June 11 – When The Music World Sang Happy Birthday To Nelson

There was a time when race was usually only considered an issue for South Africa. After years or protesting South African politics and apartheid in conventional manners, some charities and activists decided to raise awareness through music. The result was Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party (a month prior to his actual birthday) to protest the Black political leader’s ongoing imprisonment. The ANC (African National Congress, a radical group attempting to bring Black power to the government anyway possible) wanted a highly-politicized event but organizers agreed to focus on music to get more coverage and attention. It happened this day in 1988 and it worked.

It was held in London’s Wembley Stadium – the stadium holds about 80 000 and was sold out. What’s more, the concert was televised in over 60 countries including the U.S. (On Fox), Britain and more surprisingly the USSR and China. Mind you, the American broadcast wasn’t without controversy. Some politicians objected to it being shown at all, given that Mandela was officially a “criminal” in his land, while many others objected to the network’s handling of the concert. They edited it down heavily and actually refused to use Mandela’s name in the advertising, calling it “Freedom Fest” instead.

While Mandela wasn’t there in person, obviously, the effects of the show and the protests which followed didn’t go unnoticed in South Africa. Then president Botha of that country moved Mandela to a much more open and better prison, after 25 years in harsh conditions only weeks later and by 1990, he was released outright. Most estimates say about 200 million tuned in to see the concert that day and at least double that have viewed it since in repeats or videos. The day-long event began with Sting doing a four-song set, including “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free.” His manager was irate with him for doing that, he felt Sting should have been a headliner or not there at all, but Sting was scheduled to perform in Germany that night and didn’t want to cancel, hence his early appearance. The show went along with a few speeches from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Connolly and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. While inexplicably Prince and Bono refused to appear, musical highlights were aplenty. Among the main stars were George Michael, Eurythmics, Paul Young, Bryan Adams, Midge Ure with Phil Collins doing XTC’s “Dear God”, UB40, with Chrissie Hynde, Peter Gabriel (performing his renowned South African protest song “Biko” with Simple Minds and Youssou D’nour), a jam doing “Sun City” including Meat Loaf and actress Daryl Hannah (there with her then boyfriend Jackson Browne) with Simple Minds  and Stevie Wonder. He played two songs after nearly walking out on the event because of equipment problems; he ended up using Whitney Houston’s band’s gear instead. As as a fnale, Dire Straits appeared. Mark Knopfler’s band had Eric Clapton joining them for an embarrassment of riches on guitars. They played seven tunes including Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”. Dire Straits would break up shortly after (but reunite briefly in the ’90s.) but went out on a high note therefore.

The event didn’t hurt by any measure. It raised about $2 million for charities including Oxfam and by 1994, Mandela, now much better known internationally, was not only no longer incarcerated but the President in South Africa. 

June 3 – The Turntable Talk, Round 3 – So Did We Need Our MTV…Or Just Want It?

Today we wrap up our third instalment of Turntable Talk, where we’re happy to have some fellow music fans and writers weigh in on music subjects. Hopefully you were able to take a look at our first couple of topics, Why we’re still talking about the Beatles, and then the Pros and Cons of Live Albums. Today, we start asking “Did Video Kill the Radio Star?” The Beatles began making music videos as early as about 1966, and Britain had a few TV shows featuring videos weekly in the ’70s but in the ’80s, the form took flight with the appearance of MTV and all-day videos in the U.S. Love ’em or hate ’em, they undeniably altered the music world as we knew it. So what are the thoughts on the music video? 

Thanks to the five guests who gave us different takes on the “Video Revolution” of the ’80s…it was great to get different points of view. I have a few closing comments.

First, no one can doubt how much music videos shaped our listening, and viewing habits in the ’80s and ’90s, and with the biggest market, MTV was the main driver of that. Of course, as people like Christian and Deke pointed out, not everyone had MTV. In fact, I don’t think it was available anywhere outside of the U.S., at least in its heyday. But its success and the power of the music companies ensured similar stations would spring up in Canada, Australia and any number of other lands.

Lisa pointed out that the idea behind “videos” wasn’t new to MTV or the ’80s. The Big Bopper made one in the ’50s and there were video jukeboxes to play them in the mid-’60s. But they really hit the mainstream when MTV signed on. Oddly, Nielsen didn’t measure cable TV viewership in the early years of the station, so we don’t know how many people were actually tuning in at any given time because they found themselves saying “I Want My MTV…”, but it was well into the millions … mostly people in their teens or twenties, aka the main music-buying market. So it’s little wonder that what was popular on MTV was usually quickly popular in record stores and, because of that and Billboard‘s sales reports, on radio coast to coast as well. This likely contributed to the homogenization of radio in North America that Max pointed out (and which most of us, I think dislike) – the end of the free-wheelin’ local station playing new acts unknown in other cities and actually paying attention to listener requests. Instead we now have syndicated DJs in L.A. playing the same Lynyrd Skynyrd or Eagles track in 200 cities simultaneously and no room for innovation or offbeat music by and large. Hard to see that as an improvement, but also I think, part of an inevitable trend created by fewer and fewer large corporations buying up independent radio stations by the score and looking to maximize profit by reducing costs (such as program managers or round-the-clock disc jockeys.) How much MTV accelerated the trend is anybody’s guess.

