Posted by: Michael D. Austin | May 19, 2016

Paying Our Muses Well

Les Baxter's LP, Ritual of the Savage

Les Baxter’s LP, Ritual of the Savage

This is for all of us who love music, and who also listen to it on our smartphones, tablets, and computers. Now, the way we all ‘purchase’ and consume music —  its format — is changing yet again. This finally seeped into my awareness from an unexpected article in Digital Music News, which I mention below.

I became a paying audiophile at the tail-end of the LP era. I bought my first LP, The Moody Blues’ “On the Threshold of a Dream,” at age 13. One of my albums also included Santana’s, “Abraxas.” I still remember the way my dad’s eyebrows rose slightly when he saw its cover ;-)

Depending on how you count them, my time in this body has seen no less than seven format changes in the delivery of music:

  • vinyl including LPs and 45s
  • AM radio
  • 1/4″ reel-to-reel tape
  • FM radio
  • 8-track cartridges
  • compact cassettes (3.8 mm tape)
  • Sirius radio subscriptions on dedicated boxes in my home and car
  • CDs, the non-starter large laser discs, DVDs, Blu-ray, and now 4K
  • digital files on iPods, smartphones, and computers, and now,
  • streaming via the computing cloud
Whipped Cream & Other Delights, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass

Whipped Cream & Other Delights, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass

There was one party with my parent’s friends when I was around 10 years old when I stood silently awed in front of AM radio legend, Robert Weston Smith, known in the Los Angeles region as Wolfman Jack. He regarded me patiently. The Rolling Stone’s “Satisfaction,” and Sam the Sham and the Pharoah’s, “Wooly Bully,” were pounding over the loudspeakers.

By age 13 I’d been listening for over a decade to my parents LPs which included show tunes, the de rigueur Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass of the time, and also their version of instrumental music for love, exotica (Read: sex ;-). Although my parents started what was said to be the seventh Sister City program in the United States with my hometown and a city in Mexico, we had no banda music LPs.

Two of my mom’s favorite LPs, to which she would sometimes sing, were the soundtracks from Rodger’s & Hammerstein’s movie, South Pacific, and also The Music Man. I can still carry the tune and remember some of the lyrics from The Music Man. At a drive-in theater, from the middle seat of my parents’ Wimbledon White, 1965 Ford Country Sedan station wagon, that movie was the first time I’d seen the astounding Robert Preston perform.

I can still sing some of the song, “Edelweiss,” from my memory of the movie version of Rodger’s & Hammerstein’s stage musical, The Sound of Music. Decades later both my son and I were surprised that he was going to school with Julie Andrew’s grandson, and his then middle-school friend described her personality tongue-in-cheek as, “annoyingly cheerful.” At at a young age, at Los Angeles’ Music Center, I was in the audience with my parents to watch Zorba. 

Gratefully, I missed the reel-to-reel and 8-track days. They were fiddly and somewhat short-lived. But compact cassettes had become popular in my 20s, although they were especially perishable because their technology was prone to fast degradation from heat and by simply playing them lots. So I collected only a few of them. Richard Marx’s eponymous 1980’s album on audiocassette is the one I can recall in this moment. From his song, “Don’t Mean Nothin,” “It don’t mean nothin’, no victim, no crime… it don’t mean nothin’ until you sign it on the dotted line,” he wrote and sang from first-hand experience about the cut-throat nature of the publishing and production companies of the music business. Inspired by his song and this article, I just paid iTunes its $1.29 to own and hear it again.

All of this music came from real people, with real lives. And, I have lots of first-hand experiences with, and can relate to musicians and singers. In college I sang tenor and baritone in a vocal ensemble which spread the good word of PDQ Bach’s tongue-in-cheek, “The Seasonings.” I took a little music theory to have a clue what was printed on the sheet music from which I was supposed to read. I also had a tutor for it. I also fronted a garage band for a little while, which never got to the gigs stage because it’s hard to keep even a good band together and have a life. And, although it’s not the same thing as being a published, touring musical artist, it’s not like I have no experience:  For fun and gettin’ by money I performed singing telegrams while I was in college.

To start doing that, I pulled out what used to be called a phone book, scanned the yellow pages, and got excited by the idea of singing telegrams. About the next day I showed up, without an appointment at the Balloon-o-Grams shop in what used to be Santa Barbara’s Piccadilly square. Proprietress Joann hired me on the spot. She asked if I could roller-skate (well) and I lied, “Yes.” Usually I sang simple standards like The Birthday Song. Once in a while I’d pen an original limerick or song because I was having fun.

