Record Labels Are (Kind Of) Dead. Long Live Label Services!

October 11, 2017

Glenn Peoples 10/10/17

Early on a Sunday morning, at a Waffle House across I-40 from Nashville International Airport, Jay Gilbert and Jeff Moskow are talking all things music. They’re amazed by the craziness of the streaming world. They recount some of the living room concerts Gilbert hosts in Los Angeles — some are popular, as in “I just saw his band in an arena” popular. The two rewind to the conversations they had at the just-completed Music Biz, the annual gathering of record labels, distributors, digital service providers, and miscellaneous detritus from the conference’s heyday. Most of all, they talked about the uncertainty in the business. “We’re all trying to figure out where things are headed,” says Gilbert

Fast forward a year. Gilbert and Moskow are finding opportunities in confusion, helping a range of music clients with the label services company they co-founded, Label Logic. “When you’re dealing with artists and release strategies, there are no rules,” says Moskow, a former executive for catalog and special markets division of Universal Music Enterprises. An artist might want to release a couple of EPs before releasing a full album; everybody from Blake Shelton to Nine Inch Nails has experimented with the EP format once digital music fragmented the album. Another artist might want to release only singles. Northern Irish band Ash released one new track every two weeks for 13 months in 2009 and 2010; then, ironically, Ash compiled the singles into an album. In years past, artists seeded albums to peer-to-peer networks to find an audience they couldn’t get at brick-and-mortar retail. Today, hip-hop artists and EDM producers seeking career momentum post their music online. “It’s the wild west,” remarks Moskow.

Label Logic is a product of environment and circumstances. At labels and management companies, lean and fast is the new big and slow. Gilbert and Moskow opened shop to complement capabilities, letting clients — labels, managers, and artists—outsource duties rather than use whatever in-house resources exist. In today’s music business climate, it’s often better to rent than own. Let two “hyper-responsive and responsible” guys, as they say about their approach, take on some of the heavy lifting.

The record business of 10 years ago seems quaint by today’s standards. Back then, people were grappling with consumers’ embrace of single track downloads. Audio streaming services were small players that attracted few customers. Record labels were not yet thinned by painful downsizings and pruning of their rosters. Digital marketing was less essential. Former major-label artists were becoming aware of the independence and freedom digital distribution provided— Radiohead broke the levee by distributing In Rainbows to fans as a pay-what-you-want digital download. Those days are long over. Depending on your perspective, the new music industry either necessitated the hiring of a company like Label Logic or provided the opportunity to hire a Label Logic.

Not that turbulence has battered the music business beyond recognition. Music is still recorded, distributed and marketed to hungry fans. Radio play is great if you get it. A team, whatever its shape and size, must foster a connection between fans and an artist. Some version of a playbook still exists, although a few outdated chapters have been excised. The section titled “The Strategic Importance of Placing Physical Distribution Offices in Every Major Market” went out the window in the early ’00s. “The Art of the Spending Half of a Marketing Budget on a Retail Store’s Endcap” and “How to Negotiate a Huge Record Deal That Will Never Recoup” don’t jibe with the financial realities of today. The ash heap of history also contains a few chapters on music formats: “slotMusic and the Super Audio CD: The Formats of the Future;” “The Undying Album Format, and Why Singles Are Only For Radio;” and “Why You Shouldn’t Bother Releasing Vinyl Records).” A decade ago, few people would have thought people would pay over $30 for a double-LP, 180-gram release of The Eagles’ Their Greatest Volumes 1 and 2.

In shorthand, Label Logic could be called a label services company. But in 2017 the term ‘label services’ begs the question: what the hell is a label? The traditional record label still exists, although staffs are smaller and managers often assume many marketing and e-commerce duties. Some managers play the role of a record label. Artists, too, can create record labels, partner with a mid-sized distribution company, or assemble a team to handle PR, marketing, and project management. Back in the “music should be free” era there were some out-of-left-field varieties of a record label. Mountain Dew created a record label, Green Label, and offered downloads at its logo-emblazoned website. In the 00s, a blog, RCRD LBL, provided free downloads of tracks while generating ad revenue and paying the artist.

Some of the biggest names in the music business have entrusted their artists to Gilbert and Moskow. Renowned artist manager Doc McGhee started working with Label Logic this year. His artist management firm, McGhee Entertainment, has a roster stretching from legends like KISS and Ted Nugent to younger bands A Thousand Horses and Vintage Trouble. McGhee, speaking with a folksy charm, calls Gilbert and Moskow “dedicated” and “smart,” and appreciates how they share their knowledge with his staff . “That’s why I took them in right away. I said, ‘You get all my acts, fuck everybody else.’”

The September release of RSO, a McGhee-repped collaboration of guitarists Richie Sambora and Orianthi, spans every layer of Label Logic’s services. The guys work with all stakeholders — artist, management, and any social agencies, publicist or label involved — to create a campaign and get it to market. Both Gilbert and Moskow recall the many times they’ve sat across a table from an artist with stature and said in plain English, “This is what you need to do.” Peter Frampton, Rick Springfield, and The Temptations might intimidate a less experienced person. While developing catalog campaigns and greatest hits projects, the two have worked with the likes of U2, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Bee Gees. Moskow had the pleasure of shepherding Universal’s product and marketing campaign for Motown’s 50th anniversary. (Motown ran with precision timing, and Moskow insists he would drive up to meetings with Motown founder Berry Gordy an hour early—and then sit in his car until the meeting started .) Gilbert sees that experience as a differentiator for Label Logic. “We’ve been at the table with some of the top artists in the industry. With that experience, we speak their language.”

Rick Springfield’s relationship with Moskow and Gilbert preceded the creation of Label Logic. The indefatigable rocker — he’s a 68-year-old who looks two decades younger — worked with the duo when all three were at Universal. Springfield remembers Moskow coming to him as a fan and saying, “I think I can help you.” Three of Springfield’s last four albums debuted in the top 100 of the Billboard 200 album chart. Two of them, Venus in Overdrive in 2008 and Songs for the End of the World in 2012, landed inside the top 50. That’s a big deal, explains Moskow. “If you look at artists in his generation, a lot of them don’t debut in the top 50.” To be fair, he adds, Rick had a vision. “He knew he would get new TV and movie roles. He had Californication and True Detective, [the 2015 motion picture, Jonathan Demme-produced] Ricki and the Flash with Meryl Streep, and a couple of best-selling books.”

Springfield, who released Rocket Science last year and is nearing completion on his next album, doesn’t hesitate to give them credit. “They both have great ideas, plus Gilbert’s a great photographer. He’s done the photo for last four albums,” he lauds. Gilbert shoots album covers for many clients. Growing up in Salem, Oregon, Gilbert would sneak a camera into venues — in the decades before smartphones existed, hoisting a camera at a concert could get you thrown out — to photograph rock bands that passed through town. He would never have thought he’d someday be a professional photographer shooting some well-known musician-clients. Nor would he have believed he’s one day who received requests for a snake and a monkey for photo shoots, but that’s another story (the clients’ wishes were met, by the way). Moskow, who since 1999 has been head of A&R for the massively successful compilation series, Now That’s What I Call Music, has a knack for sequencing an album’s songs. “He’s been invaluable in structuring an album and getting it heard,” says Springfield.

Today’s music business is noisy. Many artists don’t get heard in today’s market because an artist needs new ways to reach fans. “You take advantage of the new stuff because the old stuff has disappeared,” he says. Today, the “new stuff” is streaming. Streaming will dominate the visible future — and streaming has people confused. After digital downloads changed the retail landscape, streaming has blown retail into shards. Gilbert helps clients see through the smoking remnants. He cut his teeth by creating the majors’ first all-digital label, UMe Digital. Without a staff, Gilbert signed artists, oversaw the artwork, shepherded projects from production to marketing, and navigated the legal maze to obtain necessary contracts, all of which preceded digital music and required a revision for a digital product. A Peter Frampton album packaged with a sheet music download was “more challenging than you would imagine getting publishing clearances.” It won a Grammy.

Working at a record label wasn’t for the faint of heart. “You take the hits, and you keep going,” says Gilbert. Consider it boot camp for being independent and helping clients navigate numberless pitfalls. They both worked long hours at Universal, but now it’s different, he says. “It’s a labor of love.”


Restoring Those Old Liner Notes in Music’s Digital Era

October 4, 2017

By BEN SISARIO 9/29/20017

Two decades into the era of online music, streaming has been hailed as the industry’s savior, but a complaint from the earliest days of digital services persists: What happened to the liner notes?

Much of the material that once accompanied an album has long since been stripped away — not just the lyrics and thank-you lists, but also essays, artwork and even basic details like songwriting credits — leaving listeners with little more on their screens to look at but a song title and a postage-stamp-size cover image.

One company, TunesMap, wants to return much of that lost information, and more, through an interactive display that, when cued by a song playing on a streaming service, will present a feed of videos, photographs and links to related material. After a decade of development, TunesMap is scheduled to make its debut in November as an Apple TV app that will work with Sonos, the connected speaker system

The app is the brainchild of G. Marq Roswell, a Hollywood music supervisor who has worked with David Lynch and Denzel Washington. He bemoans the way early digital players and online music stores like iTunes removed all sense of music coming from a particular place and time.

Working with Nigel Grainge, an influential record executive who died in June; Erik Loyer, an app developer and media artist; and Jon Blaufarb, an industry lawyer, Mr. Roswell in 2007 began to design what he calls an interactive “context engine.” Stream a song on a Sonos speaker and, if TunesMap’s app is also fired up on Apple TV, images and historical information related to the artist or a song’s origins begin to float buy.

For a Bob Dylan song, the app shows vintage photographs of Greenwich Village, news clippings and links to related artists (like Martin Scorsese, who directed the Bob Dylan documentary “No Direction Home”). The goal is to present fans with a web of educational “rabbit holes” to explore.

“We’re going through the prism of music,” Mr. Roswell said, “but it’s film, it’s fashion, it’s art, it’s news, it’s comedy — it’s everything that created that scene.”

The company has deals with publishers like Genesis Publications and Rock’s Backpages, a decades-deep archive of music journalism, as well as rock photographers like Jay Blakesberg; TunesMap receives a cut of any sales made through the app. (TunesMap also shows articles from The New York Times by using the paper’s programming interface.)

During its long gestation, the company secured two patents for its navigation system and raised $4.75 million from entertainment-industry veterans like Andy Summers, the guitarist for the Police, and Jerry Moss, one of the founders of A&M Records, and from the Visionary Private Equity Group.

“I produced a Hank Williams film with Tom Hiddleston that took 10 years to put together,” Mr. Roswell said, referring to the 2015 biopic “I Saw the Light.” “I wouldn’t know any other way to do it. I just never let the vision die.”

The app is free, and it works when a user plays songs on Sonos from Spotify, Apple Music and other major streaming services. But in many ways, TunesMap runs counter to the trends of digital music consumption, which are moving toward simple mobile displays and programmed playlists.

Equipment costs are another potential barrier. The cheapest Sonos and Apple TV systems cost a total of $350. TunesMap said a minimal mobile version would also be available.

