WHY NOTHING COMPARES TO PRINCE

There’s always been a notion that if we could emulate the lives of those we admire, then our lives would have the same outcomes as theirs – talented, successful, rich, famous, happy, whatever. That, of course, explains all the “Seven Secrets of…..” books and the popularity of biographies as treasure maps to our desired fortunes. Although the lives of successful music artists fall into that same category and there are certainly crafts and skills to be mastered, there are two areas that cannot be duplicated, which are, unfortunately, the two most important things required for success – artistry and luck. Which is why nothing compares to Prince. His was the perfect storm of skills, artistry and luck.

His talents were unparalleled in the world of popular music and so heralded so much recently that there’s really no reason for me to list them here again. Know that each of the skills he mastered required the now-proverbial 10,000 hours of learning, practice, and self-discipline – each of them. All the talent in the world still requires that amount of woodshedding, trial and error and back to the drawing board perseverance. Who among us has that drive? Who’s out there now picking up the torch? 

Even putting in that kind of life-long work doesn’t necessarily produce a successful career in the arts. You have to have the inborn talent to take those well-honed crafts and elevate them into art. Prince had that talent. I don’t and probably neither do you.

And even putting that innate talent aside, there’s the inevitable requirement to be in the right place at the right time with the right thing. Here’s where luck favored Prince. His heritage was black music from Louisiana but he grew up in white bread Minneapolis. That meant he had parental music influence from an early age but wasn’t hampered by local customs of what music he should or shouldn’t be doing. That way, much as the Beatles in Liverpool, he opened out of town so that when his time came, he was ready.

His artistry was influenced by the immediately previous two decades of black music crossover and he blatantly stole from the best of them (a la the Beatles again) – Little Richard, Elvis, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Sly Stone and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. The time was ripe for someone to combine all of those performance elements with the music of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. And that’s where he set himself apart from all of those who preceded him and apparently all of those who followed – live performance.

And speaking of luck and live performance, I was fortunate enough to have been a part of the Warner Bros. Records Artist Relations staff in the early ‘80s, which provided me with the assignment to go out on tour with Prince, mainly to work with whatever other talent he had found, developed and brought out on tour with him, i.e., The Time, Vanity Six, Apollonia 6, Sheila E.  That afforded me the opportunity to witness any number of Prince shows and see first hand on a nightly basis how he had amalgamated all of the now-standard performance tropes into one concert – essentially a history lesson in showmanship, drawing on what had preceded him in the previous two or three decades.

His shows were non-stop music – no between-song tunings or swigs of water from plastic bottles – non-stop music. Just as an example, you can Google the late 1982/early 1983 Controversy tour and find video of the opening numbers. During the course of the first song, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, he went from an a cappella gospel intro, into a funky pop/rock band groove, to an Allman Brothers twin guitar break with Dez Dickerson, to a James Brown thing with the mic stand, to a Hendrix-inspired solo guitar break, to a hair band pose with Dez and bassist Mark Brown, to a stage right stunt playing guitar with his left hand on the fretboard and his right hand banging out a riff on a synthesizer, back to center stage for a heavy metal band bombastic ending, which included a directed vamp to the final chord, à la James Brown on the TAMI show. All in the 12-minute version of the first song! And it went on from there – stopping along the way to visit every possible 20th century musical style – all done seamlessly and with professional panache.

And that’s why nothing compares to Prince.  It’s hard enough to imagine that such an artist actually existed and in our lifetime, let alone thinking someone might be able to duplicate his artistry. Although the luck of being in the right place at the right time with the right thing certainly played a part, this guy had it all. He taught himself how to do it all. He had the drive and the talent to do it all. When his big break came, he was ready. Like no one before him and, from what I can tell, no one since.

Epilogue: Everybody I know has a Prince story – most are either strange or befuddling, but here’s one with an amusing ending. My wife and I attended the “1999” tour show at the Universal Amphitheater in LA later in 1983. We had some great seats in the Warners allotment, about 15-20 rows back, center section, left aisle. Actually we were seats 3 and 4, no one was in seats 1 and 2. Then about two or three songs into the show, two big guys came stumbling down the aisle stairs in the dark looking for what ultimately would be our row. The first guy in apparently couldn’t see a thing and the other guy had to help him into his seat  – it was Stevie Wonder. His security guy asked him if he wanted anything, Stevie said no, and the other guy left, leaving Stevie sitting next to my wife.

