Arcade Fire’s new music video opens with the band visiting the offices of the fictional Everything Now corporation, makers of such products as cars, soft drinks, and a cereal advertised with the slogan “Make it painless!” An executive played by Toni Collette informs the musicians that their band is broke, but that Everything Now is going to bail them out. “We’ll have exclusive rights over your entire back catalogue,” she tells them, “and take just 98.3 percent of future earnings.”
The story that then unfolds (it’s a two-song video billed as a short film, Money + Love) sees the band melancholically film Everything Now commercials, melancholically perform gigs at an Everything Now casino, melancholically try to escape that casino, and melancholically forced by guards to perform again. The point, that a record deal can feel like shackles, is a familiar one. “SLAVE,” Prince scrawled across his face in 1993 as he protested the allegedly onerous terms of his Warner Bros. agreement. In the past few years, Kesha’s legal efforts—to nullify a contract with the label boss who she said abused her—was framed in terms of emancipation: #FreeKesha.
Cynicism about the music industry’s exploitation of creative people is as old as the music industry itself, but the Arcade Fire video comes during a noticeable season of griping from the rock community. An instantly viral interview with Julian Casablancas recorded the Strokes and Voidz singer laying out (with truly dubious examples) the commonly held view that capitalism is at odds with artistry. Jack White is making headlines again by promoting a new album using his typical blend of nostalgia fetishism and antiestablishment venom, joking to Rolling Stone that he misses having a label boss tell him what he can’t do.
Though these critiques purport to take on the music industry as it is today, they are essentially evergreen. Arcade Fire’s dystopian vision might as well have been soundtracked by Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” The most famous label-versus-artist sagas in history—Tom Petty, Prince, Nine Inch Nails, and so on—are, well, historical. Today’s state of affairs, though, has modern peculiarities. The industry’s profits have rebounded to a level that some doubted they would return to after the CD bubble burst in the early 2000s. Yet many artists feel more squeezed than ever, and the reasons for cynicism are more complicated than they were before. The villain is not only the exec asking for a signature on the dotted line.
There’s at least one cultural product that’s starting to nail what a modern music-industry satire should look like: Atlanta on FX. In its first season, Donald Glover’s auteurist comedy was only glancingly about the career of the newbie rapper Paper Boi (a.k.a. Alfred) and his manager, Earn. But Season 2 has built a mordant, multi-front parody of what it’s like for a young talent who’s building buzz. Paper Boi is subjected to a series of small humiliations—not by one all-powerful corporate boss (at least so far), but from a range of culture vultures that include fans, rivals, and technological gatekeepers. The problem isn’t Everything Now. It’s everything, now.
Paper Boi begins as a mixtape rapper, putting out songs that seem to, first, catch on in the Atlanta neighborhoods that he comes from. In Season 1, this means his local environment is transformed: While there are perks, such as being served special chicken at restaurants, the main symptom of fame is his inability to leave the house unmolested. It takes 10 episodes for his success to manifest as a wad of cash. Season 2 intensifies that paradox. Money is distant. The costs of becoming a cultural product are close by. And the internet makes that worse.
In the new season’s second episode, Al and Earn visit a tech company that’s unmistakably a send-up of Spotify or Pandora, right down to the office’s playful-crisp millennial aesthetic and the “you’re listening to” bumpers that Paper Boi is asked to record to punctuate a playlist. It’s a ripe target, given the state of the industry. Streaming platforms and social media have driven music’s recent upturn in revenues. But the platforms themselves aren’t yet profitable, and instead are propped up by venture capital and industry alliances. Artists, meanwhile, complain about the pennies they get from thousands of streams. Often forgotten in the equation—and tellingly left off-screen thus far on Atlanta—are the Everything Now–style behemoth labels and their parents, which silently take the bulk of the money.
And so, something is off—hollow, desperate, Potemkin village–like—about Atlanta’s streaming service. The employees are friendly and eager to monetize Paper Boi’s music, but the experience is entirely awkward, with each scene a small symphony of disconnection. An exec who goes by the joke rap nickname 35 Savage is unable to find a way to play Paper Boi’s new song, thanks to the lack of a CD player in the office (during the downtime caused by technical difficulty, another employee starts to pitch his own music). Later, Paper Boi walks off stage, frustrated, during an in-office performance. His music is meant for and comes out of a certain context, and that context does not involve a blasé office drone eating a banana while watching him.
