As recently as six weeks ago, Zayn Malik’s solo career appeared to be in a precarious position. Songs and remixes featuring Malik’s vocals were being released by people who were not Malik. Reports surfaced that the 22-year-old was not allowed to officially release solo music for another two years for legal reasons. Naughty Boy, the producer he had been recording with following his One Direction departure, was publicly dismissed by Malik as a “fat joke.” This was after 1D’s Louis Tomlinson engaged in an awkward Twitter feud with his former band mate, and One Direction diehards panicked over their allegiances.
Malik’s decision to go solo last March made international headlines, and his debut was always going to generate enormous attention. From an outside perspective, however, Malik’s first few months post-1D were a professional mess, full of half-finished songs and unanswered questions. With a first step this clumsy, could Malik be seriously expected to stride toward stardom without his band mates?
Fortunately for fans, Malik’s career looks to be back on track. This week’s back-to-back signings with Turn First Artists management and RCA Records signals the proper first snap of Malik’s solo career following months of false starts. There’s no time frame for his solo bow, but Zayn stans can rest easy knowing that it will likely be handled the right way.
Malik’s partnership with Turn First, which follows his time with Modest! Management as 1/5th of 1D, underlines a dedication to genuine artist development. The London-based company headed by Sarah Stennett has used the financial backing of Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge as a means of slowly growing its roster of pop talent, which includes Iggy Azalea and Ellie Goulding.
Azalea has had a messy 2015, but her phenomenal 2014 represented the culmination of years of patient evolution and mixtape buzz; similarly, Goulding has turned into a U.S. pop force over a four-year period of gradually increasing popularity. Stennett and her team are about the long game, not the quick fix; with Malik, expect a campaign that positions him as a career artist instead of That Guy From One Direction.
Meanwhile, the RCA Records signing makes perfect sense for Malik. The absorption of Jive, Arista and J Records by RCA in late 2011 turned the surviving label into a juggernaut under the Sony banner, with over 100 artists both large and small under the watch of CEO Peter Edge and label president Tom Corson. Aside from a few recent exceptions, RCA is not known as a label that helps smaller artists grow into household names, partially because its roster is just so massive. For every Tinashe or Walk The Moon, there’s a Brooke Candy or Smallpools that has yet to reach full potential in the States. However, the label has an impressive track record of maximizing the success of artists with some semblance of name recognition — in other words, turning stars into superstars.
For instance, look at what the RCA brain trust has done with Miley Cyrus’ music career: after splitting with Hollywood Records upon the disappointment of 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed, Cyrus reinvented herself on the new label and became an A-lister with 2013’s Bangerz. P!nk re-upped with RCA last year for a multi-album deal, after the label turned the singer-songwriter into a top-line artist with her last two albums. The RCA team turned Justin Timberlake’s 2013 comeback into an international enterprise, helped Usher continue cranking out radio hits as he interminably finishes his next album, kept the Foo Fighters rolling as one of rock’s biggest acts this decade, and morphed Sia from a songwriting star into an in-demand artist with a No. 1 album. There have been high-profile misses (Shakira’s last album noticeably underperformed), but over the past four years, RCA has consistently proven itself to be a solid home for big artists looking to become even bigger.
This is the position Malik is in, as he embarks on a career as a known entity with no official solo songs to his name. Malik’s team (which also includes Simon Cowell’s Syco Records in the U.K.) has been smartly assembled, and one can already see the relative wrongs committed by Malik over the past few months being righted.
The animosity between Malik and the remaining One Direction members appears to have evaporated, with Malik recently tweeting his “bro” Liam Payne on the group’s five-year anniversary. The rift with Naughty Boy may be irreparable, but in an exciting creative development, Malik recently logged studio time with Malay, Frank Ocean’s creative partner and producer. And the RCA signing effectively puts the “two-year wait” rumor, which was never confirmed, to bed. Malik will now have his own team at RCA, it’s been confirmed to Billboard, and since the label and One Direction’s home, Columbia Records, are both under the Sony Music banner, there’s no ill will between Malik’s past and present homes. (Reps for RCA and Turn First could not be reached to comment for this story.)
It will still be up to Malik to build upon his post-1D momentum and develop a project that establishes himself as an artist worth investing in. That’s a difficult task no matter which label or management team is behind an artist’s career. But having the correct team in place is undoubtedly a big boost, and Malik’s career is in a much healthier position now with Turn First and RCA as part of his bedrock. “I guess I never explained why I left , it was for this moment to be given the opportunity to show you who i really am!” Malik tweeted on Wednesday after the RCA signing was announced. The past few months have been inelegant for the former boy bander, but Malik is right to be excited.