Stop predicting music's future: The next Pixies, White Stripes or Adele will come from the indie ranks

Spotify? A fancy new streaming service? What we always forget is the guile of lawyers, lobbyists — and teenagers

Published June 29, 2014 10:59AM (EDT)

Black Francis in The Pixies, Jack White in the White Stripes, Adele     (AP/Ariel Schalit/Stephen Chernin/Chris Pizzello)
Black Francis in The Pixies, Jack White in the White Stripes, Adele (AP/Ariel Schalit/Stephen Chernin/Chris Pizzello)

Excerpted from "Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry"

I suppose you've come to see the future? If you wish to believe today’s self-proclaimed experts, imagine a system of mobile devices through which music flows as a kind of utility, financed by a subscription similar to public television in Europe. Tomorrow’s listeners will, they say, consume music like water. Just as water pours from your tap, old catalog will be legally available in online libraries. Discerning ears will pay a little extra for premium music, in the way that sensitive palates prefer bottled mineral water. In short, imagine a musical Utopia where technology makes us all happier and richer.

Now open your eyes. When imagining any perfect system, the common error is to underestimate the guile, mischief, and plain vandalism of lawyers, lobbyists, teenagers, and other rogue gremlins in the machine. For about ten years now, technologists have told us that artists will sell themselves directly to the public—because they physically can. Remember how, in and around 2005, we were all hailing MySpace as a revolution? Despite a promising start, MySpace quickly degenerated into a cardboard jungle of garage bands hustling each other for compliments. Today’s expert predictions about “the future of music” are a bit like astrology; you can’t help reading them, but you’d be a fool to believe any of it.

The truth is, the survivors of the CD crash have stopped trying to see into the future. Take Geoff Travis, who with record woman Jeannette Lee has successfully rehabilitated Rough Trade inside the Beggars Group. “The carrier question pales in comparison to the content,” he believes. “All I’ve ever cared about is finding music and finding ways of bringing it to people.” Another die-hard indie, Daniel Miller, who recently extricated Mute from the EMI wreckage, paints an equally simple picture. “People are just getting on with it. There’s a lot of good music out there, and that’s what drives us.”

Simply chasing the muse into the great wide open sums up the record man’s cosmic bargain. As Jac Holzman puts it, “We’re not an industry. It’s every man for himself.” Today, not only is a market recovery quietly in motion, the advantage has moved back to the old-school record man. “God bless the indies!” exclaims Seymour Stein, who, like most of the other Warner barons, never forgot his origins. “They’ve introduced every new trend since, and even before, rock ’n’ roll. You name it, it all started with the indies.”

At the top of the indie community, the proverbial Last of the Mohicans is Martin Mills, who now presides over a group that includes 4AD, Matador, XL Recordings, and Rough Trade. He is old enough to see history repeating itself. “In 1987, when the house explosion really started to happen,” recalls Mills, “it looked very much to us like the punk explosion a decade previously . . . It was becoming clear that to be a successful label you had to catch successive waves. Although you couldn’t catch every one, the way to compete with the majors was not to compete head-on, but to find the niche and take things beyond that niche.” That philosophy has landed his group plenty of interesting fish: Gary Numan, Bauhaus, the Cult, Dead Can Dance, the Pixies, the Prodigy, the White Stripes, Bon Iver, Cat Power, the Libertines, and America’s biggest-selling artist of 2011 and 2012, Adele.

Sticking to the simple business of finding brilliant music, Mills has not bought into America’s latest gimmick, the so called 360° deal— securing an artist’s rights for recordings, publishing, merchandising, live, everything. Because most signatures lose money, Mills predicted that these “land grab” contracts, being more expensive, would lose more money and, in the exceptional cases of blockbuster success, arouse the artist’s resentment. He’s being proved right. Originally a lawyer’s solution to falling profits, total merchandising has created a marketplace that Tom Silverman describes as “riddled with fear.” “The return on the risk is so low that majors have to increase their batting average to a point where they don’t want to sign anything.” Silverman also points his finger squarely at the lingering specter of independent radio promotion. “Right now in America,” he continues, “although independent labels represent 34.5 percent of all single and album sales combined, they only get about 10 percent of airplay on commercial radio. . . . There’s still a huge discrepancy between what people want to buy and what gets played on radio that can only be explained by a problem in the system.”

