Focusing on the Lyon family, who own and operate a major record label/entertainment company, Empire supposedly takes viewers inside the music business. But week to week, it becomes increasingly obvious that Empire is not a reflection of how the music industry actually operates, much less how it runs in 2015.
In the pilot episode, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), the big wig hip-hop tycoon, says one absolutely correct thing about the music industry, only to arrive at a completely incorrect conclusion. "The internet," Lucious says, "has destroyed the musician's ability to make money." If we give Lucious the benefit of the doubt and assume he's talking about middle-class artists who historically made money from record deals and sales, this is absolutely true. Generating cash in the 2015 music scene is a completely new game because of the internet.
But then Lucious tells the board "it's impossible for disenfranchised kids" to become stars in the modern music world. Not true. YouTube and SoundCloud have made it easier than ever for new unknowns to dart into the spotlight without the help of a major label—and that's especially true in hip-hop and R&B—Lucious's specialty. Many artists have bubbled up into the mainstream from the underground. Common. Soulja Boy. Bobby Shmurda. Fetty Wap.
Lucious's rant sounds more like it belongs in 2003 at the height of Napster fear, not in 2015.
Empire seems to be set in the hip hop industry from about 1994 to 2006. There are yachts, conference rooms with basketball hoops. And yet the plot of the show makes damn sure that it cannot actually exist in that time period.
The storyline concerning Empire Records doing an IPO might actually be the most ludicrious idea presented in season one. Empire Records' sole focus is on R&B music (fine), but the label has one R&B singer and one rapper, and doesn't seem to be handling those two with much grace or finesse. To go public, a label needs to show it is lucrative, which would be easy for a company like Sony or Universal. Empire Records might have leather couches, but it certainly doesn't have stable income.
Imagine if Grey's Anatomy took place in a hospital but no one bothered to learn how hospitals work, so instead of using a board to assign surgeries, names were just shouted across an atrium. Imagine if the president on Scandal didn't need the approval of Congress and could just do whatever he wanted. The shows would seem preposterous.
That's what's happening with Empire, despite its affiliation with actual artists— Terrence Howard, Yazz the Greatest, and the music producer Timbaland, on board to help write and produce songs for the show.
The show succeeds when it shows real issues in the music industry: The depths labels and artists are willing to stoop to for success, the institutionalized racism and sexism involved.
Promotions for upcoming episodes in season two hint at moving into a more modern atmosphere; theres a clip of Hakeem saying he’s leaked his new album onto the internet. But even that is an outdated concept. Artists have been leaking albums since before the iTunes store launched in 2003.
Empire is fun, soapy, and ridiculous, but it is not an accurate depiction of the modern day music industry. How artists make money in 2015—and how fragile record labels really are today—would be less glamorous, but would make for good TV. Interesting plots could be based on how real life labels have a vested interest in Spotify succeeding, but are losing money to it. Set in the modern day, Lucious could deal with streaming—a crawfish boil of drama, secret back door deals, non-disclosure agreements, and unexpected superstars.
But Empire can't use these plot lines. It exists in a world where album sales are a main form of revenue, where social media is barely a blip, and a small label goes public. A world that simply doesn't exist.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.