The Death of Independence
by Janis Ian
The Top 3 Mistakes of
3) Turning down an
opportunity to compose a score for a film with an unusual script and an unknown
actor that would become 'The Graduate'.
Passing on an offer to headline one night at a woefully
disorganized outdoor music festival that would become Woodstock.
1) Graciously agreeing
to this inclusion at JosephMind ...
The Death of Independence - A Rant
On the One Hand ...
Do you remember FM radio? It began going wild in the early 60s,
filling the airwaves with everything the hidebound, commercially-oriented
programmers wouldnt play on the real AM radio stations.
FM radio had disc jockeys who chose their own playlists, and wed tune
into certain stations because we shared their listening tastes. Independent
in the extreme, FM was radio without walls sometimes without commercials,
sometimes without professionalism, but always with heart.
Without FM radio, Bob Dylan would never have seen airplay. I could easily
make the argument that without FM, thered have been no 60s
revolution; no counter-culture, no be-ins in short, no
sixties. FM was the thing that bound us together. Because of its independence,
we were independent too. It kept us in concert, giving us a common reference
point through the music that was ours, even if we lived in Pocoima.
Remember Motown? It began because Berry Gordy couldnt get a foothold
in the white world of AM radio success. The charts were divided into white
and black; records by black artists were called race records,
and the two charts never met. Berry Gordy created an independent record label
that soon superseded many of the majors. Because of that
independence, he wasnt tied to the Usual & Customary Rules. Eventually
he managed to cross his acts over onto the white charts and made
music history. I remember those days, and remember them well. Without FM
radio, I would have no career.
Without Motown crossing the race barrier, we wouldnt have the kind
of diversity we see on the charts today, where Whitney Houston (formerly
black chart), Shania Twain (formerly country chart),
and Radiohead (formerly no chart) could stand shoulder-to-shoulder.
more diversity in radio today than ever before, appearances to the contrary.
Without the technological advances and FTC rulings that made FM radio a viable
contender, the world as we know it would be quite a different place, and
the music industry would still be full of people like Mitch Miller running
A&R departments, refusing to sign The Beatles, and maintaining that
Rock and Roll will never last. FM shook everything, and everyone,
up, forcing the industry to find new ways to survive.
Remember all the little labels? Criteria, Mushroom, tiny labels that succeeded
against all odds, breaking bands like crazy and giving us something to listen
to other than Mantovani? Remember how all the major labels jumped on that,
creating their own independent labels (which were in reality
merely subsidiaries of the majors)? Soon all the independents were bought
up by the majors; the few holdouts are gone now.
Remember when disk jockeys had personality? When youd tune in to a
particular station at a certain time of day because you knew Murray the K
was going to be playing your music and talking about
your artists? When radio personalities were encouraged to have
just that a personality? Whether you liked the screamers or the
sweet-talkers, at least there was variety. Nowadays every music radio personality
has the same voice, and the same playlist.
Remember when there were 20+ major record companies, all operating independently?
When people stayed at a label for life, and helped to form its ethic and
business outlook? When one person could truly make a difference at a company
without behaving like Bill Gates?
Goddard Lieberson, a staff member and ultimately president of Columbia Records
(which later became CBS and is now owned by Sony) personified all that was
good and decent in our industry. A ferocious businessman, he got his way
without screaming or descending into adolescent whining. Not only could he
sit with the CBS Board of Directors and argue that providing a haven for
the great classical musicians of their time Igor Stravinsky, Isaac
Stern and the like would somehow increase sales even though
highbrow music was never going to get on the charts. He could
also sit with an artist and discuss the best sax players in town, or show
you how to write an eighth-note triplet. He hired people who would think
creatively and independently, and then wisely stayed out of their way. Looked
at from the perspective of our current business state, when You cant
get fired for saying No seems to be the watchword of the day, he was
To quote Blue Note Records Bruce Lundvall: "You have to [balance commerce
and art]. I learned this from Goddard Lieberson and John Hammond at Columbia
Records many years ago. Those were my mentors. Goddard's whole philosophy
was, 'We have two responsibilities: a responsibility to the corporation 'cause
we're a business but first and foremost we have a responsibility to an art
form called music.' That was a pretty bold statement in 1959. When I was
at Columbia (where he served as president) I wanted to make sure that if
we were involved in country music, classical, jazz, whatever, that we had
the premiere talent. That was the other thing that Goddard taught me. That's
how you build a great record company as opposed to a profitable record company."
Build a great record company. Strive for the extraordinary, side by side
with commercial success. Sign the best, whether theyll increase profits
or not, because sometimes overall profits can be measured in prestige and
visibility, rather than hard numbers. Let the commercially successful recordings
finance your less successful acts. What antiquated concepts!
The older programmers, music directors, record company people in our industry
come out of a time when mentoring someone was assumed to be part of the job.
Where are those people today? How many record companies can boast a chain
of command that includes the kind of open exchange of information and hard-won
wisdom we saw when gentleman was a good word in business?
titled this article 'The Death of Independence' because I fear that,
from a recording and radio standpoint, our industry is dying. Its moribund,
slow as a turtle to respond to new technologies, overly-concerned with protecting
its assets rather than braving new frontiers, and frantic to find anyone
who will tell it just which new frontiers are worth investing in with no
risk. I remember the industrys reaction to stereo when I was ten
(itll never last!) and cassettes (no one will ever
get paid royalties again!) and the like.
