15th Street Dinah

"The world is a showplace, we all know that for a fact."

Weekly Reading: Little Steven’s SXSW Keynote

A  Crisis Of Craft

By Steven Van Zandt

It is an interesting time in our business is it not?

Now you wish you listened to your parents and went to college, huh?

We are experiencing the biggest changes in forty years as the main revenue producing medium shifts from the album to…we don’t know what? Keep in mind that up until the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion landed in 1964 the vinyl single ruled what was called the Business. It wasn’t exactly a business to tell you the truth. It was more like the Wild West with a bunch of freaks, misfits, outcasts, outlaws, entrepreneurs, renegades, wiseguys, and hooligans running around making it all up as they went along. Finally in 1967 the Beatles made an album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – ask your Grandfather if you can borrow his copy – and with that record the album became undeniably King. And the difference between 79 cents for a single and $4.98 for an album created a music business.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, we’ve now come full circle back to singles and if you were wondering what 1962 was like, well you’re looking at it.

And, as if that wasn’t enough to deal with, just to make it interesting, let’s throw in a little worldwide economic holocaust shall we? You thought you were having problems a year ago?

Well the truth is, it might take a year or two, but those two things will eventually sort themselves out. There will be some new revenue model, be it the 360 or subscription or whatever, and frankly there’s been enough boring discussions about the mechanics of our business already. Enough to last a lifetime.

And as far as the economy…Obama’s going to fix the economy so stop worrying about that!

No it’s a third topic I want to look at. All we ever talk about is the delivery system of the product, the mechanics, the technology, the infrastructure; I want to spend just a minute on a topic that never ever gets discussed in the music business – the music.

The reason nobody wants to talk about it is because it mostly sucks! It blows! It is sucking major moose cock! Who are we kidding here? Nobody’s buying records? Because they suck!

And I know why.

Nobody wants to deal with this but we have to.

Yes we are experiencing big changes in the business but much more importantly over these last thirty years or so we have been witness to a crisis of craft.

I started to notice the crisis around the time MTV appeared. Not that it’s their fault, one must assume video was as inevitable as the combustion engine, food preservatives, the digital format, and all the other invented horrors of Commerce disguised as Progress.

You can fight it but you’re better off adjusting and dealing with it. Save your energy because you’re going to need it. And MTV may save us yet. When they put our TV show on!

Rock and Roll is the working class art form.

Real Rock and Roll, traditional Rock and Roll, the music you hear every week in the Underground Garage and every day on Sirius 25 & XM 59. Equal opportunity regardless of race, education, or money. Since the working class don’t think too much about what is art and what isn’t, mostly because they’re too busy working, they spend their time on the craft. The practical, useful stuff.

So let’s go back to basics.

What is our craft?

Rock and Roll had always been a two part craft, performance and record making, which turned into a three part craft for bands when songwriting was added after the Beatles changed the world.

But that self-contained archetype may have been a temporary blip in the big picture. Recent history is starting to suggest they may turn out to be the Exception rather than the New Rule. It was, after all our Renaissance. That approximate 20 year era, 1951 to 1971, will be studied for hundreds of years to come and still directly informs everything today that is Popular Music.

So as to our craft – performance, record making, songwriting-what happened exactly?

The crisis in performance is I believe based on one simple fact. When it started, Rock and Roll was dance music. One day we stopped dancing to it and started listening to it and it’s been downhill ever since.

We had a purpose. We had a specific goal, an intention, a mandate. We made you dance or we did not work – we did not get paid – we were fired – we were homeless. That requires a different energy. It is a working class energy. Not an artistic intellectual waiting around for inspiration energy. It’s a get up, go to work, and kill-energy. Rip it up or die trying.

The advent of the video was just the final nail in the performance coffin, a coffin that had already been constructed by years of excessive immersion in ganja, hashish, and all forms of water cooled bong therapy. You didn’t have to make people dance anymore. They were too stoned to dance! You didn’t even have to play your instrument anymore – all you had to do was act!

Act like a Rock Star and bada bing you were a Rock Star.

And now there’s a new trend that’s even more dangerous. And this affects songwriting as well as performance. Bands are starting to skip the bar band stage of their development. The club stage. Where, ideally you’re still a dance band, but equally important, you get the opportunity to play other people’s songs. Your favorite songs. All of a sudden I’m hearing it’s not cool to play other people’s songs. That’s for the less gifted. The losers. The way we thought of the top 40 bar bands growing up has been extended to include any songs that didn’t come from your own personal genius.

This is a major problem.

Performance-wise the energy you discover, manufacture, and harness as a dance band stays with you for the rest of your life. You never lose it.

And as far as songwriting, the analysis you must do while learning to play classic songs is how you learn to write. This melody, with that chord change, produces this effect. It’s how you learn to arrange. The verses go here, the bridge there. It’s how you learn the specific job of each instrument.

You learn greatness from greatness.

Nobody is born a great performer. Nobody is born a great songwriter.

