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

May 29, 2018

John Seabrook 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.”


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”

Spotify Is Growing, but So Are Its Losses

June 17, 2017

By BEN SISARIO 6/16/17

Is streaming music a good business?

Streaming has taken over as the dominant music format and is attributed with revitalizing the moribund business of record labels big and small. But for streaming companies, the answer is not as clear-cut.

Last week, Pandora, which has been bleeding money as it tries to adapt its business model to compete with Spotify and Apple Music, accepted a $480 million investment from SiriusXM, giving up 19 percent of its ownership and three board seats.

And on Thursday, Spotify released its annual report, which may be the last piece of financial data available to investors before the company formally moves to go public, expected this year or next.

On the surface, its results are impressive. Spotify, which is based in Sweden, had 2.9 billion euros (about $3.3 billion) in revenue in 2016, up 52 percent from the year before. On Thursday, Spotify also announced that it has 140 million regular users around the world, 50 million of whom pay for monthly subscription plans.

But its revenue growth has slowed — last year, revenue increased 78 percent from the year before — and its losses are mounting. In 2016, Spotify’s net loss totaled about $600 million, up from about $257 million the year before. The company attributed this increase to the costs of servicing its debt — it raised $1 billion last year in convertible debt — and to the effects of foreign exchange rates.

Since the company began, the costs of paying record labels and others for licensing rights has been by far its biggest expense, and the more its users click, the more Spotify must pay. According to a company statement, royalty and distribution costs equaled nearly 85 percent of its revenue. Add in nearly $900 million in salaries, marketing, product development and other costs, and, once again, expenses far exceeded revenues.

When will it be profitable? In its report, filed with European regulators, Spotify repeated a statement it has made numerous times over the years: “We believe our model supports profitability at scale.”

But it has never been clear what scale means. Since it began its service in 2008, and arrived in the United States in 2011, Spotify has grown extremely fast, becoming a household name among young people. It has even brought a once-reluctant Apple into the business of selling music subscriptions — Apple Music, introduced just two years ago, has become Spotify’s biggest competitor, with 27 million subscribers.

As recently as four years ago, Spotify was using 40 million paying users as a threshold number to demonstrate how much money it could contribute to the music economy once its business reached a certain size.

Now, with the company looking to go public, investors will be considering how that expanding girth can benefit Spotify itself.

As Spotify grows, economies of scale will help in areas like product development, said Mark Mulligan, a digital media analyst with Midia Research, and with more financial clout, particularly after going public, it could pursue more disruptive goals like signing artists directly. It is also pushing to improve margins, by renegotiating licensing deals with record labels.

Still, he added, streaming itself has not proved profitable for Spotify or any other service like it.

“Streaming is the content industry’s response to Napster,” Mr. Mulligan said. “We have not got highly viable user propositions, but have yet to develop commercial models.”

Spotify declined to comment on what “scale” means — the number of users, subscribers or revenues at which its losses will tip to profits. In its report, the company indicated that the most important kind of scale it is currently pursuing is signing up more users. It is now available in 60 territories around the world, including Japan, the world’s second-largest music market, which for years had remained stubbornly resistant to streaming.

“We believe we will generate substantial revenues as our reach expands and that, at scale, our margins will improve,” the company said. “We will therefore continue to invest relentlessly in our product and marketing initiatives to accelerate reach.”

U2 Producer’s Other Job: Selling CDs in Indonesia’s KFCs

April 4, 2017

By JON REGEN 4/03/17

Steve Lillywhite knows a thing or two about making music that sells. That six-time Grammy winning producer has worked on multiplatinum recordings with artists including U2, the Killers and the Rolling Stones.

Now Mr. Lillywhite is proving he knows how to sell music, too, although in a very unexpected way. He is the chief executive of Jagonya Music & Sport Indonesia, a company in Jakarta, Indonesia, that bundles recorded CDs with fast food at Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants throughout that country.

At a time when the United States music industry has seen physical CD sales in free-fall — according to the latest report from the Recording Industry Association of America, 99.4 million full-length discs were sold in the United States in 2016, the fewest since 1986 — Mr. Lillywhite’s company, a subsidiary of KFC in Indonesia, sells 500,000 CDs a month alongside menu items like the Chick ’N Fillet sandwich and the Colonel Yakiniku Rice box.

“My job is basically like running a record label, except this record label also happens to sell chicken,” said Mr. Lillywhite, 62, who acts as a curator, choosing the music that goes into the Indonesian KFCs. (At the moment, the songs come exclusively from Indonesian artists, though he hopes to expand.) “Record companies pitch artists to me and I’ll say either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Or I’ll approach an unsigned artist and say, ‘I will guarantee you a slot in KFC if you sign directly with us,’” he said in an interview at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan, while listening to a new U2 song he’s producing. The company orders CDs from a distributor and pays a percentage of the sales to KFC, as well as royalties to the artists.

Mr. Lillywhite’s journey from Englishman known for championing soaring choruses to creative guru of the Indonesian fried-chicken music market began six years ago, when he was asked to give a speech at a 2011 music festival in Singapore. He met some people who later invited him to produce music for the Indonesian band Noah. When he traveled to the band’s home to work on songs with them, “I immediately fell in love with the country,” he said.

“I loved the food, the people and the way they saw music as an experience. My synapses were overloading,” he added. “I imagined I would stay a year. I had nothing planned — I just thought I’d investigate the music.”

Mr. Lillywhite moved from Hollywood to Jakarta in 2014, and produced albums for artists like Iwan Fals, whose music he describes as “a mix of Springsteen and Dylan.” In March 2016, a mutual friend introduced him to Ricardo Gelael, director of PT Fast Food Indonesia, which owns 570 KFC outlets throughout Indonesia, as well as Jagonya Music & Sport, the company that places music in those restaurants. “He was looking to solidify and expand his company’s connection between CDs and chicken, as he realized he had become the new king of music distribution,” Mr. Lillywhite explained. When Mr. Gelael offered him a job to run and expand the company, Mr. Lillywhite immediately accepted.

“Steve has a proven track record in music as well as a love of Indonesia,” Mr. Gelael said in a text message. “So I thought he’d be the perfect person for the job.”

“CDs are still the No. 1 way to get music in Indonesia,” Mr. Lillywhite said, noting that a small percentage of the population has credit cards and internet connections are slow, hindering streaming. “In Indonesia, CDs are $4,” he continued. “And since nearly all of the record stores have closed down due to the cheap influx of pirated CDs, KFC is really the only place to buy them these days. People no longer go out to buy CDs on their own, but they do go out to buy chicken. And now buying a CD has become part of that experience. We even do concerts at KFC with some of our artists. So music and chicken have become intertwined.”

KFC has a more upscale reputation in Indonesia, where the flagship restaurants “are more like Hard Rock Cafes than fast food outlets,” Mr. Lillywhite said. Stores keep a display featuring 10 to 15 CDs on hand for browsing, and the cashier asks customers if they want a CD bundled with their meal. Mr. Lillywhite estimates that 98 percent of their music sales “are to people who go in to buy chicken but see the CDs and say, ‘Ooh, I’ll have a CD too!’”

