The Right to Be Forgotten: Why a New Artist's Biggest Battle Is Finding a Way to Delete Their Past
In 2015, it's not unusual for a record label to sign an artist, and immediately remove every single thing they've ever done.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
Remember Britannia High? 2008 UK’s answer to Fame? The just-before-primetime ITV song-and-dance debacle that was axed after one series? They were great days. The show, of course, was a complete disaster, both on a creative, commercial, in fact, every possible level.
But if you examine audition footage of Britannia High on YouTube maybe you’ll start to wonder if the whole thing could have been rescued, had the show only made different casting decisions. Here, for instance, is a great singer who didn’t make the cut.
In case you couldn't be bothered to watch the clip above, the "great singer" auditioning for Britannia High is Ed Sheeran.
Now it’s funny isn’t it—you never read Ed Sheeran talking too much about his attempt to become the next Darcey Bussell when he was launching the career we know and love today. It was all "SBTV" this, "Wiley and Sway" that.
Ed Sheeran isn’t alone in suffering from selective career amnesia. When Haim stomped towards the top of the BBC Sound Of 2013 poll, they weren’t regaling the media with tales of the time two Haim sisters starred in absurd teen pop band Valli Girls, notable for tunes like "It’s a Hair Thing." Tahliah Barnett isn’t big on telling the world about the time, years before she was FKA Twigs, when she appeared as a dancing carwash attendant in a Dionne Bromfield video.
Pop’s always been full of these Sliding Doors moments, but in the digital age it’s hard for an act to remove evidence of their pasts. Hard, but not impossible. Last year, at the behest of the Court of Justice of the European Union, Google implemented a "right to be forgotten" procedure. It’s a way for people to get pages removed from Google searches, the logic being that if you get caught having a wank on the bus when you’re 22 and Metro decide to publish a LOL news story about it, it’s reasonable to hope that a potential employer won’t find out about it when you’re 28.
For musicians, swap out "potential employer" for potential fans, potential record labels, and potentially keen journalists. And for "having a wank on a bus" insert "making terrible music and videos," and consider Sam Smith. Prior to a career jump-start from Disclosure he was just another pop hopeful with a really helpful mother. Unfortunately long before Grammy wins, Bond themes, and household name status, he was busy recording and releasing songs like "Bad Day All Week." "Bad Day All Week" was the opposite of a good song, and it was accompanied by an arse-clenchingly awful video.
Usually there would be a video embed instead of this paragraph, right? That’s how journalism works in 2015.
But the video just isn’t online any more—it disappeared from YouTube, and these days seems to be swiftly dealt with if it does reappear. Similarly many of Sam’s pre-fame tweets, in which he alluded to his sexuality and obsessive Gaga fan status, have also disappeared.
In the US, prior to becoming Kanye’s current protégé, Kacy Hill was a model in a controversial (aren’t they all) American Apparel campaign, and eyebrow-raising ads don’t sit well alongside the singy-songwritey image she’s now putting forward. Naturally, those shots aren’t mentioned in her official bio—which is what many journalists will work from when writing about her—but it also looks like her lawyers have been trying to get those shots unlisted by Google. Kacy now seems to own the copyright in those images so takedowns should be successful to a degree, but what about Sam Smith’s deleted tweets, which can no longer be embedded but whose words live on, copied and pasted in pages like this?
“People do own the copyright in their own tweets,” says Twitter’s Bruce Daisley. “Strictly speaking there would be grounds to make a claim, but generally we see that when people are asked politely to remove those things, they tend to comply.” Those tweets could also fall under fair use, which circumvents copyright when it comes to commentary and news reporting. In any case, Daisley has another word of caution for any artists thinking of getting lawyers involved. “I do wonder,” he says, “if going to law on it might go a bit ‘Streisand’."
