My son Gabe interviewed me today about my take on how music has changed over the years with changes in the music industry, changes in music production and technology, and why the music he and I both love so much from the ’70’s and ’80’s is different than so much of the music of today.
Gabe: Can you tell me the story about Frank Zappa getting out of his record contract again?
Jake: Yeah, sure. Frank Zappa was signed to Warner Brothers records and he didn’t like the way that they managed his band, and he had a 10 record contract. He had done eight records with them already and he wanted to get out of his contract, but the only way to do it would be to finish all 10 records, so what he did when he got the budget for the 9th album album was go into the studio and use that money to record two whole albums worth of stuff. Then he handed them over and he’s like “here you go, I’m done” First they tried to say that they weren’t up to the quality standard, so they could keep him on the label, right, because they didn’t want him to go somewhere else and make money for someone else. Then he’s like “no they’re totally up to the quality of all of the records that I’ve delivered to you, I’m out of my contract,” and Warner Brothers sued him. He went to court and he and his lawyers won the case and he got out of the record contract, but what this did was cause the industry to change the way their standard contracts are working. So now if you’re a new band and you sign a contract with Warner Brothers or anybody else, they have a minimum amount of time in between each album that you deliver to them.
Gabe: And what is that time?
Jake: It depends on the contract – it’s usually a year.
Gabe: Okay. How do you think commercialization has affected how music is perceived?
Jake: What do you mean by perceived, like perceived by listeners?
Gabe: Like from a random person viewing a song. If they don’t know anything about how that was commercialized how do you think commercialization has affected how we perceive music?
Jake: Well I think the record industry has always really… the way that they sell their products is by selling a kind of mythology around it, right? They sell this story, and for someone like a teenager who’s a big fan of some musician or artist or whatever, they often have this fantasy that they want to be that person. So what the record industry has done is they take advantage of that desire, and they sell this sort of myth like “oh yeah, you can be a singer-songwriter and you’re playing your guitar and singing your songs that you wrote in a coffee shop somewhere, and one day a record executive will walk in and hear you, and they’ll sign you to a big contract and make you a whole lot of money, and you’ll be rich and famous and your life will be awesome.” I experienced this when my band was trying to get a record deal. They would make all kinds of crazy promises and put all kinds of famous, well known people in front of you to try and sell that myth to you, right? I remember one time we were working with a guy who was a mid-level music producer and he happened to know this man who was the A&R person who had signed The Who, and they set up a meeting, and took us to a really nice restaurant in his really expensive Mercedes. They bought us really expensive food, and he told all these stories like, “Oh yeah, when I was signing The Who, they all wanted movie theaters in their houses, and they all wanted Rolls Royces, and they wanted all new instruments,” and all this stuff, and he was trying to imply that we can have that too. Of course he was in no position at that point in time– this was decades later– he was in no position to make any promises like that, but by telling us the story it made us feel pressured to sign a deal with them, which we ended up no doing because we didn’t trust him. We used the excuse that not everyone in the band was there, so we basically spun it like, “Now we can’t speak for the rest of the band we have to bring it to them but we’ll sign your letter of intent.” And then we turned them down for that reason. But we were worried because we didn’t really have any money, and if he had taken us to court or something, you know if we had signed something with them and then backed out of it, it might have been a big problem for us. But that’s what the record industry has done forever – they sell this, I call it the “Rock and Roll Myth”, but they do the same thing to the AR people – like the people who work for the record companies whose job it is to go out and find new music – they sell them the same myth, right? They’ve got this, you know, 20 year old kid just out of college or whatever, and they tell him to come to work for Warner Brothers or come work for Sony or come work for Universal Music Group and you can find the next to Beyoncé, or you can be that person who finds the next big hit, so they sell them the same thing! Then when those people come in and pitch this band they want to want to sign with their record label, they’re telling you a story that they actually believe themselves, right? So what that creates is then all of these artists are just clamoring to go sign these deals, but the deals are usually terrible. They hardly make any money from the records, and the royalties for online streaming are really small. These days it’s different now, because all the distribution is all online but the business is the same. Most artists make most of their money from concerts, but it also could be from merchandising like selling T-shirts, or selling posters or bumper stickers and things like that. But a lot of artists these days make a lot of money by doing sponsorship deals, so they’ll have their personality on their Instagram – you know they’re an influencer – and they’re they’re using some product, so it’s really a kind of advertising, right? It’s not really about the music anymore and they’re selling a story about that person’s life. So the record companies have decided is that there’s a lot more money in it for them, and it’s a lot cheaper for them to just churn out hits from the hit machine, out one hit after another, and they sound like everything else because they just write the same kind of thing over and over again – they’ve got writers you know and musicians that they hire and pay them hourly or they pay them a salary – and they just churn out this generic music. They don’t even usually take the time anymore to do what they used to call “development deals”, where they’ll give somebody some money so that they can quit their day job and have enough time to actually write, and get really good at their art. They don’t really do that anymore either.