When selecting music for KFC, Mr. Lillywhite draws on what he has learned “makes people’s emotions go wild.” He explained: “They love ballads, they love smooth jazz and they love to cry. I also always offer a kids’ album, as well as releases by big Indonesian artists like 19-year-old pop singer Rizky Fabian, the legendary rock band Slank and compilation albums too.”

He is considering a “duets” album pairing Indonesian and Western artists and a venture into streaming is also in the works. A smartphone app is starting this year.

Kasey Mathes of KFC public relations in Louisville, Ky., said that the company “doesn’t have any plans to bring this to the U.S. at this time.”

Whether or not this business model would work stateside is up for debate. “This is reminiscent of when quick service restaurants in the U.S. sold CDs of popular artists and compilations at a value price,” said Larry Katz, a music industry lawyer and the former senior vice president for business affairs at EMI Records, who once brokered a deal between EMI and McDonald’s that sold millions of CDs over a 30-day period in the mid-1990s. Considering the dominance of streaming in the United States, “Selling CDs at fast food restaurants here is likely a thing of the past,” he said, “but it’s not surprising that it still works in other areas of the world.”

John Burk, president of Concord Records — a company that experimented with placing CDs in Starbucks — said the concept “certainly has worked,” but also cited the rise of digital music as a deterrent now. “If you want to buy an album and put it on your phone, which is what most people want to do, it’s easier just to download it,” he said.

These days, while Mr. Lillywhite still takes the occasional trip to produce bands like U2, he is content in his new surroundings. “When I go into something, I go in feet first, with all my enthusiasm,” he said.

And what do the members of U2 think of his new venture?

“They think I’m barking mad,” he said. “Bono is obsessed with it. He’s always telling people: ‘Do you know what Lillywhite’s doing? He’s working for KFC!’”

Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé post top-grossing tours of 2016

January 2, 2017

Randy Lewis, 12/29/16

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band navigated “The River” 35th anniversary tour all the way to the bank in 2016, pulling in $268.3 million globally to score the top-grossing concert trek of the year worldwide, according to Pollstar, the concert industry-tracking publication.

Beyoncé nipped close at the E Streeters’ heels, grossing $256.4 million from her Formation world tour, followed by Coldplay ($241 million), Guns N’ Roses ($188.4 million) and Adele ($167.7 million) to round out Pollstar’s top five.

“In what has been a banner year for the concert business, the Top 10 Tours alone grossed a combined $1.67 billion,” Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni noted in a statement. “That is significantly better than the $1.5 billion in 2015.”

It is, in fact, an 11.3% increase.

Adele is one of just two performers to have emerged in the new millennium to make the Top 10, the other being Justin Bieber, whose tour grossed $163.3 million, placing him at No. 6 on the list.

That’s a bit of a come down from last year, when Taylor Swift had the top-grossing tour of 2015 worldwide and the Top 10 also include such relative newcomers as One Direction  and Ed Sheeran.

Following Bieber on the 2016 roster, Paul McCartney posted a worldwide gross of $110.6 million; Garth Brooks, $97 million; the Rolling Stones, $90.9 million; and Céline Dion, $85.5 million.

Coldplay, however, sold the most tickets, moving almost 2.7 million during the year, followed by Springsteen at 2.4 million and Beyoncé at 2.2 million.

Dion easily had the top average ticket price of $146.26, followed by McCartney at $127.43, the Stones at $122.33, Beyoncé at $114.59 and Springsteen at $111.48.

In terms of average gross per show, however, the Stones dwarfed the competition, taking in an staggering $9.1 million from just 14 performances in 10 cities. Beyoncé finished second with an average of nearly $5.6 million at 49 shows in 46 cities, then Coldplay at just under $5.5 million from 60 shows in 44 cities and Guns N’ Roses at almost $5.4 million from 44 shows in 35 cities.

Brooks can claim the most affordable tour among the Top 10 finishers, tickets averaging just $69.29 for the 102 performances he gave in 25 cities.

Pollstar is still finalizing figures for its annual ranking of the Top 200 tours globally and in North America; results will be posted in its Jan. 6 edition.

Bongiovanni noted that Beyoncé took top honors for the highest-grossing North American tour of 2016, but the figure for that portion of her world tour was not released.

Both Springsteen and Beyonce surpassed Swift’s field-leading gross of $250.1 million in 2015.

People May Be More Cooperative after Listening to Upbeat Music

September 7, 2016

Study subjects hearing songs like “Yellow Submarine” shared more than others hearing hard metalcore


By Kathryn Doyle

(Reuters Health) – The right mood music can influence how well people work together, a new management-oriented study suggests.

Many retail establishments carefully select the music they play in order to influence consumer behavior, such as encouraging shoppers to buy more, the authors write. But employees hear the same music and its effect on them hasn’t been studied.

“In our case, the new article focuses attention on the role of music in relation to management questions,” said lead author Kevin M. Kniffin of Cornell University in New York.

In the first of two studies, 78 participants were randomly divided into two groups: a “happy music” group that heard songs like “Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles and the theme from the television show “Happy Days,” and an “unhappy music” group that heard less familiar heavy metal songs like “Smokahontas” by Attack Attack!

The participants in each group used a computer application in which they played a sort of economics game with other unidentified participants in the same room, but players didn’t speak to one another.

In the application, each person was given 10 tokens corresponding to monetary value and was paired with two other people. Over 20 rounds of decision-making, each person was prompted to either keep their tokens or allocate them to a group pool which would be split among the participants at the end. Tokens in the group pool were valued 1.5 times as much as those held individually.

Consistently, people listening to happy music contributed more to the group pool.

In a second study, the researchers repeated the design with an added no-music group, and also measured participants’ moods.

Again, those hearing happy music contributed more to the group pool than those hearing unhappy music or no music at all. Unhappy music elicited a worse mood than both other conditions, and a happier mood was tied to more token contributions to the group, according to the results in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

“The bottom line is that emotions count,” said Neal M. Ashkanasy, professor of management at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who was not part of the new research.

People in a positive mood are more cooperative and more creative, while those in a negative mood tend to narrow in on solving individual problems rather than group problems, Ashkanasy told Reuters Health.

“Interestingly, we find that mood helps to explain some of the relationship – such that people’s moods get lifted by happy music – but we also find a statistically independent effect for happy music in relation to cooperation,” Kniffin told Reuters Health by email.

“Given that having a good rhythm is a definitional feature of happy music, our article suggests that people are partly motivated to cooperate when happy music is being played because of the rhythm’s tendency to get people into sync with each other,” he said.

Retail outlets already use things like music, lighting, paint color and even smell to influence customer behavior, in some cases encouraging lingering in the store and in other cases encouraging “churn” through the doors, Kniffin said.

“Our article calls on people to recognize that the atmospherics — including but not limited to music — that are designed to influence consumer behavior should be recognized for their potential importance in relation to — and potential conflict with — employee behavior,” he said.

