Why You’re Hearing More Borrowed Lyrics and Melodies on Pop Radio

July 12, 2018

Anne-Marie’s “2002,” Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” and more – inside the new wave of pop interpolation

Elias Leight RollingStone.com 07/05/18

Anne-Marie’s “2002” is the biggest solo release of her career, a multi-week Top Five single in the U.K. built around a simple, effective gimmick: cribbing lyrics from songs that were hits between 1998 and 2003. “Oops, I got 99 problems singing bye, bye, bye,” Anne-Marie sings on the track, released in April. “Hold up, if you wanna go and take a ride with me/Better hit me, baby, one more time.” Anyone with memories of Top 40 radio from 15 years ago will recognize the references to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” ‘NSync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” and Britney Spears’ “… Baby One More Time.”

This sort of borrowing, in which an artist employs a snippet of an already-recorded song in the creation of something new, is known as an interpolation. (Think of how DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts” swipes its melody from Santana’s “Maria Maria” or Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” riffs on Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise.”) “Blatant lyrical or melodic callbacks appear to be in vogue at the moment for pop acts, and not just in unabashedly nostalgic songs like “2002.”

The Anne-Marie track was co-written by Ed Sheeran, who is a master of interpolation: He also lifted TLC’s “No Scrubs” on his own “Shape of You” and borrowed from Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” on “Strip That Down,” a hit he gave to Liam Payne. Other major recent examples of interpolation-based records that soared at pop radio include, but are not limited to, Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” (source material: the Marvelettes), Machine Gun Kelly and Camila Cabello’s “Bad Things” (Fastball), the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” (the Fray), Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” (Flo Rida) and Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” (Right Said Fred).

Of course, this isn’t a new practice. Pop songwriter Jamie Hartman calls interpolations “old as the hills.” The border between interpolation and theft can be highly contested, with the latter sometimes becoming the former thanks only to a grudging, after-the-fact acknowledgment. The Beach Boys were forced to add Chuck Berry as a writer on “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Led Zeppelin are infamous for stealing and repurposing the work of others and only crediting them when faced with lawsuits. George Harrison lost a suit alleging that “My Sweet Lord” was based very closely on the Chiffons “He’s So Fine.”

The former Beatle would later state that, “99 percent of the popular music that can be heard is reminiscent of something or other,” and recycling in this manner is partially inevitable. “You know the saying there’s nothing new under the sun,” Hartman says. “I think there are sometimes new things, but there’s only a certain amount of notes, a certain amount of chords.” And from a commercial perspective, “if it’s worked before, why wouldn’t it work again?”

Because interpolation is commonplace, pop’s appetite for it at any given moment is hard to quantify. “I hear a lot of interpolating on pop radio today,” says Joe Khajadourian from production duo the Futuristics, who have had major hits with three interpolation-based records (“Bad Things,” Natalia La Rose’s “Somebody” and Flo Rida’s “I Cry”). “But it’s always been there – I think sometimes it’s hidden, and sometimes it’s more in your face.”

Now appears to be one of those “in your face” moments. The crowd-sourced site WhoSampled likely contains the most comprehensive database of sample and interpolation information anywhere; curious listeners trying to determine what they think they heard – was that Nelly? – can search the site to find out for sure. In 2017, of the 50 most-visited entries on WhoSampled, five were pop or rock tracks based around prominent interpolations (six if you count J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” which was played heavily on pop radio), according to data provided by WhoSampled Head of Content Chris Read.

Five isn’t many compared to the 40-plus rap or R&B tracks that appear in the site’s top 50 annually. But in four of the last 10 years, only one pop or rock track appeared in WhoSampled’s year-end top 50, and in two of those years, there wasn’t a single pop or rock entry. In the past decade of the site’s data, only 2008 and 2014 come close to 2017 in terms of having major pop records based around interpolations – with three apiece songs in those years that were popular on WhoSampled.

One of the reasons that interpolations in pop may be appearing more often in WhoSampled’s data is just because they’re being credited more, not because they’re actually more common. “As they say, get a hit, get a writ – if you get something that really works, you get a lawsuit,” Hartman says. Following a 2015 court ruling, upheld in March after an appeal, that forced Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams to pay Marvin Gaye’s estate millions for infringing on the copyright of Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” with their own hit “Blurred Lines,” there’s reason to believe that writers may be more nervous than before.

(The bitter irony: In a 1985 biography of Gaye, Divided Soul, author David Ritz wrote about Gaye facing a suit for allegedly stealing ideas from his own musicians. The singer’s retort: “He volunteered his chords. I didn’t steal them.” Ritz also had to sue Gaye’s estate to be credited as a writer on “Sexual Healing.”)

“For ‘Blurred Lines,’ [the writers] didn’t credit the inspiration, and thus we had a grey area and the lawsuit,” says Ezekiel Lewis, executive VP of A&R for Epic Records. “Maybe as a result of that being a big case, you’re seeing more of a trend of people giving credit to others.” Vaughn makes a similar point: “Post-‘Blurred Lines,’ people are being overly cautious about clearing samples and interpolations even down to drum sounds.”

Still, not all melodies are credited – Hartman points out that parts of Sheeran’s “Shape of You” suggest the Beatles; Lennon and McCartney are not credited on the track. In June, Sheeran was sued for $100 million by a group alleging that the singer-songwriter’s “Thinking Out Loud” relies on a chord progression that’s “functionally equivalent” to the one in Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”

And though a hostile legal environment might lead to fewer high-profile interpolations, the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. The examples of rap and R&B, now the most-consumed genres of music, may help explain why pop writers and producers are willing to ignore their possible legal jeopardy. “The fact that hip-hop and R&B records rely on sampling has influenced how Top 40 artists make their records,” says Lewis. Jeff Vaughn, VP of A&R at Artist Partners Group, agrees. “With hip-hop becoming the dominant musical form, pop music is reflecting that,” he says. It’s hard to imagine Swift using a blatant interpolation or teaming up with the rapper Future in 2010, when turbo-pop was commercially ascendant. She did both in 2017, now that rap rules consumption metrics.

Pop artists aren’t just trying to catch up to rap and R&B; they’re also looking for ways to stand out in an environment where listeners have more choice than ever before, even within genres. “With a very competitive market and incredible amounts of content, so many songs being released every week, the scramble for things like New Music Friday [Spotify’s biggest playlist] – to find a point of difference, people are relying on tried and trusted,” Hartman says.

When writers rely on component parts of an old hit, though, that doesn’t automatically create a new smash. “If it’s familiar, that’s nice, but there’s probably also a higher burn rate – if it’s too familiar, then people don’t want to listen to it as often or as long; there are less Easter eggs in the song to create high replay value,” Vaughn says. “Some interpolations are treated more like remixes – that was cool, but on to the next.”

And while the artist and the label stand to benefit from a hit record that rockets up the charts thanks to a savvy interpolation, the songwriters’ income suffers. “Labels get paid well for streams; artists get paid for streams; the writer doesn’t get shit,” Hartman says. Interpolating means that songwriters have to split an already-reduced pie into smaller pieces, because the creators of the original record also get a cut. As a result, he tries to avoid writing over sampled tracks.

But others are less cautious. “You should never be worried about [using an interpolation],” the Futuristics’ Alex Schwartz insists. “It’s better to have a little bit of a hit record then no record.” “If an interpolation is going to make the record special,” Khajadourian says, “it has to stay in.”

At the moment, more writers seem to share Khajadourian’s opinion than Hartman’s, so pop’s current interpolation fad will likely continue. “It’s just the changing nature of creativity – less people are playing instruments, they’re more accustomed to hearing sample flips,” Vaughn says. “It’s something we’ll be seeing more and more of,” Hartman concedes. “People are scouring for old melodies and ways of flipping them – ’cause it works.”


Nielsen Music’s Mid-Year 2018 Charts: U.S. Vinyl Album Sales Grow 19%, Led by Jack White

July 12, 2018

by Keith Caulfield Billboard.com 07/06/18

In the first half of 2018, vinyl album sales grew 19.2 percent in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music — as compared to the first six months of 2017.
In total, for the tracking period of Dec. 29, 2017 through June 28, 2018, there were 7.6 million vinyl albums sold; up from 6.4 million in the comparable frame a year ago (Dec. 30, 2016 through June 29, 2017).
Notably, the vinyl format’s 7.6 million albums sold in 2018, so far, represent 11.2 percent of all albums sold (68 million) and 18.7 percent of all physical albums sold (CD, vinyl, cassette, etc.; 40.6 million).
In the full year of 2017, vinyl album sales hit another Nielsen Music-era record high, as the format sold 14.32 million copies (up 9 percent compared to 2016’s then-record haul of 13.1 million). 2017 marked the 12th straight year of growth for vinyl album sales. (Nielsen Music began tracking sales in 1991.)
Vinyl sales in 2018 have also been aided by the usual surge of sales generated by the annual Record Store Day festivities. The 11th annual indie music store holiday, staged on April 21, helped yield a whopping 733,000 vinyl albums sold in the week ending April 26 — a record for Record Store Day week, and the third-largest weekly sum for vinyl albums since Nielsen Music began tracking sales in 1991.