Having recently left his co-chairmanship at Columbia following five difficult years, Rick Rubin confirms, “There is definitely a realization amongst the majors today that they have to get back to a more indie model.” That model is the Beggars Group and its affiliated Rough Trade stores.

Over the last fifteen years, carefully watching the Internet rise, Martin Mills has meticulously adapted his business structure to the changing environment. Thinking big but spending prudently, across Europe he designed a “nesting system” in which his overseas branches handle local promotion from within his chosen independent distributor. The records get plugged by employees who answer to Mills, without the risky costs of running a distribution system. As traditional megastores close, Rough Trade stores are opening in the big cities to cater to a community of specialist music lovers. In many ways, Beggars is a type of multi-tentacled deep-sea creature. Having spent almost forty years feeding off the underground, Mills has learned that survival requires an ability to dart at movements yet maintain a slow metabolism. He has come to expect long waits between feasts.

Mills has a reputation in the record industry as being a frugal spender, but those who know him intimately maintain he’s anything but greedy. Despite his multimillion-dollar success with Adele, he spent weeks debating with himself whether he really deserved to splurge on a four-door Maserati. He succumbed to temptation in the end, but it was a rare treat. Speaking from his hideaway in the New Mexico wilderness, former colleague and 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell says, “Martin Mills is definitely not motivated by money. Security perhaps, but not money. If you were shipwrecked with a handful of strangers, Martin is the one you would want in charge of water and rice rations.” Among today’s community of struggling indies, that’s precisely the role he’s assumed. With Alison Wenham, he set up indie trade body AIM, then brought the idea to America with its equivalent, A2IM. He also dreamed up Merlin, a digital rights platform enabling indies and lone producers to sell their music through all the online MP3 stores.

Old-fashioned, pragmatic, and highly principled, Mills simply refused to adopt the glitzy, gung-ho culture of the corporate era. He rejected major buyout offers for two decades because “I wouldn’t swap what I do for a pile of money. I love what I do, and I don’t love money that much.” Nonetheless, Mills does firmly believe that true independence is also financial. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” he says with a smile. “Another proverb which I grew up with: When you sup with the devil, sup with a long spoon. And to be honest, I’ve always seen the moneylender as a devil. When we started out at Earl’s Court, there was a Lloyd’s Bank on the corner. I can still picture the bank manager; Mr. Clark was his name. I’m sure he’s dead by now, but I’ve always been grateful to him, because he wouldn’t let us have an overdraft. These days we’re at Coutts and have been for twenty-five years, but we’ve managed to grow without bank loans.” For Mills, debt is the slippery slope to ruin because “you have to come up with business projections and cash-flow charts, which is always a complete waste of time in the industry we’re in.”

Life in the music business has taught Martin Mills that, as a rule, money should be treated with great trepidation. Whether with artists or business partners, “money can be the root of all evil,” he laments. “When people are behaving in a way that you find unacceptable, very often money is at the root.” The purist values that underpin the Beggars Group are a welcome reminder that some survivors of the record crisis are alive and well. “Martin Mills is probably the best all-round record guy practicing today,” salutes Jac Holzman. “He’s never lost faith in this business.”

Perhaps the spectacular collapse of the record industry this last decade is just a long-overdue purge of all the cynicism and delusional financial logic that clogged up the industry for the best part of two decades. Those who’ve been hardest hit arguably had it coming. This brings us full circle back to the special few who found and fostered most of the important music this last century: the music men, a conspicuously rare species in the corporate era—pushed out and devalued by a generation of smug executives who believed that if they thought commercially, their sleek products would sell better.

So what is it that really makes the record business spin? “A lot of it has to do with why we do what we do to begin with,” believes Rick Rubin. “I think people who get into music to make money, it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve always just done music as best as I can, and wherever that leads, ultimately, it’s okay. I see myself as sort of an art collector, not a gambler. The thing I’ve always found is that it’s almost like falling in love. It’s not about what you can get out of this. It’s not a commercial venture. It maybe becomes one, but that’s a by-product. It’s almost by not aiming at it, it’s able to happen because the intention behind it is pure.” Or as the great John Hammond put it, “A hundred times I’ve seen efforts to make a record more commercial turn the buyers off. Stand or fall on what you are, I tell my people. Be yourself.”