Reimagining liner notes for the digital age is a guiding concept, but Mr. Loyer, TunesMap’s director of user experience, said the company has tried to avoid the nostalgia of “Oh, remember when we had liner notes.”

“The real question,” Mr. Loyer said, “is how do we design the systems in such a way that values

Production of a Lifetime: Whitney Houston and Clive Davis

October 2, 2017


Downstairs at the Beverly Hilton hotel on Feb. 11, 2012, black cars delivered celebrities, among them Serena Williams, Britney Spears and Gayle King, to Clive Davis’s annual Grammys party. Upstairs in Room 434, the coroner’s office tended to the body of his biggest star, Whitney Houston, who had been found dead in the bathtub earlier that day. Police investigators removed empty bottles of liquor while the wails of her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, could be heard down the hall.

Chaka Khan later went on CNN and said Mr. Davis’s decision to proceed with his party was an act of “complete insanity.”

“She was a lonely voice,” he said of that criticism a few weeks ago, sitting in his corner office at Sony’s new headquarters near Madison Square Park in New York.

Mr. Davis, 85, is a legend in the music business. He signed Janis Joplin in 1967, turned Barry Manilow into a star in 1975 and orchestrated the reinvention of Aretha Franklin in 1980. Others he worked with over the years have included Patti Smith, Alicia Keys, Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, Lou Reed and Carly Simon.

But they were singer-songwriters perceived in the industry as being the architects of their own careers.

Ms. Houston was different.

Mr. Davis signed her in 1983 when she was just 19 years old, and he played an essential role on all but one album she recorded over the next 29 years.

He brought her songs and scouted producers. He introduced her at publicity events. He repeatedly extolled her supremacy over Mariah Carey.

At the peak of her life, she secured his place as an industry titan. In death, she haunts his legacy.

This past April, a laudatory documentary about him, “Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives” (based on his own memoir and available next week on Apple Music), opened the Tribeca Festival. A great party was given at Radio City Music Hall. Jennifer Hudson sauntered through the crowd singing a medley of Ms. Houston’s greatest hits.

Then came mixed reviews — and the debut at the festival of “Whitney: Can I Be Me,” a contrasting documentary that casts Ms. Houston as a victim of the music business’s most base inclinations. (It is currently airing on Showtime.)

Much like last year’s Academy Award-winning documentary “O.J.: Made in America,” it raises difficult questions about race and arrives at the conclusion that there was a psychological cost to being a black superstar whose image was created with the express purpose of maximum crossover.

Kenneth Reynolds, who worked at Arista, the label founded by Mr. Davis and on which Ms. Houston made her career, recounts how material that “was too black-sounding was sent back.” Kirk Whalum, who played saxophone on several of Ms. Houston’s tours, describes a woman who became devastated to learn that black people were calling her “White-ney” and a “sellout.”

Mr. Davis isn’t the principal villain in this other film.

There is much blame directed at Ms. Houston’s mother, the gospel singer Cissy Houston, and various members of the Houston clan, who had been on her payroll for many years.

But, still.

Another powerful component of this documentary is the on-camera testimony of more than a half-dozen colleagues of Ms. Houston’s, who say that the singer’s spiral into addiction had as much to do with her sexuality as it did with race.

Ms. Houston’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, an essential person in her camp from before Ms. Houston became famous until 1999, was the subject of speculation and gossip. Now, the narrative that the two were lovers had gained real currency, even without confirmation from Ms. Crawford.

Mr. Reynolds, who toured the country with Ms. Houston during the promotion of her debut album, described her lesbianism as “an open secret” at Arista during those early years.

“Every Little Step,” a recent book by Ms. Houston’s ex-husband, the R&B singer Bobby Brown, also takes the position that Ms. Houston’s sexuality was part of her struggle. Her marriage to him, he suggests, gave her the ability to reclaim her blackness while holding on to a basic image of straightness.

“They couldn’t let Whitney live the life she wanted to live; they insisted that she be perfect, that she be someone she wasn’t,” Mr. Brown writes. “That’s why they wanted Robyn out.”

Some people were circumspect about who “they” was. Mr. Brown wasn’t. He named them: “Clive Davis and her family.”

How Will I Know

“An artist can be extremely gifted and yet remain unsuccessful if he or she records the wrong music, or gets an image that confuses potential audiences.” That’s from “Clive: Inside the Music Business,” Mr. Davis’s 1974 memoir about his time at CBS Records.

Being out as lesbian or bisexual certainly would have confused audiences in 1985, said the actress and comedian Rosie O’Donnell, who knew Ms. Houston and Ms. Crawford socially and said she had “no doubt” they were together and that what they had “was real.” (Ms. Crawford declined to speak for this article, and did not submit to an interview for “Whitney: Can I Be Me”).

Back then, Ms. O’Donnell said, “There was no Ellen. There was no ‘Will & Grace.’ Lois Smith was my publicist, and she was Whitney’s publicist. When I would go to a show or the Emmys with my girlfriend Kelly, Lois would literally sit between us. She wasn’t doing it to be mean to Kelly. She was trying to protect me.”

Among the first of Ms. Houston’s contemporaries to come out was the country singer K.D. Lang, who declared she was a lesbian in 1992. A few months later, Melissa Etheridge followed suit.

But it was another half a decade until Ellen DeGeneres and Ms. O’Donnell broke the news, and they waited until shortly before their television shows went off the air to do so.

That was how it happened back then with the biggest stars, if it happened at all. You did it when you had enough money to walk away from the machine, or you used a decline to propel yourself into a life of paid appearances at gay pride parades.

“Whitney was the first evidence I had that people were willing to acquiesce to whatever it was in order to hold on to an image that wouldn’t offend, because at the time, it meant you wouldn’t have a career in show business,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “None.”

The decision to come out was also hard for those in the music business who worked behind the scenes.

David Geffen, the veteran record label owner and manager, announced he was gay at an AIDS benefit in 1992. His friend Sandy Gallin, who managed Dolly Parton and Michael Jackson, followed in 1994, around the time the Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner left his wife for a man.

Yet it wasn’t until 2013 that Mr. Davis acknowledged what many had known for a while: that after two marriages and four children, he had a male partner.

The New York Times reviewer who panned his second memoir wrote: “Though we do hear about his failed first marriage, his second and its aftermath go M.I.A. for several hundred pages before he awkwardly cops to being ‘bisexual’ and in ‘a strong monogamous relationship for the last seven years’ with another man.”

Step by Step

Mr. Davis’s life is a story, and he’s a dazzling character in it. It’s his tinted glasses, snazzy suits and apparent fondness for telling tales again and again — life as a rolling press junket. That some of those stories do not track, are dated and appear false on their face matters little. He probably didn’t wind up as a co-writer of Air Supply’s “All Out of Love” by being principally concerned with the opinions of skeptics.

Most of Mr. Davis’s contemporaries who became label heads started as music men. Mr. Davis is a former lawyer and his corporate sensibilities poked through the material he released, particularly at Arista.

When Aretha Franklin traded in the analog soul sound and distinctly political edge of her work at Atlantic for the consumerist, synthetic pop of Arista , The Washington Post described her first album there by saying “The queen of soul seems to be striving for a new role — the queen of sap.” The effect was sad, but few could deny Mr. Davis had an ear.

Carly Simon also had a comeback with Arista. She adores Mr. Davis, who had some great advice for her over the years. But she also said, “His energy, his testosterone, all his hormones were ignited by having the biggest No. 1 records.” She added: “He is on the side of the winner at all costs, and the cost can be very high. The cost can be somebody’s career or somebody’s innateness.”

Mr. Davis grew up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where he was a member of the high school honors society, which was called Arista. While he was in college at New York University, his parents died in close succession. It was devastating, but the loss turned out to be propulsive.

“Life can change on a dime,” he said.

After Harvard Law School, he worked at a law firm, then joined CBS Records (later Columbia) in 1960 as one of two in-house lawyers. At the time, its main business was classical music, Broadway cast albums and middle-of-the-road pop singers. But profits were dropping. Mr. Davis understood that the future was in rock ’n’ roll. Within seven years, at 35, he was running the label.

At the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, he heard Janis Joplin and described it as almost like finding religion. Yet when she came to Columbia’s offices and suggested that they seal the deal with a trip to bed, Mr. Davis demurred.

In 1968 she finished her first album, and Mr. Davis thought that its single “Piece of My Heart” was too long and didn’t repeat the chorus enough. He went into the studio and re-edited it for radio on his own. He played his version for Ms. Joplin and gently coaxed her into allowing the label to release it.

It went gold, the album sold more than a million copies, and the myth of the Great and Powerful Clive, a man with no musical training and supreme ears, was underway.

He was “devastated” when Joplin died in 1970. “Our fortunes were intertwined,” he writes in his first memoir. It was a “terrible loss.”

But it went beyond the personal. “It would be wrong to pretend I wasn’t upset over the commercial loss as well,” he adds in the memoir. “The music business is a business.”

Over the next few years, CBS (now called Columbia) signed Santana; Earth, Wind & Fire; Blood, Sweat & Tears; and Liza Minnelli. Mr. Davis entered into a promotion and distribution deal with Philadelphia International, which moved the company into R&B and disco, with great success.

Then, a reckoning followed when a Newark federal grand jury investigation was convened to look into the practice of industry payola. The Internal Revenue Service obtained financial records that showed that quarterly promotion checks sent by Columbia to Philadelphia International had been used to illegally supply money and drugs to radio programmers.

Mr. Davis also ended up in a muddle in which a mafia-acquainted head of artist relations dummied up false expense reports, included one for $18,000 for the Plaza Hotel bar mitzvah of Mr. Davis’s son Fred, billed as a party for Ms. Minnelli. Other violations included airfare for two of Mr. Davis’s pet beagles.

Mr. Davis was charged with six counts of tax evasion and pleaded guilty to one count. He maintains that he did nothing wrong, besides relying on someone who went too far on his unknowing behalf. “It was a witch hunt,” he said, and many agree.

Payola was never proven. But he was still fired.

In Fredric Dannen’s 1990 book, ‘“Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business,” Arthur Taylor — who dismissed Mr. Davis from his job — explained that the cause of the firing was that Mr. Davis had been offered the opportunity to come clean on the expense account issues and responded with lies.

“There’s something so strange about Clive Davis,” said Mr. Dannen, speaking now. “He has had one of the most remarkable careers in the music business, and yet so much about it is tainted. Not just by the payola thing, but by his need for attention. It may be that Clive’s greatest talent is his ability to distort reality.”

In My Business

Determined to rebuild his reputation, Mr. Davis took over a small label called Bell Records in 1974 and renamed it Arista. He signed Patti Smith and Lou Reed, but his principal success in the early years came from middle-of-the-road singers.

Enter: Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester, both of whom sold loads of albums at their peak, yet subsequently seemed to lose part of their souls, as Mr. Davis relentlessly molded their images and their music to his liking.

“We could not find a comfortable way to communicate,” Ms. Manchester said. “As my albums progressed, I had to fight harder and harder to get a place for my songs, which was weird, because I’d come in thinking he liked what I did as a singer-songwriter, and he wanted me to be a vocalist for songs that I thought were rather bland and simply loud. He always wanted me to be current, and I always wanted to be timeless. It’s a different way of looking at the same picture.”

