A piece about music and a business that forgot about it. - by Alexander Ferzan
Last night I watched a web version of Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre interview on the Late Show with David Letterman. I was a little late to the party, so I re-caught it on YouTube.com. After viewing the interview in it’s entirety, I found myself stuck on something other than the obscurity of Phoenix’s answers and demeanor; his presence. I kept thinking to myself, “is he trying to look like Rick Rubin”? I discussed the interview with a few members from a band I represent called The Urgency and Tyler Gurwicz (lead singer) immediately brought up the peculiarity of Phoenix’s interview. However, when I responded with remarks about his uncanny resemblance to something Rubin-esque, he immediately proclaimed, “That’s it! The hip-hop, the beard, he’s making a movie about Rick Rubin and he’s method acting!” I like Joaquin Phoenix a lot and I’d like to think he’s sober. In which case Tyler could have a solid hypothesis, despite Phoenix’s statement about his sabbatical from acting.
The interview with Phoenix led me to poking around the Internet for images of Rick Rubin. I wanted to line up Phoenix’s photo next to Rubin’s photo and reconcile my case for the blatant adoption of imagery. I thought Rubin would have fallen victim to some college kid’s attempt at being original and ended up on an Urban Outfitters’ tee shirt or poster, in silhouette form, looking up and to the right like Dr. King or Barack Obama.
My search reaped minor edible bounty, however I did stumble upon an article in the NY Times from September 2nd, 2007. Lynn Hirschberg (whose photo of Rubin appears above) wrote a piece called “The Music Man”, in which she dissects the relationship between Rubin and Columbia Records, Rubin and his laissez-faire production methodology and Rubin and the industry as a whole. Hirschberg describes Rubin, as he hears a then new signing called The Gossip, as almost meditative in his listening practices. I must admit the article does make you feel quite close to Rick.
Situation after situation, the writer gingerly skips right through a piece of Rubin’s career that hit me like a ton of bricks. “In 1993, Rubin saw that the word ‘Def’ was now in dictionaries, and he decided to change the name of his company. Inspired by a documentary he’d seen about the hippie movement, Rubin held a formal funeral for ‘Def’. ‘When advertisers and the fashion world co-opted the image of hippies, a group of the original hippies in San Francisco literally buried the image of the hippie,’ Rubin explained. ‘When ‘Def’ went from street lingo to mainstream, it defeated its purpose.’”
The funeral was said to be “lavish”. Guests such as The Rev. Al Sharpton, Amazing Kreskin, Tom Petty, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers were in attendance. That day the word was laid to rest, stamped with a tombstone at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery (now called Hollywood Forever Cemetery). This marked the “Death of Def”.
The day “Def” died, if you will, helped to shine light on another important milestone in the Music Industry, “The Birth of Deaf”. “The Birth of Deaf” is like the day Cro-Magnon man lost his 10,000-year battle with Homo-sapien. In other words, no one can really site the date and time the species split, but in retrospect we can look at evolution and recognize a time period in which the divide became not only clear, but also very relevant to the rest of history. “Def” didn’t die when Webster thought it was relevant enough to define it, nor did it die the day Rick Rubin buried it, but we marked that occasion as the date of decease. “Def” was dead the day it left Rubin’s NYU dorm and fell flat faced onto a conference table at Polygram and another (less-white) white guy said it without any street cred. Equally so, “Deaf” wasn’t born that day either.
“The Music Business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” - Hunter S. Thompson
The Music Industry has been the butt of a lot of similar cynical criticism. In reality, the Entertainment industry as a whole is a breeding ground for problems. Look at it as simply as possible. People who strive to be successful in the entertainment industry have one common goal: to be famous…and subsequently rich. You might have heard a common disguise for that aspiration, “I want my music to be heard…” or “I want to be given a voice…” Usually those two quotes are followed by “…so that I can make a difference.” Fine. Thank you Bono for world peace and thank you Pam Anderson for saving the whales. However upon further examination it’s safe to say that most people that really make noticeable differences in the world (political, social, etc.) are not famous. Prior to their “difference” and more times that not, after their “difference”, they remain unrecognized outside of their specific peer group of humanitarians and philanthropists.
We’re left with a fundamental stimulant, the desire to be famous. Any person who desires to be famous is absolutely egocentric. Most likely they are sociopathic, delusional and vain, but we can leave those for a case-by-case analysis. What do you get when you create jobs revolving around making people who strive to be famous’ dreams come true; an industry that caters to people who are socially and emotionally challenged. That’s a bad place to start. So all the hubbub about the Music Industry being so shallow really holds no ground. We’re all quite aware why it’s a tough place to stay wholesome, so let’s move on.
No matter what, there are good and bad things about the Music Business. Without it most of my peers would have lacked an identity and probably have chosen to do nothing with their lives. They wanted to be a part of an industry whose business revolved around something they were very passionate about, music. It’s arguable whether or not they feel fulfilled with their career choice, but nevertheless going to school for Music Business is a reason to go to school, so “cheers”.
