Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Obvious and Hidden Glitch

     I’ve had the great joy and privilege of knocking around Nashville’s Music Row for 35 years. I have made dear friends and also experienced hard times. It is the way of the world, not only in the music business but in this life, as well. It used to be that the hard times were, more often than not, traced directly to my own laziness or lack of focus. That is also a universal truth. However, in recent years I contend that there are other reasons for this current and prolonged season of hard times. 
     This is not a tale of sour grapes. I have loved my time in this great city and have been blessed with lots of wonderful opportunities along the way. I have some regrets: poor decisions, bad timing, spending too much money and putting my professional life on coast from time-to-time. Nonetheless, it’s been a fulfilling experience and I would change very little, except for this: the plummeting caliber of the country song and my suspicion about why this is so. 
     The grand old truth about Nashville’s enduring success as a music center is not simply generations of wonderful singers and entertainers, The Opry, WSM Radio or The Hall of Fame. The broad shoulders of Nashville’s music industry is music publishing—the companies, both large and small, that own (publish), exploit and collect revenues from the thousands of songs you and I have enjoyed over the past 80+ years. That’s where the real money is. Did Eddy Arnold, Dolly Parton, Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks and Alabama (to name just a few) make lots of money in their careers? Yes, of course. However, with few exceptions, artists’ incomes cannot compare to the money earned by owning copyrights like “The Gambler,” “Always On My Mind” and “I Will Always Love You” (again, to name just a few). 
     Perhaps a not-so-subtle question is appropriate here: Where did these songs come from? The answer: everywhere. The songwriters, composers and lyricists that created this remarkable body of work lack definitive description but for one common characteristic: they had the gift—intrinsic, God-endowed and unstoppable. And here is where this tale takes a turn, both sad and despicable. Guess what? It has to do with greed. 
     The music industry has unraveled and is in, as it were, the tank. There are many reasons, not the least of which is the arrogance of the Big Boys—the (formerly) Big Five corporate giants EMI, WEA, BMG, SONY and UNI that have been compressed and merged, in recent years, into the Big Three, more or less. One extreme managerial conclusion to “stop the bleeding” in the Nashville sector of the music industry was to sign every new recording artist to a contract that includes revenue participation in every conceivable component of their activities: live performance, record sales, merchandise sales (as in t-shirts and bumper sticker) and, yes, you guessed it, their songwriting and publishing efforts. So, it is now incumbent upon any record label executive to manufacture ways to ensure that Johnny-Come-Lately becomes a songwriter. Fiscally wise, culturally abysmal.
     Johnny-Come-Lately may be devoid of any inclination or talent to write a song.  That doesn’t matter. The bottom line is now in control. Left to his own devices, J-C-L will likely fail at this endeavor, unless, of course, he does have a gift. If he does not have the gift he will sit in a room with a songwriter that does and pretend to participate in the process of composing a song. During this period of time it is likely that he will receive phone calls from his manager, agent, record label, spouse and stylist. He will text with old friends and family members and, if he is paying attention, will make more coffee for the professional songwriter with whom he is not engaged. He may say things like “J-C-L would never say that,” “Are you hungry” or “Is there any way we can mention Skoal in this song? My peeps would really relate to that.” 
     There you have it. No matter how great or awful the song turns out to be, the executive at the label will demand that it be recorded because, after all, the company will participate in the revenue stream. How small, how unthinking, how culturally demeaning is this circumstance? Take a brief excursion through your musical memory. Yes, there have always been awful songs that have done well. But my goodness, we can do better than this.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Average Joe

It is reported this morning that VP Joe Biden will be delivering a speech this afternoon in Youngstown, OH lambasting Mitt Romney’s career as head of Bain Capital. A quote from his prepared remarks (as if he’ll stick to the script) states: “In the 1990s, there was a steel mill in Kansas City, Missouri. It had been in business since 1888. Then Romney and his partners bought the company. Eight years later it went bankrupt. When the company finally filed for bankruptcy, they reneged on their contract with the workers. No health care, lower pensions. Everyone lost their jobs. But not everyone got hurt. The top 30 executives walked away with $9 million. And Romney and his partners walked away with at least $12 million." 
Having, myself, grown up in one of America’s great steel towns, I am well aware of the tragedies visited upon that industry—a tragedy rightfully laid at the feet of management, unions and government. The point is, any U.S. steel producer still doing business in the 1990’s sustained their profitability well beyond the industry average. 
Nonetheless, this is campaign season and we can expect lots of “glove’s off” parlance in the coming weeks and months. To be fair, what follows is an in-depth, step-by-step analysis of Joe Biden’s history as a productive member of the public sector workforce: 

Thank you, Mr. Vice President.