What Goes On: Record Business '68

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What Goes On: Record Business '68

This article originally appeared in Issue 14/15 of   Crawdaddy on March/April 1968.

[Editor’s note: What Goes On?, a column which I wrote in Crawdaddies 5 through 11 and which was continued in issues 12 and 13 by other staff members, can no longer be effective in its original form. Crawdaddy! now goes to press over six weeks prior to its appearance on newsstands (part of the price we pay for wider distribution and a more attractive appearance) and so the idea of keeping up with speci?c news in this ?eld makes little sense. Instead, l will be writing occasional columns under this heading that will attempt to illuminate the murky behavior of the record business for the uninitiated reader and perhaps at the same time to chasten, applaud, and comment on that industry for the sake of those involved in it. The column will no longer contain specific news; l hope it will continue to give all of our readers some insight into what’s going on.—Paul Williams]

There is confusion afoot in the rock music world, a familiar confusion that arises from lack of understanding, lack of communication, and lack of common effort in a common cause. It is not surprising that rock musicians, record company executives, appreciators of the music, and radio station powers-that-be should each hold separate views of what rock music should be. It is not surprising that they have widely different opinions as to what rock music is now. What is perhaps a trifle unnerving is their curious refusal to even so much as consider the fact that they are all in the same boat together; each one clutches the elephant as though he were the only blind man in the world.

An outsider might assume that there is a fairly simple system in operation. The consumer, who has the money and exercises freedom of choice, purchases those records he or she likes out of whatever is released by the record companies. The radio stations play these same records that seem to be popular; the record companies seek to record more music of the sort that seems to be selling; the rock groups lucky enough to meet the public’s approval make a fair amount of money; and everyone knows where he stands.

The trouble with this concept (which has little to do with reality these days) is that it is not satisfying to any of the principals involved in these transactions. Rock groups who take their work seriously are not always eager to cater to what they believe is the public taste—and of course their direct contact is not with the public but with the record companies and the radio stations, who have their own ideas as to what the public taste might be. So even if you agree to appeal to the great unwashed, it is nigh-impossible to agree about what they really want. Problems: disparate goals (making music versus making money); disparate perception of the situation (“What does he know about what the public wants?”); and strained relations beyond the level of surface courtesy (“It’s impossible to talk to those freaks/money-mongers!”)

The performer, then, is in a difficult position. Should he (or she) try to please the public, the record company, or himself? Maybe he thinks he can please all three (it happens, but only through hindsight; doing your thing on records happens to give you a smash hit, and then the record company and the public cheerfully agree about what a great guy you are). Maybe he chooses one of the three, but meets opposition from another; perhaps he discovers that if he only pleases himself, he’ll never get near a recording studio…or maybe he does just what the company tells him, and ends up selling thirty-seven copies of his well-behaved but unenlightened album.

The record companies, too, are caught in the middle. They’re businessmen, they seldom pretend to be anything else—all they want to do is administer the recording and manufacturing of commercial music, and how come things are getting so complicated? There aren’t so many arrogant men running record labels these days; these guys know they’re in a business that changes every half hour (that’s how it seems to them, anyway), and they’re simply trying to keep on top of the situation. They don’t much care what the public listens to, as long as it’s marketable.

And here’s their problem: they’d be glad to give the public exactly what it wanted, if only the record-buyers would make themselves perfectly clear (they won’t; they can’t; they don’t know themselves what they want). They’d be glad to let the groups do just what they wanted to do, if it didn’t run into too much money and as long as the groups’ records continued to sell. But they know that without some kind of guidance, most rock groups today will not consider the economics of their actions, will not in all cases do what is most appropriate to selling records nor will pay much attention to the relationship between the amount of money they spend in recording time and the actual amount of money these carefully produced records are likely to make. So the companies, seeing themselves as caught in the middle, are forced (well, maybe sometimes they enjoy it) to act as interpreters between the public and the groups, and between the groups and their bank accounts. “Somebody has to provide this guidance,” they say to themselves—and I think that to a large extent they’re right. Unfortunately, their guidance is almost always completely inappropriate to the situation, and rarely serves anybody’s interests, least of all their own.

