Looking back to those surreal, weird and right out there days when firmly entrenched in the music industry with many of us making The Wolf of Wall Street look like pussies, there weren’t a helluva lot of executives who actually lived and loved and BREATHED the music, certainly not like pioneers of the industry like Sam Philips, Chris Blackwell, Berry Gordy Jr, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, David Geffen, Ahmet Ertegun, below, and the handful of others.
Many of us were way too busy clocking up air miles, staying in six star hotels with enablers in every port and trying to outdo each other with dating and bedding the prettiest available women and being extremely giving with our generous entertainment allowances. We thought this good life and the world’s longest cocktail party would last forever. Of course it didn’t. Regrets? I’ve had a few, but too few to mention.
As a young journalist who got to sit down with legends like Ahmet Ertegun, Chris Blackwell, Bhaskar Menon and others, and listen and understand the music business and hear the thousands of back stories, it’s something I beat myself up about quite regularly because instead of setting sail on my own and charting my own course, I gave in to superficial fluff and joined the ongoing circus of clowns in the music business who felt nothing for the music. They were charlatans and completely ignorant about the history of music, but knew how to say the right things and play the corporate game of thrones.
The smarter of the species were quietly feathering their nests with all kinds of side deals and creative accounting and looking forward to the day when golden parachutes would open for them. To them, the music and musicians were simply co-stars and bit players in a far bigger Rock opera that made “Tommy” look like Timmy.
What really was our job? Sell a designated number of CDs, which really didn’t need any breakthrough marketing thinking, ensure that these CDs were prominently displayed in the leading record stores and party hard with artists visiting our respective markets for promo trips. Add to this the absolute “chore” of travelling around the world attending various conferences where nothing was achieved because many were either hungover from the night before, jet lagged or coked out and thinking more about what the night might hold and who next to bed. It was like a decadent summer camp.
This was very different from having a love for music and respect for artists- everything the pioneers of what became an industry possessed including their own vision for the future of the business.
Unlike today, this business worked in sync with a world needing music and happy to pay for it. It was a sensible balancing act of art- the music- respect for everyone creating this art, and how the business of music could benefit everyone. Simple, wasn’t it?
Sure, there was always greed and the opportunists. It’s tough watching “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown” and seeing how all those brilliant session musicians who played on some of the greatest records ever produced were exploited by Berry Gordy Jr. But no one knew any better. Money was secondary. It was all about the music and working with mad geniuses like Phil Spector to help him create his Wall Of Sound and working for Berry Gordy so black artists could break the colour barrier with the more “white” and commercially accessible “Sound Of Young America” through artists like the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 etc. It was a magical time. Music really was saving and shaping the world.
Session players and session singers were paid a fixed rate according to their contracts to which they were bound. Were these contracts fair? Again, looking back, not compared to what’s being paid out today to a mega producer like Max Martin and his hit making army, but for that time, it meant work for musicians who might otherwise not have had any gigs.
Still, it’s sad when what a session musician contributed to a track never belonged to them or their contributions were never acknowledged. For session players, it was out of their heads and into the hands of those who owned everything they produced. But such was their love and commitment to what they were doing that it was all about being part of musical history.
Over the years no one has revisited these contracts many signed without asking because the music industry was a fledgling one trying to find its legs. As recently as a decade ago, and still going on today, ideas from music executives belong to the music company. It’s something I am always reminded about when talking about the Michael McDonald record where he covered various Motown classics.
That record was meant to be for Boyz11Men and revive their flagging sales as the group insisted on recording their turgid originals. When the Boyz baulked at the idea of a Motown covers release, we had a very commercial idea but with no artist. This idea nearly went to Ric Astley who was without a label until I mentioned to my boss at that time, friend, confidante and terrific music guy Max Hole, below, that Michael McDonald was signed to one of our more obscure labels.
“Michael McDonald Sings Motown” sold over 15 million units with the vocalist touring on the back of this success. UMG had a real sleeper hit, but there was no bonus or “points” for the executive who came up with the A&R strategy. It was part of my contract. But when one is so sold on the music and proud to have been part of a hit, that’s enough.
After moving from UMG to EMI, one of the first things I did was something unthinkable to the old staffers there: I turned down a record by a Danish band called Michael Learns To Rock as I didn’t hear any hits. It was second rate Eagles, but to the old EMI regime the group was extremely popular and had delivered hits. Maybe they had, but I heard no hits on what they had recorded. What turned it around was having them record an English version of a huge hit in Mandarin for Chinese superstar Jacky Cheung. Called “Take Me To Your Heart”, it became a mega seller throughout the region- at least over six million in sales- and created huge touring opportunities for the band. Good for the band, great for our market share, but it was part of my job and there were no extras coming my way.
No one has really revisited contracts or anything that can make a difference, because either most executives are really not too sharp when it comes to The Art Of The Deal and are only concerned about paying lip service to “global priority acts”, or else they’re sitting there making side deals and trying to hook their wagons onto whatever is making money today in the entertainment arena so they can continue being Oliver Twisted.
