Musicians rarely speak highly of the music industry, mostly because it’s run by a bunch of non-musicians who think they know what’s best for artists, fans, and the world as a whole. Of course, this isn’t a conclusion we reached all by ourselves, but instead a message that has been explicitly and metaphorically illustrated in countless tunes of every genre over the years. For better or worse, here are the 20 best songs about the music industry.
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“Barracuda” - Heart (1977)
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“Barracuda” is one of Heart’s most popular hits, but few people actually know what the song is about. According to Ann Wilson, Mushroom Records, the band’s former label, tried to pull a publicity stunt in which they wanted to convince fans that Ann and her sister/bandmate Nancy were lovers. In response, an enraged Ann wrote “Barracuda” about the ruthlessness and overall sleaziness of the music industry, likening them to a dangerous fish. Heart also scrapped their in-progress record and left the label, opting instead to sign with Portrait Records, who released “Barracuda” on the band’s 1977 album “Little Queen.”
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“Burning Bridges” - Bon Jovi (2015)
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“Burning Bridges” was the last album released under Bon Jovi’s contract with Mercury Records, and if the title and lyrics are any indication, the band didn’t exactly love those past 32 years. The tune includes lines like “Here's one last song you can sell” and “I'll give you half the publishing / You're why I wrote this song,” shedding some light on the band’s feelings before moving to Island Records for their 2016 release, “This House is Not for Sale.”
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“Dinosaurs Will Die” - NOFX (2000)
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Before leaving Epitaph Records, punk rockers NOFX recorded the scathing anti-industry song “Dinosaurs Will Die,” which opines that record labels who put out bad music, although powerful, will someday become extinct. Even if you’re not into metaphors, it’s hard to mistake the meaning behind using a term like “parasitic music industry.”
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“Harder to Breathe” - Maroon 5 (2002)
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Although almost every song on Maroon 5’s 2002 album “Songs About Jane” is about a former ex-girlfriend of Adam Levine, the lead singer also admitted that the song “Harder to Breathe” was inspired by the pressure put on him by the band’s label, Octone Records, during the album’s recording. “That song comes sheerly from wanting to throw something. It was the 11th hour, and the label wanted more songs. It was the last crack,” Levine said. “I wanted to make a record and the label was applying a lot of pressure, but I'm glad they did.” “Harder to Breathe” eventually reached No. 18 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and No. 5 on the Mainstream Top 40.
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“Have a Cigar” - Pink Floyd (1975)
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In response to the perceived greed, hypocrisy, and phoniness of the music industry, Pink Floyd vocalist/bassist Roger Waters penned “Have a Cigar” in 1975, which appeared on the band’s ninth studio album, “Wish You Were Here.” To find the meaning, one need only look to the first verse, which starts off with someone (likely a record executive) reassuring the band that “You're gonna fly high / You're never gonna die / You're gonna make it if you try / They're gonna love you,” and ends with the exec asking, “Oh, by the way, which one's Pink?” “Have a Cigar” is famously one of the only Pink Floyd songs that isn’t sung by one of the band’s main members, as it was actually recorded by English folk rock musician Roy Harper.
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“Honey, We Can’t Afford to Look This Cheap” - The White Stripes (2007)
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When The White Stripes first arrived in Nashville, they were taken aback by this new world filled with musicians and songwriters who try to play up their fanciness in order to get ahead. Meanwhile, the narrator and his lady are fretting over driving around in a busted-up Pinto, having to split the cost of a cigarette lighter, and needing to return his rented tuxedo while metaphorically staying “in the best motel on Imposter Street.”
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“Killpop” - Slipknot (2014)
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Slipknot’s 2014 single “Killpop” sounds like it was written about a girl (with numerous references to an ambiguous “she”), but frontman Corey Taylor explained that it’s actually about his relationship with the music industry. More specifically, “Killpop” talks about how much Taylor still loves making music, even though he’s completely fed up with “the business side, the numbers side, [and] the people in the suits who try to run stuff.”
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“Labels” - GZA (1995)
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Wu-Tang Clan member GZA vented about the music industry with the song “Labels,” a deep cut off of his second studio album, 1995’s “Liquid Swords.” Featuring guest vocals by RZA and Masta Killa, the meaning of the song is immediately apparent before the music even begins, when RZA states, “You gonna get on, you gonna get rich / And all these labels be trying to lure us in like spiders.” He also likens record labels to warning labels, while specifically singling out companies like Def Jam, Island, A&M, Columbia, Interscope, RCA, Atlantic, Arista, Geffen, and Motown.
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“Leave Them Boys Alone” - Hank Williams, Jr. feat. Waylon Jennings and Ernest Tubb (1983)
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When the music industry seemed to be moving away from outlaw country and honky tonk and toward country pop, Hank Williams Jr. and Dean Dillon came up with “Leave Them Boys Alone,” a song about taking country back to the good ol’ days, regardless of what critics were saying. That’s why Hank sang and played alongside legends Waylon Jennings and Ernest Tubb, who were also trying to return country music to its rightful and respectable roots.