Im watching the same mistakes repeated in their response to the Internet,
Liquid Audio, MP-3, digital publishing, and everything else that gives the
little guy a chance (and incidentally forces the industry to get its feet
out of the cement and change with the times). Im completely disheartened
that after all these years, songwriters still have no union. And artists
have no power.
On the Other Hand ...
Isnt it interesting how weve come to regard the 50s
and 60s in America as a time of enlightened radio
programming? Ive actually heard people who grew up in the
80s mourn those days, regarding anything since as over-commercialized
tripe. I can understand their point; those decades were a time of explosive
growth for our entire country. In retrospect, a radio format that was playing
The Rolling Stones side by side with Bob Dylan looks pretty good.
But in fairness to the programmers of this decade, let us not forget some
of the less stellar moments in radio of that era. After all, there was another
side to the coin. During the 50s we had a real glut of pretty
boys with questionable voices; Fabian, Pat Boone, Tab Hunter (honestly) and
the like were topping the charts. There were only six gold records in 1959,
and they went to Ernie Ford, Johnny Mathis, Mitch Miller, 'The Music
Man', 'South Pacific', and 'Peter Gunn'. The Top 40 Hits
of 1963 included 'Blame It On the Bossa Nova' by Eydie Gorme, 'Candy
Girl' by the Four Seasons, and 'Dominique', by the Singing Nun.
If you think Brittany Spears is a manufactured artist, whose
handlers have created a package complete with clothing, hair
style, and pout, take a look at old videos of 'American Bandstand', easily
the most popular (and often the only) music show of that era.
The #1 record of 1962 was 'Big Girls Dont Cry'. The situation
was not much changed in 1964, when Grammy awards went to 'The Girl From
Ipanema' (Record of the Year) and 'Hello Dolly' (Song of the Year).
Not exactly Ornette Coleman or Jimi Hendrix. 1964 also saw Dean Martins
'Everybody Loves Somebody' in the #1 Billboard slot, a far cry from
cutting edge. Let us not forget that the 60s, a time when radio
brought us The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, also gave us Bobby Goldsboro
and The Archies.
I remember the 50s and 60s charts largely because
portions of them were so unbelievable. Who could fail to enjoy The Cowsills,
and wait anxiously for their next bold release? Or long for the Boss-Town
Sound, the East Coasts answer to the Flower Power drifting in
from San Francisco?
forget about seeing female role models playing guitar, bass, drums in a band.
In fact, forget about seeing female role models period, unless you were into
high glam and watched The Supremes or Dusty Springfield. Women in the
50s and early 60s were either sluts-with-a-heart-of-gold,
or girl-from-bad-neighborhood-makes-good, or good-girl-next-door. If you
grew up a female musician or writer in that time, you were male-identified.
You had no choice. Female artists such as Nina Simone, who played piano on
her recordings and onstage, created the arrangements, and wrote a good portion
of her material, were rare and under-valued. And they certainly werent
on the charts.
The good old days of our industry were fraught with the same
issues we face now. Artists werent signed because they were wonderful
artists; they were signed because their music smelled like profit for the
record company, and higher numbers for radio. If you were an artist in the
50s, an A&R Man chose your songs. A manager chose your clothing.
A choreographer told you how to move on stage.
If you were lucky, you got to record songs you liked, and wear clothing that
fit your self-image. When you made a record, the producer picked the musicians
and engineer, recorded the tracks, then pulled you in only to sing. From
that moment on, your job was done. Even your album cover was created without
you, and the only criteria was marketing. As late as 1978, I still found
myself arguing with the record company over song choices, titles (Maybe
if you changed it from 'Jesse' to 'Leaving A Light By the
Stairs', wed have a better shot at radio. After all, who is
Jesse to the listener?), and my liner notes (Do you really
think buyers want to read the lyrics?)
Third Hand ...
In Nashville, where I live, theres a constant argument going on over
radio. Does radio play what the record companies force down its throat? Left
to their own devices, without the pressure from Arbitron and the need to
sell commercial space, would radio programmers boldly venture where no man
has gone before, and actually play their own favorites? Thats what
the radio people say. They say their hands are tied by the product provided
to them. They yearn for the good old days, when Bobbie Gentry,
Dr. John, and Bob Marley were played next to one another. They liked being
educators, bringing new music to the audience. They miss that.
The record people, on the other hand, say that radio forces them to place
artists in narrow niches, because radio will only play certain sounds and
formats. They complain that the entire music industry is just chasing
radio. They say theyre tired of listening to finished product
and sending both artist and producer back into the studio with the instructions
Theres nothing like this on radio; give me a single theyll
actually play, one that fits the current format. To hear the record
companies talk, theyd like nothing better than to sit on the cutting
edge of destiny, pushing artists they believe in and throwing commercial
worries to the wind.