The A&R craft operates on many levels, but one quality the greatest producers have in common is a deep-rooted faith in their own judgment—so certain, so capable of recognizing genius in its embryonic stages, they often find themselves standing alone admiring things nobody else gets. “With every great musician I have discovered,” continues John Hammond, “there was never a moment’s doubt. I could hear the singularity of the sound. Always this quality seems obvious. Lights flash. Rockets go off. Where is everybody? Why don’t they hear it? This has always amazed me.”

Reaching that level of clarity takes years of learning. As John Hammond’s blues-singing son of the same name testifies, “[My father] was a complex guy who was on a mission. He was not in it for the money. He saw himself as independently wealthy and yet he died broke. He never took a royalty for any of the artists he produced . . . he was a straight shooter. He was fastidious about everything he did; dressed well, didn’t drink, if you sent him a letter, he replied. He played viola, understood music charts, spoke five languages. He was a rebel in the sense that he wanted to know things for himself. He could read classical Greek and Latin, and at one point he thought about going into divinity school.”

Also a bookworm and engaged humanist, Rough Trade’s founder, Geoff Travis, describes the vocation as a form of journalism. “I don’t think people have any idea the work you have to do to have the clear sight to make the critical judgments,” he explains. “I think all of us who run labels spend our whole lives listening to music. Because to be able to judge something as being special you have to know everything else out there. It’s like Ezra Pound’s famous quote about the first person to compare their love to a rose is quite possibly a genius, the second an idiot. Then consider the sheer volume of music that comes out these days . . . The job of being an A&R person is to hear everything. It’s not a chore, it’s part of the excitement, but it’s a real job; hours every single day researching, going out to gigs every night. The only way to run a record company is to have faith in your judgment. But your judgment has to be informed by a lifetime of work.”

Curiosity, proximity to the street, an openness to people and their stories—all these qualities also make it relatively easy for artists to find the record men. Bob Dylan cleverly wangled his way onto Hammond’s radar, just as Robert Johnson appeared at Henry Speir’s counter. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis all turned up on Sam Phillips’s doorstep. Bob Marley asked for an introduction to Chris Blackwell. Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr bluffed his way into the Rough Trade warehouse, pretending to be an employee and waited for Travis to appear through a doorway. In the history of music, such incidents are not unique. Great artists, having a strong sense of their own destiny, tend to choose their midwife.

The modern record man has an ancestor in the noble houses of Europe. Centuries of classical music repertoire depended on composers getting recognized and financially supported by wealthy patrons. Having a patron was the gateway into opera halls, theaters, and cathedrals. By raising up these artistic mirrors, the patrons sought to enlighten society from the top downward. Rock ’n’ roll, a child of jazz and a grandchild of vaudeville, has simply adapted this ancient system to modern times.

The most astute record men in the business are conscious of this heritage. Having spent fifty years flying hit records both ways across the Atlantic, Seymour Stein points back to the comic-opera composers Gilbert and Sullivan as the missing link. “I believe we owe the start of Tin Pan Alley in America to the whole music hall scene in late nineteenth-century England,” he says. However, “because of World War II, we became the world power. Elvis was sort of like Joshua and Jericho. When he broke in 1956, rock ’n’ roll was born, and it’s lasted to the present day because it’s such a mélange of music able to reinvent itself.” Stein believes England’s prolific output of great pop music in the postwar era can be explained by an inherent time lag. “Nineteen sixty for the English was like about 1952 for America. In rock ’n’ roll, we’re ten years ahead of England because—well, we started it!” Since the Beatles, England has kept bouncing back theatrical slants on America’s old records: skiffle, R&B, Chicago blues, punk, dance, hip-hop—the list is long. “It’s just like the stage; Broadway or the West End? Some years the Brits have it. They do definitely have an edge in acting because of the schools and traditions. They have great writers too.”

Regularly flying in from California to scout talent around London in the sixties, A&M boss Jerry Moss began to notice something similar. “The Americans were somewhat inhibited, except for a few bands, whereas the dramatic effect of the Stones, the Who, oh my God, it was classic! Almost like Shakespearean actors. And that’s how the English believed it was supposed to happen—complete drama. Everything was done with a flourish.” Unlike America, England has a a deeply ingrained class system. In the early days of EMI, “producers were expected to wear suits and ties, just as they did in the office,” explains George Martin. “Engineers wore white coats to distinguish them as being of a lower class. Recording artists, too, were considered to be socially inferior—a bit like actors, not quite decent people, tolerated because they brought in money, but always expected to be of somewhat dubious character.” Even among modern, progressive indies, the legacy has lingered on. When the erudite boss of Factory Records, Tony Wilson, asked the cultivated John Cale to produce a dysfunctional group of working-class hooligans called the Happy Mondays, Cale asked, “What are they like?” “The best way I can describe them,” Wilson said, grinning, “is scum. They are fucking scum.” England’s slightly mischievous appetite for social caricature reaches back to at least Shakespeare, and to this day, England still loves its class-division pop— even though it’s largely unexportable.

