The Great Unsigned

There is one thing I hoped would die with myspace. Just one little rat I prayed would not escape the sinking ship.

The word UNSIGNED.

Lamentably this peculiar anachronism is still with us – like a cockroach scuttling beneath the debris of a nuclear holocaust. In fact I’ll wager the fillings in my last remaining teeth that the one rancid little concept that survives any future label apocalypse will be the word unsigned. I have never known an adjective as stubborn as that one.

I mean really, what a horrendous way to describe someone! Un-signed. It is like leaning over to your friend and casually asking who the woman is that has just turned up at his party, to which he responds (in an enigmatic stage whisper) “She is… unwed” – creepy, unhelpful and almost entirely irrelevant.

Using such words (unloved, unkempt, unarmed, unable…) draws attention to what the subject is not. Even worse than this subtle syntactic sabotage (ahem…), a word like “unsigned” also places an ugly emphasis on something the subject may not even want to be. There is an unhelpful and discriminatory assumption at work that can thwart a band/artist before they even begin. All those websites and companies that sell dubious shortcuts for “unsigned artists” with their “inside info” and their “industry experience” are no better than the unscrupulous holy relic merchants of the middle ages, peddling spurious splinters of Christ’s cross to the fearful naive.

I have never signed a recording contract in my life. I am, therefore, unsigned. Personally, however, I prefer the word Independent. I see this as a strength, not a setback. Being “unsigned” has not stopped me making and selling records, performing around the world, earning royalties from radio and television, working with heroes and generally moving forward as an artist and a human being. I am not rich and I am not famous but everything I do is done on my own terms and in my own way. And I really love it.

I admit it can be all too easy to get sucked into one’s own mythology, to think one is outside the rat-race simply because one has chosen to define oneself as thus. But there is always a rude awakening. The other day a Music Management student got in touch to see if I’d consent to having one of my songs analyzed for the A&R module of her course (so far, so flattering). The remit was for the track in quesion to come from an unsigned artist. I must say I was quite amazed that, in an era where it is no longer remarkable for self-published songwriters to shift thousands or even millions of records thanks to the power of social networks, this was the actual wording used in the course notes. It brought the petulant side of my character to the surface and I took issue with the term unsigned.

But then I remembered that all industries have their own peculiar little frenzied sub-industries acting beneath and within like tiny digestive enzymes fueled by the curious folklore of old business models masquerading as a shimmering clockwork frontier-land feeding back into the greater slathering mother-organism like an enormous corporate Ouroboros perpetually devouring its own tail… so I just shrugged my shoulders and saved my breath as the mystical gaps on the imaginary maps continued to shrink.

And if you can get more mixed metaphors into one sentence I’ll eat my month of sundays (over a barrel).

I will concede that the word unsigned does make perfect sense within the educational context of Music Management and A&R. Just as I studied one semester of Anglo Saxon in my second year of University, this rather arcane notion of bands-treading-water-while-waiting-for-a-big-label-to-come-along-and-monetize-their-fashionable-new-arrangement-of-cliches must be fascinating (academically speaking) when viewed as a sort of primordial soup stage of the ever-developing music industries. At least, I’d like to believe that is the reason why this fairy tale persists. I have a sneaky suspicion, however, that some of these business types are deliberately perpetuating the myth that artists cannot succeed without their help. Nah… I’m probably just paranoid.

Anyway, whatever my opinions on that dreaded word, I suppose I should just get used to the idea that some people (or even lots of people) will always view independent practitioners as unsigned.

Still, I maintain that a better word for it is Untethered.

FIRST PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2011

THIS ARTICLE HAS A SEQUEL HERE

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