I drove my own ’65 VW microbus camper to the gigs for her flat rate pay of $10, for about 45 minutes’ work. My bus’ name was Milton P. Quicksilver. Of course, quick he wasn’t. But he was steady. I paid my own gas, insurance, and upkeep on the ride. Even with tips, I often I broke even and figured that was OK because I was a student at university.

The Evidence

The Evidence

Although one of my favorite delivery costumes was simply a bright blue baseball cap with stuffed, yellow lightning bolts, my first-ever delivery was in a gorilla costume, to a pretty, petite birthday girl at a boutique advertising agency. My bravado, and likely the fact that I picked her up and carried her while I sang to her, made her and her workmates think I was pro. I was almost as surprised as they were :-)

And, yes, the parties I got invited to were amazing. Another of my patrons, who hired me to deliver at a party in honor of her boss passing the CA Bar exam. In my gorilla suit I sang romantically to her boss, which greatly and gleefully embarrassed her. Which was exactly the point of what I was asked to do. Her employee, my very pretty patron, was maybe 19. I was about 23. After I was done with my act my patron invited me to stay. I shucked my gorilla suit and got myself a drink.

It was around an hour later at the party, after the social lubricants had been imbibed, and after dark. Since we were in the foothills of Santa Barbara at a wonderful home with Spanish architecture, everyone game for it had just stripped naked and stepped into the hot tub. The tub was almost full, and there was only one spot left to sit. Some wise-ass male joked when my patron came late for her entrance. Since I’ve never asked her I’m still not sure if she came late from modesty, or she instead wanted to make an entrance. Of course, it could have also been both. But buck naked since she was the last one to step into the tub, and wise-ass guy cracked in a loud voice, “Oh look! They float!”

Mike and Harvey, dressedMonths later, after I had abandoned singing telegrams because my interest in being paid so I could eat had outweighed my interest in performing, I unexpectedly saw my patron again. She was standing across the floor of the Standard Brands Paint store at which I clerked. We locked gazes other across 30 yards. I walked over to say hello.

My co-worker, Dave, was having a serious conversation with her about how to paint her and her husband’s house. Her husband wasn’t there. Latex or oil-based? What colors would she like?

While I grinned broadly, she quickly spoke first when I walked quietly up to them. She said brightly, “Hi! I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.” Dave turned so lobster red I’ve never seen anyone that color since that time. He shrank speechlessly away. She and I stayed friends a long time, even during her second marriage, and her two children by a good man who was also a good attorney.

For every successful musical superstar, there must be thousands who never remotely succeeded in their dream. Although I’ve had warm, personal backstage conversations with the likes of Al Jarreau, or the band Air Supply, their successes are exceptional. While you’re reading this, it would serve everyone  —  including you  —  to remember that most of that music is produced by artists who pour their hearts and souls into their work. As with any work which requires high levels of skill and frequent dedication which borders on insanity, its creators deserve to be paid very well. Artists who help us move, shape and recreate our world fresh every time we listen to their inspired work should be treated no differently. Right?

Bill Wadhams

Bill Wadhams

When I first arrived in Los Angeles, my girlfriend at the time had a friend, Ann, whose boyfriend was the lead singer in the band Animotion. Bill Wadhams is his name. I watched him and their band perform on-stage at the local punk rock hang, Madame Wong’s, just a little while before their only big hit, “Obsession,” began charting. He didn’t write it.

Off-stage, Bill had said that he actually detested singing the song. I don’t know if he feels the same way about it now, as I see that Animotion reunited in around 2001 and they’re still performing. But back then, after the song started charting, the owner of the band’s name personally canned all it’s members, trying to start over fresh with new members. I take satisfaction that the owner failed because none of the band deserved that treatment as far as I could see. It seems that Bill has yet to retire to his mansion in the south of France with a full house staff from his earnings as a musician and artist.

Janice Gerard

Janice Gerard

Later that decade, there was also a 6 1/2 year stretch of time in the late 1980s when I lived with a knockout singer-songwriter. She was beautiful, petite, and had pipes to match the best of ’em. She could cover Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” She could cover Janis Joplin or pretty much any rock or show tune. She could growl at the top of her voice or sing gentle lullabies. We had amazing parties with our musical friends. One of them was a hardware engineer for an aerospace company, who wrote and played his own, unpublished songs. And she worked lots of wedding parties and New Year’s celebrations so she could sing professionally. It was her dream to go pro and perform her own music.

