Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 11 Apr 02 11:20
E-mail from Thomas Fornash: David Gans wrote: I don't understand the question. It's his field of expertise, right? ------------------------------ Actually, this question comes from a couple of different places. First, is the phenomenon of chefs who don't cook at home, mechanics who don't fix their own cars, and people who work on STD/AIDS Hotlines can have second thoughts about having sex. Once you see what goes on behind the scenes it can be pretty tough not to become cynical and disgusted at the whole process. Not to mention tired of it over time. The music industry can, and has, chewed a lot of good people up and spit'em out. Hell, I'm cynical and I don't write about for a living. Making a living at your passion can ruin it for a lot of people. Second, I must confess to knowing David personally and I long ago realized he's not a one trick pony. Like any well adjusted human being, he's got a variety of interests and he could write about a lot of different things. Which explains him stretching out recently. I've had this conversation with him in a couple of different forms but, you know, I've never asked him directly why he continues to write about how the sausage is made. I'm as curious about his motivations as anyone might be. Since I read just about everything he writes maybe more so than the average joe. Knowing him personally also explains why I take such delight in tormenting and heckling him in forums such as this. ;^) To further this point, I have another question for David. What's the saddest, most heartbreaking story you have about musicians and the industry?
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Thu 11 Apr 02 13:01
>To further this point, I have another question for David. What's the saddest, most heartbreaking story you have about musicians and the industry?> Ooh, that's a tough one; hard to narrow down. There are any number of old-time R&B types who were just totally, royally hosed. Consider Ruth Brown, who basically got Atlantic Records off the ground and eventually had to take a job as a maid to get by. I don't have the exact quote in front of me, but Courtney Love says something along the lines of, "Name 5 hit records, and I'll show you 4 broke and desperate artists who never got paid." I can't tell you how many people claim to have never been paid a penny of royalties -- Roger McGuinn, for Chrissakes, how is that possible?! One of the weirdest hosejobs I ever heard about involved a North Carolina band called Hobex, who were turned into a literal pawn in the big Universal/Polygram merger a few years back. Through a very complicated and weird set of circumstances, they wound up stuck on the roster of a Universal-owned label (London Records) with a record out on a Warner-owned label (Sire Records). This was a record everybody loved, and the band had worked as hard as any I've ever seen. They did all the right things, made a record that by all rights should have been a hit -- and which sank without a trace, because of corporate power struggles they had nothing to do with. The band's lawyer described it as "a pissing contest" between Universal and Warner; it happened in part because the head of Universal had been the top guy at Warner, and wanted to stick it to his former place of employment. But guess who got pissed on the most? A lot of the really sad situations involve just plain bad luck, or human weakness -- bands like the Minutemen and Jody Grind, shattered by fatal van wrecks; or the orphans of Kurt Cobain, Shannon Hoon, that guy from Sublime. It's rough out there.
David Gans (tnf) Thu 11 Apr 02 13:40
When I was writing about the music biz (1976-1986, roughly), I saw a lot of really good music just knocked off the table by the ugly realities of music merchandising. A great record by a new artist would get no support whatsoever from the sales and promo people because a major act put something out that same week.
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Thu 11 Apr 02 18:44
>A great record by a new artist would get no support whatsoever from the sales and promo people because a major act put something out that same week.> > Let me tell ya, the business has not grown any kinder since 1986. It used to be you could at least get great records out; they might not get the support or promotion they deserved, but they would at least make their way into the world. But the days of record companies being any sort of patron of the arts are long gone. One of the best records I heard last year was by singer/songwriter Patty Griffin, "Silver Bell." Unfortunately for her, she was signed to A&M -- a label that was dissolved in the UniGram merger. "Silver Bell" is in limbo and might never come out. Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is another example -- amazing record, guaranteed to sell at least the same 200,000 copies their other albums have done; and Reprise gave them the heave-ho. Fortunately, it's belatedly coming out this month (on Nonesuch, which is turning into a home for wayward ex-Warners acts [Randy Newman, Laurie Anderson...]). Too bad "YHF" didn't come out on its original planned release date, Sept. 11; it would've made a fascinating companion piece to the other big record to come out that day, Bob Dylan's "Love & Theft."
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 11 Apr 02 19:43
What happens now is that someone (perhaps the artists?) post the great records as mp3s. The Wilco album's been drifting around the 'net since well before 9/11, and other unreleased stuff pops up here and there.
David Gans (tnf) Thu 11 Apr 02 21:24
Nonesuch? Which of the giant corporations owns Nonesuch now?
