Monday, March 05, 2007

The Top 10 Corporate Moments In Rock

By: David Schultz

More than 25 years ago, John Mellencamp began his career under the name John Cougar, a name he claimed was foisted upon him in a calculated A&R move to boost album sales and increase radio airplay. Once he had achieved a modicum of success, Mellencamp secured the return of his true surname, spending the next decade releasing material as John Cougar Mellencamp. In 1991, Mellencamp finally shed the Cougar, seemingly regaining every ounce of his artistic integrity. Given Mellencamp's tireless efforts to rid his populist work of any corporate influence, the ultra-ubiquitous use of his latest single "Our Country" in conjunction with the promotion of the Chevy Silverado bears every indicia of "corporate sellout." Long gone are the days when PETA member Chrissie Hynde goes to a Gap outlet and knifes a bunch of leather jackets simply because the shopping mall mainstays requested her consent to use one of her songs in a Gap commercial.

To say that the profitable nature of the record business has skyrocketed since the days of Buddy Holly and "Rock Around The Clock" would be an understatement of gargantuan proportion. The evolution of the "music business" has oftentimes seen the focus placed more on business than music. Basic corporate concepts such as skillful marketing plans, profit maximization and good old Gordon Gekko greed, once inimical to the artistry of the music profession, are now commonplace. On one hand, debuting "Our Country" as a placard for the automotive industry could be considered good marketing, but it also qualifies as just another moment in the uncomfortable marriage between art and commerce . . . and not even one of the more egregious ones. What follows are the ten most severe instances of the artistic vision coming under attack by the corporate mindset.

10. Ed Sullivan Tells The Rolling Stones and The Doors To Keep It Clean

Given Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl, it seems almost quaint that CBS and Ed Sullivan once worried about suggestive lyrics being sung on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1967, The Rolling Stones were slated to make an anxiously anticipated appearance on the legendary variety show and sing "Let's Spend The Night Together." Concerned that the lyrics, tame by today's standards, could prove offensive, CBS censors asked Mick Jagger to change the words. Under threats of being taken off the air if he sang the "offensive" lyric, Jagger complied, rolling his eyes while warbling "let's spend some 'time' together." [The BBC wasn't as prudish] Later that year, the Sullivan show made a similar request to another high-profile artist, but with much different results, Worried that the line, "Girl, we couldn't get much higher," from The Doors' "Light My Fire" promoted drug use, CBS asked The Doors to change the lyric. Playing live without a delay - ah, the trusting pre-wardrobe malfunction era - Jim Morrison got right up into the camera and, much to the dismay of CBSand Sullivan, not only delivered the line unedited, accentuated "higher." The network's crusade to protect tender sensibilities from suggestive rock and roll lyrics didn't succeed. In the aftermath, the two songs went on to be played on classic rock radio a few hundred thousand times without corrupting the nation's youth. However, the same Puritan attitudes exhibited by CBS and those that monitor and oversee network television persist today; Janet Jackson's left breast has not been seen in public since 2004 (at least not without a hand covering it) and the repercussions of her "wardrobe malfunction" are still being felt on network TV and commercial radio.

9. Sony Infects Its Customers' Computers In The Name Of Combating Illegal Copying

In 2005, according to the New York Attorney General, BMG Music placed XCP and MediaMax DRM copy restriction software on a number of CDs, including releases by Trey Anastasio and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The software installed its own CD playback software and prevented the music from being downloaded onto the purchaser's computer in an iPOD compatible format. While Sony portrayed their effort as an ideological blow against the illegal copying and exchanging of copyrighted music, it seemed more of a thumb in the nose to the increasingly popular proliferation of Apple's iTunes. In making sure that their programs went undisturbed and iPOD unfriendly, Sony installed cloaking software that not only rendered them undetectable, it interfered with the way Windows played compact discs, opened security holes that permitted viruses to enter the user's system and transmitted certain data to Sony/BMG from the user's computer. When the problems became known to Sony, they acted arrogantly and denied culpability, drawing the ire of Attorney Generals in New York and Massachusetts. By the time Sony was finished making sure no one publicly or privately duplicated their music, they ceased implementing the software, had to offer "patches" the fix the damage done to their customers' computers and faced a class action lawsuit.

