No More Pussy

Fabricated pop groups are nothing new, but these Dolls are more than bad--they're a threat

They may seem simply entertaining or innocuous when prancing around the TV screen, but behind the scenes the Pussycat Dolls are ushering in an unsavory new era in the business of music. Ostensibly a vocal and dance ensemble, the unapologetically manufactured group is seemingly everywhere now as the Pussycat Dolls brand has been franchised into a lounge, clothing line and cultural punch-line. The constant exposure and subsequent mainstream success is no accident; a team of record company lawyers, promoters and hucksters has conspired to squeeze every last T-shirt, ringtone and dance step out of the lucrative group before the public finally reaches the point of oversaturation. It's no surprise given that the record label literally owns the Pussycat Dolls.

Darryl Franklin, a lawyer who became familiar with the Dolls' contract during his tenure at Interscope Records, admitted during a panel discussion at this year's SXSW that the group is unique in that its members are actually salaried employees of the record label and, by design, completely interchangeable. He points out that this is far more corporate than other built-to-order bands like the Sex Pistols, New Kids on the Block and even the Monkees and that the tradeoffs required for the quick, overwhelming success are creating a trickle-down effect that is already being felt throughout the music industry.

Kenneth Abdo, an entertainment lawyer who represents Anna Nalick, Vienna Teng and other up-and-coming musicians, doesn't think it bodes well. "Frankly, bands now have fewer options, and I don't know if it's going to get better," he says. "All these artists that want to be big stars don't really have any other choice. If you ever want to sell gold or platinum you're going to have to go with a major label." He explains that while a successful artist may have a lot more leverage, a new artist most likely will need to hand over control of its merchandise sales, Web site and potentially song ownership in addition to the traditional right to sell its physical CDs. This restriction of creative freedom and ability to act independently is the price new artists are paying in exchange for access to the unrivaled power of a record label to force success.

Abdo acknowledges that the Pussycat Dolls are at the extreme end of the spectrum, adding, "You cannot fabricate art--it has to be real, and it's what will ultimately drive the business. There's always been room for manufactured groups, but it's a small corner of the whole music business." He also points out that, "Someone's writing those songs, and someone's performing those songs. Those are both creative endeavors, and there are artists and audiences benefitting from that work." True, but never before has the separation between artist and promoter been so blurred and so ominously successful.

 
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