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Thu 11 Apr 02 21:32
>What happens now is that someone (perhaps the artists?) post the reat records as mp3s. The Wilco album's been drifting around he 'net since well before 9/11.> True, Wilco themselves streamed "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" on their website; which makes it a thoroughly post-modern album -- rejected by the label, then embraced by the public in underground/grassroots form. I find "YHF" to be an amazing record that will only enhance the reputation of the band, as well as the label putting it out. All the silly/grandiose claims people were making for Radiohead's "Kid A" five years ago actually apply to "YHF." Back in the day, when Mo Ostin & Lenny Waronker were running Warners, they would have kissed Jeff Tweedy's feet for this record, and bought full-page ads for it in all the trade papers. Which only goes to show just how much things have changed, and not for the better. For more on What The Heck Happened To Warner Brothers, here's some further reading: "Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes & Hustlers of the Warner Music Group." It's penned by Stan Cornyn, who wrote the ad copy on all those very funny/smart-alecky advertisements Warners used to run during the '70s. It traces Warner's origins, rise and fall, and is also full of fascinating nuggets. One example, I never knew the origin of the term "swag" before this; according to Cornyn, it's an acronym for "Stuff We All Get."
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Thu 11 Apr 02 21:41
>Nonesuch? Which of the giant corporations owns Nonesuch now?> > Well, here's where irony sets in: Nonesuch is also part of the Warner Music Group. So it's under the same corporate umbrella as Reprise, the label that rejected "YHF." Adding a further level of irony, Reprise actually tried to get Wilco back last year after cutting them loose. It was reported that 30 labels made bids for the band and, yes, Reprise was one of them. When I asked Wilco's lawyer about that, he said, "We rejected their attempts at post-coital romance." Honestly, though, Nonesuch is probably a better place for Wilco to be. They'll get more attention there, and commercial expectations are lower. Plus Nonesuch can sell some records, too (see: "Buena Vista Social Club," platinum-plus). But Wilco can sell 200,000 records on Nonesuch and be a big fish, rather than a small guppy on Reprise. Plus they get the same distribution they would have at Reprise; and as Jeff Tweedy pointed out recently, Time/Warner basically paid for this record twice. Double plus good! It's nice to see something like this actually work to a band's advantage. Most bands are not nearly so lucky.
Berliner (captward) Fri 12 Apr 02 02:56
Warners is really fucked these days. There's been a putsch inside the company by youngsters, and a number of their more talented older executives have been forced out: Bob Merlis and Howie Klein, to name two I knew. Nonesuch, though, has a vibe as a musician's label, probably because of its genesis as a budget non-standard-repertoire classical label. They had a great jazz series for a while, and have put out some fine unclassifiable stuff over the years. Plus, with Kronos and Steve Reich, they've shown they can mass-market contemporary classical music. So, David, what's your fix (hey, we all have 'em) for situations like Wilco found themselves in?
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Fri 12 Apr 02 08:38
>So, David, what's your fix (hey, we all have 'em) for situations like Wilco found themselves in?> > Well, as far as label situations go, they seem to be in about the best one you could ask for these days. But if it was me, I believe I'd be inclined to go the Ani DiFranco route and just put the thing out myself. It's true that putting out your record independently has its limitations, in terms of how far you can go with it; and it involves a lot of logistical issues that a lot of musicians would rather avoid. But as we've already covered, signing to a label can have limitations, too -- in terms of getting records out to begin with, and getting paid down the road. Wilco is another band that says they've never made back-end royalties, and I'm told they actually considered just giving "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" away on the web and making their money on the road; acknowledging it as the loss-leader item their records have always been, and concentrating on making their money elsewhere. Nowadays, going DIY doesn't even have to be that much of a limitation in terms of the number of people you can reach. The aforementioned DiFranco moves about 300,000 copies of everything she puts out; maybe Time/Warner could do better than that, but not better enough to be worth her while. Or consider Jimmy Buffett, who started his own label (Mailboat) 3 years ago. His last album with UniGram sold 700,000 and his first on Mailboat did 500,000 -- and according to a recent Billboard story I just read, he makes $4-$5 per unit this way as opposed to $1-$2 with UniGram. So what would I rather have, $700,000 and somebody else owns the record? Or $2 million, and I own it lock, stock and barrel? Not a hard decision.
