Dan Kennedy's Rocky Times in the Music Biz
McSweeney's contributor Dan Kennedy found what he thought was a dream job in the music industry: Director of Creative Development at Atlantic Records. Rock on: an Office Power Ballad is the tale of his time at the label — where he arrived just in time for what he describes as the collapse of the music business.
Other segments from the episode on June 13, 2008
DATE March 13, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Eliot Van Buskirk of wired.com on the rise of digital
media in the music industry
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Record companies, record stores, even
CDs have become irrelevant to a lot of music listeners who are relying on Web
sites and digital listening devices for their music. To help make sense of
what's going on in the digital music world and how it's affecting the music
industry as we know it, we've invited Eliot Van Buskirk. He writes about
digital media for wired.com on his blog, Listening Post.
Eliot Van Buskirk, welcome to FRESH AIR. A few years ago Napster was the big
thing and people were exchanging music through Napster without paying anything
to record companies or artists. The record industry sued, Napster is no
longer free, but meanwhile a lot of other systems have developed that are
bypassing record companies, so let's look at a couple. Give us an example of
one or two legal models for distributing music that bypass record companies.
Mr. ELIOT VAN BUSKIRK: Well, one of the most interesting ones going on right
now is called Record Label, if you just remove the vowels. So I don't know
how to pronounce it--RCRD LBL? Something like that, but that's how it's
spelled. And they-- basically, this site looks like a blog. It's a bunch of
entries, and you can download a song at the bottom of each entry. What's
different is that they own those songs, and all of it's free. So they'll go
out to an artist and pay them anywhere from 500 to $5,000 per song, and for
that, they get to offer that song for free, they get to put ads around it,
whatever they want.
And from a user's point of view, you know, you're on a Web site, it looks
normal, it has ads on it, and you download a song and it's free and you don't
get sued and everybody's happy and everybody gets paid, so that's kind of a
nice model, I think.
GROSS: Now, though, say a record really takes off. Is it a flat fee for the
artist or do they get royalties?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: It is a flat fee, and so that's something that's, you know,
still being worked out. I bet the first time, you know an artist sells,
whatever, you know, a million tracks or so for that $5,000, they'll, you
know--then that model can start changing.
GROSS: Well, yeah, because it reminds me of like, say, in the early days of
rock 'n' roll when artists were given a flat fee and then they went onto be
big stars and felt like they were completely ripped off.
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Sure. I mean, it could be the colonel all over again, you
know, with Elvis, but that is really symptomatic of the type of re-think that
the industry's going in. I mean, the fact that we're comparing something
that's happening in 2008 to something that happened at the very beginning of
the recorded music business, you know, that's sort of indicative of what a big
transition this is.
GROSS: Now, give us another example of a new distribution model that is legal
but bypassing the record companies.
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: OK. Here's one that's legal and is somewhat bypassing the
record companies, and it's generated a lot of controversy called QTracks. And
basically what Qtracks is, it's the old Napster, but everything that you
download gets wrapped in a sort of secure wrapper that then tells QTracks how
many times you listened to the song, and they take their ad revenue and divide
up the money between the labels based on who listens to which song how much,
even down to how many seconds they played each song. So it's a very highly
auditable system, which is another thing that the labels probably don't like
because auditing is not always their friend.
GROSS: There's something called fan-funded music that is basically using
listeners to give the money to make records. Why don't you give us an example
of that model?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Oh, I love this. This is something we won't see in America
due to, I think our laws call it gambling and running an illegal stock market,
but, you know, on the surface of it, it's none of those things. Basically,
fans get together and decide that they really like a band and they're each
going to put in, say, $10 before an album is released. Now, once that amount
gets up to, in one case, $30,000, in another $50,000, then the band goes into
the studio, records the album, and all the fans who believed in them own a
piece of that album, so they actually get a cut of subsequent revenues. And
this isn't just--you know, this sounds like a pipe dream or something, but one
of these companies called SellaBand has had 14 bands reach the $50,000 mark.
And one of those, Slice the Pie, they just released their first ever album by
a band called The Alps, and that was funded entirely by fans as well.
GROSS: You said we're not going to see this model in the United States
because it would be illegal, so are the two Web sites that you talked about,
SellaBand and Slice the Pie, not American based?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Exactly. SellaBand is in Holland and Slice the Pie is in
England. And apparently, you know, you can actually buy and sell shares in
these bands, you know. It's just like a little miniature stock market, and
unfortunately I think our authorities would call that an illegally unregulated
stock market. And I, you know, I assume that that will change. Because
clearly it's not about gambling or running some kind of weird, unregulated
market. It's just about fans believing in bands and getting them financed
when maybe the label would not pay to have that album made.