“In terms of the potential for ‘bad music’ to adversely affect employees in the workplace, it is interesting that in the context of our lab experiments, at least, there was no harm done in relation to cooperative decision making when Screamo music was played when compared with no music,” Kniffin said.

Which Rock Star Will Historians of the Future Remember?

May 24, 2016

Chuck Klosterman 5/23/16

The most important musical form of the 20th century will
be nearly forgotten one day. People will probably learn
about the genre through one figure — so who might that be?
Classifying anyone as the “most successful” at anything tends to reflect more on the source than the subject. So keep that in mind when I make the following statement: John Philip Sousa is the most successful American musician of all time.

Marching music is a maddeningly durable genre, recognizable to pretty much everyone who has lived in the United States for any period. It works as a sonic shorthand for any filmmaker hoping to evoke the late 19th century and serves as the auditory backdrop for national holidays, the circus and college football. It’s not “popular” music, but it’s entrenched within the popular experience. It will be no less fashionable tomorrow than it is today.

And this entire musical idiom is now encapsulated in one person: John Philip Sousa. Even the most cursory two-sentence description of marching music inevitably cites him by name. I have no data on this, but I would assert that if we were to ask the entire population of the United States to name every composer of marching music they could think of, 98 percent of the populace would name either one person (Sousa) or no one at all. There’s just no separation between the awareness of this person and the awareness of this music, and it’s hard to believe that will ever change.

Now, the reason this happened — or at least the explanation we’ve decided to accept — is that Sousa was simply the best at this art. He composed 136 marches over a span of six decades and is regularly described as the most famous musician of his era. The story of his life and career has been shoehorned into the U.S. education curriculum at a fundamental level. (I first learned of Sousa in fourth grade, a year before we memorized the state capitals.) And this, it seems, is how mainstream musical memory works. As the timeline moves forward, tangential artists in any field fade from the collective radar, until only one person remains; the significance of that individual is then exaggerated, until the genre and the person become interchangeable. Sometimes this is easy to predict: I have zero doubt that the worldwide memory of Bob Marley will eventually have the same tenacity and familiarity as the worldwide memory of reggae itself.

But envisioning this process with rock music is harder. Almost anything can be labeled “rock”: Metallica, ABBA, Mannheim Steamroller, a haircut, a muffler. If you’re a successful tax lawyer who owns a hot tub, clients will refer to you as a “rock-star C.P.A.” when describing your business to less-hip neighbors. The defining music of the first half of the 20th century was jazz; the defining music of the second half of the 20th century was rock, but with an ideology and saturation far more pervasive. Only television surpasses its influence.

And pretty much from the moment it came into being, people who liked rock insisted it was dying. The critic Richard Meltzer supposedly claimed that rock was already dead in 1968. And he was wrong to the same degree that he was right. Meltzer’s wrongness is obvious and does not require explanation, unless you honestly think “Purple Rain” is awful. But his rightness is more complicated: Rock is dead, in the sense that its “aliveness” is a subjective assertion based on whatever criteria the listener happens to care about.

This is why the essential significance of rock remains a plausible thing to debate, as does the relative value of major figures within that system (the Doors, R.E.M., Radiohead). It still projects the illusion of a universe containing multitudes. But it won’t seem that way in 300 years.

The symbolic value of rock is conflict-based: It emerged as a byproduct of the post-World War II invention of the teenager, soundtracking a 25-year period when the gap between generations was utterly real and uncommonly vast. That dissonance gave rock music a distinctive, nonmusical importance for a long time. But that period is over. Rock — or at least the anthemic, metaphoric, Hard Rock Cafe version of big rock — has become more socially accessible but less socially essential, synchronously shackled by its own formal limitations. Its cultural recession is intertwined with its cultural absorption. As a result, what we’re left with is a youth-oriented music genre that a) isn’t symbolically important; b) lacks creative potential; and c) has no specific tie to young people. It has completed its historical trajectory. Which means, eventually, it will exist primarily as an academic pursuit. It will exist as something people have to be taught to feel and understand.

I imagine a college classroom in 300 years, in which a hip instructor is leading a tutorial filled with students. These students relate to rock music with no more fluency than they do the music of Mesopotamia: It’s a style they’ve learned to recognize, but just barely (and only because they’ve taken this specific class). Nobody in the room can name more than two rock songs, except the professor. He explains the sonic structure of rock, its origins, the way it served as cultural currency and how it shaped and defined three generations of a global superpower. He shows the class a photo, or perhaps a hologram, of an artist who has been intentionally selected to epitomize the entire concept. For these future students, that singular image defines what rock was.

So what’s the image?

Certainly, there’s one response to this hypothetical that feels immediate and sensible: the Beatles. All logic points to their dominance. They were the most popular band in the world during the period they were active and are only slightly less popular now, five decades later. The Beatles defined the concept of what a “rock group” was supposed to be, and all subsequent rock groups are (consciously or unconsciously) modeled upon the template they naturally embodied. Their 1964 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” is so regularly cited as the genesis for other bands that they arguably invented the culture of the 1970s, a decade when they were no longer together. The Beatles arguably invented everything, including the very notion of a band’s breaking up. There are still things about the Beatles that can’t be explained, almost to the point of the supernatural: the way their music resonates with toddlers, for example, or the way it resonated with Charles Manson. It’s impossible to imagine another rock group where half its members faced unrelated assassination attempts. In any reasonable world, the Beatles are the answer to the question “Who will be the Sousa of rock?”

But our world is not reasonable. And the way this question will be asked tomorrow is (probably) not the same way we would ask it today.

In Western culture, virtually everything is understood through the process of storytelling, often to the detriment of reality. When we recount history, we tend to use the life experience of one person — the “journey” of a particular “hero,” in the lingo of the mythologist Joseph Campbell — as a prism for understanding everything else. That inclination works to the Beatles’ communal detriment. But it buoys two other figures: Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. The Beatles are the most meaningful group, but Elvis and Dylan are the towering individuals, so eminent that I wouldn’t necessarily need to use Elvis’s last name or Dylan’s first.

Still, neither is an ideal manifestation of rock as a concept.

It has been said that Presley invented rock and roll, but he actually staged a form of primordial “prerock” that barely resembles the post-“Rubber Soul” aesthetics that came to define what this music is. He also exited rock culture relatively early; he was pretty much out of the game by 1973. Conversely, Dylan’s career spans the entirety of rock. Yet he never made an album that “rocked” in any conventional way (the live album “Hard Rain” probably comes closest). Still, these people are rock people. Both are integral to the core of the enterprise and influenced everything we have come to understand about the form (including the Beatles themselves, a group that would not have existed without Elvis and would not have pursued introspection without Dylan)

Pretty much from the moment it came into being, people who liked rock insisted it was dying.
In 300 years, the idea of “rock music” being represented by a two‑pronged combination of Elvis and Dylan would be equitable and oddly accurate. But the passage of time makes this progressively more difficult. It’s always easier for a culture to retain one story instead of two, and the stories of Presley and Dylan barely intersect (they supposedly met only once, in a Las Vegas hotel room). As I write this sentence, the social stature of Elvis and Dylan feels similar, perhaps even identical. But it’s entirely possible one of them will be dropped as time plods forward. And if that happens, the consequence will be huge. If we concede that the “hero’s journey” is the de facto story through which we understand history, the differences between these two heroes would profoundly alter the description of what rock music supposedly was.