David Gans (tnf) Fri 12 Apr 02 09:52
It is gratifying to see Ani do well, and Buffett, too. But there is a lot of great music that can't get off the ground because of the huge investment in marketing and publicity that is required -- and a lot of luck has to come into play as well. I saw Nils Lofgren at Slim's in SF a few weeks ago. He doesn't have a label, and it seems pretty clear that he's struggling to keep his solo trip on a profitable level. That sucks. As you mentioned above, the record companies used to INVEST in good music, and keep worthy artists on their rosters long enough to develop their audiences. No more. Same blockbuster mentality that infects the TV and movie industries. And the book biz, too, seems to me.
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Fri 12 Apr 02 11:07
>It is gratifying to see Ani do well, and Buffett, too. But there is a lot of great music that can't get off the ground because of the huge investment in marketing and publicity that is required -- and a lot of luck has to come into play as well.> > In Buffett's case, he also benefited from spending a couple of decades on major-label rosters before he went independent. MCA/Universal did profit handsomely from the arrangement, of course. But over the years, they also spent a great deal of money on Buffett's behalf to help build him up to his current level. Now, in the autumn of his career, he can build on/profit from that and keep it going without having to spend too much of his own money. Whatever you think of Buffett's music (and I can't say I'm a fan), you do have to give the man props for longevity and career smarts. He's the only artist I can think of who spent time in the top-10 with both "Saturday Night Fever" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" That is amazing and unfortunate about Nils Lofgren (you'd think the Springsteen connection would be good for a record deal somewhere); and you're right about the blockbuster mentality leaking into the book business, too. Whatever the medium, there's less and less room for niche things -- on the majors, anyway. The silver lining is that it doesn't seem to be stopping anybody. There are more records, films and books than ever before, they're just harder to find. So the onus is on the creators and the audience to find each other. And still, good stuff is out there. It's a mistake to equate the health of the music business with the health of music.
Berliner (captward) Fri 12 Apr 02 11:12
So, elsewhere here, there was a debate raging over whether bands today really do want to get signed to majors. I held that sure, a certain percentage of them do, mostly because they either have the confidence that they're exactly what the mass public is buying, or because they're naive and unaware of how the business operates. But I also thought that the majority of the bands I was seeing and talking to at SXSW this year *weren't* interested in a deal with a major because there were too many pitfalls. Like Jimmy Buffett and Ani Di Franco, they would be more interested in a deal that'd allow them more creative control and a bigger piece of the pie, even if that meant selling fewer records. So what do you think: are most young bands still aiming towards the majors or not?
David Gans (tnf) Fri 12 Apr 02 11:36
> It's a mistake to equate the health of the music business with the health > of music. Amen!
David Gans (tnf) Fri 12 Apr 02 13:22
From an article about Emmitt Rhodes that someone posted in the music con- ference: > "But as the record crept up the charts, Rhodes's career came tumbling down. > His contract with ABC-Dunhill required an album every six months. When > his debut took nine months to complete, the company took legal action. 'I > was being sued for more money than I'd ever seen,' Rhodes explains. 'I was > horribly confused.' > "In his rush to record a second LP, Rhodes could barely tour to support the > first one, let alone enjoy its success. > "'I learned a lot about life from the movie 'Caligula,' he says. ' Who are > the richest men in Rome? The pimps, of course.' > "After two years of legal battles, and two respectable but unsuccessful > follow-up albums, Rhodes called it quits. 'I was a failure. I couldn't > fulfill my contract,' he says. A burned-out 10-year veteran of the music > industry, Rhodes was 24 years old.
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Fri 12 Apr 02 14:33
>So what do you think: are most young bands still aiming towards the majors or not?> > I think you've got this correctly sussed out. The people with any sense aren't chasing record deals anymore, they're just getting out and doing it. Then, if you're successful enough on your own, they'll come to you -- at which point the artist has to decide if there's anything to be gained from signing to a label. Most bands who do take the jump seem to make less money, even if they sell more records. Southern Culture on the Skids did great with their first Geffen album, sold about 250,000 copies. But that wasn't enough to recoup, and actually wound up costing them money. At Geffen's behest, they kept passing up paying gigs to play these free radio festivals (which you've got to do if you want airplay here on Planet Clear Channel). When they finally said, "Enough," they were accused to having a bad attitude. One record later, they were off Geffen, and glad to be there. I expect Emmitt Rhodes would be able to relate.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 12 Apr 02 14:53
Heard a couple of interesting stories: Jennifer Warnes was interviewed on Austin's KUT radio last night, talking to Larry Monroe about her career, which included a couple of top ten hits and some time singing backup for Leonard Cohen. She said that she had a conflict with Arista, and they managed to prohibit her from appearing in public as a solo act for three years, which is one reason she did a second route of backup for Cohen. Monroe commented that this sort of thing happens to singers and musicians all the time. Second story was about Sheryl Crow - I think I read it in Newsweek. She apparently suffered a "meltdown" - I guess they mean something like a nervous breakdown, over her latest album because her record company was trying to get her to do trendy-pop hip-hop stylings - I suppose the kind of stuff you get from Jennifer Lopez, Nelly Furtado, et al. She ultimately scrapped the whole album and started over because she was so uncomfortable doing anything but the more traditional guitar rock she's into. Or would you call it traditional? Well, hell, you know what I mean. Just a couple of illustrations of the power of the record companies to screw with a performer's life. There's a bunch of super-talented performers in Austin who never went to major lables because they knew just what it meant.
