We Need to Talk About Katy
IN THIS PHOTO: The cover of Katy Perry's album, Witness/ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images
Why Witness’ Poor Sales Mean the U.S. Star Needs Protection – Not a ‘Tough Talk’ from Her Label
I was flicking through the music news when…
I came across a story regarding Popstar Katy Perry. Witness, her latest album, entered the U.K. charts at number-six and has sold fewer than 60,000 copies to date. Her previous albums have shifted more than 500,000 copies – this latest revelation is seen as a huge (commercial) disappointment. Capitol Records’ Steve Barnett has a great relationship with the label’s star but, as he said, there need to be tough conversations and a serious review. Katy Perry has a very distinct demographic – mainly young girls and teenagers – and there is nothing radical about her new record. Witness is a bit bigger and bolder than most albums out there. One cannot accuse her of toning things down or taking a more mature and soft approach. Maybe that is the problem, perhaps? There are those who might look for an evolutionary shift but, considering her fans have been with her since the start – I wonder why the sales have dipped. It is natural for an artist to encounter some poor sales. That should not be met with record bosses’ stern expressions and a rather serious chat. It is like being at school: Katy Perry, the A-grade student, is seeing her results slips and, as such, the headmaster has got involved. Prism, released in 2013, was considered a cleaner and tighter album than previous efforts; a fun album that saw Perry embrace the mainstream wholly.
PHOTO CREDIT: AJ Numan
It gained some mixed feedback but many saw it as a decent and appealing record – one that could cross borders and draw in non-Pop fans. That has been the same impression with her other albums: ever since her 2001 debut (Katy Hudson); there has been a split but a general consensus the music she puts out has energy and a smile on its face. She trades in upbeat Pop bangers and songs designed to get her fans dancing. Witness, maybe, has more in the way of contemplation and introversion but it is not exactly a record full of ballads and Jazz standards! From a sonic and stylistic viewpoint; you cannot claim poor sales are the result of a radical creative left-turn. The tour she is on right now (named after her album) is picking up impressive tickets sales – one cannot claim Perry is lacking fandom and love. I am not her biggest fan but have listened to her albums and cannot see a huge shift between them. The record label is guiding her to a particular sound and style. They want her to remain as she always has been with, perhaps, a few different aspects here and there. Perry delivered the goods on Witness but I wonder whether some pre-release reviews caused damage.
Songs like Witness and Swish Swish (ft. Nicki Minaj) are her classic stock-and-trade; Chained to the Rhythm (with Skip Marley) a big hit – other songs are more anxious, muddled and conceptually flawed. There is ambition in the record but some critics noted a dependence on reverb/effects; a record that was trying to say something without putting its finger on it; a little bit of a lunge for creative credibility. I look at that last point and wonder whether Perry’s management and label are responsible for any negativity. She has been given a certain degree of freedom but, since hit albums like Teenage Dream (2010); she has tried new things and not wanted to get bogged down. There are plenty of collaborations on Witness; some songs have a similar tone but there is the impression of a young artist not wanting to get stale. Whose decision this artistic change was – the label or Perry herself – I am not sure. Witness topped the U.S. Billboard chart and was successful (in terms of the charts) in many nations. Songs have been spun on BBC Radio 1 and it has seen her embark on a very lucrative tour. One cannot say, by any measure, Witness marks a failure! Maybe it is less bombastic and sun-seeking than her previous albums: the thirty-three-year-year-old realises she needs to start acting her age…to a degree, anyway! I am pleased that the album does not try to revert back to her 2010-stage; she is moving forward and, yes, there might be one of two weaker moments.