He’s referring to the Streisand effect, a phenomenon so well known that it has its own Wikipedia page but which bears repeating here because it’s funny. In 2005 a photographer took 12,000 photographs of the California coastline in order to document coastal erosion. It seems fair to assume he couldn’t have given two shits about Barbra Streisand but one of those 12,000 pictures contained Streisand’s home, resulting in a lawsuit from Babs. The picture had been downloaded a grand total of six times before Barbra kicked up a fuss; four times if you don’t count downloads by Barbra’s lawyers. In the month following the well publicized lawsuit, almost half a million people visited the site.
“The risk of trying to take down old music, or old videos is not only that you will never get rid of them all, but also that you risk highlighting a problem and thus creating a story out of that,” agrees one music publicist who’s helped massage the profiles of various "new" artists. “I’d advise people in this situation to just try and own it—the more you try to hide something, the bigger deal people think it is, and the bigger a story it becomes. It’s definitely better to just own it and move on.”
Internet privacy expert Frank M Ahearn, whose books include How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, is similarly wary of asking sites to remove content. “The website could post that you requested removal and it could go viral again,” he agrees. “Some celebrity clients I have worked for have done some embarrassing work in the past and once they make it, they want to turn back clock and rid the world of the past. But it is extremely difficult. The internet is like the tide; information and photos come and go. What you delete today can easily creep up tomorrow.”
Ahearn adds that Google’s measures are “useless” when VPNs and other search engines exist, and when asked to consider Sam Smith’s predicament he suggests an elaborate smokescreen. “If you are famous, sometimes I suggest to clients to leave it, let it ride it course and hope it dies a digital death,” he says. “Alternatively, we begin creating disinformation that Sam Smith from London Shoe Store tweeted the information, and then I build blogs where the fake Sam takes responsibility for the information. It does not always work but sometimes it creates doubt and other tweeters and bloggers assist disseminating the doubt."
Despite the risks, there’s still a chance nobody will notice the disappearance of content, so there’s strong temptation to quietly remove content you have access to in your own sites and social channels—particularly if you’re trying to launch your music via a media industry that exists on layer upon layers of tastemaker approval.
The singer in one act currently hoping for a place on the 2016 tips lists said they’d talk to Noisey if we didn’t blow their cover, which under the circumstances seems fair enough. The rough story, though, is that their current offering is fairly leftfield and requires tastemaker support in order to get traction, but a couple of years ago they were in a markedly less credible band that had been formed by a titanically uncool management company.
“There is a cloud over my head,” they admit to Noisey. “I’m worried it could all come back and bite my ass. I suppose it’s like if you walked into someone's bedroom to pick up a phone charger and saw that they had a whip and handcuffs. It’s not necessarily that I'm self conscious of it myself—it’s just that it could be detrimental to my current goals. Which is dumb, but whatever.”
Does it seem unfair how there’s now an expectation that all artists should get it right first time? It feels like experimentation is being penalised, in a way. “It is unfair, I think,” they agree. “People do things that don't work. I don't see why it should be a problem. I was 18 and my personal music was in a rut—I had no idea how anything worked in the industry so I took the plunge. I learnt a lot in that time, but then I started again on a new journey that, hopefully, I'll get right this time.”
It’s important to state that this new artist isn’t being paranoid about how their previous exploits might affect their future chances. “With new artists, everything needs to be perfect,” says James Penycate, a digital communications expert whose work has included launching artists like Tom Odell, Tove Lo and Ghostpoet. “We all know how difficult it is to sell an act through Radio 1. To catch the attention of their key decision makers you need numerical or statistical proof that you have an engaged audience or the potential for one, but just as importantly you need a true avalanche of support from tastemakers. This whole subject boils down to authenticity.”
It might seem strange at a point when credible publications are falling over each other to tell the world how much they like the new Justin Bieber album but when it comes to a new act, rightly or wrongly (mainly wrongly), the sense that an artist has changed direction implies that their current incarnation is somehow false. Reasonable people might say that having a chicken sandwich for lunch yesterday doesn’t necessarily mean the soup you ate today is suspicious or unconvincing, but to the media a change in direction can look calculating or manufactured.