She suffered for her art. She wrote beautiful, moving songs. She even wrote, sang and recorded quite a good song, about and dedicated to me. She somehow wrangled a contract with Paul Simon’s producer, Hilton Rosenthal, to perform and publish her own music. She opted to bail out of the cut-throat musical originals game in her mid-30s, when her contract, and her prospects as a pro musician performing their own originals, didn’t pan out to her satisfaction. Wisely she put a time limit on her career with her originals. I figure that was smart, as the music business is and was one of the toughest industries in the world in which to excel. To express her personal love of music, she still does covers. She still lives in California, and is married to a guy who provides them a comfortable living from his profession as an insurance executive.

Karen Hart

Karen Hart

My brilliantly-talented singer introduced me to another musically-active couple. The husband had been a tour manager for bands like Rush, Chaka Khan, and the Motels. The wife recorded, performed and sang her own original songs, and she still does. Her original music is featured in John Waters’ 1985 movie, Lust in the Dust.

In addition to her own music, Karen Hart’s beautiful, amazing voice is the one you hear when superstar Sigourney Weaver lipsyncs her lullaby in the movie, “Snow White:  A Tale of Terror.” Later, from love Karen gifted my second wife, me, and our wedding reception guests by performing her music. For free. But to the best of my knowledge, Karen and her husband weren’t ever featured on Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous ;-)

Fiorella Terenzi (photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)

Fiorella Terenzi (photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)

Through an introduction by Karen’s husband, in that same decade I happened to find myself standing with, and talking to the same beautiful woman about whom Thomas Dolby wrote his famous song, “She Blinded Me With Science.” Her name is Fiorella Tirenzi, and she’s an astrophysicist. We were at an event in Malibu to discuss art, passion, and community.

Terenzi’s also her own musician, who has written and published her music. We talked for around half an hour about personal passions. I asked her if she had ever lost hers. She said she nearly did when she was doing the mind-deadening work of cataloguing stars to earn her doctorate. She stuck with her primary work and teaching as a college professor instead of doing music full time. In looking up what Tirenzi has been doing lately, it seems she has done well, but it hasn’t been because she made millions from her music to buy her own space exploration craft.

kevyn13There are more artists I have known who struggled and triumphed to deliver the art from their hearts. For a while I was spending social time with the astonishingly-talented Kevyn Lettau. I met her when I showed up one night at the now-gone La Velee jazz club in Studio City, CA, expecting to see some great jazz act fronted by a man.

Instead, before the show began, a willowy blonde walked up to the lead mic and checked its height. That was Kevyn. I was very surprised. Her performance was electrifying, and she was accompanied by the Yellowjacket’s Russell Ferrante. I bought several of her albums on CD.

My pretty patron from my singing telegram days came to hear Kevyn perform at La Velee, because my patron’s daughter aspired to be a pro singer and had a fabulous voice for a 12 year-old. Both mother and daughter were astounded by her vocal range and skill. Kevyn’s was the voice of Philippine Airline’s advertising songs. She still lives in California, and hasn’t yet bought her own airline from her earnings as a musical artist.

Karen Briggs, jazz violinist

Karen Briggs, jazz violinist

Then, around 2008, there was the night that I watched, from five feet away, the astounding talent of Karen Briggs as she riffed her electric violin on her sublime original tune, “Scheherazade’s Groove.” She was on fire! At La Velee she gave one of the most enthralling performances I’ve ever seen for very little gate money. Her sweet, 11 year-old daughter was selling admission tickets at the door. By herself. She also helped to sell Karen’s CDs during the show breaks.

And although Karen has performed with very popular musicians including Yanni, at Greece’s Acropolis, it doesn’t look to me like she has moved to the sunny Mediterranean.

Now, put all this experience in the context of published music, the callings and needs of artistry, and changes in published music formats for everyone. The world is again changing music delivery formats. In my own history, in the early 1990s I started selling or giving away my modest collection of wonderful LPs. They included Simple Minds, the Eurythmics, Peter Gabriel, Level 42, U2, Tears for Fears, Cock Robin, one Blood, Sweat and Tears compilation, and Genesis. I had already started collecting CDs. They were comparatively inexpensive for how long they lasted. I didn’t own any Sting, and only one Springsteen compilation which was a gift. And although there’s definitely a difference between the sound quality of analogue LP recordings compared to CDs, all of us except the most discerning audiophiles prefer the ease and convenience of optical discs. I never owned a laser video player because I felt they and their discs were luxuriously expensive.