There really is no “music” world with a velvet rope ensuring some form of quality control and to keep out the hangers on and groupies. How else did Pitbull become a mega successful recording artist and billionaire with his own private jet? How? Nice suits and the right connections and collaborators. Like others, it’s selling an image which many buy into without thinking because it’s just as mindless as promoting one’s self on what’s increasingly becoming a vanity showcase- Instagram. Seldom has something that’s often as exciting as going through a photo album become so popular. It just underlines narcissism gone rampant.
What’s a very average actress like Jennifer Lopez doing singing- and being paid millions for it? She’s certainly no Tina Turner. But she’s got some very strong promotional people behind her million dollar ass. Thankfully, once in a while we get real talent like a James Bay, a Kendrick Lamar, Tash Sultana or the brilliant MAX.
It’s why “the digitalisation of music” and an app like Spotify, not that different to illegal file sharing site Napster, which the music industry once made a hue and cry about, sued and won their case, somehow flew under the radar and was allowed in. It makes one wonder why and how though things might be unraveling.
One has to also wonder why some Michael Jackson fans are “throwing shade” at Quincy Jones for recently describing the artist as “greedy” and who never gave credit where credit was due on tracks where the most memorable riffs to “his songs” came from session musicians who he refused to credit and offer even a small percentage on the publishing.
What would “Billie Jean” be without what session guitarist Steve Lukather played on that track? Quincy Jones was there and knows exactly who made what happen. It’s not speaking ill of the dead either, because he spoke to me about Michael Jackson’s personality quirks and need for control and need to own everything after wrapping up producing “Thriller”. Michael Jackson succeeding as much as he did without the knowledge and strong guiding hand of Quincy Jones? Don’t think so.
People forget how “the prince of pop” used his friendship with Paul McCartney to go behind the back of the former Beatle when he knew what was going on and secretly purchase the Lennon-McCartney publishing catalogue by offering more money for Northern Music which owned it. Bad. Ever wondered why McCartney said nothing when MJ passed away? Zero tribute? As Quincy Jones would probably say, “He can’t stand the little motherfucker. He was shafted, man. Someone else went behind his back and bought and owned the work he and John Lennon wrote”.
There is much more than credits and royalties and honouring one’s dues. It’s about how greed has been allowed to sweep through the music industry by those who walked into music companies, became senior executives and were given control and power and only looked after themselves and their cronies. And this “business model” has “travelled” around the world leaving those who create and produce music to be thrown a few crumbs their way now and again.
Where those leading the charge have gone very wrong is never ever explaining to music fans that taking music for free will eventually turn the tap off. That musicians simply won’t have the motivation nor the financial means to continue producing music, which others take for free and sell through, for example, subscription based music streaming services with the royalties paid out barely enough for a dim sum lunch.
Everyone saw it coming, but no one did anything about it. Too many music executives had their fingers in too many pies. They still do because the pie has diversified and expanded. Sales figures were being doctored. Chart success continues to be manipulated and are meaningless. Nothing is what it seems.
Today, there are amateurs with no business sense play acting at being heads of “labels” and trying desperately to be seen as game changers. How can they be when there’s no game other than self-promotion on social media that makes nobodies feel like a somebody? #Sad #Pathetic #Getreal
The music industry was built by men of vision and surrounded by great musicians, savvy managers, genius songwriters, producers, engineers, smart promo people and A&R talent who intuitively knew who and what would be a hit.
Where are the music industry leaders today with the ability to explain to music fans that there’s a need to work together with and financially support musicians creating their art instead of just taking it as if it’s something to which they’re entitled? But then, we’re living in the age of entitlement and those who created this world must put the genie back in the bottle.
It was both surprising and amusing to read recently that Twitter is making a profit after twelve years. Twelve YEARS! It makes one question the entire social media landscape with the answer probably being that those behind these delivery platforms are as fake as the avalanche of the Me Me Me Nowhere People. They’re just better at creating the illusion of success. Either that or they have been very successful at selling dreams to those incapable of dreaming, but are able to fund and buy dreams- in other words, financing a horrible world of make believe that’s not far removed from money laundering…and laughing all the way to the bank.
Music and the creative process of making this music heard is no laughing matter. If music is the soundtrack to our lives, it needs to sound much more meaningful with a far better need for control.
Making music available for free is a crime. It’s grand larceny. Theft. It also creates clutter. Clutter devalues music. Because it’s free, and with so much crap floating around, everyone thinks they can be a musician, and so what we have are some truly wretched attempts by people at trying to make some sounds.
IIt’s not the fault of those thinking they have what it takes. It’s the fault of those too polite to say, “No, baby/man/dude/bro, you don’t cut it”. Again, there are the haters on social media, but there are also the “friends” who click that “like” button way too quickly and give false hope where there is none.
It’s whatever the music industry will evolve into next, however, that’s going to make a difference and separate the chaff from the wheat. There MUST be a sense of exclusivity and with very few allowed past that velvet rope.
There’s also the need for many to hear what’s come before and why all this happened without music videos and apps for saps and why this pure and very great music created and produced by all these great musicians are still around though many have left us. The history of music and those who created it without gimmicks and technology should be homework for every budding musician. It helps keep egos in check. It stops drivel from becoming a river of gibberish. And stop believing in “chart successes”. It’s always been industry bullshit that can be bought for a few thousand dollars and has always been about ship outs and returns and exports.
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