If Elvis (minus Dylan) is the definition of rock, then rock is remembered as showbiz. Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis did not write songs; he interpreted songs that were written by other people (and like Sinatra, he did this brilliantly). But removing the centrality of songwriting from the rock equation radically alters it. Rock becomes a performative art form, where the meaning of a song matters less than the person singing it. It becomes personality music, and the dominant qualities of Presley’s persona — his sexuality, his masculinity, his larger‑than‑life charisma — become the dominant signifiers of what rock was. His physical decline and reclusive death become an allegory for the entire culture. The reminiscence of the rock genre adopts a tragic hue, punctuated by gluttony, drugs and the conscious theft of black culture by white opportunists.

But if Dylan (minus Elvis) becomes the definition of rock, everything reverses. In this contingency, lyrical authenticity becomes everything; rock is somehow calcified as an intellectual craft, interlocked with the folk tradition. It would be remembered as far more political than it actually was, and significantly more political than Dylan himself. The fact that Dylan does not have a conventionally “good” singing voice becomes retrospective proof that rock audiences prioritized substance over style, and the portrait of his seven‑decade voyage would align with the most romantic version of how an eclectic collection of autonomous states eventually became a place called “America.”

These are the two best versions of this potential process. And both are flawed.

There is, of course, another way to consider how these things might unspool, and it might be closer to the way histories are actually built. I’m creating a binary reality where Elvis and Dylan start the race to posterity as equals, only to have one runner fall and disappear. The one who remains “wins” by default (and maybe that happens). But it might work in reverse. A more plausible situation is that future people will haphazardly decide how they want to remember rock, and whatever they decide will dictate who is declared its architect. If the constructed memory is a caricature of big‑hair arena rock, the answer is probably Elvis; if it’s a buoyant, unrealistic apparition of punk hagiography, the answer is probably Dylan. But both conclusions direct us back to the same recalcitrant question: What makes us remember the things we remember?

In 2014, the jazz historian Ted Gioia published a short essay about music criticism that outraged a class of perpetually outraged music critics. Gioia’s assertion was that 21st‑century music writing has devolved into a form of lifestyle journalism that willfully ignores the technical details of the music itself. Many critics took this attack personally and accused Gioia of devaluing their vocation. Which is odd, considering the colossal degree of power Gioia ascribes to record reviewers: He believes specialists are the people who galvanize history. Critics have almost no impact on what music is popular at any given time, but they’re extraordinarily well positioned to dictate what music is reintroduced after its popularity has
The greatest sacrilege was when the Beach Boys used the melody of “Sweet Little Sixteen” for “Surfin’ USA” and had a No 1 hit with it. …

“Over time, critics and historians will play a larger role in deciding whose fame endures,” Gioia wrote me in an email. “Commercial factors will have less impact. I don’t see why rock and pop will follow any different trajectory from jazz and blues.” He rattled off several illustrative examples: Ben Selvin outsold Louis Armstrong in the 1920s. In 1956, Nelson Riddle and Les Baxter outsold “almost every rock ’n’ roll star not named Elvis,” but they’ve been virtually erased from the public record. A year after that, the closeted gay crooner Tab Hunter was bigger than Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino, “but critics and music historians hate sentimental love songs. They’ve constructed a perspective that emphasizes the rise of rock and pushes everything else into the background. Transgressive rockers, in contrast, enjoy lasting fame.” He points to a contemporary version of that phenomenon: “Right now, electronic dance music probably outsells hip‑hop. This is identical to the punk‑versus‑disco trade‑off of the 1970s. My prediction: edgy hip‑hop music will win the fame game in the long run, while E.D.M. will be seen as another mindless dance craze.”

Gioia is touching on a variety of volatile ideas here, particularly the outsize memory of transgressive art. His example is the adversarial divide between punk and disco: In 1977, the disco soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever” and the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” were both released. The soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever” has sold more than 15 million copies; it took “Never Mind the Bollocks” 15 years to go platinum. Yet virtually all pop historiographers elevate the importance of the Pistols above that of the Bee Gees. The same year the Sex Pistols finally sold the millionth copy of their debut, SPIN magazine placed them on a list of the seven greatest bands of all time. “Never Mind the Bollocks” is part of the White House record library, supposedly inserted by Amy Carter just before her dad lost to Ronald Reagan. The album’s reputation improves by simply existing: In 1985, the British publication NME classified it as the 13th‑greatest album of all time; in 1993, NME made a new list and decided it now deserved to be ranked third. This has as much to do with its transgressive identity as its musical integrity. The album is overtly transgressive (and therefore memorable), while “Saturday Night Fever” has been framed as a prefab totem of a facile culture (and thus forgettable). For more than three decades, that has been the overwhelming consensus.

But I’ve noticed — just in the last four or five years — that this consensus is shifting. Why? Because the definition of “transgressive” is shifting. It’s no longer appropriate to dismiss disco as superficial. More and more, we recognize how disco latently pushed gay, urban culture into white suburbia, which is a more meaningful transgression than going on a British TV talk show and swearing at the host. So is it possible that the punk‑disco polarity will eventually flip? Yes. It’s possible everyone could decide to reverse how we remember 1977. But there’s still another stage here, beyond that hypothetical inversion: the stage in which everybody who was around for punk and disco is dead and buried, and no one is left to contradict how that moment felt. When that happens, the debate over transgressions freezes and all that is left is the music. Which means the Sex Pistols could win again or maybe they lose bigger, depending on the judge.

“There is a justice-driven part of my brain that believes — or needs to believe — that the cream rises to the top, and the best work endures by virtue of its goodness,” argues the music writer Amanda Petrusich, author of “Do Not Sell at Any Price,” a dive into the obsessive world of 78 r.p.m. record collectors. “That music becomes emblematic because it’s the most effective. When I think of rock and who might survive, I immediately think of the Rolling Stones. They’re a band that sounds like what we’ve all decided rock ’n’ roll should sound like: loose and wild. Their story reflects that ethos and sound: loose and wild. And also, they’re good.”

This is true. The Rolling Stones are good, even when they release records like “Bridges to Babylon.” They’ve outlived every band that ever competed against them, with career album sales exceeding the present population of Brazil. From a credibility standpoint, the Rolling Stones are beyond reproach, regardless of how they choose to promote themselves: They’ve performed at the Super Bowl, in a Kellogg’s commercial and on an episode of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” The name of the biggest magazine covering rock music was partly inspired by their sheer existence. The group members have faced arrest on multiple continents, headlined the most disastrous concert in California history and classified themselves (with surprisingly little argument) as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world” since 1969. Working from the premise that the collective memory of rock should dovetail with the artist who most accurately represents what rock music actually was, the Rolling Stones are a strong answer.