Our whole musical world is an ethnic melting pot containing just a few core ingredients. For the Irish-bred Dave Robinson, “England has always been odd because its music has always been theatrical. The indigenous music in England and Ireland is really folk music, but that’s not what the British public buys to a large extent. It buys a theatrical kind of pop. It’s very different from America, whose music has gone through several ethnic and urban filters.” As Robinson points out, country music, centered around East Tennessee, was heavily influenced by Scots-Irish traditional music—as was the folk scene of Greenwich Village. In fact, boiled down to its lowest common denominators, modern music has been built on three main waves: African blues, Irish folk, and English vaudeville. “If you mix all that together,” reasons Robinson, “that’s where the great songs are, that’s where the great rhythms and lyrics are. That’s where Jimi Hendrix was. And at the end of the day, that’s where most of rock ’n’ roll came from.”

However, Robinson suggests, “If you want to understand the business, you’re going to have to get into the whole Jewish side of things. The music business is very Jewish—always has been, still is.” Also admitting that he’s long wondered why, A&M’s former London boss, Derek Green, says with a laugh, “Sometimes you’d be in a negotiation and everyone in the room, on both sides of the table, would be Jewish.” The half-Jewish, half-Irish Green came to the conclusion that “Jewish people are good at taking risks. There is a saying in Israel that everyone thinks he should be the prime minister.” It’s a hunch Jac Holzman shares. “A lot of Jews came into this because it was stuff that serious money businessmen would not do. They would not take the risk.”

A&M founder Jerry Moss points out that in the old days, the most predominantly Jewish end of the record business was independent distribution, in contrast to, for example, radio, which had a relatively sparse Jewish contingent. “Stocking merchandise, ordering merchandise—it’s what Jews did,” reasons Moss, himself also Jewish. This phenomenon began, Seymour Stein believes, because of old WASP restrictions barring Jewish immigrants from certain colleges, professions, and influential social clubs. Because wide-open sectors like music publishing, record production, and movies didn’t require qualifications, “Jews gravitated to those new businesses,” notes Stein, speaking from personal experience.

Behind the stereotypes of Jewish stockists and traders hides a far more interesting psychological area. Jac Holzman, son of a wealthy Manhattan doctor of East European origins, conjures up bitter memories of how “my parents were WASPY Jews. I thought synagogue was a prison. I was there four to five days a week to get prepared for my bar mitzvah. I resented it.” He obsessively saw every new picture that came out; “the movies were where I truly lived,” he explains. Then, as a student cut off from New York’s movie theaters, he threw himself into folk music, which enabled him “to plant my own roots.” Branching out from American folklore into what we now call world music, Holzman eventually began seeing his own origins from a more humanist angle.

“I had no interest in the Jewish liturgies,” he says, “although some of it was really quite beautiful. I was moved by the constant sadness, which was a strain through Jewish life. Some of it’s genetic, having been inherited from people who had to escape Russia or live through pogroms in Poland. But coming out of Israel, there was a rich sense of hope and possibility. So I got interested in the middle of 1955 in recording Israeli songs. Actually, Israel was into singer-songwriters much earlier than we were in America, because of the whole kibbutz thing.” Now eighty, Holzman realizes that in escaping religion, music became his own, superior brand of prayer. “I’m an agnostic Jew, but a culturally sympathetic one. Not being a believer in God didn’t mean I didn’t believe in stuff. I believed in the music. And I have always sought to protect it and do it right. I’m a nut on the subject; always the music—it’s all that counts. The rest of it is business, and we figure that out so we can keep doing it.”

Holzman’s story is similar to Geoff Travis’s, another teenager who wandered off to find his own artistic promised land. “When I was very young I went through a phase when I took being Jewish quite seriously,” confesses Travis, whose family observed a traditional interpretation of Judaism. “I spent half my life in evening school, Hebrew classes, and all the rest of it, so they had plenty of chances to get their hooks into me. We used to have our lunches in different places to everyone else, so there was always a bit of separation going on. I just don’t really believe in religion, I have to say. Having been inculcated with it hugely since I was a young boy, I just think it’s a lot of nonsense really.” With age, however, Travis does recognize “you could definitely make an argument for the displacement of religion by music. I’d definitely much rather listen to the Velvet Underground than listen to a rabbi singing tunelessly.”

