substance abuse

The Music Industry Profits Off Pain Like Mac Miller's

On Friday afternoon, prolific rapper and producer Mac Miller was found dead in his San Fernando, California, home from an apparent overdose. He was 26 years old. 

Miller’s struggles with sobriety and his diminishing mental health weren’t secret. He foretold his own tragic ending on the haunting “Perfect Circle/God Speed” from his 2015 major-label debut ”GO:OD AM.”

In an eight-minute confessional typically reserved for a therapist’s couch, he divulges, “They don’t want me to OD and have to talk to my mother/ Telling her they could have done more to help me, and she’ll be crying saying that she’ll do anything to have me back.” He also confesses that “white lines be numbing them dark times/ Them pills that I’m popping, I need to man up/ Admit it’s a problem, I need a wake up.”

But considering the millions of dollars his transparency and torment generated for Warner Bros., would Mac have been allowed to “wake up?” In an industry in which artists are encouraged to profess their love for opioids, alcohol and other destructive vices, does sobriety benefit the bottom line?

In an industry in which artists are encouraged to profess their love for opioids, alcohol and other destructive vices, does sobriety benefit the bottom line?

Last month, during a rare interview with the popular morning radio show ”The Breakfast Club,” legendary music executive Lyor Cohen volunteered his thoughts on this unique dynamic. After co-host DJ Envy expressed concern about rap music’s open endorsements of drug abuse, Cohen concurred. “It’s the most dangerous thing that’s facing our society,” he said, sounding disgusted.

Like a lot of listeners, co-host Charlamagne Tha God was baffled, because Cohen has done a great deal to contribute to rap’s new status quo. From helming Def Jam, to serving as chairman and chief executive of Warner Music Group, to introducing the world to the likes of Young Thug, Fetty Wap and Migos (all of whom helped usher in this phenomenon), Cohen has promoted and profited from the very content he was rebuking. “So why sign an artist that would promote that?” Charlamagne Tha God asked him.

Record labels aren’t in the business of morality; they’re in the business of increasing their bottom lines. They accomplish that by exploiting inexperienced and sometimes self-destructive talent. Pitchfork drew attention to this practice with its recent revelation that in 2017, the music industry reaped $43 billion in revenue, of which recording artists received 12 percent. “Is it opportunistic” to sign artists who rap about drug abuse, Cohen asked in the interview. “Yeah. I got people to feed.”  

The music industry’s entire business model is predatory. And it’s predicated on allowing artists to destroy themselves under the guise of creative expression.

Lyor Cohen arrive and Kanye West at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit in 2011.

One of the most inescapable songs of 2017, Future’s infectious “Mask Off,” features a chant of “Percocet, molly, Percocet” in its chorus. Rising star Lil Xan proclaimed his allegiance to the addictive properties of Xanax in his stage name and with his debut album, ”Total Xanarcy.” This year, rapper Fredo Santana died, allegedly succumbing to a crippling addiction to lean. Seventeen-year-old “Gucci Gang” sensation Lil Pump jumped into a lake to rescue – of all things – a bottle of codeine.

This alarming behavior isn’t without its detractors. Last year, Ty Dolla $ign declared that “lean is dead,” while superstar-in-the-making Russ vented his frustrations on Twitter about the consequences of romanticizing drug abuse. “A lotta rappers have romanticized & glorified drug abuse,” he blistered. “That shits not cool [sic]. People’s lives get ruined from that shit. Grow up.” But it’s Top Dog Entertainment upstart Isaiah Rashad whose trajectory most closely mirrored Miller’s.

In a revealing interview on the ”Juan Epstein Podcast,” Rashad admitted to a Xanax and alcohol addiction that tore the lining of his stomach and threatened to derail his career. He confessed to almost being dropped from his record label on three separate occasions. But here’s where TDE, the tight-knit Carson-based home to Kendrick Lamar, SZA and Schoolboy Q, differs from the industry norm.

Instead of obsessing over lost profits and abandoning Rashad by releasing him from the label, TDE ringleader Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith acted with sympathy and compassion, opting instead to intervene. He prioritized Rashad’s sobriety and emotional well-being over the pressures to generate hit records and revenue. But he also held Rashad accountable for his actions by providing an incentive: None of his music would be released until his affairs were in order.

Tiffith “sent me home until I got my shit together,” Rashad explained. “He sent me home from the squad. You ain’t heard from me. You ain’t heard me drop shit until I got my shit together. […] I was addicted to some shit so it’s not like I don’t think about it every once in a while. I just know I got a bigger goal to do.” 

In the aftermath of Miller’s death, more record labels should follow Tiffith’s lead. Universal Music Group chairman Lucian Grainge expressed his concerns after Justin Bieber was charged with DUI, resisting arrest without violence and driving with an expired license in 2014. “I’m very concerned about him,” Grainge said. “This has nothing to do with the business or records or releases. This is to do with the young man. […] We are going to give all the support as a company to take as much pressure off him so he can look forward.”

Former Island Records head Marc Marot faced a similar crisis with Amy Winehouse. In light of that experience, he proposed a “safety net” clause be included in new contracts, to protect artists who suffer from addiction and other afflictions. “The industry has no safety net for artists, or executives, who fall off the wagon and find themselves in trouble,” Marot said. “We light fires underneath them and we just fuel the fire with endless promotion.“

Each of these responses is a welcomed change of pace. Because, while Lyor Cohen’s callous comments were jarring, they reflect standard music industry procedure. Instead of turning a blind eye to artists who are spiraling ― or worse, profiting from their suffering ― labels should take a compassionate stance and help them seek treatment.  

Miller’s death also presents the unique opportunity for labels to launch comprehensive treatment programs that are specific to the challenges that artists encounter, such as heightened stress and anxiety. This could include establishing helplines and employing drug counselors and mental health professionals as in-house staff to support artists in need.

While challenging in scope, these are preventative steps could curtail the seemingly endless cycle of self-destruction that has stained the music industry for far too long. From Jimi Hendrix to Whitney Houston to Lil Peep, substance abuse has robbed the world of far too many talented artists. These losses, like Miller’s, are tragic, and they mustn’t be in vain.

Jay Connor is a writer, producer and creator of “The Extraordinary Negroes” podcast.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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