Monday, December 15, 2014

I Read The News Today...OH BOY!

My friend David Handleman asked me what I thought about producer Steve Albini's keynote address in Melbourne. I told him. He said, "That should be an Op-Ed." So I wrote something. It worked.

Today's New York Times-

"Elegy For The Suits"


cmealha said...


Gyro1966 said...

I think this is wrong overall. Here is a response that i agree with:

Actually, Mr. Nunziato is talking about a very specific, and notorious, period in "label" music. PRIOR to that period - I am talking about the decade from about 1958 to 1968 - record companies very specifically did NOT attempt to "control" product: they basically signed anyone and everyone, and threw ALL the music "against the wall" (i.e., to the masses) to "see what stuck." It was a time...very much like what Mr. Nunziato is complaining about now.

The real "suits" era began when the "bean counters" took over the music industry - mostly people who had ZERO "ear" for the music itself, but simply knew "what sold" (i.e., earned money for the company), and ended up REJECTING an ENORMOUS amount of good music in favor of a decreasing number of artists - in a decreasing number of musical genres. This led to (among other things) the era of boy bands (some good, some not), and "created" artists. This was the WORST time for music and creativity, not the best.

Yes, it is now a "Wild West" again, with the Internet serving as the "wall" against which "everything" is being thrown. And it is true that there is a great deal of "bad" music being played and released. But I would rather have to sift through it to find the "good" stuff then have "suits" determine for me what is "good" or "bad."


Well don Sal!

Devil Dick said...

not everything ever written should be read...

William Repsher said...

Above and beyond all else, kudos for making the Times! God bless whatever "in" you've found with those folks, but I know that's not a given and nothing to scoff at.

I agree with Gyro1966 to a point. The "suits" grew as the recording industry grew. A good read on this era is Jac Holzman's autiobio, where he starts Elektra as a very small indie in the 50s to put out ethnic and folk records. Grows into folk in the 60s as that trend explodes. Gets into rock via The Doors and such in the mid/late 60's as that era explodes ... then loses the thread after the mid-70's when he realizes that small store front record store/indie company is now a massive corporation where he doesn't know most of the people who work for him.

That first wave of indie record company owners from the 50s into the 60s had that love of music and sense of artistic development. That changed in the 70s as the recording industry grew in leaps and bounds. Even at that time, early 80s, I recall artists saying they "never would have made it now" if they hadn't had the chance to put out 3-4 albums that were creatively growing but financial failures for the record companies. Even then, the rule had become one bad album and you're gone -- if it's your first album, thanks for playing, check is in the mail.

That said, it's not just "the suits" who guided the audience: music journalists, influential DJ's, even something like MTV which did a great job of shifting the 80s into a new direction. It was more a conglomeration of influential people with developed taste putting forth on what they found appealing and worthwhile -- that's just about completely gone now, or if not, so overwhelmed by nothingness and static that it's hard to hear them/us. You often have to search for good music now as opposed to having it in your face routinely.

Which, in some ways, is better, and is how some of us have always functioned. It's work, like a part-time job, to stay up on things, and I've learned not to sweat not getting things that everyone else seems to get (cough, please refer to Alabama Shakes, cough).

And there are no places like NYCD where people physically gathered to buy product. Times that by a few thousand different outlets across the world, and you completely remove a pretty crucial element in terms of selling and guiding music in a certain direction -- there is no direction on the internet, just suggestions based on what you've bought or listened to.

About the only way I would have changed that article would have been for you to explore that angle more -- because in your own little way, guys like you and record stores like you were just as influential as "the suits" in terms of shaping a culture where legitimately great, and even good, music could be appreciated, and then consumed.

cmealha said...

Devil Dick:
How do you know unless you read it?

Anonymous said...

By suits I assume you were talking about guys like Ahmet Ertegun, Clive Davis, John Hammond... I suppose there are probably still people like them but at a smaller level like the Yep Rocs and New Wests.

if anyone has not seen it, Dave Grohl's documentary about Sound City studio is streaming on Hulu now. recalls that time Sal talks about.

itsok2beright said...

Well written article, though, there might be a displacement of anger. The issue you hold near and dear is the loss of the retail outlet. The quantity and quality of music is an evolution of times, less related to the internet than many people may believe. The internet happens to be the current platform or wall as you call it.

