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Does Morality Exist in the Music Business?

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Deep down inside all of us, at some point in our life, is a tingly alarm that goes off when we start to do something that isn't morally right. Some people learn how to ignore that hiccup conscience that bursts a little adrenaline into us as a signal that you're about to violate the accepted choice of right versus wrong. Some people go to their grave with believing they've done everything they can to never ignore it. Religions of all societies have some form of baseline to weigh decisions of morality and ethics. Some cultures rely solely on the laws of their land for this. Before I wax too philosophical, I am still learning at my middle age 45 years old, that what I consider right and wrong is not going to match those I encounter from time to time, especially in the music business.

Back in my theology classes at Bible College, we would spend weeks discussing the various forms of morality that exist in our world and the basis for each of these. The intended goal, of course, would be to compare these moralities against the Christian world view and hopefully gird us students with some ability to make sense of the variety of people we'd encounter during our days of ministry. If we were to have people of different religious backgrounds suddenly attend our church, we'd be able to better build a bridge of understanding their views and convictions if we understood where they came from philosophically. This is a strategic, but logical method of teaching newbs in the ways of being a Christian pastor.

One known philosophy in this vein is called "MORAL RELATAVISM". Simply, it means that people change or adapt new morals based on their environment or influences at any given time. So, within a street-gang, for example, the morals within that gang may be different than in the home and family environment they sleep in at night. It's relative. Ever since learning this concept of how people can modify their morals based on their setting (some call it peer pressure or trying to fit in), I've always found it interesting to observe this reality work in different settings.

When President Bill Clinton was caught up in the scandal of Monica Lewinsky during his presidency, it was always perplexing to me how the experience was portrayed as such a shock to many in our society and yet something that was vehemently denied by the President and his staff for such a long time. Ever since that embarrassing matter, I've watched politician after politician deal with personal scandals that became public. In the simplest view, why don't they learn to just NOT do things that could blow up and ruin their and so many other lives around them?

Moral Relativism.

If enough of a group of people are commonly accepting and doing things, it's considered ok and moral within that group.

The music industry is full of moral relativism.

In my naivete, I always figured that holding to a set of wholesome Christian values and standards in business could somehow make a difference. While it certainly maintains my conscience with God and family, it doesn't always result in the best outcomes in a pure business sense. I've spent my entire adult life and professional career having to weigh moral and ethical decisions at every turn, some even to the point of walking away from largely lucrative financial gains so I could maintain a conscience. Other times I've regretably given in to moral relativism and compromised my own convictions in an effort to climb the corporate ladder. The sad thing is that even within the Christian community, moral relativism exists and people justify their decisions and behaviors by citing some seemingly logical exemptions as to why they can bend the rules.

In the music industry, the commonly accepted morality is whatever it takes to make a buck and gain fame and not go to jail doing it. Stunningly, some even don't mind going to jail if it gives them front page news coverage.

Trying to raise a teenage son to be smart in the music business as he pursues his career is a tricky process. On one hand, we preach the importance of maintaining his moral and ethical character in all he does. On the other hand, we have to spend considerable amounts of time explaining why people get away with cheating or not following the same rules to which we have ascribed. So far, we've seen some positive results for his image in the public because we do intentionally try to stand by our values. However, we've seen a lot of negative results because we refuse to cheat or flow with the moral relativism occurring at the moment.

This doesn't make us pious prima-donnas, but it does cause a majority to avoid our endeavors at times because it just doesn't fit the norm.

What is the norm?

One specific story I want to share about the way a famous band came to popularity in the 80's is helpful in understanding this. I won't mention their name, but I was told the backstory about how their first CD release wasn't making that big of a splash on sales until a benefactor decided to purchase 1 million copies of them over a short period of time and somehow magically the band skyrocketed into industry recognition because their CD sales were suddenly booming. As the story goes, those 1 million CDs ended up being bonfire material in an out of public view location one night.

You see, the industry has a way of causing fame and fortune seekers to find loopholes in the rules so they can get a leg up on the next guy. The competitive nature of the music business causes moral relativism to go off the charts. When I talk to industry veterans, I hear stories of how things get done and how so-and-so made it big. It usually involves cheating, money payoffs, and everyone involved promising to stay hush hush about their methods. Several record companies have been busted for cheating to launch a career or new album.

Nowadays, take the social media world for an aspiring artist. I've seen hundreds of artists buy their followers for a few hundred dollars. Overnight, an artist mysteriously has 10,000 followers or friends on their social media page and to the average curious fan, it appears they must be popular or famous.

It's smoke and mirrors. Cheating.

What makes this social media method worse is that some record labels find it to be normal to seed an artists social media with these purchased followers so the public can assume the artist is popular already.

Is it illegal? No. Is it authentic? Certainly not.

True popularity and fans take serious investment of time and resources. Marketing is 100% the way an artist becomes popular. The methods of marketing are as vast as the number of artists trying to break today. There's not really a silver bullet approach to launching a career, but there are fundamental principles and publicly visible outlets where an artist must exist in order to gain fans. As a marketing professional, I have studied and watched how artists rise to fame. From the outside, it can seem formulaic, but from the inside of the industry, behind the closed doors of the ivory towers and backrooms of clubs, there is a reality that seriously hinders my faith in believing a career can be launched without cheating.

Pushing the boundaries of any rules will always be allowed until the pushing becomes so common that new rules are made to prevent mass cheating. In the music industry, there are laws governing the practice of things like how radio air-play can occur or how record sales are reported. These laws and rules are broken all the time by clever schemers who have deep enough pockets to turn the watchmen's head in another direction. The sad truth is that money, power and influence govern most every industry today and unless you have at least two of them in your arsenal, you're going to be limited in how you can launch a career in the music business. Talent alone will not sustain a career. Business navigation and dealing is how it will last. And within that scope, your willingness to move your moral compass will come into play.

Of all the issues that arise from a moving morality, the single most frustrating I've encountered is the common practice of lip-service from people.

When I say lip-service, I mean that it is far more common to be told what I hope to hear only to realize it will never happen or was a means to make that person sound important. Obviously we have to develop relationships in order to progress in opportunities, but that process has been wary and most difficult to handle. Flattery and empty promises abound in the business and the impression it leaves is one of trying to understand why a person can function with what could be construed as lying. That kind of morality is difficult to process in my logic, but apparently is so normal that most industry veterans have told us to never count on what people say and wait until it happens. They have advised us to get everything in writing and let the lawyers work out the details. They have stated that no matter what the inflection, emotion or words verbally given by someone, until they deliver on them, it doesn't mean anything.

Trying to plan or make plans in the music business is so difficult because of moral relativism. What an executive may say today could change tomorrow because a new factor arises and they simply can change their thoughts without regards to what was discussed before. I see it happen all the time and it is the single most annoying reality to work through for us.

So whether your conscience is numb or keenly alert to matters of basic morality, it will dramatically affect your ability to succeed in the music business and at what pace.

When things aren't happening as we hope or in the time we hope, we tend to fall upon comforting statements like "We can sleep at night" or "Even if your music has influenced or helped just one person so far, it's been worth it". As righteous as those statements sound, it still leaves room for internal irritation because we see the next guy or girl showing up on radio or a big tour and we're left to wonder what they did to get there.

Cheaters never prosper is a nice quaint expression, except when measuring prosperity isn't confined to a spiritual or moral realm.

What form of cheating or moral relativism do you see in the music industry?

* Spencer Kane is the teen artist of the author of this blog.