8. The Fan Club Pre-Sale Goes Corporate

Many artists have made a practice of allowing registered members of their fan club to purchase tickets for their shows in advance of the general public. For most fan clubs, membership is free and takes only a minute to complete the online form. Savvy marketers that they are, The Rolling Stones were one of the first artists to take the concept one step further, charging a hefty membership fee for inclusion in their fan club. Other bands like The Who, U2 and recently The Police picked up on the practice, which amounts simply to a premium payment of usually $60 or more, for the right to buy advance tickets. Sad enough that bands found a new way to extract money from their fans' wallets, corporate marketers have recently latched on to this trick. For the recent Best Buy sponsored reunion of The Police, members of Best Buy's Rewards Program had the opportunity to purchase tickets even before The Police's fan club, whose membership fee is $100. Norah Jones' recent concert at the Theater at Madison Square Garden was practically sold out through the Target pre-sale by the time tickets were made available to the rest of her non-Target shopping fans. Corporate sponsorship has become an accepted practice within the touring world, but when purchasing preference of quality concert tickets becomes a Best Buy, Target or any other corporate benefit, it's the fans who will truly suffer.

7. The Grateful Dead Removes Their Soundboards From the Live Music Archives

Inherent to The Grateful Dead's mystique was their willingness to permit their fans to bootleg and trade their live shows. Long before other bands would recognize the benefits to be reaped from the free exchange of live music, The Dead created the model from which they would work. With the advent of the Live Music Archives at archive.org, Deadheads entered the digital age, flooding the site with multiple copies of nearly every Dead show ever played; all with the permission and consent of the venerable San Francisco band. The Grateful Dead were not the first band to change their mind about the availability of their shows on the Archives, but their about-face stung their fans the most.



Citing the detrimental effect on present and future archival CD and DVD releases, the Grateful Dead, upon the initiative of Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, revoked the consent that permitted the Archives to act as a conduit for the exchange of the Dead's shows, denying fans the opportunity to obtain the music for free so that it could be sold to them in the future. "When the music was given away for free to trade, the band was making so much money touring that the music was not as valuable to them," explained Marc Schiller, who assists the Dead with their online marketing. "Apple iTunes has made digital downloads a business." The Dead underestimated the angry, aggrieved response from their fans: like dire wolves they howled vociferously, adamantly pointing to Jerry Garcia's numerous statements that the music belonged to the fans. Bassist Phil Lesh even chimed in to express his bewilderment over the entire issue. Ultimately, a compromise was reached: fans would still be able to freely download shows recorded by their peers but the better-quality soundboard recordings would remain available as streaming audio only - that is, until the Dead decide to release the show commercially and remove it from circulation.

6. John Fogerty Gets Sued For Plagiarizing Himself

In 1985, John Fogerty, the most identifiable member of Creedence Clearwater Revival, released Centerfield, the album that marked the high-water mark of his post-Creedence recording career. As Fogerty had assigned the copyrights to his CCR material to Saul Zaentz' Fantasy Records as part of a deal to get out of his contract, he was loathe to play his old material lest he generate royalties for Zaentz, a man he despised. Once Centerfield, which contained the scathingly derogatory "Zanz Can't Dance" (ultimately changed to "Vanz Kant Danz"), became a certified hit for Warner Bros., Zaenz retaliated as only a scorned corporate mogul can. In a fit of pique, Zaentz sued Fogerty for infringing the copyrights he held on Fogerty's Creedence Clearwater Revival material. Claiming that Fogerty's hit single "Old Man Down The Road" sounded too similar to Creedence's "Run Through The Jungle," Fantasy Records sued Fogerty, marking the first time in history that a label sued a musician for sounding like themselves. Although the Court declined to set a precedent that a musician cannot plagiarize from himself, Fogerty did win at trial. With guitar in hand, Fogerty took the witness stand and took the jury through the songwriting process of each song, showing that a musician can have an archetypal sound without borrowing from past successes. As Fogerty hadn't played Creedence songs in years, seats for the gallery were filled for his performance/testimony. "I was accused of ripping off myself," Fogerty later marveled. "The little boy in me envisions the day I'll actually segue from 'Old Man' right into 'Run Through the Jungle.'"

