concerned about risk-taking than they have been," he said. "The revenue model has changed so much that being wrong on a project could mean steeper losses. With fewer companies, there are also fewer jobs available if someone gets fired for taking a risk that doesn't pay off.
“The public reacts with great immediacy, and even one misstep could cause an artist to lose a fan base quickly. So most artists want to play it safe so they don't lose what took a lifetime for them to build.”
It’s unclear how much of M.I.A.’s latest release will have to be altered prior to its debut or what will become of the rejected “positive” tracks.
“Matangi” marks M.I.A’s forth studio album. According to Rolling Stone, the album’s release date was pushed from December to April.