The State of the Union (musically, that is…) Part 3

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Even though we now have You Tube and My Space, along with Facebook and other similar sites, the music business has become so much smaller, and the thing that a lot of people don’t get, is that as the profitability shrinks, exciting and fresh new artistic options also shrivel up.  Simply stated, one has to be able to make money to keep doing it.  (I’m sorry to burst the bubble of someone composing under the moonlight, tra-la-la, being inspired, and never having to pay rent, tra-la-la.)  This shrinkage also reflects upon the current state of society in general.  Not that society has gotten smaller; in fact it’s growing bigger all the time, but people are forever becoming more separate and disconnected from each other.

Society as a whole is more disjunct and fragmented than ever.  With the death of polite society and the increase of narcissistic individualization, everyone is about ME!!!!!!  This sense of today’s MEEE is smug, jaded, cynical, disconnected, self absorbed and detached.  Not that it is necessarily the worst thing in the world to be about MEEEEEEEEE (it’s better than physically attacking people), but society has lost any semblance of connection, regarding overall social concerns and the welfare of everyone as a whole. 

This sense of societal connection and concern for others may have never been as strong as people had hoped it could be back in the 1960’s, but it is certainly WAY less now; and in certain quarters, selfishness is even celebrated.  Just look at VH1 and E! Channel shows where it is glorified to be the most rich, ostentatious, self centered, spoiled brat on the planet!  There’s a sense of false immunity, privilege and the bogus good life that is presented with celebrity and even if the paparazzi kills you, you’re immortalized!!  But wait – stop – we’re stepping on sacred ground here and possibly engaging in sacrilege…The most eternal and pious question must be asked:  Is there anything in this musical world that could possibly be more important than celebrity? – LOL!

Instead of being about the substance of the work, the musical world itself is becoming increasingly more about celebrity (in the Hollywood sense).  What’s frightening is that the one thing that connects this physical world together, the one thread that is universal to all of society is — of all things — celebrity!  Peace on earth, everyone eating, health care, and helping the down trodden should be way more important to every single one of us than Britney’s meltdown, JLo’s twins, trite gossip, and meaningless scandals over sex and drugs etc.  With the fanatical obsession over celebrity, it reflects the type of music largely bought and sold:  shallow, vapid, more based on appearance and technology, with very little to do with innovation, integrity, passion, message, desire and real guts. 

In fact, so many “stars” who aren’t dedicated musicians simply use music as another vehicle to merely spread their fame wings, just like a nice little resting point to put out a record and hopefully make some more money.  However, we may see far less of that happening as real money is hardly made anymore from record sales.  (Here’s my marketing suggestion:  Switch to the clothing line or fragrance thing, LOL.  The titles are easy for fragrance: Fantasy, Passion, Intrigue, Illicit, Desire, Forbidden, Scandalous, Naughty…)

In addition to all of the above-mentioned factors, most people don’t realize just how much of the current state of the musical union is based on the roles that technology plays.  Most of you probably have no idea as to how much gadgetry, computers and technicians are responsible for what you hear and what is bought.  This is not the old days when drum machines were first introduced in the early 1980’s – this is almost unbelievable.

When I was recording my Christmas Jazz record: Tidings of Comfort and Joy: A Jazz Piano Trio Christmas in November 2005, one of my engineers on the session was telling me how elated he was to be doing the record.  So I asked him why?  He started gushing as to how refreshing it was to see real people play with no editing or technological corrections – real people feeling, trying, sweating and succeeding.  I asked him, “Don’t you do other sessions where people just – (I can hardly get the words out – it’s so archaic, I’m trying to push the dinosaur up a mountain and running out of breath – play and sing?”) 

He began explaining to me what he usually does for a living as an engineer.  He spends all day long pitch and rhythm correcting records by famous artists.  As he was telling me how each drum hit played by a real drummer — EVERY ONE OF THEM was placed on a visual computer grid and how he would have to go though every drum hit and correct them, so they would be of all things, in time.  (I know it’s a little too much to ask of a drummer to play a basic drum beat in time.  I mean, I’ve always been known as a slave-driving perfectionist…LOL!)  He spoke of it taking an entire day or more to correct the drums on one song…

Then he talked about pitch correction – where every single —  yes each single last solitary note, breath, and vocal utterance is corrected.  I thought, “How could someone call themselves a singer and not be able to sing in a safe and pristine studio environment for a measly 4 minutes?”  I was in disbelief – “You mean, all of the sounds out of the singer’s mouth,” I asked him?  “Yes,” he sighed. 

Then he told me that there is a studio which recently opened in Nashville that works 24 hours a day – not on recording, mixing or mastering.  Of course not.  How naive of me to presume such an out of date thought.  Its entire function is to rhythm and pitch correct records.  What ever happened to voice lessons, practice, and getting better at your craft?  I swear, I almost fell out of my chair right then and there.

But what surprised me even more, is how all of my engineers looked at me with the vibe of, “What’s the problem?  Didn’t you know this is the way it is nowadays?”  They were so used to this type of thing that they were jaded to the practice of it….

So when you hear a record, listen to hear if it sounds perfect – not just excellent as a classical orchestra sounds, but mechanically perfect  – no variations, no volume changes, the vocal sounding scientifically perfect, the rhythm having not even the slightest variation – this is what it has come to today!  Remember, these records won’t sound like a robot doing them – the industry is much too clever for that – it’s the aural equivalent of looking at a perfectly air brushed photograph, where all blemishes and flaws, wrinkles are removed yet done in such a way that still remains believable.  And these are not musically complex records at all.  Hello?  Does anyone make those anyway anymore?  We’re talking about making records that are not technically challenging to perform as an artist.  So if these “stars” really can’t play and sing the way they are falsely portrayed to do on records, “What happens live,” you might ask?  Well that can be a very interesting, and a potentially quite embarrassing question!

Coming up next: Part 4 – Oops, Britney does it again


The State of the Union (musically, that is…) Part 2

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In a sense, what the world wants is exactly what the world gets, one could say.  As the public makes certain artists famous, those choices reflect on the values and sensibilities of the collective cultural consciousness.  With the current climate of music, the answers are not simple as to what happened that got us here and how do we get out.  Besides, who knows if the collective “we” wants to get out anyway? 

First, economics always has a lot to do with what happens in the music industry.  Through CD sales collapsing and piracy running rampant, the major record companies are continually losing money.  Therefore, the money is not there to really develop new and groundbreaking artists.  If an artist is really innovative, it involves a legitimate risk to market and put them out there.  It may also take time for that type of artist to break.

When art is truly different, it will initially be met with resistance.  (Perhaps people don’t remember anymore that Decca Records passed on signing the Beatles once upon a time.)  Today, we primarily see new performers who may stray from the already existing formula just a smidgen with a tiny bit of their own stylistic flare, but we need revolution!  Not just a little window dressing on the same old room.

Today, record companies don’t usually give artists more than one record to make it.  Either you become a hit expeditiously fast, or you’re out of the game.  Back in the day, an artist could potentially have up to 3-5 albums to find their audience.  Now, with the pace of pop culture being so much faster, along with such a shortage of money to spend on developing new talent, an artist will probably get one shot and that’s it.  In addition, it is less likely for a new artist to get financial tour support from the record company to be able to build a live audience.  Before, having financial tour support offered by the record company used to be a vehicle for many acts of the past to grow a sizable fan base throughout time. 

On top of the economic factors, the avenues for new music to be exposed to a LARGE audience have greatly dried up.  In the 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll boom, it was the 45-RPM single record and AM radio that allowed new artists all over America to explode onto the scene overnight.  With FM rock radio of the sixties, lots of great underground artists became exposed to big audiences who may have missed their calling if AM singles-based radio still maintained a stranglehold on pop music.  Thank God it didn’t!!  With early MTV, it became the biggest radio station in the world and ushered in many new eras.  We forget that for most of the 1980’s and 1990’s it was a simple formula – to make it, you needed to get your video in heavy rotation on MTV.  That formula for success now is convoluted and unclear to anyone in the business.  The entire music industry is scrambling to find a way to make it work, as the major labels are seeing less and less revenue with no seeming solution in sight.  Record companies are laying off thousands of employees, while MTV and VH1 hardly play music videos any more.
So video has largely become a dead medium, as the record companies are less likely to spend money on something that doesn’t really sell product.  Or, if a major label spends money on a video for a new artist, it is from a generic pedestrian point of view (where you see the artist name multiple times in the video – get it kiddies, it’s the name of the band and you better remember it), as the money isn’t there to spend on cutting edge clips.  Instead, we get to see “New York” AKA Tiffany Pollard go to Hollywood and attempt to become an actress and singer overnight, along with other staged reality TV shows. 

