MAGNET presents a case study on the state of the music biz: an industry hopelessly addicted to the press generated by its publicity foot-soldiers and the desperate quest for artificially stimulated demand. By Corey duBrowa
A year ago, MAGNET ran a story I wrote titled “Saving Private Ryan,” which detailed Ryan Adams’ career and the wave of hype surrounding his then-current release, Gold. The story was something of a mixed bag: Adams declined to be interviewed for it; his friends, foes and ex-bandmates weighed in as they saw fit; and the resulting piece sparked three issues’ worth of letters to the editor about whether it was worthy of the space it occupied.
Regardless, 2002 will most likely go in the books as a Damn Good Year for Adams. He was nominated for three Grammys (although his album is still far from being certified gold, to the point of its subtle-as-a-jackhammer title). He toured relentlessly and found time—god knows how—to record a UPS truck full of demos, some of which were later fashioned into his latest release, the odds-‘n’-sods collection Demolition. Despite the typical nature of such patchwork-quilt releases, it’s a fine record containing some of Adams’ best songs to date: The wistful “You Will Always Be The Same” and “Dear Chicago” both represent the quiet, reflective side of Adams first heard on Whiskeytown’s classic “Avenues” and later turned into a full-blown tableau with his solo debut, Heartbreaker.
Fittingly, the MAGNET brain trust sought to bury the hatchet and see if Adams—despite his apparent anger about my earlier story, based on what several journalists said about their encounters with The Kid in its wake—would be willing to talk to us about his year, his thoughts on the state of the industry, what it was like to star in a Gap commercial and Winona Ryder’s trial. You know, all the inside stuff rock stars like Adams care about these days. There was just one catch: In order to get to Adams, we were first required to go through his publicists. It was in this graveyard of ideas that our proposed story died a quick, silent death.
Earlier in the year, Adams had described his publicist to one journalist as “the best … in the United States. She can’t be fucked with; she does me and Shelby Lynne, Lucinda [Williams], as well as Jay Z.” He then explained MAGNET’s efforts to get him to participate in “Saving Private Ryan” were in vain: “When this guy (from MAGNET) called her, she said, ‘There is no way you’re gonna interview Ryan because I know exactly what you’re gonna do. I have already gotten calls.’”
Never mind that this isn’t anything like the conversation I had with Adams’ handlers. The message was perfectly clear: If MAGNET refused to play the game by their rules, they would do their best to see to it that we didn’t play at all. Undaunted, I charged ahead with an e-mail to the Lost Highway Records publicity team—this despite Adams’ veiled threats following the publication of “Saving Private Ryan”: “MAGNET is in a lot of trouble, especially from Universal Records (which owns Lost Highway), ‘cause that guy and anybody from that magazine is never gonna get their records.” Despite the dustup with Adams, Lost Highway nevertheless continued to pursue business with MAGNET on behalf of a number of other artists on the label’s roster. I received my response the next day: “Ryan won’t do it. The article MAGNET published was spiteful, disrespectful and out of line … [Ryan] won’t be doing anything with the publication again. Thanks.”
If you thought Nixonian enemies lists disappeared when Tricky Dick split for California in his ‘copter, think again. The problems we encountered in getting to Adams are unfortunately endemic and have plagued the way the rock-journalism camp has covered its subject matter since the genre appeared in the ‘60s. Perhaps Adams himself says it best: “I don’t give a fuck what MAGNET thinks. I mean, who actually reads it? I’ll take what I can get from Rolling Stone, Q, Spin, NME. I’m in good company.” Or, at least, the kind of company that follows the pack mentality of hyping the Next Big Thing without much in the way of critical analysis. Here’s the simple math for a number of music-related publications: Write favorable stories about artists, get more advertising revenue from their labels. Reap more ad revenue, become more profitable. Become more profitable, suspend disbelief into perpetuity and become an adjunct propaganda arm of the Biz.
Jim DeRogatis—rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, contributor to Spin, Penthouse and Guitar World and the author of the authoritative Lester Bangs biography Let It Blurt—has his own opinions on the matter. “Since the mid-1970s, this is the story of the mainstream rock press in America, the horrific sin of our supposedly honest artform,” he says. “I was fired from my deputy editor’s job at Rolling Stone after only eight months. I had written a negative review of a Hootie & The Blowfish record, and they substituted another, more favorable, review in its place. [Rolling Stone publisher] Jann Wenner is a fan of anything that sells 8.5 million copies. My feeling was that it was like having the keys to a Ferrari, but you could only drive it five miles an hour. Rolling Stone just wasn’t the kind of rock journalism I wanted to do.”
DeRogatis recalls an experience he had with Adams last year. “I was going to do a story on him for Penthouse,” he says, “and called his publicists, who at first told me, ‘He’s done too much press this year already.’ I mean, come on, Ryan’s on every fucking matchbook cover in every bar I go to. Later, I was told that Ryan ‘just wasn’t comfortable with the idea of appearing in Penthouse.’ Give me a fucking break. Have you been to one of this guy’s live shows? Have you listened to the records? That’s the ludicrousness of the publicity machine.”
