Thursday, July 03, 2003

July 4 Top Twenty Countdown!
by Wayne Robins. (choose your own direction, or at random)

Funkadelic: "One Nation Under A Groove."
Bruce Springsteen: "Atlantic City."
Neil Young: "Cortez the Killer"
The Mothers of Invention: "Help I'm A Rock"
R.E.M. "What''s the Frequency, Kenneth?"
Elvis Presley: "Patch It Up" (from "That's the Way It Is")
Jon Langford & the Sadies: "What Makes Johnny Run?"
The Melodies: "Vacation" (from "Treasure Isle Knock Out Ska")
Ike Turner Orchestra: "Cuban Getaway" (from R&B Confidential No. 1: The Flair Label).
Television: "Marquee Moon"
Jefferson Airplane: "Volunteers"
Alejandro Escovedo: "Castanets"
Arthur Lee Maye and the Crowns: "Oochie Pachee"
Joe Cuba Sextet: "El Pito (Never Goin' Back to Georgia)"
Belle & Sebastian: Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie
Cornershop: Brimful of Asha"
Guy Clark: "Ramblin' Jack and Mahan":
The Soundtrack of Our Lives: "Sister Surround"
The Streets: "Stay Positive"
White Stripes: "Lord, Send Me An Angel"

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

by Wayne Robins

Just yesterday I was thinking about my increasing ambivalence about the issue of file sharing. As the board of directors that meets inside my mind sifted through the arguments, the mail arrived with the new (July 7 cover date) issue of The New Yorker.
Staff writer John Seabrook writes a Reporter at Large piece called "The Money Note" in the table of contents, with the sub-head: "Is it still possible to create a pop star?" The sub-head on page 42 asks a more pertinent question: "Can the record business survive?"

In the great New Yorker tradition, Seabrook's article is a masterpiece of understated observation, of concise history, of subtle but piercing analysis.

Framing the story is the effort by Lava Records
mogul Jason Flom to create a star of a singer named Cherie, a raw teenage talent with some incredible assets and some challenging debits. The asset is a voice, which, when the Sephardic Jewish singer from Marseilles sings a Jacques Brel song for Seabrook in a rather too-state-of-the-art Santa Monica studio, he gets it: "Chills."

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Cherie's unaccompanied rendition of sophisticated French cabaret music of half a century ago is not the driving force that moves units in today's desperate mega-hit-or-miss record industry. Seabrook's most devastating observation is a book in the hands of one of the songwriters Flom has commissioned to craft hits for what he describes as his "five million dollar bet." The songwriter, Paul Moessl, was clutching "The Book of Positive Quotations," which the composer was consulting for lyric ideas.
From song content to image, Cherie presents a quandary for those like Flom, who see the music business as a marketing challenge, devising hit records to "make stars on a global scale now."

The brilliance of Seabrook's piece is the context in which he places Flom, who has earned well over $50 million (the price Seabrook says Atlantic paid him two years ago for his remaining half of Lava, whose biggest hit was "Devil Without A Cause" by Kid Rock) for understanding what makes hits in the contemporary market. (While working at Atlantic, where he started as a 19 year old in 1989, he also signed hitmakers Matchbox 20).

Seabrook lets this fact speak for itself, and allows the reader to ask the question: Who is minding the cash register at Time Warner, of which Atlantic and Lava are brands in the deeply troubled music division? Why pay $50 million for half of a label whose only discernible assets are Flom's track record and the dubious appeal of Kid Rock. Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock are said to be splitting. It should be noted that Anderson's second-greatest asset is her instinct for her partners' having passed at least their creative peaks.

Seabrook contrasts the era of Flom (whose father is one of the founders of New York's patrician law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom) with that of passionate men with both ears for hits and taste for artistry, like Island's founder Chris Blackwell, Warner's builder Mo Ostin, and Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, who started the label in the late 1940's, signing artists he adored, like like Ray Charles and Professor Longhair.

But the comparisons are subtle. Seabrook knows that the Jason Flom's of the music biz have inherited an industry attempting to function in an increasingly digital world without understanding a thing about the social, economic, and attitudinal changes that have shaken it since the blessing, and then curse, of the invention of the CD. The question at the end remains the same one Seabrook poses at the beginning: can a property like Cherie be fashioned into an artist, or is it nothing more, or less, than building a better karaoke singer?

(c) 2003 Wayne Robins. All rights reserved.

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