2018’s Mid-Year Top 10 Selling Vinyl Albums
1. Jack White, Boarding House Reach (37,000)
2. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN. (30,000)
3. Soundtrack, Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 (28,000)
4. Michael Jackson, Thriller (28,000)
5. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (28,000)
6. Panic! at the Disco, Pray for the Wicked (26,000)
7. Justin Timberlake, Man of the Woods (26,000)
8. Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain (Soundtrack) (25,000)
9. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (25,000)
10. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (23,000)

Source: Nielsen Music, for the tracking period of Dec. 29, 2017 – June 28, 2018.

Hip-Hop + R&B Account for 1 Out of Every 3 Music Streams In America

July 12, 2018

Paul Resnikoff/Digitialmusicnews.com/07/09/18

Rap, hip-hop, and R&B account for more than one-third of all music streaming this year, according to Nielsen Music. But rock n’ roll isn’t nearly as dead as you think.
If you’re wondering why Spotify so quickly retired its ‘Hate Conduct Policy,’ here’s your answer. That’s right, the data on rap is overwhelmingly strong, which means Spotify’s moral crusade would have been a costly one.
According to data shared with Digital Music News by Nielsen Music this morning, more than one-third of all music streaming comes from the uber-genre of rap, hip-hop, and r&b. More specifically, 36.4% of all on-demand music streams counted by Nielsen came from the ‘Hip-Hop/R&B’ genre, which also encompasses Rap as a sub-genre.
Even more astounding: 37.5% of all audio-only on-demand streams come from the genre, particularly on Spotify and Apple Music.
But even YouTube’s music streams are dominating by hip-hop n’ r&b. According to the Nielsen dataset, 34.2% of all on-demand video streams come from the genre.
Amazingly, R&B/Hip-Hop accounts for 12.2% of physical albums, and 31.2% of all music sales in the US.

Here’s a quick genre breakdown for the first half of 2018 — for all formats.
As you can see, good ol’ rock n’ roll is still holding its own. Pop and Latin are also trending well across on-demand streaming platforms, though EDM is decidedly fringe.
For the classical and jazz aficionados, it looks like more people listen to Migos than Mozart or Miles Davis. But the finer genres are still on the charts, and may always remain solid niches.



We don’t have a similar dataset for internet radio, technically referred to as ‘non-interactive digital streaming’ (sexy name).
But Nielsen did note that non-interactive platforms like Pandora were dominated by artists like Drake, Post Malone, Cardi B, and Khalid. In fact, the two most-played songs during the first half of 2018 were Drake’s ‘God’s Plan’ and Post Malone’s ‘Psycho,’ with Bazzi’s ‘Mine’ coming in 3rd.
Of course, one can correctly quibble that Bazzi is categorized as Pop. But a quick listen to the beat of ‘Mine’ blurs that definition a bit in the direction of hip-hop. Woe is she who attempts to silo genres.

Of course, one can correctly quibble that Bazzi is categorized as Pop.  But a quick listen to the beat of ‘Mine’ blurs that definition a bit in the direction of hip-hop.  Woe is she who attempts to silo genres.

Swing over the top 10 songs list happening across on-demand streams, and the story shifts a bit.

Taking a step back, overall on-demand streaming boomed 43.6% during the first half of 2018.
That is, to a very powerful 403.4 billion streams. Of that, audio-only streaming on platforms like Apple Music and Spotify boomed 45.4% to 268.2 billion streams. Video on-demand streams jumped 34.7% of 135.2 billion streams, which is roughly half of audio-only plays.
That last statistic will be a very interesting one to watch, especially as the music industry kvetches over YouTube’s outsized influence on streaming valuation. Perhaps a greater shift towards audio-only on-demand streaming will shift the negotiating table a bit, though Google’s recent victory over Article 13 means that YouTube’s user-generated loophole will continue indefinitely.
It should also be noted that these YouTube figures may be seriously underrepresented. Separate data shows an eclipsing YouTube total, with the video hub often regarded as the biggest music listening platform in the world.
Outside of vinyl, pretty much every other ‘traditional format’ is plunging.
That includes paid song downloads, which tanked 27.4% to 223.1 million units. That suggests a serious plunge towards zero, with platforms like Apple’s iTunes becoming irrelevant next to streaming.
Digital album downloads were in the same leaky boat, with a 21.7% drop to 27.5 million.
On the physical side, vinyl LPs bumped another 19.2% in the US, according to the stats. In total, Nielsen counted 7.6 million LPs sold during the first half, with Record Store Day undoubtedly playing a critical role in that bump. Also getting kudos is Jack White, who has now emerged as vinyl’s most charismatic spokesman.
Appropriately, White’s Boarding House Reach topped the US-based LP chart for the first half, with 37,000 units.
Actually, the whole ‘rock is dead’ mantra took another twist in 2018. Expectedly, the format totally over-performed in categories like physical albums and paid album downloads.

The End of Owning Music: How CDs and Downloads Died

June 18, 2018

Physical formats are cratering, but vinyl’s niche is growing. Jack White and other experts explain the future of listening.

“I definitely believe the next decade is going to be streaming plus vinyl,” says Jack White. “Streaming in the car and kitchen, vinyl in the living room and the den. Those will be the two formats. And I feel really good about that.” Credit: R. MACKAY/Shutterstock

If you visited Austin’s Waterloo Records recently, you might have noticed a construction project that was unthinkable not so long ago: The 36-year-old Austin music staple was replacing 24 feet of CD racks with space for more vinyl. “After 30 years of CDs, a lot of people are moving on from that format,” says Waterloo owner John Kunz. “Whether they’re going back to vinyl, or streaming, people are selling off those CDs.”

As streaming gives the music industry its biggest profits in a decade, the CD business continues to plunge. CD sales have fallen 80 percent in the past decade, from roughly 450 million to 89 million. Since Tesla began manufacturing cars without CD players, other companies like Ford and Toyota have recently followed. Downloads – once seen as the CD’s replacement – have plummeted 58 percent since peaking in 2012, their profits now even smaller than physical sales. Artists have taken note; Bruce Springsteen released his latest box set, The Album Collection Vol. 2, 1987-1996, exclusively on vinyl, with no CD option, unlike 2014’s Vol. 1. “It’s a streaming world and a vinyl world with a quickly diminishing CD,” says Daniel Glass, president of Glassnote Records, indie-label home of Mumford & Sons and Phoenix.

Jack White, arguably the most visible vinyl advocate in recent years, agrees: “I definitely believe the next decade is going to be streaming plus vinyl – streaming in the car and kitchen, vinyl in the living room and the den. Those will be the two formats. And I feel really good about that.”

Who’s still buying CDs? “The Walmart customer,” says Glass, adding that sales are still strong in “country, greatest-hits, soundtracks and baby records.” In the country world, Chris Stapleton’s second LP sold an impressive 373,000 physical releases last year. CDs are also doing fine in some international markets – in Japan, where streaming has been slow to take off, 72 percent of last year’s music sales were physical.

Introduced in the early Eighties, the CD prompted massive record-business expansion over 20 years—and was surprisingly resilient even after Napster and online piracy, then the iTunes Store, threatened to destroy the format. As for modern-day CD enthusiasts, Glass points to older listeners who still prefer loading CD carousels rather than configuring Spotify or Pandora on car stereos or home-theater systems. And touring bands still find it far easier to sell a portable CD as a concert memento than an LP or portable hard drive. “Is it imperative to have a CD?” asks Dan Baker, marketing director for Disc Makers. “If you’re an independent artist, it kind of is.” Baker adds noting his average orders have shrunk over the last 10 years from 1,000 CDs to 300. A bulk order of 1,000 CDs costs about $1,000, while 200 vinyl LPs cost about $1,800. “Vinyl is expensive,” says Kevin Breuner, marketing vice president for CD Baby, which helps artists sell and stream music independently.

Still, artists, labels and record stores have been preparing for years for the CD’s inevitable death. Sony closed a key CD plant in 2011 and laid off 380 workers from another, in Terre Haute, Indiana, earlier this year; meanwhile, as vinyl sales have increased from less than a million in 2007 to more than 14 million last year, new LP plants have popped up all over the place. “It’s just the way technology is going these days,” says Sharon Agnello, manager of Son Volt, which released 2005’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot on vinyl for the first time on Record Store Day (minus CD or download formats, but those will arrive later). “They’re not making it easy for people to listen to CDs.”

