An Editorial by Dawoud Kringle
(Disclaimer: I respectfully ask the reader to forgive my use of ungentlemanly language.)
I like movies, and am absolutely fascinated by the art of cinema. But not all efforts to produce a great (and profitable) movie go according to plan. One example of this was in 2014 when Paramount tossed approximately $30 million into a remake of The Gambler. And it was pretty much a train-wreck.
However, as is often the case, there were a few gold nuggets in this cornucopia of brain candy. One was the scene where Mark Wahlberg‘s character, a reckless and probably suicidal gambler, borrowed $2.5 million from a charming but remorselessly vicious leader of a criminal organization brilliantly played by John Goodman. In this scene, Goodman’s character gave a magnificent discourse on an important life lesson: always put yourself in a position of F**k You.
In this context, F**k You is a position of financial and social independence, autonomy, and unassailability.
Musicians are faced with enemies everywhere – and I’m not being paranoid. These people designed the business model and the technology that serves it to sustain their oppression over us. Any casual examination of the music business will bear this out.
These enemies don’t even necessarily or actually hate us. Their attitude toward us is one of indifference and contempt. They see us as an easily renewable resource that is expendable or irrelevant. In fact, the unflattering reality is that they don’t hate us any more than you hate the chicken that died so you could have dinner.
Re-read the last sentence of the previous paragraph. Give it a moment, and ask yourself how it makes you feel.
In this, there is an inescapable element of Darwinian competition. Owing to the nature of the archetypal artistic personality, many musicians have a natural disadvantage in this. The mind that can create beautiful and sublime music often has difficulty thinking in such terms. They are not weak or cowardly; quite the opposite. It requires strength and courage to pursue a career in music, while constantly having to dive deep into one’s soul to find new sources of musical beauty. In fact, such people possess the admirable qualities of mercy and empathy.
But for those imbued with this artistic sensitivity and spiritual enlightenment, it requires effort to understand and accept what is necessary in a fundamentally adversarial and atavistic world. This is complicated by the moral balancing act required to survive and prosper in this situation without compromising one’s spiritual integrity.
The first step is that musicians, as with any business, need to provide value. We must ask ourselves honestly what we’re bringing to the table, and why the people we want to do business with should see us as an asset. Remember; the people in any business are looking to make a profit, and customers are always looking for the most bang for their buck. They can’t be blamed for this.
Developing a unique artistic presentation and public persona that is relevant to the times and at the same time timeless is important. The comedian / actor Steve Martin once said that at his seminars and master classes people always ask him how to find an agent or land a role. But they never ask him how to be good at comedy! This is something important to think about. All the agents and connections in the world will do us exactly no good unless our audience likes what we do. We cannot afford to make that mistake.
Of course, not everyone will like what we do. But there will be enough to sustain a career when we find them. We have to provide an irreplaceable value, while securing profits for ourselves. Once we have proven ourselves, others in the business will (unless they’re scoundrels or idiots – and there’s plenty of them) acknowledge our abilities. This is the first step to being in a position of F**k You.
There are a number of actions we can take in the business side. Study the successful people in the business, take what you learn from them, and do your own thing with it. Don’t copy: contribute. This is an integral part of providing value.
On a bottom-line level, independent resources, alternative services, multiple income streams, and safety nets are all prudent courses of action and excellent precursors to F**k You.
It is essential to come from a position of power. People outside our world will probably not help us. They exist, but are few. Many cannot even comprehend what we do and what we are. All we have is each other and our audiences. If we build our own economic power base, we will be in an unassailable position.
Our aforementioned enemies are in an excellent position of F**k You – the ultimate result being us driven to poverty and irrelevance. This is not acceptable.
I believe that a good way of facing such an enemy is to become something he cannot define or understand. Or at least something he respects and cannot oppose (and personally, I have no misgivings about this being “off the grid” – what they don’t know or can’t access won’t hurt us). We have to be something that is too costly not to acquiesce to on some level. Or at least leave alone.
Allow me to share a story. In the early 20th century, a Romanian entrepreneur amassed a fortune through corrupt banking deals and weapons brokering. He utilized his political connections to exacerbate tensions on both sides of military conflicts and sold weapons to both sides. Eventually this scoundrel retired and bought a casino in Monte Carlo. One night a wealthy woman complained to him that she was losing at the gambling tables he owned. She asked him how she could win. He told her he couldn’t tell her how to win, but he could tell her how not to lose.
