Torres on Getting Dropped by 4AD and the Economic Reality of Being an Indie Musician
Mackenzie Scott, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter who performs as Torres, released her third album Three Futures via 4AD in 2017. The esteemed British indie was her dream label: she’d submitted her previous two records to them for consideration and they’d declined, but when they heard Three Futures, she says, “they loved it.” The album’s stark and dramatic electronic pop earned some critical acclaim—the people at 4AD weren’t the only ones who loved it—but it sold modestly. “I hoped that the record would connect with more people than it seems like it did when it was released,” Scott says.
Her label evidently felt the same way. In April 2018, Scott tweeted an announcement that she’d been dropped from her contract:“My former label, @4AD_Official, has decided to drop me from a 3 album deal for not being commercially successful enough. Also, fuck the music industry.” (4AD declined to comment at the time, as well as for this story.) The surprise end to her tenure with 4AD led Scott into what she describes as “the hardest time of my life,” during which she considered quitting music entirely, and stopped writing songs for awhile. But when she started again, she “wrote and wrote and wrote for several months without stopping,” until she had something resembling a new record. In a sanguine twist, that as-yet-unnamed record—which she describes alternately as “Gregorian country,” “if The Phantom of the Opera had a pedal steel,” and “Enya meets Phil Collins’ Tarzan soundtrack”—will arrive sometime next year via Merge Records, a label of renown equal to 4AD’s, whose roster includes marquee indie acts like Spoon, Destroyer, and the Mountain Goats.
The story of Torres’s label travails, though it ends happily, provides a window into the life of a particular sort of mid-level indie artist, who may struggle to make a steady living, despite having name recognition, positive press, a busy touring schedule, and a contract with a reputable label. For these artists, at a time when the industry is in flux and revenue from recordings is virtually nonexistent, being a musician can be more like having a precarious freelance job, or owning a struggling small business, than living out any sort of glamorous rock-star fantasy. In a recent phone interview with Spin, Scott spoke at length for the about the 4AD ordeal and how it led her to the bright and dreamy outlook of her new album.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
SPIN: What made you initially go to 4AD for Three Futures?
Torres: I had been a fan of the label for a long time. I’ve released three records at this point, and every one of them, I’ve tried to get 4AD to release it. I guess the third time was a charm. 4AD actually didn’t come into the picture until after I had already made the record. I basically maxed out a credit card, and have yet to pay it off, to make that record. 4AD heard it after the fact and decided that they wanted to release it, because they loved it. But to be honest, it was never the kind of relationship where it was expressed to me that the record itself was being understood or that it had landed emotionally or something. The relationship was always a business one. I don’t even know that we actually ever talked about what the record was about, what it meant.
Were there any particular expectations for Three Futures, like a number of copies sold?
It was never expressed to me that there were specific expectations going into it, which is funny. There was no number threshold that anyone wanted or expected to hit. At least, that wasn’t expressed to me. However, I do know now that the label expected the record to blow up. It was apparent to me after I was dropped that they thought that the record was going to be huge, that I was going to be huge overnight, I think, with the release. That isn’t how things necessarily work! To me, Three Futures is such a grower of a record, and I knew that when I made it. I was surprised to find out that the record label expected things to happen far more quickly and on a grander scale than they actually did.
Before you found out that you were dropped, do you remember any signs that something was going wrong, or they weren’t happy with the performance?
No. That was the interesting thing. All of my live performances were praised. The record itself, as a piece of art, was praised. Every sentiment that was expressed to me directly was mostly a positive one, an encouraging one. I was blindsided, for sure, when things were not as I thought they were.
How did you find out?
There was an email to my management.
Just like, Torres is no longer with 4AD?
It was more like, my manager reached out to the label to keep the conversation going about recording the next album, the one I’ve just recorded recently. Those conversations, they start really early, a year or a year and a half before a record actually gets made. The response from the label was an email that they had chosen not to fulfill the contract, that they were opting out of picking up the next record. That was forwarded to me.
Did you tweet out the announcement that you’d been dropped immediately after hearing from them?
Yeah. It was pretty shortly after. There was nothing to be said or negotiated after the email. It was very point blank. It was a goodbye email, essentially. I pretty quickly made the announcement. A huge part of that was just letting people know that my new record was no longer going to be promoted by my record label. And it wasn’t. It wasn’t promoted six months after its release. I felt like people should know.
Three Futures is a personal album. Were you happy with how it was doing prior to the email? Do you think it was connecting with people?
It’s hard to know how something is doing. Obviously, you know if you’re doing really well. I didn’t get that feeling. I hoped that the record would connect with more people than it seems like it did when it was released. It felt underwhelming. I’m not sure how much of that is the state of the music industry right now, and how much of it was actually the record itself. It could be that it came out at the wrong time, or that it just wasn’t what people wanted or needed at that time, and it was just a record that I really needed to make for myself. I was personally very happy with the record. But no, it didn’t really feel like it connected with people as much as I hoped it would.
Another person that had their own issues with 4AD was Grimes. I don’t know if you were ever in contact with her, but she had her own issues with what the label wanted from her, and wound up feuding with them publicly.
I know. It’s funny. I wish that I was in a position to have a feud with a label. Obviously, I’m not Grimes-level famous, so it would be hilarious and cool and rockstar of me to have a very public feud with an entity like a record label. But that’s not where I’m at.
I want to be very careful not to sound like sour grapes, because it would be really easy for me to do so. Obviously, I’m very grateful for the position that I’m in, and even the position that I was in, getting to release a record with a label like that. But in my opinion, there’s a problem at that record label, and at a lot of record labels. Which is, there are four or five middle-aged cis white men in suits, and they’re gathering in an office space and discussing who and who isn’t worth supporting or promoting anymore. I understand that it’s about money. You’ve got to make a profit to run a business. But it might be a good idea to get a couple women in the room, maybe an LGBTQ-identifying person. Just somebody that isn’t a middle-aged white cis man who’s only got stars in his eyes, is what it comes down to, I think.