Another Jewish rebel is Rick Rubin. “I’m not religious, but I am very spiritual. I was lucky to have learned Transcendental Meditation at the age of fourteen,” he explains. “That and my interest in Dao are probably what have kept me grounded throughout this roller-coaster ride.” As someone who has long contemplated the subject of creativity, Rubin instinctively wonders if the puzzle of why so many major players in the record business came from Jewish families should not be widened to that other conspicuously well-represented ethnic group. “In the same way there are a lot of really talented black musicians,” muses Rubin. “Both cultures share a strong past of suffering. And maybe both used music as an escape from that genetic suffering. Maybe there’s a deeper understanding of music, a deeper insight, because of suffering?”

The cornerstone of Jewish culture is the powerful story of the flight from slavery, as told in the Book of Exodus and celebrated by Passover, one of the holiest of Jewish rituals—possibly why so many humanist record men from Jewish backgrounds identify so strongly with the uplifting music passed down from African slaves. “[Chris Blackwell] always told me the Rastas related to Judaism because of the thirteenth tribe that disappeared,” confesses Lionel Conway, a Jewish friend and Island lifer. “He was very proud of that relationship . . . He always told me they were Jews.”

The founding father of rock ’n’ roll, Sam Phillips, a former cotton picker himself, was another who felt a profound identification with black people. What has perhaps intrigued generations ever since Elvis is that beneath all its carefree energy, rock ’n’ roll was steeped in black evangelism. “Even the most religious [white] Southern people would have an hour or hour-and-fifteen-minute service,” he observed, “but the blacks, their services would go on four hours or even all day. That kind of fascinated me. These people never seemed to be really down in the dumps. And I wondered why. I guess their solace came from their belief in God, and it’s gonna be all right somehow.”

Nearly every new genre of modern music has evolved from these ancient forms of theater and religion, and the men at the top know it. “I’ve always thought what we do is to evangelize, to crusade,” says Beggars boss Martin Mills, citing his favorite quote from black punk Don Letts—“If music is a religion, then Rough Trade has always been my church.” Chasing the muse, the indie hunter, hearing our Top 40 airwaves as an injustice, plays midwife to ignored, downtrodden genius. Since his retirement to northeastern New Mexico, 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell spends one day every week taking impounded dogs from his local animal shelter out for a run in the desert wilderness. “Poor things,” he sighs. “While waiting for a Forever Home, they don’t really see much of their beautiful surroundings unless volunteers go and walk them. I never had kids, but I went from nurturing musicians to rescuing dogs. There are similarities to all three responsibilities, I would imagine.”

As an older man contemplating the historical importance of African American music, Sam Phillips believed “we’ve now learned so much from some of these people we thought were ignorant, who never had any responsibility other than chopping cotton, feeding the mules, or making sorghum molasses. When people come back to this music in a hundred years, they’ll see these were master painters. They may be illiterate. They can’t write a book about it. But they can make a song, and in three verses you’ll hear the greatest damn story you’ll ever hear in your life.”

For centuries, folk and blues was accumulated wisdom passed ever downward. “Think about the complexity, yet simplicity, of music we have gained from hard times,” says Phillips, “from the sky, the wind, and the earth. If you don’t have a foundation, you won’t know what the hell I’m talking about.” His proudest discovery was not Elvis, or even Johnny Cash, but blues shaman Howlin’ Wolf.

Whether it’s in dense cities or across open country plains, the search for the divine comedy is a timeless art that just adapts to different environments. In the big city, cut off from the elements, records have become our folklore, our spiritual medicine, our last sacred connection to the tribal godhead. In a game populated by snake-oil salesmen, the real record man is the one selling the magic potions that actually work.

Music is one of several domains—sports, politics, movies, books, and fashion included—that will always remain governed by tribal genes inherited from the campfire. Thousands of years of technological progress and where are we? Still huddling up at night around the glow, trying to make sense of it all—dreaming our lives into the stars.

Seek and ye shall find.

From "Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry" by Gareth Murphy. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books.

By Gareth Murphy

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