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Op Ed: Mellencamp – Bob Lefsetz


John Mellencamp wanted a record deal.  It was the only way to bust out of
Indiana.  He went to New York, signed a bad deal, changed his name and still
didn't break through.  But he got a toehold.  He was in the game.  To the
point where he kept on making records until Pat Benatar covered "I Need A
Lover", which caused FM stations to spin the original and give Mellencamp
notoriety and cred.  Then Mellencamp dug down deep and recorded "American
Fool" and had a hit with a riff, "Hurts So Good", and an MTV staple, "Jack &
Diane".  "Hurts So Good" was not a breakthrough, but a perfect synthesis of
what came before.  But "Jack & Diane" had a heartland intimacy separate from
Springsteen's New York/New Jersey tales of the Magic Rat and it resonated,
John Mellencamp was a star.

He released an even better album, "Scarecrow", he regained his name, he was
living the life of a rock star, which used to mean if I'm successful enough,
if I generate enough money, I can do whatever I want.  I can record whatever
I want, give the middle finger to the label, I function in a rare air above
businessmen and politicians, the public reveres me for my integrity and cash
rains down.  But then MTV became more about image than music and Mellencamp
could no longer have a hit.  And then came the Internet.  MTV aired no
videos, FM played classic rock staples or alternative or harder-edged rock,
and Mellencamp could tour on his laurels to those who remembered when, but
he could get no radio traction, he could sell no albums, he claimed the
system was broken.

You've seen the news right?  Wherein Mellencamp likens the Internet to an
A-Bomb?

He claims it
destroyed the music business.

No, it CHANGED the music business!

Suddenly, the game Mellencamp played was history.  You didn't fly to the
coast for a record deal, labels weren't interested in signing anyone who
hadn't already sold 10,000 records independently and/or was a pretty,
malleable face willing to work with anyone and everyone, singing others'
songs in order to make it.  Sure, people were stealing music, but even
before that, only Top Forty sold any records, and record labels were in the
business of selling records.

Eventually bands with a following declined to sign with the major, why give
up all those rights if you don't play Top Forty music anyway, why not be in
charge of your own destiny?

And with MTV airing few videos and active music fans tuning out radio, even
those who got traction had less impact and made fewer dollars.

And Mellencamp keeps recording music, which doesn't sell, despite the fact
he puts his heart and soul into it.  He keeps doing the same thing to less
and less of a reaction, isn't that the definition of insanity?  Or an
indicator to take a different direction?  Or change your philosophy?

But Mellencamp is not the only old wave musician decrying the Internet,
Prince said it was completely dead, history.  He put out his album as a
newspaper cover mount.  Sure, he got paid, but have you heard the music,
have you even heard anybody talk about it since the hype of its release?

That's what this is all about, the inflammatory Mellencamp remarks…he's
trying to get you to pay attention.  And it works a bit with the old guard.
Then again, you play the record once and…  In the old days, radio picked a
track and infected your brain, today if you don't instantly hear a track on
Mellencamp's record, you're on to the next thing, because there's so much
stuff.  There wasn't so much stuff in Mellencamp's heyday, the system
excluded it, can't we return to the days of the system, when only talented,
dedicated people played and won?

Well, it's still the same, only talented, dedicated people win.  But it's
harder than ever to reach the ubiquity/success Mellencamp once had, if it's
even possible at all.  You've got to really want to be a musician, stardom
may never come.

But you're in control of your own destiny, you don't have to change your
name, and your music is freely available everywhere, everyone can sample it.
Alas, you've got to be good enough to rise above the fray, and your only
hope is that your fans spread the word.

But that's what it's all about now, you and your fans.  You build a bond,
with no middleman between you, and you go on a journey.  Almost always slow,
oftentimes very short in length.  But that's the game.

And the problem isn't only that the old stars don't like the new game, but
the old middlemen don't like it either.  The labels hate the new game.  As
do radio and TV.  It's chaos, there's less money to be made.

