It’s A Game of Cosigns…

 |  May 11, 2011
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You have to network and build connections to get anywhere in multiple fields. Having friends in high places, mixed with having a good work ethic and  ample preparedness, gets people ahead in life. The music industry, much like most industries, rely on this system when it comes to propelling new acts. But what if getting a cosign became so pivotal your music likely won’t hit more ears without one?

Artists and bands obviously must have strong management behind them to get ahead. Yet it seems like up and coming talent paired with notable stars puts said rookies or underdog artists over the edge. Drake sticks out of Young Money like a sore thumb. But his allegiance to Lil Wayne got him the exposure he needed to move from a buzzworthy internet artist to one of the biggest pop stars today. KiD CuDi, sans Kanye’s cosign, wouldn’t have a platinum single and a gold album on his hands with his sophomore effort reaching gold status as I type this. J. Cole obviously has work ethic and can rhyme. Nevertheless, it’s hard to believe he’d get as much attention as he does without being billed as Jay-Z’s latest protege on Roc Nation. I can go on but you get the idea.

A few recent examples across genres debunk the trend. Adele, Arcade Fire The xx and The Black Keys, all artists/bands signed to independent labels, found commercial success in the past year largely without being someone else’s understudy. They’re not new acts: especially Arcade Fire and The Black Keys.  Their still label marketed them well all while giving them creative freedom in writing and, in The Black Keys’ and xx’s cases, producing songs.

Additionally, new rap artists made names for themselves without latching on to hit makers. Nonetheless, much like their indie rock/r&b counterparts, they didn’t attain recognition without solid management and rabid fan support.  Much of Odd Future’s success comes from their polarizing music hitting social networking sites, blogs and them being managed by Interscope marketing wiz  Chris Clancy. Wiz’s ride to mainstream success was a slow crawl and he didn’t seek the solace of a popular hip-hop clique to advance. However his manager Benjy Grinberg, along with the rest of Wiz’s team, pulled the right strings in order for him to noticed at such a wide scale. Getting managed by industry figures is a cosign in a way. Nonetheless, much of the legwork in the previous cases focused on the artists developing movements for themselves, despite using familiar material, from the ground up rather than ride an already established group.

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I’m not entirely anti-cosigns in so much as I’d like to see their prevalence die down. They’re not all bad as plenty of my favorite music acts ultimately got noticed via cosigns. It’d take me forever to list them all. Nevertheless, the system discourages new talent to emerge without some form of gate keeper supporting them along the way. Some say it’s beneficial since it maintains “quality.” I’ll get to how that can be problematic in a moment.

Much of the responsibility also falls on fans and marketing as well. People have a need to associate new things to products they’re familiar with. Therefore, it’s easier for them to sift through and find music that matches their tastes based on what their favorite stars like. That’s why labels are so quick put the machine behind heads who brush shoulders with music’s “in crowd:” mainstream and underground. It’s as if said artist(s) stayed in the oven all this time and, once they get the right look, they’re fresh and ready to for sale.

It’s an effective model but it often creates an homogenization of sounds. The cosigned artist(s) in question usually follows right in his/her their mentors foot steps or, at least more recently, adapts their style for mainstream acceptance. Uniqueness may be stifled in this environment and you end up with a bunch of people purposefully sounding like one another. It can lead to some interesting results at times. Still, more often than not these days, you end up with new sensations being a bit too influenced by those who came before him, her or them.

The co-sign formula will persist as long as people allow it. Even past and current stars got co-signed at one point  so it seems like an infinite cycle. Yet it gives the impression us consumers won’t give our stamp of approval on something unless a notable mainstream figure okays it. I don’t expect casual music fans to hit the net or dig deep via other avenues for their records. But this phenomenon really shows gaining exposure as an artist, more often than not, isn’t totally organic. Someone on the inside with enough pull eventually has to step in for rookies and on-the-bubble talents to take the next step.

I’d like for more artists to break through without getting screened by someone before them. It shows and encourages others to get on without necessitating a connection to a figurehead. Granted, not every talent can be so grateful since, as previously stated, there are a myriad of skilled acts who needed that extra push to gain visibility.  But it’d be refreshing to see artists “coming up on their own” become more commonplace.