Cat Power has said that Matador, her former label, wanted her to sound like Adele.
Oh my god. Please.
Do you think there’s a trend, perhaps among larger indie labels like Matador and 4AD, toward making things that sound more like the mainstream?
Certainly everybody wants to make money. Everybody’s got to pay their bills. I understand what it’s like. Labels are going to do what they think will make money and put them on the map. With that comes a certain leaning towards bands that sound a little less specific, a little more generally palatable. There are always going to be trends. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.
It’s hard, because I think the labels that aren’t aiming to get bands that sound commercially successful, the ones that are actually encouraging artists to be more themselves, more specific—they’re smaller. Usually they just don’t have as much money to make it happen. Every artist that I know is in a pretty poor financial situation, save for one or two that are doing exceptionally well. If we want to get the proper funding and we want to set ourselves up for some kind of success that involves actually making a living, then we do end up going with the labels that can provide that, but those end up being the ones that don’t want you to sound like yourselves.
Luckily, to put a positive spin on that, my new record is going to be coming out on Merge early next year, a record label run by artists, musicians—touring musicians! Merge is the kind of label that does want their artists to be exactly who they are and make the records that they need to make. I’ve really had 100% creative control over the record that I’ve just made. I’m so happy with it. They’re one of the last great record labels that’s still doing their thing.
So you made the new album after you learned about the 4AD situation?
Once I got the news that I had been dropped, I spent five or six months after that trying to decide if I was going to keep playing music. I was in a really bad place. It was, personally, just the hardest time of my life, for a lot of reasons. Some people might be thrilled to be released from the grip of this really difficult industry, but I really struggled with it. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was, what I wanted, if I still wanted this. Then, I finally picked up a pen again a few months later and started writing. I wrote and wrote and wrote for several months without stopping. I didn’t know what was going to come of the songs that I was writing. I just needed to write them. Then I just realized that I had a record. I figured out at that point how to go about it.
If you did end up just hanging up Torres for the time being, what were you planning on doing? Was it still going to be within music or were you just going to find another career path?
I think if Torres were no more or if Torres was on hiatus, I would probably disappear and do something unlike anything that resembled music or art in general. I didn’t do that. Maybe it would have been smarter to do that, but I didn’t. I chose to stick it out. I don’t know what I would do, is part of the problem. I believe I was put on this earth to do what I’m doing. Until I really get the deep down spiritual feeling that that isn’t what I’m meant to be doing anymore, then I’m not going to stop doing it. I also enjoy it for myself. I love performing. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love it.
Not focusing on music for a while did give me a huge amount of time to get to know myself and to better myself in ways that have nothing to do with my career. That aspect of things was on the back burner for a long time. I had this career that allowed me to tour constantly, and make records, and distract myself from the actual life process.
I’m not saying someone who’s putting out their first record should be signed by 4AD. But for a new musician, would you even recommend looking for labels?
I think people go where the money is. I don’t say that with any disdain in my heart. For new musicians, the biggest thing I would say is: How badly do you want it? How much are you willing to give of yourself in order to make this happen? And what do you want out of it? Does it bring you enough joy to play music for yourself and for your friends or for a small fan base? Or do you feel like you need to put everything you’ve got into this and go for it 100%? I just don’t believe, with the current mode, that dabblers should be pursuing long-term careers in this industry. And again, I don’t say that to be mean. Dabblers are just people who are experimenting with their love of music and musicianship. And this is a really, really, really mean, really tough place to be. I would really only recommend that people who know that this is the only thing that they want to do and can do—those are the people that I think should be, yes, pursuing record label contracts and going for it.
Has the experience with 4AD made you more guarded?
I still feel like I’m a pretty open book when it comes to having conversations and just talking real talk, both professionally and personally. I think I’m just far less trusting. I’m a very wary person these days. I don’t think that situation caused it, I think just growing up makes people less trusting in general. Everybody’s eyes narrow as they get older. That’s the whole thing about being wide-eyed and young versus narrow-eyed and experienced. The 4AD situation contributed to my eyes narrowing a bit more. I don’t trust people when they tell me things. I like to see proof. I like to see proof of character. I always read the contract a little more carefully now, anything that I sign. I consider the character of somebody or the intention of somebody that I’m working with a lot more than I used to.
I am someone who establishes a lot of boundaries now. I’m not under any sort of illusion that a record label relationship, or any relationship with someone who is working with me, or for me, is anything more or less than a business relationship at this point. Those relationships should obviously be built on mutual trust and respect. People’s character within those relationships is really important. However, they’re not friendships. They’re business relationships. That’s the reality of it. We’ve got to protect ourselves, everyone.
What does the new record sound like?
I had it in my head that I was making almost a Gregorian country record.
Cowboys are in vogue right now, and it’s not just “Old Town Road.”
Oh man. I know. The cowboy thing is so in. I feel like I’ve sort of been inching towards that myself, but it’s so deeply ingrained in my roots. I’m from Macon, Georgia. I’ve been itching to make my, in my own way, country record for some time. I think it’s funny that the timing is actually really good for that right now, and I didn’t plan that, necessarily. In the “Sprinter” video off that album, I have a cowboy hat, then I snuck it into the “Three Futures” video. Hopefully, I’ll sneak it into one of the new ones too. It’s funny that now it’s cool. I never expected cowboys, especially gay cowboys, to be in vogue in 2019. I just never really thought that it would be a cool thing for people to start wearing cowboy hats in New York. But they are.