But the fans love the new game.  Suddenly, it's all about the music.
They're not beholden to one style, they're not limited by their pocketbook,
they can discover what they like and play it as much as they want.

Put any value judgment you want on the new game, but you just can't
eliminate it, the old ways are never going to come back.  You can try to
corral people into listening to your handpicked stuff, but this only works
if there are no tune-outs and you can only keep people's attention if you're
honest and trustworthy and good, like the classic rock acts of yore.  This
is tough when the labels hate the music and radio and TV are about
commercials.

Pay no attention to the singing nitwits on TV, the faces on "American Idol",
Justin Bieber…they're the last vestiges of an old era.

Suddenly, it's all about music.  Make good stuff and people will find you.
How many?  Interesting question.  But you got into it for the music, right?
You like playing music, right?  Because if you got into it for the money,
notoriety and fame, you're fucked.

More Mellencamp

He may be antiquated, but he ain't stupid.

By likening the Internet to an A-Bomb and saying a bunch more outrageous
things, Johnny Cougar got everyone to know that he's got a new album out.
Are people gonna listen to it?

Well, at least they know it's out.

This is Rock PR 101.  Say something outrageous and the somnambulant press
eats it up as you laugh all the way, in the old days, to the bank.  Brown
M&M's!  Who hasn't heard that story!  Come on, the landscape is littered
with ridiculous claims that have been trumped up by the press and believed
by the masses.  And sure, many people may not believe Mellencamp's
statements, but they know he's made new music.

In other words, you've got to create your own Super Bowl.  Devise an event
that the old and new guards will trumpet ad infinitum.

This is what Cee-Lo did.

This is what too many of the old artists going on the road to bad returns
don't do.

I got the following e-mail:


________

From: William Nollman

This has nothing to do with Crowded House but I saw a funny show this week
at the Ives in Danbury.

It was Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Mike McDonald. You would expect a slick
reprise of the great Rock and Soul Revue show from the 90s that I was lucky
enough to catch at the Beacon.

But it was the first show of the tour and completely LOOSE.

The crazy and most entertaining thing was the song list. Of course they did
some catalog songs. But Boz covered a Mink DeVille song, they opened with
Lee Michaels' Heighty Hi, did Them Changes, Teddy Pendergrass' Love TKO, a
Band medley (Caledonia Mission- Fagen, Rag Mama Rag- Boz, The Shape I'm
In-MM), a few obscure r&b tunes… they did HELP ME RHONDA as one of the
encores!

But the nuttiest thing and real jaw dropper of the evening was Fagen calling
out and singing Shakedown Street by the Grateful Dead. Somewhere Jerry is
smiling that the most maligned band of all time was somehow legitimized by
the El Exigente of rock.

They were not tight or in great voice but it felt like a great wedding
reception with a sick cover band.

________

Doesn't this make you want to go to the show?  I figured it was old farts on
the road trying to make a buck when they can no longer make money from their
old acts.  Instead, it's something new, it's radio artists who built their
careers on precision stretching out, improvising!  This sounds like FUN!

And if tickets were cheap enough, business would be good.  If people knew
about it.

This concoction should have been the house band on Letterman for a week.
Not because anybody watches, but because the newspaper and web would be
chock full of stories about it, which would reach the target audience,
ultimately driving success.

It's really hard to get noticed if you're a nobody.  But if you're a
somebody, you should use the new tools to your advantage.

Say something outrageous.

These cover tunes should be available at iTunes.  If you can buy "Idol"
tracks the next day on iTunes, why can't you download these Beach Boys and
Lee Michaels covers?

Sure, world domination is elusive.  But now that the audience is sick of
overpaying to hear the old hits, you've got to build something new, you've
got to leverage your assets utilizing the new tools to get the word out on
creativity, you've got to get the audience involved.

Where is the contest for covers?  Boomers are lighting up Facebook, how come
the old acts don't leverage this participation/social networks?