5. EMI Sees Things In Black And White – Not Grey

Before DJ Danger Mouse became a household name as the skinnier half of Gnarls Barkley, he stood poised to become a highly publicized defendant to a copyright infringement suit at the hands of EMI. Mixing Jay-Z's raps from The Black Album with musical snippets from The Beatles' White Album, Danger Mouse, nee Brian Joseph Burton, created the cleverly-named The Grey Album. Danger Mouse pressed only 3000 copies: none of which he sold, giving them away to his friends instead. However, in the age of the Internet, The Grey Album became a digital success story with copies being downloaded in record numbers. By exposing Beatles fans to Jay-Z and vice versa, Danger Mouse's 2004 venture transcended the lines that usually bracket musical genres, creating an interpretive work to be enjoyed by everyone . . . except EMI Records. While Sony Music/ATV Publishing, a venture between Sony Music and Michael Jackson, own the publishing side of The Beatles catalog, EMI controls The Beatles' sound recordings on behalf of Capitol Records, Inc. At the peak of The Grey Album's success, the hyper-vigilant EMI sent cease-and-desist letters to Danger Mouse and independent retail outlets carrying the album, effectively ceasing distribution of one of rock's most inventive musical works. The concept of reworking Beatles music and vocals in fresh combinations wouldn't be forgotten though. Two years later, EMI would release Love, a recombination of Beatles music overseen by producer George Martin and his son Giles.

4. Ticketmaster Crushes Pearl Jam

At the apex of their early 90s success, Pearl Jam got the bizarre notion in their head that tickets prices for their shows should be kept reasonable, somewhere around $20. Raining on the grunge rockers parade, Ticketmaster's service charges rendered such a dream relatively impossible. When Ticketmaster proved to be killjoy, remaining inflexible on Pearl Jam's demands that they soften their policies on excessive service fees, Pearl Jam refused to play any arena that sold tickets through Ticketmaster. Quickly, they learned that practically every arena in the United States had an exclusive ticket sales agreement with Ticketmaster and that the corporate behemoth threatened lawsuits against any promoter or arena that breached it by using another distributor. Left with no method of selling tickets, Pearl Jam cancelled their 1994 summer tour and brought an antitrust suit alleging that Ticketmaster used a monopolistic domination of the ticket distribution industry to secure a near 30% markup on tickets sales. In the band's view, Ticketmaster was taking unfair advantage of adolescent passion while unreasonably exploiting a marketplace in which they had no competition. Pearl Jam may have won a fleeting battle when Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard testified before Congress but ultimately Ticketmaster would win the war. By 1995, Congress decided against further investigating Ticketmaster's business practices and Pearl Jam's antitrust lawsuit proved unsuccessful. In 1998, heeding the complaints of their fans, who had difficulty acquiring tickets through alternative distributors, the grunge godfathers returned to Ticketmaster arenas. A true victory in every sense of the word for Ticketmaster, their service charges have doubled since the conflict ended.