When vinyl sales started to climb in 2006, some experts saw it as a fad. No longer: Those sales hit a 25-year high last year, and labels are investing in more sophisticated packaging than ever, such as Concord’s Concert for George, which was just released for the first time on vinyl, featuring Jeff Lynne-approved lacquers. Rhino put out a five-LP 1969 Grateful Dead Fillmore Westset, which sold out instantly. White’s label, Third Man, recently opened its own pressing plant in Detroit with the first newly built vinyl presses in 35 years. “It’s really important for preservation of not just historical music but new music coming out right now,” says White. “Vinyl is written in stone. I think if it’s made it for 120 years now, it’s here forever. That’s a beautiful thing to think about.”


‘There is a grim determination required to make it in the music business

June 5, 2018

Dave Roberts musicbusinessworldwide.com  6/3/18

Jimmy Webb will always be grateful to Glen Campbell. Not just because the late great singer and guitarist recorded the definitive versions of his best songs, but because he is the reason Webb writes songs in the first place. He was, quite literally, the answer to his prayers.

Webb started writing for Campbell before the Wrecking Crew lynchpin and country crossover legend had any idea who he was. Before, in fact, pretty much anyone other than family and friends knew who he was – before he owned a record, let alone had a credit on one.

Their relationship began (unbeknownst to Campbell) when a teenage Webb heard a record on the radio as he was driving a tractor on the family farm in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

“It sounds like a bit of an Arthurian myth”, Webb concedes, “but that was the record that really turned me on to music; it was called Turn Around, Look at Me. I remember going to my father, wheedling a dollar and the car keys out of him and driving 22 miles to go buy it; the first record I ever bought.

“I think, subconsciously at least, I started writing songs for Glenn Campbell from that moment on. I got down on my knees and prayed, Please God let me write a song half as good as Turn Around, Look at Me – and sure enough I wrote 150 of them half as good as that.”

He wrote some, of course, that were rather better: tracks such as Galveston, By The Time I Get To Phoenix and Wichita Lineman which, decades later, are hailed as masterpieces of their craft, given extra warmth and depth by the honeyed country tones of the gift from God that was Campbell himself.

After that moment of epiphany on the tractor, what sort of impact did music go on to have on you and when did you become aware of the fact that there were these people called songwriters?

By the time I was 12 I knew there were guys who wrote the song and I knew you could find their names in parentheses under the artist. I also knew there were things called follow-ups and I was listening to these follow-ups thinking, Well, I could do that, and nearly as good.

My first exercise in song writing was writing follow-ups, which of course no one ever heard, and then comparing them with the actual follow-ups that came on the radio. I was competitive and I never thought some sort of arcane, magical knowledge was needed, this was something anybody could do.

How come you could do it? How did you learn or teach yourself to write songs?

My mother put me on the piano bench when I was six years old, I took lessons, and by the time I was 12 I was church pianist. I used to go on the road with my father, on evangelical missions.

He was a fire and brimstone Southern minister. He was very proud of me because it was like having dog who could do a few pretty good tricks. I had a flair for hymns, I could arrange them. I always played more by ear than by notes, even though I know all the mechanics of music, primarily I use my ear.

Did you initially want to be a performer?

I don’t know, I think maybe I vaguely knew I wasn’t destined for that, because it turns out I really wasn’t. I can honestly say that, for better or for worse, I was a pure songwriter. I came on the scene when people like Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, they were being recognised as songwriters as much as anything, and I was on the cusp of that whole singer/songwriter phenomenon.

How did you get your break in the business?

Well first let me say that I had a lot of songs. Before there was a chance of them being recorded, or heard, or there was any sign of any sort of deal, I had a lot of songs. I wrote all the time. Young songwriters ask me, How do I become a songwriter? I say, Write songs! [laughs]. They think I’m pulling their leg, but you can’t come in with one song, you’ve got to write and write and write.

You know one of the skills you need to learn first? Wadding up a ball of paper and hitting the wastebasket on the first toss. Leave it behind, write more, keep writing, walk into a publisher’s office with 20 songs after you’ve discarded many more that weren’t good enough. And don’t give up on 20, because what if the 21st is the classic? You can complain about the business isn’t fair, sure, but what you should definitely do is concentrate on the one thing that’s in your control, and that’s writing songs.

For me, I think the first thing I did towards actually getting a deal was to commit; to absolutely burn my bridges and say, No, I’m not taking a 9-5 job. If I have to live rough, which I did for a while in LA, then I’ll live rough. But I’m going go to as many publishers and as many record companies as I can, I’m going to get to know as many people as I can, and somehow I’m going to weasel my way in.

There is a grim determination required.

How did your family react to you leaving home and heading to LA with no real prospects?

My father was worried to death. He was in the process of moving from California back to Oklahoma, following the untimely death of my mother, which was a tragedy that affected us so dramatically.

He couldn’t even stay in California, because that’s where it happened. He retreated, and I was going forward. I was one hour from Hollywood, and I knew that Glen Campbell was in Hollywood. If I could get to Hollywood then maybe I could get to Glen. So I said, Dad, I love you, but I can’t go with you. I never saw him shed many tears, this was a US marine and a formidable character, but he shed some that day, and then he dug down in his pocket, pulled out $40 dollars and said, This is all I got son. He gave it to me and he turned around and walked away.

And after a tough start, when and how did things start to happen for you?

I had a little bit of success, I had a couple of tracks recorded by The Everly Brothers, and then one day I wondered into Jobete, which was Motown’s publishing arm, and I think I surprised them and they surprised me. I was the only white kid in the building, but they heard a couple of songs, they liked them and they signed me. I got a cut on The Supremes Christmas album, I made a few dollars, but then my boss at Motown was fired and, as it goes sometimes, that means I was let go as well. I had a few very, very rugged months after that.

I got work at a small studio down on Melrose and Gower, just below Sunset Boulevard. I was janitor and jack-of-all-trades. I remember one day, Rod McKuen came down from San Francisco. He did 53 songs in one day. 53. And I played the piano on all 53 of them. We finished around midnight, they gave me $50 and then after they all left I had to sweep out the studio and lock up.

When did things pick up again for you?

Well, Johnny Rivers came by, and he was the number one male vocalist in America at the time. I played half a dozen songs for him and he wanted to sign me to his publishing company, Johnny Rivers Music, which I did, and the first job he gave me was to take care of a group called The 5th Dimension, as a sort of musical director.

I played the piano for them, rehearsed them, helped them come up with parts for their record and, somewhere along the way, I sneaked one of my songs on there. It was an oddball cut called Up Up and Away that sounded like nothing on the album, but after two singles the album was still floundering and someone said, Why don’t we put out Jimmy’s song? There was kind of gasp in the room: Jimmy’s song?! But they put it out and it took off like a rocket [top 10 in the US in 1967].

At the same time, Johnny [Rivers], had got me a record with Glen Campbell, who I still did not know, but Johnny got me the cut and Glen’s track was in the charts at the same time.

Johnny had called and said I think I’ve got a track on my album for Glen. They had worked together on a record for Mercury in about 1960 called The Long Black Veil, and Johnny had always followed his career and he figured By The Time I Get To Phoenix would bust him wide open.

What are your memories of Glen?

Glen was one of the nice guys. He was easy going and, I think, often underestimated because of that. He was an amazing virtuoso; he played on You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, he devised the intro to Along Comes Mary, he played on a lot of the Pet Sounds album.

Glen was at the heart of popular music long before he was a star. When you hired him for a session, you didn’t just get a guitar player, you got an arranger and a producer.

In those days, a session would start with just a piece of paper with three chords on it and someone singing a little melody, and then it was up the band to come up with the record. That happened every day to those guys because a lot of people didn’t know what they were doing. People were paying double scale for these guys and they were notorious.

They were guns for hire and they were called The Wrecking Crew, because they ripped right through everything you put in front of them, whatever the task was. They were pros and he was the pro’s pro. There’s no end to my praise for Glen. We were lifelong friends, it was a 50 year deal.

His voice was perfect. He had a five octave range and there wasn’t a flaw in his voice, there was no real crossover where you went, Oop, now he’s in his falsetto.

That meant I could write quite rangy things. He and I had a top 10 country record with a song called Still Within The Sound of My Voice, which is basically un-singable. It certainly wasn’t for the weak of heart. I get chills thinking about him singing it, it was awesome to behold. I would think, There’s a note coming up that I don’t know anyone can get – and he would go right through it, completely perfect.

I sometimes think he would be lionised more if he would have scrunched up his face a bit more and done a little more acting, but the truth is, it wasn’t that difficult for him.

After Phoenix, did you start writing specifically for him?

I think the way to look at is: I was influenced by him from such an early age that this had been fermenting for years, so by the time I met him I had a lot of songs that were almost custom made for him.

Tell us about writing Wichita Lineman?

