Ella Mai’s album, Ella Mai, was released October 12th, be sure to check it out and let me know if you think she’s finally getting her clout!
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Who is Ella Mai?
Some musicians might take their rejection from the X Factor as the end of their career, but not Ella Mai, who was rejected in 2014 (Mensah, 2018). Instead, she began posting singing covers on Instagram.
Benefiting from going viral on social media (as discussed here and here) is standard in today’s music industry. Ella’s cover landed on the explore page of hip-hop heavyweight DJ Mustard and he DM’d her, followed by signing her to his 10 Summers label. Ella then left London for LA (Myers, 2018) and released three EPS between 2016-2017.
I found out about Ella through my 3rd year university housemate around late 2017, when we listened to Ella’s feature in Chip’s track Hit Me Up. I quickly listened to Ella’s discography as her style suits my music taste very well – I love 90s-2000s RnB and like many, grew up listening to this.
Like The Writing’s On The Wall by Destiny’s Child, Ella includes talking interludes throughout her EPs (Myers, 2018). Like many 90s RnB hits, Ella has relatable and scream out loud lyrics, like the famous “listen to my heart go ba-doo boo’d up, biddy da doo, boo’d up” from Boo’d Up.
Boo’d up is the opening track of Ella’s most recent EP, Ready, as well as being featured on her debut album, Ella Mai which released this October. It is a “rose-tinted trip to Friday night canoodling at the local arcade” (Myers, 2018) which “[marries] new jack swing, R&B and the slightest hint of jazz with full pop impact” (Mokoena, 2018). The song has “high-key 90s R&B production flourishes” (Mokoena, 2018) so you might expect it to be an instant hit today, given how many people say they love this period of music. So, why did the track become a hit a year after its release (Howard, 2018) and go through a second life (Mokoena, 2018)?
There are three theories I want to propose for why Boo’d Up went from a “sleeper hit” to a “conquering song of the summer” (Myers, 2018).
Do we only appreciate music once it has enough clout?
Here I discussed our obsession with quantifying music, and grime star JME seems to agree, saying we should remove stats on social media (likes, views, follower counts). Like JME, I think more people should acknowledge the long-term impacts of our quantification.
JME pointed out that when you meet with friends, you don’t (hopefully) go based on someone’s follower count, you go because you like them. Yet online, we are governed by numbers, which impacts who we follow and what and when we post. Like the TV show Black Mirror, I think a world is built on society-wide ratings is a near-future possibility (China has already proposed a similar system).
JME said we might ignore a song because it only has 50 views or is number #77 on the charts, as Boo’d Up once was (Mokoena, 2018), because of how important numbers are in the music industry now. A study found that simply telling someone a song they previously ignored was high in the charts made them more likely to favour it (Thompson, 2014). Although this makes sense – you would assume something with many views/high charting was good, with the desires for virality in the music industry, it’s likely these views/ranking aren’t for music quality.
Essentially, numbers provide security in an age of hyper-awareness of being watched and judged through social media. So, with the #boodupchallenge going viral (Mokoena, 2018) and celebrities like Rihanna reposting the song (Myers, 2018), this signalled it was listen-worthy. The resulting domino effect (Howard, 2018) increased the song’s popularity, and even Ella labelled it a “bandwagon” that people raced to join (Howard, 2018).
Is the UK music industry to blame?
The success of UK-born Ella in the US has raised questions about what the UK music scene, and particularly the UK R&B music scene, is lacking. The fact that Ella is the first British artist to top the US R&B charts since 1992 says a lot (Myers, 2018); her success on charts/YouTube in the US can’t be said for UK equivalents.
Ella believes the UK music industry “doesn’t really know what to do with R&B” (Myers, 2018). Mokoena offered a good explanation, that you have to convince the British public “a song has sauce” (2018). With the influx of Caribbean-inspired tracks like Rihanna’s Work and Drake’s One Dance/Controlla and the success of afrobeats, afrobashment and afropop, clearly the UK prefers “jangle and waist-whining tracks” (Mokoena, 2018).
When R&B is served “raw on a plate”, the average listener will “recoil” and so UK R&B musicians go to the US to be better received. Although Ella doesn’t believe this is the only way to make it (Mensah, 2018), it’s hard to argue given her success and the fact most of Ella’s Spotify listeners come from US cities. With concerns about how musicians make money in the music industry now and in the future due to the streaming and digital era, it’s no wonder some look at routes away from the ‘norm’ eg going viral, going to another country.
For examples of great UK R&B artists, please check out the amazing Omozé’s playlist and find her on Twitter (@omozay) – https://open.spotify.com/user/1150175844/playlist/2P9t8j5u6vTaz65kLUftgy?si=xHCi3Yy7S2qOywuyKAkvdg
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Are we too safe in our music choices?
Music production today is said to be “cookie-cutter like” – less inventive and adventurous, relying on sequences and patterns others have used (Kageyama). Ewer said bluntly that today’s music is “blander than ever” (2012), which is strange as our production choices are essentially endless through computers.
For music makers, there’s a sense of security in replicating what has already gone down well with listeners. Artists want people to hear their music, so why wouldn’t you play it safe and tweak someone else’s track to your style; they liked that, so they’ll like yours. This might explain why a hit song can inspire countless clones for the next few months – because there is a formula that has been proven to work.
And of course, money comes into play. Record labels follow the formula to guarantee a return on their investment and increasing profits. They use advanced tech to see what will be a hit and respond accordingly, often without even hearing the music (Thompson, 2014), and push out as many relevant songs to capitalise on this. Whether this is ethical business or not can be questioned, and maybe this is why some say the music industry is so corrupt.
It’s not just those in the industry causing the repetition. We enjoy listening to the same songs repetitively (Thompson, 2014), known psychologically as fluency, where we find something familiar easier and requiring less effort to process, while matching our expectations and preventing surprises (which humans don’t like). Therefore, if the same songs are being produced, it’s because we want this (Thompson, 2014).
With Boo’d Up branching away from mainstream sounds we have become comfortable with, it initially didn’t gain it’s deserved attention. The issue for the future of the music industry is that music will become completely homogeneous and indistinguishable from one another, essentially dying. Thompson says this is likely given the increase in merging genres (2014).
Can anything be done to change the music industry?
I think the key thing to take away from is that we need musicians like Ella Mai, who are going against the grain. The music industry today is full of concerns and issues that we have the power to change, but it takes a few brave people to stand up and lead the way in those changes.
Other UK R&B musicians shouldn’t have to go the US, but clearly the UK R&B scene needs to change before it can convince such artists to stay here.
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/aug/02/ella-mai-bood-up-r-and-b-charts-number-1, https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-44412115, https://noisey.vice.com/en_uk/article/zmkv9w/ella-mai-bood-up-song-summer-2018, http://www.thefader.com/2018/05/24/ella-mai-bood-up-interview, https://bulletproofmusician.com/are-todays-artists-more-uniform-and-less-musically-adventurous-than-those-of-yesteryear/, https://www.secretsofsongwriting.com/2012/07/30/the-dilemma-of-sameness-in-todays-pop-music/, http://www.oversixty.com.au/entertainment/music/why-pop-music-sounds-the-same/, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/12/the-shazam-effect/382237/