The Music Industry creates available music. That’s amazing. A person can peruse the Internet and find a new talent (or new to them) that can help them through a tough time or inspire them to create something of their own. The Music Industry is a method of communication. It allows people to get messages heard and to understand things about each other that cannot be spoken in conversation. It’s absolutely fair to say that the Music Industry molds and creates culture.
The bad side of the industry is mostly centered on the people that operate the industry, or administrate it. It would be hard to pin the downfalls of the business on the talent. The day the operators of the industry started to grow egos that surpassed the size of the industry’s artists, problems began.
Bad things about the industry: exploitation, greed, egomania, irresponsibility, etc. The list is endless. The industry has always been about selling records, no doubt about that. But originally the goal was to make good music, to make a good record, so that someone would be encouraged to buy a quality product. That was the business model. One day the industry stopped worrying about making good music to make good records that people would want to buy and started worrying about making records that they could sell more easily. That is the day the business went Deaf.
“Record”, in the context of this essay only, refers to a collection of songs released together. Forget “EP”, “LP” and “Album” and forget that “Record” usually is associated with a “Single” from an “Album”.
Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records, was once an entrepreneur. He is someone I am not extensively familiar with, but highly respect and admire. Ahmet found a gentleman by the name of Ray Charles Robinson who had minor radio success on Swing Time Records. He thought Ray was a fresh and golden talent and he decided to sign Ray to Atlantic Records. While recording Ray’s first songs, Ahmet realized Ray was amazing at what he did but needed to refine his sound in order to appeal to a bigger audience. Though Gospel music helped to inspire Ray, Ahmet saw more value in Ray’s natural abilities. As a man of many hats (which in the early days, you had to be) Ahmet took a song that he himself had written and shaped it to fit Ray’s ensemble and style. That song was “Mess Around”. In this instance, one man acted as CEO, A&R, Producer and Song Writer. He helped expand Ray’s horizons enough to inspire Ray Charles into becoming a soul and R&B icon.
Another example of responsible label relations is found in the early days of Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash moved to Memphis and in an effort to impress Sam Phillips of Sun Records. Singing what he thought he was best at, Cash went into Sun’s studio with slow Gospel songs that really didn’t capture the soul and internal chaos that we all know Johnny Cash to have had. Phillips saw right through it. He told Cash to “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell”, despite how frustrated Cash became. Finally Johnny Cash played a riff and sang a verse from a song that absolutely encompassed the idea of Johnny Cash as an icon and Phillips hit record, exclaiming that Cash had finally found his voice. That song was “Cry, Cry, Cry”.
These examples are easily referenced because most of us are familiar with them after having seen movies like “Ray” and Walk The Line”, which are obviously not entirely factual, but provide a close-to-accurate account of how these artists struggled at one point to find what defined them. It’s easy to see how an invested and focused industry representative can help cultivate an organic image and sound from a talented person, as opposed to instructing someone to be something they are not and in the process, tearing the innate credibility from the project.
Put aside the idea that some producers and writers consider a “Single Formula” when writing songs that are built to be hits (Half Chorus Instrumental, Verse 1, Pre Chorus, Chorus, Verse 2, Pre Chorus, Chorus, C Section or Bridge, Chorus, Chorus). The current industry has become so focused on selling product that they literally recycle songs, hoping that a once successful song will return to the top of the charts. Top 40 bands like Nickelback have been accused of rewriting lyrics to prewritten songs and releasing them. It’s rumored that in response to a question asked by an interviewer about when Nickelback would stop releasing the same song, front man Chad Kroeger answered something like, “When people stop buying it”. Seems almost too easy, doesn’t it?
Another few prime examples of recycled material are:
• “The Great Escape” written by Sam Hollander and David Katz is arguably both “The Great Escape” by Boys Like Girls…and “Run Baby Run” by We The Kings.
• “Here I Am” written by Max Martin is probably both “Here I Am” by Marion Raven and “Behind These Hazel Eyes” by Kelly Clarkson.
There is nothing wrong with an artist performing a song someone else has written. In fact, it can be very interesting to hear a collaboration of authoring and performance. However, it’s almost shameful to reproduce successful songs and lay them on similar artists in hopes to dominate the charts. It’s damn near stifling the creativity and growth of the product that this business is based on, music!
As the industry is losing more and more control of their product, or what they currently see as product, it is tightening its reins in hopes to hold onto whatever it can. Songs are built with time limits in order to translate most directly to radio. Radio, a once diverse and creative way to find out about new artists, has become a dying format as well, as most radio stations are playing less and less new and experimental songs and focusing on only what captures an audience. A number one single at US Hot Modern Rock radio has shrunken from something like1,000,000 listeners in 2002 with Foo Fighters’ Monkey Wrench, to something like 500,000 listeners with Viva La Vida by Coldplay in 2008. Whatever syndicated (and now just popular) rock stations that are still around have shrunken the new spots on their playlists to 2 or 3 places, playing mostly Alternative Grunge music or 60’s hard rock. This slims the opportunity for new artists to get on the radio exponentially.
