The overnight success is a story as old as popular music, and it often masks the years of hard work that happen out of the public eye. But two rising stars demonstrate a new evolution of that narrative: the viral sensation turned mainstream artist.
Maggie Rogers and Symere Woods (who performs as Lil Uzi Vert) are both 24-year-old writer-performers who have been hailed as exciting new acts in their respective genres: folk-influenced pop for Rogers, hip-hop for Lil Uzi Vert. Both of them gained wide attention due to internet exposure. Lil Uzi Vert is among the rappers who have risen to prominence on Soundcloud, while Rogers’ breakout single, “Alaska,” was the focus of a widely shared YouTube video. Both artists attracted the approval and endorsement of established industry professionals, pushing them more fully into the public eye.
But the two stories, at least for now, have very different tones, largely because of the way each artist was positioned and equipped to handle the business side of sudden fame.
Lil Uzi Vert first gained acclaim through self-released solo projects, which brought him to the attention of DJ Don Cannon, and subsequently DJ Drama, both of whom became early champions for his work. A deal with Atlantic Records followed. The 2017 single “XO Tour Llif3” cracked the Billboard Top 10 and eventually went quadruple platinum; he’d achieved quadruple platinum status earlier the same year from his feature on Atlanta rap trio Migos’ “Bad And Boujee.” “Luv Is Rage 2,” his first studio album, debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart. Lil Uzi Vert was also nominated for a pair of Grammy Awards in 2018, one of which was Best New Artist.
So it is shocking that, not quite a year later, the rapper said that his musical career was finished. In an Instagram story, Lil Uzi Vert wrote, “I wanna take the time out to say I thank each and every one of my supporters but I’m done with music.” While not everyone is prepared to take this statement at face value, especially since a new album, “Eternal Atake,” was set to drop sometime in 2019, at a minimum the statement suggests frustration and disillusionment.
Lil Uzi Vert’s ongoing frustration with his label seems to be real, whether or not his “retirement” is meant as publicity for an upcoming project. Don Cannon and DJ Drama, along with Leighton Morrison, head Atlantic Records’ “Generation Now” imprint, which means they have seemingly gone from champions to roadblocks, at least in the performer’s mind. In early 2017, Lil Uzi Vert took to Twitter to complain that “Luv Is Rage 2” had been held up by an “Old Person who doesn’t Understand what’s going on right now;” his reaction to fan replies suggested that the person in question was DJ Drama. He also vented about his frustration with his label more directly, both on social media and through song lyrics. Don Cannon and DJ Drama, for their part, have remained mostly positive about Lil Uzi Vert’s future, though some Twitter comments from DJ Drama have suggested the friction isn’t totally one-sided.
From the outside, it isn’t clear which specific aspect of Lil Uzi Vert’s label deal is making him unhappy. But – especially if his retirement is not a stunt – something has gone very wrong when such a rising star chooses to walk away.
Like Lil Uzi Vert, Maggie Rogers had been making music for years at the point the internet took notice. In her case, the viral component in her rise was a YouTube video in which Pharrell Williams, as an artist-in-residence at NYU’s Institute of Recorded Music, was visibly blown away by Rogers’ work in a master class session. “I have zero notes,” Williams said after the song ended. That video became widely popular online soon after, and it reportedly made Rogers the center of a label bidding war.
Capitol Records eventually signed Rogers, but by all reports, Rogers drove a savvy bargain. As a student, Rogers had worked as assistant to author Lizzy Goodman, who had been writing an oral history of indie rock in the early 2000s; many of the industry veterans attempting to sign Rogers had been mentioned or quoted in the interviews Rogers transcribed. “I would show up with ammo,” Rogers told The New York Times. She also came with the experience of having run her own independent label, Debay Sounds.
While the full details of her contract aren’t public, those that are known suggest Rogers’ approach to negotiation paid off. Rogers continues to own Debay Sounds and licenses her songs to Capitol. She owns her master recordings, a victory that many artists spend years earning the clout to secure. Rogers also stayed heavily involved in production after signing with Capitol. She is credited as a writer, arranger and co-producer on every track of “Heard It In a Past Life,” her debut full-length studio album.
In a profile for Elle magazine, Rogers noted that she had developed a detailed post-production plan for her music as part of her senior-year project at NYU. The only factor she hadn’t accounted for was the jump-start she got from Williams’ public praise. Still, the plan did not substantially change, Rogers said. “We’ve pretty much followed all of it—just on a way bigger scale.”
I don’t know Lil Uzi Vert or Maggie Rogers personally, nor do I know all the details of the deals they made. But from the outside, we can say for certain that they are two very talented young artists who made the decision to sign with a label after working to make music independently. I certainly do not want to seem as if I am blaming Lil Uzi Vert if he was not as prepared to handle the business aspects of his newfound stardom as Rogers was when they entered deals with their respective labels. After all, he was only 20 years old at the time and did not have the benefit of studying music production in college like Rogers, whose studies certainly gave her a leg up in understanding how the business of music works when major record labels began to court her. We have written before about the pitfalls independent artists may face when deciding to sign with a label, and artists are not to blame if they cannot perfectly navigate a system that is often stacked against them.
But aspiring musicians should still take note. If you hope to sign with a label one day, you will do yourself a service if you sharpen your negotiation skills as well as your artistic instincts, or at least add someone to your team of advisers who possesses this skill set.