As to how it shaped the sound of the ’80s, again it’s a debatable point since we have no control group of society without any videos, obviously! There’s no real dispute that music videos greatly helped some existing artists take their career to the next level (Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits, Michael Jackson…) and perhaps was the springboard needed to launch some big careers (Madonna, Duran Duran, A-ha…) but again, we have no way of knowing if they would have taken off on their own or not without the MTV bump. What is clear to me is that ironically, short-term gain resulted in long-term pain for some of those “video stars”. Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club, even yes, A Flock of Seagulls, put out some very good records back then. And they were multi-million sellers, helped along by the oh-so-popular videos… “Hungry Like A Wolf”, “Girls on Film,” “Karma Chameleon,” “I Ran”, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and so on. It made them household names quickly. But, it seems to me because they got noticed for their visual gimmick – the hair, the outfits, the makeup – people failed to take them seriously and in the long run, this may well have hurt their careers. I will boldly say songs like “Save A Prayer,” “Time (Clock of the Heart)”, “”She Bop,” “Wishing” , and others by those bands were songs which hold up very well and added a breath of fresh air to the old, slightly-fusty acts that had for so long dominated the airwaves. It even helped some of those like Queen and Styx go out on limbs and try something a little bit new. But many people still look down their noses and write off those acts automatically because they think “stupid-looking hair” or “just pretty boys in scenic locales” when they hear their names. That’s a bit of a shame. At their worst, they were unimaginative, offensively sexist or ridiculously over-the-top and drawn out. But, at their best they were creative, ground-breaking works of art on their own – think of how extraordinary “Sledgehammer” or “Take On Me” seemed when we first saw them. It’s not a huge stretch to understand why Godley & Creme went from making impeccable, boundary-pushing music with 10CC in the ’70s to primarily creating music videos for others in the ’80s – a lot of artists think visually as well as aurally.

In short, I think it was a fun part of the decade, and one that fit it well. Maybe it’s my age – in the ’80s I went from finishing high school to being a young, single guy out on his own. A fun time of change in life. And the ’80s really were a time of fun, experimental music, of breaking new ground. Not all of it was great, by any means, but at its best it meant some of the best music around. And videos were fun as well. I’m not disputing what some others have said – for instance, it robbed us of our own imagination when it came to what a song should “look” like (probably more of a problem when dealing with a Springsteen or Dylan song than Madonna’s “Borderline” or ZZ Top’s “Legs”) , it boosted some careers into the stratosphere that didn’t deserve it and it added to the problem of the unification of music being played continent wide. But now that we don’t have round the clock music videos on TV, we still have artists putting out flat out bad records who are stars, and we hear the same songs on every Oldies station from St. John’s, Newfoundland to San Jose, California. Honestly, I think the biggest surprise I have is how little music videos have really changed the world of music in the past 40 years.

I enjoyed watching Canada’s equivalent Much Music a lot in that decade, though I still spent more time listening to still-great radio stations and playing CDs and records. I saw some great , creative videos, saw some interesting interviews with musicians I loved and found out about some superb acts that seemed to even get passed over by radio. I heard “Pretty Persuasion” by REM once or twice on radio, but didn’t really become aware of them until Much Music decided the video for “Fall on Me” should be seen every hour on the hour for awhile. Others had the same experience later when “Losing My Religion” became MTV’s go-to in the early-’90s. How long would it have taken me to notice them if I had to rely on hearing their stuff that often on local radio stations?

Rubik’s Cubes, collarless neon-colored shirts, impossible hairdos, narrow leather ties, something new to hear every week…and music videos. The ’80s weren’t bad at all.

June 1 – The Turntable Talk, Round 3 – Growing Up MTV-less

Today we continue our third instalment of Turntable Talk, where we’re happy to have some fellow music fans and writers weigh in on music subjects. Hopefully you were able to take a look at our first couple of topics, Why we’re still talking about the Beatles, and then the Pros and Cons of Live Albums. Today, we are asking “Did Video Kill the Radio Star?” The Beatles began making music videos as early as about 1966, and Britain had a few TV shows featuring videos weekly in the ’70s but in the ’80s, the form took flight with the appearance of MTV and all-day videos in the U.S. Love ’em or hate ’em, they undeniably altered the music world as we knew it. So what are the thoughts on the music video? Today we welcome Christian, from Christian’s Music Musings, who grew up apart from MTV. He tells us:

Did Video Kill the Radio Star?

