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Friday, December 02, 2011

Fallon, David Lynch and the Passion of Semisonic (Book Review)

So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star
by Jacob Slichter
p. 2004
Broadway Books (an imprint of Random House)

   Couple things going on in my world- a friend made her late night television debut on Jimmy Fallon.  Another friend spent a cozy Los Angeles afternoon with David Lynch.  I talked business with one friend, and admired the accomplishment of the other one from afar, not being involved in her business in that manner.  It makes me stop and think, "What Does It All Mean?"

     Little might I imagine that I would find the answer in a book written by arch one-hit wonder band member Jacob Slichter in his, amazing, immortal memoir of the major label roller coaster: So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star.  Specifically, Slichter was the drummer in Minneapolis' own Semisonic, who provided 1999 with one of it's memorable hits, "Closing Time."  If you don't... remember that song, go watch the video now.

   Long story short, they had a Platinum record, but the label (MCA) considered it a flop.  For their second record they "self  produced" it and dilly-dallied right over the ledge- releasing it in the post Napster environment of 2001, where it sold an astonishingly low (for it's time) 10,000 "units" in the first week.  The funniest thing is that Slichter omits the fact that in the same year their second record flopped, the music industry basically imploded, and hasn't stopped imploding since.  Semisonic's first record was one of the last success stories in alt rock before the floor fell out.

      The essence of the ground shifting that happened under Semisonic's feet is that they spent 300,000 on a video for their SECOND record- the record that sold 10,000 copies in it's first week.  10,000 copies doesn't  buy the catering and costume on a 300,000 video.  This was after their first lp had "failed" as a  Platinum seller.  Not to belabor or parrot Steve Albini or tired DIY principles,  but any time someone offers to spend 10,000 either by advancing it or spending it on something OTHER then production of a record, it's because they know you will very likely never, ever see another dime.   Whoever is offering the money is doing that to ensure that they can sell a good amount of product and STILL never pay you.

   Slichter is no dummy (Harvard grad) and he paints a convincing picture of how a sensible indie musician can get caught up in such madness.  One observation that he makes which I thought apt, is that the audience for a major label musician is essentially the MONEY of the major label- the audience we're talking about follows the MONEY around.  These are the passive listeners- they listen to commercial radio, don't read pitchfork and will find out about a new band in a social occasion rather then on their own.

  At a certain level of Audience size, the Artists is essentially irrelevant, he/she/they just needs to be the product that the major label money- a limited resource- is advancing.  The specific illustration of this principle in So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star has to do with the competition between Semisonic and the New Radicals.  As Slichter describes, both Artists had a "hit single" at the same time and the question was, "Which song will we push across radio formats?"  Because doing that- pushing a single onto different formats (from alt rock to adult contemporary, for example) requires another substantial investment.  This in addition to the money spent getting a song on one radio format.

  As I've observed on this blog on multiple occasions, true success for the musical artist is found only when their music is available on multiple commercial radio formats at the same time.  But here's the thing about the experience of Slichter and Semisonic- everything he says about the operation of the major label system remains firmly in place.  Despite the catastrophes, the same system operates, and the object of that system is to deny the Artist authenticity by positioning them for an Audience that essentially doesn't give a shit about music.

  So great, you say, "Obvious- how do you avoid that?"  For Semisonic  the answer was basically, they couldn't- but not from lack of effort.  Slichter is acutely conscious of the fallacies of the major label advance system, and Semisonic laments the lack of effort by their publisher, joyously describes a song writing collabo with Carole Kane and rails against the poor results of placing songs in motion picture and television shows.  These guys weren't what I would call, "dumb rock stars"- quite the opposite.  In the end though, it's all for naught.  When LP2 sells 10,000 copies in it's first week, and the previous Platinum selling record was considered a disappointment, well, that is all she wrote, at least at the major label level.

  After reading this book you don't feel sorry for anyone, but it is essential, mandated, required reading for anyone contemplating a contractual relationship with a major label level entity. My final observation is that an Artist is better having a career where you earn 20-30k a year for 3-5 years then starting out in year one with an income/budget of 100k plus.

     To the extent that an Artist is going to successfully engage one of these sponsoring entities, it's essentially via an accounting degree and literally negotiating each expenditure.  And good luck with that, my friend.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dean Martin's Palm Springs House (photo)


Dean Martin's Palm Springs House. (FLICKR)

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