Welcome back to Earshot, a recurring, music-oriented treatment of personal brands.
Integrity is a tricky conceit. For a few it’s a rigid moral code from which they never flinch. For many it’s an employee handbook that warrants occasional deviancy. For the unscrupulous, it’s a conjured front used to manipulate and deceive. In the world of musical artistry, it’s probably a matter of perspective.
For some background, ancient imperial Roman legionnaires shouted “Integritas” as they struck their armored breastplates during morning inspections, to signify soundness of both equipment and spirit. The strength of a soldier’s yelp and the pitch-perfect noise his armor produced were evidence of his completeness. From these aural origins, we derive the modern conceptions of integrity described by terms such as wholeness, righteousness, and principle. And integrity’s relation to sound continues to this day, with recording producers and engineers defining “audio integrity” as a balance of quality and resolution.
Then there’s “artistic integrity.” Many artistic purists look down their noses at musicians who change their idiosyncratic signature sounds to “go commercial.” Or when they license songs for Sprite commercials. Or when they “reduce” their entire creative output to an opportunity to pitch overpriced headphones. What comes first, ask the purists, “quality and resolution” or service to commerce?
On the other hand, some artists unapologetically announce that their product is “all about the benjamins.” Working in a basement studio by day and playing for free or selling dope by night might be pathways to dues-paying and street-cred—but they’re not life choices for everyone. And really, who gets to decide that artistic compromise is detrimental to an artist’s integrity? Artists have to earn a living, we all make concessions to survive in this marketplace, we’re all selling something. And in the end, artists want audiences. If their unfiltered expression doesn’t sell, perhaps it’s because their art lacks what audiences want.
Or it’s ahead of its time. Or it just it wasn’t meant for everyone. The fact is, across every artistic discipline are brilliant-yet-unappreciated practitioners toiling in obscurity—some craving the fame they don’t have, and others content to accept quality work as its own reward. Yeah, artistic integrity is a funny thing—and it doesn’t play fair.
Which brings us to a pair of hugely influential musicians that share the name Drake: Aubrey “Drake” Graham, the 30-year-old rap and R&B artist from Toronto who was recently named fifth wealthiest hip hop artist in the world, and the late Nick Drake, a reclusive English singer-songwriter from the 1970s who recorded three poorly-received albums before overdosing on prescribed medication at the age of 26. Both are rather melancholy songbirds who have attained big acclaim for their artistic achievements. But their opposing career trajectories offer comments upon the meaning of artistic integrity and “selling out.”
Rapper Drake’s career has been a widely public affair for anyone with even a passing interest in the world of hip hop. He started out as a child actor on the Canadian TV series “Degrassi: the Next Generation.” Afterward, he managed a career shift into the world of rap from 2006-2009 by releasing a slew of successful mixtapes that garnered the attention of the Young Money Entertainment record label. Immensely skilled at crafting hooks and killer verses, he dropped a bevy of hit songs in 2009, and in 2011 he went boom with the release of his second solo album, Take Care. It won the Grammy for Rap Album of the Year and to date has gone double platinum in both Canada and the US. Just this year he smashed the all-time record for simultaneous Billboard 100 chartings (20) and over his career has landed 123 entries on the list, the third best tally of all time. In addition, each of his five solo albums have received Grammy nominations and been certified platinum.
Drake’s consistent success is based upon innate talent and a tireless work ethic. But even more importantly, it comes from the balance he strikes as both artist and commercial product. Like a rap chameleon, his style has adapted to the music landscape, yet he has stubbornly refused to compromise his artistic vision. For example, his creative discernment in taking off-beat songs and retooling them into mass-consumption hits, like he did with Jai Paul’s, BTSTU, iLoveMakonnen’s, Tuesday, and Migo’s Versace, or when he utilized Weeknd tracks (before the Weeknd blew up!) for his songs Crew Love and The Ride. His artistic singularity and knack for mass marketing complement one another to create the perfect symbiosis of artist as brand. Like Apple, Nike, or Coca-Cola, Drake’s name evokes an immutable promise: “even though I evolve, I’ll never change who I am.” Unsurprisingly, Drake put it best himself:
“But get it while you here, boy
Cause all that hype don’t feel the same next year, boy
Yeah and I’ll be right here in my spot
With a little more cash than I already got”
Drake sells Sprite. Drake sells Drake. Drake sells and his fans love it. Period.
The Nick Drake story is much different. From 1969 to 1974, he released three complete albums, none of which charted and in total sold less than 10,000 copies. Nick’s final album, Pink Moon, was recorded solely with guitar and vocals and was quietly submitted to Island Records in March of 1972. As the story goes, Nick arrived unannounced and never mentioned he had recorded a new album—instead, he awkwardly hung around the office for half an hour before dropping the tapes off at the reception desk on his way out. Pink Moon, like his other albums, was lauded by a handful of critics and friends but performed dismally in sales. A growing depression compounded with a chronic shyness eroded Nick’s willingness to do live performances. Sales never picked up, and during his final two years, Nick became more and more socially isolated and prone to substance abuse. In November of 1974, he consumed 30 Tryptizol anti-depressant tablets, and passed overnight in his sleep. For years after his death, Nick Drake was regarded among small music collectives as a legendary folk hero, a doomed romantic, and a misunderstood genius. Though sales never picked up in the aftermath of his death, many artists, including R.E.M. and The Cure, have cited his influence.
Then, in November of 1999, Volkswagen announced that it was debuting a television advertisement on the internet. The campaign, named “Milky Way,” featured friends on a nighttime drive in a Cabriolet with the title track of Pink Moon as the soundtrack. The dreamy-sweet ad won awards—and the downbeat song accompanied the on-screen visuals beautifully. In the wake of that ad, sales of the Pink Moon album rose dramatically, from about 6,000 copies in 1999 to 74,000 in 2000. Since the commercial, each one of Nick’s studio albums have sold over 100,000 copies, and his final compilation album, Family Tree, debuted at 35 on the Billboard charts in 2007. Renewed interest in Nick’s work lead many music critics to write or reissue reviews of his original albums that hailed him as one of the greatest British folk artists of the century.
Both Drakes are undisputedly gifted. But their approaches to their careers differ vastly. Whereas Nick was temperamentally averse to selling himself, Drake was an early and active participant in self-marketing. Drake the rapper’s ability to sell himself and products, or adapt to the changing market cannot be said to detract from his talent as an artist or his love for music. For Nick Drake, his depression, shyness, and irascibility were components of his artistic output. It’s unlikely he would have sold Sprite but we’ll never know. It’s quite possible that he couldn’t imagine being happy or successful. He loved music—tragically, he was troubled. Naturally, he best summed up his turmoil in verse:
“I could have been a sailor
Could have been a cook
A real live lover
Could have been a book
I could have been a signpost
Could have been a clock
As simple as a kettle
Steady as a rock”
“I could be
Here and now
I would be, I should be
So, what about integrity? It’s certainly more than a rigid principle, unless we refer to being true to yourself, for better or worse. It isn’t necessarily opposed to “selling out,” if selling out is a part of how you keep it real. One thing integrity can’t be is perfect because human beings aren’t perfect. The music of our lives is full of high notes and low, crescendos and valleys. Drake the rapper, riding the wings of incredible talent, is cashing in, as intended, commercial interest by commercial interest. For Nick Drake, a TV commercial posthumously resurrected a body of work and helped him sell far more records than he did during his lifetime. 30 years too late for his own financial benefit, Nick Drake finally sold out.
It seems integrity, like so many things, exists primarily in the eyes of its beholders.