Record stores are becoming a dying breed.  How I remember being in high school and rushing to the record store to listen to what was new and purchasing as many records as I could afford.  Other kids were there, and people could come together, share music and ideas about what was going on.  There is something delightfully grassroots about a local record store – as it fuses community together with music.  Radio stations are becoming a corporate monopoly in this country, which means that there are less options to get your music on the radio and be heard.  With so many avenues of large exposure drying up for new artists, especially innovative ones, the question needs to be asked, “Where is the action and the excitement that is needed to keep popular music on the cutting edge, or does it even exist at this time?”

It seems that the biggest venue for an artist to find a huge audience right now is through American Idol.  Yet this show does not primarily promote artists who are innovative or who have a unique vision of their own.  They may sing pretty well, and occasionally quite well, and in rare instances, even write songs, but what about their ability to create a new aesthetic through songwriting, appearance, performance and production? 

This show is primarily a throw back to the early 1950’s pop music period where singers were just that – singers.  They didn’t write songs or create a whole new sensibility – they did what they were told to do, by the writers, producers, record companies and their handlers – meaning, those who were in control.  And sure, once American Idol contestants “make it,” they’ll fight with the record company to try and forge an identity of their own – some will be successful at it like Kelly Clarkson has been while others won’t, but they mostly come to us without a real message or vision to begin with.  But if you doubt the show’s success and influence, consider this:  The artist Daughtry, who was a fourth-place Idol finalist, has sold 3,907,841 copies of his debut album as of March 2008.  Kelly Clarkson, the very first American Idol, is now a Grammy Award winner.

Besides American Idol, You Tube and My Space are certainly great vehicles for today’s new artists, and occasionally some new musicians break through, but it is hard to really garner big results in such a complex and convoluted landscape.  Yet, with both of these mediums having an open ended aesthetic, it bodes quite well for artists who are innovative, or at least, different from the “sheep herd” mentality that is so prominent in the current state of the union. 

It is wonderful to see a video from a kid in their basement alongside a Madonna video!  Both You Tube and My Space at lease help to somewhat level the megastar playing field for new artists.  But still, though, facts are facts, as the music industry has shrunk dramatically – and that can be proven simply by the numbers – sales are down and there seems to be no indication that those numbers are coming up at all at this time.

Coming up next: Part 3 – Me, me, me and the machine


The State of the Union (musically, that is…) Part 1

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I have broken down this writing into five parts because of its length.  Each of the remaining parts will posted every few days.  Please let me know what you think! 

Popular music and culture have always been in a continual state of change and flux, even as far back as the early part of the 20th century.  Styles come and go while musicians become discarded with the waves of the fickle (oops, should I say sometimes fecal) choices of the public (LOL)!  Artists who have been christened as the next big thing are out of style and discarded 6 months to a year later.  In most instances, popular music changes as quickly as the seasons of the year, with only a few – an itty-bitty few artists being able to have long-term successful careers.

In today’s world, pop culture moves as quickly as the old Superman TV show intro: “Faster than a speeding bullet…!!!”  Now, it is not a matter of the last generation’s musicians being old news – it is literally that last night’s musicians are already history.  With the pace of society being incalculably faster than ever, music, culture and the speed of life are more frenetically disposable than ever.  Music often lasts about as long as a fast food meal – OK, maybe two fast food delicacies, sorry…

Can you imagine the songs of today being classics in thirty years?  In asking that, I feel there may be an even more profound question that needs to be posed:  “Are today’s songs even written from the vantage point of something that is supposed to last for thirty years or more?”  To me, the answers are most likely “no” to both questions.  Since most of society is only tuned into the ever-disposable moment, why would the majority of the art created within that societal format be any different?  It is mostly all done just for the transitory flavor of the fickle public’s pulse, representing a culture with very little that is based on quality, integrity or anything designed to last…

One can say, “Oh, you know, when you’re young, that’s the music you connect to and if you’re not 13 anymore, you don’t “get” the music of today.” 

I would respond to that premise with the concept that it doesn’t matter what age bracket “gets” the music, whether from toddlers to nursing home residents.  There is a tremendous lack of new artists shaking things up in a big way today:  Blockbuster record sales, innovative new music being created and offered to the world, huge concert events, and the buzzworthy excitement that comes with a phenomenon!  If you look at music since the onset of rock ‘n’ roll, there have been key artists, movements and phenomenons who really turned things upside down – revolutionizing the game – forever.  Here is a short and partial list:  The Birth Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, FM Rock Radio of the sixties, Punk, MTV, Thriller-era Michael Jackson, Rap / Hip-Hop, Nirvana, the Seattle Grunge scene, and the Alternative explosion of the early to mid 1990’s. But how long ago was that? 

Of all of the above-mentioned short list, only Rap is still a contender in regards of being potentially relevant today.  First, let me say that I liked the potential of rap, and began rapping myself when I introduced my controversial solo show in the mid 1980’s.  I appreciated Run DMC and Biggie Smalls, and really liked the social commentary as well as the possibilities of rap’s messages.  Hip-Hop could have easily become the counterculture protest music of today, but it is a checkered genre, as it has been largely watered down, overly commercialized and in many instances, quite formulaic.

With rap being used in countless corporate television commercials such as Burger King and McDonald’s, it loses some of its bite.  Many defenders of the “get all you can while you can” philosophy would argue that the life span of a rapper can be very short, so one has to gobble up all the cash while they can.  I would counter that viewpoint with the idea that making money is fine, but never at the expense of the integrity of your work. 

Worse yet, though, is that it is easy to draw strong parallels between today’s state of the union hip-hop and 1980’s hair metal.  First, the hit record formula:  Hair metal had power ballads – Hip Hop has party sex jams with seemingly new and endless metaphors for sex.  Next, the video formula:  Both genres feature hot, pouty, slutty babes, scantily clad, of course, who have to bang or give head to the artist (or underlings) backstage to be in the video.  Third, the lifestyle:  Either genre presents the illusion and aspiration of the high life: in hair metal it was the huge arena concert, while with rap it’s the yachts, luxury rides and bling, bling, bling! 

With these sensibilities, the content, meaning and message get replaced by the cold calculating machine mentally of making a hit record – just for the sake of having a hit record and all of the trappings that come with it:  Fame, prestige, sex, money and power.  And, I’m certainly not here to criticize one’s desire to make a hit record – the music industry has always been filled with that mentality – it’s just that mindset in overload diminishes the integrity of an industry already tarnished by an onslaught of formulaic music at a time when fame is seen as the equivalent of being seated at the right hand of Jesus! 

To me, when the crass and calculating machine like wheels create the music of a time period, it has the reverse effect that was intended.  Its calculated purpose is of course to keep the piggy bank growing ever bigger to make lots of money.  And the people behind the creating and marketing of such empty minded work get smarter, and wiser through time as to what to do and not to do.  The result is that it all becomes more sanitized, safer and utterly more predictable. 

But it has the reverse effect that was intended.  Consumers turn off and tune out and record sales suffer, as people just don’t get too excited by what’s happening anymore.  If you think that I not open to the music being made today, you’re wrong.  I am receptive to music in ALL time periods, but here, we’re looking at the overall state of the union.  Here are some questions worth asking regarding where things are currently at:

What new artists now are selling out huge concerts and causing pandemonium today?  What new artist’s today are changing the landscape of culture via music at this time in a profound way that is well known to the world at large and is likely to change history?  What new artists are having blockbuster sales with new records?  If your answer is Miley Cyrus / Hannah Montana (who had three albums simultaneously in the Billboard Top 40 in March 2008), my point has already been made!  There has always been a place for the teen idol, now for the “tween” age group, but these performers hardly ever usher in a new aesthetic.  So where is the new and revolutionary art, then… – but wait, is that what the world really wants anyway…?

Coming up next:  Part 2 – The struggle to “make it big”

© 2008 Skafish All Rights Reserved


Just Spell My Name Right! (Is All Press Really Good Press?)

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I remember the late great James Brown proclaiming back in the 1970’s, “Just make sure to spell my name right!”  What the Godfather of soul was asking for was that his name would be spelled correctly in the media in reference to an utterly idiotic rumor that was being spread at the time that he had a sex change.  I know it’s hard to believe now, as he was not even questionably bi chic a la Mick Jagger or David Bowie, but nonetheless, this rumor was quite big for a while.  His comment about spelling his name right was based on the age old belief that all press – even that a heterosexual male having his penis inverted and manipulated to be a vagina and had all of his body hair removed…was still good press. 