The Beatles were a club and bar band for five years. And then continued playing covers for five albums. Let me say that again. The Beatles were a club and bar band for five years. And then continued playing covers for five albums! Then the Rolling Stones were a bar band for three years and played covers for their first five albums. Do you think you’re better than them?

The other nefarious infection regarding modern songwriting is the auteur theory which became dominant as Rock and Roll became the art form of Rock beginning in 1965. That was the year the Beatles, Stones, Byrds, and Bob Dylan influenced each other right into a new art form. Suddenly Rock was personal, it was important, and an industry of journalists sprang up to explain it us. And that was, and is great, except an inaccurate balance was created between the post-art form Rock and pre-art form Rock and Roll. Keeping in mind the art form part of Rock was only the last quarter of the Renaissance. It was born in the Folk-Rock era of 1965, continued through Psychedelic, Country-Rock, Hard-Rock, and into the Singer/Songwriter era of the early ’70’s.

An inaccurate emphasis on the importance of the self-contained artist has led to the ocean of mediocrity we’re all drowning in today. Journalists work in words. They love words. They are words. So it is perfectly natural for them to labor under the misconception that lyrics are the most important part of a song.

And lets keep in mind, there are of course major journalist exceptions, the two best Rock and Roll books after all – Nick Tosches’ Hellfire – the Jerry Lee Lewis story, and Dave Marsh’s Louie Louie both celebrate pre-art form Rock.

Don’t get me wrong, great lyrics make a song better, I made five political albums and spent months on the lyrics. Just don’t start thinking that is why people are coming to see your band because that is not enough reason.

And don’t start thinking your grammar school poetry makes you a great songwriter. Bob Dylan is the greatest lyric writer that will ever live, if he wasn’t a great singer and able to write (or in the early days steal) great melodies, he’d still be in Greenwich Village at the Cafe Wha. The problem with this imbalance is singers that don’t write or don’t write about the correct subjects, aren’t taken as seriously. Believe me it’s true.

In spite of Elvis and Sinatra!

The 15 years of pre-art form lyrics may not seem as important or meaningful in a social or political way, but as a 13 year old hearing super sexy Judy Craig and the Chiffons singing Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry’s “I Have a Boyfriend” you couldn’t have told me that wasn’t important! More than anything else in the world I wanted to be that boyfriend! And still do! That was my “Blowin in the Wind,” my “Day In The Life,” my “Sympathy For The Devil,” absolutely.

If you want to write then you’ve got to learn how to do it. This is why the great song publishers like Lance Freed are always encouraging the young writers to co-write with the older ones.

Just as it’s important to perform with a purpose, it is equally important to write with a purpose. Whether that purpose is to express your most personal anguish or to simply have a hit record. If you’re going to do it, do it right.

The third part of our craft is record making and that discipline has been almost completely abandoned.

A record is four things – Composition, Arrangement, Performance, and Sound. Four different crafts overseen by a Producer that understands, to some extent all four elements plus the Big Picture of the Industry, plus the psychological stuff of being the artist’s psychiatrist, plus the liaison with the business people, etc. etc.

Where are the Producers? Where are the Arrangers? The point being once upon a time it took an army of very talented people to make great records. Writers, singers, musicians, producers, arrangers, engineers and now you have to do it yourself? No wonder everything sucks!

Well when the major record companies abandon development yes, DIY is born. Do it yourself. And the auteur theory works well with DIY anyway so why not? Ok there’s one reason why not. Everybody isn’t a star. Isn’t a songwriter. Isn’t a singer. Isn’t a performer. Isn’t a record producer. But who’s there to tell them? To help? To suggest a different direction? To teach?

To impose discipline? To be honest?

Even the Majors are starting to adjust and I hope they succeed because they’re almost useless to us as banks in this new paradigm shift. It was very encouraging and impressive that Sony stuck with MGMT for 18  months before it broke. Maybe they looked back and learned from Steve Popovich who stuck with Meatloaf for over a year when no one was interested.

The Majors have largely passed the creative stuff off to the production companies. There’s nobody home artistically. They can still find a record and occasionally break one. But there ain’t gonna be a second one. Because nobody knows how they made the first one! There’s no development. There’s no long term thinking.

So it’s up to the Indies isn’t it? But whether it’s the Indies or the Majors, whoever it is better establish a new work ethic, better find some new patience, get back to the basics, and better be qualified to go the distance.

The standards have been set by Sam Phillips, Leonard Chess, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, by Berry Gordy. They all had one thing in common – the instinct for that unbeatable combination of art and commerce. You want to be in the record business? These are the standards we must live up to.

We must reintroduce a new dedication to the Craft.

And worry about the new technology, and the Art, later.

Seeing that this is Thanksgiving week, we’ll probably be out of pocket for most of the week.  Your homework is to read this and think about it.  Very, very interesting stuff.

Filed under: Stuff To Think About

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15th Street Dinah is a blog primarily about music coming to and coming from the Tuscaloosa, AL area. From time to time, we might veer off course...but for the most part, that's our thing.

We're named in honor of the great Dinah Washington, Tuscaloosa native and "Queen of the Blues".