We naturally thought that this was pretty cool as did everyone around us and we went back to enjoying the show. Prince kicked into I think “Let’s Go Crazy” or some big rave up song and Stevie turned to my wife and shouted, “What’s he doing?” My wife shouted back, “What’s who doing?” and Stevie replied, “Prince! What’s he doing?” So my wife proceeded to describe to Stevie, to the best of her ability, what was happening on stage.  He thanked her and said, “I love your accent!” Next song, same thing. Every song after, same thing. By the end of the show, she was practically in tears from the ludicrousness of the whole situation.

When Prince left the stage for the false exit, Stevie’s guy reappeared. “C’mon, Stevie,” he said. “Let’s get out of here before everyone else.” And Stevie shouted back for everyone to hear, “I’m not going anywhere until I hear ‘Little Red Corvette!'”  Sure enough, Prince came back on and played “LRC”. Stevie got up for the first time and danced like a wild man, singing along with every word until the final chord of the song. Then he said to his handler, “OK, we can go now.” He thanked my wife for her help and disappeared up the aisle into the passageway out.

Footnote: I happened to be at the House of Blues Foundation’s Music Forward show at the Wiltern in LA the night everyone heard about Prince’s passing. Local KABC Ch. 7 news was there and asked me for a few words in reflection. Here’s the link to an otherwise really nice piece:

R.I.P. Prince

TEN MUSIC BIZ PREDICTIONS, HOPES & DREAMS FOR 2018

Here’s to all of these things coming true in 2018 so that there might be a happy and fruitful 2019!

1. Return of Real Songs

Millennials will come out of their collective fog and realize that what passes for pop music these days – well-produced, pleasant, beat-driven, formula, lyrically repetitive, singsongy, non-melodic music – are not really songs. Real songs – narrative stories with beginnings, middles and ends (as well as the clever bridges) – will stage a comeback, and real songwriters and performers will breathe a collective sigh of relief. It’s already being done in Nashville and quite well at that.

2. Mic Technique Revolution

A superstar singer will set an example on proper microphone technique for the rest of the pop, rock and country music entertainment world by taking the mic out of and away from his or her mouth, allowing us to not only finally see the singers’ facial expressions but to also prevent them from popping their p’s. This epiphany will not spill over into the rap world.

3. Live Performance is Everything

Concert promoters, club bookers and agents will refuse to sign or book any act that isn’t any good at entertaining an audience in a live performance situation. The result? Only artists who have developed an entertaining live show will be allowed to perform. That will bring ticket-buying audiences back into venues and no more pay for play. It will also require artists to learn how to entertain instead of just singing and playing at the same time. Again, it’s already being done in Nashville. There’s a reason why the top award at the CMA’s is Entertainer Of the Year!

4. Who’s your agent?

As live performance revenue continues to be the gold standard for music artists, booking agencies will become even more of an influential aspect of artists’ careers, surpassing record companies and managers in that respect. Again, an artist’s live show will be the centerpiece of their careers.

5. Local Radio Plays Local Music

Terrestrial local radio stations will regain control over the music they play from their national conglomerate home offices. Music fans will have some sway in what gets played on local radio though real-time mobile apps linked directly to the local radio station studios. The rising tide of listenership will raise all advertising rates boats. Win/win.

6. Performance Royalties from Radio

Congress will expand current performance payments made by radio stations to writers and composers to include master rights holders and, hence, the performers (as it is in the rest of the world except mainly North Korea, Iran and China – great company we keep, huh?). When this long-overdue slight is righted, American master rights holders and performers can then additionally start collecting those performance royalties that are currently being collected (but not paid out) to US-based artists from 75 other nations around the world. All in all, it will mean millions of dollars in windfall to the American music creative community from both here and abroad.

7. Better Streaming Rates

The Constitutional right to a regulated and fair compensation for writers, composers and performers will be enforced on digital streaming companies and extended to all future but currently unknown methods of an audience enjoying an artist’s creative endeavors.

8. Music As Merch

CDs, vinyl and downloads will be officially relegated to the merch table, websites and indie stores, as artists and record companies finally concede that streaming is the preferable (and more profitable) way of buying music for instant and daily consumption.

9. Record Companies Evolve

Record companies (still the best source of funding, marketing and promotion of an artist’s music career ambitions) will rightfully continue with their 360 deals, but will divert attention away from music sales and focus more on the revenue that can be generated (and commissioned) from live performances, publishing and merchandising (which now includes CDs and downloads). The strength of an artist’s live show will weigh in larger than before in evaluating label signings.

