Top 30 Songs About the Music Industry

As many songwriters can attest, some of the best musical inspiration comes simply from the immediate world they see around them. At some point then, things are bound to get a bit meta.

This is especially true when artists bump up against some of the harsh realities of the record-making business: labels that refuse to see the vision, unfairly divided royalties or the general woes of commercialism, to name a few. Many people who enter the industry learn quickly that not everything that glitters is gold.

It helps to put those frustrations into song, as you’ll see in the Top 30 Songs About the Music Industry.

30. “Death on Two Legs,” Queen (from 1975’s A Night at the Opera)

“You suck my blood like a leech / You break the law and you breach / Screw my brain till it hurts,” Freddie Mercury declares in a scathing takedown of a former business associate during the opening moments of 1975’s A Night at the Opera. Although the lyrics didn’t mention recently departed Queen manager Norman Sheffield by name, it’s pretty clear he’s the target of the singer’s rage. “He was very aggrieved with our management at the time. … We had a major worldwide hit with (1974’s) ‘Killer Queen,’ and we were broke and we wanted to know why,” drummer Roger Taylor explained in a promotional video. According to the book Queen: All the Songs, guitarist Brian May attempted to talk his bandmate into toning down the “Death on Two Legs” lyrics, but Mercury insisted on setting the record straight. A lawsuit and an out-of-court settlement followed. A year before his 2014 death, Sheffield told his side of the story in the appropriately titled biography Life on Two Legs: Set the Record Straight. (Matthew Wilkening)

 

29. “Rock and Roll Hell,” Kiss (from 1982’s Creatures of the Night)

With their career on the line after the commercial failure of 1981’s Music From “The Elder,” and after Ace Frehley became the second founding member to leave the band in less than two years, Kiss regrouped with 1982’s Creatures of the Night. After delivering a scathing send-off to the former lead guitarist in “Saint and Sinner” (“Without you, it’s aces high!”), Gene Simmons illustrates the personal toll paid by many struggling musicians in “Rock and Roll Hell”: “Been under fire 16 years, just waitin’ for his time to come / He fought the lies, fought the tears, can’t wait to hear that starting gun.” The song was co-written by Simmons, Jim Vallance and a pre-breakthrough Bryan Adams. In a real-life reflection of the industry injustices laid out in the song, Simmons admitted in the book Kiss: Behind the Mask that his contributions to the song weren’t in line with the credit he received: “Mostly it was an Adams and Vallance song. Their names should have been at the top ahead of mine.” (Wilkening)

 

28. “For the Roses,” Joni Mitchell (from 1972’s For the Roses)

By 1972 Joni Mitchell had practically become synonymous with confessional songwriting thanks to her groundbreaking 1971 album Blue. After nearly a decade of working in the music industry, Mitchell knew there was a price to pay for that honesty, which she wrote about in “For the Roses”: “In some office sits a poet and he trembles as he sings. / And he asks some guy to circulate his soul around.” Mitchell may also have been alluding to former boyfriend James Taylor, whose career was taking off around this time. She was more than familiar with the scene. “Remember the days when you used to sit and make up your tunes for love,” she sings. “And now you’re seen on giant screens and at parties for the press / And for people who have slices of you from the company.” (Allison Rapp)

 

27. “No Surprize,” Aerosmith (from 1979’s Night in the Ruts)

“No Surprize” is the kind of perverse, whip-smart superhero origin story that only Aerosmith could write. Steven Tyler traces the band’s humble beginnings to slogging it out in dive bars and finally striking gold at Max’s Kansas City, where they caught the ear of Columbia Records president Clive Davis and began their steady climb to superstardom. The irony is that Aerosmith was already in the throes of a nearly career-ending downward spiral by the time they released “No Surprize” and its accompanying album, Night in the Ruts. But you’d never know it from the sound of the song’s firecracker riffs and freight-train rhythms. “The boys kept kicking ass / As usual time would tell,” Tyler snarls, and against all odds, he makes good on his claim. (Bryan Rolli)

 

26. “Free Man in Paris,” Joni Mitchell (from 1974’s Court and Spark)

Joni Mitchell’s label boss David Geffen wasn’t initially thrilled to find out she had written a song about him. “He begged me to take it off,” the singer-songwriter told Blender in 2004. “I think he felt uncomfortable being shown in the light. The song tells the tale of a harried music industry executive finally able to find relief from everybody calling him up for favors and advice while on vacation in the city of light and daydreaming of the time when he could leave the rat race behind.” Although Mitchell fought to keep the song, she said “it never sounded like a single” and was surprised when Asylum insisted on releasing it as the follow-up to the Top 10 “Help Me.” It turned out to be the right move: “Free Man in Paris” became one of Mitchell’s most popular songs. (Wilkening)