For example: MGM creates “The Boston Sound.” Reasoning: there are so many rock groups out today, it’s pretty tough to promote them on their merits alone. And a lot of record companies, too many in fact, have rushed to San Francisco to cash in on the publicity accorded groups from that particular city. As a forward-looking company, we will locate the next center of activity, sign and record groups from there, and thus put ourselves in a position to benefit from the publicity when Boston is discovered as a rock town analogous to San Francisco. In addition, we’ll be supporting the development of another good rock scene and a number of good groups, and thus contributing to the artistic as well as the financial health of the industry. Anyway, it looks like a good, proper way to get us a slice of the pie.

The fault in the reasoning is that MGM—who along with most of the rest of the industry have finally learned that everything changes—are still going on the assumption that things change linearly. When folk-rock was big, everyone started looking out for jazz-rock, raga—rock, classical-rock, whatever. They didn’t realize that folk-rock was merely an after-the-fact term, and not a very appropriate one at that, applied to a number of successful songs that reflected the growth of rock as an eclectic music. (Kind of like describing puberty as a fad.) And now that the San Francisco Sound—so-called simply because there was a common consciousness to the rock scene in that town at one time, a real feeling that we’re all part of this together—has had such a big box office, MGM naturally assumed that next we’d have the Boston Sound, and then maybe the Chicago Sound, the Winnipeg Sound, the Denver Sound…who knows? Linear thinking, completely inappropriate to the geometric growth of rock music.

Why? Because there isn’t any common consciousness in the Boston rock scene—there isn’t even any Boston rock scene. There are good groups coming out of that area (the Bagatelle, Earth Opera), but there isn’t the spiritual unity that San Francisco had back when everybody played the Avalon or the Fillmore and did benefits together and looked to the Airplane and the Dead as ad hoc leaders of the scene (they were the first to be known in the town, the first to be known in the country, the first to get contracts, etc., and most of the groups cheerfully followed their leads). Boston groups are related to each other only in a geographical sense, and even that is tenuous. And even if there were a real Boston scene analogous to the togetherness that existed in the Bay Area, that fact would not be especially important. It would be very nice, it might even mean that we could look forward to good things coming out of Boston (and l think we can, by the way), but it wouldn’t mean there was necessarily a Boston sound or that any group out of that area would be a priori worth listening to. MGM’s release of three rather sickly albums to a fanfare of bibble about the “Bosstown Sound” is a depressing and unsuccessful hype, despite what may have been seemingly sensible plans and reasonably good intentions. And this is the sort of thing that makes groups realize that—even if they want to—they can’t get rich just by doing what the record company tells them to do.

And how about all those poor people who read about the Boston Sound in Newsweek and God knows where else, and heard about it constantly from their local deluded deejay, and rushed out to buy these unworthy recordings? How is the public to determine what it wants to hear, anyway? They rely an awful lot on the media and the media in turn relies (rather shamefully) on the promotion departments of the record manufacturers. So the public buys, but the public doesn’t like, and that’s a very unhealthy situation for all of us. If too much trash is thrust on the world in boxes labeled Super-Extra Excellent, paper airplanes may be the next big rage, and record manufacturing will never become a Billion-Dollar Industry (an event scheduled for round about 1970, according to industry reports. Buy your tickets now).

