This is a companion piece to the Wed. Feb. 9th episode of Footnotes that streams on WGTB from 9-10pm.
There has always been a business side to music. Even during the time of Ludwig van Beethoven, composers depended on income from public concerts and the publication of their works. While the business behind music is its furthest part from pure art, it has provided ample fodder for lyricists as both the promise of fame and fortune and the collapse of such promise have inspired countless songs.
The chorus of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Workin’ for MCA” goes: “Want you to sign your contract/ Want you to sign today/ Gonna give you lots of money/ Workin’ for MCA.” This sums up the promise that record labels make to bands. This promise has inspired many hopeful songs by bands taken up in the whirlwind of rising stardom. Boston’s “Rock and Roll Band” sums up this optimism, in the lines, “A man came to the stage one night/ He smoked a big cigar/ Drove a Cadillac car/ And said, ‘boys, I think this band’s outta-sight/ Sign a record company contract/ You know I’ve got great expectations/ When I hear you on the car radio/ You’re gonna to be a sensation!’” Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Rush, and Blue Öyster Cult demonstrated the same fame and fortune-praising attitude in their songs “Takin Care of Business,” “Limelight,” and “The Marshall Plan.”
While this optimistic attitude about potential success was more prevalent than disillusionment towards the music business during the classic rock era, the latter inspired its share of songs. Billy Joel penned “The Entertainer,” as he skirted the margins of success before breaking through with The Stranger. Its first person account focuses on the dull day-to-day business and cold-heartedness of the music industry. The latter comes to light in such lines as “And I won’t be here/ In another year,/ If I don’t stay on the charts,” and “It was a beautiful song/ But it ran too long/ If you’re gonna have a hit,/ You gotta make it fit–/So they cut it down to 3:05.” (Another version with a set of alternate lyrics). The Kinks’ “The Moneygoround” follows their song “Top of the Pops,” which presents the classic hope of fame and riches, questioning “Do they all deserve money from a song that they’ve never heard/ They don’t know the tune and they don’t know the words/ But they don’t give a damn.” This shows the path from hope to disillusionment with the industry. The Clash’s “Complete Control,” recounts their anger at their label for releasing their song “Remote Control” as a single despite their objections. This demonstrates an antipathy between labels and bands that escalated during the punk era and would continually inspire more songs.
“Label wants a hit/ and we don’t give a shit” sings Paul Westerberg in the Replacements’ classic “Treatment Bound.” That statment goes directly against the classic quest for fame narrative of the classic rock era, summing up a major source of conflict between labels and bands in the punk and indie scenes, as labels push for more accessible fare and bands resent losing artistic freedom. This conflict between accessibility and artistic purity has been a major tension in Against Me!’s career. They began with a DIY folk punk vision laying out an ethos in songs such as “What We Worked For” and “Reinventing Axl Rose.” They then moved in a direction of greater accommodation with more practical concerns and attempts to balance commercial appeal and artistic integrity, with the former’s influence evident in their later song “Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners.” This commercial-artistic balance is likely a relatively new tension between business and art in music. It hardly seems likely that anyone pushed Beethoven towards a more accessible style or seek a greater mass appeal. However, although practical business concerns often are targeted as a force of evil in music, they have provided inspiration in doing so – as seen in the case of Spoon, who wrote two songs inspired by their acrimonious split from Elektra Records.
– Robert Kaminski, host of “Footnotes,” Wednesdays 9-10pm on WGTB