 

25. “Pop Singer,” John Mellencamp (from 1989’s Big Daddy)

For all of its glamor, the music industry is a harsh world where “playing the game” often outweighs the quality of an artist’s material. Making the right friends, scratching the right backs and embracing the right image are all necessary when a musician wants to make it big. By 1989, John Mellencamp had paid his dues and enjoyed massive success. In “Pop Singer” he declared he was finally done with the music industry’s ways. “This song is me realizing what kind of monster I’d created,” he explained to Rolling Stone. “I was questioning the validity and the importance of music. Things were changing. Everybody was having to kiss everybody’s ass. If you want to be on MTV, then come here and do this. All these backroom deals were getting made. I was like, ‘I don’t want any part of this.’” (Corey Irwin)

 

24. “The Stroke,” Billy Squier (from 1981’s Don’t Say No)

Billy Squier had toughed it out in the music business for more than a decade by the time he hit it big with “The Stroke,” so his sentiments about industry ego-stroking don’t come cheap. His songwriting chops don’t come easy either. The Massachusetts-born singer and guitarist strikes gold with his simple, inedible power-chord riffage and Robert Plant-style wail. The fact that so many people mistook “The Stroke” to be about masturbation only further emphasizes the shallowness and lack of critical thinking in the industry Squier rails against. (Rolli)

 

23. “Vanz Kant Danz,” John Fogerty (from 1985’s Centerfield)

John Fogerty doesn’t do much to hide the subject of “Vanz Kant Danz.” The song was even originally titled “Zanz Can’t Dance,” an obvious swipe at former Fantasy Records boss Saul Zaentz, who later sued Fogerty for plagiarizing his Creedence Clearwater Revival songs. Fogerty and Zaentz’s relationship was tense almost from the start; “Zanz Kant Dance,” which is about a street dancer whose trained pig picks pockets while his owner entertains, drove home the point. Zaentz threatened to sue Fogerty for defamation, so Fogerty changed the pig’s name to Vanz. But Fogerty’s bitter sentiment remained: “Vanz can’t dance, but he’ll steal your money / Watch him or he’ll rob you blind.” (Rapp)

 

22. “Mercury Poisoning,” Graham Parker (1979 single)

As Graham Parker’s relationship with Mercury Records fractured, his next move was to record “Mercury Poisoning” about the company’s lack of promotion. Arista, his new label in the States, thought it was “great fun,” according to Parker, but England’s Phonogram refused to release it. Parker was infuriated, noting that the company’s reticence to get involved in the feud was partly because he announced his intentions to leave that label, too. “I thought I could change the music industry, I thought I would change everything” he later remarked, adding, “It turns out, I was right.” (Matt Wardlaw)

 

21. “This Song,” George Harrison (from 1976’s Thirty Three & 1/3)

The thing about the music business is that it’s just that: a business. Even the most famous songwriters have to abide by its rules. In February 1971, George Harrison was hit with a lawsuit over his 1970 No. 1 “My Sweet Lord” because it sounded like the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” Harrison wondered how he had managed to miss the similarity – “He’s So Fine” was a huge hit in 1963 – as legal proceedings dragged out for years. “This Song” found Harrison voicing his frustrations over the complicated case, one that eventually set a legal precedent for music copyrights. It’s half-satirical, half-serious, as Harrison played up the joke in the song’s promotional video, which depicted him sitting in the witness box in court while the judge ponders his fate. (Rapp)

 

20. “On the Other Hand,” Sammy Hagar (from 1997’s Marching to Mars)

Sammy Hagar spent much of his first post-Van Halen solo album, 1997’s Marching to Mars, working through various stages of anger and grief over his acrimonious departure from the band. “On the Other Hand” finds him taking very specific aim at Ray Danniels, who took over as the band’s manager following the 1993 death of Ed Leffler. Hagar accuses Danniels of intentionally driving a wedge between the frontman and the Van Halen brothers to facilitate a reunion with the band’s former singer, David Lee Roth. “Was an evil man, money on his mind,” Hagar seethes. “He don’t want chump change, he want the big kind.” If that wasDanniels’ plan, it had already backfired by the time Marching to Mars came out: Van Halen’s 1996 reunion with Roth imploded during their first public appearance together. (Wilkening)

 