GROSS: So the Web sites are based in other countries, but can Americans
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Yes, yes. This is one thing about online music that
doesn't appear to be illegal yet.
GROSS: Curious thing is there's so many bands now putting out their own music
on Web sites or their own CDs with their own artwork. We used to rely on
record company promotion and radio and MTV and VH1 to get the word out about
new bands. They'd, you know, play the music, they'd show the videos, the
record companies would promote the bands. So for all these like bands that
are only represented on the Internet, how are you supposed to find out about
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: You know, this is the problem. There are, I think, seven
million bands on MySpace right now, and, you know, I bet there are--under a
million probably anybody would consider even slightly listenable, you know.
So what the labels have always done is something that's very important and
continues to be important, which is find new bands, new acts, new talent, and,
most importantly, develop them, help them actually grow the way that the
industry used to work, you know, in the '70s. You saw artists--you know,
they'd get to put out four or five albums without any of them even being a hit
while they developed. Today's system could never generate somebody like Bruce
Springsteen, you know, who wasn't an initial hit, and now, you know, he fills
the Meadowlands every time he plays and everybody knows his name.
So I think something is going to have to continue that role of finding new
bands and taking them to that proverbial next level--as much as that
expression's overused--but to put them past MySpace, take them out of this
seven million bands quagmire and elevate them in front of a larger audience.
And that's what's really exciting right now, is there isn't really a great
mechanism for that, but you know, that's an opportunity.
GROSS: So there are emerging legal models making sure that artists are paid
while still bypassing record companies. There's new models of paying
royalties and bypassing record companies. Let's look at a couple of those
models. One of them is a Web site called TuneCore, there's another called CD
Baby. Tell us a little bit about these two different models.
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: This is tremendously exciting to me. I mean, when I first
started covering digital music in, I guess, '97 or '98, you know, one of the
big promises was that the Internet is such a vastly efficient way to deliver
music--if you think about trucks full of CDs consuming gasoline going all
across the country suddenly being replaced by nearly-free digital
distribution, that's pretty exciting and, you know, a lot of us were excited
to see the price of music drop and the number--you know, the amount of music
that people consume increase because this is such an incredibly efficient way
to distribute notes, literally. And oddly enough we have not seen the price
of music drop significantly as a result of distribution getting so much
Now, what's so exciting about TuneCore is they charged Trent Reznor of Nine
Inch Nails something like $38 to deliver his 36-song album to Amazon MP3 for a
year, and that's a flat fee. It doesn't matter how many copies he sells. And
this is where we're starting to see, finally, the digital music movement split
away from how the CD used to be. So it's tremendously exciting that somebody
is--I guess the metaphor I like is that the middle man is not eating and now
he's tightening his belt. TuneCore is an example of that.
GROSS: OK. Wait. So Trent Reznor pays TuneCore $38 so that they will
distribute his CD. So what does he get for that $38?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Sorry. Well, it's just his--he just gets his digital files
prepped into the right formats for the Amazon MP3 store and actually delivered
to them. They're starting to set up these pipes so that you just talk to
TuneCore, you spend really a nominal fee. And, you know, this is no guarantee
that iTunes is going to accept, you know, some type of horrible song just
because somebody pays this fee. You know, that's the fee that gets you to the
digital distributor such as iTunes or Amazon MP3 and then they take it from
there. But obviously, you know, somebody like Trent Reznor, they're going to
be excited to receive his album.
GROSS: And what about royalties?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: He keeps all royalties for this, 100 percent. And this is
just a huge break from how things used to work in the past. And I would
caution, you know, this is all very exciting for a lot of us, but Trent Reznor
is not the every man, as it were, you know. You can't...
GROSS: Sure, if you're a name brand and you try this, you don't need the same
kind of promotion and advertising.
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Right. I mean, the irony to me is that it's only the
artists who the label system has built up who are able to do this.
GROSS: Right. That's a very good point. Now, there's another similar but
different model called CD Baby. How does this Web site work?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: They work similarly. I'm not as familiar with the exact
terms of what they charge, but they do essentially the same thing. They do
physical and digital distribution so that if you're a small artist or a small
label, you know, you can just go to them and your stuff shows up everywhere.
You know, if you're an intern at a major label right now, you spend a lot of
your time just adding friends on MySpace, you know, literally clicking "add."
I know people who do this. You know, when you're a small operation, you can't
afford to deal with every single Web site on the planet, so that's what's so
cool about aggregators like this, like CD Baby, TuneCore, what Iota does even,
and they do digital distribution as well.