But not the final answer.

NASA sent the unmanned craft Voyager I into deep space in 1977. It’s still out there, forever fleeing Earth’s pull. No man‑made object has ever traveled farther; it crossed the orbit of Pluto in 1989 and currently tumbles through the interstellar wasteland. The hope was that this vessel would eventually be discovered by intelligent extraterrestrials, so NASA included a compilation album made of gold, along with a rudimentary sketch of how to play it with a stylus. A team led by Carl Sagan curated the album’s contents. The record, if played by the aliens, is supposed to reflect the diversity and brilliance of earthling life. This, obviously, presupposes a lot of insane hopes: that the craft will somehow be found, that the craft will somehow be intact, that the aliens who find it will be vaguely human, that these vaguely human aliens will absorb stimuli both visually and sonically and that these aliens will not still be listening to eight‑tracks.

But it did guarantee that one rock song will exist even if the earth is spontaneously swallowed by the sun: “Johnny B. Goode,” by Chuck Berry. The song was championed by Ann Druyan (who later become Sagan’s wife) and Timothy Ferris, a science writer and friend of Sagan’s who contributed to Rolling Stone magazine. According to Ferris, who was the album’s de facto producer, the folklorist Alan Lomax was against the selection of Berry, based on the argument that rock music was too childish to represent the highest achievements of the planet. (I’m assuming Lomax wasn’t too heavily engaged with the debate over the Sex Pistols and “Saturday Night Fever” either.) “Johnny B. Goode” is the only rock song on the Voyager disc, although a few other tunes were considered. “Here Comes the Sun” was a candidate, and all four Beatles wanted it to be included, but none of them owned the song’s copyright, so it was killed for legal reasons.

The fact that this happened in 1977 was also relevant to the song’s selection. “Johnny B. Goode” was 19 years old that year, which made it seem distinguished, almost prehistoric, at the time. I suspect the main reason “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen is that it just seemed like a reasonable track to select. But it was more than reasonable. It was, either deliberately or accidentally, the best possible artist for NASA to select. Chuck Berry may very well become the artist society selects when rock music is retroactively reconsidered by the grandchildren of your grandchildren.

Let’s assume all the individual components of rock shatter and dissolve, leaving behind a hazy residue that categorizes rock ’n’ roll as a collection of memorable tropes. If this transpires, historians will reconstitute the genre like a puzzle. They will look at those tropes as a suit and try to decide who fits that suit best. And that theoretical suit was tailored for Chuck Berry’s body.

Rock music is simple, direct, rhythm‑based music. Berry made simple, direct, rhythm‑based music.
Rock music is black music mainstreamed by white musicians, particularly white musicians from England. Berry is a black man who directly influenced Keith Richards and Jimmy Page.
Rock music is preoccupied with sex. Berry was a sex addict whose only American No. 1 single was about playing with his penis.
Rock music is lawless. Berry went to prison twice before he turned 40.

Rock music is tied to myth and legend (so much so that the decline of rock’s prominence coincides with the rise of the Internet and the destruction of anecdotal storytelling). Berry is the subject of multiple urban legends, several of which might actually be true and which often seem to involve cheapness, violence and sexual defecation.

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” John Lennon famously said, “you might call it Chuck Berry.” That quote is as close as we come to a full‑on Sousa scenario, where the person and the thing are ideologically interchangeable. Chuck Berry’s persona is the purest distillation of what we understand rock music to be. The songs he made are essential, but secondary to who he was and why he made them. He is the idea itself.

Chuck Klosterman is a writer and journalist.

Recovering music biz still can’t cash in on YouTube

April 12, 2016

By Claire Atkinson 4/11/16

The music business has finally hit bottom and is beginning to bounce back.

After years of falling album sales and piracy woes, the global recording business notched its first significant revenue uptick in almost two decades last year, according to a new industry report set to be released on Tuesday.

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s 2015 digital music report will show that revenue rose more than 3 percent, topping $15 billion, in 2015. That’s the first significant jump since 1998, when global revenue rose 4.8 percent.

While the long-awaited gain should have the industry singing an upbeat tune, the big record labels are far from happy with the state of music streaming.

Most of last year’s revenue growth came from paid subscription services, a category that includes Apple Music, and Spotify’s premium tier. That’s a business the labels would like to keep growing.

But the industry is less than pleased with the revenue artists and others collect from ad-supported services such as YouTube, where users flock to stream music and watch videos for free.

The IFPI report is expected to throw more shade on the Google-owned video platform, which is facing licensing negotiations with the big three record labels.

YouTube’s deals with Universal Music Group, Sony Music and Warner Music have either expired or will this year, the Financial Times reported on Sunday.

Last month, the Recording Industry Association of America slammed YouTube in a separate report, saying it doesn’t pay its fair share of royalties despite surging usage. That report revealed the music labels derived more revenue from vinyl than all the ad-supported YouTube consumption created in advertising revenue.

The IFPI report is expected to add to the noise surrounding ad-supported services by showing that just 4 percent of global revenue, or around $600 million, is derived from ad-supported platforms, of which YouTube is by far the biggest.

By comparison, paid subscription services generated an estimated $2 billion in revenue in 2015.

Total paid-music subscribers grew to 68 million in 2015, up from 41 million the previous year, the IFPI report will show. But that’s dwarfed by YouTube’s 900 million users.

“The main concern is the fact that ad revenue is not climbing in line with views,” said a top industry source. “The value of a stream is dropping and we want to make sure there’s a floor in the per stream rate.”

YouTube’s chief business officer, Robert Kyncl, has been making the industry rounds to explain how the music business can better monetize its advertising on its platform. Kyncl’s has been preaching that “free is the future, ad supported is the future,” one source said.

“To date, Google has paid out over $3 billion to the music industry — and that number is growing significantly year on year,” YouTube said in a statement to The Post.

“Only about 20 percent of people are historically willing to pay for music. YouTube is helping artists and labels monetize the remaining 80 percent that were not previously monetized.”

Here’s why the music labels are furious at YouTube. Again.

April 12, 2016

Peter Kafka  4/11/16

You’ve heard this song before: The music industry is mad at YouTube.

In the old days, the music business used to complain that YouTube took their music and didn’t pay them. Now the complaint has changed: Now the music guys say YouTube doesn’t pay them enough.

The music labels have been grousing about YouTube for a while now, but they have recently turned up the volume.

Last month, the RIAA, the labels’ American trade group, lobbed a volley at Google’s video service, arguing that YouTube doesn’t pay a fair price for all the music it gives its users for free. The IFPI, the label’s global trade group, should have a report out shortly which repeats the same charge.

The complaints come as the big three music labels — Universal Music Group, Sony and Warner Music Group — are set to renegotiate contracts with YouTube.

It would seem like the best way to get more money from YouTube would be to get a better deal this time around. But the labels say their bargaining power is reduced by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which gives broad protection to YouTube and other services that rely on content that users upload.

I asked RIAA head Cary Sherman to explain his industry’s beef with both the DMCA and with YouTube. Here’s an edited excerpt of our conversation. There’s also a response of sorts from YouTube at the end.