And the radio stations! Now these guys are not only unperceptive, but downright arrogant as well. Their reaction to continual slippage in audience response to Top 40 radio is to spend their time complaining to the record manufacturers (and, in fact, threatening them) about records with questionable lyrics, records more than three minutes long, records that don’t appeal simultaneously to pop, rock, easy listening, country and western and Negro markets, etc. The radio stations continually claim that they play what the public wants, maintaining their faith in such paradoxes as adding records to the playlist if the record sells in the local stores (how will it sell in the local stores if it isn’t being played by the local radio station?). They make no attempt whatsoever to get involved in what they’re doing; most Top 40 program directors hate rock ‘n’ roll music and rock ‘n’ roll musicians and make no bones about saying so (except over the air, of course). Radio will soon dry up into a wasteland vaster and deader than that unused medium called television. The only ray of hope is really bold nonspecific music programming such as that of KMPX in San Francisco and KPPC in Los Angeles, and it’s worth noting that the FCC, by failing to open up more bands on the FM dial, is preventing the spread of any sort of creative radio. There have been a great many people interested in starting heavy rock stations in New York and Boston (and probably many other places) who have been stopped dead by the incredible hassles of trying to find a station for sale at anything like an acceptable price. And we all know the perils of working within the context of uncool management and ownership. WOR-FM, the Sound of Memory. (New York’s great hip rock station now plays a steady diet of moldy oldies, and is said to be very pleased with itself.)

So, is there much hope for an industry in which each participant (performer, radio station, record company, listener) relies on all the others but has no real idea what the others’ needs are or how to respond to them? Well, so far we seem to be doing okay and I think we may continue to do okay, but I for one am not satisfied with that. More creative energy is going into this artistic activity, music, than any other at present; for this energy to be channeled toward productive ends, for us to avoid losing 98 percent of this energy somewhere along the way, we must work together to make every part of this industry aware of and responding to some general goals.

Attitude is a crucial thing. I don’t know how one decides which record labels are most successful; there are four which I would name as being extraordinarily hot right at the moment—Atlantic, Motown, Warner Brothers, and Elektra. The first two have succeeded within the Negro music market; the reasons for their success and the nature of their operations will be discussed in considerable detail in this column in the near future. For right now I’d like to take a very quick look at the two labels that have succeeded outside of the highly specific Negro market, in a strange undefined area of the music business known as modern rock music. The crucial thing about Elektra during its entire history (it’s the last three years of that history that concern us here) has been the attitude of its executive management in relation to Elektra’s artists and in relation to Elektra’s audience. And it is very much a function of the attitudes of those people at Warner Brothers/Reprise responsible for “youth product” over the last year that Warners has suddenly become incredibly important and successful in the world of modern music.

Elektra, a powerful folk label in 1965, was aware of the growing interest of folk performers (and some of the folk audience) in “Beatles music.” Elektra knew the origins of the Byrds (they were on an Elektra label for one brief moment in ‘65 under the name “The Beefeaters”); Elektra knew what Johnny Sebastian, who’d played harmonica on many of their sessions, was getting into; Elektra was aware of, and acted on, the excitement Paul Butterfield was creating at Big John’s in Chicago with his rock-oriented electric blues. In May 1965 Paul Rothchild was planning an Electric Blues Project album for Elektra’s folk and blues audience, and the artists to be on that album included the Lovin’ Spoonful, Eric Clapton, Al Kooper, and the Butterfield Blues Band. While people were carrying on about “folk-rock” in the fall of that year, Elektra was pushing Butterfield’s first album up into the charts.

Early in ‘66 Elektra signed their first real rock group, Los Angeles’s Love—a group which is still ahead of its time in relation to what’s going on around it. And in the late summer of 1966, about the time that Revolver came out and people were beginning to suspect that things might be getting a little strange in the future, Elektra was quietly signing and recording a group that Columbia Records had signed and then dropped from their roster, a group called the Doors.

Obviously Elektra was not just “lucky.” It was very very aware, from the moment it started getting interested in the quality rock market (which is only just now being recognized as existing). Elektra’s Jac Holzman has always taken music seriously, has always thought of his business as the marketing of something real to people who really wanted it, and has become a very rich man thinking that way. Elektra doesn’t always know what the audience wants, nor do its artists, but they sit down and talk about it together, and they aren’t always wearing ties and white shirts when they get together. Elektra, which has respected and worked hard to relate to its audience and its artists, is now a very successful record label. It is only fair to note that Jac Holzman and Paul Rothchild and William Harvey and others at Elektra have also had the ability to get into and relate to and understand the people they deal with, and without this basic ability the best of intentions won’t help too much.