In the early to mid 1970’s, bisexuality in rock music was quite the rage, and two artists, both admitting their bisexuality, saw very different results from such admissions in their immediate careers at that time.   In 1972, in an interview with Britain’s Melody Maker, David Bowie announced that he was bisexual, and is considered to be the first musical artist to ever do so, while in 1976, Elton John nervously admitted his bisexuality in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.

At that time, Bowie’s admission helped to catapult him to stardom.  Why?  Because he was selling himself as a new, innovative artist though his Ziggy Stardust otherworldly persona, space age music, shocking appearance, and being bisexual.  This was his brand – a brand which he created:  fresh, daring, and innovative.  And David’s core audience celebrated all of these things, and for a time, wore their allegiance to him like a badge of honor.

Elton, on the other hand, had a very mainstream pop audience.  He may have dressed a little flashy and weird, but hey, it was thought of as just a rock stage act.  Elton appealed to jocks, ordinary folks, and a huge section of people who were homo phobic.  When Elton announced that he was bi, it sent shock waves throughout the world.  I remember hearing kids around me referring to him as a fag, and not wanting to buy his records anymore.  His audience, who saw him as kin to regular beer drinking guys (remember the song “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”), felt betrayed – like, “I liked this guy who might be…. a homo?!?!?” Since a large part of his core audience did not embrace bisexuality, Elton’s career, especially in America (which is generally more homophobic that England and Europe), took a hit for a while.  Of course Elton’s career revived, where now he’s perceived as the acceptable gay guy.  David’s bisexuality has become yesterday’s news as he doesn’t dress weird anymore and is married to a woman.  Both artists are now musical and cultural legends.

The concept of “Is all press good press” was tested once again during the Michael Jackson child molestation trial in 2005.  At that time, he probably got more press than even the late Princess Diana did.  I thought to myself back then, that all of this media attention wasn’t going to help him at all on a business level as an artist – and it didn’t.  His record sales tanked, as he became embroiled in a media circus and perceived as a surreal sideshow. 

Here’s in part why it hurt him so much.  There are simply things that society as a whole just won’t accept, and those things will always get you in trouble on a business level as an artist.  The kind of press that associates you with being a child molester (especially of the same gender), is not something that any segment of society accepts, yet alone, considers cool.  And at that point, it’s not about whether his music is good or not; it’s about the association with the personality of the artist.  Meaning, the brand name has become contaminated.  This whole debacle showcased just how bad press can really bury an entertainer.  Since then, his career has not recovered at all.

But often, on the other hand, bad press does work.  However, the “cool” factor is essential for it to work if you’re a pop culture musician.  Bad press that’s cool can actually bolster sales: Violence, arrests, prison time, and drugs (an old mainstay).  However, even felony convicts in prison aren’t down with child molesters, yet alone “normal” society.  So the bad press has to conform to what society accepts, or what your core audience considers cool, or at least can deal with.  And as society changes, those parameters also alter and modify.  For example:  Jazz drum great Gene Krupa’s career took a heavy hit when in 1943, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and was given a 3 month jail sentence.  Now, that allegation would hardly harm him; in fact, it might actually be beneficial, or at the very least, irrelevant.

The cool factor in bad press being necessary for a positive impact on a celebrity is easily verifiable.  Consider that as a rapper, being arrested and shot earns you stripes, enhances your popularity, mystique, and record sales, while adding to your street credibility (pardon me – it’s street cred, lol).  With certain segments of the hip hop audience, you must be arrested to even be considered credible as a rapper.

How press (good or bad) affects your career is a complicated formula, but there are certain criteria that makes perfect sense:  Look at the core audience of the celebrity and define what their parameters of acceptance are.  If the bad press goes against the values (whether good or bad) of the celebrity’s main following, that person’s career will take a hit.  However, if the media exposure plays into what is acceptable to that core audience in question, it may help the artist.

Here’s a quick little for instance: R.Kelly was indicted on 21 felony counts on June 6, 2002 of child pornography stemming from a videotape that allegedly shows him having sex with an underage girl.  In the video, besides sexual activity, both parties urinate, while hip-hop music plays in the background.  The tape runs between 26-27 minutes. Let’s ask the question:  Is this press good or bad for R. Kelly?

Answer:  Good press.

Why?  Because with his core audience: hop-hop, urban, ghetto, and thug, this type of activity is culturally acceptable — perhaps celebrated.  It can even be considered the notch on the belt thing – you know, the older guy with the hot young girl.

Proof:  Since his sexual crimes indictment (of which he was acquitted on June 13, 2008 six years after he was indicted), his record sales have still been extremely strong, and multi platinum.  Many people believe his career has actually done better since he was indicted some 6 years ago.  This is an example of someone who benefits from this type of bad press, because the people (his audience), who are his bread and butter accept this type of sensibility.  It certain circles, it clearly adds to R. Kelly’s street cred.

Let’s compare how both R. Kelly’s and Michael Jackson’s careers were affected by their “negative” press.  First, they could both be labeled as accused child molesters, and both were criminally acquitted.  So why did Jackson take such a devastating hit, while Kelly’s career was bolstered.

1) – Jackson was accused of molesting a boy, while Kelly was accused of doing the same to a girl.  Immediately, the fact that Jackson was accused of a crime that implicated him as being gay, while Kelly’s indictment was heterosexual in nature is a huge difference.  Society will more severely condemn the person perceived as gay, versus the man looked at as being straight.

2) – Jackson’s alleged victim had cancer, and looked like a boy – not a fully developed young man.  Both factors make this alleged victim appear more innocent, vulnerable, and childlike, which makes the supposed crime appear far more egregious.  Kelly’s alleged victim appears to be a fully developed young woman, possibly older than the prosecution asserted.  On the videotape, she seemed completely “down” with the sexual acts and quite sexually experienced, according to those who commented on the tape.  This makes her look less like a victim, and more of a participant.  Also, this scenario plays into a stereotypic male fantasy; an older man being sexually active with a young girl, which much of society accepts.

3) – Jackson’s core audience is a mainstream pop audience, which is going to be more “G” rated in their values.  “Dirty” controversy is less likely to work with that type of audience.  On the other hand, Kelly’s audience is a more hard-edged, urban hip-hop group that would view such an act as passe or commonplace.  That audience is far more tolerant; perhaps even celebratory of the older macho guy having sex with the younger, yet sassy, tough and sexually experienced streetwise underage girl.

4) – This was not the first issue regarding Jackson appearing to be weird, creepy, or strange.  Besides multiple alleged plastic surgeries and skin lightening, Michael Jackson paid a boy who accused him of molestation in 1993 more than $15 million, according to documents discovered by Court TV. That case was settled out of court and charges were never brought against Jackson.  He has been receiving “bad” press since as early as 1983-84, so the “creepy” factor has been drummed into our collective consciousnesses regarding him, which hurts Michael.  With Kelly, he has been perceived one dimensionally as a successful urban hip hop artist.  He doesn’t have the stigmatization of the “creepy” factor, as does Jackson.

5) – As an artist, Kelly is current and relevant, where Michael Jackson is not.  Kelly’s audience had been buying his new records in large numbers consistently since his indictment six years ago, which keeps the energy of his success more likely to continue through the controversy.  Jackson would have to rebuild his commercial momentum, which is so hard to do, not only because of his tarnished image, but because trends change so quickly in pop music, which is Michael’s main market.

It is apparent that the way society and/or an artist’s audience reacts to the same potential legal crime varies in so many ways, with lots of subtleties and subtexts to the plot.  Jackson takes a huge potentially career-debilitating hit, while Kelly may now appear invincible and untouchable after his acquittal.

Now, what if it was Barry Manilow who was accused of the exact same crimes as R. Kelly?  His career would take an oh so fatal hit.  Why?  Because his core audience: middle and upper middle class males and females (most likely parents), would have a very difficult time with this type of allegation – maybe even burn his records (they might have demon semen in them, lol).

Here are some quick hypothetical examples of good and bad press: The headline reads: “Motley Crue drinks milk backstage.  It does a body good!”  That would be horrible press, because it portrays the band as wimps, which is the exact opposite of their brand.  Their audience would feel that they are not credible as out of control, indulgent, and dangerous rock stars, and in a sense, feel gypped.

How about this headline?  “Motley Crue does heroin and OD’s on a regular basis, and they’re shooting up right now!”  Now that is beneficial press.  Why?  Because their core audience embraces the wild, bad-assed rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle where strippers, parties, arrests, and ODs are as traditional as mom’s apple pie, and actually validate that the Crue rocks!

