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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Forgotten History of American Independent Music

Record Makers and Breakers
Voices of the Independent Rock n' Roll Pioneers
by John Broven
p. 2009

     I was stunned to learn that this book was published LAST YEAR.  It is, to my knowledge, the ONLY comprehensive history of the Golden Age of American Independent Record Labels, from 1949 through 1960.  Golden Age?  By Golden Age I mean that in 1957 independent record labels had 60% of the chart records, and the majors had 40%.  Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, modern indies.

   This is a time period that should be openly worshipped by those who participate in the production and consumption of independent popular music today.  Independent record labels never had it so good either before or since.  I blame the neglect of this pioneering period on the romantic affections of the 60s rock scene- 60s rock guys act like the Beatles invented rock and roll and like the youth market didn't exist before Woodstock.  Independent label owners have also picked up a bad rep from the artist canonizing writer intellectuals of the last 30 years.  You can't pick up a book about a black musician from the 20th century without hearing about some white independent record label owner "ripping them off."   Like these guys got rich while the artist starved.  FALSE.   As author John Broven demonstrates, reality was much more complicated then simplistic artist vs. capitalist exploiter narrative.

   Perhaps the single most insightful observation in a book filled with 500+ pages of interviews is made by Mimi Tepel.  Mimi Tepel was the department manager for London Record in America- the American licensing arm of Decca in the UK.  It was through this relationship that rock came to the UK and Tepel was the WOMAN who made the arrangement between the NYC/American indies and Decca itself.  When asked about the payment of royalties by American Indies to their artists- and we're talking about th 1950s here- she says "It's hard to blame the label owners because they were taking artists who were simply being ignored... and making it into something."

   As this book recounts, as soon as the major labels figured it out, the independents started to die.  The story of the record men of the 1940s and 1950s is the most inspiring case study in the history of the culture industry.  Individuals with little or no resources, acting loosely in cooperation with one another, were able to beat corporations at their own game for several years running.  During this period they partnered with individual artists to create an enduring artistic movement (early rock and roll) that stands up in terms of quality, with any group of french painters or greek sculptors.

   I suppose there are people out there who don't think that Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley stack up to Beethoven or Rembrandt, but I'm guessing those folks don't read this blog.   Also, I have to circle back to the fact that this book was published in 2009.  The paperback edition was published in January.  I'm 100% sure that there is nothing else even APPROACHING this book in coverage of this subject.

     The analysis of economic history was most striking, specifically because it is such a f****** train wreck.  The individuals- artists and business men alike, who come out alive are the ones who held on to the rights to hit songs and those who moved up the ladder of corporate capitalism.  EVERYONE gets absorbed or goes bankrupt before the end of this book.  Record Makers and Breakers is primarily a book of interviews- no grand historical narrative here, but it's hard to ignore the financial ruin that accompanies every #1 hit.  The immediate response of every business man who scored a hit record during this period is to pour more money into the pursuit of another hit, and failing.  The economics of record production in this period were simultaneously flush and incredibly harsh in a manner that reminds me of Dickensian era factory capitalism in Manchester, UK.  The people in this book- the businessmen- would sell millions of records in 1957 and literally be out of the business in 1958.  Most of the interviews were conducted in 2006-2008 with these old former label owners and Broven actually writes sentences like "he would never recover from the loss of those copyrights."  Unbelievable.  Sobering.

    Here is the take away from Record Makers and Breakers:  If you are an artist or a professional, and you get a hit, you better hold on to the rights.  If you're an artist, it is much better to be a song writer then a song performer.  There is an amazing infrastructure to maintain and maximize payments made to song writers.  Song performers on the other hand, can eat a big ole dick.  The 60s rock romantic rock star image has def. blurred what used to be a fairly straight forward division between the song writer and the song performer.  Usually, they aren't the same person- or they weren't in the past.  If you have a long term hit, more money will be made through administration of the performing royalties and the publishing (paid to the writer) then any money that can be made through the sale of the recording or payment for the live performance of the song.

  Whatever crazy crap has happened to artists and record companies, none of that bothers the performing rights societies (ASCAP/BMI/SESAC) and music publishing.  That shit is...rock solid.  It's so rock solid you don't even hear about it.  In conclusion, it was hard to ignore the role of the "hit" in this massive history.  Broven actually notes chart position when he talks about specific recording.  The history can be complicated because it used to be quite common for different companies to pay separate artists to record the same song, and then the songs would compete on the charts.

   This book made me appreciate my friend Josh Feingold, who works for SESAC, which like ASCAP and BMI, administers performance royalties for song writers.  Some of my musicians friends are so successful that they get quarterly checks to represent the fact that their music is widely distributed and listened to.  After reading this book I realize that this system has been supporting song writers (but not the performers unless they wrote the song) since the recording industry existed, and it is many of those people who continue to play a role in nurturing contemporary independent musicians.

   None of this works unless you have a song that you wrote, that is recorded and then widely listened to.  If you are a musician who writes and performs music but doesn't understand how publishing and performing rights royalties work... you are an amateur.  This book conclusively proves that fact.



Sexy arabic said...

Nice post its the Golden Age in in 1957 independent record labels had 60% of the chart records. It was a growing period for music: Sexy arabic

nicolettico said...
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