The Chump Days
About five years ago, during a period I like to refer to as “the chump days,” when every person who could bang two spoons together seemed to be able to get a multi-million-dollar record deal with a major label, and everyone who wasn’t getting one felt like a chump, I decided to see what this “shopping to the majors” scene was all about. I recorded a demo, spoke with a manager and obtained an entertainment lawyer.
When I explained that I’d already released eight albums and dozens of singles and that I wasn’t prepared to give up creative control, the manager slammed his hand on the conference room table and asked me how much “I really wanted it!” Nonplussed, I asked him about his credentials. In response, he gave me the telephone numbers of several bands that he’d worked with.
Unbeknownst to him, every one of his clients had questionable things to say about him. That said, he still managed to get me a quick hook-up with an A&R man at one of the major labels. This was in fact same A&R man who had signed one of the manager’s other disgruntled bands. By my third conversation with Mr. A&R, he asked me “no offense” why my manager was such a “loser.”
It seems the A&R guy was an expert on losers, which makes sense. “Negotiating among losers” is one of the basic requirements of the job (other requirements being facility in spending other peoples’ money, willful blindness to corruption, the ability to abandon those you have seduced and a particularly virulent strain of all-consuming self-interest).
I vividly remember one phone call where he wasted 20 minutes of my life describing the quality of pus on his sty. I don’t mean to ruin your lunch, but this is just to explain the narcissistic vacuum some of these folks live in.
My favorite moment came when Mr. A&R man failed to return my phone call one Friday. I called him up the following Thursday (after all, he was paying to fly me up to NYC the very next day so we could talk about my solo record). He apologized for not having called me, confessing that he’d had a really “fucked up” weekend. Concerned, I asked what had happened. “Oh…nothing really.” he said, “I just got really fucked up.” When I regained the ability to speak, I reminded him that I was coming up the next day. Without a hint of recognition he said, “Oh that’s great, if you have some time we should meet.” This was the same man who was actually promising to safeguard my music on its journey through the swamp-like major-label channels!
The very next day, I met with my entertainment lawyer and recounted my disheartening experience. I asked her if there were other more honest, idealistic, intelligent people working in the majors. She looked at me with blank eyes, billed me for the meeting and stopped returning my phone calls.
In retrospect I was lucky to get away so clean.
The music business is indeed an odd world where so much idealism gets under the covers with so much laziness and corruption.
Evangelist or Benedict Arnold?
I was reminded of this contradiction a few weeks ago when I went to the MP3 Summit in San Diego, CA, and saw a panel called “Break on Through to the Other Side: Transitioning from the Traditional Music Industry into the Online Space.” It was a panel made up of mostly A&R folks who had abandoned the luxury of their soon-to-be-sinking-ship major label jobs for the promise of “the little internet tugboat that could.” A more appropriate title might have been the “Benedict Arnold Panel”; an exercise in watching major label traitors sugarcoating their “turncoating.”
Ultimately the panel was more like a pep rally. Newly converted internet insiders chanted, “Major label bad! Internet start up good!” to the unceasing cheers of the self-satisfied earlier-converted digerati. Sure, it was entertaining. What’s funnier than the depths of old-school ineptitude and corruption? “Ha-ha, A&R dude didn’t know how to open his own e-mail.” “A&R dudette had to give up her window views in major cities to share office space with a dozen t-shirted programmers, and sometimes (horror) the air-conditioning even failed!” The panelists shamelessly competed for big laughs confessing how they’d finally learned to fax, how they’d had to learn PowerPoint and how tough it was to get into work before noon.
Why Ask Why?
“Benedict A” was a shoo-in for the “feel-good” event of the Summit—an hour of good clean fun without even one person raising the obvious and ugly question of why these clearly intelligent and likeable people spent such a long time working within that “big bad” system. It seemed pretty clear from their testimonials that they knew the industry was corrupt when they started. But who cares about that now, right? It’s like the prodigal son; we’re just so happy to have them back on the side of good, we don’t care what changed their allegiance. We don’t worry about the old-school ethics they are very likely bringing with them.
But then Karen Allen (evangelist of the RIAA) had to go and spoil it for everyone. Near the panel’s end, she stood up and somewhat timidly asked some bummer question about the effect that internet/music start-ups have on the value of artist’s copyrights when these companies don’t build compensation of the artist into their business models.
Well, you can guess what happened? All hell broke loose. The audience groaned, the panelists began arguing simultaneously and one A&R person in particular shouted about the corruption of the RIAA, drowning Karen out until she finally sat down fully silenced.
The RIAA is a Symptom
Now, I am the executive director of the
Still, I find it fascinating that an A&R man who had spent the previous 45 minutes dominating a panel with elaborate tales of his own personal laziness and lack of ethics was then able to shout down a spokesperson for the RIAA as being "corrupt."