Remember this headline?  “Ozzy Osbourne bites off bat’s head.”  This was dangerous, yet good press for him and his relationship to his core following when it happened in January 1982.  Why?  Because for his hard-core metal audience, it added to his over the edge, out of control renegade image, which scores huge points for Ozzy. 

On the reality TV show, “The Osbournes,” the media attention had the exact opposite effect.  Ozzy was shown having difficulty operating the television remote control while tripping over his own words.  Rather than coming off as a rock music God, he came across a man who is barely able to function.  This greatly hurt him with his main audience – and that’s the audience that counts.  I remember a friend of mine saying, “We go from the prince of darkness biting off a bat’s head and rocking a stadium, to the prince of darkness confused at home, vacuuming.” 

During his reality TV days, he released the album, “Down To Earth,” on October 16, 2001.  Even with all of the unbelievable exposure he was getting — my God, President Bush mentioned his name at a dinner, this album barely went gold.  All of Ozzy’s prior albums had gone platinum and multi platinum.  Thus, as I have always believed, even as far back as the 1970’s, all press is not good press.

For me, it has cut both ways.  There has been press that has helped me, while at other times, has hurt.  What’s different for me, is that I haven’t cared either way, as my main priority has been to be true to myself.

Here’s an example of bad press that hurt me: I did it to myself — I knew it would hurt me, but did it anyway.  When Glinda Harrison was putting together, I wanted her to mention when I started working full time as a psychic and spirit medium in the Timeline section of 1993.  I have been able to see things clairvoyantly from the time I was 14, and have since been able to talk with the dead most of my life (No, don’t think Satan or Marilyn Manson, lol!)  In fact, here’s another factoid that could hurt me: I am not Satanic at all, lol! 

People around me knew I would be laughed at…like, “Look what this nut case is doing now.  Now he’s having (ooooooooh…) visions?!”  And many people reacted exactly that way and made fun of me.  Of course punk and psychic haven’t traditionally ever gone together.  In fact, it’s obvious that the bulk of the punk, new wave, indie, and alternative audience would consider psychic ability somewhat of a joke, as it conjures up images of hokey gypsy fortunetellers in turbans.  I knew that, but did it anyway, as I have always been true to myself, and ahead of where society has been at.

In 1990, I was featured in a story in England’s New Musical Express.  It was about the most looney and insane rock stars of all time – sort of a where are the crazies now?  I was featured along with Keith Richards, Iggy Pop and other legendary rockers. 

Even though this could be considered negative press for some artists (where I’m portrayed as a fringe lunatic who is unable to function in proper society), it was good for me.  This is for the obvious reasons of being included with such great legendary icons, as well as the fact that it’s easy for people to digest and pigeonhole me as a lunatic.  So it makes sense to everyone’s limited perception of me, therefore, it’s OK:  “He’s the oddball nutcase with the nose bigger than Zappa’s and Townshend’s.  Is he really from another planet, and does he really have f****** tits?”  

Even though negative press sometimes doesn’t hurt an artist, again and again, bad press often does a lot of serious damage.  Often, these negative media debacles even come from the artist themselves.  The most recent example of this involved R&B singer Ashanti, in June of 2008.  To me, it’s hard to believe that her handlers and she actually came up with the strategy.  This “viral” marketing campaign was called a “Gotcha Gram,” designed to promote her new album, “The Declaration.”

There is a questionnaire on her website where one can fill in a person’s name to be sent an email with the following message: “Do you know the person pictured in the following video?  If so, please contact me immediately. Your life might be in danger.” The sender claimed to be a Detective James Nicholas, Director of Crime Prevention for the Universal Crime Network.   The email also indicated that you, (let’s say that your name is Cindy) could be the next victim, and that at the crime scene, the following message was scrolled in blood on a wall: “Cindy will die.”  

When you click on the link, what pops up is a false video news report about a series of supposed copycat murders that had been inspired by the R&B singer Ashanti’s music video “The Way That I Love You,” which is a song about a woman who discovers her boyfriend has been cheating.  In that video, Ashanti is clutching a butcher knife and dressed in a beaded gown.  She cries and sings about betrayal, with the boyfriend ending up dead in the bathtub.

Jealous lovers, according to the bogus report, were on a wild rampage — and the next victim, it implied, would be you (the recipient of the email). 

Predictably, there were protests regarding the “Gotcha Gram,” and it was taken down from Ashanti’s website not long after on June 12, 2008.  So how did this all shake out for Ashanti and her new album?  Sales for the first week for “the Declaration” were so-so for a major label artist: 80,000 units, but a far cry from the 400,000 units her debut album sold in its first week of sales six years ago.  Here, this press stunt may have brought attention to her, but certainly not the type of exposure that translates into success.  In fact, it may make her be perceived as desperate, disingenuous, and grasping for straws, which makes people shy away from her, as she is not perceived as “happening.”  It reminds me of that old 70’s song: “When you’re hot you’re hot, when you’re not you’re not.”

Most people somehow think that the more press you get, the more success you’ll get.  That simply is not true.  Where success is something we should all aspire to, however we individually define it, more and more press, especially negative press can create a dangerous, slippery slope that is largely uncontrollable. It can blow up right in one’s face!  We see, over and over, how press, especially sensationalistic and bad press, does an artist more harm than good in their careers; especially in the big picture and in the long run.  What does it matter if everybody knows your name and incessantly talks about you, but you’re not able to make a living from your work?

Back In The Day/Musings

Hindsight isn’t 20-20 – it might need bifocals…

Posted by Skafish on

Author’s Note: Club Foot is now closed.

On Friday, April 18 2008, Glinda Harrison, was emailing the Chicago Sun Times back and forth all afternoon.  Weeks ago, the paper had offered to do a feature story on me and my new CD:  “What’s This? 1976-1979,” which was released April 1, 2008.  I had an extensive and very pleasant interview with the writer, Jeff Johnson and the feature story first appeared on line Thursday, April 17, 2008 and in their print newspaper the next day on Friday.

As I was reading the story, I started noticing wrong dates and misstated facts (oh, no, not again – I was hoping I was hallucinating) — How I wish people would just get the facts right.  Especially in Chicago today, many people seem to not really have their facts correct regarding the birth of the Chicago punk scene:  correct dates, being historically accurate and stating what physically happened back in the day.

Chuck Uchida, who owns Club Foot, a club in Chicago that is dedicated to keeping it real and telling it like it was and is, told me that he refuses to speak with anyone anymore who claims to be doing a documentary or story about Chicago punk.  He recently shared with me how every single interview he has ever given about the scene was never quoted accurately or anywhere near correctly.  So he gave up.

There isn’t enough room in this writing to list the inaccurate stories that are told and sold today as factual, accurate and worst of all, historical regarding the beginning of Chicago punk.  The word ”history” is supposed to be synonymous with being factual, so there is a strong implication of accuracy that is always associated with that magic pill word “history.”   However, that just isn’t true in today’s climate of Chicago revisionist history where people just say whatever.

Let me say, that I completely differentiate between fact and opinion.  People can debate, argue, pontificate all millennium long till they’re dead on arrival blue in the face about who’s great and who sucks, etc.  That is their opinion!  But, to state wrong dates, leave out actual events that happened and attempt to rewrite history sold as fact, is completely another matter.

Here are the differences between the actual facts and what The Sun Times reported:

Sun Times story: Indicated more than one time that Skafish first appeared on the musical scene in 1979.
Fact: I debuted in Chicago in February 1976 and had already toured the United States, received international press coverage and was releasing my first record by 1979.

Sun Times story: I was the second US artist ever to be signed to IRS Records.
Fact: I was the first US artist ever to be signed to IRS Records and the second artist worldwide to ever be signed to the record label.

Sun Times story: My new CD features three late 70’s sessions.
Fact: My new CD features three sessions from the mid to late 70’s: August 1976, October 1977 and July/August 1978.

So after the continual stream of emails between the paper and us on Friday afternoon, April 18, 2008, the paper did change these inaccuracies and corrected them in their online version of the story, and I deeply thank them for that.  Their professionalism is something rarely scene in today’s Chicago climate.  However, they weren’t willing to issue a correction in their print version, as they didn’t feel that their errors were substantive enough to require one.  This is how false information often gets out there.  It is posted or printed somewhere, therefore, it is assumed as fact by everyone reading or hearing it.  It then seeps into the collective consciousness and people absorb it and parrot it.

The film You Weren’t There, claims to be a history of Chicago punk from 1977-1984.  Here was an opportunity for filmmaker Joe Losurdo to tell the world the actual truth and showcase what really happened back in the day in Chicago accurately.  I haven’t seen the film, but I can certainly share with you the facts as they pertain to me and what actually occurred.