Even going back to the days of 'Tin Pan Alley', artists would continually look for means of getting their music heard by persons of influence. Over time, they've been moving onto bigger and broader means of exposure. Think 'payola'. Record stores also had their time in the spotlight when they were a place for music lovers to congregate and listen to the latest releases, hot off the presses. The current platform for any and all 'musicians' is the internet. They post something online and hope it gets more exposure than the other so-called music out there.

I'm with you, wanting to go back to the record store days. And, I agree that the suits had a lot to do with destroying them. Time-wise, this happened to coincide with the explosion of music videos. This was another intermediate platform for exposure prior to the internet. That time is roughly when the suits went from being part of the music industry to being part of the Wall Street generation. The amount of exposure from one shitty video probably brought them more money than all of the payoffs in prior years. Music be damned, I'm making money!

Thanks to music lovers like yourself, we are all hoping for a resurgence in musicians and not pop stars. Please keep it up.

kevin m said...

Congrats Sal! A very well written and as you can see from the comments here and on the Times site, very thought provoking.

I may not miss the "suits" but I do miss the days of browsing racks of records/CDs etc and discovering something. My wife and I used to plan on going to your shop, or Tower, HMV, etc as an excursion. Now, more often than not, I'm buying/downloading music while still in my PJs.

Sal Nunziato said...

"The issue you hold near and dear is the loss of the retail outlet."

I won't deny this. But it's really not about that. Given the limited amount words allowed for the piece, my initial motivation had more to do with Steve Albini and some of his comments, one specifically...

“Music has entered the environment as an atmospheric element, like the wind, and in that capacity should not be subject to control and compensation.”

This did not make the cut.

I did point out that I trusted the suits "musically." Above and beyond that, we all know and I think we all agree, artists should be compensated for their work.

But the internet free-for-all doesn't sit well with me and I stand by my words, even if, as one NYT commenter thinks, I come across as arrogant.

I won't disagree that some really fine music is out there and thanks to the www, we get to hear it. But we also live in a time now, where nothing is allowed to grow. 2 years after "Thriller" was released, the label was promoting the 7th single from the record. Yes, maybe MJ is a bad example, but even an act like Madness in the 80s would be given a chance with a 3rd or 4th single before anyone gave up on the record. Now, one song, place it in a video or commercial and Bob's your uncle. Hello. Goodbye. A lot of time wasted on someone less worthy than an artist with more than one good hit.

Of course, some of our faves of all time are one-hit wonders, and I am not naive. I know this practice has been going on forever. The internet has made it worse.

Michael Giltz said...

Congrats! And in the print edition you top Aaron "West Wing" Sorkin! A good day, in all.


After my quick (and typographically challenged) “well done” you’re Op Ed piece is much in my thoughts today.

I fear what we have lost (or I guess I need to say what I’ve lost) are those arbiters, editors, sifters, filters, critics, whatever we call them. Sure everything is on the Internet but how do I know where to look and the difference between good and bad? In music, as you point out, the industry (all their other warts notwithstanding) played that role but so too did the radio DJ and — near and dear to many — that guy in the record store. Today some of us turn to Burning Wood and other sites in search of that informed, knowledgable, maybe biased opinion.

The same is true of news, opinion, podcasts, books, thought pieces, … I don’t have the time or the knowledge to read all those things to find the few needles in the Internet haystack and so I go to sites and subscribe to “adjudicated” sources.

So we know the problem but what no one seems to have the answer to is the revenue side. That guy in the record store was paid by selling records. Today we want to steel the music (or at best download from the absolute cheapest source we can find). When was the last time I bought a book from the corner bookstore at full pop rather than deeply discounted from Amazon? (Okay, trick question because book stores are gone just like record stores!)

If Burning Wood was behind a paywall would we subscribe? If Sal ran ads on the site would we click? And the few who did … would it generate enough?

All this “creative destruction” and “information wants to be free” sounds good until …

What’s that line from Lovin’ Arms? “Looking back and longin’ for the freedom of my chains”

Ken D said...

First of all, major kudos for making it into the NYT. They have, you know, like, high standards... (and I am still, even in 2014, a daily subscriber to the honest-to-god newsPAPER of record.)