19. “Workin’ for MCA,” Lynyrd Skynyrd (from 1974’s Second Helping)

Lynyrd Skynyrd signed their first record deal in 1972 with a fledgling label called Sounds of the South, which had a distribution deal with MCA. Weeks before their debut album was released a year later, the band played a showcase for MCA bigwigs. It was at this gig that they debuted a song about their emerging career. “Workin’ for MCA” chronicled the band’s signing story and rise out of the Southern music scene. Its chorus – “Want you to sign your contract / Want you to sign today / Gonna give you lots of money / Workin’ for MCA”  – was tongue in cheek since the band had yet to make money on the deal. “Workin’ for MCA” was eventually released on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s second album, Second Helping. (Irwin)

 

18. “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” The Beatles (from 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour)

By 1967, these guys were all absurdly rich men, long ago crowned music industry kings. But beyond what appears to be a self-referential wink, the commentary here isn’t particularly deep: On the chorus, John Lennon sings the title phrase over and over, adding, in a perfectly whimsical psych-era flourish, “You keep all your money in a big, brown bag inside a zoo.” (Hey, it doesn’t seem like the safest or most efficient storage system, but you do you!) Still, this drugged-out Magical Mystery Tour tune, with its strong Indian influence, heavy bass line and carnivalesque swirl from electronic keyboard the clavioline, certainly feels profound — a trick the Beatles pulled off time and time again. (Ryan Reed)

 

17. “I Love My Label,” Nick Lowe (from 2008’s deluxe edition of 1978’s Jesus of Cool)

“I Love My Label” was co-written with Stiff Records co-founder Jake Riviera around the time of Nick Lowe’s debut album, 1978’s Jesus of Cool. When Riviera left Stiff, so did Lowe, who signed with the newly formed Radar Records. It’s not entirely clear which label Lowe is referring to here, but one thing is clear: He couldn’t be happier working with people who were invested in giving young songwriters like Lowe a shot. “I’m so proud of them up here / We’re one big, happy family.” Jesus of Cool, one of the first LPs released by Radar, was a prime example of when record deals go right. (Rapp)

 

16. “Only a Northern Song,” The Beatles (from 1969’s Yellow Submarine)

The sense of irony was probably lost on most when George Harrison sang, “It doesn’t really matter what chords I play … as it’s only a northern song.” After all, only the most careful of liner-note readers might notice that John Lennon and Paul McCartney‘s songs were published by Northern Songs. The company was created by music publisher Dick James and Beatles manager Brian Epstein in 1963 and made them hired-gun composers until the deal expired five years later. Harrison, meanwhile, found himself limited to one song per side (at most) – and was given no ownership stake in Northern Songs. Finally fed up, he dashed off this nasty little tune during the sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This being 1967, and also a period of dizzying musical creativity, the Beatles turned the results into a kaleidoscopic psych-rock symphony. (Nick DeRiso)

 

15. “This Note’s for You,” Neil Young (from 1988’s This Note’s for You)

Neil Young has never been shy when it comes to expressing opinions. In the title track to his 1988 album This Note’s for You, he aims at all the artists stumping for corporate brands during the era. He gets his point across in just over two minutes in a bluesy song that Michelob no doubt would have loved to use in a commercial. The accompanying video lampooned several ad campaigns of the time. Because so many of them were TV sponsors, MTV banned the clip but eventually relented, even awarding the clip Video of the Year at the VMAs the next year. (Wardlaw)

 

14. “The Entertainer,” Billy Joel (from 1974’s Streetlife Serenade)

As with all the best Billy Joel songs, “The Entertainer” marries the New Yorker’s acerbic wit with his uncanny knack for pop hooks. The result is a scathing, cynical takedown of a fickle, profit-driven industry — or maybe a love letter to the greatest job in the world. Either way, it’s a maddeningly catchy tune that eschews the Piano Man’s weapon of choice for relentless acoustic guitar strums and a careening synthesizer hook. “The Entertainer” also contains one of Joel’s most memorable, evergreen lyrics, about the hacking of his five-and-a-half-minute opus “The Piano Man”: “It was a beautiful song / But it ran too long / If you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit / So they cut it down to 3:05.” (Rolli)

 

13. “Turn the Page,” Bob Seger (from 1973’s Back in ’72)

“Turn the Page” soundtracks the never-ending grind of touring life and how it can tear away every layer of an artist’s soul. Bob Seger strips away any pretense of glamour in the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle with each passing verse. Metallica later covered the song and gave a particularly scary snarl to the second verse, which tackles the indignities that come with the more public moments of life on the road. “Turn the Page” is a cautionary tale that feels like you’ve spent a grueling day with the touring Seger, culminating in the final moments when he’s finally alone in his relatively quiet bunk. (Wardlaw)