I wrote it in Camino Palmero in Hollywood, on a trashy old grand piano that had accidentally got painted green one night, because I was living in a commune and that’s how things were [laughs]. The concept came from my childhood, the panhandle of Oklahoma, the flat country and the telephone poles. I tend to think cinematically and maybe that’s why I’m sometimes able to evoke a sense of place.

Did you know it was something special when you finished writing it?

Honestly, I didn’t. When I sent it over to Glen I didn’t even think it was finished. I put a little note in saying it probably needs a third verse, this song’s not finished, exclamation point, maybe a little smiley face. I did it all in one afternoon, three or four hours.

Anyway, I thought I’d hear something in a couple of days, but no, nothing, so I figured maybe they didn’t like it that much, because I didn’t know if it was that substantial – it only has about 14 words in the whole song.

A couple of weeks later I ran into Glen in a studio, we both just happened to be there, and I said, Oh, I never heard from you on Wichita Lineman, I know it’s not finished, but… And Glen said, Wichita Lineman? We cut that! I said, But that wasn’t finished Glen. He said, It is now!

Who else did you really enjoy hear singing your songs?

Well, it was certainly wonderful to work with Mr Sinatra, whom I had a warm friendship with. I remember the first time I heard Mr Sinatra sing Didn’t We, I was driving my car and I nearly swerved off the road. It was like, Now you’re part of history.

What was your relationship with him?

I got to know him pretty well. He would summon me sometimes to Caesars Palace, I would go to see him Vegas quite a lot. I remember one night he took my father and I to dinner at the Jockey Club and it sort of made my father’s life.

They had this long conversation about the second world war, about Glen Miller, about Tommy Dorsey, the Jimmie Lunceford band, who were basically the punk rockers of that era, and how ugly the Andrews Sisters were. After a while, I said, You know what guys, I’ll catch up with you later. My father felt like a made guy.

Sinatra had an amazing aura; you would look at him, you would blink, and then amazingly he was still there. Wow, okay, what do I say now?

At the same time as you were writing some of the classic songs of that time, you also moved into a career as a performer. What compelled you to do that and how do you look back on that aspect of your career?

I think it was something that I had to do; I had to give it a shot. The cross of my life has actually been my career as a singer. I made an album for every label that Time Warner owns, starting with Reprise, which of course was Mr Sinatra’s own boutique label.

Then I made a record for Warner Bros, I made a record for Asylum and I made a record for Atlantic. And some of them were pretty good, the critics always liked me, but I could never move records. I have a wonderful cult following, a group of fans who will follow me to the North Pole to see me, and I’m very grateful for that friendship, which is what I call it, a friendship.

Have you always written alone or have you ever tried collaborating?

I have, but it’s not my cup of tea, because honestly, I’m not very good at it. I can hardly stand being in a room by myself, put another person in there and I really am uncomfortable. To me it’s a very intimate thing, this confrontation with my most dreaded fears and to make these very personal admissions and confessions.

Who are your favourite songwriters of all time?

Oh, I guess I’d have to start with Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Bacharach and David, Lennon and McCartney, Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, Joni Mitchell… I like to hear songs that are purposeful, that have a message to them, because I think a lot of popular music today is not that inspirational.

Do you think that if you were a young songwriter coming through today you’d be writing about what’s going on in America right now?

I do, and I am; I’m writing about veterans and about a national sense of what’s right and wrong. We’re at a critical place here in America and there needs to be some real soul searching. I think we’re getting into a situation where the will of the people is being ignored and a few very rich people are trying to seize a lot of power. It’s corrupt and undemocratic, only this time it’s not Venezuela or Columbia, it’s us.

What do you feel about the way streaming services reward and recognise songwriters?

I think it’s pathetic and I think it shows nothing but contempt, for art and for the creative process. I think it’s a method for erasing human beings from the equation, it just becomes a brand, it becomes a product.

The individual artist, the wood carver, the stonemason, he’s phased out. It’s a reflection of what’s going on in the world around us and it’s time for a great outcry, to say, No, we want our humanism, we want that to live on.

I hate to come back to such a well-worn thing, but I think the basis of all this, this business, is the song, and to ignore us, to pretend that we don’t exist, is not a successful or healthy strategy.

How the Music Industry Messed Up Legal Streaming the First Time Around

May 29, 2018

Lessons from the music industry’s initial consumer-hostile reaction to the Napster saga. Going from $16 CDs to unlimited streaming is really hard.

Ernie Smith motherboard.vice.com 5/16/18

It wasn’t always this way, but life is pretty good for the music industry these days on the streaming front.

The industry, for the first time in more than two decades, is seeing significant growth, largely off the back of streaming technology such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora.
Good for them—and possibly also for consumers. But it’s not hard to forget that the music industry, caught off-guard by new technology in the late 1990s, tried to force the issue of getting paid through the launch of forgotten services like MusicNet and PressPlay—and despite the similarities to the way we stream music now, it got burned, badly.

Perhaps that was a foregone conclusion, but the response to Napster is still very much worth analyzing. Why did a very similar spin on today’s streaming services crash and burn, anyway?.

The year that CNN first reported on the existence of the Internet Underground Music Archive, one of the first services that existed for distributing online music. The service, essentially the SoundCloud or BandCamp of its day, allowed independent artists to distribute their music over digital means. IUMA was a hugely influential idea, but struggled as a standalone company, eventually falling by the wayside around 2001 after a failed acquisition by the similarly noble digital music company eMusic. The service’s music was brought back to life via the Internet Archive.

Why Primitive Radio Gods is the perfect band to explain the Napster-induced downfall of the physical music industry

Before the music industry failed to rebuild the digital music industry in its own likeness, it pulled a fast one on bands like Primitive Radio Gods.

You probably don’t remember the band, but you most certainly remember the song—if not its title, “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand,” which, let’s face it, is a title only Fiona Apple could love.

Popular in the summer of 1996, the song, best known for its inclusion on The Cable Guy soundtrack, represents a low point of a trend that came to define the music industry in the pre-Napster era. It was a good song, to be completely fair to its creator, Chris O’Connor, and the tune drew the attention of Columbia Records thanks in no small part to its use of atmosphere and a particularly effective B.B. King sample.

The problem was, the rest of the album was effectively old demos produced on the cheap and rushed to release by Columbia before O’Connor had a chance to properly record them in a studio. And this fact was obvious to reviewers.

Allmusic reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine described the album as such: “At its core, Rocket sounds like a demo tape with one promising song.”

(Their second album, for what it’s worth, got better reviews.)

To be fair, the album was more symptom than diagnosis. The real problem was that Columbia would not sell “Broken Phone Booth,” a top-10 hit on the Hot 100 Airplay charts, as a standalone single. Because of how the label made its money on rock music at the time, they needed an album—and rather than buying time for Primitive Radio Gods to record one, like a buzzy single might allow for nowadays, the song required the band to immediately release whatever they had lying around.

This was a great way to make money— Rocket, which cost $1,000 to record, went gold—but a horrible way to treat customers. When you’re a teenager, stuck paying $16 for an album featuring one good song and nine demos, something like Napster seems hugely appealing.

Primitive Radio Gods were far from the only band to momentarily glimmer based on the kind of bad music-industry calculus famed producer Steve Albini, best known for his work with Nirvana, could see from a dozen miles away, but their trajectory highlights nearly all of its downsides. The band didn’t even get a chance to release a legitimate album on a major label, because their label shut down!

If you’re an “old millennial” music fan, you know what happened next to the music industry: In 1999, programmer Shawn Fanning created Napster in his Massachusetts dorm room, his idea quickly swept the internet, free music was had by all, Sean Parker found his calling, people downloaded that one Primitive Radio Gods song they liked without the other nine demos, the band Dispatch became one of the first digital-only success stories, Metallica growled publicly, and the music industry sued the service into oblivion, all in the span of three industry-disrupting years.

By the time the original Napster was gone for good in mid-2002, lots of alternatives, like KaZaA and Gnutella, had appeared. But the music industry, being the music industry, wanted to protect the good old days—the days in which they could sell their $16 CDs—as much as possible.

Enter MusicNet and PressPlay.
“What we underestimated was that the pivot to digital would be a two-step pivot. First there would be downloads, then subscriptions. We’re clearly on the right side of history on this one.”

— Rich Glazer, the founder of RealNetworks, noting in a 2016 interview with VentureBeat how his company’s RealPlayer service, the basis of the MusicNet offering, was ahead of its time. The company, founded in 1994, played a key role in the launch of the music industry’s fledgling attempts to create a legal music service. RealNetworks is still an active company in 2018—that big settlement from Microsoft helped buoy them during the lean years, as did some more recent patent sales—though the company is a minor player compared to what it once was. The firm has found success in Asia in recent years, particularly China.