Gabe: So what do you think we can do to improve the music standards today?
Jake: Well I think the industry is so different now. There’s a lot less money in it because they’re not selling CDs. I think it’s it’s easy to forget that when CDs first came out everybody had vinyl records and cassette tapes, and the CDs sounded so much better that everyone wanted the digital recordings, and so people bought their whole collections that they already had on on vinyl – they bought those same things over again on CD. But instead of costing $8, CDs would cost like $15 or $18 and they made a huge amount of money from that in a short period of time. And now nobody buys music anymore. It’s all online streaming, so there’s no way to get someone to pay $20 to get the same album that they already had.
Gabe: Lots of people get it for free…
Jake: Yeah or they pay a monthly fee to a streaming service like Apple Music or Spotify or whatever, so the economics are really different. The record companies make money in other ways now. I’m sure in the Super Bowl halftime show everything that they were wearing in that show is something that, you know, some manufacturer of that product, including all the shoes, the roller skates, all that stuff they – are paying the record companies to put their stuff in front of people. It’s a really good thing is that music production is so much cheaper to do now, and you can record a whole album on your laptop and the quality is just as good. You need a couple of really good microphones maybe, a few hundred dollars a piece, and maybe a couple of instruments and then everything else is in software.
Gabe: But don’t you think that can affect the quality? Like how much time you put into a song or an album can affect the quality?
Jake: Yes, absolutely. What’s different now is that because the recording equipment, like the ability to record an album, is so much less expensive that people don’t have to have a record label to do a record – you can do it yourself. And if you look at Billie Eilish, she and her brother recorded that first album in their bedroom, and they spent years getting it right. They had as much time as they wanted to spend on it because they didn’t have to answer to anyone else. They didn’t have to turn in an album on time and they weren’t limited by how much studio time they could afford to pay for, so they could do it all themselves and they could spend as many hours on it as they wanted to. And I think that’s why that first album was so good and why so many people really liked it. The disadvantage though is that you have to learn how to do it, and most people don’t understand the recording process well enough to do a good job. Another problem is that a lot of people are thinking that they’re are a lot better at music than they actually are – but the people who are good at music can now make it themselves. The problem is: How do you get people to learn that you exist? That’s what the record labels are for in historically, right? And there are ways to do it now. You can become an influencer yourself, you can play lots of shows out in your hometown. But it’s a lot of work, and it’s the same kind of work that’s it’s no different than when I was trying to do it back in the ’90’s. You just have to put in a lot of work, and play lots of shows for people, and promote yourself.
Gabe: What was the greatest era of music to you, because a lot of people say that the 70s was the best era, but what was your favorite and why?