You know, if you're a musician and you're a small operation, what you want to
do is make music. This is why you are what you are, and you don't want to
become an expert on Web 2.0 technologies and interface with business
development vice presidents all day. You want to record music and play shows.
So a lot of these small little companies are just taking one little element of
what a record label used to do and just doing only that really well, so that
as an artist you can sort of pick and choose between these different services
until you have something that somewhat resembles a label.
GROSS: I think in the CD Baby model the artist pays a setup fee and then the
Web site keeps a percentage of the sales and pays the rest to the artist, so
that's one model for distributing the money.
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Sure.
GROSS: Now, do you think the record companies are using all these music Web
sites as a way to scout for talent, like once a Web site proves that an artist
has selling power, that then the record company moves in and does the old
fashioned thing with them, you know, puts out a CD, gives them marketing and,
you know, promotion and production money?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: This is absolutely true. In one case that Slice the
Pie--one of their bands, called Gilkicker had reached its $30,000 mark at the
point where it got to start making an album, and at that point a label became
interested. Because the label says, `hey, they've got fans to raise $30,000
without a record. This record hasn't even come out yet. These guys have
committed $30,000.' So the label then knows that this band is worthwhile, and
they actually bought those contracts out. So the people who had invested in
the band made, I think 150 percent on their investment just right off the bat
when the label bought out that band.
And another example of labels using Web sites to find new artists is actually
kind of incredible. These same peer-to-peer companies that they--you know,
every chance they get they're going to--they deride these networks, you know,
like the original Napster or LimeWire or BitTorrent and stuff like that, but
the labels actually pay a company called BigChamapagne to monitor those
peer-to-peer, you know, so-called illegal networks. And by monitoring those,
they figure out which song to promote as the single from an upcoming album
that's been leaked. I mean, they get all kinds of great data from this. And
I'm sure that they look for unsigned bands that are getting a lot of traffic
and try to sign them.
GROSS: OK, you used the expression "peer-to-peer," also known as P2P. So
what is that?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: That's basically--I open up a folder in my hard drive and
everybody can download music from it and vice versa. You know, basically the
way the original Napster worked. And what's great for the labels, you know,
as much as...
GROSS: And no money passes hands. I mean, there's no royalties or anything
that's paid. It's just--right.
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: True. True. Exactly. There's one...
GROSS: Which is why it's illegal.
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Right.
GROSS: My guest is Eliot Van Buskirk. He writes about digital media for
wired.com on his blog, Listening Post. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Record industry people and bands from around the country have gathered
in Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference.
We're talking about how digital audio technology is changing the music world.
My guest is Eliot Van Buskirk. He writes about digital media for wired.com on
his blog, Listening Post.
Record companies are trying new models when they release new records, models
that include the Internet. And some of them are taking their cue from
Radiohead, who had decided to first release their album digitally only through
the Internet, and listeners were supposed to decide how much they were willing
to pay for it, and then Radiohead actually got a CD deal and did it the more
old fashioned way. So what are some of the bands that are trying models that
are kind of taking off from the Radiohead approach?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Well, one thing that just about every label that approaches
me--I do some degree of music reviewing in my job, and almost without fail you
can hear the entire album for free as a stream before it goes on sale, and
that's usually just as a journalist, but in many cases they're doing this for
the public also, so--and this is straight out of the Radiohead playbook.
You'll get a little--they're calling them e-postcards or widgets or whatever
it's called. Basically, it's a little text box that people can put on their
blogs or anywhere else on the Internet and you click that and you hear the
entire album for free. Now, it's a stream; you can't download it and put it
on your iPod or anything like that, but that's, you know, that's a huge leap
from the label strategies of 10 or even five years ago, you know, when they
were so fearful of somebody connecting some type of tape recorder up to their
computers and recording this free so-called promotional stream, and now
they've really opened up and realized that if people can't hear the music,
they're not going to buy it.
GROSS: It's hard to talk about digital music without mentioning things like
iTunes or the subscription service Rhapsody. And what impact do you think
that they're having on the record companies? How are they helping, how are
they hurting the companies?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Well, iTunes just became the second largest music retailer
in the country. Now, that counts stores, Web sites, anything, so this is a
major force. This is not just, you know, for Internet people or something.
This is actually the second largest music retailer of any kind in the country.
So it's not a niche...
GROSS: The first being Wal-Mart?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Yes, yes. I remember seeing a statistic at one point that
35 percent of music in the country was purchased at Wal-Mart, which is kind of
GROSS: It kind of is because it's not the speciality people obviously who are
going to Wal-Mart to buy their music.
