4AD is one of the most revered record labels of all time. Full stop. Established in 1980, the UK imprint’s first full length was the debut album from Bauhaus, and from there it’s been a tale of classics after classics for nearly 40 years. A short refresher of great releases from artists who are no longer on the label: Cocteau Twins’ Heaven Or Las Vegas, Pixies’ Doolittle, TV On The Radio’s Return To Cookie Mountain, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, St. Vincent’s Actor, and on and on. As a member of Beggars Group in the US, it ranks with Sub Pop, XL, Matador, and the Secretly labels at the top tier of the indie music world.
But lately, it seems like all we’ve been hearing about 4AD has been negative. And to make matters worse, it is coming from their own artists. It began back in February when a now-deleted post from Canadian electro-pop artist Grimes revealed her frustration. She would go on to refer to 4AD as her “sh*t label” and blame them for her having to delay the release of her highly anticipated follow-up to 2015’s Art Angels. She has made it clear that she’s already planning her album for after her three-record deal with 4AD concludes, and notably both unfollowed each other on Twitter.
Then yesterday, another 4AD artist used social media to voice displeasure with the label. This time it was Brooklyn-based songwriter Torres who took to Twitter to unceremoniously announce that she had been dropped by 4AD for “not being commercially successful enough.” In the same manner as Grimes, she hammered home the point that the music industry is terrible, while receiving an outpouring of sympathy from fans, and condemnation of the label that would dare part ways with her.
The issue here is touchy for all involved, with 4AD declining comment to news organizations who sought it, Torres declining to expand, and Grimes mostly deleting everything she put online about her relationship with the label. But in the minds of fans, this is mostly a one-sided argument, with the clearly evil commercial enterprise standing in the way of creativity and art. It’s obviously not that black and white, but few really want to put themselves in the headspace as the entity cast as the villain.
The truth is we’ll never know what happens behind the scenes between labels and artists, and with 4AD not feeling it’s necessary to defend themselves, it’s very easy to side with the artist in these situations. And since Grimes and Torres are both women, there is the glaring possibility that their gender has something to do with how they are being treated in the record industry. But as Portishead’s Geoff Barrow pointed out in a comment on Torres’ tweet, music is a business, and labels are often forced to treat it that way in order to keep their operation running. Just because it is an indie label, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a bottom line.
And when seeing things through this perspective, it makes taking a side murkier. Really, Grimes and Torres are two wildly different artists who are facing two very different situations with the same label. In Grimes’ case, she’s locked into a contract that she wants out of, presumably because the label won’t let her put out exactly the album that she wants to. Looking at Grimes’ track record, which includes two already excellent albums for the label in the form of Visions and Art Angels, it is easy to understand her frustration. But, considering Grimes’ experimental nature, it is also easy to imagine her submitting music that the label would view as being too esoteric or obtuse to connect as widely as those albums do. And knowing they are already going to lose her when the album is released, they might be holding out for something that serves their own interests, too.
Obviously, this is all speculative, but labels demanding more accessible music from their artists is hardly a stretch. It just usually happens at the majors. In a rapidly changing music industry that puts more of an emphasis on streaming numbers, even indies will be looking to release music that people will listen to repeatedly, not just a single time because of artist recognition. Pleasing a label is part of the responsibility of an artist, as is finding the right label that will help you fulfill your own creative vision. And hearing Grimes describe her planned release for when she’s off the label as “dark and chaotic” might speak to why she found adversity from 4AD.
Torres is in a different boat altogether. When she was signed to a three-record deal, it was following an album in 2015’s Sprinter that received excellent reviews and appeared on many year-end lists. It was a buzzy release that screamed potential to any label thinking of signing her, and 4AD surely thought it was just the beginning of an upward trajectory. But her debut for the label, 2017’s Three Futures, didn’t quite make the same mark even within the indie world. The album still received positive reviews, but speaking as someone inside the industry, it was obvious that the album felt like a slight step backward in Torres’ career trajectory. This is not exactly a rarity, and usually artists are given another chance to right the ship, but apparently, for 4AD, something about the Torres release convinced them that going ahead with their album deal was not in their best interests.
As Barrow points out, being dropped from a label can often be a blessing in disguise. Wilco made a movie about the experience and how it led to them releasing the best album of their career, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But to think that 4AD is not sympathetic to artists or not in favor of putting out works that put art over commerce just doesn’t make sense. On their current roster are artists like The National, The Breeders, and Deerhunter who’ve been loyal to the label for years. The label just announced a new record from Gang Gang Dance despite that project’s long dormancy. U.S. Girls just released a career breakthrough after previously offering up an album that didn’t receive nearly as much attention. And artists like Holly Herndon, Tim Hecker, Aldous Harding, and Purity Ring all offer their own special cases with music that argues for the label being held in high esteem, not against it.
If there is any lasting effect here, it might be that artists whom 4AD courts in the immediate future might think twice about working with them, regardless of whether the allegations flung at them by Grimes and Torres are fair. By staying silent, 4AD is opting for the high road, knowing full well that the words of Grimes and Torres can be deleted from Twitter, but they can never go unheard. They are in the music business and know what it takes to create something that lasts decades. Grimes and Torres are learning about this through unenviable means, but they’ll have the chance to be more savvy, and successful, by going through it.