Jake: It’s a tough question for me to answer because I like so many different kinds of music, and there’s some music that’s coming out now that’s really fantastic. There’s even some mainstream music that’s coming out now that I especially like. Some of the new jazz is really cool. Beyoncé just did a country song which actually is not terrible, although I could do without the music video. But I think if I had to pick like a decade that had the largest amount of my favorite music it’s probably the ’70’s or more specifically around 1975 to 1983.
Gabe: So compared to now what do you think the difference of quality comes from in that period from the ’70’s into the early ’80’s?
Jake: Almost nobody had synthesizers then, and if they did they had actually to play them themselves. They didn’t have computer sequencers. There were some drum machines but they weren’t very good and they were not used very much especially in rock music. Part of the sound of a rock band is the drum set so people actually had to learn to play drums, and if you’re recording in the studio and you don’t have digital editing then you have to actually be good at playing – you can’t just be kind of okay. Nowadays because everybody can edit every note to the exact position they want, and if there’s a pitch that’s wrong they can correct it, and there are all these tools that make it easy to not have to actually learn your craft as a musician or a singer – that wasn’t the case in the ’70s. Like you had to actually know what the hell you were doing.
Gabe: Do you think the shift in people not using actual instruments is a good thing or a bad thing and why?
Jake: I think that the tools that are available today are so amazing and varied and fantastic, and there are some musicians that are using them in very creative ways. Some of the bands that a lot of people know about do this kind of stuff, which sort of crosses over between Rock and computer-based music and digital sounds, and I think there are a huge number of creative opportunities that are available. But I think that because of the way the industry works everybody is just churning out things so fast that they don’t take the time to actually apply that creativity, so I think it’s a great thing if you want to make something really new, but it’s very hard to stay focused long enough to do a good job.
Gabe: How do you feel about new pop and the modern era of rap and pop in general?
Jake: I mean I never really been a huge pop music fan except when I was, you know, in my preteens, just because the industry’s always been that way. Look at music from the ’50’s: A lot of those songs sound a lot the same. There were few musicians that contributed to some of that music that were really fantastic and amazing and have had a huge influence over many many years like Carol Kaye who was a really famous bass player from that era. But generally speaking I’ve never ever really liked pop music that much. Rap music – I liked some of the gangster rap that came out in the ’90’s. I like the Beastie Boys – some of their stuff not all of it – but I don’t like the so-called “new rap”. I think to me it sounds lazy from a musical standpoint, and honestly some of it is just offensive. And the music is not interesting at all. The backing tracks would be like three bass notes and a couple of kick drum hits and like maybe a synth pad, and stuff like that, and there’s just nothing there. So I honestly I don’t understand the appeal.
Gabe: It feels empty?
Jake: It feels very empty, yeah. It’s doesn’t have a dynamic shape, it doesn’t tell a story, and it’s just flat. I think this is one of the reasons why country music is starting to get more and more popular. I was just looking at a survey at work about this. I think it’s because country songs have had a very long tradition of telling stories, and people, humans, are really wired to hear a good story – which by the way is why it was so easy for the record labels to sell The Rock and Roll Myth – because you want to be in the story. You want the story to be about you, right?
Gabe: Why do you think music in general is important? What do you think is music’s overall impact on society?
Jake: That’s a great question. When I had switched my major from psychology to music when I was in college, my girlfriend at the time was kind of questioning me like, “What are you going to do with that? How are you going to do good in the world?” And I was not very articulate about it, but I tried to make a case for how music connects people together, and how it helps them to learn about their own emotions by hearing someone else talk about how they’re feeling and what their experiencing just like literature does. But I also think that music… there’s something about the way that humans work, you know, even very ancient cultures had music and drumming and dance. So some of it also is about preserving traditions and transmitting culture to new generations. I also think that it’s there’s a sort of tangible, physical experience and emotion that you get when you hear a really amazing song or really amazing piece of music. It can really be emotionally moving, and I think that that just shows how strongly connected people are to that mode of expression. Asking why music is important is a little bit like asking why talking or writing are important. It’s all about expression and communication and connection.