Mr. Manilow had similar issues. When he first started out, he wrote pop songs with contemplative lyrics about broken marriages. Then he met the label head who, Mr. Manilow said in a memoir, “looked more like a banker than a music man” and told him that his album was “nice” but needed hits. Mr. Davis started delivering him other people’s songs to sing.

“I Write the Songs,” despite the title, was one. Another was “Brandy,” later changed to “Mandy.” These cemented Mr. Manilow’s status as the grieving straight guy who couldn’t get over a lost love.

It was hard for Mr. Manilow to know what to think. He was a giant success, yet he was miserable. He wrote in his diary: “Why am I angry?”

In 1981, Mr. Manilow and Mr. Davis had a tense meeting. In it, Mr. Davis said, Mr. Manilow complained that he was turning into a milquetoast Andy Williams. Mr. Davis responded: “Well, if you were Irving Berlin, we would know it by now.”

So Mr. Manilow left the label, although not before someone handled the rumors of him being gay by saying that he was living with a female production assistant named Linda Allen.

Then, his first album with RCA bombed, and he returned. Mr. Manilow finally came out in 2017, many years after returning to Mr. Davis’s stable.

The sabbatical was fortuitous. “It helped him get a different perspective and cherish the partnership,” Mr. Davis said.

“There’s this eternal argument between the part of us that wants to be an artist and the part of us that wants to be a success,” Ms. Simon said. “The success part often wins.”

Same Script, Different Cast

Mr. Davis never liked being called a Svengali for what he did with Ms. Houston. He thought that sounded slithery. Still, it’s hard to describe their collaboration without leaving that impression.

They met in 1983 at the behest of Gerry Griffith, who worked in Arista’s A&R department.

Ms. Houston was born near housing projects in Newark. Her family moved to the more middle-class East Orange, N.J., when Cissy, Ms. Houston’s mother and a backup singer for Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, began enjoying success.

As a child, Whitney sang gospel with the New Hope Baptist Choir. She was unsure of herself, with a tendency to sing in the back. Cissy had some ambivalence about whether her daughter should become an entertainer, but she nevertheless told her that if she was going to sing, she’d better step up.

By 16, she was singing with Cissy on Chaka Khan’s disco masterpiece “Clouds.” Whitney may not have known then what the bargain of fame would feel like, but she knew where she was headed. “I was always going to be a star,” she later said.

So a showcase for Mr. Davis was set up.

Her performances that night were standards: “Home” from “The Wiz” and then “The Greatest Love of All.”

“They were knockouts,” Mr. Davis said. “She had the entire package.”

Ms. Houston was beautiful. She had great power as a singer. But beyond that, he said, she had a level of self-control that was remarkable.

If she did not have great ambitions to become a songwriter (a thing critics subsequently used to discount her artistry), Ms. Houston knew exactly what she was singing about. When she did runs, it was usually because the lyrics called for it.

Mr. Davis’s recollection is that he talked with Ms. Houston around that time about music, and she told him Lena Horne and Dionne Warwick (who was her cousin and already on Arista) were her favorite singers.

Later, Ms. Houston would say her favorites growing up were Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Natalie Cole, which is a big difference. Who knows which version of the story is true. Ms. Houston, like Mr. Davis, was never the world’s most reliable narrator.

Two weeks after Mr. Davis signed her, he went on “The Merv Griffin Show” and introduced his protégée to the world. She hadn’t recorded a song yet, but that was how much he believed in her. (Also: He loved going on television.)

Making her debut album took nearly two years. Mr. Davis said the idea back then was to build her appeal in both the pop and the R&B markets, but Mr. Reynolds said there was never any question which one was more important.

“Arista was a pop-oriented label,” Mr. Reynolds said. “That’s what the staff knew and that’s what Clive knew. That’s what he did best — and he did it better than most record executives. There was no platform for Aretha Franklin’s ‘Ain’t No Way’ on Arista. They needed Aretha Franklin doing ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’ and Whitney Houston doing ‘Greatest Love of All’ and Billy Ocean doing ‘Caribbean Queen.’ Because the bigger the pop record, the more money you could make.”

And when “Whitney Houston” came out in 1985 and turned into the biggest-selling debut album in history, the principals involved did make money.

Three songs went No. 1 on the Hot 100. She won a Grammy in the pop category for “Saving All My Love for You” but lost in the R&B category for “You Give Good Love,” a clear indication of the success of the appeal to white audiences.

By that time, Mr. Griffith, the man who found Ms. Houston, had quit his job working for Mr. Davis. “He only saw the big numbers. That was just his mind-set,” Mr. Griffith said. “It’s like hiring our current president to run a label. That’s why I could not agree with everything he was doing. That’s why I left.” (Mr. Davis apparently felt more warmly about Mr. Griffith. He later hired him back.)

In 1987, Ms. Houston’s follow-up arrived and the first four singles all hit No. 1, making her the first artist in history to have had seven consecutive chart toppers. “I said, ‘Whitney, are you pinching yourself?’ and she said ‘Yeah, Clive, I’m pinching myself,’” Mr. Davis said.

It’s a story he loves to tell, but the tale was abbreviated.

The reviews for the follow-up album were brutal. Jon Pareles, in The New York Times, said it smacked of corporate perfectionism. The Los Angeles Times’s Robert Hilburn called it a “considerable disappointment.”

Behind the scenes, Ms. Houston was dealing with a family who increasingly depended on her and whose appetites turned out to be nearly bottomless.

She made her father her manager and bought her mother a house. They had divorced after their daughter was famous. She was taught to freebase cocaine in the late 1980s by her brother Michael.

It was Robyn Crawford who went to Cissy Houston’s house to say there was a problem with drugs.

Cissy, a Christian who still sang in church, had separate issues with the idea her daughter was gay. She wasn’t open to staging an intervention with Ms. Crawford, and decided to deal with her daughter’s problem on her own.

Mr. Davis seemed equally disinclined to address Ms. Houston’s sexuality or what effect hiding it may be having on her happiness or psychological health.

He said he has “no idea” whether Ms. Houston was gay. “We never discussed it,” he said, and went on to list the romances she’d supposedly had in the ’80s with Jermaine Jackson and Eddie Murphy.

“Oh, nonsense,” Mr. Dannen said. “Put that on the record. I remember going to a launch party for one of her albums when I was writing ‘Hit Men.’ It was all anybody could talk about. Clive didn’t know? Of course he knew.”

Rosie O’Donnell said: “For Clive Davis to claim ignorance about this is, I believe, a boldfaced lie.”

When asked about this, Mr. Davis said that any implication he “orchestrated” a cover-up around Ms. Houston’s sexuality or that he “did not want her to be herself” was “crazy.”

“I’m telling the truth,” he said. “Did I read that there was speculation? I did.”

“There was never a discussion between me and Whitney about any kind of romantic relationship with Robyn,” he said. “There was never an indication that there was.” Mr. Davis added that he first became aware there was a drug problem sometime around 2000.

All the Man That I Need

In April 1989, Ms. Houston and Ms. Crawford attended the Soul Train Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. When Houston’s name was announced among the nominees for Best R&B/Urban Contemporary Single, female, a loud booing could be heard in the audience.

“I was there,” said the producer Kenny Edmonds, known as Babyface. “We talked about it because we were all a little shocked. She was very upset.”

That was the night she met Mr. Brown for the first time. He sat in front of her and also performed, gyrating on the stage while singing “My Prerogative,” the song that had turned him into the spokesman for recalcitrant youth — the sort who were no longer playing her records.

Ms. Houston flirted with him a little, then invited him to her 26th birthday party in New Jersey. Ms. Houston and Mr. Davis also hired Babyface and his partner L.A. Reid to work on her third album, “I’m Your Baby Tonight.”

“The irony is that if she was trying to go blacker, I don’t know that we were the guys to go to,” Mr. Edmonds said. “We were in the middle. But maybe that’s why Clive called us in the first place.”

In 1992, Ms. Houston and Mr. Brown were married in New Jersey.

The morning of the wedding, Mr. Brown walked into Ms. Houston’s bedroom, he writes in his memoir, hoping “for a quickie” with his bride-to-be.

He found her “hunched over a bureau, doing a line of coke.” So he joined in, thinking to himself what good fortune it was to have found someone like her. “She was classy and street at the same time,” he writes. Then came the ceremony, where the maid of honor was Ms. Crawford.

By now, Ms. Houston was promoting what would become her biggest commercial vehicle yet, “The Bodyguard,” a new movie she had just filmed with Kevin Costner.

It was to be a great event, America’s black sweetheart and Hollywood’s most famous white Republican (at least back then), falling in love on screen in what seemed like a marketing team’s decision to build a movie around as many demographics as possible.

Thanks in large part to Ms. Houston’s brilliant performance of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” for the film, the movie earned $411 million at the global box office.

Even the wedding to Mr. Brown became part of the film’s promotion plan, as Ms. Houston submitted — with Ms. Crawford — to interviews with ABC News and USA Today, where they explained that they had not been lovers but were simply best friends.

“I think once she’s married, she’ll feel a lot more complete,” Ms. Crawford said. “I think that’ll be a self phase where she’ll be doing something for her life.”

One might assume Ms. Crawford would have made an exit soon after the wedding. Instead, she remained for seven years as part of the management team, locked with Mr. Brown in what several people in “Whitney: Can I Be Me” describe as a battle for the ear of Ms. Houston. During that time, Mr. Davis receded somewhat from the picture.

Ms. Houston starred in films that grappled more directly with African-American issues but descended further into her own addiction. Whatever had led Ms. Houston to pick Mr. Brown, their addictions helped make it real. “It may have seemed dysfunctional, but that doesn’t say anything about whether they loved each other,” Mr. Edmonds said. “She loved him like crazy, and he loved her like crazy.”

She suffered an overdose during the making of the 1995 film “Waiting to Exhale.” Then she pulled out of big promotional appearances for “The Preacher’s Wife” because of “throat issues.”

Around that time, Ms. Houston gave a rare interview.

“Money doesn’t make you happy,” she said. “Fame certainly doesn’t make you happy. People will tell you that who are famous. You’ve got to find the happiness within yourself. You’ve got to know who you are before you step into this business, because if you’re trying to find it, you’ll probably wind up being somebody else that you probably don’t even like.”

In 1997, Mr. Davis’s patience ran out.

He wrote her a letter: “Dearest Whitney, you know my love for you goes beyond the professional nature of our relationship, which in and of itself is almost as long as the age you were when I met you. To put it succinctly, I am seriously concerned. I know that I have absolutely no right to reflect on anything but your professional recording career, so let me address that. You have not done a studio album in seven years. You have only recorded a total of seven pop songs during the last five years and those were chosen to integrate into the characters of two motion pictures. So insofar as your position as the number one contemporary recording artist in the world is concerned, you have been practically missing in action.”

Soon enough, Houston was back in the studio, working on “My Love Is Your Love,” an album that burst with collaborations with edgy producers like Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Rodney Jerkins, who delivered her a song about being in a messy marriage with a man who can’t stop cheating on her.

It got some of the best reviews of her career, but the tour was another story. The problem wasn’t the voice, but her marriage’s increasingly Mr. and Mrs. Smith-like quality.