Her fans, without offending, are not the type to look at reviews and be disheartened. They buy Perry’s music because it comes from an artist they connect with. She is an idol to them and, unless she embarks on a seriously misguided sonic path; they are going to follow her and buy her albums! The four-year gap between Prism and Witness means, maybe, there was too long a wait for new material. Perry was busy touring after Prism’s success so could not have been expected to race into the studio and lay down new material. Those dates and demand are crafted by the same people who are questioning Witness’ sales. The bosses cannot point the finger at an artist who has followed their orders and delivered a huge album. After the rigorous dates and exhausting performances; one could not expect to get her into the studio that quickly. Again; management and the label are responsible for when Perry records and when they want a record. Witness was released on 9th June (2017) and, as it is not the most summer-sounding album she has released; maybe that decision was flawed. Other artists have come onto the scene that has the same sort of sound and dynamic as Perry. Pop artists are springing up all over the place – fans might go looking for their next fix if they feel they are deprived of music. With more competition coming in – younger and fresher – it is inevitable artists as established as Katy Perry would see a slight downturn. It has happened to everyone from Lady Gaga to Rihanna: you can never keep the gas on all the time and, so many years after her debut; one can forgive a slump (of sorts).
We are buying music digitally so it is hard to say how many people actually bought her album. If you can get it for free – or hearing it from someone else – that does not reflect the complete picture. Videos for singles like Swish Swish and Chained to the Rhythm commanded multi-million views on YouTube; they were soundtracks of the summer (although both songs were released earlier in 2017) and did not suggest an artist in trouble. I know Perry will go on to release many more albums and change her sound. As she is in her thirties; the music might get more mature and considered – it is down to management and the record label to look after their star and ensure she is marketed and branded appropriately. That four-year wait is partly responsible for less-than-staggering sales figures but you cannot put too much pressure on an artist. Perry will only feel ready to record and inspired if they have enough time to breathe and opportunity for personal space. Maybe there are issues with her longevity and what people expect from someone like Katy Perry. She is seen as this ever-cheery American singer who brings the bangers and has that Californian swagger. That is all well after a few albums – and when you are in your twenties – but I wonder whether a naively means fans/labels expect her to be that same person today.
The market has plenty of other artists who can do that sort of soulless, yet fun, type of Pop. It is a staple among the pre-teens but, as her fans get older; Perry needs to make music that is meaningful to them – not ensure there is arrested development. She needs to appeal to the same demographic she did at the start of her career but, with a need to do something different; can she appeal to everyone at the same time?! Maybe a slight muddle and head-splitting marketing nightmare mean Witness’ slight sales should be an alarm. Perry is at a stage where she needs the label and management to sit down and have a constructive talk about the next stage of her career. She wants to remain popular and relevant but cannot repeat what she has been doing for years. Rather than admonish her for – what they see as – poor sales; sit with her and have a constructive talk. The next album might need to arrive sooner than 2020/2021 but, as she is slammed with touring, there will not be any more material for a while yet! I am not expecting those management conversations to be too brutal or career-ending. They will not terminate their association with their star but, I feel, there will be a push to get more material out and return to her early days.
I feel Perry, in a move to forge a more age-appropriate identity, has taken gambles and done something impressive. She is trying to please older and new fans – we cannot expect that sort of leap to be a total success. The touring demands, YouTube views and positive reviews (there are a few) show she is not lacking in affection and popularity. Sales figures are not the total sum of an album and, with streaming so readily available; I wonder whether we can ever get an accurate reflection of an album’s worth (on that basis). Surely the reviews are more important? Witness has been well-received by many but, regarding those who were less effusive, maybe this will help her grow and strengthen for her latest album. The latest absurdity in Pop means we are putting too much pressure on modern artists to conform to a very business-orientated approach to music. If they do not shift one-million units – or break Spotify records – then they are past it and fading. We are seeing plenty of great albums denied good sales and proper spotlight: poor records getting a lot of kudos and breaking records all over the shop. One cannot put too much stock in trade: the quality of the music, and the demand for the artist, outweighs all that. The fact Perry played last year’s Glastonbury means her music is getting her onto some impressive stages. She, like Lorde and Taylor Swift, are Pop artists who are capable of reaching listeners in different age brackets and genres (those who prefer other styles of music). Witness is not the sign of a decline and catastrophe: it is an album that has resonated with her current base – and one I found more consistent than previous records – but, perhaps, means her label needs to get into talks to think about her direction. Rather than turn their nose up at lacklustre sales; they need to be more supportive and ensure their precious talent is able to grow and remain. Perry will be on the scene for years to come and, following Witness’ reactions and reviews; I do not feel the American needs to go into a protection scheme…