This morning saw the latest chapter in the saga of M.I.A.’s much-delayed fourth album Matangi, a record that was originally supposed to be out in December last year, but has been pushed back several times since. As reported in the Guardian, she told BBC1’s Zane Lowe that her label Interscope still hasn’t approved the release: “I keep finishing the record, handing it in, finishing the record, handing it in … I was literally just gonna start making records and putting them out from the bedroom straight on the internet. This is my last stab [at a traditional release].” Quite why the album keeps getting delayed is anyone’s guess — there’s clearly something going on beneath the surface here, but exactly what is difficult to say, because no one at Interscope is talking.
If it ever gets released, Matangi will be her first album for Interscope, a relationship that always seemed a curious one, not least (according to her, at least) because her former manager — who she fired to join Jay-Z’s Roc Nation roster — is now head of the label. She’s come from Richard Russell’s XL, a label noted for the artistic freedom it allows its musicians, and is obviously not exactly relishing the degree of interference she’s experiencing from her new paymasters. But why does she put up with it? And why won’t Interscope just release the damn record?
Here’s my guess as to what’s happened: most recording contracts allow for an advance to be paid to the artist to cover the cost of recording. This advance is effectively a loan — in an ideal world, you give an artist a certain amount of money to make a record, the record sells lots of copies, some of the revenues from the sales are used to repay the loan, and everyone’s happy. In theory.
M.I.A. has been making Matangi for years, employing a variety of producers, and jetting around the world in the process — she shot the video for “Bad Girls” in Morocco, among other things, and also apparently “went to India to Google parrots.” She’s also been reworking what were allegedly final mixes since the start of the year, at least, when she told relatively obscure Australian newspaper Gold Coast, “I thought I’d finished it… I handed [it] in [and] I’ve been told it’s too positive. So we’re having a bit of an issue at the label.”
The point is, the thing is probably costing a fortune. Like any sort of investor, the company wants to recoup its investment, and the way to to do that is for M.I.A. to release a record that sells well. In this case, Interscope seems to have decided that it’s more worth their while to send their artist back to the proverbial drawing board again and again, racking up more and more costs in the process, than releasing a record that doesn’t measure up to their conceptions of what an M.I.A. album should be.
Back in January, M.I.A. was asked why she indulges this constant interference. Her answer was that “that’s the point of being positive,” but really, she has no choice — if her advance has all gone into production costs, then she’s effectively in debt to Interscope, which means that that for all her “global revolutionary” chic, they effectively have her by the… well, you can choose our own metaphor here.
It’s interesting to note that, perversely, Interscope’s criticism is that the album’s too pop-centric (if you believe M.I.A. anyway, at least, which is a big “if” given her liking for treating the media as her own personal Ministry of Propaganda). In the Gold Coast interview, she said, “[Interscope are] like, ‘We just built you up as the public enemy No. 1 and now you’re coming out with all this positive stuff.'” In other words, Interscope signed her to be controversial and provocative, not to make pop music — they have other artists for that.
This all rather belies the stuff that Interscope have said about their artist in the past. Chairman Jimmy Iovine, for instance, said back in 2007, “She’s gonna do what she’s gonna do, I can’t tell her shit.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite: she’s going to do what he tells her to do or he’s not going to release her record. It’s quite conceivable that Matangi could sit on the shelf indefinitely — just take a look at what happened to Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine, or the elusive Azealia Banks debut album.
It also raises the wider question of why major labels sign controversial artists in the first place. The history of music is littered with major labels signing acts that they have little or no idea what to do with, and the subsequent relationship ending in disaster. For a recent example, one needs look no further than the spectacular falling out between Death Grips and Epic last year, but there have been loads more — Trent Reznor telling fans to steal his record, Black Flag breaking into their record companies’ warehouse, and so on.
Clearly, Interscope and their ilk like to feel that they’re edgy, and there’s definitely money to be made selling prepackaged rebellion to eager consumers. But when you’re sinking so much investment into a product, you tend to want to play it safe (cf. Hollywood, where the gargantuan budgets devoted to films mean that while in theory filmmakers could be making literally anything, what they end up producing is sequels and comic adaptations). Major labels want controversy, but only the right amount and the right sort — yes to gunshots and a bit of mild tickling of America’s endless capacity for outrage, no to truffle fries and making off-brand pop music.
The problem, of course, is that you can’t control everything an artist does any more than you can control what the public thinks of it (even if a well-designed publicity campaign can do wonders). Presumably Interscope signed M.I.A. for being M.I.A. — so why not let her just get on with it?