Warner Brothers/Reprise, home of the Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, the Association, the Beau Brummels, Arlo Guthrie, the Kweskin Jug Band, the Grateful Dead, the Everly Brothers, Jack Elliott, Tiny Tim, etc. etc., has also been a little lucky. They think so. And yet it wasn’t luck that made them decide to let a newcomer like Lenny Waronker spend a great deal of money on a bunch of groups (Harper’s Bizarre, the Mojo Men, the Beau Brummels) that had been acquired to the label almost as an afterthought. It wasn’t luck that made them get behind Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman when Lenny brought these extremely unusual and seemingly uncommercial composers into the company. Warner Brothers for the last year has been absolutely fearless about giving people who were known by reputation to be creative, absolute artistic freedom and the money and equipment and support to make that freedom meaningful. No other record company made the connection between these people’s raw ability to create and their specific ability to make money and reputation for the company.

Warners put their strength not into a gimmick, not into a concept, not into some abstract idea of how to make it; they put their strength behind people, and people came through for them. Jimi Hendrix was a mild sensation in England when Warner Brothers went out on a limb to sign him; there have been a lot of mild sensations in England that never happened over here, and maybe Warner Brothers was lucky to pick the right one. But it was intelligent, sympathetic management of Jimi Hendrix that guaranteed his success over here; had he been signed to United Artists (home of the Traffic), l doubt anything would have happened. A group with a potential for success that exceeds even Hendrix’s, the Who, has been stranded on Decca Records and has fought overwhelming odds in order to achieve any recognition at all (at about the time Warners was negotiating for Hendrix, Decca forgot to send copies of the Who’s “I’m a Boy” to Billboard and Cash Box).

Warner Brothers/Reprise, because of its recent purchase of Atlantic Records, because of Lenny Waronker, an incredible producer, because of Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman, because of Joni Mitchell, because of Stan Cornyn and Andy Wickham, because most of all of Mo Ostin who has been signing most of this new talent, will be the most important force in the music business in 1969. And this is because they conceive of the music audience as interested in the work of creative people, this is because they are willing to really trust those persons they’ve decided are worth trusting, this is because they have on their staff persons who can respond immediately to changes in the nature of the music world and who have the strength to implement their response intelligently. Warner Brothers, which two years ago had only two worthwhile new music groups on its labels (the Everly Brothers and the Kinks), and Elektra, which two years ago was known far and wide as “a nice little folk label,” are today in the forefront of the rock music world. I don’t think my demands for new attitudes in the music industry are based only on the wildest idealism.

Well. I know you can only read just so many words at one time, and I appreciate your staying with me this far. The ideal for the music industry would be for all people involved in radio, records, performing, listening (and for that matter the people who manufacture instruments and the people who write about rock music, too) to be aware of each other as partners in a communications venture which can generate a lot of money and a lot of great music without too many contradictions entering in. This is an ideal; the practical reality is for as many people as possible, as are willing, to make that positive effort to take the music seriously and to relate on a sensitive and real basis to all the creeps (longhaired kids, short-haired executives) who are involved in the “music industry” along with them.

There are a great many rock albums out now, and this is because there are a great many rock groups and a great many record companies and a great deal of money available to spend on producing these groups. It is bad for all of us when groups are recorded before they are ready, before their work justifies such attention and expense. It means that the audience has to wade through incredible piles of stuff to find what they like (which means their chances of finding what they like are not as high, and that hurts the whole industry), and it means that those people who really do deserve a great deal of attention may be sloughed off by their audience or by their record company (they are being sloughed off by the radio stations) because “rock groups are a dime a dozen.” There must be some way out of here, and I think that way involves a little more taste, a little more caution, a little more patience, and certainly a lot more communication, a lot more understanding. If we can avoid arrogance and mistrust, if we can find ways to work together more, and more closely, we will all be the benefactors. If groups and companies stop thinking of each other as cattle, if they also stop behaving like cattle, if respect and directness of action can become characteristic of our industry, I believe we are on the threshold of a whole new level of mass communication. I think that the dreams of both businessmen and artists can be realized, but only to the extent that they both recognize each other, only to the extent that we think of ourselves as all being people, working toward common human goals.

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