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Right.
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: You know what's funny to me? The number one selling album
of last year was a Christmas album by Josh Groban, who I hadn't heard of
previously to that, and I follow music professionally. I think that the most
popular albums are not being purchased by people who really like music, which
I think is really, really interesting right now.
GROSS: So one of the controversies now surrounding iTunes is the fact that
iTunes can only be downloaded onto iPods. You can't download iTune songs onto
other brands of MP3 players. Why is this controversial?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Well, imagine when the CD came out if there were, you know,
a bunch of different kinds, and there's, you know, Sony has its own record
label so if you want to play a Sony CD you've got to buy a Sony CD player and
then on top of that, you're going to need an Aiwa CD player for bands--for
some other band. And obviously the CD never would have taken off if that were
the case. And that's kind of the case with music. We've seen a lot of
improvement. It's all about the labels. It's not Apple's decision to make
those rules. It's the labels who insist on rules in order to give the music
to Apple. Fortunately the labels, to varying degrees, are experimenting with
releasing music without DRM, and in fact iTunes...
GROSS: DRM is digital rights management, and that's the kind of encryption
that allows you to download only to a specific product?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Exactly. That's what makes the iTunes music only play on
an iPod. There has been a little progress even with an Apple. You can switch
your iTunes to something called iTunes Plus, and then you're able to download
music without this digital rights management protection. I don't know if this
is fortunately for Apple or what, but those files are still in the AAC format,
which don't play on a lot of non-iPod MP3 players, but I'm sure that's just a
GROSS: Do you think that this is on the verge of changing? Do you think
there will be less encryption and more ability to download onto a variety of
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Absolutely. I mean, when the labels put these walls up,
they are really only punishing law-abiding music fans. If you're someone who
purchases the music, you're the only person who's affected by these usage
rules. That can be very frustrating when you're upgrading a computer or
trying to shop for a new device. It's an inevitability. If they keep
insisting on it, they will continue to see the sales plummet, and I think
that, you know, they've certainly gotten the picture that you don't want to
punish the percentage of music fans that is playing by the rules, and that's
what this digital rights management did.
GROSS: Eliot Van Buskirk writes about digital media for wired.com on his
blog, Listening Post. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Eliot Van Buskirk. He
writes about digital media for his blog, Listening Post on wired.com. We're
talking about digital music Web sites and listening devices and how they're
changing the record industry.
Now, as the models for distributing and purchasing music change, there's all
kinds of new questions that come up about artists' royalties, and, in fact,
the Copyright Royalty Board started hearings last month, and they're going to
determine what the publishing royalties should be now for CDs, for downloads
and for the first time they'll be looking at subscription music services, ring
tones and interactive webcasts. What are some of the issues that the board
has to examine before coming up--like, what are some of the more controversial
issues at the heart of this?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Well, the big one right now--and this battle's between the
publishers and I guess everybody else, you know, the labels and Web sites--but
the big thing right now is, if I compose a song, am I owed a flat rate? And
if so, what should that flat rate be? And this has always been the case, but
now that the labels want to decrease the price of music--or they say they
do--and they say that they can't do that if they have to pay songwriters a
flat fee for every song. If you're paying the songwriter 12 cents and you're
paying Apple 35 cents, that doesn't leave a lot of room to drop the price of
the song on iTunes.
The songwriters and the music publishers have kind of kept out of this whole
battle for years and sort of had this tacit, or actually an explicit agreement
saying, you know, `do whatever you want with ring tones, do whatever you want
with music streams, just keep track of what you're playing so you can pay us
once we figure out what a fair rate is.' And now this sort of touchy-feeling
agreement has fallen apart and everybody's packing up their lawyers and
heading to Washington.
GROSS: Because songwriters and publishers are afraid that their percentages
are going to go down and they don't want to see that happen.
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Exactly. And they don't get to negotiate the price of
anything, of music, without getting too into the boring details here, but if
you're a songwriter or, you know, a publishing house, you just get this flat
fee per song for a bunch of different reasons. And you have no say in the
price that the song is sold for. That's why they don't like a percentage, the
idea of getting a percentage of these services, because they can't negotiate
the price. They want a flat fee. And this, you know, this is an impasse.
This could last awhile, and it's basically, you know, people think of the
music industry as a monolithic thing, but it's got so many components and so
many various interests vying with each other so that now we're seeing the
publishers and the labels, who have been on the same side during previous
royalty debates, now they're going after each other, which is fascinating,
just to watch these shifting alliances.