The music industry’s first attempts at legal digital music were confusing, user-hostile, and kind of sucked

In the roughly 24 months between the time Napster shut down its popular free service and Steve Jobs announced the iTunes Music Store to the public, the music industry tried to create legal replacements, but the lack of precedent was a problem. Nobody could figure out exactly what a legal digital music industry was supposed to look like, or how it was supposed to work.

All the music industry knew is that it wanted the golden goose to be secured from the arms of digital thieves, so the solutions they gravitated toward were instilled with digital rights management, which was starting to come into its own around this time, thanks to both the growing sophistication of the technology, which I wrote about last year, and the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which infamously made strides to prevent the technically inclined from attempting to legally break this technology.

“No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title,” Section 1201 of the U.S. Code states.

And with the appearance of Napster, the music industry suddenly had a reason to use these rules they pushed for. The problem? The music industry was stuck in a format war of sorts. With five major record labels at that time—it was six until 1999, when PolyGram merged with Universal Music Group—it was hard finding any common ground on a complicated issue like digital music. The short-term result of this discomfort was that the music industry effectively split the digital music industry in two.

On one corner was Universal Music and Sony Music, the two of which backed PressPlay, which was built with DRM technology from Microsoft’s Windows Media Player. In the other was MusicNet, which had three labels at play—Warner Bros., Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG), and EMI.—and the backing of RealNetworks, whose streaming technology came to define the early internet.
Their offerings were slightly different—for a $9.95-per-month fee MusicNet allowed for 100 temporary downloads and 100 on-demand streams at launch, according to Billboard, while Pressplay allowed for 300 streams and 30 downloads and offered limited CD-burning capabilities at higher price points—but the tissue tying the two approaches together was DRM.

It certainly wasn’t music, as the services made no effort to collaborate with one another. In the post-Napster era, the combination of limited libraries and competition from peer-to-peer file sharing services put the companies at a major disadvantage. As Billboard’s Brian Garrity put it:

The big concept of 2001 has been that in order to compete with file-sharing services that offer a virtually limitless universe of free content, music companies must curb pirate peer-to-peer networks in the courts while at the same time develop similar secure music services of their own. But their offerings have two main differences: Consumers pay to access content rather than receive it for free, and content is primarily rented to consumers instead of accessed on a buy-to-own basis.

Complicating factors significantly was the landscape of the technology that separated the two services. Microsoft and RealNetworks (which was founded by a Microsoft alum) had become major rivals on the streaming front, with the conflict playing out between the two not unlike Netscape and Internet Explorer, with Microsoft’s market power coloring the business conflict. (Microsoft’s Justice Department settlement loomed over the situation as well.) In 2003, this would lead to a lawsuit that RealNetworks would eventually score a $761 million settlement from.
The result of this conflict for the digital music industry was that the services weren’t compatible, effectively limiting the amount of music that was on each service—some major labels on one, some more major labels on the other. By the end, neither service had each of the major labels. The conflict between the two tech giants bled into the services they sold the music industry on.

“It’s a crying shame that the Microsoft-RealNetworks rift has spilled over to the major labels,” Jupiter Media Metrix analyst Aram Sinnreich told CNET in 2002. “The end result is that it will be a longer time before consumers will have access to a music-subscription service that offers them enough music.”

It’s not a dissimilar situation to the mishmash of availability we see with our streaming video services today, where pieces of content come and go like passing trains through the night, but in contrast to Napster or Audiogalaxy, it was a tough sell, especially given the artificial limitations the services imposed on users.

The music industry tried to strong-arm a replacement for Napster in the market, just as it strong-armed gold records out of artists who had a single and nine demos. And they were convinced that the strategy would work without any issues.

But the skepticism engendered toward both the music industry at large and DRM as a controversial new technology ensured its efforts immediately drew scrutiny. In August of 2001, just a few weeks after the free version of Napster was forced shut by court order, the US Justice Department opened up a fresh antitrust investigation into PressPlay and MusicNet.
The concern at the time was less that PressPlay and MusicNet were dominating the industry conversation without making room for third-party players. Sites that looked like potential competitors, like MP3.com and eMusic, had been recently snapped up by Universal Music and turned into affiliates of PressPlay, bastardizing the MP3-friendly approach the services originally took. (Both companies were later sold off: eMusic is active today; MP3.com is a content site that hasn’t been updated in about three years.)

Meanwhile, other firms with competing DRM technologies—like InterTrust, the company that held most of the important DRM patents and would soon win a big settlement of its own from Microsoft—were suddenly competing with the major labels, that wouldn’t even share with one another, let alone a third-party service.

It was clear to outsiders, and even some insiders, that what the music industry was trying to do wasn’t going to work. (It was also clear that it was costing the labels tens of millions of dollars they would never get back.) The technology was too restrictive, the approach too stacked in favor of the record industry. There was too much distrust and bad blood in the air after what happened with Napster.

Stephen Witt, in his 2015 book How Music Got Free, portrayed Universal Music’s then-CEO, Doug Morris, as being overly excited about PressPlay, to the point where Recording Industry Association of America President Hilary Rosen, frequently portrayed as an “enemy combatant” of the Napster era during this time, had a hard time talking him off the ledge. (Rosen, it should be said, was simply sharing the company line because it was her job.)
“On several occasions he told Rosen to stop talking to Napster, to stop negotiating with the Fannings, to stop worrying so much, because he had something that would ‘make it all go away,’” Witt wrote. “In later years, PressPlay would be a reliable starting point for listicles of the ‘Top All-Time Tech Busts.’”

Really, the only person who was able to talk the music industry off the edge was Steve Jobs.

In a 2011 article after Jobs’ passing, Warner Music’s then-VP, Paul Vidich, explained to Billboard that Jobs quickly cut through the music industry’s BS (“‘I don’t want to talk about what you guys are doing,’ he said. ‘You guys have always had your heads up your expletive-deleted,’” Vidich recalled of their first meeting) and came up with a solution that every label could agree to—a situation where the technology people were in charge of the technology and the record labels got out of the way.

“We did our deal, closed it in October 2002, they then pitched it to each of the other, who signed on and they launched it on April 28, 2003,” Vidich noted. “Within a month they sold a million downloads, which startled everybody.”

Soon enough, the Justice Department closed its investigation into PressPlay and MusicNet. It wasn’t necessary anymore.

The year that Napster relaunched as a pay service, effectively a rebranded version of the former PressPlay service. The company had been purchased by Roxio after its bankruptcy and had no connection to the original service. The Napster brand, which has existed for more than 15 years outside the purview of Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, is so strong today that in 2016, the music service Rhapsody rebranded itself as Napster.
So, it’s worth pondering: Why were MusicNet and PressPlay such bad ideas, and why, in contrast, is Spotify seen as a much better one?

Clearly, if you break it down, the approaches are similar minus the download limitations put on use of the older services—especially with the paid subscription model that’s common today.

But the key difference may be the intent of the offering. Spotify is clearly a service that was built for music listeners first and music labels second. This gave the company some headaches as those labels complained about things like mechanical reproduction, and it’s had to change up its approach a few times as a result, but the fact of the matter is, the service has always favored the listener over the label or the artist.

Certainly, the fact that our phones made the technology more portable played a factor as well.

But it’s worth suggesting that perhaps we, as consumers, changed, with some distance from Napster. We spent years in a content free-for-all, with little in the way of concern about who was going to get paid. Not because it was the right way—but because it was the path of least resistance.

In 2003, as he was announcing the iTunes Music Service, Jobs called subscriptions “the wrong path,” an avenue that became the path of most resistance.

“These services treat you like a criminal,” he said at the time.

As Apple Music came to life from the purchase of Beats and emerged as Spotify’s most robust competitor, the line was heavily scrutinized after the fact, but it’s possible that the wrong path became the right one for a single, simple reason.

We stopped treating music fans like criminals.

Steven Van Zandt’s New Rock-and-Roll High School

May 29, 2018

John Seabrook Newyorker.com 5/28/18

Steven Van Zandt’s New Rock-and-Roll High School

In his TeachRock program, Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video becomes a text about the slave trade.

Wearing his trademark silk head scarf, an exotic blend of Barbary pirate and Russian babushka, Steven Van Zandt was relaxing backstage at the PlayStation Theatre, in Times Square, recently, before a gig with his fourteen-piece band, the re-formed Disciples of Soul. Van Zandt, who is sixty-seven and is widely known as Little Steven (he goes by that name on his Sirius XM radio show), was limning his undistinguished career as a high-school student. “I was only interested in rock and roll and getting laid, probably in that order,” he said. Because neither was part of the curriculum at Middletown High School, in Middletown, New Jersey, he went on, “I had no interest in school whatsoever.”

He learned everything he needed to know from rock and roll, he said. His timing was impeccable. He was thirteen on February 9, 1964, when he saw the Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” “For those of us who were already the freaks and misfits and outcasts of the future, it was literally as shocking as a flying saucer landing in Central Park,” he said, in a voice full of awe and Jersey.