The first rule of history is that you attempt to contact the people who were actually there at the time the historical events occurred if they’re still alive.  Since it is a simple fact that Skafish was performing in Chicago before any punk acts were on the scene at all, dating back to February 1976, it would be common sense for the filmmaker to contact me first.

In fact, there were no other Chicago punk acts on the scene till around the spring of 1977, which was over a year after I first debuted in Chicago.  By that time, Skafish had already:

  • Debuted in Chicago in February 1976
  • Performed in Northwest Indiana in the Summer of 1976
  • Recorded what are considered to be the first Chicago punk recordings ever, done in August 1976 (Now featured on my new CD “What’s This? 1976-1979”).
  • Performed a two month Chicago area club tour in the fall on 1976.
  • Caused a riot of 6,000 people opening for Sha Na Na at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theater on February 4, 1977, which received national press coverage.
  • Performed at CBGB’s in New York on April 12 and 13, 1977, which received national press coverage.

Since I wasn’t ever drunk or high, and didn’t let me band drink or get high ever, my band and I have crystal (not meth) clear memories of everything that happened then, LOL!  I could have offered the filmmaker a point of view as to how the Chicago scene came into being that no one else could – as no other performers were yet on the scene.

However, for whatever his reasons were, the Filmmaker did not make any attempt to contact me whatsoever until after he was 7 years into the project and almost ready to begin editing.  (And I am quite easy to contact.  Just Google my name and my website comes up first.  Go to the website’s contact form and send an email).  He first contacted me in the spring of 2007, where he only wanted to interview me regarding one single subject – the dance club La Mere Vipere.   I was actually surprised that he wasn’t interested in asking me about my early punk performances and the history of what truly happened back then.  And on such short notice, I wasn’t able to rearrange my schedule, as I was working on the “What’s This? 1976-1979” project myself.  Next, in September of 2007, he contacted me again, wanting to potentially use my song Disgracing The Family Name in the film.  My vice president Glinda Harrison told him that we would absolutely consider letting him use the song for free, but we needed to see the segments on Skafish in the film to verify the information for historical accuracy.  He promised to rush out a DVD to us, which he never sent.

Then, his film debuted in November 2007, where Skafish is only briefly mentioned:  not musically, not historically, but only in reference of all things – to the dance club La Mere Vipere, which I had nothing to do with creating.  Plus, La Mere Vipere was a very popular club and there are countless people out there who could talk about that.  According to a review of the film in the Chicago Reader, the film credits Tu Tu and The Pirates as the first Chicago punk band.  Funny, they used to open shows for me…like the changing of the seasons, see how history just keeps changing, lol.

The filmmaker also acknowledged to Glinda that he didn’t know how much had gone on in the early days.  So why not attempt to find out the truth?  I completely respect anyone’s right to say anything – but once you put the title of “history” on it, then there becomes a different threshold: one that needs objective, dispassionate and complete reporting.

There is an online punk Wiki called The Chicago Punk Database, where the Skafish entries are filled with inaccuracies.  Interestingly, earlier Skafish entries on this database were more accurate. Before, it stated that I did start the Chicago punk movement, and that I was the longest running Chicago punk artist – both of which are true.  Then, in the fall of 2007, out of the blue, I noticed that the accurate information had been replaced by completely inaccurate postings.  It is stated on the site to just edit as much as you want – so anyone can literally say anything?!?!?  So as revisionist history becomes perceived as objective fact, this data base changes however it fits people’s fancy.  Here, I would like to clarify the misconceptions about me, which once again are posted as fact:

Chicago Punk Database (as of this writing): Skafish first played CBGB’s in 1978.
Fact: Skafish first played CBGB’s in April 1977, then again in December 1977.

Chicago Punk Database (as of this writing): Skafish performed from 1976 to 1985.
Fact: Skafish performed consistently in Chicago and internationally, from February 1976 through October 1, 1994. These performances involved four separate bands, and the controversial Skafish solo show.

Chicago Punk Database (as of this writing): Skafish was not “Sonically” punk.
Fact: Skafish was “Sonically” punk, which is easily provable. If my work wasn’t “Sonically” punk, I would have never toured and / or performed with such first generation punk icons as Iggy Pop, The Ramones and The Stranglers, appeared in one of the most legendary punk / new wave concert films of all time, Urgh! A Music War, and also performed twice at CBGB’s in New York in 1977. Sid Vicious came to specifically see me perform in New York, which was his last public event. I wouldn’t have been there if I was just some weirdo fringe performance artist lunatic – I was there because I belonged there…Oops, maybe it was just for my good looks, lol!

Does the person or persons who posted these Chicago punk database Wiki entries know more about musical analysis than Cheap Trick, and music industry legend Miles Copeland who have both acknowledged that I started the Chicago punk movement?  Is he, she, or they a musicologist?  What does this person(s) know about the “sonic” aspects of punk? Who are they and what are their credentials?

So as the false information spreads, I hear “history” stated that doesn’t even take into account anything that happened in Chicago in 1976.  Why?  Because these people may have not been there.  So let’s disregard that time period, because so many people want to pretend that it is their scene.  If they were there in 1977, it all began in 1977.  I actually read different bands claiming to be among the first Chicago punk acts ever as late as 1980.  1980?  The scene had already morphed several times by then!  It’s also funny how I’ve been reduced to being a quirky little eccentric performance artist by some…I have devoted every day of my life since I was 6 years old to being the best musician, songwriter and singer that I could be.  Who I am on stage is just me being me; no theatrical training at all – in fact, I learned to dance avoiding things being thrown at me by audiences, LOL!

So you might ask why is so much inaccurate information out there in Chicago?  There are several reasons:
1) – Things get inaccurately stated in many forums: Print media, documentaries, online, etc and people just absorb it as fact and pass it on, without thinking about it or questioning the historical accuracy of the information.  And it may not be done with any negative intent toward anyone at all.

2) – Many are ignorant of the facts and it takes actual work and a dispassionate approach to really do the research correctly, so it’s easier to just say what you want and present inaccurate information, versus factual truth.

3) – People want to portray the truth as it suits them emotionally.  If they like an artist, well then that artist can be acknowledged.  Many people back then as well as still today within the Chicago punk scene were too put off by Skafish.  I call it “Conforming to non-conformity.”  There’s acceptable punk with all of its clichés and predictabilities, and then there’s Skafish.

So if you don’t happen to like someone who is too “out there” like me, just write them off, marginalize them in a little corner and simply dismiss them.  Recently, writer Jake Austen offered an interesting perspective in a story he wrote about my new CD in the magazine Time Out Chicago on April 3, 2008.  The title, “Jim Skafish was too punk for Chicago,” suggests that what I did back then went too far aesthetically for what the Chicago punk scene could handle.

5) – According to rock legends Cheap Trick who were at my shows from the beginning, the problem was that other bands in Chicago were too envious of Skafish, because I set the musical bar so high that no one else in Chicago could top it.  I have no idea it that is true or not – I was busy fearing for my safety and my life at the time, LOL!  Plus, I don’t feel completive with other artists – I support them and try to help them achieve their dreams.

So in the spirit of truth, let’s here from just a few people who WERE there and what they have to say about all of this:

* Cheap Trick, one of the most famous rock bands in Chicago history, wrote the liner notes for my new CD, “What’s This? 1976-1979.”  They said in April 2007: “Unpredictable, over the top, with life or death conviction and reckless abandon, Skafish created Punk, New Wave and Alternative Rock in Chicago.”

* Miles Copeland is one of the most significant international figures to the birth of punk, new wave, alternative and indie rock of all time.  Beside booking the Sex Pistols on their first ever European tour, being the first to bring such artists as Blondie, Wayne County, Patti Smith, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, John Cale and Television to the UK, Copeland founded one of the most important record companies regarding punk, new wave, alternative and indie rock of all time, the now legendary IRS Records. Miles has worked with such legends as Sting and The Police, REM and the Go-Go’s to name a few.

In January 2008, Miles said: “Jim Skafish was one of the geniuses I thought I could give to the world, but the world wasn’t ready!  As a pioneer, innovator and someone who was just too hard to classify, I realize now that all he did way back then was what the musical world would eventually become.  He helped put Chicago on the map as the pioneer of Punk and New Wave there and on the international stage, gave audiences a really insane ride.”

