Being in a new band is never as glamorous as you’d first think it is. There are long days and nights spent toiling away on the pub gig circuit, honing your talents. You have no money and share a can of beans between yourself and the rhythm section. To top it all off, your Soundcloud attracts only trolls and your gigs are attended by barflies and disinterested teenagers, who hate you on sight. Still, you’ve got that audition at that big record company net week – your luck is sure to change and fame and fortune await, right?
Probably not. Record labels receive literally thousands of demos, files, emails and unsolicited emails every week. The chances of your band getting rich and famous enough to buy a fourth string for Steve’s bass is slim to none. Even being ridiculously talented and charismatic doesn’t guarantee that you won’t slip through a label’s fingers, as the tales of woe featuring the following ten major stars will testify. In one way or another, they have all felt the fickle finger of fate point at the exit door and declare their efforts to be “just not what we’re looking for at the moment”.
Every single one of these artists have went on to sell millions of records, leaving A&R men nursing a shot of the strong stuff, tattered dreams of what may have been in their heart and a tear in their eye. For the artists themselves, as Morrissey may reflect, “I can laugh about it now but at the time it was terrible”. The ex-Smiths curmudgeon is just one of the uber-talented artists featured on this list; read on to discover nine others who had their dreams trashed by The Man.
Though she is now the enemy of relevance, it may come as a surprise to younger readers to know that Madonna was once A Big Deal. In the 80’s, the young Madonna contained the same vim, zeal and charisma that she now seems determined to forcibly suck out of more popular artists, such as a visibly terrified Drake. It’s part of pop’s received wisdom that she was born to be a star, though one man could arguably disagree – he utterly rejected the fledgling pop-star.
Before Mads signed her first recording contract with Sire Records in 1982, her management company sent a demo to label bigwig Jimmy Lenner, containing songs that would later feature on her eponymous debut album. Lenner was unimpressed, snorting that “the only thing missing from this project is the material”. Madonna would have the last laugh – not only did the material surface on a record that sold 10 million copies, but she auctioned the rejection letter at Sotherby’s in 2001. She may struggle with capes and stairs and no longer has anything to say in terms of her art, but never underestimate Madonna’s business smarts.
9. Dave Grohl
Though Kanye West may believe differently, it is hard to look past Dave Grohl when considering who is the greatest living rock star. Not only is he one of the best drummers around, but any project he is associated with – Queens of the Stone Age, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Them Crooked Vultures – usually tend to be utterly terrific. One project we can never assess properly is Grohl’s first band, Mission Impossible.
Grohl formed the group in high school and, aged 14, sent a demo tape to Ian MacKaye, the founder of Dischord Records, asking him if he was interested in putting out young Dave’s new single. MacKaye was impressed by the whippersnappers initiative, though not the tune; he may have turned Grohl down, but he held on to the enquiry letter. Clearly, the Fugazi frontman must have seen the potential of one of today’s most famous rockers.
For two years in the mid 1990’s, Oasis were untouchable. They surfed the wave of the Britpop movement, resurrecting ’60’s riffs and converting them into comically huge record sales for their delighted record label, Creation. Though their momentum quickly stalled by 1997 and they ran out of tunes, for many, Oasis were the biggest band in the world between 1994 and 96, surely the envy of every record label executive in the country.
The folks at Factory Records had more reason than most to writhe with envy. They had a particularly patchy record regarding talent-spotting during the ’80’s – they found The Smiths “too gloomy” and The Stone Roses were “too goth” to be sellable. Noel Gallagher was a big fan of Factory acts like New Order and Happy Mondays and auditioned his band for the Manchester label first.
The verdict? Factory rejected Oasis, the picky label finding them “too baggy”. They may have missed out on massive piles of cash, but Factory can console themselves with the fact that they weren’t directly responsible for the explosion in tiresome ‘Lad-Rock’ that was precipitated by Oasis’ success.
He was looking for a job and then he found a job, and Heaven knows he’s miserable now. The cause of Morrissey’s perpetual outsider status is the same reason that employment offers him no solace – no sooner does he sign with a record label, he finds himself dropped.
For an artist that is properly beloved and still releasing excellent records, Morrissey has some significant gaps in his employment history as a contracted recording artist. He was dropped by Island Records after 1997’s stodgy Maladjusted, only to resurface for a brace of comeback records under Sanctuary. After again finding himself without a deal, he released the excellent World Peace Is None Of Your Business. From there, things went pear-shaped, with Moz again claiming that his label had rejected him following poor sales.
EMI also make the list of labels that Morrissey has found himself cast adrift by – they refused to fund the South American leg of his 2009 world tour. EMI have past form in amusing rejection of artists – they sent back a demo by the heavy metal group, Venom in the 80’s with a note that simply read, “F*** Off”. Perhaps the ever-sensitive Steven Patrick Morrissey got off lightly.
Long before Bono took up a duel career in vandalizing peoples iTunes accounts and generally being the most insufferable musician on the planet, U2 held more sanguine interests – releasing planet-sized stadium rock records. They were big hitters for their Island label throughout the late eighties and early nineties, releasing a succession of classic records which sold millions of copies. It was even possible to forgive the wee man for popularising the ‘mullet and cowboy hat’ look.
