No One Is Truly “Canceled” as Long as They Keep Making Other People Money

Fans keep streaming Morgan Wallen's record, and his label is happy to take their money

February 19, 2021 12:38 pm
morgan wallen
Morgan Wallen performs at The Cowan at Topgolf on June 03, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Getty Images for CMT

Earlier this month, after country superstar Morgan Wallen was caught on tape drunkenly saying the n-word, his record label Big Loud made the unprecedented and largely meaningless decision to “suspend” his recording contract. Since then, however, Wallen’s sales have spiked, and this week, a new Billboard piece examined how labels are navigating cancel culture in the wake of his scandal. If there’s one lesson to be learned from the Wallen debacle, it’s that money talks, and (sadly) there will always be companies who continue to allow the “anti-cancel culture” crowd to turn disgraced celebs into martyrs as long as it benefits their bottom line.

Despite being almost immediately pulled from most radio stations after the video of him using the racial slur was released — leading to a 79 percent drop in his airplay — Wallen saw a massive and immediate increase in sales. As Rolling Stone reports, Wallen’s sales increased by 1,220 percent the day after the video was released, while his song sales were up 327 percent. His on-demand audio streams were up 6 percent, and his programmed streams increased 16 percent. And as Billboard notes, since then, Big Loud continues to rake in roughly $1.5 million a week from Wallen’s sales and streaming. Fans who were concerned about Wallen being “canceled” have clearly rushed to his aid in a big way, streaming and buying his music as a show of support, thereby giving Big Loud very little incentive to hand down a harsher punishment.

At this point, no one is exactly sure what his “suspension” will ultimately entail. Artists frequently go years in between albums and the label has not pulled his existing material from streaming services; in that context, Wallen has thus far been subjected to nothing beyond a highly publicized wrist slap. (Big Loud has reportedly stopped all promotion on his latest album and scrapped a planned 2021-2022 arena tour, but one anonymous source told Billboard the suspension was just a way for them to “kick the can down the road” until the scandal blows over.) By not dropping him entirely or yanking his music from streaming services, the label is sending a clear message that they’re fine taking the money of fans who heard Wallen utter a disgusting racial slur and thought, “That guy needs my support.”

“In the end, labels must make a business decision,” Janet Comenos, CEO of entertainment insurance provider SpottedRisk, told Billboard. “Is Wallen profitable to outweigh the legal fees, PR costs, and incalculable reputational damage of keeping him on their roster?”

It’s obvious that they’ve done the math and determined the answer is yes. And Wallen is just one example of how attempts to hold public figures accountable for “cancelable” actions can lead to a counter-cancellation of sorts. After Gina Carano was recently fired from her role as Cara Dune on The Mandalorian for anti-Semitic social-media posts, Hasbro issued only a vague statement about the status of her character’s action figure.

“We’re thrilled to have the privilege of creating products featuring characters and stories from The Mandalorian for our fans,” Hasbro SVP of Global Communications Julie Duffy said. “Hasbro has completed development of all season 1 and 2 product featuring Cara Dune, and there are no current plans to create more. We are actively working with our retail partners to address existing orders.” It’s unclear what exactly that means for the product they’ve already “completed development” on. Will it be pulled from shelves? It seems unlikely, given that the action figures have already spiked in value thanks to the assumption that they’d be discontinued and become a collector’s item.

Companies need to start drawing a hard line in the sand when it comes to profiting off of the backlash to celebrities being held accountable for their actions. Until they do, no one will ever truly be “canceled.” (Of course, not everyone deserves to be; there should be more nuance in dealing with situations like these, and the punishment should fit the crime.) If and when corporations do the right thing and choose morality over massive sums of cash, others will likely follow their lead.

“Every time a company acts to respond to that public pressure, the bar is now raised,” Sean Smith, executive vice president of reputation practice at PR firm Porter Novelli, told Billboard. “The next time that an artist finds themselves in a situation, the label will be judged against the new timeline.”

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