GROSS: Eliot, does hip-hop have a different model that's developing around
its kind of digital distribution approach than indie rock does?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Yeah, the mix tape has been a huge part of hip-hop culture
and continues to be, you know, like an up-and-coming rapper grabbing some
instrumental tracks, laying down some vocals on top of it, going around
selling cassettes out of the back of a car. I mean, you know,
multimillion-dollar careers have been built in that way.
And so with the online hip-hop, I'm seeing two things. I'm seeing the mix
tape everywhere, like the digital version of the mix tape. That seems to be
the hot commodity in online hip-hop, and the other thing we're seeing is
social networks that are designed just for hip-hop. You know, there are a lot
of--I think the first generation of music sites, they try to do everything for
everybody. And I guess any sort of subsection of the music scene, they want
stuff that just applies to them. I mean, if you're super into folk music, why
spend all your time looking at promotions for techno bands, you know? And I
think this is going to be a huge trend. We saw everything collect in the
middle with Friendster and MySpace and Facebook. I think the next phase is
it's going to disseminate out to the sides, and we'll have social networks
just for hip-hop music and Web sites dedicated only to hip-hop mix tapes; and
that certainly is already happening.
GROSS: What's your assessment of the role radio plays now in popularizing
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Mm-hmm. Well, again, this goes back to what we were
talking about with the Washington situation. The labels' take is that radio
no longer promotes the sale of music. You know, they used to sort of give
radio a free pass in America, and radio stations could play music for free
because, you know, the up shot of that would be that everybody would run out
and buy the CD or the record. People aren't running out and buying the CD or
the record anymore and so now labels are trying to charge radio for the right
to play music. This can only hurt radio. I mean, people already are tuning
out and listening to their iPods and caching podcasts, and this would be like
the least opportune moment to increase the pressure that's on radio stations,
if they're supposed to stick around and remain a viable promotional resource
for music. I mean, I'm not too bullish on the future of music radio.
GROSS: So how has your listening changed, like, how you listen to and what
you listen to, how you find new music, how has all of that changed since you
started getting really into digital music?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Mm-hmm. Well, I vacillate. I go through phases where I
listen to only stuff that I've collected, which is a lot, and then I get bored
of that, or I can't think what is it that I want to hear. So I find myself
sort of vacillating between self-programming and letting somebody else do the
programming for me, going to, say, Pandora, or Last fm and just keying in a
favorite artist, and you know, you can start listening to music and being
surprised by new stuff in about 30 seconds by entering in just a single
artist's name. It's like...
GROSS: And then they give you people you should like if you like that person?
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Oh, they just play it. You enter the artist's name and
then you just sit there and then you listen as things that sound like that
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: And of course, you know, you can tag stuff--`oh, well,
that's good. I've never heard of that artist before' and you hit a little
heart button and then that artist is more likely to play on your station. So
I don't think programming is dead. I mean, radio might be hurting musicwise,
but programming as a concept is just as valuable as ever. Just needs to be
done in a new way, and that is what we're seeing with Pandora and Last fm.
GROSS: Well, Eliot Van Buskirk, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. VAN BUSKIRK: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Eliot Van Buskirk writes about digital media for wired.com on his
blog, Listening Post.
Coming up next, how many music executives does it take to screw in a light
bulb? We talk with Dan Kennedy about his humorous record company memoir,
"Rock On: An Office Power Ballard." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Dan Kennedy, author of "Rock On," on his time as a
director of creative development at a record label
TERRY GROSS, host:
The record industry may be struggling, but in 2002 Dan Kennedy was pretty
excited to leave the world of advertising and move to a major record label.
His rock dreams didn't quite match his office life as director of creative
development, coming up with ad campaigns for bands. His record industry
career ended when he was laid off. He's written a funny memoir about that
period called "Rock On: An Office Power Ballard." He's also the author of the
book "Loser Goes First" and is a contributor to McSweeney's.
Dan Kennedy, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to start from a reading from
Mr. DAN KENNEDY: This is called "I'm Paid to Write Love Notes to Phil
(Reading) "Before we get to the first bit assignment at the new intense,
high-profile rock 'n' roll job, let me first admit that there is a delusion I
have apparently quietly indulged since, say, age 30, and it's this: that I am
still as cool as I was when I was 17. Inside the heart and head, a sort of
suspended animation, a never-quite-acknowledged freezing of time.
Unmonitored, this is how the tragedy of uncles who still get high happens.