Thanks for inviting me back to “Turntable Talk”, Dave. I enjoy your series, and I’m happy to share more of my thoughts!

At first, I wasn’t quite sure how to approach the topic of ‘80s music videos and MTV. While the name MTV had been hammered into my brain since 1985 when Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing was all over German radio, my first exposure to music videos didn’t happen until early 1993 when I came to the U.S. At my parents’ house back in Germany, we didn’t have cable until the early ‘90s, so essentially missed the ‘80s MTV era.

When I finally had the opportunity to watch music videos on TV in the U.S., I ended up embracing VH1, not MTV. And for the most part, it wasn’t for music videos but for their Behind the Music documentary series, which I loved.

When to comes to music, to me, it’s always been first and foremost about melody, sound and musicianship. Lyrics tend to be secondary. Videos rank a distant third. I’m speaking in broad strokes now.

There’s no doubt in my mind that MTV and music videos have had a huge impact on the music industry. And as you’d expect, it’s a mixed bag. Initial criticism of the channel for largely ignoring artists of color was justified, though fortunately by the mid-’80s things started to change.

MTV kickstarted the breakthroughs of artists like Cindy Lauper and Whitney Houston; and of course, The Buggles whose Video Killed the Radio Star was the very first video played on the channel. MTV also boosted the careers of already-established artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince.

Moreover, the channel had a role in popularizing genres beyond pop. For example, their heavy rotation of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit brought grunge to a broader audience. It also isn’t surprising that the compelling combination of audio and video helped music become part of Hollywood. It boosted the popularity of big ‘80s soundtracks like Flashdance (1983), Footloose (1984) and Top Gun (1986). I leave it up to you to decide whether that’s a net positive or negative.

During my reading that inspired some of the content of this post, I came across a series of interviews the PBS program Frontline conducted for a May 2004 documentary titled The Way the Music Died. I haven’t watched it (though it sounds interesting) but read some of the interviews. The following excerpts offer some additional perspectives I thought were worthwhile sharing:

Music journalist Touré Neblett: “I mean, Duran Duran — were they a great group? I don’t think so. I mean they had some great songs. I love “Rio,” I love “Girls On Film,” but this is not a great group. But they were one of the first big video groups that really thrived in the MTV era because they looked good.”

HITS Magazine co-founder and editor-in-chief Leonard J. Beer: “MTV is the most powerful force that’s probably ever happened in the music business. You can make a star overnight if they make the right video, and if the right magic happens. It also burns them out quicker. You know, you saw somebody like Pearl Jam who had the biggest videos on MTV for years and then all of a sudden they decided they didn’t want to be on MTV anymore because they felt it was hurting their long-term career.”

Entertainment Attorney Michael Guido: “I think MTV was the beginning of the end for the recorded music business, in that it solidified a mindset that exalted marketing over substance… It became only about a three-minute single and a visual image, and if you didn’t have the three minutes you were over…Once that corner was turned, we started on the path that has led us to this moment here, where kids are treating music as disposable.”

Music industry executive Danny Goldberg: “I think that the emergence of the music video has just expanded the palette of tools available to artists to connect with an audience. I know when I worked with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain cared as much about the videos as he did about the records. He wrote the scripts for them, he was in the editing room, and they were part of his art. And I think they stand up as part of his art, and I think that’s true of the great artists today. Not every artist is a great artist and not every video is a good video, but in general having it available as a tool, to me, adds to the business.”

Finally, I’d like to provide some thoughts about my favorite ‘80s music video. As I was thinking about it, the first videos that came to mind were Michael Jackson’s Thriller for its over-the-top mini horror movie production, Genesis’ Land of Confusion because of the amazing puppets of band members and various politicians; and a-ha’s Take On Me with its artistically compelling integration of cartoons and animations.

But, as I said before, when it comes to music, to me, it’s first and foremost about melody, sound and musicianship. With that priority keeping in mind as well, my favorite ‘80s music video is Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, a song I dig to this day. Yes, it’s definitely a pretty busy clip that at times can even make you dizzy. Still, I love the way how it’s done.

According to this article from April 2016, the filming required Gabriel to lay under a glass sheet for over 16 hours! But he’s convinced it was all worth it, and that without the video the song wouldn’t have become a hit. Numbers don’t lie. “Sledgehammer” reached no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, knocking “Invisible Touch” by his former bandmates from Genesis off the top spot. The single also topped the Canadian charts. Elsewhere, among others, it climbed to no. 3 in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, and no. 4 in the UK. Oh, and it also became MTV’s most played video of all time!