Peter Kafka: I don’t understand why the industry is complaining about YouTube and its use of the DMCA again. Viacom spent years on this in court, and got soundly defeated. Hasn’t everyone learned to accept this by now?

Cary Sherman: We accept the inevitability of death. It doesn’t mean we have to like it. There is now under way a study of whether the DMCA is actually effective and fulfilling its intended purpose, being conducted by the Copyright Office, and it has given us an opportunity for the community to collect our thoughts about just how dysfunctional the DMCA actually is. And to actually tell the government about it.

A lot of people would argue that the DMCA allowed Silicon Valley to build really big, really amazing and wonderful things. And that on the whole it’s a net plus for the U.S. and the world.

That assumes that only with the DMCA, as it was written in 1998, would that have been possible. We feel like the 1998 Internet is not the Internet of 2016. It’s a dramatically different Internet, and it’s time to take a fresh look at whether the balance that was struck in 1998 is effective in 2016.

And the answer is clearly “no.”

Just look at Silicon Valley. They’ve done an extraordinary job, and their market cap is worth gazillions of dollars. Look at the creative industries — not just the music industry, but all of them. All of them have suffered. We’re half the size we were. And we’re flat, and we haven’t been growing. And that’s true of all of the creative industries.

For the music industry, 70 percent of revenues now come from digital. We’ve licensed every different kind of model, but the revenues just aren’t coming in.

One of the problems is piracy, which continues to be a problem. The other is under-monetization, and that’s because of things like the DMCA, where some companies get the benefit of being able to distribute our content, without taking fair market value kind of licenses.

When you compare what we get when we get to freely negotiate, with a company like Spotify, vs. what we get when we are under the burden of an expansively interpreted “safe harbor,” when you’re negotiating with somebody like YouTube, you can see that you’re not getting the value across the platforms that you should.

What’s the single biggest change in the DMCA that you’d like to see?

Notice and stay down, instead of notice and take down. There are 100 copies of a song. We can’t just say to YouTube “we didn’t license this Pharrell song, take it down.” They will not just take down all 100 copies. They’ll take down only the one file that we’ve identified. We have to find every one of them, and notice them, and then they’re taken down, and then immediately put right back up. You can never get all the songs off the system.

If we had a system where once a song was taken down, you had a filtering system that prevented it from going back up, we wouldn’t have to be sending hundreds of millions of notices on the same content over and over again.

Maybe then we’d begin to make a difference with all the pirated copies on all of the websites. But as long as there isn’t a stay down, we can’t deal with that. It’s just not possible.

The labels do have deals with YouTube. If they don’t like those deals, why not negotiate better ones or walk away? All of them expire this year.

The way the negotiation goes is something like this: “Look. This is all we can afford to pay you,” YouTube says. “We hope that you’ll find that reasonable. But that’s the best we can do. And if you don’t want to give us a license, okay. You know that your music is still going to be up on the service anyway. So send us notices, and we’ll take ’em down as fast we can, and we know they’ll keep coming back up. We’ll do what we can. It’s your decision as to whether you want to take our deal, or whether you just want to keep sending us takedown notices.”

That’s not a real negotiation. That’s like saying, “That’s a real nice song you got there. Be a shame if anything happened to it.”

So you’re saying the labels aren’t really free to walk away from YouTube — that their music stays up there whether they want it to or not.

We have experience with this. Because Warner Music, a few years ago, decided that they didn’t want their music on YouTube, because it was hurting all the rest of their deals. So they didn’t do a license with YouTube. A year later, they threw in the towel. What was that year like? They spent a fortune trying to take down their music. They could never even keep up with all the counter-notifications that were constantly being filed, so the music was going right back up anyway. And they were earning no revenues at all. So finally they threw in the towel, and accepted the licenses.

That’s what it’s like to negotiate, when somebody can claim the benefit of an expansive safe harbor. They’re taking the benefit of a safe harbor that was intended for people who were passive, neutral intermediaries. People like Verizon, where the content is just passing through their system. They’re not making money off of distributing content. YouTube does.

Katy Perry, among other people, is lobbying on behalf of the music business. It seems like getting rich musicians to press your case won’t help you change the laws. Do you think there’s a practical chance that will happen?

Two different questions. First: Katy Perry. The petition she filed makes clear that she’s worried about the next generation of songwriters and artists that are coming up. She isn’t complaining that she isn’t making enough money.

She made that money in the era that you’re complaining about. She made that money as a YouTube star.

Yeah. Well, the reality is that the industry is more stratified than ever. There are some people who have done really well. But it’s harder and harder for more musicians to make a living. Because the revenue that they’re getting from streaming isn’t keeping pace with the revenue that they used to be able to earn. We’re trying to get to a point where the streaming ecosystem works for everybody.

In terms of whether Congress will do something about it? We don’t know. It’s hard to get anything through Congress. But Congress has been taking a look at the copyright law for 3 years now. We want them to understand that one of the most important things affecting the value and ability of copyright to survive, is to take a fresh look at the DMCA

It’s complicated, right? The labels used to be investors in YouTube, right before it sold to Google. Two of the labels are partners with YouTube in Vevo. It doesn’t look like they’re in real opposition. It looks like they’re partners who don’t like terms of a deal they did.

I think the record companies would like to be partners with YouTube. But it’s a little hard to call it a partnership when it’s so one-sided in terms of the negotiating leverage.

Some of the loudest voices against YouTube used to be the video companies – movie studios, TV companies. Viacom was the one who sued them. They’re not vocal in the way that the music labels are now. Why aren’t they joining you?

Maybe it’s because YouTube is not the place where you go for your pirated movies. But it certainly is the place you go for your pirated… I shouldn’t call it pirated. It’s “user-uploaded.” They’re putting up an entire album, and a picture of the artist, and therefore YouTube has become the largest on-demand music service in the world.


I offered YouTube executives the chance to rebut Sherman’s argument via a separate Q&A, but they declined. The company did point me to the response they offered when the RIAA criticized them last month:

“To date, Google has paid out over $3 billion to the music industry – and that number is growing year on year. This revenue is generated despite the fact that YouTube goes way beyond music to include popular categories such as news, gaming, how-to, sports and entertainment. And with the recent launch of the YouTube Music app, we recently launched a new, dedicated music experience with the goal to deliver even more revenue to both artists and the music industry more broadly. Past comparisons to other audio-only, subscription music services are apples to oranges.”