* Bob Kurson, formerly a feature writer for The Chicago Sun-Times, whose stories have appeared in Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine, and is now a contributing editor to Esquire, wrote in the Sunday, August 11th, 1996 issue of The Chicago Sun-Times, in an article entitled, Spirit Lives on for Chicago Punk Pioneers:

“Jimmy Skafish broke punk in Chicago in 1976 during an audition night at the now-defunct B’Ginnings nightclub in Schaumburg.  Wearing an old ladies one-piece bathing suit and a purple page boy haircut, Skafish sprinkled the crowd with holy water while spewing bilious, fury-driven songs that terrified the entirely unsuspecting crowd.  It was the first of countless performances at which the audience would literally desire to kill the outrageous singer, but it was also the birth of punk in Chicago….”

If  I was worried about popularity, I would have never been able to do what I did and am still doing.  (People use to tell me to get a nose job and boobs reduction – no kidding!!!!)  I take great pride in knowing that even portions of the Chicago punk community couldn’t handle what I did back then and now — not just the mullet shag haircut dudes and dudettes who were diggin’ Frampton, but the supposed hipsters who were just as myopic then as they are now in their lack of acceptance of challenging art.

I don’t care about how people perceive me, but I have always cared about the facts and that they now need to be stated correctly.  Even if I am one of the only people willing to do so, I will make sure to get historically accurate information out there through writing, film, video, interviews, radio, television and commentary to anyone and everyone who cares about knowing the truth.  Chicago is a great city, and deserves better than what it has already been spoon-fed regarding stories and documentaries that don’t portray the past accurately or correctly at all.   Like John Lennon said, “All I want is a little truth!”


No April Fools Joke Here!

Posted by Skafish on

What’s This CD coverThe new SKAFISH CD, What’s This? 1976-1979 is officially released today, April 1, 2008. I remember when someone emailed me weeks ago on My Space and asked me if this new release just might be my little diabolical April Fool’s Joke! I sent back a strong no, no, no — of course not! I wouldn’t play with anyone that way!

Today, this very day of April 1, 2008, over thirty-two years after I first made my Chicago debut, this brand new CD, What’s This? 1976-1979 is finally released to all of you. Imagine how it might feel to be like a mommy in some sort of convoluted alien baby labor for over thirty-two years – that’s how I’ve felt: “The baby is going to come – it’s stuck – it hurts – it’s missing – there is NO baby — I’m gonna die…

Then, oh My God, my little extra terrestrial CD baby is being born! Look, the finished product is so very transcendent of the limitations of time and space and the physical plane and so, so beautiful — YEAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!” And no post partum depression!

First, a huge thanks and gift of gratitude to all of you out there who have pre ordered the CD – It is great to know that beings are out there who are tuned into this frequency and listening.

It has been a highly emotional experience for me, from the first recording session of August 1976, to finding the last master tape in October 2006, to finally seeing it dropped from the divine heavens to the world today! The strangest things spontaneously cause me to react; veering from elation to tears in seconds – especially hearing the track No Liberation Here, the end section of Work Song where the fantastic guitar playing of Larry Mazalan and Karen Winner explodes into high gear – the final vocal section of Tattle Tale and the entire track of There’s A World, to name a few.

Since it is my money and my record company, I was going to do it right: a 36 page booklet, 6 panel digi pack, 16 photos, most of which have never been seen, a great drawing of me behind the CD tray, the delightful Skafish baby as the record company logo and my spoken commentaries to set the record straight.

A huge surprise for me was when rock legends Cheap Trick (who really WERE there from my first shows), agreed to write the liner notes! Their manager told me that in the 9 years he has managed them, they never agreed to do anything like that before! Keep in mind, Cheap Trick, who are way more famous than I am, have absolutely nothing to gain by writing these liner notes, which they were not paid for – except to tell the truth as it really was, which is something that has been sorely missing in the current climate of Chicago’s revisionist history.

Since my band had not heard these recordings for such a long time, their reactions were also highly emotional – from tears to elation to great pride that we did it our way – in the midst of physical attacks, rejection, being mocked, criticized and made fun of, we stuck to out guns, even when a gun was being pointed at us, LOL!

I’m on really good terms with everyone who performed on this record, and I originally promised them that I would represent what we did in an unvarnished, unaltered and of course, uncensored way! (No clean versions here!) All of the band has been quite pleased with the results and final packaging, which means a great deal to me. Besides them, I wanted to make sure that Cheap Trick and their manager Dave Frey were OK with the way I put the project together and featured their liner notes – and they were also elated. Also, it was important to me what Glinda Harrison, my former manager Scott Cameron and Miles Copeland thought. When I sent an advance copy of the CD earlier this year to Miles Copeland and called him, he told me, “You’re one of the few geniuses I have ever met.” These are the only people whose opinions really matter to me as they were and are still like family to me. I am so glad the project didn’t disappoint any of them.

Whatever happens from here and whatever anyone thinks or says about it all is quite fine by me. This has been a very difficult journey for all involved in the SKAFISH project – the poverty, violent reactions, dreams that never came true back in the day and the sense that these recordings would never be found and ever see the light of day (as they were all lost before).

From a spiritual perspective, things have a way of working themselves out in exactly the way they are supposed to and I am just overjoyed that this project is finally born – today! We may have never got what we wanted back then, but instead, received what we needed — the learning experience with all it taught us in a tremendously deep, profound, and life altering way – both artistically and as people. When most kids were getting drunk and high, dating and discovering sex, my band and I were rehearsing constantly and brutally, and trying to travel throughout the United States, and conquer the world through our shocking new musical and live performance aesthetic, LOL. For the experience, insight, depth and camaraderie that was shared and all we went through — both good and bad, I am deeply moved, appreciative and eternally thankful.

Tips for Musicians

It’s Mine and You Can’t Have It!

Posted by Skafish on

The music business is a most certainly complex and dirty business, to say the least and as time has gone on, it has gotten far worse and harder to navigate through. With illegal downloading being estimated by industry experts to be four times the amount of legal downloading, most artists (especially newer ones) can’t make any money from their art. Since even artists have to pay rent (debunking that romantic myth that artists don’t need money to live on), let’s face it, if you can’t make a living from your art, you’ll have to do something else to put food on the table.

With major record labels bleeding like being hit by multiple gunshot rounds, record companies have found new ways to exploit artists even more than before (if you can even imagine that!). This new trend is what are called 365 degree deals – where the label not only owns the recordings, they get their hands on your publishing, a piece of your touring income and merchandising, etc. Every penny the artist makes will have the paws of the record label taking a piece of it. With CD sales collapsing, the music industry is in a downward spiral free for all.

Since there is no formal education or legal requirements to be in the music business, it can be like flying a high-speed airplane in pitch darkness with blinders on, especially in this time period. With most professions, there is a pathway that needs to be followed and adhered to. When becoming a doctor, the studies and requirements are quite clear and literal as to what it takes to be a practicing physician. Since no such parameters exist within the music business, it becomes about power – often a vulgar display of it. Whether in the music business or society in general, the biggest always wins. Just like the most dominant guys intimidate the smaller guys in high school, the entity with the biggest bucks gobbles up the smaller people and independent enterprises.

Through their seemingly unlimited deep pockets, corporations can push their products, artists or ventures in ways the smaller companies and independent people just don’t have the power and money to do. Predictably, with large companies such as the major record labels, the terms they subject their artists to in most instances are comparable to sweat shop labor. Unless you’re a huge artist with a battery of top gun lawyers, the terms of your record deal will probably suck and smell like doggie doo-doo.

Consider this: Lisa Lopez of the group TLC had openly stated on VH1 that her group’s blockbuster album Crazy Sexy Cool had sold 10 million copies. I thought to myself, good for her! I started mentally drifting and hoping that she invests her money well and makes good choices for her future so she doesn’t ever have to play a Holiday Inn if her career declined…WAIT! STOP!

As I was thinking these warm and fuzzy thoughts, I almost fell out of my chair when she then stated that she made a total—a grand total mind you— of 50 thousand dollars from those 10 million copies sold. Most people barely live on 50 thousand dollars a year, yet alone 50 thousand dollars divided over the several years it took to sell this album. What she made from an enormously successful album seemed to be less than minimum wage! Plus, this was the time when CDs were selling for about $15.00 to $20.00 a pop. It’s staggering to think that this record probably grossed somewhere upwards of 150 million dollars and she got her piddly little dinky 50 grand.