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“Love Drought” - Beyoncé (2016)
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Although the themes of “Love Drought” fit perfectly on Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” album, which at times deals with Jay Z’s alleged infidelity, the song is not actually about the celebrity couple. Instead, songwriter Ingrid Burley was inspired to pen the lyrics after an unpleasant and dishonest experience with two executives from Parkwood Entertainment. In fact, Burley was so upset that she completed the lyrics in a single 30-minute sitting.
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“No Problem” - Chance the Rapper feat. Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz (2016)
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To date, every one of Chance the Rapper’s mixtapes have been self-released, so it’s no surprise that the artist has some strong feelings about record companies. In the 2016 single “No Problem” (which features Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz), Chance celebrates the success he earned while remaining independent, as well as repeatedly cautioning that labels “don't want no problems, want no problems with me.”
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“Radio Radio” - Elvis Costello and The Attractions (1978)
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In the late ‘70s, Elvis Costello was fed up with the commercialization and sterilization of radio broadcasts, and, partially inspired by the lack of playtime for the Sex Pistols, he penned the protest song “Radio Radio” in 1974. When he appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in 1977, Columbia Records asked him to perform a well-known song, and he opened with “Less Than Zero.” However, after just a few bars, Costello turned to his band, asked them to stop, and said, “There's no reason to do this song here” - before breaking into “Radio Radio.” He was subsequently given a ban from “SNL” by Lorne Michaels, which lasted until 1989.
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“(Rap) Superstar” & “(Rock) Superstar” - Cypress Hill (2000)
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“(Rap) Superstar” and “(Rock) Superstar” are both singles off of Cypress Hill’s 2000 studio album “Skull & Bones,” and both have nearly identical lyrics. They speak of the fame and fortune sought by up-and-coming musicians, while cautioning against the dark side of being a celebrity, which includes losing friends, spending time away from family, selling out, people riding your coattails, and critics constantly putting you down. Rapper Noreaga stated it best in “(Rap) Superstar” when he said, “When you sign to a record label / You don't know you sign your life over.”
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“Sell Out” - Reel Big Fish (1996)
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American ska band Reel Big Fish has been around for decades, but their biggest single still dates all the way back to 1996. “Sell Out” was written as a tongue-in-cheek salute to the music industry, with lyrics like, “You're gonna go to the record store / You're gonna give 'em all your money / Radio plays what they want you to hear / They tell me it's cool but I just don't believe it.” Then again, you probably already guessed the tune’s meaning based on its title.
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“That’s Not My Name” - The Ting Tings (2008)
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According to Katie White of the British duo The Ting Tings, “That’s Not My Name” was basically “me ranting about my frustrations with the record industry.” When a previous lineup of the band was first signed by Mercury records, they soon found that all the executives who liked them had left, nobody who remained really knew the group, and they were subsequently dropped.
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“The Entertainer” - Billy Joel (1974)
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Billy Joel generally doesn’t mince words when it comes to his true feelings. If one looks at the lyrics of his 1974 song “The Entertainer,” it’s clear Billy is offering a cynical view of being a musician and the fleeting fame that goes with the job. For example, the opening verse says: “Today I am your champion / I may have won your hearts / But I know the game / You'll forget my name / And I won't be here / In another year / If I don't stay on the charts.” Joel also comments on how he had a “beautiful song, but it ran too long” and had to be cut “down to 3:05.” That’s “Piano Man” he’s referring to, a song that was 5 minutes and 38 seconds in length, but was trimmed to 3 minutes and 5 seconds for the radio.
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“The Stroke” - Billy Squier (1981)
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By the time Billy Squier scored his first big hit, 1981’s “The Stroke,” he had already been in the music biz for more than a dozen years. “The Stroke” is about the journey to finally getting that break after years of promises by record companies, as evidenced by the lyrics “Put your right hand out, give a firm handshake / Talk to me about that one big break / Spread your ear pollution, both far and wide / Keep your contributions by your side.”
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“The Way I Am” - Eminem (2000)
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After finding success with the singles “My Name Is” and “Guilty Conscience” off of his major label debut, “The Slim Shady LP,” Eminem was pressured by record executives to top that success on his next album. A stressed-out Em then penned an angst-ridden tune called “The Way I Am” that expressed his feelings, and it ended up being the second single off of the 2000 record “The Marshall Mathers LP.” Ironically, the album’s first single, “The Real Slim Shady,” actually ended up becoming his most popular song to date.
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“Workin’ for MCA” - Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974)
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s second studio album, “Second Helping,” is most famous for the singles “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Don’t Ask Me No Questions,” as well as “Call Me the Breeze” and “The Needle and the Spoon.” This means the record company ditty “Workin’ for MCA” tends to get lost in the shuffle. This was probably a good thing for the band, as the song that said, “Want you to sign your contract / Want you to sign today / Gonna give you lots of money / Workin' for MCA” was actually released in 1974 courtesy of MCA Records, who (as the lyrics suggest) really did sign the band for $9,000.
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“Y’all Want a Single” - Korn (2004)
When the nu-metal band Korn was wrapping up the recording of their sixth studio album, 2004’s “Take a Look in the Mirror,” both their label and management explicitly asked for a hit single to be added. Taken aback and offended, Korn decided to write and record a three-minute and 17 second song that contains 89 F-bombs and tells the suits exactly how they feel about that type of request. Hilariously, the song actually wasn’t meant to be a single, but was later chosen as one via an online poll of fans.