The fear, Penycate says, is that an act will get to the point where they need everyone on side (and many acts are at that point right now, with tastemakers currently voting in next year’s new artist polls) only for something awful to be revealed. “It could completely derail your campaign,” he explains. “The laughable thing is: do consumers really care? I don't know if they do. Does the media care? Yes. That’s the problem.”
But as long as the media continues its obsession with credibility, and as long as massaging past exploits works, it’ll remain the norm. Last year’s BBC Sound Poll winners were Years & Years. During 2014 they made all the right moves in terms of engaging tastemakers: small gigs, an EP release, a featured vocal on a dance track. But before that all took place, they’d deleted early work from online accounts.
“When we first started making music we just put everything online,” Olly from the band says today. “Obviously no one gave a shit so it didn't matter that there was random music and video floating about. When we did eventually get management as a result of those videos the first thing they said was ‘take everything offline’. This was meant to make us more appealing to potential labels. We were pretty happy to do it—it felt good to wipe the slate clean and put our best foot forward.”
Years & Years had gone through lineup changes and their music had also developed in style and quality, but they didn’t take absolutely everything offline immediately, and early videos remained online. When they signed to Polydor, even those went. “At that stage we all decided that the stuff we’d put online didn't reflect who we were as a band anymore,” Olly explains. “We felt that if this was going to be the first time for most people to hear about us, we wanted people to see what we thought represented us best.”
When direct and honest communication with fans is so important, doesn’t this seem slightly dishonest? Olly reckons not. “I don't think it's being dishonest—people’s first impressions of you are really important so you wanna get that right. If we were going on a first date I wouldn't be showing you pictures of how I was a little chunky and had a mullet a few years ago. To be honest some of our more hardcore fans have found old links or downloaded all that stuff. Nothing's really erased on the internet anymore, right?”
It’s not only new artists who choose to sidestep portions of their careers. And sometimes the media, instead of having the wool pulled over their own eyes, are complicit in nurturing a selective narrative. It’s interesting how little is made of Beyoncé’s confusing mid-period between Destiny’s and "Crazy In Love." The hugeness of her current success eclipses the role in Austin Powers that gave Beyoncé her first solo hit single. Likewise, chaos theorists could have a field day speculating what might have happened had Destiny’s Child never recorded a shit single in 1998 with Corrie mechanic-turned-hopeless-popstar Matthew Marsden:
That song came out through Columbia in 1998, but over on another Sony imprint in the same year, Northwestside boss Nick Raphael was securing a guest vocal from Beyoncé’s future husband. And so it was that Jay Z released a single with boyband Another Level.
“Rappers have made guest appearances for pop records for the last 30 years,” Nick Raphael recalls today. “It adds another dimension to the recording. At the time, outside America Jay was a credible, but niche artist—not the Jay-Z we know today.”
Raphael states that Jay has nothing to be embarrassed about musically (“he’s one of the greatest artists of all time”); these days Raphael is president of Capitol Records, home to Sam Smith among others, and he insists that a dodgy history doesn’t come into play when he and his longterm A&R associate Jo Charrington are looking at new artists.
“Very few artists strike upon their eventual paths immediately,” he reasons. “If artists don't experiment, how will they find their true voice? When Jo and I sign an artist we judge the music they are presenting to us now. If their past behavior will affect their future success we have to bear that in mind—but it’s not a decision we’d base on their previous works.”
The same can’t necessarily be said for how the media look at things, and many artists—from Years & Years and Sam Smith to the likes of Lana Del Rey, Katy Perry, and Drake—have all benefitted from diverting attention away from their earliest work. Right now the music industry is built on quick and dirty experimentation and fast pivots if something doesn’t work out, with each incarnation of an artist’s endeavour leaving a digital footprint. And it’s still a headache for the anonymous hopeful we met earlier, who tells Noisey: “I’ve removed things from my personal accounts and deleted what I can, but it's an ongoing effort to conceal a cheesy couple of years from influential people.”
Still, while he can’t speak for those in the media who obsess over artists’ perceived indiscretions, Nick Raphael offers some encouraging advice to any artist currently worrying about skeletons in cupboards. “Your history makes you more interesting to your fans,” he says. “Embrace who you are.”