- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

In an era of shrinking rosters and narrowing profit margins for major music labels, is it still possible for idiosyncratic artists, otherwise known as royal pains in the neck, to thrive, or even survive? The question is no longer a rhetorical one for Nellie McKay, an uncategorizable New York singer-songwriter (picture Doris Day with Cole Porter’s piano and composition skills and the Game’s mouth). She was dropped recently from Columbia Records, an elite division of Sony BMG that includes active rock heroes such as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen as well as moderate-selling “heritage acts” such as Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen.

Miss McKay’s completed sophomore album, “Pretty Little Head,” had been hanging fire for months as she and Columbia sparred. At issue: the number of tracks (she wanted a sprawling 23; the label wanted a trimmer 16) and the singer’s proclivity for airing dirty laundry in public (at one show late last year, Miss McKay urged fans to directly lobby former Columbia Records chairman Will Botwin, whose private e-mail address she shared).

In the current issue of the music magazine Paste, Miss McKay is quoted as saying, baldly, “I’ve been trying to get my label to drop me, but they won’t. I’m serious, I want out so bad.”

Wish granted.

From one angle, the imbroglio looks simple: An unmanageable artist finally got her comeuppance. From another, it looks like a global conglomerate that can no longer afford a protective wing for eccentric creative artists. As George Lang of the Daily Oklahoman noted, “After all, the label has been releasing Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand for 44 years, and neither one is known for playing nice.”

Miss McKay, a pup at 21, currently is in talks with Columbia to buy back the rights to “Pretty Little Head.” Given the sensitivity of the negotiations, she declined to be interviewed (an 11th-hour acquisition of discretion, one might say).

I’ve taken in both the 16- and 23-track versions, and I can see Columbia’s point: The disc is a long sit even without the additional seven songs, and its most exhilarating moments — among them the pop oddity “Cupcakes” and “Bee Charmer,” an infectious duet with Cyndi Lauper — are untouched.

Then again, why joust with an obviously visionary artist whom you already permitted to release an overlong album? (Miss McKay’s 2004 album “Get Away From Me,” which has been called the first-ever double-LP released by a debut artist on a major label, sold a respectable 100,000 copies.)

The McKay affair may eventually prove an isolated episode, as Miss McKay appears to have a singular commercial death wish. After Columbia severed ties with her, Miss McKay said in a statement, “All that matters to me is that I can continue to make irritating music which will baffle and enrage.” Note there the absence of the words “entertain” or “make a living.”

Indeed, a thread of self-sabotage runs throughout “Pretty Little Head.” Several tracks are a nip and tuck away from undeniable commercial appeal, yet there’s always something there — a whiplash stylistic shift, a slinging of nonsensical profanity — that deliberately keeps the listener at a distance.

Miss McKay is fiercely protective of her art, which is admirable. But lurking within such self-determination is unbridled immaturity.

The music industry has changed in one important respect since the days when John Hammond discovered artists like Mr. Dylan and Mr. Springsteen and allowed them room to fail. That critical function is now being served by indie labels, where bands like Modest Mouse hone their craft, build a following, and then attract major-label attention. (Sony-owned Epic Records stuck with Modest Mouse through lean sales of 2000’s “The Moon & Antarctica” and was rewarded four years later with the breakout “Good News for People who Love Bad News,” which has sold more than 1 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.)

Whereas most artists of Miss McKay’s caliber and free spirit are giving their music away gratis on the Internet, Miss McKay plays patty-cake with the national media and moonlights in the movies (she appears in Rob Reiner’s “Rumor Has It”).

In this sense, perhaps, Miss McKay’s is not a hard-won independence; rather it’s an abuse of artistic liberty.

Compare L’Affaire McKay with the experience of the beloved indie-pop band the Decemberists, which recently left the independent label Kill Rock Stars for (it hopes) greener pastures at Capitol Records. “The idea of reaching a wider audience has become really attractive,” frontman Colin Meloy told the music Webzine Pitchfork. “It just felt like we had tapped out the resources of Kill Rock Stars. … We felt like there was an opportunity for something bigger.”

Color the Decemberists sellouts if you must.

But agree on this: Independence means more to them than throwing hissy fits.

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