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Fri 12 Apr 02 22:17
>Sheryl Crow...apparently suffered a "meltdown"...over her latest album because her record company was trying to get her to do trendy-pop hip-hop stylings.> > God, this is crazy! Sheryl Crow gets airplay and sells records -- *a lot* of records, as in *11 million* copies of her first three albums. Why on earth would a label want to tinker with that? And how would a "Sheryl Crow's Many Moods of Hip-Hop" album be anything but a catastrophe? It not only wouldn't sell, it would deal a serious (maybe even fatal) blow to her credibility. Ack...
Berliner (captward) Sat 13 Apr 02 03:12
You can't emphasize this enough: record companies are now run by people who have no involvement whatever in using the product they're creating and selling. Some jackass looked at a spreadsheet and said "Hip-hop (whatever that is) sells well, and we've noticed that this Crow thing was down 3.6% from its last release. Instruct the Crow to add some hip-hop to its next piece of product." This was the rationale behind the age-related firings at Warners: records sell overwhelmingly to people younger than the people who were fired. This, of course, doesn't mean that those people didn't know how to sell records or otherwise do their job, but some idiot made the correlation. (Of course, as one friend of mine who was fired said, now he picks up a week's salary just by doing a two-day consulting gig with the kids who've replaced him.) No wonder the smarter bands won't have anything to do with the majors.
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Sat 13 Apr 02 07:51
>This was the rationale behind the age-related firings at Warners: records sell overwhelmingly to people younger than the people who were fired. This, of course, doesn't mean that those people didn't know how to sell records or otherwise do their job, but some idiot made the correlation.> > And remember the Clive Davis fiasco at Arista? They gave him the heave-ho, in part citing his advancing years (although internal power struggles at BMG had at least as much to do with it, too). But like him or not -- and I put an awful lot of what Davis does in the category of grade-A schlock -- the man knows how to pick 'em. After he left Arista, BMG bankrolled him with a new label, J Records; thanks to Alicia Keys, J appears to be doing just fine. Meanwhile, the guy who gave Davis das boot from Arista was subsequently deposed. He probably went into business with the guy who cut Wilco loose from Reprise.
Berliner (captward) Sat 13 Apr 02 08:20
Or got hired by the 30-year-olds at Warners.
pointy, but rarely undeservedly savage (vard) Sat 13 Apr 02 16:38
Didn't Clive Davis' troubles also have a little to do with some expense account irregularities?
"First you steal a bicycle...." (rik) Sat 13 Apr 02 17:09
That was at Columbia. It was an object lesson for me in just how important it is to have a heavy at the record company getting things done for you. Clive signed Dr Hook to CBS and was canned while we were cutting our third album. Suddenly we went from being company darlings with two gold singles to schmucks that couldn't get our calls answered. And we went bankrupt to break out of the contract.
pointy, but rarely undeservedly savage (vard) Sat 13 Apr 02 17:17
Jeez, rik, how awful. Talk about collateral damage.
David Menconi (davidmenconi) Sat 13 Apr 02 19:41
>Clive signed Dr Hook to CBS and was canned while we were cutting our third album. Suddenly we went from being company darlings with two gold singles to schmucks that couldn't get our calls answered.> > Generally, it's the kiss of death when the guy who signed you leaves the company; and I'm sure it's even worse when they leave under a cloud. It's almost a guarantee of failure, even for an act with a track record. And let the record show that, following two albums that charted more than respectably (#45 and #41), the aforementioned third Dr. Hook LP (presciently titled "Belly Up!") topped out at #141.
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