"And now, having taken a full-time job working on the marketing and
advertising of bands, somehow this delusion is raging in a very bad way. In
the days leading up to the job, I've spent a lot of time laying on my couch,
listening to my iPod and daydreaming about how I'm basically going to be paid
to be some sort of intense uber rock 'n' roll person who is marketing loud,
fierce, developing bands that are not yet registering on the radar of the
so-called normal run-of-the-mill adults in the mainstream. Those were great,
powerful, and beautiful moments of delusion, mostly because I had not yet sat
down and faced this first big assignment, to write an inspirational and
congratulatory ad campaign that celebrates 25 years of heartwarming love songs
from Phil Collins.
"I've been told that one of the ever-changing co-presidents of the company
wants to make sure I understand that my ad campaign is going to be targeted
largely to females 40 to 50-plus years of age, so I need to be writing in that
voice. The first thing I do is pace around the temporary office they've got
me in, wondering how the hell I'm going to do this. I start trying to write
some headlines that I think 40- to 50-something-year-old women can relate to.
For some reason they all sound like those Hallmark greeting cards that aren't
really for any occasion in particular, like, they're usually filed under a
section called `Just Because' or `Friend.'
"The headlines go like this: `Remember the first time you heard that special
voice?' `Here's to the voice that taught us about love.' `Who was really your
first love?' In a quiet panic I cut those headlines and I jump to adjectives
like `biggest-selling' `chart-conquering,' `platinum-smash,' and then I land
on the word `hero.' Yes! He's a hero. OK, maybe not a hero, I think to
GROSS: And that's Dan Kennedy reading a section from his new memoir, "Rock
On," about doing marketing and advertising campaigns for Atlantic Records.
Dan Kennedy, that was a great reading.
Mr. KENNEDY: Yeah, thank you.
GROSS: So what are some of the ideas you did come up with for that Phil
Mr. KENNEDY: Well, you know, like I said, I kind of just entered this really
strange, you know, area of my writing talent that I didn't know I had, which
was to write these extremely emotionally vague notions about love and who
taught you about love, and the clash of that, you know, to what I thought I
would be doing, that was really day one on what I convinced myself was going
to be sort of like the front lines of the fierce rock 'n' roll storm where,
you know, I would be "keeping it real," quote, unquote.
And I sort of fancied myself being this cross between like a really normal,
you know, finally a normal, respectable person who, you know, when to an
office and then home to loved ones each day and then back to an office and
then home to a loved one, and I thought, Oh I'm finally going to fit in. But
I also thought there will also be this kind of, you know, Henry Rollins-like
quality about me, suddenly that, you know, finds me this very dialed in and
very, you know, not like the other 35-year-olds.
And so to have day one be sort of be, you know, trying to capture the voice of
a 50-year-old woman--and, I might mention, being like chillingly good at doing
it--was a little bit of a weird feeling. And so all the ideas I came up were
kind of like, you know, exactly those ones like "Remember love," you know.
And, you know, "wouldn't you like a little more love in your week?" and things
like this. And I was just like, wow, this is odd. I'm really tapped into
this experience of being, you know, a 50-year-old female. I'm really right
here on the front lines of rock 'n' roll, aren't I?
GROSS: See, that's one of the scary things to think that there is a generic
50-year-old female that anybody could--there isn't one. You know, there
really isn't one.
Mr. KENNEDY: There really isn't one, but if you work in marketing long
enough, people convince you that there is. You know, it's sort of a cross
between like a General Foods International Coffees and, you know, a Hallmark
card; you know, that would be sort of the tone, I think. But, you know, in
the end, the ad that they ended up going with was simply a picture of Phil
Collins' face and the number 25. The first...
GROSS: Because it was his 25th anniversary of...
Mr. KENNEDY: Yeah so very simply...
GROSS: ...of his recording career.
Mr. KENNEDY: Yeah, and very simply, they just sort of said, `Oh, we're just
going to use a picture of his face and the number 25,' and at first I was kind
of, you know, creatively outraged. I was like, `why am I even here? This is
all such a sham.' Like, there's no writing craft in that. And then, of
course, when I opened my mouth, what I heard myself say was `Oh, that'll be
nice, you know, that will an elegant way to go. Good, good.'
GROSS: At the beginning of that section, you talk about indulging the
delusion that you're still as cool as you were when you were 17, and that's a
delusion that I think many, many people, inside and outside the record
industry, indulge in, if you ever thought you were cool to begin with. And I
guess, like, did working in the inside of the record industry and seeing the
bands and seeing the execs and writing directly to the fans make you, like,
re-think the whole meaning of the word "cool" in any way?