The Beatles engaged him as his teachers had not. “You’re responding emotionally to something,” he said. “Bits of information come through. So, suddenly, you find yourself learning about Eastern religion”—from the Beatles—“or about orchestration. Learning about literature from Bob Dylan. You didn’t get into it to learn things, but you learn things anyway.”

For the past decade, Van Zandt has been working on a way to re-create that dynamic, out-of-school learning experience inside classrooms, through his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. The foundation’s team, which includes two ethnomusicologists, has crafted more than a hundred and twenty lesson plans based on popular songs and videos. Van Zandt calls the program TeachRock. For example, he said, “The first Elvis hit single, ‘That’s All Right,’ came out the same year as Brown v. Board of Education. And it reflects what’s going on and provides a basic context.” All the music is licensed and the lesson plans are available to teachers for free online.

At each of the thirty dates on the current Disciples of Soul tour, Van Zandt has offered tickets to local teachers, provided they arrive early so that he and his foundation people can walk them through a few sample lessons. (All of the tour’s proceeds will go to the foundation.) More than a hundred teachers had come out to the PlayStation; Van Zandt greeted them in the theatre’s balcony.

He picked up a microphone and told the group that about ten years ago the National Association for Music Education “came to me and said that the No Child Left Behind legislation was really devastating art classes.”

The teachers nodded vigorously.

“And they said, ‘Can you go to Congress and give it a shot?’ ” Van Zandt, who organized the anti-apartheid album “Sun City,” in 1985, has retained his passion for activism.

“So I went, and I talked to Teddy Kennedy and Mitch McConnell”—scattered boos—“and I said, ‘Bit of an unintended consequence here. By the way, did you ever hear that every kid who takes music class does better in math and science?’ They apologized, but they said they weren’t going to fix it.”

He went on, “I came back to the teachers and said, ‘Let’s do music history! Let’s use music as common ground to establish communication between teachers and students and just make your job easier.’ ” Big applause. “Instead of telling the kid, ‘Take the iPod out of your ears,’ we ask them, ‘What are you listening to?’ ”

Later, backstage, Van Zandt said, “I call it ‘teaching in the present tense.’ We were told, ‘Learn this, you’re going to use this someday.’ That doesn’t work anymore. The kids are different. It’s a paradigm shift.”

He explained that his method doesn’t lean only on sixties rock. “Kanye, we trace him back, Jay-Z,” he said. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video is used to prompt discussion of the slave trade. He added, “The rock-era methodology had to do with politics and culture, which is hip-hop’s focus, to some extent, though not as much as maybe we would have liked.”

He concluded, “Teaching kids something they’re not interested in, it didn’t work back then, and it’s even worse now. We have an epidemic dropout rate.” He waggled his scarf. “Where are we going to be in twenty years? How are we going to get smarter looking at this Administration? You know, we’re just getting stupider.” ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the May 28, 2018, issue, with the headline “Let Them Eat Rock.”

The hitmakers: why music pluggers are thriving in the digital age

April 30, 2018

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney http://www.FT.com 4/27/18

The hitmakers: why music pluggers are thriving in the digital age

Business is brisk for the men and women who hustle for radio airtime
My parents are never able to understand what I do,” James Passmore of Plugged In PR says before attempting the same feat of explication for the FT.
We are in his company’s office in Soho, central London. The room contains two desks. The other is occupied by Mr Passmore’s colleague, Mikey Lloyd. There are gold and platinum discs on the wall, a stereo and a cheerful dog called Rocky, named after A$AP Rocky, a US rapper and one of Plugged In’s former clients.
Mr Passmore, 33, and Mr Lloyd, 31, are record pluggers. “We take an artist’s music to radio stations on behalf of record labels or management and try to convince them to support that artist,” Mr Passmore says. The ultimate aim is to get a song on to the roster of 30 to 40 songs that play throughout the day on national UK broadcasters, such as BBC Radio 1 or Capital FM.
“At the start of an artist’s career it can just be ‘spot plays’, which are like one-off plays on specialist DJ shows,” Mr Passmore explains. “But as you build an artist’s career it becomes more strategic. You’re building towards playlist support and playlist rotation increase, trying to get from a C-list song to an A-list.”
Plugging is still a vibrant niche for entrepreneurs, relatively unscathed by the upheaval that has affected the rest of the music industry. This pivotal role in popular music goes back to the early days of radio in the 1920s, when big bands were feted acts.
Today it is a key strand in the promotional tactics used by record labels to drive a hit song. Digital teams target social media and street teams pound the pavements. Online and print press offices deal with websites and publications. All plug acts in the wider sense. But in the music industry the term refers to those who lobby for radio and television airtime.
Plugged In, which Mr Passmore set up in 2007, focuses on UK national radio (regional radio has its own network of specialist pluggers). Clients range from indie band Haim to rap group Migos. Among its current campaigns is up-and-coming singer Alice Merton, who is trying to crack the UK market with her single “No Roots”. Today, Mr Passmore and Mr Lloyd are waiting to learn if she has been playlisted by Radio 1. It turns out she has, which almost automatically guarantees a chart placing: the station has an audience reach of nearly 10m.
Their office is within walking distance of most of the UK’s national radio broadcasters. The stations usually hold formal meetings for pluggers to pitch songs to the producers and music teams who decide the weekly playlist.
“There might be something poignant to tell them,” says Mr Passmore. “Or it could be they’ve never heard of that artist but he or she has just sold out a large venue in their home town.”
Pluggers can pitch one or more songs in their 10-minute slot, one eye on the clock, the other on the pitchees’ reaction. It sounds pretty brutal. “Yeah!” Mr Passmore and Mr Lloyd say in unison.
They estimate there are about 20 other independent UK plugging companies working on national radio, as well as in-house plugging teams at record labels. “There is plenty of work to go around,” Mr Passmore says. “We turn down more than we take on.”
He came to the industry through work experience at a regional radio plugging company while studying for a commercial music degree. Mr Lloyd has a background in regional radio.
Much of a plugger’s daily routine is spent at the computer. But the core activity of meeting radio stations and persuading them to play a song is a throwback to a world of face-to-face business dealings.
“You’re basically trying to gain the trust of producers, DJs and programme controllers at record stations, so that when you bring in a brand new artist they’re going to take notice of it,” Mr Passmore says.
James Curran is director of music for national broadcasters Magic and Absolute Radio and their stable of nine subsidiary stations. Together they have a reach of 8.6m listeners. Like Radio 1, Absolute has decided to play “No Roots”.
Mr Curran’s music team sees pluggers on Monday afternoons in 15-minute appointments. “The whole process is about instilling confidence in the music programmer that a song has legs,” he says. “We want to be confident there is a story behind it. What makes it stand out from the crowd?”
A short walk away, Mel Rudder is sitting at a table in a stylish Soho café with a laptop and empty cup of coffee. Formerly a plugger at Atlantic Records, a subsidiary of the major label Warner Music, she set up her own company, Three Thirty Music, in 2016.
Whereas Plugged In pays about £2,500 each month for its Soho address, Ms Rudder is a nomad: “My job’s not nine to five so I’ve got to find places as and where I can. Wherever’s good WiFi, I’m there.”
Specialising in hip-hop, R&B and reggae, she has almost 30 campaigns on the go. “I’m super busy, it’s ridiculous,” she says. She left Atlantic because she wanted to work outside its roster of performers, a decision spurred by urban music’s entrepreneurial culture: “In the genres in which I work, a lot of artists are going out on their own.”
Ms Rudder works across radio and television. Live sessions are organised for acts to play in person for radio producers and music teams, a calling card with a personal touch.
The biggest change to plugging this decade is the rise of streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. Last year songs were streamed 68.1bn times in the UK, representing more than half the consumption of all recorded music.
In the pre-streaming age, the plugger’s job was to create an appetite for a song before it arrived in shops. Now they operate in a climate of instant availability. Following US practice, the industry has agreed a common code whereby songs are promoted on a so-called “day-and-date” basis. “The day that you put the record out to media is the day that it should be available,” says Ms Rudder. “People now, as soon as they hear a record they want it straight away.”
Music is the most technologically disrupted of the creative industries. Record labels are no longer the only route to releasing music. Acts can promote themselves on social media and get songs on to SoundCloud and Spotify. But Ms Rudder believes the plugger’s role will remain vital.
“There are a lot of artists that can do certain bits by themselves. But for a proper radio campaign, pluggers are still very much relevant. It’s probably one of the most standard things that happens. I don’t think plugging will change.”
‘Payola’ and plugging in the 21st century
Streaming is the new frontier for music promotion. “There are a lot of radio pluggers who are going into streaming plugging as well,” Mel Rudder of Three Thirty Music says.
The goal is to get songs on the playlists used by the likes of Spotify to present new music to listeners. With many employees at streaming services having radio backgrounds, pluggers know who to approach.
But this is a murky area. “It’s because it’s so new,” Ms Rudder says. “There isn’t a full process of how things work at the moment.”
Plugged In PR’s James Passmore is dubious. “I’ve heard of companies that claim they have streaming plugging departments, but I’ve also heard that streaming plugging is not a service that Spotify will acknowledge exists.
“We saw it as an opportunity when streaming happened so we’ve maintained those relationships, but we’re not about to risk upsetting Spotify by charging for a service that doesn’t exist.”

