by : Business, May 2011, Music and Society

Our Essay on Rebecca Black

Our Essay on Rebecca Black

Without dispute, Rebecca Black and the song “Friday” have taken the world by a storm. The video was made in January and uploaded to YouTube on February 10th.  Up until mid-March, the video hardly drew attention, receiving only about 4,000 views. The success of the video took a drastic change when comedians Daniel Tosh and Michael J. Nelson posted it to their websites, and overnight, it received more than 200,000 hits. As of April 13th, “Friday” surpassed 100 million views– a feat that has been achieved by less than 50 videos on YouTube.

“Friday” was created by vanity record label Ark Music Factory (AMF). The LA-based company was founded by producer Patrice Wilson, in an effort to give aspiring singers a taste of life as a superstar: working with a songwriter, recording a song with a producer-engineer, and shooting a professional music video. AMF charges $2,000-4,000 for their services and keeps the publishing rights, while the singer retains the master recording rights.

While it may seem innocent to provide young dreamers with this opportunity, the glimpse of fame comes accompanied by all of the negative aspects associated with being a celebrity. Black, who is only 13-years-old, was certainly not prepared for the serious cyber bullying and emotional trauma that resulted from “Friday.” During an interview on Good Morning America, she revealed the most hurtful response: “I hope you cut yourself and I hope you get an eating disorder so you’ll look pretty, and I hope you go cut yourself and die.” Ultimately, Black is not a professional, and neither are the rest of AMF’s juvenile clients.  They are teenagers who are unprepared for the media attention that could result from their relationship with AMF. “I feel bad that Rebecca has been getting so many people criticizing the song because it was me that wrote it,” said Wilson.

“Friday” is only one of several productions by AMF. Each song utilizes a typical formulaic pop structure, with its main focus on achieving “catchy” quality. Each video strives to create a glam star aesthetic. Most of the other videos have received thousands to millions of views, but nowhere near the 102 million that “Friday” has amassed. If each song and video is based upon the same structure, then what set “Friday” apart?

Wilson recalls, “I remember writing ‘Friday.’ It was on a Thursday night, but I finished it on Friday morning. And I knew it was silly, you know?” Each of AMF’s productions have a similar sound, so why is it that the “silliest” is being offered management and record label deals? Black is pursuing these management and label deals, but the fact that she purchased the song, the production, and the music video, from AMF makes it difficult to imagine what value she actually provides- other than her current “flavour of the week” status. Yet, some argue that Black’s voice actually holds merit. During Black’s appearance on Good Morning America, she sang a few lines from “The Star Spangled Banner.” Following the performance, Rolling Stone noted, “She did fine, or at least as well as your average 13-year-old theater enthusiast.” Has “average” become the standard for being a profitable musician and superstar? It would seem, from this point of view, that the targeted marketing and glitzy packaging that AMF provides (and that labels desire) outweigh the actual quality of music as an artform.

Lady Gaga defended Black during an interview with Google, although she admitted she had not seen the video. “I think it’s fantastic,” Gaga noted, “I say Rebecca Black is a genius and anyone that’s telling her she’s cheesy is full of sh–.” Unlike Black, however, Lady Gaga did not receive management and label offers after a few weeks. Like most musicians, she struggled to maintain a sustainable career in music. She worked diligently at New York University’s Tisch School of The Arts and was dropped from Def Jam Records before she began receiving any significant exposure for her craft. Granted, it is truly astonishing that “Friday” YouTube plays and digital downloads have earned Black and AMF over $200,000 in only a few weeks. However, it would seem that Black has skipped several steps and danced around crucial experiences that factor into a more traditional artist’s development. Perhaps Black is serious about turning this success into a sustainable career in music, having announced a follow-up single and a cover on Glee.

Regardless, Black’s future in the music industry will be far from painless. Black and her mother are suing AMF for copyright infringement and unlawful exploitation of publicity rights. Initially, AMF served as a record label for Black. They handled her distribution and promotion, all with her mother’s consent. The extreme success of “Friday,” however, was not foreseen. As soon as the song and video began making a large sum of money, the arguments over exploitation and ownership began.  Allegedly, AMF never transferred the rights of the master recording to Black. AMF is being accused of exploiting Black across the Internet and creating a “Friday” ringtone without Black’s consent. Of course, Wilson denies the allegations claiming that the original agreement holds true – Black retains 100% ownership and control of the master recording and video. Still, these disputes over “Friday” have placed a 13-year-old at the center of intense litigation.

As for the entire industry, “Friday” raises the debate over the consequences that the Internet has on music. Granted, YouTube and several other online mediums are great resources for exposure. They increase the potential for management and label deals that would not have been obtained otherwise. However, the most complicated problem with the Internet is that there are little to no filters- allowing anyone to upload a song to YouTube, Facebook, blogs, etc. Consequently, the standards for music have been lowered significantly. There is a vast difference between someone covering a song and posting it to YouTube, and a professional artist trying to make a living playing their music as their sole career. Unfortunately, it would seem the two sides of the spectrum are being smeared together and confused. And it is no wonder that the value of music is plummeting—for, in the marketplace, the work of a professional artist, with a team of managers and agents, seems now equivalent to the efforts of a hobbyist. This is a contributing factor to why less than 30,000 musicians are making a full living, a statistic provided by Topspin creator Ian Rogers.

