The music business in a post-911 world
By Michael Bertin, Fri., Nov. 30, 2001
Like so many others that day, Dan Gellar's phone rang on the morning of September 11.
"Twenty minutes after the first plane hit, NME called," remembers Gellar. "I knew at that point people were going to care."
The band's British label cared not about Gellar's general well-being - he was in the greater New York area after all - but rather because he and Amy Dykes comprise the band I Am the World Trade Center, they needed to talk.
"The joke was that when it was just me, the name of the band was originally going to be 'The World Trade Center,'" explains Gellar. "Then I go on stage and say, 'I am the World Trade Center.' That was the joke. And once those words came out of my mouth, they stuck.
"The name was so hokey and catchy, but everybody remembered it. That's the thing: To me, it was the perfect band name. I felt like I had done it. I had come up with the band name. I felt that more than the band, the name was my accomplishment -- what I had given the world."
After 11am that morning, the computer pop duo no longer had the perfect band name. Having made their live debut at Emo's during South by Southwest 2000, returning this past March to the same stage with their Kindercore Records debut in the can (Gellar is the label's co-founder), their run as the band with the world's greatest moniker was short-lived. Now the name may be the group's greatest liability.
Dykes and Gellar wrestled with and fought a name change, but eventually caved, if only temporarily. The duo was touring in Canada when they came across a review in Toronto, and, as Gellar tells it, "The first line of the review was, 'The band with the unfortunate name of ... .' I thought, 'Okay, if every review we have from now on starts with those words, I don't think we want that baggage.'"
Said inauspicious ID and the realization that before September 11 almost every review the duo had was positive, while after the terrorist attacks reviews have been predominantly negative, more or less forced the pair into their decision. They've since shortened the band's name to I Am the World, using the moniker Twin Powers when they DJ. There really weren't a whole lot of options.
At one point, Gellar did try to contact Anthrax's management for some guidance. The metal band had joked on its Web site (www.anthrax.com) that, given recent events, it would be changing its name to a Basket Full of Puppies, but it was only a joke. On the contrary; Anthrax suddenly has the uncomfortable luxury of such high name recognition that they don't have to change anything and would likely be worse off if they did. (Although one of its members admits on the site to acquiring an ample supply of the antibiotic Cipro so as to avoid an "ironic death.")
What's noteworthy about Gellar isn't that fate has delivered him from complete obscurity to appearing on VH-1 and MTV in the same week, but that (a) he was rational about the whole ordeal, and (b) that he talked at all. In a world that was supposedly brought together by tragedy, the music business, benefit concerts and CDs notwithstanding, is apparently exempt. Just try and talk to anyone about the music business post-911 -- the possibly chilling effects recent events may have on popular music -- and you'll most likely get a publicist lying to you with promises of returned phone calls.
Take John McCrea of Cake, for instance. Why Cake? Well, in one of the more peculiar September 11 aftereffects, culture critics descended from Central Park West to declare the death of irony. Seriously. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair (and curiously enough former editor of Spy) wrote, "I think it's the end of the age of irony." In Time magazine, essayist Roger Rosenblatt similarly chided the "vain stupidity" of "ironists," who were now superfluous in this "new and chastened time."
So again, why Cake? Well, if irony really is a casualty of 911, wouldn't they be the first band in the unemployment line? Irony is what they do, after all. On the other hand, the fact that Cake's latest album Comfort Eagle spawned the moderately successful single "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" while the band is filling midsized venues goes against the proposition that irony is dead. Still, getting the band to comment about such a prima facie ridiculous proposition seems relevant.
A publicist for Columbia Records, the band's label, claimed that McCrea was not inclined to talk because he feels that (her words), "Politics doesn't have anything to do with the band." That's fine, but McCrea was solicited not for his thoughts on politics per se, but on irony -- irony vis-ô-vis the terrorist attacks and the music biz.
After informing me that an interview on any related subject wasn't likely, the publicist then felt compelled to explain that when McCrea sings that he wants a woman with a short skirt and a long jacket, that's precisely what he doesn't want. No kidding. Clearly someone has a weaker grasp on irony than Alanis Morrisette, and it ain't the Chronicle or Cake.
Said publicist did have one pertinent piece of information, however. She disclosed that the second single from Comfort Eagle was changed from the title track because people at the label "felt there were too many references to religion and the Middle East, and [the song] had too much of a military vibe to it." Hmmm, guess she was right -- politics isn't having an impact on Cake after all. How many layers of irony are we at now?
With McCrea out of the lineup, Ben Folds was selected as a second string satirist, but without much explanation from his publicist, that interview never materialized as well. Ryan Adams, whose recent album Gold opens with "New York, New York" -- a song whose video features its performer singing almost the entire song with the World Trade Center towers looming eerily blue behind him -- couldn't be bothered, either. Seems it's the publicists who are determining post-911 music industry policy these days. Them and radio.