“Payola” — the practice of pluggers paying for songs to be played on the radio — was banned in the UK after a scandal in the late 1950s.
Streaming services fall outside laws prohibiting it. Spotify took a lead by banning playlist payments in 2015, but there are whispers of its persistence elsewhere in the world of music promotion. Spotify declined to comment on its policy towards pluggers, nor the effectiveness of its ban.
“I’ve heard rumours from the US that there’s still a little bit going on,” Mr Passmore says. Plugging’s new frontier has something of the Wild West to it.

Last of the record men: Seymour Stein looks back on 50 years of Sire Records

April 24, 2018

By Mikael Wood LATimes.com 4/13/18

Seymour Stein tried to executive produce this article.

“Don’t put it like that,” the cofounder of Sire Records told me in his gruff New York accent on a recent afternoon.

“I’m talking too much. If this appears, I’ll kill you.”

Stein, 74, was sitting in a cushioned chair at his daughter Mandy’s spacious Spanish-style home in the Hollywood Hills. Grandfatherly in looks (if not in language), the veteran record executive — he prefers the term “record man,” for its artistic flavor — had agreed to discuss his long career, in which he’s helped launch artists such as Madonna and Talking Heads, shepherded wayward luminaries like Brian Wilson and served as the inspiration for at least one pop song: “Seymour Stein” by the Scottish indie group Belle and Sebastian, in which the singer blows his chance to impress the powerful tastemaker.

But the frank, unexpectedly intimate conversation came with repeated caveats — suggestions, he might call them — about how the interview should be presented so as to jibe with Stein’s public persona.

It was, of course, that flair for managing an image — for understanding, and controlling, how things look and sound — that made Stein one of the defining record men of our time, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who established his reputation by consistently selling listeners on the next idea of cool.

The Ramones, Soft Cell, Everything But the Girl, Ice-T — in the case of each of these diverse Sire acts, Stein knew what people wanted before they knew for themselves.

“Seymour goes with his gut,” said Clive Davis, a fellow music macher who’s known (and competed with) Stein since the late 1960s. “And he’s always been right there, sniffing out who’ll be stars in the many years to come.”

Now, after decades of looking ahead, Stein is turning his careful gaze behind him. On April 22, Sire will mark the label’s 50th anniversary with the release of a limited-edition box set featuring classic cuts by Madonna, Depeche Mode and the Smiths; Stein is scheduled to sign copies that afternoon at Amoeba Music in Hollywood as part of the shop’s festivities for Record Store Day.

Mandy Stein, a filmmaker who directed a 2009 movie about the New York punk club CBGB (where Stein first saw Talking Heads), is working on a documentary about her father. And Stein himself has almost completed a memoir due to be published next year.

“I’ve had a great life, and I’m still here — I’m still going,” he said, his arms folded across his barrel chest. “There have been a few strange incidents that happened. Nothing terrible.”
“I’ve had a great life,” Stein says, “and I’m still here — I’m still going.”

Born in Brooklyn, Stein entered the music business as a teenager when he convinced a couple of editors at Billboard to let him work on the magazine’s charts. He reveled in the data, in the way the numbers revealed patterns in popularity. But it wasn’t enough.

“I realized, What am I doing here? Everything is happening outside! Rock and roll was being born,” he said, and Stein wanted in.

Jobs followed with independent labels including King (known for records by James Brown) and Red Bird (the Shangri-Las) before Stein founded Sire in 1967 with Richard Gottehrer, who’d found success a few years before as one of the writers and producers behind the Angels’ No. 1 hit, “My Boyfriend’s Back.”

In its early days Sire licensed records by British and European rock acts for release in America; “Hocus Pocus,” by the Dutch group Focus, took off in 1973. But two years later, Stein caught a Ramones gig and signed the hugely influential New York punk band, which released its self-titled debut on Sire in 1976.

After that came a hot streak in which Stein seemed to predict where music was headed, from punk to new wave to synth-pop to metal. By the late ’80s, flush with cash from having sold Sire to Warner Bros., Stein was in a position to coax a comeback record out of the Beach Boys’ Wilson, who’d receded from music while under the questionable care of therapist Eugene Landy.

“It wasn’t easy, I’ll tell you,” Stein said of making the self-titled “Brian Wilson,” which came out to warm reviews in 1988. “I would have to say that [Landy] was the most evil person that I ever met.” He turned to Mandy, who was filming our talk. “Can I get sued for that?”

“No, he’s dead,” Mandy replied. (Landy died in 2006.)

Asked why he went through with the project given those challenges, Stein scoffed. “This guy’s a genius,” he said, referring to Wilson.

Sure, but even geniuses run out of steam.

“There are some people, less than a handful maybe, that are worth the effort even if you’re going to lose,” Stein said. “And I didn’t think I was going to lose. But even if I had, I think it would’ve been what they say in Jewish — a mitzvah [good deed] — to have done this.”

Pulling off feats like “Brian Wilson” — and continuing to make new stars out of Seal and k.d. lang — transformed Stein into something of a celebrity himself, one capable of creating a stir every time he entered a crowded club.

Deven Ivy, the singer of a young Sire band called Residual Kid, said he thinks of Stein as Mr. Big from “Wayne’s World” — a cigar-chomping cartoon of an industry titan played in that 1992 movie by Michael Jackson’s former manager, the late Frank Dileo.

Stein admits he enjoyed being photographed in glamorous locales with the famous artists on his roster, even if his constant work kept him from seeing his family. (Stein’s ex-wife was the Ramones’ co-manager, Linda Stein, who was murdered in 2007.)

“I did a terrible thing,” he said, describing how he sent a limousine to take Linda home from the hospital after she’d given birth to Mandy instead of driving her himself. Or was it Mandy’s sister? he wondered.

“How would I know?” Mandy asked.

“Your mother would’ve told you,” Stein replied. “She hated me!”

“She didn’t hate you,” Mandy said.

“I know she didn’t,” Stein said, suddenly tender. “And I didn’t hate her.”

At that, Mandy asked her father, “What do you think of being selfish?”

Stein thought for a few seconds. “It’s certainly not a positive, but I don’t think it’s as big a negative as people think,” he said. “I kind of did it for you guys, you know. I mean, I wanted to be successful.

“And look,” he added, gesturing toward the vaulted ceiling of Mandy’s living room. “This is not shabby.”

Today, larger-than-life record men like Stein and Davis have given way to lower-key executives better suited to the industry’s corporate structure.

“The thrilling years are gone,” Stein said. “There are people in the music business that are experts, but not experts in music.” According to Davis, technology is now where the excitement is. Yet Stein appears to care little about the latest evolution in streaming.

“Seymour’s not that worried about how people are going to listen to the music,” said Warner Bros. Records chief Cameron Strang. “He’s lived through many, many different formats and changes in the way music is distributed.” What still drives Stein, said Strang, is the search for great artists and great songs.

Indeed, though Sire is a smaller concern than it used to be, Stein hasn’t stopped signing fresh talent. Last year the label put out Residual Kid’s grungy but tuneful “Salsa” EP, and in March it released “Slowmotionary,” the striking solo debut by Ethan Gruska of L.A.’s Belle Brigade.

And then there’s his book, in which he can tell his story the way he sees fit. Not that he hasn’t had to compromise his vision a little.

Stein’s original title for the memoir was “Shellac in His Veins,” after a phrase King Records’ Syd Nathan once used to describe Stein. (Before vinyl came into use, records were made of shellac.) But for some reason, Stein said, his publisher didn’t go for it.

“We wound up calling it something I’ve come to terms with,” he said, without offering the new title. “These people, it’s a big firm.” He sighed. “I’m smart enough to defer sometimes. But I don’t think what we came up with is much better.

“But don’t print any of that. I don’t want to piss them off. They’ll throw everything in the garbage.”

How an Indie-Rock Star Is Made in 2018

February 19, 2018

By JOE COSCARELLI NYTimes.com 2/15/18

Last year, Lucy Dacus almost crumbled under the staggering load of anticipation.

A rising singer and songwriter with a new record deal and an intensifying air of next-big-thing-ness, Ms. Dacus was forced to weather real life — including health issues, mounting personal responsibilities and the ambient stress of political turmoil — while also focusing on what had all of a sudden become her job. In Nashville last March, she made her second album — the first with any expectations attached, the one that is supposed to change her life. Then she had to wait for it to come out.