Things were not always plain sailing for the sanctimonious Irishman, however. Mere months before they released their debut single, they were given short shrift by the CEO of RSO, who stated that he still hadn’t found what he’s looking for. While that CEO may have spent much of the intervening years staring out of rain-lashed windows, mumbling to himself about how ‘U2’ was a silly name for a band anyway, he can console himself with the fact that his decision didn’t bankrupt the company; a multi-million dollar lawsuit on behalf of the Bee Gees did that, months after the rejection of Dublin’s finest.
At least it didn’t harm Bono’s ego too badly.
5. Ed Sheeran
In a world where every white, male teenager seems to possess a headful of tousled locks and an acoustic guitar, Ed Sheeran is genuinely a major star. His two albums to date have seen him sell out stadiums, flog barrow-loads of records and become so utterly ubiquitous that it’s a surprise to open your bathroom door in the morning and not find him leaning against the shower door, tuning up.
While it would be fair to say that many of Sheeran’s tracks are wet enough to be the national anthem of Atlantis, it was never his tunes that held him back – it was all about image in the early days. The flame-haired warbler has stated that he was rejected by every single label he approached in the early days of his career, largely for being “chubby and ginger”. For an industry where you are judged more on how you look rather than how you sound, this is a depressing indictment of short-sightedness. With Ed rolling in cash and awards, it’s fair to say that the executives have yet to see the funny side, rather like the radio audience who hear Thinking Out Loud every five minutes of a long car journey.
4. Lady Gaga
On the face of it, the former Stefani Germanotta seems like she was born to be a modern pop star. Her records were instantly huge sellers and she shrewdly utilized her social media accounts to create a fan base which is as devoted as any ever seen in the industry. It seems unlikely to believe that any record company would have looked at Lady Gaga and not instantly had large dollar signs flash before their eyeballs. Unlikely, but not impossible.
Def Jam supremo L.A. Reid certainly saw the potential of the young singer and promptly signed her up to the label, years before she cut any records. Sadly for Reid, he unceremoniously dropped her before she recorded her first single, due to tight finances meaning that the money earmarked for Gaga was thought better spent elsewhere. While it is certain that every record label featured in this article would do things differently had they the chance, few are as sanguine about their decisions as Reid. He went on to describe the decision to jettison Gaga as “the biggest mistake of my professional career”.
Beyonce Knowles is a woman who has it all. She’s one of the most gorgeous women on the planet, has been part of one of the most successful girl groups of all time, has a ridiculously successful and critically acclaimed solo career, is married to the most powerful man in the music industry, and has a daughter that is Disney levels of cute.
Her perfect existence hasn’t escaped the misery of rejection, however. As a member of the group Girl’s Tyme, alongside cousin and future fellow Destiny’s child Kelly Rowland, Beyonce entered a talent contest set up by label bosses and local entertainment bigwigs to find the next big thing. Unbelievably, she failed miserably and was roundly ignored by the talent-spotters.
There are two things to consider before feeling slightly better about your own failures in life; firstly, Queen B was only 8 years old at the time. Secondly, her father, Matthew was so outraged by the slight on his daughter that he immediately quit his job and devoted himself to being one of the most overbearing, though successful managers in music. That kind of thing doesn’t happen to everybody.
2. Kanye West
Nobody polarizes opinion quite like Kanye West. For every music fan who thinks he’s a genius who is responsible for some of the most adventurous and thrilling hip-hop records of all time, there are plenty of others who see him as a boorish jerk who relies too heavily on auto-tune and guest stars. His palpable arrogance hasn’t been tempered by the fact that record labels were similarly split down the middle in their opinions of him.
Before he signed to Def Jam, Kanye admits that he was rejected by “tonnes” of labels. They allegedly saw him as being a brilliant producer but unlikely to forge a solo career. Yeezus played them demos of tracks he’d written, produced and MC’d at his home studio, including the version of the sublime Jesus Walks that ended up on his solo debut, The College Dropout, to little effect.
While Kanye can drop some clunky rhymes, he is undoubtedly a brilliant MC and his live shows justify Def Jam’s decision to take a chance on ‘Ye. L.A. Reid possibly feels slightly better about knocking back Lady Gaga when he counts Kanye’s record sales.
1. The Beatles
The biggest and best band of all time began their career in ignominious fashion. After laying waste to Liverpool’s Cavern Club and honing their live talents on the gruelling Hamburg club scene, the Fabs returned to Britain determined to land a recording contract. Their first destination was the small label, Decca records, home to producer George Martin, who would later help the Scousers craft some of the most beautiful music known to man. However, he could see little to get excited about during their audition; he later described their performance on the day as being “crap”.
It was Dick Rowe, however, who held the casting vote on the band that would conquer America within 18 months. He promptly turned them down in favour of Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, allegedly on the basis that the latter lived closer to the label’s London recording studio. While Rowe spent the rest of his life cast as “The Man Who Turned Down The Beatles”, Paul McCartney didn’t hold any grudges. As one of the richest men in rock, he could definitely afford not to.
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