10. New Artists Breakthough on Indie Labels

Indie labels will continue to be the grass roots discovery and nurturing ground for new and developing artists. Many will offer all the services of a major by utilizing third-party independent marketing and promotion companies.

We can all dream, can’t we?

SO WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE SHOW?

THE UNCOMFORTABLE BACKSTAGE AFTERSHOW MEET & GREET

There comes a time in the life of everyone in the music business when one must suffer through the dreaded aftershow meet and greet with the artist. To Fred and Marge from Iowa, it probably sounds like a dream come true – meeting the artist they’ve always loved and admired where they can gush over about how wonderful the show was and how the artist is their favorite all-time performer and how much they enjoyed hearing the song that was played at their wedding, ad nauseum. But we know it’s not like that, is it?

Now that all of the fan/winner/VIP hoopla has been relegated to the before show meet and greet, the aftershow is strictly the domain of the industry (agent/label/promo person), being coerced by management and tradition to meet with the artist on the artist’s turf and try and have a painless conversation, not unlike the photo above of the late Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records with Crosby, Stills & Nash circa 1974. How uncomfortable do they look? Actually, Ahmet seems fine.

Regardless, here’s how it works: Initially, you gather near a backstage entrance, like cattle being led to slaughter, if only to listen to a diatribe from a security or road person about having your stick-on pass visible. Then, like sheep, you’re led down a dimly-lit hallway or two (should you drop breadcrumbs?) to a large room, which is conversely lit up well enough for open-heart surgery. There you will congregate with the bass player’s distant cousins from Peoria and end up in a conversation with them over warm beer and vegetable/cheese trays left over from the before show function. After some interminable amount of time, the artist’s personal assistant will gather you and the other unfortunate industry dweebs for yet another journey down a few more hallways until you are shown into the inner sanctum – the artist’s dressing room.

First, there will be some embarrassing re-introductions because no matter how many times management has told the artist who’s coming backstage, it’s all forgotten. Then you’ll try and help the artist put together who you are, when you last met them, and what you mean to his or her career, oftentimes inflating it more than it really is just to get some kind of positive reaction. Then you’ll talk about what efforts you’ve been making on the artist’s behalf recently and what the results are so far. You can only hope that the artist isn’t more well informed than you are on the subject, otherwise a cross examination could begin that will turn ugly.

But in the end, since there’s really nothing else to talk about, the artist is going to ask you what you thought of the show. Now you have to make a choice. If it were a good show, you’re safe. You can go ahead and say complimentary things and the artist will bask in your intelligent opinions. But what if it were a bad show? What would you say then? If you want to get out with your pride and your pants still intact, read on for some tips. Continue reading…

ART VS. COMMERCE: WHEN ROCK STARS MEET RADIO PROGRAMMERS

“The industry is both the enemy and the best friend of the artist. Trouble is, they need each other.” – Chrissie Hynde

 

Is there anything more uncomfortable or awkward than an artist meeting a radio programmer (as exemplified by the photo above with Bono and The Edge at KTIM-FM in San Rafael CA in 1981)? In the world of music marketing and promotion, it’s an essential piece of the puzzle that is intended to lead to airplay. It’s the artist bearing his or her wares to the marketplace by way of a pitch, a smile, a kind word, a thank you – some sort of person-to-person exchange of pleasantries. It gives meaning to the music and the musician, way beyond anything that a cold, faceless, piece of plastic (or WAV file) can summon up.

No matter how many fans, FB friends, record sales or website hits they have, musical artists (and the industry behind them) still need radio, one station at a time, to make it into the ears and the minds of the general public. Nothing has changed in that respect.

The Internet has not replaced the valuable face time between artist and radio programmer.

This strange bedfellow thing is not a recent development. Sinatra reportedly hung out in radio station studios with all-night deejays hawking his latest releases.  Murray The K deemed himself the “Fifth Beatle” when he befriended the quartet upon their first visit to New York and played their records non-stop and back to back on Top 40 powerhouse WINS. I myself spent 20+ years at Warner/Reprise hauling singers and bands into radio stations and backstage meet and greets – almost 5,000 such events by my count – so I know a thing or two about the execution, dynamics and purpose of this ancient rite. Continue reading…