Poor yay-saying wannabe pop star Amanda Latona recently was given a less-than-glowing profile in the New York Times Magazine. I have zero interest in ever seeing Latona perform or hearing her music, but I don’t think that she’ll cheat her audience, and I don’t think that audience includes a lot of Times readers. When was it decided that singers had to be smart? Is Ben E. King an Einstein? Was Tammy Wynette the second coming of Madame Curie? I have no idea, but it seems largely irrelevant. What’s important to the music is the music; the idea the musicians should also be songwriters is a recent anomaly, spurred by Bob Dylan and the British Invasion. It would have confused people in Elvis’ day, much less the Carter Family‘s or Jenny Lind‘s. But Amanda Latona isn’t rock and roll; you don’t have to have given any thought to the question of whether punk rock equates to capitalism to be a little perturbed at watching the hit machine operate. Independence isn’t the end-all of rock; the Kinks and the Who aren’t any less fabulous for being on major labels. The Buzzcocks‘ Spiral Scratch EP, self-released on their New Hormones label, marked the beginnings of indie rock (all apologies to 999 or Island Records), but they didn’t magically grow worse when they started putting out records with EMI. From my brief stint as a record reviewer, I know that indie labels put out cubic acres of worthless records. But as recording engineer and Shellac guitarist Steve Albini told everyone a while back, the finances of the modern major label recording contract are pretty much designed to preclude a band’s autonomy by virtue of the debt they produce. Say what you will about Jay-Z’s dull gangster rap; he runs Roc-A-Fella and he’s not looking to get taken. There’s an entire generation of hip-hop artists that has recognized that they can get a measure of control over their own product. Amanda Latona doesn’t seem like she has a great deal of interest in the business of rock and roll, the same way she doesn’t have a great deal of interest in the history of rock music or, for that matter, having any real opinion on what she’s singing; it’s an attitude that’s almost sure to get her taken for a ride if she ever achieves any real success. Not for nothing is there an Entertainment Law Digest, where you can read about such niceties as Michael Bolton ripping off the Isleys. Salt-N-Pepa found themselves ripped off by their management. Nobody’s crying for the surviving Beatles, but Michael Jackson’s ownership of their songs is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. There’s an immense amount of money to be made in the music industry; it’s just that very little of it is usually made by the musicians.
Last weekend I went to see Tsunami‘s reunion show at Ladyfest DC. Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thompson of Tsunami ran their own label, Simple Machines, for eight years. They told anyone who was interested how to do it themselves; they even published a "Mechanic’s Guide" to putting out records. It probably spawned a hundred lousy pop bands, but that wasn’t the point; the point was doing it yourself, remaining autonomous, and spreading the word. Touch & Go puts out Shellac’s music, and a bunch more (including work by the Mekons, "the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll," who’ve now been doing their thing for twenty-five years). They pay 50% royalties after costs are met, they’ve got great distribution, and the Butthole Surfers still sued to get out of their handshake contract when they thought it would help them achieve fame. I’d bet my Bright Like Ice single that they’d have made more money staying on Touch & Go, but that’s the lure of fame. Dischord gives its bands health insuranec, but you’re pretty much guaranteed to top out well below Fugazi’s level of fame, which is pretty low compared to someone who lasts a decent stretch on Survivor or American Idol. On the other hand, ten years later, Fugazi is still making a living recording and touring on their terms. Ten years from now, Amanda Latona is going to be the answer to a trivia question.