 

12. “EMI,” Sex Pistols (from 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols)

Sex Pistols weren’t exactly known for their coherence, beginning with the boneheaded decision to fire bass-playing principal songwriter Glen Matlock after making the first pass at “E.M.I.” This tightly focused takedown is one of the rare exceptions. Johnny Rotten gleefully rails against the label that signed Sex Pistols to great fanfare, only to feign horror and then cancel their deal when the inevitable antics followed: “I tell you it was all a frame. They only did it ‘cos of fame,” he howls as the others angrily chant “E.M.I.!” Train-wreck replacement Sid Vicious took over for Matlock but was so incompetent that guitarist Steve Jones had to handle almost all of the bass duties. (DeRiso)

 

11. “Life’s Been Good,” Joe Walsh (from 1978’s But Seriously, Folks…) 

For a legendary hell-raiser, Joe Walsh sure knew how to write a laid-back rock ‘n’ roll anthem. “Life’s Been Good” displays all of the Eagles axman’s greatest gifts: crunchy riffs, wily slide guitar work, offbeat pop hooks and that nasally, roguish, I-know-something-you-don’t-know sneer. Walsh deftly and vividly outlines his myriad acts of debauchery with zingers like “I go to parties sometimes until 4 / It’s hard to leave when you can’t find the door.” It’s a little sad, plenty uproarious, and you can’t help but root for Walsh when he declares, “It’s tough to handle this fortune and fame / Everybody’s so different, I haven’t changed.” (Rolli)

 

10. “We’re an American Band,” Grand Funk Railroad (from 1973’s We’re an American Band)

Grand Funk Railroad was at a crossroads in 1972. The band’s most recent album, Phoenix, had failed to meet commercial expectations. Meanwhile, the group was embroiled in a lawsuit with its former manager. “It was a very tumultuous time period,” drummer Don Brewer recalled to Songfacts. “I remember lots of discussions in the back of cars going, ‘What are we going to do next?’ Our manager kept saying, ‘Why don’t you just write songs about what you do: you’re out here on the road, you’re going to this hotel, you go to different places, there’s people, you come into town … .’” So that’s exactly what they did. “We’re an American Band” was ripped right from Grand Funk Railroad’s tour life. Its lyrics name-dropped cities, groupies and poker games, and gave an unapologetic look at life on the road. The song also became their first No. 1 single. (Irwin)

 

9. “Complete Control,” The Clash (from 1977’s The Clash)

In May 1977 the Clash’s record company released a song called “Remote Control” as a single without the band’s permission. Just months later the band responded with “Complete Control,” lashing out at CBS, industry suits and the state of punk music in the U.K. that summer. “They said, ‘Release “Remote Control,”‘ but we didn’t want it on the label,” Joe Strummer sings over Mick Jones’ stabbing guitar. “They said we’d be artistically free when we signed that bit of paper / They meant, ‘Let’s make lots of money and worry about it later.’” The Clash got the last laugh: “Complete Control” was the bigger hit. (Michael Gallucci)

 

8. “Video Killed the Radio Star,” The Buggles, (from 1980’s The Age of Plastic)

“Video Killed the Radio Star” became the first music video on MTV, airing at 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 1, 1981, despite having been released two years earlier as the Buggles’ debut single. The song felt weirdly prescient then, as a new technological advance transformed the music industry. Turns out, it would be far from the last. “That was the whole essence of the song,” co-writer Geoff Downes said in 2012. “It wasn’t specifically about video succeeding over radio. The song was about how technology was changing lives. In many ways, that was a very prophetic statement, when you look at the way that people receive music now. Technology is very much the medium now. The lyrics talk about machines writing music, and that’s actually happened, too.” (DeRiso)

 

7. “Into the Great Wide Open,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (from 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open)

“Into the Great Wide Open” had such a defined, linear narrative that it seemed tailor-made for MTV. It didn’t disappoint. The song’s Julien Temple-directed video starred Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Matt LeBlanc and a bustling cast of characters portrayed by Tom Petty. (The Heartbreakers made cameos, too.) Taking advantage of an Arizona set where Depp and Dunaway were on a hiatus from filming, Temple got so engrossed in a storyline following the unlikely rise and inevitable fall of an upstart musician named Eddie Rebel that the director ended up with 18 minutes of edited film. They eventually cut it down to seven, but Temple worried that was still overlong for network broadcast. “Don’t say anything about it, just send it,” Petty later remembered saying. “They played it in heavy rotation for months.” (DeRiso)