By no means should the industry double back to save itself. Quite honestly, there is nothing to save – rather, the industry is evolving and moving forward. Taking a conservative approach and refusing to adapt will surely leave any business in a similar financial debacle as the major labels.  The Internet has so much potential for music, but higher standards and stricter filters must be reinstated. Music like “Friday” that is “silly” or “average” made by an inexperienced artist has its place, but that place is not on a pedestal amongst serious musicians.

By Nick Susi

SOURCES:

Chelin, Pamela. “Exclusive: Rebecca Black Fighting Ark Music Factory Over ‘Friday’ | Rolling Stone Music.” Rolling Stone | Music News, Reviews, Photos, Videos, Interviews and More. 1 Apr. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/exclusive-rebecca-black-fighting-ark-music-factory-over-friday-20110401?page=2>.

“The Latest: Black Hits 100, Bing Hits 30, Plus MySpace, Harman, Detroit Symphony, Syracuse Symphony… – Digital Music News.” Home – Digital Music News. 13 Apr. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://digitalmusicnews.com/stories/041311latest>.

“Meet the Man Behind Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ | Billboard.biz.” Music Business | Music Industry | Record Sales | Billboard Charts | Billboard Hot 100. 30 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.billboard.biz/bbbiz/others/meet-the-man-behind-rebecca-black-s-friday-1005104372.story>.

Perpetua, Matthew. “What You Need to Know About Teen Viral Phenom Rebecca Black | Rolling Stone Music.” Rolling Stone | Music News, Reviews, Photos, Videos, Interviews and More. 18 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/what-you-need-to-know-about-teen-viral-phenom-rebecca-black-20110318>.

Powers, Lindsay. “Lady Gaga Says Rebecca Black Is A ‘Genius’ During Google Visit | Billboard.biz.” Music Business | Music Industry | Record Sales | Billboard Charts | Billboard Hot 100. 23 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.billboard.biz/bbbiz/others/lady-gaga-says-rebecca-black-is-a-genius-1005086612.story>.

Resnikoff, Paul. “The Latest Stat: Less Than 30,000 Artists Are Actually Earning a Living…” Digital Music News Blog. 5 Nov. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.digitalmusicnews.com/stories/110510newnoisebreaking>.

Resnikoff, Paul. “Rebecca Black’s Latest YouTube ITunes Tally = $198,685… – Digital Music News.” Home – Digital Music News. 14 Apr. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://digitalmusicnews.com/stories/041411black>

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  1. Julian Weisser says:

    Sadly the standards for music have not lowered significantly it’s just that more people are able to scrape the bottom of the bucket of mediocrity in public with new avenues like YouTube.

    • Nick Susi says:

      Hey Julian,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree, the Internet does enable musicians, of all levels, a considerable amount of exposure that they would not have received otherwise. I think this has both a positive and negative potential, it just depends on who is posting music and what the purpose of it is. I guess I’m not one to judge something as subjective as the quality of one’s music – it’s just interesting to me to look a few decades back and see the obsession over an artist like The Beatles and why that obsession occurred, and then look at the current market and see the obsession over Black and where that obsession stemmed from. I guess it’s a generational change with where the general public’s priorities and interests are.

      Cheers,

      Nick
      nsusi@berklee.net

  2. Muckraker says:

    I was hoping this would be a different kind of essay on “Friday,” but nope. A few things to point out from the industry perspective.
    First, she is an independent label/artist who, like many solo artists, worked with a producer and songwriter. She took initiative to write, produce, record and have a “treatment” video finished. She controls her own Master and despite the major industry snark about her talent through smear campaigns, she continues to move forward.

    Remember NKOTB, Tiffany, shoot even Bieber- the outcry has never been this loud! Why? Are you gonna tell me that “Right Stuff” or even “Baby” is much better lyrically? Talent-wise, of course she’s no savant – but do you think Janet Jackson could win a singing contest? Nope.

    Since you started to write this, Black has “amassed” 40 MORE million hits than you quoted (nearly 140mil) She has “sold” MORE than 100,000 downloads on iTunes, possibly closer to 150k combined form other sources. Those are sales, not jokes, not RebeccaRolls- actual money for a song.

    13 yr. olds deserve pop-tart music too- I’m guessing everyone reading this is considerably older. I’d also wager that many christian parents (not one) would prefer their daughter to emulate Rebecca rather than Miley or Selena- Talent be damned. It’s entertainment.

    Not everyone is a Tisch-educated musician, frankly not everyone should be. Gaga does far better in marketing, fashion, syncs, licensing, touring, shocking sexuality and photo licensing. No doubt she is a talent to be reckoned with, but it is apples to oranges here. Keep in mind, Gaga used and continues to use sexuality to sell her music; without it, I’m sure it would be a different story.
    While she may be incredibly talented musically, there’s a few reasons why Def Jam dropped her and she figured it out.