May 30 – The Turntable Talk, Round 3 – The Book On MTV

Today we have our second guest writer in our third instalment of Turntable Talk. That’s where we’re happy to have some fellow music fans and writers weigh in on music subjects. Hopefully you were able to take a look at our first couple of topics, Why we’re still talking about the Beatles, and then the Pros and Cons of Live Albums. Today, we’re askingDid Video Kill the Radio Star?” The Beatles began making music videos as early as about 1966, and Britain had a few TV shows featuring videos weekly in the ’70s but in the ’80s, the form took flight with the appearance of MTV and all-day videos in the U.S. Love ’em or hate ’em, they undeniably altered the music world as we knew it. So what are the thoughts on the music video? Today we turn the floor over to Deke from Thunder Bay Rocks, who grew up in Canada where there was no MTV…but music videos still were king. Deke writes:

Growing up in Canada we didn’t get MTV in the ’80s. (What we got was our own video station called MuchMusic). MTV was a big business when I was in high school as they played way more hard rock videos than what MM offered here in Canada.

A guy in high school had a huge satellite dish in the mid-’80s and various times during the year we would go over to his place to watch the debut showing of the latest Van Halen or Def Leppard videos. I still recall watching “KISS- Animalize Live and Uncensored” at his place the very first time MTV showed it. (early 1985) We were blown away by Canada’s MuchMusic even though it was good it would not show that kind of stuff. 

“Now look at them yo-yo’s, that’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and chicks for free”

I Want My MTV is the book put brilliantly together by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum who did over 400 interviews with directors, executives, producers, artists, VJs, and anyone else associated with the industry of MTV from its beginnings in ‘81 to the end of the music video era in ’92. 

The pic below sums it up perfectly…mtvbookpic1deke_InPixio

It’s crazy to think that MTV when it began its run on Cable TV( and even though it was based in New York) none of the NY cable companies would touch it. 

It was places like Tulsa Oklahoma and secondary markets that broke MTV, not the big U.S cities where all the main cable providers said that MTV would be done in a year.

It’s full of tons of great chapters as one chapter focuses on David Bowie calling out VJ Mark Goodman out on why MTV for not playing Black artists in 1983. Check it out  – Bowie tunes Goodman up. 

Michael Jackson basically changed that with the release of Thriller and “Beat It”..  MTV took the stance of playing only ‘Rock’ videos so they had said Jackson wasn’t rock… until all of sudden Eddie Van Halen was playing the solo on “Beat It.” Then MTV  basically said, ‘Yep that’s Rock, so add it to the rotation” Plus the time when umm, well read the excerpt below!mtvbookpic2dk_InPixio

Rap had the same problem as well getting onto MTV until the Run-DMC and “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith mashup broke down those barriers.

DMC tells the cool story of how they had Aerosmith’s Toys in The Attic in a crate with other records as they dug that drum intro which goes into the guitar riff. He says that when they would talk about the song they would only know it by Toys In The Attic Track 4 which was “Walk This  Way”. They had no idea that the band was called Aerosmith or for that matter, they had no idea who Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were.  They had no idea the title of the song. Run-DMC only knew the song as track 4!

The book tells how a contestant who won a Lost Weekend in Detroit with Van Halen was just that! Or, any guesses on what video Chapter 21 – “Whopping, Steaming Turd – the worst video ever made” – is about?

This is such a great read as it goes year by year. The MTV Awards became a yearly staple at MTV.  Funny how to read stories about how Madonna basically stole the performance that year (1984) and made her a household name. You can read about how MTV execs convinced Mick Jagger to say “I want my MTV” for $1. Or that the car on the cover of a ZZ Top album cost $250,000, so they put it in their videos to get the tax deduction! How video directors would all bid for the same jobs and at times it would get ugly between them. Better yet how about when Guns N Roses were the biggest band in the late ’80s to early ’90s. Axl had one of his friends hired at MTV to host Headbangers Ball. As Axl told his pal (Riki Rachtman) “You want the job at MTV? I’ll make the call!”


 Just read below as it pretty much sums up an 80s boardroom meeting at MTV:mtvboopic3dk_InPixio

Gene Simmons! LOL

This book is full of stories about rock stars, dwarves, models, and drugs. How MTV almost did not make it into a second season or for that matter the second-ever video as after The Buggles ” Video Killed The Radio Star” Was Played the screen went black.(in case you’re wondering Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” was the second video played) The perseverance of the original creators of MTV (Bob Pittman, John Sykes-not the Whitesnake fella, and John Lack) was very instrumental in getting MTV into all the homes in the U.S.A.

