Country music and graphic sexual content have rarely gone hand in hand. So it’s ironic that it was a country project that finally tested the limits of what PledgeMusic users would withstand, with complaints from customers leading to the crowd-funding site canceling a campaign for the first time ever.
But maybe it’s not so unexpected a development to anyone familiar with the career of Wheeler Walker Jr., whom Rolling Stone once called “unfathomably obscene” and whose new single “Pussy King” represents almost the closest thing he’s had to a song title that can be printed in the proverbial family newspaper.
At the end of February, PledgeMusic took the unprecedented step of removing a pledge drive for Walker’s sophomore album from the site and refunding all users who had placed pre-orders. As a result, Walker has been on the warpath, claiming that the canceled pledges have confused fans who are no longer sure if his sophomore album, Ol’ Wheeler, is still coming out June 2. His angered fans took to trolling a PledgeMusic page promoting pre-orders for a forthcoming album by the band 311, until all the derogatory comments were deleted en masse.
“When you’re an independent artist and they start taking thousands of dollars out of your pocket, that’s literally your pocket,” says Walker. “I’ve got to pay to cross my fingers my fans are going to find the new link to buy it again. I can’t go on tour until I get some album money and pay for a van. They’re directly affecting my business when they already agreed to it in the first place.”
Said PledgeMusic in a statement: “The Wheeler Walker Jr. campaign was initially released without any editing and elicited strong fan complaints. In an effort to be responsible to both the artists and fans that engage on our platform, we asked for modifications to the campaign’s presentation. This included a video describing the overall campaign and the names of the packages being offered, not the actual album content.”
Speaking to Billboard, Walker retorts: “What I heard was that their customers just started complaining, but I make my living from customers complaining, so it didn’t throw me. That’s good for me. But maybe there were some really hard-core Christian conservative bands on there whose fans were complaining.”
He suspects one value-added element in particular may have caused the problems. “With some of the pre-orders comes a black-light poster where, when you turn the lights off, I jacked off on it and my jizz glows in the dark. I don’t know if that’s because I went through a radiation machine when I was a baby or whatever. But I made a video to tell people about that, and then I said in the video how my poster was way better than Garth Brooks’. I think some people maybe got upset about that.”
At this point, it would be worth mentioning that Wheeler’s previous album, last year’s Redneck Shit, showed up on Billboard’s Comedy Albums as well as Country Albums charts, peaking at No. 1 on the former and No. 2 on the latter. Walker is the alter ego of comedian Ben Hoffman, a former Kentuckian who introduced the character when he had his own Comedy Central show in 2013. He’s committed to staying in character, interviews included.
Alt-country hero Sturgill Simpson, appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, talked about hooking up Walker with Nashville producer Dave Cobb. The Grammy nominee recounted mentioning to Walker/Hoffman, “You can't tiptoe; it's gotta be full fucking [Andy] Kaufman or I don't ever want to see you again.'” But, while maintaining character, the singer/comic swears he isn’t kidding around when it comes to feeling ripped off by his crowd-funding experience. “The second anyone starts to censor me, it’s kind of no going back,” he says. “It’s weird for me to get in an argument where I’m in the right, because usually I just rip on shit that’s stupid, but this one got personal.”
“Unfortunately, with this campaign, Wheeler lost out on thousands of dollars of pre-orders,” says Jesse Atwell, the senior VP of marketing at Triple 8, Walker’s Austin- and Nashville-based management firm. “PledgeMusic sent them a refund email from a no-reply inbox, and that’s how they found out their order was canceled. When Wheeler’s fans started going online and expressing their opinion, PledgeMusic reached out and said, ‘Can you stop the spamming?’ We told them, ‘Fans are not under our control.’ Their reply was, ‘Point taken, but Wheeler’s messaging to them is.’ So not only was the campaign officially off, but now they were coming back and asking us to change the story.”
Atwell contends that there is an inconsistency between what PledgeMusic said was objectionable about Wheeler’s promotion and what is allowed for other acts on the site. “With the video that Wheeler is mentioning, the customer has to go and push play and experience that video. With some of these other campaigns, oftentimes the offensive content was featured front and center. Amanda Palmer, who is a fantastic direct-to-consumer case study, has a campaign titled ‘The Amanda Fucking Palmer Salon,’ and this is all public and all unedited. Rob Zombie offers a poster that has naked aliens fucking each other.” Steel Panther is another PledgeMusic campaign, and one of their offers, Atwell points out, is a personal video set visit that, per the language on the page, “does not guarantee that you won’t get a 5-gallon bucket of cum dropped onto your head.”
“Why didn’t I fuckin’ think of that?” interjects Walker.
A spokesperson for PledgeMusic said those other campaigns didn’t generate complaints. The number of objections registered by users is “proprietary information, but I can tell you we’ve not gotten this kind of pushback, ever. We represent the artists but also the fans, so when our users really take issue with something, we have to listen to them as well. People are being misled that somehow we’re trying to edit his creative output, when in fact I would have hoped in some ways we’d be applauded for wanting to put it out there without one note of editing. We only wanted to refine the presentation in a way that the greatest number of fans could be exposed to it, so everybody wins. Unfortunately, the artist wasn’t willing to make those changes, which we respect. Despite some of the not-nice things he’s said about PledgeMusic, we wish him the best and hope we can do business with him again, because we would bring a lot of value to the table for him. We are reviewing our process and how to deal with these types of situations.”
Regardless of the outcome of this kerfuffle, the dispute does raise awareness of the not always consistent ways in which vulgar titles or descriptions are handled on digital sites, well after the censorship wars have mostly ended. PledgeMusic says they wanted Walker to “refine the presentation in the way that other platforms would present it. If you look at iTunes as an example, obviously they asterisk out the U-C in the word ‘fuck.’ That was an ask we made in this campaign” — which both sides agree Walker declined, prior to the campaign being axed. Walker points out that while iTunes does blot out letters in song titles like “Fuck You Bitch” and “Can’t Fuck You Off My Mind,” Apple did put the lyric video for the new song, “Pussy King,” on their main country page without any asterisks or video edits. (Spotify, for its part, does not edit Walker’s song titles at all.)
“Country music is so behind,” says Walker. “When was the 2 Live Crew thing, in the ’80s? No one’s even pushed the boundaries of country in those intervening fucking 30 years. Talk about playing it safe. They could use some controversy.”
This story originally ran on Billboard.