Yet the internet has made this the era of context collapse: Words and pictures and sounds now automatically travel independent of their creators and intended audiences. Which explains the gag that opens Season 2’s third episode, showing a white suburban-seeming mom ranting on social media about hearing one of Paper Boi’s rowdy songs on the radio with her daughter. It’s a re-creation of a real-life incident in which a mother took to YouTube to complain about a Vince Staples song that she’d been exposed to in the car. On Atlanta, the ironies and politics of the culture clash are played up. The woman reads the words of this supposedly corrupting song while her daughter plays in the background, within earshot. She sobs at a shout-out to Colin Kaepernick. The lyrics begin, “Bitch, I need reparations.”
The funny thing is that, in a way, Paper Boi gets his reparations. Race in Atlanta often overlaps with questions about money and music, and in some ways the dynamic depicted really is as simple as white people misunderstanding, disrespecting, and using black art. Almost no one working at the tech company is black, we’re told. Horrible acoustic covers of Paper Boi songs from white women have begun cropping up online. But with each indignity comes the possibility of payment. “You’ll be happy you did this,” Earn tells Al of the tech-company visit. When the scandalized mom’s video goes viral, Al’s song goes gold. “That white woman, crying?” says Earn and Al’s friend Darius as they celebrate over drinks. “That was the best thing that could have happened to us.”
Atlanta deepens its critique through the character of Clark County, another up-and-coming rapper who more eagerly and easily thrives in the corporate, techy, and largely white ecosystem through which money flows. His manager, Lucas, is white, clean-cut, and well-connected. Via Lucas, Clark County’s able to land lucrative deals, like a commercial for a soft drink and a song for the Fast and the Furious soundtrack. Such deals are, increasingly, a crucial part of the modern pop-star playbook. Though Paper Boi finds Clark County’s commercial distasteful, he covets the money, complaining that he doesn’t have “the image” for similar deals (he passed up an endorsement for Cocaine White Cheddar Rap Snacks). Of course, that tough “image” in song has gotten him the success he’s had—as seen even in the lucrative reproach of the viral white mom.
Clark County buddies up with Al, inviting him to collaborate in the studio, but you get the sense he’s not so trustworthy an ally. An amalgam of real-world rappers—Lil Yachty, Chance the Rapper, and maybe even Glover’s hip-hop persona Childish Gambino circa 2011—he’s goofy and positive and straight-edge, but also secretly cutthroat. He doesn’t smoke or drink, but he merrily raps about smoking and drinking. He proclaims “It’s all love,” but threatens violence on the studio engineer whose computer crashes. His advice to Paper Boi is that to get ahead with “major brands,” he should link up with his manager, Lucas. This would mean, the viewer understands, sidelining Earn, the star of Atlanta, a blood relative who’s been loyal and hardworking while reaping only paltry rewards.
As with so much in Atlanta, Clark County’s story is about disconnection: between persona and the person, in this case. That disconnection—crowd-pleasing outwardly, ruthless privately—would seem at odds with the performance of authenticity that rappers, and artists of all sorts, try to peddle. But musicians in today’s hyper-competitive environment, negotiating with a slew of competing forces, may indeed find they need to fit themselves into more roles than ever. Paper Boi, forever taciturn, isn’t really playing along. He seems interested only in selling who he is already is.
Whether he succeeds may come to be decided by the typical bogeyman of music-industry satire: the big label. “Most of these majors … they don’t look out for black folks like that,” Clark County says when explaining to Paper Boi how he got the Fast and the Furious spot over him. Some of the artists that Clark is clearly designed to resemble, such as Chance the Rapper, have forgone record deals—though not without doing business with huge companies like Apple. Other musicians that Clark brings to mind are exactly the ones that get called “industry plant” by rap fans skeptical of their success. Both paths are available, especially if you’re willing to mold your persona for the circumstances. It’s clear the corporations get paid either way. What’s less clear, as Atlanta so sharply observes, is how exactly the artists do.