The situation finally broke Ms. Crawford, who determined it was time to quit the family business. She ultimately settled down with Lisa Hintelmann, a former magazine editor who works as the director of talent and entertainment partnerships at Audible.

Afterward, said Ms. Houston’s former bodyguard David Roberts, speaking in “Whitney: Can I Be Me,” Ms. Houston descended further.


The following year, Burt Bacharach fired her from a performance at the Oscars when Houston began singing the wrong song during rehearsal. She abruptly pulled out of her performance at Mr. Davis’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

In September 2001, she popped onstage at a tribute concert for Michael Jackson, looking so thin that the sounds of people gasping could actually be heard throughout the arena.

Mr. Davis tried to help.

After the Oscars debacle, he invited her to come stay at his weekend home. He gently brought up her drug use. She told him she had it under control, that it was her business.

After the Michael Jackson show, he wrote her another letter begging her to get treatment, telling her how he’d seen her on television and cried. She never responded.

By then, Mr. Davis had been pushed out of Arista by his corporate higher-ups at Bertelsmann and was setting up another new label. That left Houston behind.

Her 2002 album tanked. She gave a disastrous interview to Diane Sawyer in which Ms. Houston explained, in a moment that became notorious, that she did not smoke crack. “Crack is cheap!” she said. “I make too much money to ever smoke crack.”

She described Mr. Davis being removed at Arista as a tremendous source of pain. “That hurt,” she said. “A lot.”

They did reunite, and she got divorced and released an album, “I Look to You,” with Mr. Davis once again listed as executive producer. But the combination of cocaine and years of heavy cigarette smoking had taken their toll. With her fortune diminishing and her family ever dependent on her, she agreed to stage a tour. It was a disaster.

Yet Mr. Davis was pleased to see Ms. Houston when she arrived in Los Angeles in 2012, the week of the Grammys. The way he remembers it, she seemed sober as they chatted by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he was staying.

She told him that she had finally quit smoking and would be ready to record again that summer. She also said she was swimming daily.

But later that week, Ms. Houston went out for a night on the town with her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, and left a nightclub with her leg bleeding, after an altercation with a woman she believed was making a move on Ray J, the man she was dating.

After she died, the coroner’s report described some of the items in her hotel room: prescription drugs, empty liquor bottles and a metal spoon covered in white powder.

Mr. Davis did memorialize her at his Grammy event, the show that infamously went on no matter what, bringing Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson to the stage to perform some of Ms. Houston’s songs.

Then he went to Newark for her funeral. In his eulogy, he rattled off all the record-breaking statistics of their 27-year collaboration, name checking five of her 11 No. 1 songs, five more Top 10 hits, four of her movies and one earth-shattering rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Once again, but not for the last time, he told the story about how he’d asked her in 1987 whether she was pinching herself at her success.

Ms. Crawford didn’t speak that day. Instead, she published a remembrance on Esquire’s website. It left a lot out.

But she did include her diagnosis of what happened to Whitney Houston. “The record company, the band members, her family, her friends, me — she fed everybody,” she wrote. “Deep down inside that’s what her tired”

Milestone for BMI: More than $1Billion in Music Royalties

September 9, 2017


In 2015, the music licensing agency BMI reached $1 billion in revenue for the first time, and Michael O’Neill, the company’s chief executive, predicted that it would take another three years before the agency could, after expenses, pay $1 billion in royalties to its songwriters and music publishers.
BMI reached its goal one year early.
The organization, whose hundreds of thousands of members include stars like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and Sting, announced on Thursday that it had $1.13 billion in revenue and distributed $1.02 billion in royalties during its most recent fiscal year, which ended in June. BMI and other performing rights organizations, like its rival Ascap, collect money whenever songs are played on the radio, streamed online or piped into a restaurant.

“Revenue is a great number,” Mr. O’Neill said in an interview, “but distributions are actually what goes into a songwriter’s pocket.”

Returns at BMI and Ascap have been steadily rising over the last decade or so, as technology and patterns of music consumption have changed. (Ascap won bragging rights in 2015 by hitting $1 billion in revenue a few months before BMI did.)

As record sales have fallen, so have the “mechanical” royalties associated with that format. At the same time, the performing rights licensed by BMI, Ascap and a handful of others have grown, helped by the rise of music streaming services and by deals with new types of businesses like Netflix and Hulu.

Still, the value of the music publishing business, the side of the industry that deals with the copyrights for songwriting and composition, keeps rising. According to the National Music Publishers’ Association, the United States publishing business generated $2.65 billion last year.

BMI’s collections in its most recent fiscal year were up almost 7 percent from the year before, and its royalty distributions were up 10 percent. Its media licensing category, which includes radio, broadcast television and cable, generated $524 million in revenue, an annual gain of $32 million.

But those types of businesses now make up less of BMI’s overall pie than they used to. In 2010, for example, media licenses accounted for 82 percent of BMI’s domestic revenue, and are now 63 percent, according to BMI reports.

The biggest gains in recent years have come in so-called general licensing — which includes restaurants, retail stores and doctors’ offices — and, especially, from online services. In 2010, BMI collected $20 million from what it then called “new media,” accounting for just 3 percent of its domestic revenue. In its most recent year, that category, now called digital, took in $163 million, nearly 20 percent of the total.

Over the last year, BMI, whose full name is Broadcast Music Inc., processed nearly 1.4 trillion performances, up 40 percent from the year before, the organization said. Of that total, 1.35 trillion were digital.

For both BMI and Ascap, their recent gains have come under a cloud of uncertainty, as major publishers have threatened to withdraw their catalogs and the entire process of collective licensing has come under scrutiny by the federal government.

Both BMI and Ascap are governed by federal regulatory agreements that date to the 1940s, and last year, the Justice Department ordered the two groups to make changes to their licensing procedures. BMI challenged that interpretation in court and won, but the government appealed the case in May.

Mr. O’Neill said that no matter what the outcome of the appeal, BMI would continue to work to make money for its members.

“Our goal is to make sure that songwriting can continue as a profession,” he said, “and not simply a hobby.” 9/7/1

How a rock band’s lawsuit could upend record deals everywhere

August 28, 2017

Eriq Gardner 8/23/17

A coming trial between Avenged Sevenfold and Warner Bros. Records may dissuade or embolden hot artists looking to escape their contracts.

What’s a record label actually good for? That is a question implied in a lawsuit between Warner Bros. Records and Avenged Sevenfold, a heavy metal band from Huntington Beach, California, that is scheduled to go to trial this year and has the potential to upend the music industry.

The dispute dates back to 2015, when the act notified its label that it was terminating the contract it signed in 2004, citing the “seven-year rule,” which bars personal service contracts lasting longer than seven years. The law has its roots in a pro-labor statute put on the books after the Civil War to prevent long-term contracts from becoming the means for involuntary servitude. The modern version of the rule was famously tested in entertainment in 1944, when Olivia de Havilland used the law to break her contract with Warner Bros after the studio repeatedly suspended her for turning down roles. An appeals court decision helped bring an end to Hollywood’s old studio system.

But the seven-year rule has not decimated the record business because the major labels successfully lobbied in the 1980s for an important change after Olivia Newton-John won a “seven-year” battle with MCA Records. Music contracts are generally denominated in deliverables (in Avenged Sevenfold’s case, they agreed to record five albums and a couple of live ones for Warners), not length of term. The recording industry successfully convinced California lawmakers that labels invest so much up front in their artists, they should be able to recover the “lost profits” of uncompleted albums from acts who don’t fulfill their contractual commitments.

Although artists like Courtney Love and bands like Thirty Seconds to Mars have invoked the seven-year rule in disputes with their labels, those matters settled before they reached trial.

Avenged Sevenfold, which won best new artist at the MTV Music Awards in 2006 and has put out four well-received albums with Warners, could in December become the first musical act to test the law before a jury. The stakes are huge for both the band and the music industry: If it loses, Avenged Sevenfold could face a verdict between $5 million and $10 million. If it wins, the outcome could embolden other acts with contracts older than seven years — which on Warners’ roster includes major recording artists Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day ­­­— to exit their current deals.

“We’ve realized this battle is bigger than just us,” says Avenged Sevenfold singer Matt Sanders (known professionally as M. Shadow). “We’re fighting so that all musical artists have the same rights everyone else has. It’s not like we wanted to be here, but we are down for the fight.”

Avenged Sevenfold intends to steer the label’s drive for lost profits around by asking what a record label does for its artists in this day and age. “The trial will include a referendum on how ineffective WBR is in promoting rock records,” says the band’s attorney, Howard King.

In the old days, labels performed three critical tasks: The first was talent scouting and overseeing artistic development. Second was promotion. Third was distribution. Digital networks and streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music have now democratized the emergence of new acts and enabled music to reach consumers without too much cost. Record labels have in some respect enjoyed the lesser expenses of this era and have also cut A&R staff.

Heavily reliant on pop stars and older legacy artists, labels are now largely about that second task of promotion. But some don’t believe labels are especially wonderful in that regard either.

Bob Lefsetz, a music industry analyst who will be testifying at trial as an expert on behalf of the band, says that some record labels still enjoy relationships that serve them well in the realms of pop and hip-hop. But Lefsetz adds, “If you are not in one of those two niches, does that behoove you to be with a label? You are giving up a big percentage of revenue and tying yourself. The only reason you’d do that is if they can promote you. And if you look at their relative reach, it’s de minimis.”

King is arguing that there would not have been much (if any) profit for Warners to lose on a fifth Avenged Sevenfold album. “We believe a jury will conclude they can’t prove any damages,” he says. He says the band’s most recent album, The Stage, which it put out in October 2016 under Warners’ rival Capitol, “has been a commercial disappointment. WBR would have lost money had that been delivered to them for marketing.”

According to several insiders in the Warner Bros. camp, none of whom wanted to comment publicly on a pending legal matter, the feeling is that the case wasn’t something the label could have avoided, and instead, provides an opportunity. They blanch at the notion that the lawsuit amounts a punitive act over a band whose very moniker evokes vengeance, but acknowledge it does provide an opportunity to dissuade any other acts from attempting to sit out the clock on their deals or use the seven-year rule as leverage for a renegotiation.

On Aug. 11, the judge allowed Warners to assert claims from its worldwide affiliates in a decision that could double or triple the potential liability that Avenged Sevenfold is facing. And the label is being allowed to seek its attorney fees — already amounting to more than $1.5 million in another sign of just how seriously the record label is treating this fight. At trial, expect a rare look at industry financials and testimony from key executives. The label will take the straightforward approach of using past commercial success to infer future profits. But when Sanders and other Avenged Sevenfold members appear before a jury to challenge their former label’s worthiness, an entire industry may regard its mortality. As Lefsetz notes, there’s significant precedent at stake: “A lot of this stuff has never been litigated.” 8/23/17

Lighting The Way: Red Light Management Coran Capshaw speaks

August 10, 2017

by Mark Sutherland 8/8/17

Coran Capshaw is the founder of Red Light Management – and the manager of Dave Matthews Band, Lady Antebellum and Phish, who recently played a record-breaking 13-night residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

He also follows the likes of Sir Lucian Grainge and Irving Azoff in winning the 2017 City Of Hope Spirit Of Life Award. In an exclusive Q&A, he talks about the business’ biggest opportunities, most testing challenges – and the future of artist management…

How have you grown the UK business?