    It should be noted, Rebecca herself has said this was a fun experiment- she’s not an amateur posting to Youtube OR a serious artist/musician trying to build a long-term career.

    A fun Summer hit is not meant to be a musical opus.

    I’m just appalled that we have an independent success story outside of the Major label machine and NO ONE seems to be on her side.

    She will have made more off her music and videos than most Musicians every will in their lifetime – in the short span of 4 months and it seems she will always be judged, not “good enough” to deserve it.
    Smh

    • Nick Susi says:

      Hello,

      Thanks for the response.

      As far as your initial comments regarding the process of how Ark operates with clients such as Black, yes, you’re absolutely right. A solo artist working with a producer and songwriter is the norm for the pop industry, and she controls and has every right to control the master recording of “Friday,” because that is what she paid for.

      And of course, there is no denying the concrete stats – Black with Ark’s aid has achieved an insurmountable amount of hits and revenue, which is sure to continue growing.

      Basically, I agree with everything that you said and you have great points. I think “a fun summer hit” is an apt description for “Friday,” so I guess I’m questioning why something like that is outselling “a musical opus.” To me, it’s not really an issue of Black and “Friday.” I see it as a very small landmark in the overall course of music history (again, I agree that this is a major independent success outside of the major labels). What I find to be the bigger issue is certain aspects of the Internet, and how it’s changed the way people perceive and value music.

      Like I mentioned in the article, I believe that something like YouTube, which is an incredibly powerful tool, has in a way blurred the line between amateur and professional artists. It enables people with no filter. The encouragement of uploaded content could be incredibly positive and incite meaningful conversation, but instead I find it to be quite the opposite. If you read the comments on most YouTube videos, you would be hard pressed to find a conversation that didn’t end with a vulgar comment about someone trying to prove another’s musical taste wrong, or an argument over why Britney Spears is better than Mozart.

      I’m getting on a bit of a tangent, but I really do think that the way the Internet has mixed amateur and professional content has created a grey area in music. I mean, you said it yourself, comparing Gaga to Black is like apples to oranges, so why are both of their paychecks flying through the roof?

      I agree that not every musician went to Tisch, or Berklee, or any other respected music school, and I know plenty of musicians who don’t go to school for music and are incredibly talented and have phenomenal ears. I see these people pouring their entire lives into their beautiful craft, and making so little from it. By no means is this Rebecca Black’s fault – she is just another person who loves music and wants to make it too. My qualm comes from this – when “Friday” first came out, every person that showed it to me did so more or less because it was the worst song they had ever heard to the point it was hilarious. I’m not trying to judge something as subjective as the quality of a song, I’m saying this is the way it was presented to me (and, this is the way it was presented by Daniel Tosh, which is what got the video it’s first few hundred thousand hits).

      So again, my real issue is not so much with Rebecca Black. It’s more so with the way some parts of the Internet have caused people to value music that’s a gimmick or that has shock value over well-developed talent with direction.

      Anyhow, I look forward to your comments. Let’s use the Internet to inspire meaningful conversation.

      Cheers,

      Nick
      nsusi@berklee.net

    • asdf says:

      I think Nick nailed it on the head here.
      Black’s “Friday” gained popularity because it was terrible, not because people actually liked listening to it for any musical reason other than to get a quick laugh.

      She is not a musical or marketing genius, she did not pay her dues. Her name is on one of the worst songs that anyone has ever heard, and for that reason alone she gained popularity… because people disliked it to the point of laughter.

      Just the fact that the general population clued into how terrible the lyrics are say a lot about the quality of this song. Most people know nothing about songwriting and still think its an abomination. So I think that says a lot about the quality of music that is coming from YouTube, and yes I agree that it is blurring the lines between your average “Joe Blow” posting a cover with their out of tune guitar and a professional who is posting an original piece of music which they are SOMEHOW trying to make a living off of.

      I think it’s disgusting that one of the biggest independent success in the music industry so far is “Friday.”

  3. Kevin Kane says:

    This essay suffers from the same problem as Rebecca Black does: should only the best and brightest be allowed to express themselves?

    Having just read Roger McNamee’s sharp and deeply insightful thoughts about the future of the music industry, I started off this article expecting the same “best of the best” insight level that Berklee strive to stand for. Sadly, the entire content is an emotional therapy session trying to deal with who “deserves” popular success, attention and recognition.

    The article even claims that: “[Teenagers like Rebecca Black] are unprepared for the media attention that could result from their relationship with AMF.”

    This is an oddly inept statement because it suggests that the world in general is free of envious haters and egocentric would-be fascists.
    The fact of the matter is that anyone can and have been targeted by haters. This includes Elvis, ABBA, Hollywood, the USA etc.

    The topic is older than Adam Smiths quote about the “invisible hand” of the market. It touches upon democracy and the freedom to like what or who you want. AMF didn’t create lynch mobs. Youtube didn’t intend it’s comment section to be a hiding place for coward bullies. There’s a saying: ‘give a fool enough rope and she will hang herself’.

    Ironically, the haters who are choking from envy (some of them have found their way into this comment section), are the ones who made Rebecca Black into a phenomenon to begin with.

    None of these phenomena are rooted in music.

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