The artists say they just want to make music, music they love, music they
believe in. Economics aside (and theyre never really aside, are they?),
theres a good point to this. The real breakthrough acts, those that
suddenly sell in the multi-platinum range out of nowhere, are seldom manufactured
artists whose recordings chase radio. Theyre the mavericks, the ones
who went from company to company being told Theres nothing
radio-friendly here, until they found one true believer who worked
to make it happen. Thats how big careers get started, and thats
what drives our industry sales up each quarter. The new, the bold, the
But its all a gamble. A radio station that went back to the free-wheeling
days of early FM ethics would also need the money and time to educate its
audience, an audience weve turned into a bunch of mindless button-punchers
who only expect to hear the familiar. A record company interested in breaking
new sounds and great music has to be prepared to educate the consumer, and
spend the money on advertising and promotion for something radically different.
And like any business venture, too different can spell financial catastrophe.
And Where Does This Leave The
Annoyed. Irritated. Angry when record companies and publishers tried to stop
Napster, which provided free music to anyone with a computer and the proper
software. Aggravated with the state of radio, where formats change constantly
and that station you finally found and loved has changed its playlist to
Mexican Evangelical, based on demographic surveys and Arbitron ratings. More
and more consumers are demanding that their car radios have scan buttons,
so they can flip from station to station without thinking, stopping only
when something piques their interest. Do we wonder why talk radio is so huge?
At least you can count on the disk jockeys (read: talk radio hosts) having
personalities. Why be faithful to one station, when all stations are playing
the same records, and all jockeys sound the same?
Exasperated because when they do finally hear a song they like, particularly
on pop radio, they probably miss the singers name and the song title.
With no back-end and front-end announcing, theres no way for radio
to create sales for artists whose voices and styles arent immediately
identifiable to the listener. Just try calling an info line to get this
information its impossible. Upset that the price of CDs
stays high, when even a civilian knows they cost little to manufacture. Haunting
the used CD stores, where last weeks new Shania Twain release has dropped
from $14.99 to $5.99. Put off because when they buy old catalogue, it rarely
has the original liner notes (or even cover design). Further put off because
purchasing CDs is senseless when you can download the music for free.
If record companies cant see their way to providing CD packaging that
interests the consumer, CDs are doomed.
I got a visceral lesson in this when I bought my nephews the new Back Street
Boys CD. Did they immediately put it on the player to listen? No; they put
it in my computer, so they could watch the videos and interviews made especially
for that CD, which werent available anywhere else.
Uncertain of which technology to trust, let alone which company, my generation
watched a slide from mono to stereo to 8 track to cassette to CD to mini-disc
to DVD, displaying less enthusiasm with every step. Music is supposed to
be fun, and easy. Each time record companies engage in a newer and
better format for sound, they lose more consumer trust particularly
when each new format requires replacing your entire music collection! (iTunes
may have changed the landscape for now, but nothing lasts forever).
As to the companies, it used to be that you could trust a specific brand
name Sony, for instance. You knew that buying Sony product ensured
buying Sony quality. Unfortunately, each time a company comes out with a
newer and better technology, their first generation is wonderful and
each succeeding improvement lowers the overall quality without providing
anything the consumer really wants. Anyone who worked with cassette recorders
knows this first hand; the early Sony portable cassette recorder (TCS- 310)
is a marvel of engineering and sound quality. Just try convincing someone
to sell you theirs! Each following generation brought lower sound quality,
sacrificed to size, and some technology persons idea of what the consumer
really wants. (Gee, what I really want is degraded sound, a probable
life-span of 6 months, and an AM/FM radio, alarm clock, and TV remote built
into my cassette recorder
Bored stiff. Tired of listening to the same old stuff, even if they dont
know it yet. How many radio stations play a wide format, taking chances?
How many major labels release records that will only sell in the tens of
thousands, rather than the millions? And where are the niche stations willing
to stick to their guns, to patiently continue losing money while they teach
their audience to enjoy different forms of music? We hear a lot these days
about world music and world beat, but try finding
it on radio. Its difficult enough to find your local acts being played,
let alone something from another country. When people are bored, they turn
to something different. Talk radio vs. music. Videos vs. CDs. The Internet
and computer games vs. recordings or radio.
Are The Heroes?
I believe in heroes. I believe in heroic stands, in David vs. Goliath. I
think the good guy usually wins. I have absolute faith that consumers, en
masse, are pretty wise. As performers, we see it in our concert audiences,
who consistently call for the best songs rather than the most popular.
Where are the heroes in records and radio these days? Wheres the wealthy
entrepreneur whos willing to buck the system by buying a radio
station and actually playing what he or she likes, or hiring programmers
and jockeys to do the same? Whos willing to gamble that the public,
offered something other than tripe, will take to it like a duck to water?
For my money, thats what the 60s proved in radio and records.
That the consumer, if given a better alternative, will prefer that alternative.
Its not something that can change overnight.
- Janis Ian -
ON A PERSONAL NOTE: I can only extend
the most heartfelt thanks to Janis who, over the course of a week
back and forth would ping to my pong over
the smallest revisions and details. One can only applaud a popular music
icon of her stature contributing again to our own enrichment,
both musically and intellectually.
- Joseph -