When it comes to having songs censored for sensitivity purposes, what happened to Cake is barely minor league compared to what came out of Clear Channel. You might have never heard of Clear Channel, but you have probably heard Clear Channel. They own radio -- a ton of it: more than 1,200 stations nationwide. And just a few days after the terrorist attacks, a list of more than 150 songs surfaced from somewhere within the company. That much is certain.
Also fairly certain is that, contrary to the early hoopla, it was not a list of banned songs, but songs that, given the current climate, might be in poor taste for Clear Channel stations to play. Songs like Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," the Tramps' "Disco Inferno" (you know, "burn baby, burn"), and any and all songs by Rage Against the Machine.
After that, things get a little less clear cut. Oh, except for the fact that a large number of songs on the list are utterly ridiculous. Boston's "Smokin'"? That's about smoking dope and getting high. Springsteen's "I'm on Fire"? That one's about being really turned on and wanting to have sex. Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone"? It's about a girl named Tuesday who gets on a train and goes away.
Rebecca Allmon, spokesperson for Clear Channel, explained the list's origin as follows: "It was from this one program director somewhere in California. So this fellow created a list. He thought, 'Gee, I've got some songs that I think some listeners, some listeners, might find offensive right now.' So he circulated the list to other program directors. It never came from corporate. It was never a banned playlist."
Dusty Black the general manager of Clear Channel's Austin stations (KASE, KFMK, KHFI, KPEZ, and KVET AM/FM), as well as the regional vice-president and marketing manager for this region, echoed Allmon's story almost to the letter. And that's a little strange.
Strange, one, because Marc Pollack, who broke the story for the Hits Daily Double Web site, swears the list did indeed come from corporate and from what he described as "a significant executive in the Clear Channel chain."
And strange, two, for the way both Allmon and Black described the list. Both referred to the list as an "Internet thing," both used the phrase "urban legend" when describing the list, and both claimed not to have seen the list. Compound that with the fact that for a story the Village Voice ran on post-911 hoaxes Clear Channel Program Director Wayne Mayo also claimed to have never seen the list, and things seem even stranger. How is it that something so visible in the media was missed by so many people for whom it was intended?
It doesn't smack of paranoid conspiracy so much as a foolish (if not curious) consistency. The Chronicle rang up nine different Clear Channel program directors and station managers in nine different major markets (Dallas, Philly, Chicago, Atlanta, etc.) to see if perhaps they had also failed to see the list. Surprise, they all failed to return calls. Well eight of them did, anyway. Tom Schurr, the Dallas-area GM, called back; he admitted to actually seeing the list. So much for paranoia, but hey, we're at war, and paranoia runs deep, into your life it will creep ... oh, wait. Is that one on the list?
Both Allmon and Black singled out the same song from the more-than-150, John Lennon's "Imagine," as one they thought an absurd selection for air-play exclusion. Well, Allmon singled it out subjunctively, because remember, she hadn't seen the list.
"If the song 'Imagine' was on the list, I personally don't find that offensive at all," she opines. "It's a wonderful song."
If anything, that song is probably one that makes sense to ban. Anyone ever listen to the lyrics of "Imagine"? It has more to do with Communism and Godlessness than Standing United and Enduring Our Freedom. Okay, there's no explicit reference to the workers' revolution, but "Imagine there's no heaven ... Imagine no possessions"? Not very market-friendly suppositions.
Yet, there was Neil Young onstage during the America: A Tribute to Heroes all-channel fundraiser playing the song. And, if you pick up the Capitol Records United We Stand compilation, with its flag-spangled cover in obvious reference to September 11, there's "Imagine" as the lead-off track. An unnamed source from within Capitol thought the song's inclusion similarly perplexing.
"I find it incredible that our catalog marketing division -- and the new regime over there prides itself on being a lot more musically astute -- started off the disc with 'Imagine.' It's not a nationalistic song. It's anti- that. 'Imagine there's no country ... nothing to kill or die for ...' I can't believe Yoko gave them permission for that."
Columbia's God Bless America tribute, which also sports a flag on the cover, is also possibly troublesome, but for a far more pedestrian reason. This one asks you to sit through the suddenly omnipresent Lee Greenwood track "God Bless the U.S.A." back to back to back with Pete Seeger ("This Land Is Your Land") and Gloria Estefan ("Coming Out of the Dark"). You have to love your country an awful lot to want to do that.
