This blunder is just the latest in a series of gaffes by the record industry. The punk-rock DIY ethic for "do it yourself" was originally a moniker of independence, of self-reliance, of freedom from the political maneuverings of the "major-label" music industry. Now DIY would seem to be basic survival for all artists, because if you go through the corporate channels, your music may never be heard, because some idiot in an office building doesn't "hear it," or can't find a single for radio. It's the musicians' loss, but more so, it's a loss for the world.
How long, as the song once asked, has this been going on? In the spirit of "High Fidelity," a novel about romance and musical snobbism by Nick Hornby, I'll answer in the form of a list the Top 10 Signs That the Music Industry is Out of Touch When it Comes to Recognizing and Dealing with Talent:
No. 10 Mariah Carey. Her label is paying her $28 million to not sing anymore for them. Of course they had already signed her for $80 million to sing for them, but that's for another column.
No 9 Ani DiFranco. DiFranco has boldly insisted from the beginning on going her own way, and has proved righteously (her label is Righteous Babe) that it can be done. She has achieved wild success where experts said she couldn't, and she is making 10 times more money by doing it all herself.
No.8 - Gillian Welch. Welch has now formed her own label, Acony Records, to be in charge of her music, after her first label went bust and she couldn't get her recordings to a hungry public. Demonstrating an eye for talent, as well, Ms. Welch was T-Bone Burnett's largely uncredited assistant in assembling the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack. While other labels wanted to sign her, Welch was smart enough to realize that going on her own was the better choice. Touring with Ani DiFranco may have helped her reach that decision.
No.7 Michelle Shocked. After a long battle with her label, Shocked got out of her contract, took the publication rights and formed her own label. Her defense in court was the 13th Amendment, freedom from slavery, and she won.
No 6 Prince. Who could forget Prince's torso with "SLAVE" scrawled across it? Or those several years where he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in order to be free from the tyranny of his label?
No. 5 Alicia Keys. Columbia signed her, then rejected her efforts. Keys left, rightfully, in a huff. And the rest is history. She came out with essentially the same album, for a label savvy enough to snatch her up (sound familiar?) and sold millions of albums. Oh yeah, and won an armful of Grammys. Take that, Columbia.
No.4 the "O Brother" soundtrack phenomenon. This compilation proved everyone wrong, including the rock supergroup U2, which had planned and lobbied for the Album of the Year Grammy all year long, even giving out questionable retail exclusives to Best Buy and Target to keep the shoppers in the aisles and the buzz going. When "O Brother" won the Grammy U2 so coveted, it was indeed a beautiful day for bluegrass, and a shocking triumph for the little guys who didn't know any better.
No. 3 Alanis Morisette. Madonna signed her, and in so doing, showed that artists may be the best talent scouts we have. Alanis sold about 15 million copies of her "Jagged Little Pill" album and inspired a legion of scary followers.
No.2 David Gray. Dave Matthews signed this long-suffering Englishman, seeing the talent no one else in the industry had. Also in Matthews' ATO Records fold are Radish's Ben Kweller, the jazz group Soulive, and Patty Griffin all of them seem to be earning kudos all around.
And No. 1 is: the collective lack of true talent of Britney Spears, 'NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, and the Spice Girls. If that's the best the biz can come up with, well, enough said.
In conclusion, when you let Wilco and Alicia Keys walk away because you can't "hear it," and you think it's wise to pay Mariah Carey $28 million to take a permanent vacation, some things have either been lost in the equation, or weren't there in the first place. Given the choice, and now fortunately I have that choice, I'd much rather have talent scouts like Dave Matthews, Gillian Welch, and Michelle Shocked scouring the hills and clubs for me. If there's new talent out there, and I'm sure there is, these are the ears that will hear it, and better yet, know what it's worth. S
Andy Garrigue is a music critic who lives in Richmond. He has written for Style Weekly and others since 1991.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.