Early on in my career, I made an offhand remark in an interview that my aunt was a songwriter. I never went into any detail about it, and now my Wikipedia page says that I have an aunt who worked in the music business. In actuality, she wrote songs for fun, in her bedroom, with her friends. The only song registered to her BMI repertoire is the opening track of my debut album, [2015’s Ratchet]. We wrote it together because it was an ode to our hometown.
To be clear: I’m not one of those weirdos who perpetually feel the need to prove they grew up barefoot in the mud to justify their success. I would’ve loved to have been a nepo baby. I sometimes daydream about how I probably would be even more successful had I been one.
I would’ve loved to have been a nepo baby
For the old heads out there who may be confused, the hot new term “nepo baby” is short for “nepotism baby.” It’s used to describe a successful person born into an already successful or affluent family, someone who continues a privileged legacy while the rest of the industry scrambles for the scraps that fall from their well-connected feasts. Although nepotism babies have been reigning since the dawn of time (the British monarch is one of many examples; Julian Casablancas is another), the term itself was born when people on the internet began to notice a substantial increase of popular artists in the music industry with famous parents. Performers like Willow Smith (daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett), Gracie Abrams (daughter of director-producer J.J. Abrams), LoveLeo (son of actor John C. Reilly), and Samia (child of actors Kathy Najimy and Dan Finnerty) are, in many ways, currently shaping the future of the industry with their edgy yet sincere brands of pop music. Nepo babies aren’t inherently evil for pursuing careers in music, but their continued successes can certainly discourage truly innovative and freaky artists, the kind who lack the resources and knowledge to make it in an already extremely gate-kept industry.
When nepo babies enter the conversation, after we all take a deep breath in and out and clutch our stress balls, material advantages are often the focal point: What do they have that most people don’t? Access to money, connections, and education. However, I believe that all those perceived privileges are imperative to the artist development process itself, a long-lost art in our modern dystopia. During the music industry’s golden age, before streaming platforms like Spotify took the reins of consumption, record labels would develop artists to ensure palatable success. This process would often take years of demoing, vocal and dance training, and overall shaping of an artist’s brand and creative identity. All this conditioning would be budgeted via the label before an artist even released a single. But in an economy where artists make $0.0033 per stream (you read that correctly), labels can’t afford to take such expensive risks, thus abandoning the practice of artist development altogether. Labels (at least the major ones, although indies aren’t exempt) now seek to sign fully formed artists who can immediately turn a profit.
Of course, there have been many artists who debuted fully formed, displaying sage and undeniable talent without being born into the Star Wars guy’s dynasty. Many incredible artists are self-taught, and with the help of social media, they can grow a fan base before they even start touring.
But because of time constraints, lack of resources, and the overall oppressive restraints of late-stage capitalism, most working-class artists don’t have the means to develop and promote themselves. That basically eliminates all competition for nepo babies, since labels thirst for artists who require little to no development.
Look, I don’t believe all nepo babies have been intensively trained from birth like Olympic athletes to carry on their family’s legacy. However! I do think growing up with a family in entertainment is a covert form of artist development. Immersion is oftentimes the best form of education, even if it’s only subconscious. I was 19 years old when I signed my first record deal. I was fresh out of high school with little knowledge about how the music industry worked. Since I had no college plans, I forced my label to provide an internship as part of the deal so I could put something on my résumé in case everything went to shit. I was given fluff work, but I used that time to soak up what was going on around me. I made friends with the people who would eventually help get my album out into the world. It was important to me to learn how the sausage was made. Two years later, everything went to shit and I was dropped from that label. But I attribute that short detour as the saving grace of my turbulent experience in the music industry. It didn’t shield me from the subsequent hardship of being dropped, but it provided me with the tools to continue independently when I had no other options. Nearly a decade later, I’ve self-released five albums and founded my own record label with no formal music business education. Everything I know I learned simply from observing.
I don’t think nepo babies should feel ashamed about their privilege—why hide it? In fact, they should wear it like a badge of pride. Willow Smith is one of the greatest artists of our generation, and I, for one, am grateful she was able to spend her teens reinventing herself into the bona fide rock star she is today after her tween pop era. I’m positive the transition would not have been as seamless had she been stressing about work and college like most young adults her age.
The onus is on the music industry to start taking chances on raw talent instead of trying to get in when artists have already laid the groundwork for themselves. That’s why I’ve dedicated my work in the industry (outside of being an artist myself, of course—Heterosexuality is out now) to developing musicians. With the exception of one artist, my label Accidental Popstar Records has only signed tal- ent with no previous releases. I don’t have the budget or resources of many labels, but the work feels important to me. And like I said, you don’t have to come from the mud to justify success. But I’m certainly willing to get a little dirty and dig for that diamond in the rough instead of just going to Zales.