Adams’ recent tour underscores this episode quite neatly. The first show of his solo-acoustic junket was at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium; midway through Adams’ set, a heckler stood up and shouted a request for Bryan Adams’ mullet-head anthem “Summer Of ‘69.” The Ryan/Bryan joke has apparently gone stale for Adams, who immediately stopped the show, ranting, “Grab that guy and make him leave! I won’t fuckin’ play ‘til you do!” Adams refunded the cost of the offender’s ticket by handing him $30 out of his wallet, shouting, “I’ll tell you what you can spend it on: an education!” and demanded that security escort the erstwhile comic out of the venue. Adams then serenaded him with an impromptu good-bye song, prompting a less-than-favorable review of the show by Tennessean music critic Peter Cooper, who took Adams to task for a mediocre evening and his arrogant behavior.
Adams is always at his most entertaining when backed into a corner by criticism, and Cooper walked into his office the next day to find the following love note on his voice mail: “You’re just so smart, aren’t you, man? You’re so fucking smart. ‘I’m so smart. I’m so post-collegiate with all my fucking little references. Punkish hardcore.’ What about, ‘Quintessential fuckin’ band,’ moron? What the fuck is wrong with you? Little redneck newspaper. Ooh, the Tennessean, blah-blah-blah. Whatever. You wouldn’t know a good show if it bit you in the ass. You and your senior-citizen, little redneck fucking fucks. Whatever, you know? ‘Let’s, like, create it, let’s judge it,’ you know? Like, ‘Let’s turn it into what it’s supposed to be.’ But you don’t know shit. You and your fucking piece-of-shit paper. Fuck you.’’ The message: If the publicity army can’t convince you of the proper perspective, maybe a visit from The Kid himself will help you to see the editorial light.
A month later, Adams was able to present his own spin on the events of the evening in an interview with CMJ Monthly. Unsurprisingly, his account of the incident differed somewhat from the Tennessean’s (according to Adams, the audience sided with him against the heckler, whom he called a “drunk”); also unsurprisingly, the CMJ writer didn’t challenge Adams but essentially gave him a free pass to put his own polish and shine on what was ultimately portrayed as a minor misadventure. Needless to say, CMJ—having played the game according to our primer for music-biz success—probably earned scads of brownie points toward future opportunities to interact with Adams, be it about his music, his frequent public idiocy or his smokes of choice.
The point of sharing this “inside baseball” account is to afford a peek into the rotted-out hull of today’s multi-billion-dollar music industry. The marketing cycle surrounding the release of each record you consider for purchase should be taken into account when stepping up to the counter of your local music dealer: Publicists get paid to seed discs with journalists who can be convinced to write reviews, show previews or feature stories within each release’s marketing window. Positive stories are clipped and included in an artist’s press kit, thus ensuring journalists are given broader exposure among their peers (thus advertising suitability for other gigs, since many write on a freelance basis). These stories influence the decisions of radio programmers and the marketeers who bring you MTV, another piece of the puzzle that determines what sells in the stores. All of this determines whether an artist is given ample support to tour behind any given release, which is how indie-label bands become the objects of multi-label bidding wars and how the R.E.M.s of the world are convinced to be promoted to The Show, where stakes are high and mega-million-dollar packages still exist despite the recession in which the industry is now mired.
In this respect, the business of rock is beginning to resemble the Hollywood model. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, writer Tad Friend deftly outlined all the pressures, hyperbole and artist-coddling that goes into marketing films these days, eerily foreshadowing what no doubt lies in store for the music wing of the entertainment industry.
“Press sells records but does so collectively and in kind of a trickle-up dynamic,” says one veteran industry publicist, who requested anonymity. “The music press watches the music press and [repeats] what it does … It’s very monkey-see, monkey-do. Eventually—as in the case of the Strokes, for example—the artist [becomes] ubiquitous. This may entice TV bookers, radio programmers and MTV to get on board, provided that the artist fits into their formats. MTV and radio in this country are really run by businesspeople who are more about keeping it safe and sound than breaking any new ground.”
Here’s how crass it all gets: USA Today has proclaimed the “Nirvana sound” is officially on its way back, via new grunge-worthy releases from Pearl Jam, Audioslave (Rage Against the Machine fronted by former Soundgarden leader Chris Cornell) and the long-promised Nirvana best-of, which includes the official release of the group’s final statement, “You Know You’re Right.” Undoubtedly, the upcoming generation of rawk-challenged youngsters who missed Nirvana and its ilk the first time around will find themselves squarely in the target-demographic gunsights of the publicity army seeking to kick-start the latest rock revival as its time in the spin cycle approaches.
All of which is to say: Look before you listen. The mind (and money) you save might be your own.