Behind the Scenes in the Music Industry

 
 

The first two artists signed to Music With a Twist are lesbian solo artist Kirsten Price and lesbian-fronted punk/rock band The Gossip. Price said that she is excited to be recording her own music and not have to censor herself or change pronoun references. Still, she admitted, “in an ideal world, sexual orientation would be no more relevant to our work than our gender or the color of our skin, but in the music industry, where image plays such an essential role, these things tend to define us more often than not.”

Sometimes it's hard to get past that defining role. Even a band as commercially successful as the Indigo Girls has had to wrestle with the limitations. “We have a great career,” Ray said, “but there's always been a glass ceiling for us, where you just don't get past a certain point.”

While it may be easier today to be openly gay in the music industry than it was even just a decade ago, homophobia persists, often in subtler ways. “I think it's less likely that if someone's really happening that a label is going to be like, ‘No, we're not going to sign them because they're gay,'” Ray theorized, “but it's harder to get to that place, where people are looking at you for your music and not just your lifestyle.”

LaPolt thinks the treatment that queer artists receive has everything to do with the level of success they've attained. “If you're successful, you're treated like gold,” she said. “So for lesbian musicians in general, if their music is good, and they're doing well and drawing lots of people to their shows, and their music's selling records or is in TV, then they're treated pretty well. But I'm sure Melissa Etheridge could think back to 1981 and say she was treated like s—. I'm sure before she was successful she had her share of heartache and frustration.”

Ultimately, the record industry is a business, concerned with its bottom line just like any other enterprise. “The way record companies are, they're just reacting to everything that's going on in society. They're not the maverick vigilantes they use to be,” Ray said. “Now everybody's just constantly reacting, trying to cash in. So if they think being gay is worth a lot of money, they're going to go out and find a bunch of gay people and they're not even going to care about the politics of it. It's so apolitical, it's ridiculous.” Nonetheless, Ray said that she sees Music With a Twist as a positive sign.

According to Wilderness Media, research indicates that 15 million adults in the United States currently self-identify as LGBT, a demographic the company describes as “intensely brand-loyal, with an estimated $610 billion in annual buying power.”

Traditionally, lesbian artists have often been concerned about whether being out limits their market. “If they're out lesbians and they're just playing to lesbian crowds, they're going to face a lot of bias because the industry will say they're singing to a demographic that's way too small,” Ray explained. “It's all based on numbers, and traditionally the lesbian demographic isn't one that spends a lot of money on entertainment, whereas the tween demographic, ages 11 to 16, is a $10 billion industry. Ironically — which is a good thing — it has nothing to do with being homophobic. You have to be able to appeal to a wider demographic.”

Some people argue that focusing solely on queer artists, much like hedging your bets on queer audiences, severely limits your market. Newly signed artist Kirsten Price said of Music With a Twist: “People often tend to be questioning the very concept of this kind of label, but I think if we put it in its appropriate historical and sociological context, it really makes a lot of sense to have the opportunity to really be yourself in an industry that's constantly telling us who we should be, not just as lesbians, but as women.”

New technologies, which have radically changed the way music is produced, distributed and marketed, may also be playing a role in altering the ways that music labels view the LGBT market. “The industry is increasingly looking for niche markets because it's falling in on itself because of the advent of technology,” Price said.

Gore is critical of record company greed, but she hopes that an LGBT-specific label can transcend this. “If they're a little better to the artists, perhaps they can find a better formula than the paradigm that seems to be going down the drain now,” she said. “If we start getting smaller labels that are going to act more like indies and not like mega-businesses, then maybe artists will have a chance again to form a relationship with a label that lets them develop the way an artist is supposed to.”

The music industry itself has gone through immense changes in recent years, so it remains to be seen how the situation shakes out for queer artists. One insider's guess? “Hopefully the question of sexual orientation will become less and less relevant the more visible people like me become,” Price said. “The more we're represented in all aspects of popular culture, the more we'll be seen as an important and integral part of it, rather than something different or odd.”

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