Well, one thing we do at Red Light – and it’s happening in the UK – is, we’re into developing talent. We’re putting resources against it, and we’re trying to grow artists.

When an established artist becomes available or is looking to make a change, obviously we’re interested in those opportunities, but we’re also interested – for the sake of our company – in developing talent, and that’s working well over there.

What plans do you have for the affiliated businesses in the UK?

We’re promoters over here [in the US] – we haven’t done any promoting over there. But here, we are in the festival business and we do some regional and at times national promoting.

One thing we would like to do is expand the ancillary business opportunities over there, so we are certainly looking at and open to doing more things.

Do those businesses increase the options you can offer to artists?

It goes back to that knowledge. We see a lot of different things and we see a lot of different perspectives. If we’re in business with a label, we want to be good partners to them because we appreciate what they’re doing and we put out records ourselves.

If we’re in a situation where, for whatever reason, we want to put out the record, we know how to do it. So there’s a lot of different perspectives here: Red Light was created with people coming out of the label world, the
promoter world, the sponsorship world, the touring world – all different aspects of the business comprised by the people who are working here. It’s all helpful and all serves a common purpose.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the 25-odd years you’ve been a manager?

We’ve gone through the challenges [around] not selling bodies of work of 10–12 songs the way that we used to… That’s the bad news.

The good news is, the access to and interest in music is higher than in any of our lifetimes. As the tide starts to turn in the recorded music area, we’ve got healthy touring, we’re talking about the global business… This is an exciting time to be here.

And so I don’t really think much about the challenges, I think about the opportunities. That’s where our focus is.

The one thing that we’ve all got to figure out how to crack the code on, is that live music is probably the most inefficiently priced industry in the world.

We all set out with good intentions of being friendly and fair to our fans with pricing, but we’ve got third parties getting their hands on the tickets.

So I think it’s going to cause a shift in primary pricing. It is about creating programmes so we can start getting the artist and the fans more in that equation rather than the third parties.

That’s a challenge and an opportunity at the same time, when you look at the income and revenue that’s headed out the door in the wrong hands.

Where do you see the future of Red Light?

We’re on a very good path now to continue doing what we do. If we wind up in more ancillary businesses that are helpful to our acts, that would be a goal.

The manager and their teams are the most important part of the artist world and it’ll become more and more important in the future.

We have the primary role, we have great label partners, great touring partners, festivalpartners, brand partners but the manager is the hub of all that.

Our work is harder; we have to do more and more with the changes out there, but our role is going to grow and the company’s going to continue what it has been doing in a balanced way.

There’s going to be more and more creative ways of bringing attention to music and a career and that leads to a wide array of opportunity.

These are exciting times and we should all be grateful that we get to do what we do.

The Pioneers of Audio Engineering: Tom Dowd

July 28, 2017

DavidSilverstein 7/27/17

If we had an audio Mt. Rushmore, these are the faces that would be on it. The first engineer in this series is Tom Dowd, the “Father of the Atlantic Sound.”

Who is Tom Dowd?

If you Google “incredibly interesting life”, you’ll see a picture of Tom Dowd.
Okay, maybe not. But you should.

Dowd performed nuclear research for the infamous Manhattan Project during World War II. He also created the first ever 8-channel console with sliding faders in order to record some of the biggest artist of all time: Ray Charles, Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Cream, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the list goes on and on… and on… and… on.

As the main recording engineer for the legendary Atlantic Records for 25 years, his technical excellence and ability to think outside the box made him a true pioneer in the field.

He was an engineer during the golden years of music for several genres, working through multiple eras and recording all styles. Somehow, he was able to not only stay relevant through all of them, but remain in high demand at the top of the industry throughout.

To put the gravity of Dowd’s legacy in context, the first hit song he recorded was Eileen Barton’s, “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake”, released in 1950. One of the very last albums he worked on was Joe Bonamassa’s New Day Yesterday, released in 2000. That’s a full 50 years of recording and producing major releases.

Not only did he continue to record for over half a century, but he was at the forefront of the industry in adapting to changing technology. He was there for the change from hand-me-down radio gear and a mono disc cutter, to stereo recording systems, to 24 track tape machines, all the way to digital recording with practically unlimited tracks and digital effects.

Early Life

Thomas John Dowd was born in 1925 in New York City. His mother was a opera singer and his father a stage manager, in charge of theater productions. He played piano and violin from a young age and eventually learned tuba and string bass. Tom excelled at math and science and, after graduating from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan at 16, got a job working at the Office of Scientific Research and Development at Columbia University.

When he turned 18, he was drafted into the military and sent off to basic training. After that training, he was immediately sent back to Columbia University. His orders read, “United States Army Corp of Engineers: Manhattan District,” which later became known as “the Manhattan Project”.

That’s right: The man responsible for recording “Layla”, “Respect” and “Stand by Me” also helped develop the atomic bomb. During his stint on the Manhattan Project, Dowd operated a “cyclotron” particle accelerator, performed density tests of various elements, and recorded statistics, as part of the “Neutron Beam Spectography” division. He didn’t find out until 1945 that his work during this time was used to develop the bomb that ultimately ended the second World War.

After the war, Dowd finished his service and wanted to complete his degree in nuclear physics at Columbia University, since he was only short a few credits. He asked the school if they would acknowledge his work during the war and give him the credits he needed to graduate. Unfortunately, because his work on the Manhattan Project was top secret, Columbia refused to honor any of it. Now, in order to graduate, Dowd would have to return to Columbia and learn the physics that predated what he used in his time in the military.

Unbeknownst to them, Columbia’s decision changed the course of recorded music forever. Dowd decided to forgo finishing school in favor of a summer job at a demo studio, owned by the Fisher publishing company.

The Atlantic Years

In the late 1940s, Ahmet Ertegun, the head and founder of Atlantic Records, was recording at Apex a recording studio in New York. He had requested to work with the best engineer at the time, who he was told was a “German Professor.”

According to Ertegun, this professor was very strict, and would not let the engineers turn up the bass or drums “too loud”. At the time, bass and drums weren’t often heard prominently on records. This was due in part to mic techniques, but also because of issues cutting bass directly to disc (the needle could physically skip if you recorded low end too hot).

The next time Ertegun showed up to record, the German professor was not available, so in walked a young Tommy Dowd who had been assigned to the session. At the time, Dowd was a young kid who raised a few skeptical eyebrows, but wasn’t afraid of breaking rules that his older, conventional contemporaries would never think of—like using multiple microphones on sources and tracking bass and drums so listeners were actually able to hear them. After that session, Ahmet Ertegun decided he loved Dowd so much that he made sure he recorded just about every Atlantic record.

Dowd was eventually put in charge of building the Atlantic Records studio, which was located on West 56th Street in Manhattan. In the beginning, the studio was an office space during the day and at night, the desks would be pushed against the walls and groups would gather around microphones in the inner office. The outer office would be used as the control room, where Tom would record with a small mixer and tape recorder. Even the stairwell would be utilized as a reverb chamber.

Tom was a big fan of Les Paul, and after listening to Les Paul’s records featuring 5 guitars and 3 vocal overdubs, he couldn’t figure out how Les was doing it. Eventually, Dowd learned the secret: Les had his own 8-track recorder. In 1958, Tom Dowd, convinced Jerry Wexler (a partner and producer at Atlantic) to purchase the second Ampex 8-track tape recorder ever manufactured. This put them technologically ahead of other studios for many years.

To truly understand just how far advanced this was, the Beatles at Abbey Road were still using pairs of 4 track machines nearly a decade later while recording Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

(There’s a fun reenactment in the 2004 movie, Ray, in which Dowd introduces Ray Charles to 8-track recording in the middle of a session, who then tells the backup singers to leave so he can record all their parts himself.)

Since Atlantic had a new 8-track machine, they also needed to build a console to accommodate these extra 4 tracks. Tom immediately went to work on a new console. He had a longstanding issue with the hand-me-down radio equipment they had been using, and their large rotary knobs. Being a piano player, he liked the idea of having control over multiple channels at once. He sourced some slide wires, and decided to use those instead. This was the first time sliding faders were ever used on a recording console.

Dowd recorded all styles and genres, ranging from artists on Atlantic’s jazz roster, like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, to pop and rhythm & blues legends like Ray Charles and Dusty Springfield. He eventually went on to record rock bands like Cream, and is credited with shaping the sound of Southern rock, as longtime producer for the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Later Life

In the late 1960s, Dowd left Atlantic Records to work as a freelance producer and, in 1967, moved to Miami where he worked primarily at Criteria Sound Studios. He made records right up until his death in 2002. Later on, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where his daughter, Dana Dowd, accepted his award in his honor.

Tom Dowd was there when Ray Charles was recording “I’ve Got a Woman”, when Ben E. King recorded “Stand by Me,” and when Duane Allman played his famous slide solo at the end of Eric Clapton’s “Layla.”

Think about that for a moment: He was right there, in the studio, arranging microphones and hitting the record button, when all of these songs were put to tape. Dowd spent a life actively involved in creating songs that are completely embedded in the minds of countless millions, and that make up the very fabric of our collective culture and history. We hear these songs on the radio, in movies, on television shows. We sing these songs in the shower.

Tom Dowd was right there when each of these iconic performances took life, and played an active role in those productions turning out quite the way they did. It’s a legacy any of us could aspire to.

Maestros of the Concert Merchandise Movement

July 27, 2017


Merchandise for the Weeknd is displayed in the showroom at the offices of Bravado, the division at Universal Music Group that works with entertainers to design, manufacture and distribute branded products.

One Friday morning in early May, eight high-end boutiques in the United States and Canada were flooded with desperate fans jostling to claim their piece of the Weeknd, snapping up bombers, hats, shirts and sweatpants celebrating his album “Starboy.” Two weeks later, at exactly 5 p.m., at more than 200 stores, Urban Outfitters released merchandise decorated with Lady Gaga’s face and the title of her album “Joanne” to barely controlled consumer delight.

Welcome to the world of elevated concert merch: special collections linked to specific cultural events, limited in availability, and one of the newest and fastest-growing subsectors in the fashion world. From the first half of 2014 to the first half of 2017, the amount of tour-related products sold online increased by 720 percent, according to Edited, a company that tracks analytics at more than 90,000 brands and retailers.

Driving the phenomenon is Bravado, the division at Universal Music Group that works with entertainers such as Justin Bieber, Desiigner, Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga and the Weeknd to design, manufacture and distribute branded products; it is led by Mat Vlasic, an energetic New Yorker (and Riverdale Country School alum) who favors a black-on-black uniform and meditation for handling stress.

Not far behind is the Thread Shop, Sony Music Entertainment’s merchandising arm, which collaborates with artists like Nas, Common, A Tribe Called Quest, ASAP Rocky, DJ Khaled and Fifth Harmony, and which is run by Frances Wong, also a New Yorker (but raised in New Jersey) who calls the Thread Shop’s savvy customers “kids” and worked for Rocawear, the clothing label started in 1999 by Jay-Z and Damon Dash.