I Want My MTV – amazing Read!

February 2 – Maybe Queen Really Are Champions Of The World

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character famously wakes up every morning (which is in fact the same morning) to the sound of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” Well, if you ever put on the car radio, or have it on at your work, you might think every day is Groundhog Day…but Queen has replaced Sonny & Cher. Because apparently the Brit rockers are the most-played rock artist on radio world-wide.

That according to a much quoted recent report by Viberate. I wasn’t really familiar with Viberate, so I turned to musicologist Alan Cross who calls it “a new way for artists to both keep track of their music and to make vital connections within the music business.” Essentially, it’s a gigantic database which tracks music radio play, streaming, downloads and even appearances on social media, rating songs social media performance, radio performance and even “respect.” It’s fascinating…but altogether too big a rabbit hole to fully explore here! However, their 2021 report had some interesting observations, including “rock is resurrected.”

They looked at radio stations from 150 countries around the globe and list “Pop” as being the most-played genre, with 141 million total spins from tracked stations, followed by “rock” with about 80 million. Hip-hop then Latin Music follow, each with less than half the prominence of rock. Now, how they exactly draw the line between pop and rock is unclear (Billy Joel – rock? pop? who’s to say), but we can see that rumors of rock’s death have been greatly exaggerated. On Spotify, the presumably younger base still pick Pop the most (145 billion streams) but hip-hop is next, then Latin and then Rock, with about 32 billion streams.

Back to radio, world-wide, Ed Sheeran is becoming one very wealthy young man. His music was played more on radio than anybody else, over four million times last year. He was followed by Dua Lipa, the Weeknd…and then Queen. Queen tracks were played just under three million times worldwide. If you’re at all like us, it might seem that about two million of those airings were on stations that you happened to be tuned into at the time! I-heart Radio report that “Another One Bites the Dust” was the #1 played song by Queen on the Viberate report, but “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions” couldn’t have been far behind. More surprising – the fifth most-played artist, worldwide was… Maroon 5.

So, there you go. The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” might be the most-played song ever on radio, but Sting and friends apparently have to curtsy to Queen, when it comes to total radio attention these days.

January 31 – AMA-zing Answer To Awards Snub As Easy As ABC

Music Awards seemed like a bit of a bigger deal in years gone by. The Grammys, for instance, were not only a major music industry marker but a huge entertainment event back in the ’70s and ’80s. So what’s a poor TV network going to do when their competitor outbids them for that bonanza? Well, if you were ABC and it was the 1970s, you just start your own! Thus was born the American Music Awards. They were given out this night in both 1976 and ’77, the third and fourth AMAs.

ABC had shown the Grammys in 1971 and ’72. Although Nielsen didn’t publish exact ratings numbers for those years, a little later in the decade, the Grammys typically drew over 30 million viewers in the U.S., or about 40% of all those watching the telly on the particular night. So losing it was a bit of a blow to both the prestige and ad revenue for them. Thus they had the idea “if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em!” They had Dick Clark develop an alternate music awards show instead.

The first AMAs were in early 1974. Back then it was a two-hour broadcast with a relatively simple set of categories. They broke music down into “Pop/Rock”, “Soul/R&B” and “Country”, and gave out trophies for Best Male Artist, Best Female Artist, Best Group, Best Album and Best Song in each. As well, they rewarded one great with a “Merit Award”, essentially a lifetime achievement one. Although they don’t disclose the precise method used to pick winners through the first three decades (recently fans have been allowed to vote), it was picked by industry insiders largely influenced by sales totals. In recent years, they’ve expanded the awards greatly to include categories like “hip hop,” “inspirational” and “electronic/dance.”

By the third set of awards, this night 46 years back, they had the process down pat and were holding the awards in a glitzy affair in Santa Monica. Since it was TV-driven, they smartly had a popular musician who was comfortable in front of cameras host it – Glen Campbell both years. He actually would host for four-straight years, then again in 1982, making him the most-utilized host in the Awards history. In ’76 he was helped by Olivia Newton John and Aretha Franklin; in ’77 by Helen Reddy and Lou Rawls.