Mr. KENNEDY: Yes. I mean, it was very much sort of a "Scared Straight"
experience. I mean, it was--you know, I mean, I--to have that--I would
imagine for a normal developmental, you know, sort of thing that you would go
through as 35-year-old male, maybe you would gradually start realizing you're
not cool and you'd start breaking it to yourself gently. But, you know, when
you're in the recording studio with al all-female punk rock band who are all
like 22 years old, you realize very quickly, like, oh, this is--I'm kind of
like the dad here. I'm kind of like the weird neighbor who, you know, doesn't
know what's cool, who's using slightly wrong terminology, you know. I think
that was the day it happened when I was, you know, recording PSAs with The
Donnas from San Francisco, this great punk rock sort of guitar rock,
all-female band, very cool and very hip. And you know, I was sort of standing
there in like my leather shoes and a great sweater and slacks and like trying
to convince them I was cool, you know, and I just thought, oh gosh, you know,
something has happened since 1986, and it's not good.
GROSS: Exactly at what moment were you cool? Because your first book is a
memoir about being a loser. So where is exactly the time that you were cool?
Mr. KENNEDY: For a minute I thought, you know, FRESH AIR would go to my
head, you know, like it would be a bad thing? Feeling very well-adjusted now.
I don't--you know, I think I was cool briefly. And you know, if I had to be
pressed and really honest I was probably cool briefly in 1985, you know? That
doesn't sound like the most boastful, confident thing. If I walked into a
cocktail party I might not open with that remark about myself, but, you know,
yeah, honestly, I was probably briefly cool in the junior and senior year of
high school for me.
GROSS: Do you start to think about popular culture as always being about
overthrowing what came before?
Mr. KENNEDY: I think, to some degree. And you also start becoming one of
those people, like I started becoming very afraid that I was going to be that,
you know, that guy who's like, `There hasn't been a decent record made since
"Sticky Fingers."' You know, sort a "Simpsons" character of yourself?
Mr. KENNEDY: But you never quite wanted to be that person. And of course,
yeah, you do slowly start to become this person going, `oh, it's kind of all
been done before.' Like, I think that's why I, you know, just getting way more
into books really during that period.
GROSS: What were some of the moments when the corporate setting and the music
it was selling and promoting were most at odds?
Mr. KENNEDY: You know, there's a scene in the book where I talk about being
in a meeting where we find out that a song by Jewel, which is all about not
selling out--it's a great song, you know, it's about following your heart and
sort of staying true to yourself in this culture that is trying to always
bombard you with advertising and media and different messages, but we were in
this meeting finding out that we were going to license it in a like $120
million ad campaign for a razor for women, you know, and that was definitely
ironic. I mean, I definitely remember looking around the room thinking, `are
we not--we're not supposed to say this is ironic, right? Are we supposed
to--this song's all about not selling out yet we're going to--OK, I'm not
clear on this but I'll just keep my glasses on and look intelligent.'
GROSS: What's one of the ad campaigns or, you know, TV commercials you came
up with that you really liked?
Mr. KENNEDY: I really liked, you know, I came up with a commercial for Fat
Joe. He's this rapper from the South Bronx and I shot this TV commercial with
Fat Joe that I thought came out particularly good. I think I have a special
sort of spot in my heart for that commercial.
GROSS: What was the commercial? What did you do?
Mr. KENNEDY: I see where you're going. You really want to know the extent
of the ideas I came up with. Here's where it gets particularly humiliating.
Well, the big idea there, as I put it in my treatment, was that Fat Joe would
be in the quote, unquote, "panoramic prime Manhattan real estate" looking like
a hip-hop overlord in control of the scene. Camera would track through the
surroundings, push up to the desk and Joe would lean into the light and simply
say the word "loyalty, " which was the name of the new album.
And this--you know, first I have to say that I wrote this treatment sort of
like really over the top and I wrote it over the top just because I thought,
they'll never go for this. It's kind of crazy. And I also think I was kind
of overcompensating for the fact that I'm just your really, normal average
guy, you know, from the suburbs, and the worst thing happened is that, you
know, my boss Valerie came into my office and was just all smiles going, `He
loves it,' you know. `We have to do it.' And I was like oh my gosh, you know.
But that was really the whole treatment. I mean, the whole script was, you
know, we go into this sort of den of hip-hop righteousness and there's a
shadowy figure sitting at a huge desk, and as the camera moves toward that
desk he leans into the light, we see that it's Fat Joe, and he simply says the
GROSS: My guest is Dan Kennedy. His new memoir is called "Rock On." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Dan Kennedy and he's written a memoir about working at a
major record label, writing advertising and marketing campaigns, and his
memoir is called "Rock On: An Office Power Ballard."