Rock radio aside (similar to previously mentioned material released by Kelly Clarkson and Marion Raven), labels are more than ever trying to clone artists. A really perfect time to refer back to in the industry is the Boy Band era, or Lou Pearlman’s reign. Backstreet Boys, N*SYNC, O Town and 98º are just a few of the many over-exposed and exhausted artists that were dominating the charts. It was almost difficult to tell the groups apart if you weren’t seeing them perform the songs.
This “factory A&R’ing” lead to a time where the industry really embraced technology and began to mass-release artists that had no business singing in the first place. Auto-tune (a feature in production that allows you to assign the note that the artist sings) has become a silent, but ever-present member in most released music today, whether it is a metal band or an opera singer. Another example of false representation is Milli Vanilli. Milli Vanilli is a hilarious case of an “artist” that did not only perform songs written by other people, but that lip synched to tapes of other people’s voice at live concerts. The industry and public out lash lead to the eventual demise of the duo and quite possibly the death of Rob Pilatus of Milli Vanilli. Nowadays we expect pop starts to perform to a prerecorded track when we see them live and when they can’t even pull that off, we still accept them and move on, Ashley Simpson on SNL being a perfect example. We accept the excuse of, “I was very stressed out and my voice was affected”, poke fun at it for a few weeks and then move on to the nearest piece of bigger and juicer celebrity gossip. After reading the aforementioned examples, the fact that drums on a single like “The Anthem” by Good Charlotte aren’t even performed, but rather programmed by a producer, probably doesn’t even surprise you the least at this point. That alone is sad.
All these tangents and random examples of the deterioration of the Music Industry’s artists and product are to clearly illustrate the foreseeable downfall of what was once a lucrative and influential business. “Deaf” is probably most easily identifiable at the conception of the Napster. Most people know Napster as the application that allowed peer-to-peer sharing of media. The first victim was most clearly music. After Napster was forced to change their business model (and it’s developers were sued blind) it was no grand premonition that one day another version (Kazaa then, BitTorrent now) would surface and music would ultimately be free. The industry refuses to adapt to this shift in reality and tries desperately to hold on to as much ownership of what is inevitably free anyway. I remember reading a great quote in a magazine somewhere that I can’t seem to relocate, but it was something to the extent of, “the day the industry starting suing college kids is the day they sealed their fate”. It’s a little existential to argue about whether or not downloading released music is a crime, however it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that revenue streams from music sales are not as profitable as they used to be and in order to operate at the level that the industry is accustomed to operating, something must give.
In order to compensate for their losses, the industry is turning their focus toward the artists’ streams of income and imposing new and invasive recording agreements known as 360º deals that give pieces of merchandising, touring and endorsements to the labels in exchange for more points on an album (percentage of ownership of master recordings), that most likely wont sell as well as it would have 5 years ago. It’s a parasitic relationship that artists are forced into if they are not already successful and it impairs their ability to ever really achieve the success that they once could have.
Since the Ray Charles, the Milli Vanillis and the Nickelbacks, the industry has morphed very much. Bands like Radiohead are asking their fans to pay what they feel is appropriate for a new recording and groups like Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction are releasing compilation albums in coordination with massive tours to help stimulate ticket sales. The artists with the power are trying to influence the industry as best as they can, but unavoidably the industry is going “Deaf”. The new model, as I can only predict and hope, will be based on the indie label business model. Indies are already becoming more influential than ever (if they can afford to navigate around a buyout by a mega-corporation). Commendably selling artists like The Sounds and The White Stripes are embracing indies and signing fair recording deals with them. These deals are for realistic terms and may not give the artist an obscene amount of money up front, but rightfully entitle the artist to a nice line share of record sales, sometimes even 50%. Indies realize that it doesn’t take a lot of money to shoot a high quality or credible music video and albums can be recorded in basement studios with the same audible excellence as a million dollar studio. Artists are going to hopefully partner with labels in the future to release music the way the artist dictates. Deals will be built individually and creatively as marketing plans mainly. Artists that work hard and stand out against the short lived MySpace success stories and internet celebrities will gain control of their product and will be able to negotiate with labels to release music in whatever fashion they desire, whether it be free, digitally exclusive or internationally distributed.
The “Deaf” industry will soon lose its ability to flex its muscles and after the fire has burned out and the ashes have scattered, a new form will rise like the phoenix and restructure the Music Industry that we once regarded so highly as a Mecca for art, culture and creativity. We have to let go to get anywhere.