"I'm gonna tell you the way it is and I'm not gonna be kind or easy."
Frank Zappa, 1967
Last week I offered up some thoughts triggered by the recent announcement by a group of nearly 200 CEOs who collectively agreed to a revised approach to their business models. Essentially, they will now nobly aim towards doing what's right for the company and its employees, not being ruled by by the popular corporate mantra: "maximize shareholder value."
Here in Part Two we'll continue to explore this thinking as it might apply to the music business as a whole, considering the industry as if it were one large collective entity. While these thoughts are no doubt imperfect, idealistic and admittedly easily argued, it's my sincere hope that maybe, just maybe, some of this thinking might spur further discussion and ideas toward positive change. If you missed last week's introduction, please click here to jump to it.
My underlying wonder is whether "the music industry" in these 21st Century times -- put in quotes to encompass music labels of all sizes as well as management and other related infrastructure organizations -- is doing enough as good corporate citizens in particular to support legacy artists?
I dislike the seemingly common pattern of waiting for an artist to die before there is any sort of push to generate renewed interest in their music. I see missed opportunity on so many levels when labels aren't leveraging (for lack of a better phrase) the "good mojo" and promotional opportunity just resting there, working with a living artist in the here and now, not just their estate after someone has passed away?
Sure... I know there are a myriad of excuses to shoot down an idea like this, not the least of them being budget and resources. And sure, some artists might be "too difficult" to deal with if they had mental or substance abuse issues. And the legacy of bad contracts is a legal swamp. I get it. There are reasons... and that is part of the point of this thought piece...
Can't something be done to break this pattern? Thinking big picture:
- Why does an artist have to die before their catalog gets re-released?
- Why does an artist have to get into dire straits before anyone will consider doing anything to support their legacy?
- Why is it deemed acceptable to keep artists tied to unfair old contracts they were coerced to sign many decades back before they knew better (and which I suspect a new generation of younger executive would recognize as ill-conceived)?
It shouldn't be a massive undertaking for even a small label to modestly invest in artists of the past to honor their presence today -- and it is a genuine honor, folks, make no mistake about that. By releasing and promoting their music while they are alive, said artists might not get into said dire straits... It might give them exactly the pychological and financial boost they need to get back on track.
Perhaps there could be an industry collective formed to help these artists navigate the re-entry process more easily and transparently. It can't all just be done through an automated website. There needs to be a deep human element happening here... Rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI do offer certain services but even that I fear may be a bit daunting for some artists to initiate, especially when they are, as Neil Young once wrote,"getting down to the wire."
With some sort of broader-based career infrastructure, an artist might not fall into that all-too-common tragic situation where they find themselves sleeping on a friend's couch because they've been evicted from their home... or on the street. This while industry executives are driving around in spiffy Teslas...
If artists were supported as a matter of course, maybe they would have health insurance for medical needs. Maybe, they'd be less likely to get into situations where organizations like the great Wild Honey Foundation have to come to the rescue, sponsoring Kickstarter campaigns for struggling musicians. Maybe fine organizations like MusicCares wouldn't have to exist.
The industry should be embarrassed. The public should be embarrassed. News and social media platforms should be making more noise about how artists are treated -- all artists! We are all a bit guilty in this process.
Sure, this is idealism. But, that doesn't make it a bad place to begin...
And I know it is not all doom and gloom out there. Numerous really wonderful reissue series have emerged celebrating some living artists... but for the most part those are artist-driven campaigns. That is, from what I can see is that those reissues and archive releases by King Crimson, XTC, Devo and ELO probably would not be happening if those artists themselves didn't push to make them happen (including in some instances undertaking extensive concert tours). It has been very encouraging seeing a relative underdog band like NRBQ finally getting the reissue push while they are having a late career renaissance. Several years ago one producer helped legendary composer/producer/artist Emitt Rhodes at least partially out of his isolation to complete a terrific album of new music that was released (and which I reviewed here, btw). So there are good things happening.
Yet, there are so many others overlooked...
Bring these artists out to the broader universe... Sure you may not sell a bazillion copies but then you don't really have to these days, what with manfacturing on demand and downloads and streaming. At the end of the day, the universe will be better and more in balance having access to potentially great music from under-appreciated artists.
At the end of the day the world will look at you and say: 'wow these people are really doing something special, not just churning quick money grabs!' Think about this when you wake up in the middle of the night questioning your own existence.
Thank you for listening.... For the love of music... For the love of art... for the love of artists...
Do something bigger with your time here on earth.