All that musical artistry above affected me. I can still sing many of the songs on those albums from memory. All those artists’ songs were especially important to me because their inspired creators captured in time the specific essence of invaluable, universal human emotions. For everyone. The artists who created them worked long and hard, and suffered to bring them to us. In 2009 Kevyn graciously agreed to let me use one of my favorite songs of hers, “Pickin’ Weeds,” as Blue Planet Almanac’s theme song. She wasn’t paid for that because Blue Planet Almanac was produced pro bono by me, for two years. I, too, have ‘given blood’ at the office.

All of us who appreciate and listen to inspired music benefit from the hard-won personal growth, sufferings and triumphs of the living, breathing artists who created them. One of my favorites lines about this is from the Tears for Fears song, “Working Hour,” which observes ,“We are paid by those who learn by our mistakes.”

Yes, it looks like we’re smack in the middle of yet another format change. I didn’t see it coming when I bought my first smartphone, an iPhone 3GS. I expected the digital storage formats to last a while. But then I’m not in the music industry. I got the iPhone because my son observed casually one day that for someone like me who loves so much music, a smartphone combining many functions would be perfect. He was right. I’ve been very, very happy with the format change. My collection of around 250 CDs is somewhere in a box. The ones I wanted to have handy are currently stored in iTunes.

Personally, I have 15.9 continuous days of sound files, mostly music, in my iTunes 11.x installation on my PC. I ‘own’ it all. That’s 4,097 items comprising 33+ GB. A fair chunk of my music was purchased through Apple’s iTunes Store. Some was imported from CDs, and only a few files were imported from friend’s CDs. Some time ago I stopped updating my iOS software because Apple has been releasing crapware mobile OS updates for nearly two years. Likewise, I didn’t switch to versions of Apple’s desktop software later than 11. Apple’s desktop and mobile updates cause more problems than they solve. Many are now surmising that Apple has lost its luster, for those and other reasons.

The next format change, you’ve probably already noticed, is streaming. There’s Soundcloud, Spotify and many others. The only reason I avoid using them most of the time is that they pay signed artists next to nothing. The publishing companies will continue to do this as long as you, personally, decide not to pay the artists for their work. In effect, a musical artist’s pay is less than nothing; the artists go in the hole with their own money to produce their art. I have, by comparison, listened by subscription for several years to Pandora, and paid my favorite artists via iTunes, or once in a while bought the artist’s CDs directly from them. Journey or Antonio Pontarelli, for example. But although it’s piddly money, at least Pandora and iTunes pay the artists something rather than nothing, as do Soundcloud or Spotify. The station seed playing right now on my Pandora One is Tangerine Dream, whose music I never collected.

This time, I see the next format change as being driven by the cold fact that most people don’t want to pay musical artists anything close to fair compensation for the blood, sweat and tears which artists pour into their music. So, would you accept that for yourself? If your answer is no, then why would you do it?

That’s all important context for the little news article I just found via someone’s Facebook feed, “I’m a Label Executive. And This is My Fair Warning on iTunes Music Downloads.” So, after I’ve invested my money and time for several years in Apple’s store, the ‘market’ forces of technology (and greed) are changing formats yet again. In the long run, this might be a good thing. Maybe not. We’ll see. And we’ll see if the artists actually get paid. If the aggregate of your decisions are to go with the flow of what the music publishers try and tell you, you know where that ends up.

The simple facts are that if you want great music, into which its artist has poured their heart and soul, you gotta expect to pay them for it. Although anyone listens to music streaming services, you have the option to actually purchase the artists’ albums or songs instead of expecting they’ll make their money from the infinitesimal amount the streaming service said they’ll pay them. Otherwise we’ll all end up with homogenous, flavorless, colorless musical wallpaper. Where each song sounds the same or very close to the song that just played before it. If you want that, you can have it. I don’t want that. I want musical artists who actually play instruments which took them a long time to master, and vocalists who suffered and triumphed to create their art. I’m unwilling to end up with a homogenous, boring world full of Soulja Boys and Milli Vanilli dross.

And you?


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