3. Geffen Sues Neil Young For Not Sounding Like Neil Young

In 1983, David Geffen enticed Neil Young to sign with Geffen Records for considerably less money than Shakey was being offered elsewhere. The incentive that brought Young into Geffen's fold was the assurance that he could make whatever records he wanted without commercial restraint. Right off the bat, Young explored the new found territories of his freedom, testing the patience of his new label by experimenting with computer generated synth-rock and recording Trans, which gave the world an opportunity to hear what might have happened had "Mr. Soul" been recorded by robots. For his next effort, Young recorded Everybody's Rockin', an album of middling Fifties-style rockabilly tunes. Despite the fact that Young was exerting the exact creative freedom promised to him, Geffen wondered exactly they were getting out of their deal and sued Young for making "uncharacteristic music with no chance of commercial success." Even though Trans and Everybody's Rockin' peaked respectively at #19 and #46 on Billboard's album charts, Geffen seemed miffed that they didn't sound like Harvest or Tonight's The Night and demanded the return of $3 million dollars advanced to Young. In response, Young countersued for $21 million, the value of the entire deal. Although the matter ultimately settled, Geffen Records lost some credibility as a label with a commitment to fostering artistic creativity. Backtracking from the allegations of the suit, Geffen later tried to justify it, "The truth is I fought with [Young] because I wanted him to do better work."

2. The "Special Edition" CD

When music fans worldwide embraced compact disc technology in the Eighties, record companies salivated over the ability to sell them music they already owned, albeit in a higher-quality medium. Over the past 25 years, practically every major, minor and obscure album has been released on CD, leaving the labels with the quandary of having to come up with new music for the public to purchase. From this dilemma sprung the insidious creation of the "special edition" CD. Relying on fans' obsession to own the highest quality version of their favorite album, labels "remastered" them, tacked on a couple outtakes and re-released it in an effort to seek an additional $13.99. Already purchased Aqualung on CD? Well, too bad, because now you missed out on the "special edition" containing an interview with Ian Anderson and alternate versions of three songs off their earlier albums. The practice has pervaded practically any new re-issue. For example, although long available on CD, Arista re-released Patti Smith's Horses as a remastered special edition containing one solitary bonus track ("My Generation") and a "legacy edition" containing a second disc with a live performance of Horses. While nicely packaged and presented, the practice smacks of charging full price for an already available product with little fresh material. The practice has spread to Greatest Hits reissues as well. What better way to boost sales for Aerosmith's fourth Greatest Hits collection than to add on a couple rushed together new songs? Even when the re-issue does it right, like the "special edition" of Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run, the labels use the bona fide extras (e.g. concert footage, classic photos and copious liner notes) as an excuse to obscenely jack up the price.

1. Woodstock 99

Raping their own legacy and sinking to deplorable depths of capitalistic corporate behavior, Woodstock's organizers tried one last time to milk a dollar out of 3 more days of peace love and music. To counteract the storied legions of festival-goers who crashed the gates at the original Bethel, NY concert and its 1994 Saugerties, NY sequel, Woodstock 99 took place at the well-defended Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, NY. The fenced in, concrete covered space not only kept anyone without a $150 ticket (a steep price at that time) outside the gates, it also trapped in the 90 degree heat. Bringing life to the grizzly yet surefire marketing concept of selling water in the desert, the festival's organizers were more than happy to hydrate the sweltering fans - for $6 a bottle. Contrary to the spirit of brotherhood fostered at the original Woodstock, everything at Woodstock 99 was for sale, with corporate tents and ATMs set up throughout the grounds. By Sunday night, the breaking point had been reached. Limp Bizkit's "Break Stuff" seemed to inspire many in the crowd to recklessness and by the time the Red Hot Chili Peppers launched into Jimi Hendrix' "Fire," rowdy, lawless fans had attacked numerous booths, ruined a great deal of merchandise and destroyed the Woodstock myth beyond repair. Woodstock 99's desire to wring every last cent out of their franchise, to the point of turning the crowd into a dehydrated, captive mass of marketing targets for food, water and merchandise, created the circumstances that led to the perfect storm of revolt against the "noble" corporate goal of maximizing profits at the expenses of the most communal, anti-commercial festival in rock and roll history.