So who pigged out on the pie? Of course, the record company did. I remember Lisa doing her little math lesson on VHI: After several millions of dollars spent to pay for the videos, recouping recording costs, marketing and packaging expenses, and all other costs, (maybe Kleenex tissues for the assistant to the record company president), that leaves their artist royalty which was somewhere between 6% to 9%, split three ways between the three group members.  Out of that artist’s share, don’t forget that management takes their commission too.  So viola! What’s left is that chump change amount of 50 grand. Just as in most instances, the record label owns the actual record, therefore, makes the most money from it while also having the control over what is done with it! It’s pretty easy to understand if you think of it this way: Look at a house. If you want to know who profits from the sale of the house and who controls what is done with it, just ask yourself, “Who owns it?”

How kind of them though, to never forget those ever so amusing little acrobatic performing monkeys known as the artists. After all, they contributed just a smidgen to this success so there will be a tiny little flake of crust after the pie has been wolfed down just for them! Forget all of the BS you see in videos: Luxury cars, yachts, mansions, jewelry…For most artists, it’s an illusion. Whoever owns the record profits the most. In this instance: It’s mine (the record company’s) and you (the artist) can’t have it!

You might ask, “Why don’t artists know better or set up more positive deals for themselves?” First, most artists enter into these deals when they are very young and truly don’t know any better. With the obsessive hunger and thirst to “make it,” artists lose sight of the reality of what they’re getting themselves into: Signing your rights away in perpetuity and entering into rotten deals where one gets totally ripped off forever, all for the illusive and poisonous carrot of fame.

With all of the famous artists I have worked with and / or have known, my strong sense is that artists as a whole who work in the music business full time (meaning their livelihood is completely generated by their art), hardly have a clue as to what this business is really all about. Let’s face it – most artists, especially young ones don’t want to talk about quarterly, semi annual and annual accounting, international intellectual property rights, the various income streams collected through publishing money and the complexities of a record contract…(Doesn’t it even sound laborsome just reading it?) There is a sense that being an artist is cool while dealing with the business is un-cool. After all, how many really edgy and unusual looking accountants have you ever met? (LOL)

Think of it this way, though. Could you imagine working for a company and not knowing the amount of your salary, how, when or why you might get paid, if you had health insurance benefits and a pension for retirement, etc? In this context, it sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? But do artists really seriously ask these questions of their management, accountants and record companies and follow through to learn the ropes of their industry? Quite doubtful…Yet, every artist needs to seriously inquire about everything and diligently study their business. As Mick Jagger, one of the most famous living rock artists, stated; “If you don’t watch your business, you’ll get ripped off.”

Here’s a little example: A former accountant of Sting stole 9 million dollars from him, yet while this theft was occurring, Sting had no idea this was even going on. Imagine that Sting himself had no awareness this was happening! However, there is a semi-happy ending to the story though, as the accountant was eventually found out by someone else which lead to a prosecution – but could you imagine not knowing you had 9 million dollars missing!?

I myself remember not wanting to really deal with contracts and the like when I first unleashed my shocking new style of performance in Chicago when I was a teenager. How boring? Numbers…Clauses…Percentages…YUK!!!

What interested me was not the business side of things, but the obsessive all consuming desire to get my message out there and change the world. (LAM=Laughing At Myself!) Playing more forcefully and aggressively that anyone prior, chaining ourselves together in public, scaring some suburban housewives, getting authentic blessed Catholic holy water from a religious supply store. Now that’s worth time and energy! (Forgive me father for I have sinned. I was just a post-teenage hermaphrodite, as one journalist so eloquently put it, HA HA!)

But throughout over three decades in the music business, I have learned about it, not because I ever wanted to, but because I had to. I have been ripped off too many times to mention here and I don’t mean to state that in any kind of a self pitying way. It has just been part of the journey, a learning experience and I deal with it in the best way I can.

Here are just a few examples: All kinds of bootleggers have tried to sell the movie I was in, Urgh! A Music War for up to $80.00 a DVD copy, illegally. All the while they keep claiming that they are really just so about punk, when in reality, they are really just so about their profit – not about punk at all. A nice little cozy cottage industry of running off cheap DVD’s which cost the bootleggers about a buck, maybe – then marking it up to as high as $80.00 a DVD, plus don’t forget, the buyer pays for shipping and handling on top of it?!?!? They have absolutely no right to make a dime from something they had nothing to do with creating on an artistic or business level.

On top of all of that, my song, She’s Taking Her Love Away from my album Conversation mysteriously appeared in a made for TV movie in 1995 starring Tori Spelling called Coed Call Girl. I had no knowledge that this actually occurred until a few years ago. I even had two separate musical groups in England try to call themselves SKAFISH. So yes, I’ve had to learn to take care of business. In this instance: It’s mine (Jimmy’s) and you (people trying to rip me off) can’t have it!

As these two different UK groups tried to hijack my name, the question should be posed, what is the value of a name? It’s like asking, how much equity is in your home? If you own a 150 million dollar mansion, there’s a lot of equity in that home. That’s comparable to the value of a name like Elvis. If you own a 75 thousand dollar house, there’s some equity in that property and that’s more analogous to the value of a lesser-known artist’s name. However, never forget that the name is always worth something.

When Tina Turner divorced Ike Turner, the one thing she wanted was to keep her name – to be able to still be known as Tina Turner as a performer and she ended up achieving this. The Jackson 5 had legal issues with their record company and had to modify their name to simply be The Jacksons. Grand Funk Railroad got into some dispute with their manager and through a lawsuit, had to drop Railroad and simply became Grand Funk. In recent years, The Doors fought over being able to perform as The Doors featuring a new singer and after legal action, were no longer able to do so.

However, John Lydon was not allowed to use his stage name Johnny Rotten after the Sex Pistols broke up back in the day, because their manger or his enterprises owned the name Johnny Rotten. It’s scary to think that a name an artist may have used, created, or one that he or she may have even been born with can suddenly not be theirs to use professionally anymore. Here we see: It’s mine (whoever legally owns the name) and you (whoever doesn’t have legal ownership of the name) can’t have it!

With the advent of the Internet, which of course is here to stay, rights and ownership have become a free for all. (You may not be able to fathom this, but I actually heard a major record executive recently say that the Internet was a passing fad.) Yes, that’s right – just like the hula-hoop or The Macarena. (LOL) However, the Internet is ever changing. Now, if an artist wishes to cover someone else’s song to sell on the Internet, they must pay up front for the rights to do so – meaning the ability to sell the cover recordings over the Internet via downloads, MP3’s and iTunes, etc.

Recently on the Internet, someone illegally posted a stream of consciousness video cover of my song Where Is James Bond? (When You Really Need Him.) I’ve had many situations where people just cover my songs illegally. Within recent months, a death metal group released a cover of Disgracing The Family Name – illegally, as the group put it out on an internationally released CD without first seeking a license to do so.

A colleague of mine has a musical group who was considering signing a record deal and he asked for my advice. He was surprised that part of the proposed record contract stated that his group could not do any cover songs. He was almost in shock when I told him that you have to pay up to 9.1 cents per song per copy in mechanical royalties. Plus, there are now digital mechanical royalties for selling songs on the Internet. He had no idea! It was obvious that the record label did not want to mess with this costly and complex payment structure to be able to do a cover — legally.

Long before the explosion of the Internet, I remember when sampling first became in vogue in the 1980’s and everyone was stealing everyone’s music (especially the catalogue of James Brown). It seemed to me that a real turning point in establishing a legal precedence regarding sampling occurred around the time when Vanilla Ice sampled David Bowie and Queen’s song Under Pressure for his smash hit Ice Ice Baby. He didn’t pay them for it at all but after he was sued, he had to issue writing and publishing credit to Bowie and Queen and pay them for lifting their song. Since that time period, everyone has had to pay for samples (which is probably why you hear far less samples in rap anymore, because it costs too much to do it and it is far less easy to get away with stealing other’s tracks all the time). Look out sampling technology — Here we see: It’s mine (the person who owns the recording) and you (the sampler) can’t have it!

I would like to share with you a story of a rip off that did have a happy ending for someone who I had a connection with and just adored – someone who included me in the club from the day we met back in the mid 1970’s – a kindred spirit who recognized that he and I were the same before I did — one of the greatest blues artists of all time, the incomparable Willie Dixon! Besides crossing paths with Willie many times, he invited me to his home and frequently referred to me as “The best musician I know.” I adored Willie and often still think of him now that he’s transitioned into spirit.

I’ve known so many pretentious and ego inflated performers. Yet sitting in many rooms with Willie gave me the ability to experience a legend, yet one who was so unaffected, totally real, completely down to earth and natural that is was inspirational for me to be in his presence! Of all people, he deserves to get credit and by all means be paid for his groundbreaking contributions to music.