You have a great and very long light bulb joke in the book, and I'm going to
ask you to read an excerpt of it.
Mr. KENNEDY: Excellent.
(Reading) "Before we move on, a record business riddle. Question: How many
of the likes of us does it take to change a light bulb?
"Answer: First of all, before we change anything, is the light bulb really
burned out? Maybe we just need to breathe some life into it, repackage it.
Maybe the light bulb could do a duet with somebody--Sheryl Crow, Tim
McGraw--in hopes of getting some crossover appeal. Maybe it could be in a
beer commercial. Maybe we could get it out on the road with a brighter light
"The other thing to think about is that this summer Honda is rolling out a
$100 million campaign for a new car aimed at 30-somethings who consider
themselves adventurous and spontaneous but can't really afford something like
a luxury SUV, and it might be a perfect campaign to tie this light bulb into;
at least, it would be the perfect demographic in terms of age.
"Also--and this is just an idea--what if we found out what video games are
being released in the third quarter and maybe pitch the idea of having our
light bulb make an appearance in the video game at some certain level of
completion. Like, you get to a dark cave, let's say, if it's an adventure
game, and if you have enough points you can get the light bulb, and it would
be our light bulb, obviously. And then it's easier to see in the cave.
"The other thing is this. Worst-case scenario, the light bulb is in fact
burned out. Is that really the end of the world? I mean, maybe that's
actually of more value to us in the long run. Picture this for the voiceover:
`The light bulb is dead, but the legend lives on. Re-released, remastered,
revealed. The light bulb. In stores now. It almost makes more sense than
taking the time to change it. Plus, if we can sell it without dealing with
it--you know what I mean?--No demands from it. No hotels, no road expense, no
delays in the project from its end, etc. But like I said, I'm just thinking
off the top of my head here, just brainstorming. None of this is written in
GROSS: You quote, I think it was, like the new chairman of the label that you
worked for saying something like, `I don't tell people I'm in the record
business. I tell people I'm in the business of delivering a lifestyle, hooded
sweatshirts and other merchandise, merch that features various band logos,
licensing soft drinks, everything. There's no limit to how this business will
change and become a business of selling a way of living more than simply
selling music.' I'm wondering, is that the direction you saw the music
industry heading in, and if so, do you think it's a result of the fact that
people are kind of giving up on actually selling music?
Mr. KENNEDY: I mean, you know, it's funny. There's nothing wrong with
music. You understand it's not a tough time for music because I got really
tired of, you know, basically guys who were making a ton of money and had
offices the size of my entire apartment telling me that it's a really tough
time for music. But if you go out in whatever city, you know, you're in
tonight and you tell the 600 kids or the 100 kids or the 50 kids or the 2,000
kids lined up at the club to see their favorite band that this is a really
tough time for music, they'll look at you like you're mental. You know,
there's nothing wrong with music.
The only thing that's wrong in the music business is, you know, basically the
consumers and the fans caught onto the fact that, you know, they've kind of
been getting a weird deal at $20 per CD for three good songs and some fillers
type of thing. So in terms of, you know, what people said in that
environment, like that quote about, you know, `We're now going to be in the
lifestyle business,' one thing I learned is that I could probably really
succeed in a corporate environment if I could just say incredibly vague things
with a straight face. You know, like, if you could just be like a smart
casual-dressed beat poet, basically.
You know, for someone who's making, you know, seven or $8 million--or, no,
actually it was our new boss whose contract was $50 million a year, which just
sounded like a joke amount; and then that speech he delivered about, you know,
`we're not in the music business. We're in the lifestyle business.' I just
thought, gosh, if I could say things that sort of random and vague, you know,
while looking good, I would be so successful in this corporate environment.
You know, if people just said like, `You know, Dan, what do you see as the
problem, you know, that's facing the music industry today?' and I could say
things like, `I don't see that there's a problem as much as I understand that
lifestyles are around us and that the air we breathe is the inspiration, so
now more than ever we're going to reach for the air.' You know, but I always,
you know, like, if you make enough money and you're in a big enough position,
you say things that are just weird and vague and whimsical, and people are
like `oh, yes.' It's very much "The Emperor's New Clothes." You know, it's
just very much like, `yes, that is brilliant, sir.'
GROSS: Dan Kennedy, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. KENNEDY: Thanks for having me. A pleasure.
GROSS: Dan Kennedy's new memoir is called "Rock On: An Office Power Ballad."
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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