16 comments:

Rinjo Njori said...

See you got a nice little mention on Idolator....

http://idolator.com/tunes/aggregated-assault/aggregated-assault-what-the-music-blogs-are-posting-right-now-241483.php

Frank said...

Great job on the list. Now we're starting to hear Nirvana songs on commercials for MLB video games. Somebody please kill me.

D said...

Ed Sullivan was taped and definitely NOT live without a delay. That entire section is inaccurate.

D said...

traditionally fan clubs always cost money, particularly in the 1950s-60s when you'd get photos, newsletters and other things. This entire article is crap written by someone who has no idea about rock and roll and what it means. In 2 minutes I'm spotting error after error. Danger Mouse's grey album is an innovative work? It's the DEFINITION of a derivative work! harrumph! any of you buying this tripe, I got a bridge to sell ya

Noodleman said...

The Ed Sullivan Show was a live, Sunday evening broadcast until the early '70s.

David said...

I was at Wooodstock 99 as it was fairly close to where I lived at the time.

People were cheering the rioters. I cheered as well. I mean, four dollars for HALF A SUB when they told you not to bring in food or drink? Eff you, greedy organizers. I'm glad it burned.

Garett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Garett said...

Ed Sullivan was live, but occasionally used pre-taped performances (such as the Beatles second appearance, which was actually taped prior to their live, first appearance...)

And the article said that The Grey Album was 'inventive' (which it certainly was), not innovative.

Matt said...

The real Ed Sullivan clip is here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Rl3EVdFFFw

He doesn't act like the poser that Stone and Kilmer make him out to be, he just sings the lyric.

Very corny to cite Stone's work as if it was based on fact.

Publius Valerius Publicola said...

I'm with Matt on the Doors entry. Morrison did NOT lean in to the camera or in way exaggerate the lyric to highlight the word "higher." That's just something Oliver Stone did in his movie to hype the moment into something completely distorted from reality. You may have noticed in the past, but that's what he does as a filmmaker. Watch the archival footage of the Doors performance and you'll see Morrison sings it very plain vanilla, nothing special. In his book, Ray Manzarek especially objected to Stone's depiction of this scene.

Tristin said...

Any list chronicling the history of corporate BS ruining the enjoyment of music is meaningless without mentioning the infamous Metallica/Napster ordeal. I think it's safe to say that no band, no label, and no corporation has ever done something so despicable to its fans or won the pure hatred of so many people as Metallica did when it single-handedly initiated the war against internet file-sharing that we are all painfully aware of today. Damn you, James. Damn you, Lars.

steph said...

To David:

Four dollars four half of a sub is standard price... I mean, the water bottle thing is ridiculous, but I've never seen a half sub under 3.29, and that would be a vegetarian sub.

Why does that price warrant such emphasis?

Rod said...

Not sure if you meant to say that Buddy Holly wrote "Rock Around The Clock," but your article kinda makes it seem that way. He didn't... it was Bill Haley and the Comets.

Sorry to nitpick.

seamus said...

Steph, this was 8 years ago. The food and drink were subject to "event pricing," which is only outrageous in that it was a *three-day* concert that banned outside food and water. I didn't go, but a friend told me it was impossible to spend less than $75/day just for basic survival.

Frank, you shoulda heard last year's MLB soundtrack. Nirvana was a major label band that played stadiums. Last year featured Pavement, Mogwai, and Belle & Sebastian. I don't know what's supposed to be bad about this.

Jad said...

Word.

http://threepints.blogspot.com/

deadfocr said...

Although a fun article, as a life long member of the society of Deadheads I must take issue with that dollar bill with Jerry's image. When Bobby Weir pulled the Dead sounboards from the online Archives, Jerry had been dead for 10+ years.

Bob

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Grace Potter Rocking The Gear circa 2006!