YouTube and Google have also responded in more depth, via the comments they’ve filed to US Copyright Office as part of the study Sherman mentioned. Here’s a passage that deals with many of the RIAA’s complaints:

Some in the recording industry have suggested that the safe harbors somehow diminish the value of sound recordings, pointing to YouTube and blaming the DMCA for creating a so-called “value grab.” This claim is not supported by the facts. As an initial matter, it is important to understand that YouTube has had license agreements in place with both major and independent record labels for many years; it is simply incorrect to say that YouTube relies on the DMCA instead of licensing works. Those pressing the “value grab” argument also assert that the royalty rates in these licenses are too low, allegedly because the DMCA’s notice-and-takedown process makes it too difficult for record labels to withdraw their works from YouTube in the face of users re-uploading those works. This claim, however, ignores Content ID, which has been in existence since 2008 and which record labels (and many other copyright owners) use every day to monetize their works on YouTube. Thanks to Content ID, record labels do not have to rely solely on the DMCA’s notice-and-takedown process on YouTube—they can remove any or all user-uploads of their works from the platform on an automated and ongoing basis. Indeed, since January 2014, over 98% of all YouTube copyright removal claims have come through Content ID. Although business partners can be expected to disagree from time to time about the price of a license, any claim that the DMCA safe harbors are responsible for a “value gap” for music on YouTube is simply false.

Will Streaming Music Kill Songwriting?

February 9, 2016

John Seabrooke 2/08/16
For many songwriters, the wake-up call comes when they have their first streaming hit. For Michelle Lewis, an indie-rock singer-songwriter who now writes primarily for other artists, it was the song “Wings,” which she co-wrote for the British girl group Little Mix. Lewis and her writing partner, Kay Hanley, the former lead singer of the band Letters to Cleo, had been busy working on a Disney show (children’s TV relies heavily on alt-rock music), and at first she didn’t realize how popular the song had become.

“We were emerging from this bubble,” she told me, “and I realized, ‘I have this hit. This is going to be good! Nearly three million streams on Spotify!’ And then my check came, and it was for seventeen dollars and seventy-two cents. That’s when I was, like, ‘What the fuck?’ So I called Kay.”

“And I said, ‘What the fuck?’ ” Hanley recalled.

“And then we started reading and talking to our friends and fellow-songwriters,” Lewis said. Eventually, they found their way to Dina LaPolt, a music lawyer in Los Angeles, who specializes in copyright and songwriter issues.

Lewis: “And Dina said to us, ‘Where the fuck have you bitches been?’ ”

Hanley: “She literally said that.”

LaPolt told them that unless streaming rates were changed and the music-licensing system were overhauled for the digital age, the profession of songwriting was on its way to extinction. And they were on their own, she added, because, while everyone loves a songwriter, members of the profession have no actual bargaining power, whether via a union or another powerful institution, and so, when the money in the industry dries up, they’re in serious trouble.

“Our jaws were on the floor at the end of talking to her,” Lewis said. “And then it was, like, ‘We have to tell our friends.’ ”

If streaming is the future of music, songwriters may soon be back to where they started. Stephen Foster, America’s first professional songwriter, was also the first to die broke. His songs, which include “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home” (a.k.a. “Swanee River”), “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” made lots of money for other people—music publishers, music-sheet sellers, minstrel-show promoters, concert-hall owners, and star performers. But not very much of that money reached the chronically impecunious Foster, who died, in 1864, in New York City, at the age of thirty-seven, with three pennies in his pocket, some Civil War scrip, and a scrap of paper on which the songwriter had written “Dear friends and gentle hearts.” His best-known melody, “Beautiful Dreamer,” came out only after his death.

Over the next century and a half, American songwriters’ prospects improved dramatically, largely thanks to the Copyright Act of 1909 and subsequent government intervention. Under the regime that emerged in the first half of the twentieth century, composers own the “publishing” rights to their songs—the copyright on the song’s words and melody, as they exist on paper. Most songwriters assign part of these rights to a music publisher in exchange for an advance and for marketing services. If the music publisher succeeds in getting a song recorded, the songwriter then grants the backers of the recording—a record label, generally—what’s known as a “mechanical license.” (The word “mechanical” derives from the days when player-piano rolls were the primary commodity of the nascent record business.) With each copy of the record sold, the owners of the master recording, as the audio copyright is known, pay a mechanical royalty to the owners of the song’s publishing rights. Today, that royalty rate works out to about nine cents per copy.

Songwriters also earn performance royalties when a record is played in a large commercial venue, such as a restaurant or a theater. With the spread of broadcast radio, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, performance royalties became a significant part of a songwriter’s potential income. Generally, when a song plays on the radio, the station pays the publishing-rights holders a fixed rate that represents a percentage of the station’s advertising revenues. The owners of master recordings, on the other hand, don’t make anything from radio play, nor do the performers. The reasoning behind this bizarre arrangement, which apart from the U.S. exists only in Iran, North Korea, and China, is that the promotional value of radio play is recompense enough; the labels and performers can make up the difference with record and ticket sales.

In 1941 the Justice Department issued what’s known as the Consent Decree, which allowed performing-rights organizations (P.R.O.s, or collecting societies) to process the licensing fees for large numbers of songwriters, collectively, for obvious reasons of efficiency. In return for an exemption from what would normally be treated as an antitrust issue—private owners banding together to set prices—the music publishers agreed to let a federal court set the royalty rates, if the parties disagree on them. The Consent Decree also mandated compulsory licensing, requiring songwriters to make their entire catalogues available to whomever pays the licensing fee. Accordingly, songwriting is now the most heavily regulated of the creative arts. Seventy per cent of a songwriter’s income comes from rates set by the government, rather than by the songwriters and publishers, on the free market.

Regulation helped to insure that songwriters avoided Stephen Foster’s fate and were paid fairly for their work. Today, the system supports perhaps a million American songwriters. (The estimate is based on the memberships of the two largest collecting societies, ASCAP and B.M.I., and a guess about the much smaller SESAC, which doesn’t publish its numbers.) It offers a decent living for many in the trade, and the prospect of extraordinary wealth for a few. Indeed, the amount of money that a hit song can earn for its composers is staggering. Court papers in a recent infringement dispute involving Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and the estate of Marvin Gaye have revealed that the song “Blurred Lines” earned almost seventeen million dollars in under two years, mainly from radio play, with Thicke and Williams each getting more than five million dollars. And a long-running suit launched by the family of Randy California, the former front man of the band Spirit, whose 1968 song “Taurus” is alleged to sound a lot like “Stairway to Heaven,” calculated that the Led Zeppelin song, which was released in 1971, had earned half a billion dollars by 2008. Since copyrights last for up to seventy years, depending on when the song was released, the rights to a couple of hit songs can support an entire family for several generations.

The remarkable worldwide popularity of American music is often ascribed, rightly, to the talent and diversity of the country’s artists and musicians. But it also happened because of a system that inspired and allowed songwriters to devote themselves full time to their craft. (Of the top ten most-downloaded songs in the U.S. in 2015, according to Nielsen, only one, Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen,” was written solely by the artist.) The system not only rewarded proven talents; it also let promising novices secure advances against future earnings, affording them the time to learn their craft gradually, until they too had a hit and could begin nurturing the next generation of talent.

