A Year in the Life, Part Two
Everything Dies, Baby, That’s a Fact…
Back to the fun in the States! We continue going about our business of being a band and losing money and not being able to afford the life-size posters of ourselves looking like N’Sync in the front of Tower Records, which wouldn’t matter if we could ‘cuz there’s like a three year waiting list, anyway. Then, slowly but surely the stock market goes kerplooey and the tech stocks go right along with ’em, ’til virtually every music site has either “gone fishing” or been lawyered out of business by Hilary Rosen and the RIAA. In what literally happened almost overnight, these Internet music companies that were throwing AOL ten million dollars just for the privilege of being one of their featured sites, were now living that Staples commercial where the office uses only one pen to save money. And Napster collapses, too. Well, they didn’t really collapse; they were pounded into submission by the RIAA. In case you don’t know, the RIAA is the Recording Industry Association of America, which used to — and is supposed to — represent artists, but in reality, represents big business and even bigger dollars.
In the same way a democracy isn’t good at preparing for events like 9/11 before they occur, the record industry had no idea what to do when a thing like Napster came along. They ignored it at first and hoped it would go away, then, when they realized how popular it was due to the fact that there’s only about ten bands on the radio, they squashed it with litigation and lobbying. As more of these types of sites started popping up, the RIAA basically began acting like a political version of “Whack-A-Mole,” striking any interesting idea or concept that might arise with a lethal blow to the head from a hammer neatly wrapped in red tape. Then they copy it. I’m soapboxing a bit, but for all those folks who said Napser and sites like it were stealing from the artists because the artists weren’t getting paid will surely be happy to know that the new sites, like the label-owned, Musicnet and PressPlay, are taking care of that problem by paying the artists a whopping .0023 cents per download. This means an artist currently needs four songs downloaded before he/she sees a penny. The other interesting point on this is that the labels own these companies hawking the music as well as the music that’s being hawked, so they charge themselves a ridiculously cheap rate, which is way below fair market value, to license the work. Can you say “Holy anti-trust, Batman?!” This is why Napster just won an important stay in the courts. The judge actually agreed that the labels are “price fixing” amongst themselves — duh, and nicotine is not addictive.
Whose Benefit is This, Anyway?
Now, let’s look for a moment at the RAC (Recording Artists Coalition) concert held in L.A. during the Grammys. I won’t even comment on the Grammys. This is a concert to protest the seven-year labor law in California. First of all, most artists will not spend seven months on a label, let alone seven years. The ones that do are usually superstars by then, and are looking to get out of their deals in seven years to be free agents. First, I support the repeal of the law — I think it’s retarded to make recording artists the only exception to every labor law — but can you imagine the price of a U2 CD after Bono gets three labels bidding on him? It’ll be like buying box seats to a ball game. I can understand groups like The Deftones saying they never saw a royalty check, and believe me, I feel their pain in that area, but the other side of that is, they draw thousands and sell tons of merch and make quite the pretty penny playing live, and like other major label artists at this benefit, will go on to have lucrative careers on their own, if they choose to, thanks to the dumptruck of promotional cash that the labels laid out getting their name out there. I’m willing to bet a sushi dinner that any “Do it yerself” artist that you know of out there who’s got a great career probably started on a major. I’d like to turn back the clock and see if one of these bands, having another chance, would avoid the big budgeted promotional machine. If they did, you wouldn’t see them sitting next to Britney at the Grammys this week. Look, I know the message needs to get out there in whatever way the apathetic, lethargic, artist community can muster, so that’s a good thing. But, let’s call a spade a spade. It’s still a bunch of millionaires raising money for other millionaires… do you see something wrong with that? I do, too! Where are The Rosenbergs on that bill?! Okay, so we’re “slightly” bitter that we weren’t invited to represent the indie bands out there and support the cause even though we basically put our careers on the line and did NOT sign to a major. But, hey, as Buddy Ackerman says in Swimming With Sharks, “Way it goes.”
Our One Big Break
One fine day a few months back, we were actually invited to go on Howard Stern with Gene Simmons of Kiss. Gene was promoting a show he was doing on 25 years of the labels screwing artists over, and he was real interested in telling us fellow Jews and Golem that we made a big mistake and should have signed the standard deal, as there’s no substitute for a major’s huge pocketbook. He got some of that stuff in but failed to mention that Kiss had about three albums that tanked early on, before Alive did anything. I doubt you’d see that today. Anyway, Gene’s lovely but ditzy publicist never told Gary (Baba Booey) that Gene had to leave at a certain time until it was almost that time, so they rushed us past Hank the Drunk Dwarf and into the studio, and although we still had about a half hour left, all Gene talked about, bless his little Jewish businessman heart, was the Kiss Coffin. Yup. For five grand you could be buried in a casket with Kiss all over it, and while you were alive, you could use it as a beer cooler. Well, I learned a lot about this particular coffin, but didn’t get a chance to say much, although Howard was great. Then the nimrods over at the E! Channel cut out the few words I did manage to get in, so I looked like Gene’s gay lover just sitting there by his side, smiling at him, for a half hour. The E! dorks didn’t even let the footage of Evan sticking his snake-like tongue out and touching it to Gene’s, back in the green room! No accounting for taste.
