What’s Missing In Music

Via my favorite maven Bob Lefsetz comes a letter from Bob Ezrin that addresses the reasons why there’s so much commerce and so little art in music today. It’s not on Lefestz Letter yet, so I’ll quote rather than link.

Ezrin praises Trent Reznor for refusing to capitulate to his handlers’ demands over the years. Like Lefsetz, he sees this as the reason for Nine Inch Nails’ enduring success. Single minded vision defines true artists. By contrast, the business is now the enemy of art; it wasn’t always this way, Ezrin says:

Once upon a time, we had a business built by passionate amateurs who revered the artists and who became their protectors, advocates and promoters. These folks didn’t presume to tell their artists what to do. Oh, every once in a while, they might beg and plead for more or different to help them to do their job, but they NEVER imposed their creative will on the people they most admired in all the world. And so we had a landscape of determined individualists who made very individual music – lots of it. We all know who they were – and some still are. But now the biggest part of the business is run by cold hearted professionals whose reverence is for the bottom line first and last – and who think nothing of imposing their ideas and will on the people they sign. And most of those signings are not because they are enthralled by genius or art but because they smell “a hit” or know that someone else does and that they’d better get in there first.

We need a few more “passionate amateurs” – but really, there are many already. With a focus on blockbuster hits and conventional wisdom, we tend to miss the fact that there are a lot of artists who manage to be true to their vision. Everyone else is auditioning for American Idol, but who cares? Ezrin ends with a nod to the O.G. of music men, Ahmet Ertegun:

So, what’s the biggest lesson here? It is that, if we can all agree to do as Ahmet recommended and surround ourselves with brilliant people and help those people to develop their craft, their own voice, and become artists making things of real value, we might see our way into the next golden age of popular music.

I’m not saying that blockbusters aren’t “things of real value,” but there’s not much on the charts these days to convince me otherwise. Even today’s blockbusters are selling poorly compared to the last golden age – when Ezrin was unleashing Alice Cooper on the world and producing “The Wall” – so it seems that I’m not alone in my thinking.

Grammy Bloat

grammy.jpgWhat would happen if all the entertainment award shows took their cues from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences? One shudders to think. Instead of a single Best Picture award, an Oscar each would go to a drama, comedy, musical, sex farce, dramatized biography and a roman à clef.

If you don’t believe it, then consider the 2006 Grammy nominees. The ballot alone is 56 pages long. There are 51 different fields, comprising 108 separate awards.

Looking over the voluminous document, some questions immediately spring to mind. Why is Hawaii the only state with its own category? There’s an award for Tejano, but that’s Tex-Mex, which is not the same as Texas. Besides, there’s also a Best Mexican Music award, which doesn’t seem fair.

Perhaps it’s payback for all that 700-mile fence talk.

Another burning mystery – just what is a “pop” record, anyway? That catch-all field includes one prize each for male, female and duo/group vocals – in addition to collaborations and instrumentals. The Big “Pop” Tent includes everyone from Bruce Hornsby to the Black Eyed Peas, Pink and Enya.

Enya?

The real trick, it would seem, is NOT getting nominated for one of the things, right?

Hardly. Take, for example, Record of the Year and Song of the Year; four songs are nominated for BOTH awards. One of those, “Taking the Long Way” by the Dixie Chicks, also has a shot at Best Country Song. The Academy was apparently unaware that nobody, least of all the Dixie Chicks ,considers them a country band anymore.

What’s most offensive about this year’s Grammy class is that, with thousands of possible picks for 540 nomination slots, the same names keep coming up over and over. Emblematic of this sorry state of affairs is Sheryl Crow’s Best Female Pop Vocal nomination – for a cover of an old James Taylor song (“You Can Close Your Eyes”) included on a record which can only be bought at Starbucks coffee stores.

Anybody wondering about the music business’s elitist snob image need look no further than this. Crow, by the way, also picked up a Best Pop Vocal Collaboration nomination for her duet with Sting (“Always On Your Side”).

I expect that “Best Duet With Sting” will eventually become a standalone category.

Peter Frampton, who Grammy pretty much ignored during his Seventies heyday, is nominated for an instrumental cover of a Soundgarden song. I suppose that’s better than the Best Heavy Metal nomination Pat Boone got a few years back.

Gnarls Barkley is up for Record of the Year, and is also nominated in the R&B category. But the kicker is that the band’s infectious hit “Crazy” is in line for Best Alternative Album.

Alternative to what?

Bob Dylan’s roots-fortified “Modern Times” disc gets an out-of-place nod for Best Rock song (“Someday Baby”), where he keeps company with Beck and John Mayer, along with a Neil Young protest song and a Tom Petty record that no one outside the industry has even heard.

More just for Dylan, perhaps, is his nomination for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana album. That category is full of many “don’t know what to call them, but they deserve a statue” contenders – like the Mark Knopfler/Emmylou Harris collaboration (“All the Roadrunning”), Rosanne Cash’s meditation on family and death (“Black Cadillac”) and insider darling Guy Clark (“Workbench Songs”). Jackson Browne rounds out the list with a career retrospective (“Live Acoustic Volume 1”), but after ignoring everything from “Doctor My Eyes” to “Running on Empty,” why does Grammy bother?

That’s the Academy’s biggest sin – they’re always at least one or two years behind the curve. There’s a record nominated (“Travelin’ Through”) that lost an Oscar bid nearly a year ago – in other words, a song made in 2005 is being considered on a 2007 awards show.

That they try to compensate for their myopia by puffing up the ceremony with awards for things like for box set design, liner notes and “Best Spoken Word” release – a euphemism for books on tape – only makes things worse.

It’s utterly fitting that this year’s show, to be broadcast February 7, 2007, will be hosted by faux newsman Stephen Colbert. Colbert, of course, coined 2006’s “word of the year.” That word, in case you didn’t know, is “truthiness” – defined as “something that seems true because an individual wants it to be.”

The reality-battered record industry must love the notion that there are 108 deserving artists on this year’s pathetic list of nominees, and surely believe that all that precious metal is a harbinger of strong times ahead.

The whole idea reeks of truthiness.