His advice to her: “Madam, do not play.” In other words, the game is rigged, and the house always wins.
The moral of the story is if the enemy is too powerful to oppose directly there is no dishonor in acting strategically. This leaves us with one option: do not play by anyone’s rules but our own.
But this has its own caveats. Being an independent game will inevitably attract the attention of the powerful in proportion to the level of success one achieves. Those in positions of power do not share power, and dislike competition.
There are other problems. I recently watched a documentary on Apple Records that illustrates this and contains many valuable lessons.
The thing that gave Apple Records its greatest strength was also the thing that destroyed it. It was supposed to be a record label for artists and run by artists. Some people described their business model as “western communism.” Because of this, they were never able to balance their idealism with business necessities and practicality. There was also the fact that everything about it was being run on the foundation of what the Beatles wanted, while at the same time the band was falling apart. McCartney had most of the successes because he was at the top of his game in those years. In addition to his work with the Beatles and later his solo work, he was producing and writing songs for artists that were signed to Apple. Every one of them was a hit, McCartney had the Midas Touch. George Harrison had some successes, but wasn’t developed as a producer. Ringo Star also had a few successes, and even brought some film projects into the fold. John Lennon was signing people like David Peel because he thought they were interesting. But because he was sucked into the vortex of the 70’s era lower east side of Manhattan leftist rebellion (not to mention his love affair with Yoko Ono), he couldn’t understand why these artists had little to no commercial viability. Yoko Ono made several albums with them that cost a lot of money to make and never recouped a penny of production costs.
Badfinger was one of the top Apple artists. They made some really good albums, and had several hit singles, but Apple didn’t have the resources to properly promote and distribute their music. They were not happy with Apple. So Badfinger released their final album on the label called Ass. And it was a commercial failure. Shortly after that they left Apple and signed with Warner Brothers. They were given a $3 million advance. The problem was that the $3 million was earmarked to cover recording and promotion costs for six albums that they had agreed to make for Warner Brothers. And of course the royalties were nothing compared to the percentages they were getting with Apple. They actually had a worse deal with Warner brothers than they did with Apple.
In this case, F**k You backfired.
(An interesting side note. Before Badfinger hit, a music magazine did an interview with one of the guys in the band and asked what it was like working with the Beatles. He complained that the label wasn’t giving them enough support. Which was perfectly true, in the beginning they were getting lost in the shuffle. Paul McCartney got wind of this. He reached out to the band and set up a meeting at their house. In the meeting McCartney offered them a deal. He would contribute one song to their next recording project if they came up with two of their own. But they had to do McCartney’s arrangement of his song exactly the way he wanted it. They agreed. The song he brought to them was “Come And Get It.” A sample of the lyrics: “If you want it, here it is, come and get it. Make your mind up fast. If you want it anytime, I can give it. But you better hurry ’cause it may not last. Did I hear you say that there must be a catch? Will you walk away from a fool and his money?” I’d say that was a Paul McCartney masterstroke of F**k You.)
Apple’s failures notwithstanding, they had some interesting successes. The lesson to be learned here is to find and consolidate a community of like-minded people, and strike a balance between one’s high ideals and the practical necessities in a mercilessly competitive world.
The organizational aspect of speaking with a loud and clear voice can, and does, produce results. Consider organizations such as Jazz in the Neighborhood, Musicians For Musicians, The Music Producer’s Alliance, The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, American Federation of Musicians, Sound Exchange, musicFIRST, Music Workers Alliance and others. The very existence of these organizations says F**k You.
As of this writing, the US House Judiciary Committee has approved The American Music Fairness Actwhich requires terrestrial radio stations to pay performance royalties. While the bill must still pass the House and Senate before Biden signs it into law, it is a step in the right direction. Musician’s organizations are standing our ground, staring into the faces of people who would otherwise ignore or abuse us and saying F**k You.
And they must listen to us sooner or later. They have no choice. If enough people – or the right people – say F**k You, change will happen.
With the other aforementioned organizations helping musicians, we are empowering ourselves, and we are in debt to nobody outside our trusted circle and community for the benefits we reap.
So if the record labels, corporations, restaurants, clubs, or whoever approaches us with a deal – not with us as employees or servants with our hats in our hands begging for scraps, but as equals – we take it if we want it. But what if the deal is not lucrative, if it’s exploitive and one-sided, or we simply don’t want to do it?
As Musicians With Attitude (MwA), we can and will – with absolutely no fear of consequences – say F**k You.