The shoe-in winners of the Bad Idea sweepstakes actually withdrew from contention. Funk-laden rappers the Coup were set to release their fourth album, Party Music, which featured cover art of band leader Boots and bandmate DJ Pam the Funkstress, get this, blowing up the World Trade Center. It took all of two hours for execs at Tommy Boy records to phone the band and let them know the cover had to be changed. The Coup complied and released the record with a flaming cocktail on the front in the original picture's stead.
The Coup was also unavailable for comment. Well, when the request for an interview seemed to coincide with the band's appearance in Austin in early November it looked likely. When it became clear it wasn't press in advance of a show, the band had scheduling difficulties. If it means anything, the Coup and Ben Folds have the same publicists.
It's kind of a shame, because Boots could have filled in for Public Enemy's Chuck D, who was also MIA. Both the Coup and P.E. are overtly political (the Coup's latest has a song called "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO" for God's sake). And this is where things go from stupid stupid to serious stupid.
In the wake of 911, while Americans were waving flags and holding hands, legislators were using their free hands to tinker with the Bill of Rights with the passage of the USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. act (aka the anti-terrorism legislation). And holy gratuitous acronyms, Batman, USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. actually stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. That's kind of funny. What isn't funny is how civil liberties might have been eviscerated in the name of combating terrorism. Easier online surveillance, lower wiretap standards, warrantless "sneak and peek" searches, domestic subpoena powers for the CIA -- it's unsettling stuff.
How does the new law pertain to Public Enemy? Included in the law is a vague and broad definition of domestic terrorism. That definition includes acts "dangerous to human life that ... appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population ... [and] to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion."
Does a P.E. song like "By the Time I Get to Arizona," with its lyrics, "I B thinkin' time wit' a nine/Until we get some land/Call me the trigger man/Looki lookin' for the governor" appear to influence by intimidation? What about Ice-T's "Cop Killer"? It brought him threats from law enforcement and brought him under FBI surveillance. Would it now make him a domestic terrorist by this loose definition? Maybe. Maybe not.
Rachel King with the ACLU thinks that might be a "bit of a stretch," but says that doesn't mean the law isn't dangerous. King points out that she's already received calls from various organizations that are afraid this will make them open to prosecution as terrorists.
The front group for the major labels, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) also took the opportunity to add some more opportunistic language to legislation being sped through Congress. There is a small part of the anti-terrorism legislation that says anyone breaking into computers and "aggregating at least $5,000" in damages in a one-year period would be committing a crime.
The RIAA wanted to insert language that would instead protect copyright holders from data losses resulting from hacking activities that are "intended to impede or prevent" electronic piracy. The worst-case scenario resulting from this is that the RIAA would be able to, say, target your computer, Web site, or peer-to-peer network, attack it with an application intended to erase pirated MP3s, but instead have it screw up and erase the entire contents of your hard drive -- likely doing more than $5,000 in damage in the process. D'oh! If that happened with the original language, the RIAA would be committing a crime. Quick, get the lobbyists.
The RIAA eventually pulled its proposed changes, but they did fire off an angry statement in response to Billboard, which originally reported the story. In its statement, the RIAA claimed it was merely proposing "language to avoid the unintended effects" of the legislation on its industry. The RIAA's after-the-fact explanation, however, sounds remarkably similar to its claim of how it was simply making a "correction" to existing copyright law last year when it tried alter the language so as to deprive artists of their ability to ever recapture the rights to their own music. Oh, right -- the music.
Indie rock darlings Superchunk put out an album called Here's to Shutting Up exactly one week after the terrorist attacks, and there's a track on it called "Phone Sex." In the song, which is basically about a weird relationship, there's the lyric, "Plane crash footage on TV, I know, I know that could be me."
Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan visited New York the weekend after the attacks to play a show at the Bowery Ballroom that was scheduled after the cancellation of the CMJ music conference. He went alone, as the rest of the band was still too skittish to travel even though they would be driving. McCaughan didn't play "Phone Sex" at that show.
"That night, I was going through the new album, seeing what I could do on acoustic guitar," he explains. "I thought about that one immediately, because it's done on acoustic guitar on the record. Then, when I thought about the words, I said, 'That's not going to happen.'"
A couple months later, after tours of Europe and Japan, the song is part of the band's set list for its U.S. tour.
"People in Europe and Japan were surprised that we were even there," relates McCaughan, "which seems strange given the distance, but at the time, only being about 15 days later, people were like, 'Oh, we're so glad you still came.' Our thinking was, 'You can't stop what you're doing.' Everybody's life stopped there for a few days, but you can't let it change what you're doing with your life."
Is there any greater litmus test for the failure of terrorists to bring us down than a Superchunk show? Take that, Al Qaeda. You might be able to keep us from hearing Boston's "Smokin'" on classic rock radio for a few days, but try as you might, you can't stop Superchunk from touring.