Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Vanished World

I made a big point in the first post about how TR's music has been viewed in the context of the record business—pardon me, I guess I mean the music industry—how it has been ghettoized by commercial categorization and expectations. And so it has, but as much as i'd like to put the music industry on a high shelf at the back of a closet and ignore it until the whole mess sorts itself out, I'm going to have to talk about it, because TR's adversarial relationship with the industry has shaped his work in ways that we have to understand if we're going to get at the work itself.

Like Duke Ellington, who got almost testy when his music was referred to as jazz (he preferred calling it "American music" and letting it go at that), TR always chafed at being labeled as a pop or rock 'n' roll musician. And labeling is essential in mass marketing.

Whether you're moving widgets or deodorant, self-help books or designer jeans or music, mass marketing reasonably enough dictates that the enormous expenses of distribution and promotion be offset by huge sales. Once you're in that horse race, the odds are heavily stacked against you for reasons obvious, obscure, obtuse, ever-changing and eternal: You're too far ahead of the times, you're behind the times (or outside them all together); you're unknown or too familiar; they want more of what you did last time, they want something completely different; you're a blonde chanteuse with a whiskey contralto and so is the singer who is the flavor of the week.

In the late '60s, when baby boomers ruled the charts, the landscape for popular music was unimaginably fertile. Marketing was relatively unsophisticated—A&R people relied on their ears, as did radio programmers and disc jockeys. While there were some specialty markets, it was possible to listen to a big radio station and hear a variety of music, unlike the narrowly targeted stations of today. The successful TV variety shows offered everything from the Bolshoi Ballet to the Beatles, with Chinese plate spinners in between. The Saturday morning cartoon shows were actual shows, not half-hour commercials: Their content was not based on the toys or games their sponsors were selling.

Of course record labels were looking for the next big thing, but there was so much money around and there were so many kids affluent enough to buy a lot of different stuff that the market could support diversified lineups of artists. It also helped that records were relatively cheap—at $2 for recent stuff in the cut-out bins and $4 or
$5 for new releases, a curious listener could afford to experiment, and so could the labels.

And there were a lot more labels. While marketing has grown ever more niche-oriented, ever narrower, so have possible markets. There were more than two or three viable major labels, just as there were more than two or three major book publishers. Different companies actually had different qualities; to a degree unknown today they reflected the quirks and preferences of the men who ran them (at that time these were often the same guys who had founded them).

Bearsville Records certainly fit this description. While many people thought Todd owned the label, its CEO was Albert Grossman, the Ben Franklin look-alike who had made a name (and a lot of money) managing Dylan, Janis Joplin, and even Jimi Hendrix (although if I remember correctly, Hendrix had signed contracts with a lot of people), among others. Albert offered Todd a way out of the creative morass that had engulfed Nazz, his first band to garner mainstream attention in the national market, and an opportunity to learn engineering and production.

It is worth noting that following the disappointments of his first go-round in the big-time, that TR thought production was the road for him. A producer is not subject to the same restrictions as an artist under contract to a label. As long as people want his services, he can work. A producer has considerably more control over his work than an artist does. While his sound may go out of style, if his skills are good he should be able to find some kind of paying work, even if it isn't as glamorous as producing major acts.

TR says that at that time he had no ambition to become a performer himself. There's no reason not to believe him, but there was some point when his ambitions shifted and expanded. That is, he was still happy to be a producer—Albert said he would make him the highest-paid producer in the world, and while I don't know whether he succeeded, he did get top dollar for TR's services. But never being one to think small, TR decided he would become not just a performer, but would be unlike anyone who had come before him. He would use his profile as an artist to promote his ideas about the world, about life, and he would do it on his own terms. As Charles Foster Kane would say of himself, "Those are the only terms anyone knows—his own."

And that's when the trouble started.