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Indies Stand Up To Majors

NEW YORK — Expanding the vistas and commercial avenues for new and alternative music and reconciling the rebellious stance of independents and outsiders with the established practices of the music industry proved the push and pull of this years New Music Seminar.

With more than 30 panels covering topics from booking to international music publishing, Seminar sponsors Tom Silverman, Mark Josephson and Joel Webber claimed a paid attendance of 3,800, although traffic at the meet would suggest the figure was actually lower. Whatever the final tally, the Aug. 5–8 convention at the Hilton Hotel here managed to draw a broad cross-section of participants from virtually every segment of the world-wide music industry.

Starting the agenda off on a volatile note, co-sponsor Josephson used his opening address to call for a breaking down of what he termed “the invidious and racist distinctions” fostered by the industry at large and the major labels in particular.

While Josephsons remarks did not go unanswered — presidents panel moderator Ed Rosenblatt of Geffen Records began his session by noting that “all large companies are not insensitive and not all small companies are sensitive,” and that “companies are people” — they did not create the kind of furor that was a matter of course at past New Music Seminars.

Josephsons call for change was echoed by keynote speaker Trevor Horn, head of ZTT Records. Suggesting that record companies should be “as liberated as the music they package and market,” he urged listeners to fight against the “dry, humorless mass that is the rock industry today.”

Terming the need for labels to be as creative as their artists “a dare,” Horn added that while the industry is “really corrupt, I cant help getting really excited about its potential. Lets not talk about the future of the music business,” he concluded. “Lets talk about the future of the music.”

That said, Horns address was followed by a label presidents panel which spoke exclusively to the concerns of business without touching music. Reacting to market changes and overcoming resistance to new acts were the chief topics for the panel, with label chiefs citing specific examples of bands that required unique promotion and marketing plans in order to break.

The willingness of a label to make a longterm commitment to an act figured heavily in each case, with IRS Records president Jay Boberg describing a “team building” effort for R.E.M. that focuses on “eventually forcing top 40 to answer the ground-swell.” Similarly, Warner Bros. Records president Lenny Waronker said that while Echo & the Bunnymen have yet to make their commercial mark, the label “feels they have the possibility of selling a lot of records.” Singling out a lack of AOR acceptance for the band, Waronker said breaking the group is “about educating the marketplace.”

The theme of standing by an act was picked up again during the Seminars a&r panel. “Our policy is to sign artists we can make a longterm commitment to,” said Capitol Records Bruce Garfield. “We want artists that can sell seven- and 12-inch records as well as albums.” However, Garfield noted, his label wants to “leave the lions share of the 12-inch market to the indies,” a remark gratefully acknowledged by co-panelist Cory Robbins of Profile Records.

In contrast to the issues faced by American a&r staffers, panelist Simon Potts of Arista Records U.K. said his home market is “much more versatile” because a first-time act can “get to the top of the charts in two or three months.” However, he cautioned U.S. labels not to look to developigg British acts as a panacea.

“Dont look to the U.K. for answers to all of the U.S.s problems,” said Potts. “Flooding us with your money will kill the U.K. market, because then the pressure of a quick return is on.”

Understanding the characteristics of each overseas market also emerged as the bottom line in the international marketing panel. Moderator Ron Buckle of Britains Mute/Sonet labels warned against the “American plague of lumping the European market into a common whole,” since different factors break artists in each country. Panelists also stressed the importance of determining the formats of radio and video programs in each market, and the influence of radio versus the press. Copyright organizations were cited as excellent sources for such information.

An artists panel drawn from several segments of the pop and street markets proved a grab-bag of opinions and topics as diverse as its participants.

On the issue of artist responsibility and ticket pricing, James Brown said that if he tours with Afrika Bambaataa, “tickets would be 99 cents for kids.”

The issue of relationships between white label owners and black artists was addressed by Bambaataa, who termed the practice “okay because its helping otherwise unemployed kids and promoting understanding of other cultures,” but added, “Dont misuse the young kids.”

Panelists generally agreed that artists should take a stand on politics, with Joe Ely going so far as to say, “Its perverse if we dont.” Popular causes eliciting sympathy from the performers included voter registration drives, the anti-nuke movement and environment issues.

But the artists best demonstrated why theyre perfomers and not speakers when George Clinton and James Brown ended the panel by answering each others challenges to perform splits for the panel audience.