 

6. “The Load-Out,” Jackson Browne (from 1977’s Running on Empty)

Jackson Browne’s travelogue album focusing on life on the road draws to a close with a loving tribute to the roadies who assemble and then quickly disassemble the stages where he stands in the nightly spotlight. Browne had been working to construct “The Load-Out” when they ran out of material during an encore at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland. Drummer Russ Kunkel suggested they make another pass, and that first take became the definitive recording of the song when paired with a sweet-hearted version of “Stay.” There could scarcely have been a better way to close out Running on Empty – or any Jackson Browne concert. When an overeager fan shouted for “The Load-Out” early into one of his all-request shows, Browne memorably quipped: “I could play that, but then we’d have to leave.” (DeRiso)

 

5. “Barracuda,” Heart (from 1977’s Little Queen)

Heart was experiencing plenty of industry frustrations back in 1977 — partly directed at their original label, Mushroom Records, which infamously released an unfinished version of the band’s second LP, Magazine. (Heart eventually recorded some tweaks for a rerelease.) The Wilson sisters, singer Ann and guitarist Nancy, were also facing outright sexism. Backstage after a show opening for the Kinks, a man asked Ann about her love life — implying an incestuous relationship between the Wilsons. Furious, the singer went back to her hotel and hammered out the lyrics to “Barracuda,” a raging rocker that compares such scheming, slippery jerks to bloodthirsty fish. “It was the first moment, too, I think I realized what kind of business we were in,” Ann told Professor of Rock in 2019. (Reed)

 

4. “Radio, Radio,” Elvis Costello (from 1978’s This Year’s Model)

Elvis Costello didn’t even bother to hide his intentions from his bosses: “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me / I wanna bite that hand so badly / I want to make them wish they’d never seen me.” He was inspired to write the song after the BBC attempted to ban the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” The single (which found its way to the U.S. version of his second album, This Year’s Model), perhaps not so surprisingly, bombed, presumably because those radio execs Costello reprehend weren’t going to play a song that badmouths them. Costello ended up using the song for a greater protest: a Saturday Night Live appearance where he abruptly changed course and performed “Radio Radio” instead of an approved song, pissing off NBC execs. (Gallucci)

 

3. “Welcome to the Machine,” Pink Floyd (from 1975’s Wish You Were Here)

The vibe is downright science fiction. Over shimmering synthesizers and industrial, electronic tape effects, David Gilmour shouts lyrics from the perspective of a seemingly omniscient authority figure: “Where have you been? It’s all right, we know where you’ve been … What did you dream? / It’s all right, we told you what to dream.” Several tracks on Pink Floyd’s ninth LP deal with the industry, either directly (criticizing cigar-chomping bigwig executives in “Have a Cigar”) or indirectly. But no song — from any rock band at any time — handles this subject matter more creepily than “Welcome to the Machine,” which envisions artists as drone-like figures lured in by glamor and ultimately discarded. (Reed)

 

2. “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” The Byrds (from 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday)

Singing about the drudgeries of being globe-trotting pop stars was practically unheard of in early 1967 when the Byrds released “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” It starts innocently enough, as Roger McGuinn advises over a chiming guitar, “Just get an electric guitar, then take some time and learn how to play.” But it soon takes a more cynical tone: “Sell your soul to the company who are waiting there to sell plastic ware.” McGuinn claimed he and bandmate Chris Hillman got the inspiration from a teen magazine, where “everyone … and his pet bullfrog [were] singing rock ‘n’ roll,” a possible swipe at the Monkees, who were on top of the world at the time. (Gallucci)

 

1. “Have a Cigar,” Pink Floyd (from 1975’s Wish You Were Here)

Is there a more damning indictment of the record industry than Pink Floyd’s classic “Have a Cigar”? After telling the band how much they just love their music and how big they’re gonna be, a clueless exec asks, “Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?” The song’s parent album, Wish You Were Here, is all about the toll the constant grind of touring and recording took on the band’s original leader, Syd Barrett. (The track right before it is called “Welcome to the Machine,” which gives you a pretty good idea of their scorn for their label bosses.) Folk singer Roy Harper (doing his best David Gilmour) sings lead, but “Have a Cigar” is a definitive song in the Pink Floyd catalog. (Gallucci)

Top 100 Classic Rock Artists

Click through to find out how they stack up, as we count down the Top 100 classic rock artists.

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