The Constipated Colon of Creativity, a.k.a. Releasing a Record in Today’s Climate
If you follow me over here, we have the current state of the industry. No, not over there, that’s my Boytoy magazine collection. Over here. We are in an era where no matter who the artist is, once the product dries up, they ship you off the assembly line, period. Sinead! Bowie! Elton! And rumor has it the man himself, Mick Jagger, might be dropped from Atlantic. If they do that, it’ll be like opening the Pinhead Box from Hellraiser. I’m fairly certain that had The Beatles been around today, they, too, would be dropped. These days the definition of “Artist Development” means the size of Britney’s implants. As my sister says, “Concerts (like the recent Janet Jackson one from Hawaii) are beginning to look less like music and more like ESPN’s Cheerleading Championships from Memphis State.” Not that Janet’s not an adorable version of a soft core porn star, but ya might as well just put on a drum loop and let ’em bounce around — oh, wait, that’s what they’re doing. I’m waiting for the day when a K-Mart mannequin named Brenda Barbie signs to J Records and Uncle Clive pays Desmond Child to write her some hit songs. Will anyone know the difference?
Producing high quality demos has become much more of a possibility for the aspiring musician now that Pro Tools and MOTU and the rest have hit the stores. But, look at the CHANNELS for distributing all these possible creative works these days. Forget the Internet, as there are a bazillion bands with sites just trying to keep their heads above water. The corporate monoliths have tightened these channels up so severely, they look like an X-ray of Edgar Bronfman’s colon after swallowing a small goat. You’ve got all this music funneling down into the smallest of outlets controlled by five companies which will, no doubt, become two in a few short years. Can you see it? Big Brother and Bigger Brother Records. They will not give up control and they will not give up fighting for control. Where it used to be if a major passed on your band you could go to Caroline or Twin Tone or IRS or Mammoth or Matador, etc., etc., you now basically have only one option, as they’re all owned by the same company. Not to mention the fact that if you do manage to squeeze your record through the bowels of this constricted colon, (sorry, I know it’s gross) you’ve got what amounts to a movie’s opening weekend to go gold or be sent back to Wonka as a “bad egg.” And how do you get 500,000 people to know that your record’s coming out and to buy it in the first three days of its release? You don’t hang on to your masters, that’s for sure. You roll the dice, hope for the best, and hope to God that your balls aren’t squished to the size of peas. You hope you’re not in court five years from now trying to get that first (and last) album your band made, back to sell on your Web site, Hasbeen.com. There are a few cool sites out there like CD Baby, but it’s not enough. See, the basic Catch-22 is: Ya can’t get radio play without selling records, ya can’t get gigs without getting radio play, ya can’t sell records without touring, ya can’t tour without radio play, etc. This rule applies to mostly everyone except the jam bands — if you look or sound like The Grateful Dead, you will instantly have millions of fans no matter how bad you are. Just plug in a chorus pedal and you’re on your way.
I Sprained My Ankle of Desire, You Go On Without Me
I know it’s sad, but what else can ya do? Just the other day, Evan called and asked me if I’m ready to sell out, and I said, “Hell, yeah! Why?” He said, “There’s a company that might want to use our music and you hate them more than Clear Channel.” “More than Clear Channel? Who do I hate more than Clear Channel?” “Marlboro.” He was right. Thank God it didn’t come down to having to decide. How long can we knock at the door with no one answering before we give up and walk away? The answer, surprisingly to us, is, for a long time to come. Why? I’ll tell ya. Because as we entered that first day of rehearsals for the next record last week at our space in Hoboken, as the prospect of our current record ever getting into people’s hands and actually listened to became a dismal blip on the screen of musical-consciousness, we were all terrified at the fact of having tried and failed at something we so strongly believed in and still do believe in. Then we started playing, and we realized “We’re a great band! We don’t suck!” And the reason we keep doing this is because of the response we get when we play — that, and the fact that we all have nothing else to do.
Summary: If You’re Still Reading, I’m Impressed
Believe it or not, the hardest thing for me to deal with at this point is not the ambivalent artists or the prospect of another day job looming on the horizon: It’s when your relatives say to you, “I’ve heard great things about the band! How’s the record doing?” My stomach sinks and I just say “We’re hanging in there.” It’s quite amusing when Aunt Alice says, “We went to Best Buy to buy the record and were just in time! We got the last copy!” What Aunt Alice doesn’t realize is that they got the only copy. It’s not all doom and gloom and the good Lord Jesus Christ, uh, I mean, Moses, never gives us more than we can handle right? The really positive thing that’s come out of this weird experience is that I’ve started speaking to the kids who are the future of the business both musically and legally. I’ve started talking at Harvard, Georgetown, Vanderbilt, etc., and just this past weekend we spoke to the students of Emory Law School in Atlanta, then played a gig at night. It’s amazing that a lot of these students get so wrapped up in the books that they actually learn from our experiences and vantage point. They love to have live, animated, musicians talking to them about the industry rather than some stuffy professor. I have to say I like it almost as much as playing and believe it or not, it’s more rewarding to know that you can give knowledge to someone and help them avoid the potholes you, yourself, hit on the road they’re about to travel down. That was the basic reason for Fripp founding DGM in the first place. Going through 20 years of the business, coming out the other end and going, “Wow, that sucked. How can we do things differently?” That’s what we’re trying to do without wasting the 20 years. We’re attempting to put an old head on new shoulders, and although there’s only a small number of us out there talking this talk, that’s pretty much how democracy was started. Two guys sitting in a tavern in Boston and one of ’em says, “Ya know what? This ‘tea tax’ sucks.” And the other guy says, “Yeah, you’re right, it does.”
As far as getting the message out there, hopefully, we can continue to do our part. And as for our great, starving record, I think we need a bit of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team magic. Do you believe in miracles?
P.S. Anyone who’s interested should check out http://www.futureofmusic.org