During that uneasy downtime, Ms. Dacus thought a lot about what her emotionally raw and intimate new work might mean to people — the album, “Historian,” is out March 2 on the storied independent label Matador — and also about what it meant to make music her career.

At a time of immense technological and aesthetic change in the industry, Ms. Dacus, based in Richmond, Va., is a timeless model: a guitar-based, album-oriented songwriter with a big, unadulterated voice and tattooable lyrics. But as she prepared to take the ambitious jump from local band to national act, opener to headliner, amateur to professional, Ms. Dacus, 22, was grappling with what it’s like to be a winner of that lottery and a product of the hype machine that keeps modern indie rock humming.

“I never considered a career in music because it was too unattainable,” she said, just a few years removed from dropping out of film school and taking a seasonal job as a photo editor for yearbooks and class pictures. “I just didn’t believe it was possible.”

But her ascent, while unlikely, is also representative in this slice of the music world: Spurred by her emotionally astute songwriting, Ms. Dacus has seen her early course accelerated by grass roots and media support, and guided by shrewd business decisions, even as she has aimed to remain fully in charge of her art.

Ms. Dacus has been warned about the horrors of the music industry: “I’m actively, months in advance, trying to look out for myself and fight against whatever downward spiraling other people encounter.” Credit Rick Kern/WireImage, via Getty Images

In interviews spanning the last 11 months, beginning in the recording studio and ending on the edge of her album’s release, Ms. Dacus, a benevolent auteur-in-training, detailed the bizarre process of being deemed “up next” while trying to foreground what she called her “most precious thing — this music.”

“I feel so untrained and unprepared,” she said last month, “but it has been working.”

Building Buzz

Ms. Dacus’s first album, “No Burden,” was recorded in 20 hours for a school project. Her live guitarist and studio multi-instrumentalist, Jacob Blizard, was required to make something over a college winter break, and he enlisted his friends, including Ms. Dacus and the producer Collin Pastore. “I had not once sang with a band before recording,” Ms. Dacus said.

But she had quietly been writing songs for years and journaling since second grade, honing a preternaturally sharp voice on topics like gender, faith and creativity itself. On the album’s standout first song and single, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” Ms. Dacus sang with a wry wit about female archetypes: “Is there room in the band?/I don’t need to be the frontman/if not, then I’ll be the biggest fan.”

Tyler Williams, a Richmond musician, recalled being floored by his first listen. “This can’t possibly be made by a 20-year-old in Richmond,” he thought, and soon signed on as her manager, intent on finding a larger platform for “No Burden.” EggHunt, a tiny local label, agreed to back the LP, and a boutique public relations company in Brooklyn was hired for the campaign.

In November 2015, a few months before the album release, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” had its premiere on the website of the tastemaking magazine The Fader. That very day, Ms. Dacus was fielding interest from the major labels on down, along with publicists, booking agents and other background actors who make the business tick.

Mr. Williams, whose own group, the Head and the Heart, had signed to a major label, recognized what he called “the whirlwind of momentum picking up for a band, that hurricane of energy around an artist.”

Ms. Dacus, though, remained measured. Despite being wined and dined over the coming months — some labels would “make a point to say, ‘This is a very expensive restaurant,’” she said — Ms. Dacus ultimately went with Matador, a late entry in the sweepstakes, whose executives had approached after seeing her live, not online.

She also appreciated the label’s track record with longevity, citing career artists like Yo La Tengo who continue to make albums and tour long after any trendiness has worn off. Matador would go on to rerelease “No Burden” in September 2016, building on the buzz generated by Bandcamp streams and coverage from influential outlets like Pitchfork and NPR, as Ms. Dacus continued writing songs and making a name on the road.

As the pieces fell into place for a follow-up on a larger scale, all Ms. Dacus had to do was make it.

In the Studio

Last spring, the “No Burden” team reassembled. Ms. Dacus had first tried recording her fresh material with a new producer in Portland, Ore., but the sessions failed to jell. Soon after, at a Nashville studio known for Christian rock where the weekend rates were discounted, she was joined once again by Mr. Blizard and Mr. Pastore.

The rooms were stuffed with vintage equipment, and the rapport between the old friends was easy. Though Ms. Dacus referred obliquely to “sophomore album worries,” she had already meticulously arranged the music and planned a track list. As Mr. Blizard recorded guitar, Ms. Dacus exerted a firm but casual authority, taking suggestions and using “we” and “us” when referring to the process, but making every final decision — from the tone of a solo to the arrangement of a backup vocal — herself.

The compositions had grown more grand than those on “No Burden,” with space for horns and strings, but they hadn’t lost their sprawl or specificity. On the opening song, “Night Shift,” a nearly seven-minute slow-build about a necessary breakup, Ms. Dacus reached for the climax. “You got a 9 to 5 so I’ll take the night shift/and I’ll never see you again if I can help it,” she belted. “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/dedicated to new lovers.”

In down moments, Ms. Dacus, wrapped in a blanket, journaled or tended to the stack of books she was devouring, including Susan Sontag’s journals, short stories by James Baldwin and “Home” by Marilynne Robinson. She was also shopping online for a home in Richmond, a once-impossible idea made realistic by her budding career.

On its seventh day in the studio, the group ran out of finishing touches and gave itself a small round of applause. Ms. Dacus, as usual, seemed content and levelheaded, with a touch of concern. “I wonder if I will ever stop feeling wound up until this album comes out,” she said.

The Waiting

In between may have been the hardest part.

As Ms. Dacus’s album was mixed and mastered, and she fretted over cover art and the title (she considered “Penultimatum,” but wondered if it was too punny), she also emotionally prepared to have her puncturing, diaristic songs heard on a scale they never had been before.

“I think it’s good,” she said in June, “and I’m very intimidated by what it might mean to people and how my identity is going to be dispersed by it.” With the first LP, Ms. Dacus said, “We had no concept of it mattering.”

A band that comes out of nowhere is easy to root for; but, as a part of the industry, with levers being pulled on her behalf, Ms. Dacus had signed up for more scrutiny. She mused about the need to develop “a thicker skin while also remaining vulnerable.”

As someone who had long created with no expectation of an audience, the path to professionalizing was fraught. “Even people who have never been involved in the music industry are like, ‘Watch out, it’s going to change you — things are going to get weird,’” Ms. Dacus said. “That’s a well-documented fact about artists as their careers go on. I’m actively, months in advance, trying to look out for myself and fight against whatever downward spiraling other people encounter.”

Julien Baker, another Southern singer-songwriter who also signed to Matador after a small, much-adored debut, has developed a deep kinship with Ms. Dacus as the two walk similar paths. Ms. Baker wrote in an email that Ms. Dacus “understands being a deeply creative person and having to try to fit one’s relationship to their art into a schema of what it means to be a career musician.”

“Lucy is acutely aware of her position to the world and extremely compassionate, but has a deep strength and self-assuredness,” she added. “ Her confidence isn’t rooted in arrogance, it’s just rooted in the peace of self-knowledge.”

Still, there was room for doubts. “I’m, like, a kid,” Ms. Dacus said. “I might never be ready, but it’s going to happen.”

The Release

By January, with the album around the corner, Ms. Dacus had largely come to terms with the expectations that had grown around her. Though the sale was hectic, she’d settled into her new home in Richmond, putting down roots she hoped would ground her as her new life took off.

“I feel really lucky,” she said of the apparatus that was revving up to spread her work. “So few people get that, and that’s why this record is kind of intense.”

She had settled on the title “Historian,” from a poignant line on the album’s closing track: “I’ll be your historian/and you’ll be mine/And I’ll fill pages of scribbled ink/hoping the words carry meaning.”

The sentiment spoke to what Ms. Dacus considers her most important role as a writer, that of a collector and chronicler of her own life and the lives of the people she loves. Having sat with the finished album for months and having allowed it to settle, she described “Historian” as a song cycle about “living through loss and the inevitable darkness of life, and doing so hopefully and joyfully.”

From “Night Shift,” the breakup song, to “Pillar of Truth,” a devastating hymnal about the death of her grandmother, Ms. Dacus traced an arc of increasingly difficult grief that is processed and preserved in music, allowing her to ultimately choose optimism. “I am at peace with my death,” she sings on “Next of Kin.” “I can go back to bed.”

“There’s a lot of art that’s about loss and sadness,” Ms. Dacus said, “but I would love it if hopefulness were more of a cliché. That’s the work that always sticks with me and emboldens me in life.”

Having seized her opportunity for growth as an artist, she relished the thought of performing her new work far and wide, for audiences and also herself, for as long as she can.

“It’s important for me to write songs that feel good to sing every night and remind me of my core, truest beliefs,” she said. “If you can come out from under pain, why wouldn’t you? You definitely can. There’s no question.”