I share your frustration with the tidal wave coming at us from the Internet. Just too too much. It's a major reason I read BW—to get steered toward the cream (am I mixing metaphors? sorry.)
But I don't know if I share your nostalgia for the "suits." I guess it depends on who you mean. For every Hammond or Ertegun or Phillips or Wexler weren't there a dozen A&R hacks who just followed profitable trends and signed way too many electronica noodlers, hair-metal bands, skinny-tie bands, glam singers, and the like?

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't these same 'suits' be the chaps Johnny Rotten addressed (EMI) in 1977?

Obey Gravity

William Repsher said...

Probably. And the same suits at A&M who cut them a six-figure check for an album they didn't put out. And the same suits at Virgin who signed them and put the album at. And the same suits who gave Public Image a healthy recording career.

A lot of suits made The Sex Pistols possible on that level they assumed was a given, but wasn't. And a lot of suits ensured Johnny Rotten could have a decades long recording career and side gig as raconteur.

buzzbabyjesus said...

Over at Willard's ( I recently downloaded 35 Warner's Loss Leaders lp's covering a period from 1968 to 1980. These were albums you could send away for with a form on the paper sleeve of a record you bought.
In the beginning it really was a time of signing anything. You can see that they started as records with music by people you might like to hear, and evolved over the course of the series into "records our research shows will sell", in other words, the suits. I made a folder of my favorite 150 songs, most of which date before 1975. The next 5 years got stale, dinosaured, and discofied. The last one, "Troublemakers" (1980) features "Public Image", and a bunch of pretty cool punk and new wave. Things got interesting again, and home taping was "killing" music.

William Repsher said...

I suspect "satin baseball jackets" might be a better substitute for "the suits" in terms of figuring out when everything went askew. Coke spoon necklace and captain's hat optional.

David said...

Very cool - congratulations my friend. i truly enjoyed the read. love your posts!

happy holidays, david in san francisco

A Walk In The Woods said...

Sal, I'm just impressed you got into the NYT, for god's sake. Very cool honor. Have you written for them before?

I see where you're going with this piece. I think part of the difference between you and some of the readers here is you sound like, as I like to call myself, "a child of the radio." You grew up when radio was king (another lost arbiter of taste) and the DJ helped pick what we grew up with.

To that end, I understand liking what the suits put out. Think of the Led Zep catalog, or Beatles. That wasn't stuff thrown up against the Internet wall; it was stuff that was carefully chosen, curated to past the test of time, even while being experimental in many cases.

I don't know if what I just wrote applies to you, but it applies to me; so I get your article. I, too, love cool labels (and the smart suits that owned or worked for them) and how they arbited our taste for many years. I miss that.

ge said...

& on the bright side of current downside is the free sampling one may do---makes it so painless to hear what the latest wanna-bee[s] are peddling before helping them pedal... DE-lete!
then there's Y-T: that's a thing of beauty not sure we deserve

Anonymous said...

I'm working on my 'Suite for Kazoo and Untuned Guitar." You can listen to it if you want to but if you don't that's okay. It's not like anyone is gonna shove it down your throat.

It's not a kick in the teeth to those more talented or "deserving." And it doesn't devalue Taylor Swift. it's just my own free expression and I don't care if the suits like it or not.

I personally like that anyone can publish music, yes - some of it is pretty bad, so is some of the most popular music.

I'll decide for myself what to listen to. If I want someone to curate for me there are plenty out there.

Anonymous said...

'twas true then, tis true now.......

There's an unlimited supply
And there is no reason why
I tell you it was all a frame
They only did it 'cos of fame, who?

Too many people have the suss
Too many people support us
An unlimited amount
Too many outlets in and out, who?

So our friends are crucified
A day they wish that we'd have died
We are an addition
And we're ruled by none, never

And you thought that we were faking
But we were all just money making
You do not believe that we're for real
Or you would lose your cheif appeal ?

Don't you judge a book just by the cover
Or you will cover just another
And blind acceptance is a sign
Of stupid fools who stand in line, like

E.M.I, E.M.I. E.M.I

Unlimited edition
With an unlimited supply
That was the only reason
We all had to say goodbye

I do not need the pressure
And I can't stand those useless fools
Unlimited supply
Hallo E.M.I, goodbye