pornhub music history brooke candy kanye west mykki blanco
Getty Images / Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Live Nation

It’s not exactly difficult for Kanye West to make headlines, but recently he went viral for the right reasons when his unique video for “I Love It,” which features Lil Pump, blew up online. Meme accounts immediately latched on to the weird, Roblox-style costumes and those Yeezy slides, but weirder still was the fact that Kanye debuted the new clip at the inaugural Pornhub Awards, which he also creative directed. The night itself was a wildly entertaining but poorly-organized fiasco complete with neon dildos and countless no-shows, but let’s be real: aside from the Beatles’ joint masturbation sessions, it was the most interesting music news story to emerge in a long, long time.

The Kanye collaboration is far from Pornhub’s first foray into the music industry. The company’s most conventional attempt at a crossover came in 2014, when it officially launched a record label alongside a song search competition. The brief was simple, according to the Pornhub’s vice president Corey Price: “We’re looking for acts that aren’t necessarily porn-focused. We’re an ad-based network looking for content that appeals to our demographic. Mature lyrics for an adult audience: no boy bands or teen-pop, for instance.”

The announcement seemingly emerged from nowhere, but it actually kind of made sense; artists had already been uploading x-rated videos – Xiu Xiu’s “Black Dick” is arguably the best-known example – for a while.

There were even rumors that Coolio would be signed, sparked by some bad reporting from TMZ and a promotional video for the site. Unfortunately they turned out to be false, but we did get a pretty legendary interview from the rapper in which he explained that TMZ had “made that shit up.” “I don’t even watch porn, bro,” he continued. “You know why? Because I am fuckin’ porn! If I want to see porn, I’ll put a fuckin’ mirror next to my bed.”

Next came the song search competition finals. An eclectic (this is journalist speak for “strange as fuck”) panel was quickly hired: T-Pain came on board, as did former Gossip Girl actor Taylor Momsen (later replaced by producer Scott Storch) and Noisey journalist Dan Ozzi, who caught Pornhub’s attention by writing a satirical list of artists that should sign up. As a reward for judging the contest he received an ‘I’m hard at work’ mug, a stack of free porn and even a stress-relief squeeze tit, proving that the company knew exactly how to stay on-brand.

The panel was asked to rate a total of 18 finalists from 1 (poor) to 5 (faptastic!), but the results were so close that two winners were eventually selected: Jordan Royale and Mihannah Zhang. “We wanted an artist to evoke an emotive response representative of the Pornhub brand from listeners,” explained Price in a press release. “Both Jordan and Mihannah did just that.” The songs both had different soundscapes; Royale’s was a woozy trap homage to the cathartic power of porn, whereas Zhang’s was an uptempo rock track with a ‘Pornhub 3-4!’ refrain. They both received prize money to create a video, but neither received a record deal.

This begs the question: would anyone ever be properly signed to Pornhub Records? Was there any point? Rumors suggested that the label folded in 2016, but these were quickly dismissed later in the year when Mykki Blanco released a trippy, futuristic video for ‘Loner’, marking a new, way more credible (sorry Coolio) shift in direction. Since then the site has worked extensively with queer musical talent, although not always to release music: its recently-established Visionaries Club gives money and creative control to stars like Brooke Candy and Young M.A. both of whom have directed diverse, female-focused porn films for the site. Young M.A. also explained that the film, centered on the story of a woman exploring her fantasies, tied into her Herstory EP.

By experimenting outside of the traditional record label format, Pornhub seems to have found its niche. After all, it’s no secret that there’s not as much money in the music industry as there once was, meaning that artists often have to get creative and collaborate with companies in order to execute their visions. Lady Gaga’s ‘paint vomit’ SXSW performance – sponsored somewhat unexpectedly by Doritos – was just one example, and in her keynote speech she underlined the benefits of teaming up with huge corporations to create fresh, big-budget artistic content.

The Kanye link-up ties into this ethos. Arguably no musician is more experimental, daring, and controversial than West, which bodes well for Pornhub; the poor turnout at its awards ceremony indicates that there’s still some reluctance to engage with the idea of an x-rated site as a creative outlet.

But the music industry is in dire need of a shake-up. The advancement of technology revolutionized everything, and plenty of artists have been left struggling as a result. From bizarre chart rules (we heard you, Nicki) to the increasingly tricky task of navigating censorship on platforms like YouTube, there are more barriers than ever facing artists keen to experiment without shying away from NSFW content. This desire to play with taboos and engage with sex is nothing new: look at hip-hop’s legacy of video girls (documented in this amazing BET video series) as well as the now-defunct BET UNCUT, which specifically showcased explicit videos, as examples.

Pornhub Records might have been an ill-conceived concept. Like the recent awards ceremony it seemed to be poorly-organized and overly-ambitious, but this wildly unfiltered approach to creation is exactly what the music industry needs right now. Queer artists are being censored, music video budgets are shrinking and the well of new ideas is quickly running dry, yet Pornhub stays afloat because – obviously – we’re all masturbating just as much as ever.

There’s a necessary conversation to be had about how the site shuts out indie porn-makers, but the fact is that the company has a shitload of money: if this can be invested into philanthropy, or into talented musicians, or into projects designed to make the world just that little bit more enjoyable, then why should we try to block it? Its investments in the art world have yielded a brilliantly queer, futuristic VR exhibition, whereas the Young M.A. and Brooke Candy films – as well as West’s brilliantly bizarre neon dildos – show that musicians can create brilliance when they’re given a platform, a budget and full creative control. Its influence might not manifest in the shape of a record label, but the fact is that Pornhub is one of the brightest hopes for revolution in an increasingly stagnant music industry.

For more like this, read our brief hip-hop history of rap battles

Words by Jake Hall
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