This seems the height of irony to me. Am I the only one? I mean really, from a moral standpoint, which is worse:
- A. Taking money to represent a corrupt corporation, or
- B. Befriending a band, convincing them to sign away the rights to their art to a corrupt corporation, bilking your own decadent expenses off their project costs, tampering with their music and then dropping them like a hot potato when they sell less than 500,000 copies.
Can you really walk away from a shitty job like that smelling like a rose? I tend to doubt it.
Tomorrow’s Rock Stars
There’s been a lot of talk about how the best and brightest people are moving away from the music industry towards IT. Journalists love to say that programmers are going to be the rock stars of the internet age. If we remember how poorly big business treats most rock stars, then that prediction might just come true. What is a rock star anyway? Nine times out of ten, it’s a talented person who aligns with corrupt power in order to dominate the marketplace through monopolized channels. Here we must remember the sad fact that talent is rarely a shield against corruption. Nor is it a shield against exploitation. This is a fact that applies as much to programmers as it does to musicians.
Choose Your Friends Wisely
What interests me about the internet is its potential to unseat the traditional monopolies that dominated the marketplace by offering a superior alternative to them. It’s the same thing that drew me to punk rock and underground culture. I’d like to believe that truly innovative IT companies will succeed not by learning to cheat, but by taking the ball away from the bad guys and starting a different and better game.
I understand and accept that this idealism will be seen by many as a sort of impractical naiveté. But that fact doesn’t make it any less of a legitimate strategy or any less of a respectable choice. In fact, I’ve been making the choice for idealism for most of my adult life and it’s rarely failed me.
Stepping away from established channels to play a different game is never the easiest course, but there can be profound rewards. I believe this will also be true with music/tech. Actually, in the case of the internet we’ve already got a huge incentive to make the idealistic choice. You see, we’re already playing a different game. In fact, it very well may be a game that we (the disenfranchised, curious and idealistic) understand far better than the old-school insiders do. If this were true, then clearly one of the easiest ways to lose our advantage would be by letting the bad guys come in and convince us to start playing by their rules again.
The Big Question
Who knows, maybe it’s inevitable. Maybe innovative music/tech companies have to work with the majors to get access to the premium content and to create the broad-based and successful business models that will allow the internet music culture to thrive. Maybe it’s better to make nice now before the major labels use legislative and legal force to reinstate the old game they know how to dominate. Maybe it makes good business sense to hire A&R folks from the majors to share their wealth of experience at finding and making stars, if that is our goal. And maybe that’s the big question. Are we doing this work to change the system, or are we doing it to own a bigger part of it?
Meet the New Boss…
While we ponder our roles in this evolving system, the Old Boss is up to his old tricks. Several months ago BMG and Warner Brothers along with the other three other major labels filed lawsuits against MP3.com for copyright infringement. BMG & Warner settled their suits recently and, though the exact terms were not disclosed, music industry sources said that MP3.com would pay more than $20 million to each company. Though the suits were ostensibly brought to punish MP3.com for misuse of their artist’s valuable copyrights, there is no reason to believe that any of that money will go to the musicians whose music fueled the emotional engine of court case.
The remaining major labels are trying to collect damages from MP3.com in the amount of $81 billion for allegedly infringing on the copyrights of 80,000 CDs that that company copied in order to make them available to CD owners through their "MyMP3" program.
Copyrights aside it’s hard not to see the underlying motive as a desire to stifle competition or to muscle in on MP3.com for a bigger piece of the action.
There’s no denying that the MyMP3 technology is an ingenious way to get around a huge technological hurdle to MP3 usage. If the major labels had access to MP3.com’s powerful brand or technological infrastructure they would certainly be better prepared to face the impending digital music frontier.
Incidentally, MyMP3 is only one of several business models that MP3.com is experimenting with. Another model, "Payback for Playback" will pay out $1,000,000 this month to indie artists based on listening traffic. This million dollars a month is far and away the largest chunk of compensation indie artists can hope to access on the web to date.
It is highly unlikely that MP3.com would be able to survive a punitive judgement of this magnitude with projected damages inflated to the size of the budgets of many small companies. If MP3.com loses its case we will surely wave goodbye to "Payback for Playback"— one of the few models that actually pay indie artists.
That said, there is no question in my mind that once the majors can regain control of the market, innovative technologies like that of the vilified MyMP3 will become commonplace within internet strategies of the major labels. It will be interesting to see the majors roll this new technology out considering the fact that many of their artists have signed blanket licensing agreements which impair the musician’s ability to collect digital royalties altogether.
Old-School Major Labels: one
Internet Companies & Musicians: zero
Jenny Toomey is the executive director of the Future of Music Coalition.
Ms. Toomey understands that not all A&R folks are bad, neither are all Internet companies good. You need not write her to convince her of these obvious points. She told the A&R stories mentioned above in order to point to the culture of corruption that is well documented regarding the Major Label Music Machine. She is also hoping to appeal to the idealism of entrepreneurial Internet explorers, some of whom may not, may never have been, or may never be, idealistic.