In a twist of corporate musical chairs, Bravado’s Mr. Vlasic actually founded the Thread Shop during a 12-year stint at Sony, where he began in the finance department, while Ms. Wong worked at Bravado until 2015.

Now, the two are engaged in something of an arms race to own the increasingly lucrative cross-disciplinary fashion territory they have defined.

Founded in 1997 by Barry and Keith Drinkwater, and sold to Universal about a decade later, Bravado operates in 40 countries and works with retailers like Zara, H&M, Uniqlo, Selfridges and Barneys New York. Last year, the revenue for the merchandising arm of Universal, of which Bravado is a major part, was 313 million euros, or about $365 million, an increase of about 13 percent from the year before. Besides handling merchandising for dozens of living artists, Bravado also works with the estates of former powerhouses, including Prince, the Beatles and Tupac Shakur.

The Thread Shop is a much younger operation. It began in 2009 as a straightforward T-shirt business to support touring artists, and eventually grew to provide more exclusive, higher-priced pieces and capsule collections. The company now works with some of the same retailers as Bravado, including Urban Outfitters, Pacsun and Kohl’s, and, like Bravado, operates globally.

Sony would not provide revenue figures for the Thread Shop. But Richard Story, the president of Commercial Music Group, which handles licensing, estate management, television and film contracts and more for Sony, acknowledged that while currently a minor contributor to the parent company’s balance sheet: “There’s no question that when we’re in our strategic planning conversations, we look at these types of businesses and think, ‘Can they be very robust multimillion-dollar revenue operations?’ We firmly believe they can be.”

On a recent afternoon at Sony’s offices on Madison Square Park in Manhattan, Ms. Wong considered Bravado’s position in the field. “They are the leader of our arena,” Ms. Wong said. But, she added: “I start from a trend standpoint because I think that’s why people will come to us. How do you do a concert tee and take it to the next level? Do you crop it, do you cut it, do you put safety pins in it?” Ms. Wong, who previously worked at Bloomingdale’s, Calvin Klein and Benetton, was wearing an ASAP Ferg shirt that she had cut a V-shaped neckline into herself.

When first releasing an artist’s products, both Bravado and the Thread Shop will often do so through pop-up shops. “We’ll identify the ground zero retailers that create demand, create urgency,” said Frank Bartolotta, Bravado’s senior vice president for national sales. “That creates a crazy amount of energy. Because it’s like, ‘If I didn’t get it during that three-day cycle, I need to figure out when I’m going to get it.’ Then we go to a larger retail partner.”

Thus in early May, “Starboy” merchandise was sold for three days only at boutiques in eight cities across the United States, including Patron of the New in New York and FourTwoFour on Fairfax in Los Angeles, and also online for limited periods. After that, Bravado went to PacSun for a larger rollout. “If there’s not an experience tied into this, it becomes stale, it becomes mute,” Mr. Bartolotta said. “When we create these moments that live there for literally 72 hours, there’s an alertness, and that fan is rabid.”

The key is to ensure that pop-ups offer certain exclusive items. “The kid that goes to New York wants the New York piece,” Mr. Bartolotta said. “The kid who goes to L.A. wants the L.A. piece. And then there’s the main collection. So if you weren’t in L.A., you can then go, weeks later, to PacSun to get that extended collection.”

Ms. Wong takes it a step further and offers a different collection at each distribution point. “I don’t want fans to see the same thing over and over again,” she said. “If you’re a fan, you’re going to be shopping online; if we drop something at Urban Outfitters, you’ll go to Urban; and if you’re at the tour, you’ll buy a T-shirt, too.”

Or, if you know your way around the resale market, you might go to eBay, Grailed or similar online marketplaces for the items you missed. After all, not everyone lives in the city where a store pops up or a tour stops. “The reselling culture is now crossing over into the world of music and merchandise,” said Lawrence Schlossman, the brand director of Grailed. “With social media, when you see a line outside of a pop-up or you see people making money or getting a lot of likes and looking cool, that creates a hype cycle that feeds itself.”

Still, while the pop-up shops and exclusive items are a key for building attention, the moneymakers are the items that many consumers can afford and easily access. “You always need premium to sell the mass,” Ms. Wong said. “I can’t afford a Gucci bag at $5,000, but I’ll buy a wallet for $700 and still be part of that lifestyle.” And in fact, according to Edited, the artists who drive the most e-commerce traffic are Run-DMC, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Ramones (all Bravado clients). Not exactly of the moment.

“There’s a huge middle market in this trend,” said Katie Smith, senior analyst at Edited. “It’s not just buzzy, like, ‘Check out the latest Pablo tee.’” (Pablo being from Kanye West’s album “The Life of Pablo.”) “For retail, there’s still a big opportunity for the older, more known artists. That stuff doesn’t sell as fast, but it performs very well.”

Laird Adamson, the head of international at Bravado, said: “There’s an evergreen business that happens at Kohl’s that’s in constant replenishment. It’s the stuff that lives there all day long, drives volume for us, doesn’t make a lot of noise. And then there’s us identifying with key retailers where every other month there’s a different event happening. At Urban Outfitters, there’s a Gaga event for one month. Then there’s a Bieber event for two months and then that goes away.”

In reality, the products attached to one artist are not vastly different from those of any other: The design might vary — especially if you bring someone on board like Jerry Lorenzo, the designer of Fear of God, who collaborated with Justin Bieber, or Wes Lang, an artist who worked with Mr. West — but this is not high fashion, or even trickle-down runway style. The sense of diversification is manufactured by buzz built around the artist, and it is key to perpetuating consumers’ desire for the products.

“The challenge I have on a daily basis is, ‘How do we drive traffic to these stores?’” Mr. Bartolotta said. “You look at malls and you see traffic is down. We’re bringing an experience that’s being driven by the artists. When you do that, these retailers’ appetites are stimulated. If we don’t do this, we’ll die like a lot of malls are dying.”

Like all successful brand builders, Mr. Vlasic and Ms. Wong know their references.

Ms. Wong calls out “Armani and Valentino and Prada” because “you can look at it right away and know whose hand it is. And the same goes with artists. These kids are too smart. If it’s not authentic, they don’t want it.”

And for Mr. Vlasic, “Star Wars” and Disney provide inspiration.

“Do consumers tire of it?” he said. “Sure, but keep reinventing it, keep rethinking how to do it. ‘Star Wars’ products are everywhere. Your product can be in Target, in Coach, in Uniqlo. You just have to be smart about it

Why my guitar gently weeps The slow, secret death of the six-string electric. And why you should care.

June 27, 2017

By Geoff Edgers 6/22/17

The convention couldn’t sound less rock-and-roll — the National Association of Music Merchants Show. But when the doors open at the Anaheim Convention Center, people stream in to scour rows of Fenders, Les Pauls and the oddball, custom-built creations such as the 5-foot-4-inch mermaid guitar crafted of 15 kinds of wood.

Standing in the center of the biggest, six-string candy store in the United States, you can almost believe all is well within the guitar world.

Except if, like George Gruhn, you know better. The 71-year-old Nashville dealer has sold guitars to Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift. Walking through NAMM with Gruhn is like shadowing Bill Belichick at the NFL Scouting Combine. There is great love for the product and great skepticism. What others might see as a boom — the seemingly endless line of manufacturers showcasing instruments — Gruhn sees as two trains on a collision course.

“There are more makers now than ever before in the history of the instrument, but the market is not growing,” Gruhn says in a voice that flutters between a groan and a grumble. “I’m not all doomsday, but this — this is not sustainable.
The numbers back him up. In the past decade, electric guitar sales have plummeted, from about 1.5 million sold annually to just over 1 million. The two biggest companies, Gibson and Fender, are in debt, and a third, PRS Guitars, had to cut staff and expand production of cheaper guitars. In April, Moody’s downgraded Guitar Center, the largest chain retailer, as it faces $1.6 billion in debt. And at, the online retailer, a brand-new, interest-free Fender can be had for as little as $8 a month.

What worries Gruhn is not simply that profits are down. That happens in business. He’s concerned by the “why” behind the sales decline. When he opened his store 46 years ago, everyone wanted to be a guitar god, inspired by the men who roamed the concert stage, including Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Jimmy Page. Now those boomers are retiring, downsizing and adjusting to fixed incomes. They’re looking to shed, not add to, their collections, and the younger generation isn’t stepping in to replace them.

Gruhn knows why.

“What we need is guitar heroes,” he says.

He is asked about Clapton, who himself recently downsized his collection. Gruhn sold 29 of his guitars.

“Eric Clapton is my age,” he says.

How about Creed’s Mark Tremonti, Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer? He shakes his head.

“John Mayer?” he asks. “You don’t see a bunch of kids emulating John Mayer and listening to him and wanting to pick up a guitar because of him.”

Guitar heroes. They arrived with the first wave of rock-and-roll. Chuck Berry duckwalking across the big screen. Scotty Moore’s reverb-soaked Gibson on Elvis’s Sun records. Link Wray, with his biker cool, blasting through “Rumble” in 1958.
Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and The Post’s Geoff Edgers deconstruct some of rock’s most iconic guitar riffs, from “Cult of Personality” to “Back in Black.” (Erin Patrick O’Connor/The Washington Post)

That instrumental wasn’t a technical feat. It required just four chords. But four chords were enough for Jimmy Page.

“That was something that had so much profound attitude to it,” Page told Jack White and the Edge in the 2009 documentary “It Might Get Loud.”

The ’60s brought a wave of white blues — Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards — as well as the theatrics of the guitar-smashing Pete Townshend and the sonic revolutionary Hendrix.

McCartney saw Hendrix play at the Bag O’Nails club in London in 1967. He thinks back on those days fondly and, in his sets today, picks up a left-handed Les Paul to jam through Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady.”

“The electric guitar was new and fascinatingly exciting in a period before Jimi and immediately after,” the former Beatle says wistfully in a recent interview. “So you got loads of great players emulating guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and you had a few generations there.”

He pauses.

“Now, it’s more electronic music and kids listen differently,” McCartney says. “They don’t have guitar heroes like you and I did.”

[Meet the critic who panned Sgt. Pepper]

Nirvana was huge when the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, 38, was growing up.

“And everybody wanted a guitar,” he says. “This is not surprising. It has to do with what’s in the Top 20.”

Living Colour’s Vernon Reid agrees but also speaks to a larger shift. He remembers being inspired when he heard Santana on the radio. “There was a culture of guitar playing, and music was central,” adds Reid, 58. “A record would come out and you would hear about that record, and you would make the journey. There was a certain investment in time and resourc

Lita Ford, also 58, remembers curling up on the couch one night in 1977 to watch Cheap Trick on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” She was 19 and her band, the Runaways, had played gigs with them.

“It was just a different world,” Ford says. “There was ‘Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,’ Ed Sullivan, Dick Clark, and they would have one band on and you would wait all week to see who that band was going to be. And you could talk about it all week long with your friends — ‘Saturday night, Deep Purple’s going to be on, what are they going to play?’ — and then everybody’s around the TV like you’re watching a football game.”

By the ’80s, when Ford went solo and cracked the Top 40, she became one of the few female guitar heroes on a playlist packed with men, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Satriani and Eddie Van Halen.