But as the music business began to be slowly and agonizingly stretched across the rack of the digital age, the songwriter’s comfortable spot amid music’s royalty flow started slipping away. The steep decline in album sales—the result of a shift from brick-and-mortar distribution to digital retail, and now to streaming—has dealt a blow to songwriters’ mechanical-royalty income. (In the album era, even a throwaway track on a best-selling LP earned as much for a songwriter as the hits that made people purchase the album in the first place.) And, as Lewis’s experience demonstrates, the performance-royalty rates that songwriters command from streaming services such as Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Apple Music are in most cases far lower than the ones they get for terrestrial-radio plays—the entire royalty payout, remember. Typically, under terms that the record labels worked out with the streaming services (and somehow persuaded the federal rate courts to sign off on), when a song is streamed, sixty per cent of the income goes to the owners of the sound recording, thirty per cent goes to the service itself, and ten per cent goes to songwriters and publishers. When a song is streamed on an Internet radio site—Pandora is by far the largest—the holders of publishing copyrights receive a thousandth of a cent per stream.

Why are streams worth so much less than radio spins? The standard reason given is because a stream is generally a one-to-one transaction, whereas a spin goes out to thousands or even millions of people at a time. But if millions of people hear your song on YouTube, and you still haven’t received a check, you begin to sense that something is amiss. Also, why is the value of the publishing copyright worth so much less, relative to the sound-recording copyright, in the streaming world? There appears to have been a digital land grab by the record labels, who own most of the master recordings for the U.S. catalogue. Having lost out, historically, on income derived from performance royalties and sound recording for terrestrial radio, they were careful, in the digital era, to guarantee themselves income, and in some cases equity interest, from streaming.

Kara DioGuardi, a longtime songwriter known for her turn as a judge on “American Idol,” told me recently, “I’ll be at a party and I’ll hear a friend’s song, and then I’ll realize it’s being streamed. And I’ll think, ‘Wow, that sucks,’ because I know the songwriters aren’t getting paid what they deserve.” For songwriters, there are both big, sweeping rationales and smaller, more nuanced reasons to hate streaming services. Perhaps the greatest outrage, apart from the primal sense that the services are picking their pockets, is directed at the corporations benefitting most from streaming music—Google, Amazon, Apple. These companies, which are among the wealthiest on earth, use music to draw traffic to their sites and keep people within their ecosystems, but for them, the business end of music is hardly more than a rounding error. In 2015, for example, the global music-copyright industry brought in twenty-five billion dollars, barely more than a tenth of Apple’s revenues for the year. What makes the situation positively Kafkaesque is that under the terms of the Consent Decree, which was created in part to prevent songwriters from monopolizing the market, composers are now often compelled to license their songs to these monopolistic behemoths at absurdly low rates.

As for the more nuanced reasons, some streams are worse than others. Spotify’s free, ad-supported platform has been the source of much complaint, as has YouTube’s. Spotify’s total revenues from its ad-supported tier in the first half of 2015 were a paltry hundred and sixty-two million dollars, sixty million less than the revenues from the sales of vinyl albums and EPs over the same period. Revenues from the company’s paid tier are usually marginally better than from its ad-supported one, but it’s still having issues with publishing royalties there. It appears that while the company was assiduous about getting the licenses for the audio-recording copyrights from the labels, it was less thorough about obtaining all of the necessary mechanical-publishing licenses, partly because the metadata needed to identify the rights holders is missing from many song files. Spotify is holding about seventeen million dollars in royalties in a segregated account until these copyright holders can be identified (publishers say that the number should be closer to twenty-five million), and is in the process of building a database that will make it easier to identify them.

In late 2015, David Lowery, the frontman of Cracker and Camper van Beethoven, and a persistent industry gadfly, filed a class-action lawsuit against Spotify, charging the company with willfully infringing the mechanical rights to a number of his songs, and those of others, and seeking up to a hundred and fifty million dollars in damages. According to TechDirt’s breakdown of the suit, Lowery is arguing that Spotify is failing to obtain the necessary mechanical licenses for many of the compositions in its database, including some of his; the case may hinge, among other issues, on whether the company properly complied with technical requirements for situations in which it didn’t know who the copyright holders were. (A second lawsuit was filed by the singer-songwriter Melissa Ferrick in early January.)

Certainly the missing names did not slow co-founder Daniel Ek’s quest to license all the world’s music. However, it’s not entirely clear whether Spotify even needs a mechanical license to stream music. A stream isn’t a copy in the same way that a download is—in many ways, it is more like a performance. The Copyright Act of 1976 is too dated to provide much useful statutory guidance.

Amid all of the anger and uncertainty, last year LaPolt, the copyright lawyer, brought together Lewis, Hanley, and some hundred other songwriters, and inspired them to found an education and advocacy organization, Songwriters of North America (SONA), that seeks major reforms in the song-licensing system, to better suit the digital era. There are already a few legislative initiatives under way, nationally—among them the Songwriter Equity Act, a bill first introduced by Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia, and Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, and then in the Senate by, among others, Orrin Hatch, who is himself a prolific songwriter. (Copyright issues make for strange political bedfellows.) It would amend two sections of the Copyright Act of 1976, to raise the rate songwriters get from streaming services. Another effort, the Fair Pay, Fair Play Act—which would require terrestrial-radio companies to begin paying royalties to audio-recording-rights holders, as well as to songwriters, alongside some reforms to the digital-music industry—was introduced in the House of Representatives in 2015.

In LaPolt’s view, the best hope for real change is a major revision of the Copyright Act of 1976. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican congressman from Virginia and a techie, has made copyright reform a signature issue of his tenure as chairman, for the past two years, of the House Judiciary Committee, holding twenty subcommittee hearings on the issue, and inviting a number of songwriters, including Rosanne Cash and Sheryl Crow, to appear. LaPolt thinks it is unlikely that Goodlatte would leave the chairmanship (in 2017) without at least trying to effect significant reform.

Songwriters have never really had to organize before, but they’re learning, Lewis said. “It’s because we’ve been doing fine. As long as the checks showed up it was, like, ‘This has nothing to do with me.’ But about two years ago people started saying, ‘Hey, who moved our cheese?’ ” Even now, she added, some writers are loath to complain, because “the psychology is, ‘I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this at all, and I’d better not rock the boat or they’ll find out about my scam!’ ”

Savan Kotecha, whose “Love Me Like You Do,” was recently nominated for a Grammy, told me that songwriters are increasingly aware of the stakes. “It affects how you plan for the future and whether you invest in new talent, because in the streaming world you won’t necessarily see any return on your investment. For now, terrestrial radio is holding out. But radio could go away, because everyone has phones. And once streaming gets into cars in a big way, it’s over.”

Indeed, music listeners continue to embrace streaming. On-demand streaming-service usage rose ninety-three per cent in 2015, with three hundred and seventeen billion songs streamed, in all. Adding YouTube and other unpaid services pushes the total into the trillions. Meanwhile, album sales, the longtime mainstay of the business, continued their decline, in spite of the record-breaking success of Adele’s “25”, which accounted for three per cent of the entire U.S. album market in 2015, according to Billboard. For a songwriter, taking a stand against streaming can seem like taking a stand against your own future.

Performers are facing many of the same challenges, but they, at least, have the option of going on tour. Without royalties, songwriters will have only dear friends and gentle hearts to support them. That didn’t work out so well for Stephen Foster.