Kelis has claimed that she was exploited by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of The Neptunes when she released her first two albums. The Neptunes produced 19 year old Kelis’ first two albums, Kaleidoscope (1999) and Wanderland (2001). According to Kelis, she had formed a great friendship with the pair and they agreed to split the profits evenly between them. Kelis claims that after she finished touring, she realised that the deal she had signed wasn’t what The Neptunes had agreed to, and she consequently made nothing from both albums.
After Kelis shared her story, lots of people have called out the integrity of those supposed friends slyly cutting Kelis out of a deal. Others noted the trend of young artists being served a raw deal because they don’t know any better. However, Kelis’ experience speaks to much more than a youthful naivety or fake friends. It is a common example of how women in the music industry are emotionally lured into situations based on trust, dealt a bad deal by powerful men, and then expected to be grateful for crumbs off the table. This situation is a good opportunity to look at this common experience of women artists and discuss the culture that enables this exploitation.
Rude Girls Don’t Make Superstars
A key ingredient that leaves young women vulnerable to industry exploitation is the unspoken rule that ‘nice girls don’t make superstars’. You might be thinking about women artists who you know are outspoken and sometimes controversial, but the question is: who are they speaking out against? It is one thing to take a stand from a distance, or when you are at a high in your career, but it is entirely different as a new artist to say no to, or question the men in power within the industry who make it plain that they can make (or break) your career.
Women who dare to question or say no to an execs requests are often met with accusations of being a diva, b*tch, whiny, ungrateful, spoiled or rude. After all, who wants to sign an ungrateful diva? Women are often expected to be the nodding-dog at the negotiation table-happy just to be there and settle for a pat on the head from execs.
Fake Friends Make Bad Business Partners
Beyond an expectation to be polite, the emotional competence of women is often targeted as a means of pushing deals through that disadvantage one person: the artist.
Kelis stated that she had become close friends with The Neptunes, trusted them and thought that she was in a ‘pure’ and ‘creative safe space’. Kelis added, “It ended up not being that at all. I was told we were going to split the whole thing [by 33%], which we didn’t do.”
Many were critical of Kelis, claiming that she should have known better or that it was her own fault for not reading the contract properly. This fails to recognise the emotional manipulation involved and the vulnerability of a young woman at the start of her career. Women might feel unable to question a contract with industry professionals in fear of being seen as difficult, or guilty for questioning the integrity of her ‘friends’.
This point is not to paint women artists as fragile wallflowers, void of any business sense. However, acknowledging men-women relationships and power imbalances is vital for understanding and addressing the exploitation of women in the industry. To fail to do so would be to deny the existence of the patriarchal construct of our society and music industry.
I have met people in the industry who’s stories suggest that their friendship and trust is so strong that their contracts are settled on a handshake. To an outsider this may seem bizarre, but when someone has spent enough time convincing you that they are your friend and that they are the key to your career, this leaves you very vulnerable and obscures your vision of reality. For example, if a great friend of yours offers to pick you up your lunch and you give him your bank card to pay for it, you don’t expect him to never return and empty your bank account in the process. The stakes might not be the same, but your good-will remains the same. Most women artists new to the industry will not only be very young, but also new to the business and its jargon (and what a ‘good’ deal looks like), meaning that they are often unaware of what the stakes are in the first place, and in reality how many years they can be tied to a contract.
Business is Business, Abuse is Abuse
According to Kelis, “Their argument is: ‘Well, you signed it.’ What Kelis is saying here mirrors the saying ‘Business is business, my friend’. The end result is a convenient blame on the women who are manipulated, and an acceptance of abusive behaviour by powerful people who know better. The emphasis should not be put on the naivety of the artist, but the plain abuse of power by the industry. ‘Business is business’ is the kind of attitude that allows industry execs to continually use their powers to tie artists into deals that exploit their talents and leave them with nothing to show for it. Anyone not benefiting from the patriarchy is left at the bottom of the pile.
I Made that B*tch Famous
The abuse continues beyond the act itself. Not only are women artists talents exploited and they receive no adequate compensation, when they finally speak out about it, they’re often belittled by the suggestion that they would never have had a career in the first place without the man in question. Lots of commentators suggested that Kelis should count herself lucky that a legend like Pharrell Williams was good enough to give her a career. Even people who exploit women artists often feel entitled to her career. This is alluded to when Kelis stated that she could tell The Neptunes ‘were really offended’ when she chose to work with a new producer for her third album, even after she made nothing from the previous two.
In other words, women should be grateful for power abusing execs because it ‘gives’ them a career. A famous example was when Kanye West interrupted (then a 17 year old) Taylor Swift’s VMA’s win. He proceeded to claim that his fame and his barging onto the stage is what made Swift famous. The bottom line is that it is an abuse for men to use their position of power to emotionally manipulate women to sign dodgy deals on the basis of ‘friendship’. It is abusive to then justify it by feeling entitled a share in a woman’s success.
Exploitation ≠ Stupid
Kelis said that she signed the contract because she was ‘too young and too stupid to double check it.’ If I could tell Kelis and any other women out there who have been through a similar experience anything, it is that you are not stupid. You are not stupid for trusting the words of successful people who faked a relationship with you that was founded on trust. After my own experience, a friend told me that ‘a con-man wouldn’t be a con-man if he couldn’t make you trust him’- the blame is not yours to take and it truly can happen to anyone.
Until we start creating safe environments for women artists to question and say no to men it will be very difficult to avoid being exploited in some way. In the meantime my advice to women in the industry would be to keep a diary of events and conversations with people that you work with (this should give you some clarity if people backtrack on promises), and if you are going to sign anything, speak to the Musicians Union first, or someone you know in the industry who is not connected to your career. Finally, if things go wrong, you’re not alone and you have to trust that it’s not the end – you’ll become stronger and be able to spot a con artist a mile off.