Guitar culture was pervasive, whether in movie houses (“Karate Kid” Ralph Macchio outdueling Steve Vai in the 1986 movie “Crossroads”; Michael J. Fox playing a blistering solo in “Back to the Future” and co-starring with Joan Jett in 1987’s rock-band drama “Light of Day”) or on MTV and the older, concert films featuring the Who and Led Zeppelin on seemingly endless repeats.

But there were already hints of the change to come, of the evolutions in music technology that would eventually compete with the guitar. In 1979, Tascam’s Portastudio 144 arrived on the market, allowing anybody with a microphone and a patch cord to record with multiple tracks. (Bruce Springsteen used a Portastudio for 1982’s “Nebraska.”) In 1981, Oberheim introduced the DMX drum machine, revolutionizing hip-hop.

So instead of Hendrix or Santana, Linkin Park’s Brad Delson drew his inspiration from Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell,” the crossover smash released in 1986. Delson, whose band recently landed atop the charts with an album notably light on guitar, doesn’t look at the leap from ax men to DJs as a bad thing.

“Music is music,” he says. “These guys are all musical heroes, whatever cool instrument they play. And today, they’re gravitating toward programming beats on an Ableton. I don’t think that’s any less creative as playing bass. I’m open to the evolution as it unfolds. Musical genius is musical genius. It just takes different forms.”

An industry responds

Tell that to Guitar Center, now $1.6 billion in debt and so fearful of publicity that a spokeswoman would only make an executive available for an interview on one condition: “He cannot discuss financials or politics under any circumstances.” (No thanks.)

Richard Ash, the chief executive of Sam Ash, the largest chain of family-owned music stores in the country, isn’t afraid to state the obvious.

“Our customers are getting older, and they’re going to be gone soon,” he says.

Over the past three years, Gibson’s annual revenue has fallen from $2.1 billion to $1.7 billion, according to data gathered by Music Trades magazine. The company’s 2014 purchase of Philips’s audio division for $135 million led to debt — how much, the company won’t say — and a Moody’s downgrading last year. Fender, which had to abandon a public offering in 2012, has fallen from $675 million in revenue to $545 million. It has cut its debt in recent years, but it remains at $100 million.

[How much did this guitar story cost me? $2, 376.99.]

And starting in 2010, the industry witnessed a milestone that would have been unthinkable during the hair-metal era: Acoustic models began to outsell electric.

Still, the leaders of Gibson, Fender and PRS say they have not given up.

“The death of the guitar, to paraphrase Mark Twain, is greatly exaggerated,” says Fender’s chief executive, Andy Mooney.

He says that the company has a strategy designed to reach millennials. The key, Mooney says, is to get more beginners to stick with an instrument they often abandon within a year. To that end, in July the company will launch a subscription-based service it says will change the way new guitarists learn to play through a series of online tools.

Paul Reed Smith, the Maryland-based guitar designer, says the industry is just now recovering from the recession that struck in 2009. He points to PRS’s sustained revenue — the company says they’re between $42 million and $45 million a year — and an increased demand for guitars.

“This is a very complicated mix of economy versus market, demand versus what products are they putting out, versus are their products as good as they used to be, versus what’s going on with the Internet, versus how are the big-box stores dealing with what’s going on,” Smith says. “But I’ll tell you this: You put a magic guitar in a case and ship it to a dealer, it will sell.”

Then there’s Henry Juszkiewicz, the biggest and most controversial of the music instrument moguls. When he and a partner bought Gibson in 1986, for just $5 million, the onetime giant was dying.

[Behind the scenes: how we got paid to set a guitar on fire]

“It was a failed company that had an iconic name, but it really was on its last legs,” Ash says. “[Juszkiewicz] completely revived the Gibson line.”

Juszkiewicz, 64, is known for being temperamental, ultracompetitive and difficult to work for. A former Gibson staffer recalls a company retreat in Las Vegas punctuated by a trip to a shooting range, where executives shot up a Fender Stratocaster. In recent years, Juszkiewicz has made two major pushes, both seemingly aimed at expanding a company when a product itself — the guitar — has shown a limited ability to grow its market.

In 2014, he acquired Philips’s audio division to add headphones, speakers and digital recorders to Gibson’s brand. The idea, Juszkiewicz says, is to recast Gibson from a guitar company to a consumer electronics company.

There’s also the line of self-tuning “robot” guitars that Gibson spent more than a decade and millions of dollars developing. In 2015, Juszkiewicz made the feature standard on most new guitars. Sales dropped so dramatically, as players and collectors questioned the added cost and value, that Gibson told dealers to slash prices. The company then abandoned making self-tuners a standard feature. You can still buy them — they call them “G Force” — but they’re now simply an add-on option.

Journey’s Neal Schon says he battled with Juszkiewicz when he served as a consultant to Gibson.

“I was trying to help Henry and shoo him away from areas that he was spending a whole lot of money in,” Schon says. “All this electronical, robot crap. I told him, point blank, ‘What you’re doing, Roland and other companies are light-years in front of you, you’ve got this whole building you’ve designated to be working on this synth guitar. I’ve played it. And it just doesn’t work.’ And he refused to believe that.”

Juszkiewicz says that one day, the self-tuning guitars will be recognized as a great innovation, comparing them with the advent of the television remote control. He also believes in the Philips purchase. Eventually, he says, the acquisition will be recognized as the right decision.

“Everything we do is about music,” Juszkiewicz says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s the making of music with instruments or the listening of music with a player. To me, we’re a music company. That’s what I want to be. And I want to be number one. And, you know, nobody else seems to be applying for the job right now.”

The search for inspiration

If there is a singular question in the guitar industry, it’s no different from what drives Apple. How do you get the product into a teenager’s hands? And once it’s there, how do you get them to fall in love with it?

Fender’s trying through lessons and a slew of online tools (Fender Tune, Fender Tone, Fender Riffstation). The Music Experience, a Florida-based company, has recruited PRS, Fender, Gibson and other companies to set up tents at festivals for people to try out guitars. There is also School of Rock, which has almost 200 branches across the country.

On a Friday night in Watertown, Mass., practice is just getting started.

Joe Pessia runs the board and coaches the band. He’s 47, a guitarist who once played in a band with Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt and has worked at School of Rock since 2008.

Watching practice, it’s easy to understand why.

With Pessia presiding, the school’s showcase group blasts through three songs released decades before any of them were born.

The Cars’ “Bye Bye Love” blends quirky, new-wave keyboards and barre chords. Journey’s “Stone in Love” is classic ’80s arena rock punctuated by Schon’s melodic guitar line. Matt Martin, a 17-year-old guitarist wearing white sneakers, jeans and a House of Blues T-shirt, takes the lead on this.

The band’s other Stratocaster is played by Mena Lemos, a 15-year-old sophomore. She takes on Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio.”

As they play, the teenagers dance, laugh and work to get the songs right. Their parents are also happy. Arezou Lemos, Mena’s mother, sees a daughter who is confident and has two sets of friends — the kids at School of Rock and her peers at Newton South High School.

“There are a lot of not-easy times that they go through as teenagers,” she says, “and having music in her life, it’s been a savior.”

Julie Martin says her son Matt was a quiet boy who played in Little League but never connected with sports. She and her husband bought him his first guitar when he was 6.

“It was immediate,” she says. “He could play right away. It gave him confidence, in the immediate, and I think long term it helps him in every aspect of his life.”

She remembers her own childhood in working-class Boston.

“I know exactly what he could be out doing,” Martin says. “That enters my mind. We are so lucky to have found School of Rock. He’s there Thursday, Friday and Saturday every week, all year.”

Rush’s prog-metal is not for beginners, with its time shifts and reggae twist.

“They’ve never played this before,” Pessia says, turning to whisper in awe. “The first time.”

So who are these kids? The future? An aberration?

It’s hard to know. But Matt Martin didn’t need to think long about why he wanted to play a Strat as a kid.

“Eric Clapton,” he says. “He’s my number one.”

To Phillip McKnight, a 42-year-old guitarist and former music store owner in Arizona, the spread of School of Rock isn’t surprising.

He carved out space for guitar lessons shortly after opening his music store in a strip mall in 2005. The sideline began to grow, and eventually, he founded the McKnight Music Academy. As it grew, from two rooms to eight, from 25 students to 250, McKnight noticed a curious development.

Around 2012, the gender mix of his student base shifted dramatically. The eight to 12 girls taking lessons jumped to 27 to 59 to 119, eventually outnumbering the boys. Why? He asked them.

Taylor Swift.

Nobody would confuse the pop star’s chops with Bonnie Raitt’s. But she does play a guitar.

Andy Mooney, the Fender CEO, calls Swift “the most influential guitarist of recent years.”

“I don’t think that young girls looked at Taylor and said, ‘I’m really impressed by the way she plays G major arpeggios.’ ” Mooney says. “They liked how she looked, and they wanted to emulate her.”

When McKnight launched a video series on YouTube, he did an episode called “Is Taylor Swift the next Eddie Van Halen?” He wasn’t talking about technique. He was talking about inspiring younger players. The video series, in the end, grew faster than guitar sales or lessons. Earlier this year, McKnight shut down his store.

The videos? He’ll keep doing them. They’re making money.


How Countries Around the World Fund Music—and Why It Matters

June 27, 2017

by Marc Hogan 6/26/17

Courtney Barnett is a wise-cracking, guitar-mangling embodiment of what taxpayer support can do for a musician. In 2013, the Melbourne-based singer-songwriter was able to travel across the globe to play New York City for the first time thanks to support from the Australia Council for the Arts, a government agency. A year later, she was one of the first recipients of a new, state-sponsored grant that helped her record her debut album. When it came time to promote the results, 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, government money also went toward financing her South by Southwest showcase and a European tour. Along with gracing critics’ year-end lists and international charts, the record led to a Best New Artist nomination at the 2016 Grammy Awards.

Barnett counts herself lucky to have received these early fiscal shots in the arm. “Government grants gave me creative independence when I was starting out, because it meant I was worrying less about impressing for label and publishing advances, and I was less reliant on taking some big-company sponsorship to fund a tour,” she says. As well as nurturing Barnett’s artistic growth, the benefits were also deeply practical. Without government grants, she wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of offers to play Coachella and American late-night TV shows.

Barnett played SXSW 2015 under the banner of Sounds Australia, a nonprofit founded several years earlier to spread the word about music from Down Under. Sounds Australia has organized events with more than 500 Aussie acts, including Nick Murphy, Hiatus Kaiyote, and the Preatures. Its funding sources are a hodgepodge of public and private, federal and state. The goal isn’t charity: The Australian Trade Commission has a decades-long history of championing musical exports right alongside natural resources like coal or uranium, and researchers are currently investigating the value of the music Australia sends abroad.

Like Australia, many rich countries use public funds to nurture homegrown musical talent. The amounts are often paid out by federal arts councils that tend to prioritize traditional fine arts like painting and opera, while contemporary music frequently draws funds from public-private partnerships. Regional and municipal governments contribute, too. Though these webs of financial assistance for music can be complex, and unique from country to country, the overall impression is of a funding landscape increasingly driven by market forces as much as cultural ones. And the threat of an ax to these budgets is nearly always an election away.