Now, it could easily be argued that by basing awards primarily on sales, artistic merit would be overlooked. That’s undoubtedly true, at least some of the time, but there is a sort of “give the people what they want” type of honesty to it also. That noted, the winners in the Bicentennial Year weren’t bad and were fairly representative of what people were listening to. It also showed the brief mid-’70s convergence between pop and country radio. To whit, John Denver was named both Country Male performer and Pop Male performer of the year, and Olivia Newton John snagged the Female trophy in both categories. Happily the winner of the Song of the Year award in both country and pop didn’t have to travel all that far to accept – it was the host, Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.” And co-host Olivia picked up a third award, for Pop Album of the Year with Have You Never Been Mellow? which beat out Elton John’s Greatest Hits and the Eagles’ One of These Nights. A little surprisingly, Tony Orlando & Dawn were the Group of the year. While Barry White and Aretha took the R&B male and female trophies, KC and the Sunshine Band took the song “”Get Down Tonight”) and band in that category. Perhaps the most interesting award of the night was classic songwriter Irving Berlin being given the lifetime Merit one.

The 1977 awards were of a similar nature, with Olivia Newton John taking the Best Female in pop once again. She was probably exceedingly happy she’d made the move across the Pacific from Australia to California by then! Elton John won the male in that category and Best Pop Song for “Don’t Go breaking My Heart” with Kiki Dee while the Eagles took the album award for their Greatest Hits. Curiously, Willie Nelson won best Country song for “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”. The song had been nominated the previous year but lost out to Glen. The Man in Black, Johnny Cash was given the Merit Award that year.

While it appears the AMAs never matched the Grammys in terms of TV ratings (last year’s drew four million viewers, but the Grammys themselves dropped to under nine million) they have done OK for ABC and become a reasonably respected part of the Music Biz and a flashy red carpet event for the paparazzi. By the way, if you’re counting, Taylor Swift has won the most of them – 34. As for the merit award, after giving them out to a variety of people including Berry Gordy (founder of Motown), promoter Bill Graham, and artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Billy Joel to Frank Sinatra, they seem to have run out of inspiration, last awarding one in 2016 to Sting.

January 7 – Space Age Guitars Took Awhile To Fly Off Shelves

Rock began to look cooler on this day in 1958, even if it didn’t sound any different. But Gibson made a visual statement 64 years back when it patented its Flying V Guitar.

Gibson by then was a well-established and well-loved brand of guitars. It was begun by Orville Gibson, in Kalamazoo, Michigan around 1902 after he’d patented a style of mandolin at the end of the 1800s. The Gibson Mandolin & Guitar Manufacturing Co. quickly became popular, initially more for mandolins than guitars, but by 1936 they’d expanded their range to make one of the first-ever electric guitars, the ES150. Although they primarily were diverted into making military parts during World War II, they still managed to hire on some women to turn out 25 000 guitars during that period, albeit apparently surruptitiously. In the early-’50s, they collaborated with guitar legend Les Paul to make the line of guitars bearing his name which remain popular to this day.

In 1958, they found upstart competitor Fender was starting to command a significant portion of the guitar market, so they decided to try something new. They decided to make some space-age looking guitars for the world thrilled by all-things spacey and futuristic. Chief among them was the Flying V (there were also a couple of asymmetrical versions, the Moderna and Futura which never caught on fully.) With its sharp angles it looked radically different, although it was designed to closely approximate the sound of the popular Les Paul. Originally they made them out of limba, an African wood that looks and feels like mahogany but is much lighter… models made with mahogany were found to be rather cumbersome. Later they’d change to more conventional woods but keep the look and characteristics of the original, limba Flying Vs… which if you happen to find in your attic, you could probably sell for over $200 000. Although much like other, regular-looking electrics, they have their diehard fans. One characteristic of the Flying V’s is a propensity for a lot of sustain, apparently due to the pickup right over the center-of-balance on the six-string.

Although initially too odd-looking to catch on, in the early-’60s Blues rocker Albert King and early rocker Lonnie Mack started using them and sales nudged upwards. In 1965 they got a big boost when Dave Davies of the Kinks did a TV performance using one. Turns out that he had bought it at the last minute when his regular guitar was lost in the airport; a Flying V seemed his only option! (Remarkably, that’s a similar story to how Peter Buck of R.E.M. ended up using a Rickenbacker so much early on; his regular guitar was broken and all he could find immediately before one show was a used Rickenbacker.) Soon Keith Richards tried one out, then Jimi Hendrix took a liking to them and had a few left-handed ones made for him. Their star power continued into the ’70s with Marc Bolan of T-Rex Kiss’s Paul Stanley and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons being high-profile users. Nancy Wilson of Heart became one of the few female stars to take to them. More recently, Lenny Kravitz has been a fan of them, but mostly they’ve become synonymous with heavy metal and thrash, with people like James Hetfield of Metallica, Bob Mould of Husker Du, and KK Downing of Judas Priest letting fly on the “V”.

Gibson has long-since moved to Nashville and are currently the second-biggest guitar brand in the U.S., behind Fender. They manufacture new Flying V’s periodically.

November 19 – Big Three Make Big Money With Big Music

If you’re a record collector, you probably know many different labels by sight. Maybe admire the artwork. The colorful design and palm tree on the Island Records’ vinyl. The cool-looking guy in the hat and the shades on IRS ones. And you probably think, “man, there are so many record companies!”. Well, yes and no.

You might notice that we often refer to record “labels” here instead of “companies”. And there are a lot of record labels, to be sure. But record companies… well, these days there are really only three that matter, sadly enough. The industry is now down to basically the Big Three. The process has been happening for a number of decades, and it took a big step in that direction in 1987.

That was when, after lengthy negotiations, Sony bought out CBS Records for some $2 billion. CBS of course consisted primarily of Columbia Records but also included Epic Records and several other smaller imprints like Portrait Records and at the time was home to stadium-filling acts like Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper and Journey. It accelerated the ongoing trend that’s seen more and more of the music business controlled by a small and decreasing number of mega-corporations. The process of merging and reducing competition in the music market has continued unabated since.

Sony merged with BMG in 2004, and is now the second-largest “record” company in the world behind Universal. Universal itself bought out the “music” division of EMI in 2012 for $1.9 billion, although curiously EMI’s music publishing branch was sold to Sony at the same time for about $2 billion more. That branch was not insignificant when you consider that EMI held the copyright on some 750 000 songs including those of the Beatles, Pink Floyd and quite literally thousands more artists. Today the “Big Three” – Universal, Sony BMG and Warner – make up about 80% of music sales in the U.S. Universal by itself represents over 40% of all sales.  They also have tremendous clout with the media (for example, all three companies also have big movie divisions. Which record companies do you think Sony might like Sony Pictures to highlight in their soundtracks? Likewise, Universal Pictures might well prefer using music from Universal Music.).

Now, when you buy a record or CD (assuming you still like hard copy music), you’ll see any number of different labels. For example, let’s say it might still be MCA, Interscope, Geffen, Island, A&M, Motown or EMI. But those are all a part of Universal Music. Asylum, Elektra, Reprise, Sire? All part of Warner Music Group.  As the Balance Careers point out, although some of those labels still hire their own office staff and sign their own choice of artists, they answer to , and have their budget set by the big head office.

The bottom line is if you’re an artist, even an established one, it’s increasingly difficult to play by your own rules or swim against the current if you want any sort of real sponsorship or promotion. Of course, in this day and age, the internet and particularly Youtube and social media make it pretty easy for you to put music out there without dealing with any record company. But the reality is, if you want to be a big star, you probably will have to do so by going through one of just three big office doors.

October 15 – New York Sire-d A New Sound

The shape and sound of music for decades to come was altered on this day back in 1975. Like many big things however, very few paid attention to it at the time. It was the day The Ramones signed their first record contract, with the somewhat avant garde Sire Records label.

Things had happened quickly for The Ramones, but it was hardly effortless (even if it may have sounded it!). They’d only formed the year before when school friends Doug Colvin, Jeffrey Hyman, Thomas Erdeleyi and John Cummings started a garage rock band. This was a good thing, because, well, none of them were very good. Cummings would soon after run into Paul Simonon at a concert and asked the now-famous bassist if he was in a band. Simonon said yes, but “we call ourselves the Clash but we’re not good enough.” Cummings responded “wait til you see us, we stink! We’re lousy”, encouraging the other to just go out and play. By the way, by that time Cummings had become Johnny Ramone – all of the lads decided to pick new names using the “Ramone” family name.

Good or not, The Ramones worked hard. They quickly became regulars at both Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, both in New York City, and had played 74 shows at the latter in 1974 alone. The shows were no Rolling Stones or Zep shows of course. The Ramones typical set was no more than 20 minutes of hard, fast driving rock. Journalist Legs McNeil remembers “these guys were all wearing leather jackets…it was just this wall of sound….this was something completely new.”

The people at Sire thought so too. Co-founder Richard Goettehrer says of them, “I really saw something fresh happening. We’d been bombarded by disco and progressive bands, but to me, this almost felt like a rebirth and return to the beginnings of rock & roll.”

So they signed up the proto-punks and sent them to the studio early the next year to record their debut LP in one week, at a cost of around $6000. Although it was far from a hit (it failed to hit the US top 100 and took a couple of decades to sell to gold status), it was ground-breaking and influential. As The Ramones continued to record through the ’70s and ’80s, their following grew, although they never hit superstar status based on sales…“Pet Sematary”, from a Stephen King movie was arguably their biggest hit, getting to #4 on the Alternative chart. However, through influence it’s a different story.