Under President Trump, the relatively modest U.S. budget for arts spending—of the National Endowment for the Arts’ $148 million budget in 2016, only $8 million went to programs for music, including opera—is now on the chopping block. The downturn isn’t just happening in the States: More countries with generally higher levels of cultural spending seem to be acting more like America. It can seem more trivial than ever to worry about music spending when so many other issues are at stake. But in the countries with the strongest reputations for funding the arts, cultural expression, like other basic needs, is considered a universal right, not a privilege for the wealthy.

Sweden, which allocated nearly $220 million in funding to the arts last year—including at least $7.8 million for music—passed a law in 2009 that states: “Culture is to be a dynamic, challenging and independent force based on the freedom of expression. Everyone is to have the opportunity to participate in cultural life. Creativity, diversity and artistic quality are to be integral parts of society’s development.” The dozens of artists who received Swedish Arts Council funding for recordings the past few years include melancholic art-pop project El Perro Del Mar, cosmic groove explorer Atelje, and free jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. And in Sweden, federal money accounts for only 45 percent of all public spending on culture; the rest comes from regional, local, and municipal governments. When they say everyone should be able to participate, they follow through with cash.

Scandinavia also shows that a rightward turn politically doesn’t have to lead to less arts funding. Norway, for instance, has been led the past four years by a center-right coalition government that includes, for the first time, a nationalist party of the type that has been on the rise in Europe lately. And yet Arts Council Norway’s funding for music has soared, from less than $19 million in 2011 to nearly $47 million in 2017, which is impressive for a country with only about 5 million people. Total government spending on music in Norway also grew, from $117 million to around $140 million.

“Whether we have a right or left government, there seems to be a consistency in the culture politics,” says space-disco luminary Hans-Peter Lindstrøm, who started receiving grants later in his career, once he had a team to help him apply for them. “Norway is one of the best countries in the world to live in, and the arts funding is an important part of the social democracy.” There’s no guarantee of funding from year to year, so Lindstrøm uses the money mainly to scale up a current project, whether by making a video, pressing more records, or doing better marketing. Other musicians receiving Arts Council Norway grants range from avant-garde experimentalist Jenny Hval to postmodern metal explorers Kvelertak.

Scratch the surface of these admirably lofty ideals, however, and economic interests aren’t far beneath. From ABBA to Max Martin, Sweden exports pop music like no other country, and its neighbors have surely taken notice. In Norway, there’s now more talk of supporting music as an industry according to Joakim Haugland, whose Smalltown Supertown label releases Lindstrøm’s records. Haugland welcomes more jobs being created in music and hopes the spending will also benefit more niche-oriented labels like his. Given Norway’s small population, Smalltown Supersound relies on exporting its music to bigger markets. “The funding that we have might look good for you guys,” Haugland says, referring to Americans. “But I would rather have the home market that you have instead of the funding.”

Some 1,000 miles to the west of Norway, Iceland is a curious case. With only about 330,000 people—roughly half the population of Vermont—the tiny island nation has long punched above its weight culturally, thanks to phenomena like Björk and Sigur Rós. And yet in 2014, Iceland’s parliament slashed its budget for the national body that funds art projects from $45 million to $25 million, spurring intense criticism from people across the creative spectrum. Still, total government spending on music in Iceland is around $9 million a year according to Sigtryggur Baldursson, a founding member of the Sugarcubes who now runs Iceland Music Export, a public-private partnership. Noting that newer Icelandic bands are more pop-oriented than its previous indie and experimental music staples, he says, “We’re trying to have music projects thought of more in the vein of startups.”

Surely the biggest of Iceland’s current batch of musical exports are pop-folk act Of Monsters and Men, whose 2011 album My Head Is Animal went platinum in America, among several other countries, and spawned the Top 20 hit “Little Talks.” The group never took grant money from the government, but to support its first North American tour, it did receive a financial boost of about $8,000 from the Kraumur Music Fund, which was underwritten by a private foundation and now exists as an annual prize for best album made in Iceland. “It wasn’t a ton of money when you’re talking about touring a foreign band in another country,” recalls Heather Kolker, Of Monsters and Men’s longtime manager, “but it helped.” Artists from Iceland, after all, can’t just hop in a van and hit the road. Kolker, who lived there for four years, says the country’s music really does play a part in boosting tourism. “The government should take it seriously.”

In North America, it’s hard to imagine a government-supported artist more prominent right now than Abel Tesfaye, the Canadian pop lothario best known as the Weeknd. Now a multiplatinum artist who has worked with everyone from Daft Punk to Kendrick Lamar, in August 2013 the Weeknd was already booked in overseas arenas ahead of his proper major-label debut album, Kiss Land. That’s when his management received almost $150,000 for marketing, promotion, and more. (Neither the Weeknd nor his management would comment for this story.)

The money came from FACTOR, a public-private partnership geared toward advancing the Canadian music industry. The Canada Council for the Arts, which funds classical music, awarded almost $21 million in music grants and prizes last year, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government sharply increased federal arts spending. FACTOR, with funds from the Department of Canadian Heritage and Canada’s private radio broadcasters, provided only about $11 million in funding, but that was mainly classified under folk, alternative, rock, and pop. A FACTOR grant financed the showcase gig that brought Majical Cloudz to the attention of Lorde, who later brought the Montreal duo on her North American tour. FACTOR also supported the making of Grimes’s Art Angels, as well as recent projects by Carly Rae Jepsen, White Lung, and U.S. Girls. In recent years, two of the larger Canadian provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, have also rolled out their own music funds.

If Scandinavian governments treat art as a right, Canadian officials seem to be buying into the idea that music creates economic value. “That’s been the big shift in thinking, from a cultural activity to an investment,” FACTOR president Duncan McKie explains. Likewise, and unlike the Canada Council, FACTOR is admittedly oriented toward commercial success. Where FACTOR is at least partly taxpayer funded, Canadian musicians have another, wholly private source of money available to them, too. Radio Starmaker, funded by the major commercial broadcasting companies, awarded about $6.6 million in grants last year, to Grimes, Majical Cloudz, Purity Ring, Fucked Up, and many other artists considered “rising stars.”

With so much funding available, and so much of an emphasis on sales potential, some grumbling about the Canadian process is inevitable. FACTOR alone has been criticized as insular and supportive of mediocrity, while Canada Council’s recent rollout of a new online grant platform was beset with glitches. But for many artists, even an imperfect system of funding would still be far better than no funding at all.

“If I didn’t get it I’d be making synth-pop,” jokes Owen Pallett, the violin-looping singer-songwriter, recurring Arcade Fire collaborator, and Oscar-nominated film composer. More seriously, Pallett contends that trickle-down economics, at least in artistic communities, actually works. Even when he has been playing to smaller crowds in out-of-the-way towns, he says, he has been able to pay his band what he considers a living wage: What they’d make if they were working in a bar at home. “Government funding for the arts is a mark of a successful civilization and should be maximized,” Pallett emphasizes. He’s less interested in nitpicking FACTOR’s funding choices than expanding them.

Grants can also keep artists afloat as they navigate the new economic realities of streaming. “Now the concept of putting even $10,000 into making a record is an expensive investment on something that probably isn’t going to return that much,” says Preoccupations guitarist and synth player Scott Munro, whose Calgary-based band has received FACTOR funding. “You’ll make money off radio play, but it’s definitely not like it was even 10 years ago. The granting system helps to ease that transition.” For a band on Preoccupations’ level—critically respected and able to play festivals worldwide, but not a presence on major charts—that money might mean being able to record in a better studio without going deep into debt or having to go back to holding down a regular job.

In country after country, government support for music, when not weathering cutbacks, seems to be growing more purely economically motivated. On the economic side is South Korea, which started a $1 billion investment fund for its pop industry in 2005. That led to the K-pop boom that reached cultural ubiquity with PSY’s “Gangnam Style.” Official documents show that the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism has allocated at least $6.7 million for music in 2017. However, the agency also found itself ensnared in the influence-peddling scandal that led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye; its CEO, Song Sung-gak, resigned last November amid embezzlement charges. And Chinese consumers have recently been boycotting Korean pop culture out of objection to a new missile-defense system.

Spain, on top of about $106 million in national funding for the music and dance industries, budgets about $5.5 million, at the national and regional level, for sending its music abroad. France, along with its $315 million in federal music funding, promotes acts like Christine and the Queens, Amadou & Mariam, Justice, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and more overseas (but not Daft Punk, who wanted to do things without state support). Portugal, a newcomer to music funding, recently set up the WHY Portugal export group as a public-private partnership.

As for cuts, Arts Council England had its overall budget slashed by 30 percent under austerity policies in 2010, though it has rebounded slightly since. That same year, the once-prolific Scottish Arts Council was replaced by Creative Scotland, an agency with a broader remit. But earlier this year, Creative Scotland’s current leadership warned of budget cuts.

America, in all this, is like an outlying planet with a powerful gravitational pull. Lacking grant funding, its music industry is inherently market-driven—and, despite the bottom falling out in the early 2000s thanks to digitization, hugely dominant: With $7.7 billion in U.S. sales last year, the domestic record business still accounts for almost half of the $15.7 billion global industry. Then there are the cuts: In March, as expected, Trump called for defunding the National Endowment for the Arts.

In response to the planned cutbacks, the artistic community has resorted to the cold logic of business. In an April essay called “What Good Are the Arts?,” David Byrne invoked the economic argument for arts funding: “Investment in the arts doesn’t cost us money—it makes us money!” Sure enough, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s office recently issued a report declaring that the city’s “music ecosystem” generated $21 billion in economic output in 2015. But an ecosystem can’t truly be measured in dollars; Byrne didn’t create the Talking Heads’ classic Remain in Light simply out of concern for Warner Bros. Records’ shareholder value.

When President John F. Kennedy championed public support for the arts, in a 1962 Look magazine article, he wrote that “the life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose—and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.” And when a song rewires how we see the world, makes us cry or helps us fall in love, music lovers don’t usually wonder if they should have put their time and money toward a well-diversified portfolio instead.

Funding the arts makes more sense if supporters acknowledge what it’s really about—being the type of country where basic rights, including free creative expression, are assured—rather than couching it in economic language that may only bore its intended target while alienating the cause’s natural backers. Advocacy for the arts could at least be artful.

“Even if cultural industries did not generate significant economic benefits—and they do—we would still argue the state should be funding art and culture,” says Don Wilkie, co-founder of Montreal’s venerable Constellation Records label. “In the western world at least, vast sums are continuously reallocated by the state in the service of corporate shareholders, but the culture industries arguably serve far greater numbers of citizens and surely are as worthy?”

All told, American musicians have advantages that artists in other countries don’t. And there are certain benefits human beings everywhere should enjoy. Music is one. The profit motive has of course resulted in plenty of profoundly great music, as fans of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and Madonna, Rihanna and Kanye West—or, truth be told, most of today’s grant-funded musical exports—can attest. But public spending on art, for art’s sake? It’s still a test of the quality of a nation’s so-called civilization. As Courtney Barnett says: “Whoever pays the piper calls the tune, you know?”