Sire was probably the only significant label at the point who would’ve had interest in them. Goettehrer (who’d been a successful songwriter in the ’60s, penning tunes including “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “Hang on Sloopy”) had founded the company with an idea of bringing underground British acts to North American attention -something they’d do very well in the ’80s with artists like Depeche Mode, the Smiths and Madness being theirs over here, no matter who they had signed with in Britain – but quickly also developed a reputation for looking for unusual, cutting edge bands on this side of the ocean. That was especially true in New York City, where they found not only the Ramones but Talking Heads, and briefly Blondie.

Bands from Pearl Jam and Nirvana to Motorhead and Green Day now point to the Ramones as a significant influence, which made them a shoo-in to make the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. They note they “revitalized rock and roll” with their “back to basics (approach): simple, speedy, stripped-down rock and roll songs…no makeup, no light shows, no nonsense.”

September 22 – David Knew Way To John’s Heart

A big part of getting ahead in business is knowing your customers and key employees better than the competition. David Geffen is a smart businessman, and he demonstrated it again on this day in 1980 by signing John Lennon who was ready to come out of a brief retirement.

Geffen of course was a major mover and shaker in the music world in the ’70s, starting Asylum Records (originally primarily just to put out a Jackson Browne album) and building it into one of the biggest labels in the States, courtesy of his crew of Bob Dylan, and southern California stars like Browne, Linda Ronstadt ,and most importantly, The Eagles. But as the decade wore on, he’d sold Asylum, gotten into film production, battled illnesses, and had a passionate relationship with Cher … odd, given that he’s frequently stated he’s gay. One thing he’d not done in that stretch was be prominent in music. However, by the new decade, he decided that was his true passion, and so he set out to catch lightning in a jar again. He started a new record company, Geffen Records.

He quickly signed perhaps the singly most popular female and male artists of the previous decade – Donna Summer, then Elton John. But he was still looking for talent he could bank on to make his label a destination for artists. Enter John Lennon.

Lennon’s life had quieted down considerably in the second-half of the ’70s, perhaps not coincidentally because he’d left music behind. His contract with Apple Records had expired and his son Sean was born in 1975., He decided to stay at home, work on improving his relationship with his wife, Yoko Ono, and he “baked bread and looked after the baby.” It seemed to put him in a better headspace than he’d been in for a long time, but by 1980 he was ready to write songs and perform again. He had some song ideas, and hearing things like “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s on radio made him think the public might be more receptive to his wife’s avant garde musical approach as well. They began recording material which would become Double Fantasy in August of that year.

Now, it created the interesting situation of a superstar with a new record but no one to print and distribute it. A bidding war might be in the offing… but then again, Lennon hadn’t had a hit for years and even his fellow ex-Beatles had seen their sales drop off at the end of the ’70s. There was still interest in the recording of course, and here’s where the savvy understanding of psychology paid dividends for Geffen.

He’d only met John once – years before at a party, in a hot tub with Cher – but he wanted him on the new label. John at the time, according to one biographer, “was upset that his wife had not yet won the respect of the fans, critics and label chiefs.” He had Yoko handle the phone calls and correspondence from the major record companies. Most tried to get around her as quickly as they could and only wanted to speak to John. Geffen, however, understood John better. He was happy to talk to Yoko, and sent her a telegram with a business offer. This pleased John, who said “well he’s the one, isn’t he? He’s the one we’ll go with!”. Geffen then followed up with more business sense-slash-bravado, by offering them a million dollars straight off without hearing the record. Such was the confidence he had in them (well, mainly John) and the ability to make a quality record. That was probably the final tipping point that got the Lennons on the Geffen label. Things, both good and horrible, then happened quickly. The pair wrapped up the final production of the record in a few weeks and with Geffen they had the packaging ready and the product on shelves in less than two months. The first single, “Starting Over” actually was on air on radio around the world a mere month after they signed the contract.

The album showed the mellower, more content-sounding John than what most were used to. It received mixed reviews initially, but “Starting Over” quickly became a major hit, and with songs like “Woman” and “Watching the Wheels”, it’s likely the album would have sold well no matter what. Sadly, to point out the obvious, John was murdered before the end of the year, which pushed sales through the roof. It hit #1 in North America, and in the UK where it was his first chart-topper since Imagine nine years earlier. In W. Germany, it hit #2, his first entry into the top 20 there.

There’s no way to put a happy face on the events in December, but at least to that point, John probably felt satisfied that finally someone was giving his wife the respect he felt she was due, and thanks to Geffen’s devil-may-care the public got to remember him with some of his best work in a decade. And for Geffen, who’d seemingly over-estimated the ability of Elton and Donna to stay commercially relevant in the new decade, he was rewarded with the first smash hit album for his new company.