Back in the day, Willie’s manager sued Led Zeppelin over a claim that the song Whole Lotta Love was ripped off from Willie. I remember Willie’s manager telling me how terrified he was testifying in federal court. Anyway, Willie did win this lawsuit! Part of the terms, though, were that Led Zeppelin wanted this to be kept out of the press. Imagine how it would make them look to be seen as Willie Dixon wanna be rip offs? So just look on any new Led Zeppelin release for the writing credits listed for Whole Lotta Love and you’ll see Willie Dixon’s name listed. What a great victory for someone who was so underrated and underpaid during his physical life!

As I’ve always been willing to share any knowledge I have with anyone if it might help them, it gives me great satisfaction to hope that my experiences may help make someone else’s journey be easier and more fruitful!  Here are two great books to read if you want to learn more about the music business: Donald Passman’s All You Need To Know About the Music Business: 6th Edition and Richard Stim’s Music Law: How to Run Your Band’s Business.

To all of the musicians reading this: DO NOT EVER SELL YOUR RIGHTS AWAY TO A CORPORATION WITH THE HOPE OF “MAKING IT!” Remember that if you sell your rights in this way, you will have no control over what happens to your work, probably forever. Also, have a qualified entertainment attorney go through every single point of every contract you’re considering signing. Yes, it is boring and no, it won’t make you feel like a rock star but be smart and just do it. I do it all the time — it’s like taking out the garbage or fixing lunch; it simply has to be done.

To start with, don’t sell your master recordings to a corporation in perpetuity. If you do, there is a good chance you’ll get screwed. The major label horror stories are too lengthy to mention here, but two important points are worth noting: 1) – If the label doesn’t care to release your record for ANY reason whatsoever, they don’t have to and they won’t. (I’ve had this happen to me with my first and second LPs). If the record company doesn’t feel there’s enough money to be made, or it doesn’t suit their greedy little fancy, your record will just sit there. It’s like signing over the house you so painstakingly built to someone else and they decide they don’t want to live in it or sell it back to you, but they refuse to do anything with it, either. So it just sits there in a Catholic state of limbo, like someone floating aimlessly through the ether for eternity.

2) – If the label owns it, they can and will do anything they want with it. Here is a perfect example: I was speaking with Dave Frey, (the manager of Cheap Trick and The Ramones) a few months ago, and he told me how Cheap Trick’s former label released a compilation record called Mullet Rock and put Cheap Trick right on the cover. OMG!!!! A mullet is un-cooler than leisure suits, bellbottoms, 1980’s Bon Jovi hot chick poof hair, or even heavy metal circa 1980’s macho dude drag queens. You know the type: “I’m wearing lipstick and I may look like a fag, but I’m into booze, coke, pussy and I’ll kick your ass!” LOL, but not with bad intent toward anyone else!

First, Cheap Trick is one of the greatest rock bands of all time, bar none. Could you imagine how they must have felt being featured on a CD cover showcasing one of the most embarrassing aesthetics of modern times? On top of that, fans would show up at Cheap Trick concerts and yell at Dave Frey: “Why did you let them be on this f*****up CD cover? What kind of a manager are you?!” Of course, Dave had nothing to do with it. Never forget, ownership is everything. Who owns the work? The record label does! The record company didn’t call up Frey and say, “Hey Davie, babe, how’d you like a your boys to be on this very cool compilation CD cover called Mullet Rock?” The label didn’t have to ask Cheap Trick if they wanted to be in on this idiotic cover. They just did it!

One little addendum and an important one! If you feel you have to sell your master recordings to a corporation, make sure to at least have a point in the contract where the rights revert back to you, the artist! The group Chicago had a clause in their early contract stating that the rights to their recordings would revert back to them after 25 years. At the time, the label thought that it was no big deal, as if who would care about some band named Chicago 25 years later. Guess what? They’re catalogue is a huge moneymaker now and I say, good for the group Chicago – they deserve it!

It you write songs, I strongly recommend for you to not sell your publishing. Remember, songwriters and publishers spilt the money 50% – 50%. Surprisingly, half of your income being given away is probably not the worst part of it though! It is usually the publisher who OWNS the copyright, which means that the publisher can do anything they want with the song: License it for toilet cleaning commercials, or use it to sell hemorrhoid products if they want to.

Debut LPI gave up part of my publishing back in the 1970’s for two reasons: 1) – I went over the tiny budget I had to make my first record and if I wanted to get the record done and out there, I had to give up half of the publishing on my first LP and 2) – I didn’t know any better at the time, as I had no concept of the amount of potential money and control of my work I was relinquishing. But thank God, I was able to buy it all back. I used to have nightmares of my songs showing up on some goofy “Weirdest punk and new wave songs of all time” CD. Now, at least that won’t happen to me, unless done illegally! Also, if the CDs or downloads of a song don’t sell much, the only other possible money to be made is from the publishing, which is why an artist should not sell the publishing away. I remember hearing how The Black Crowes sold their publishing before they broke big for an infinitesimal five, yes FIVE thousand dollars.

When Michael Jackson bought The Beatles publishing catalogue, he licensed the Beatles message driven classic Revolution for a sneakers commercial. Paul McCartney was understandably not hot so happy about this, but there was nothing he could do about it. Why! Because: It’s mine (the publisher who owns the copyright) and you (the person who actually created the song, just a minor little insignificant factoid) can’t have it!

Regarding your professional name, make sure you have an agreement with any other band members as to who owns it. Whether it is jointly owned or solely by you, trademark the name! I know it sounds oh so un hip, you know, filling out government forms and talking to attorneys, but would you rather not be able to use your name?!?!? Even though my actual birth name is Skafish, I trademarked my name, which may sound strange as it is on my driver’s license, but it allowed me to swat those little flies dead who tried to call their groups SKAFISH.

Go after people who are ripping you off. (What would you do if someone was breaking into your home?) Legally, it can be considered that you have relinquished your rights and your trademarks by not enforcing those rights legally. It’s like when you don’t use your muscles, they disintegrate and turn to worthless mushy flab. Some people will call you a troll, an ogre, a bastard and a monster…I’ve been called all of those things on a regular basis, but why should you care? Never forget, it’s mine (the artist’s) and you (the worthless bootleggers and thieves) can’t have it!

For me, the funniest incident was where a bunch of people ganged up on me on some message board and kept referring to me as this bitter, sad, pathetic miserable soul who doesn’t want his work to be out there. Ah – Skafish is so very wounded…And while doing this, they claimed that they like me so so much as an artist — all to make themselves look rational and reasonable when they’re nothing more than parasites.

You might ask the question, “Why would they say all of these things?” First, none of these people ever worked with me, don’t know me, have never been friends of mine, and have not done anything whatsoever on any artistic or business level with me.

So the answer is obvious: Since they were selling my work illegally and making money from it, I actually stopped them from ripping me off. Oh, I forgot that they are so very punk – I mean what could be more punk than profiting off of someone else who has never made any money from his own work?

It’s hilarious. These are people who have never spent one minute of their life with me one on one and they’re engaging in a pseudo psychological discourse regarding my motivations and behavior. It’s simple! I don’t wanna be ripped off — that’s all. Would you? Would you like someone stealing the money out of your wallet and yet as an artist, my wallet may or may not have any cash in it anyway, (LOL).

Some people have stated that because some of my work is not available to the world, that perhaps, I’m just oh so bitter, isolated and alone. (Can we have some sad new wave style violins about now?) More inaccurate than that though, is that some even went so far as to suggest that I actually have had something to do with preventing my own work from being released. Hello? Knocking on cretin’s door…Is anyone remotely in residence upstairs? It would be beyond preposterous to think that I of all people wouldn’t want my work out there – art that I have been threatened and physically attacked over, where I could have potentially lost my life multiple times?

Remember this! If something by me is currently unavailable or has never been available, it is because I don’t have any control over it! I deeply want my entire catalogue out there, for the whole world to view in any way they wish. If people don’t like what I do, so be it, as it reminds me just how provincial and narrow-minded people can be, especially those who claim to be open minded and oh so cutting edge. It’s like the hip version of an up tight religious right housewife who is non-orgasmic, LOL!

Regarding the bitter thing, I am not that sort of a person whatsoever! I find bitterness to be quite boring, tedious and draining. Even though it has been a tremendously difficult journey for me, bitterness is so unappealing to me and has never been an option I’ve embraced. Elation, joy and ecstasy (no, not the drug) through helping others are my options.

(Oh well, almost everything that’s ever been said about me isn’t true anyway!) That’s what this blog is for, to finally, once and for all, set this ever so contorted record straight! I wake up everyday with great gratitude and enthusiasm and work toward serving others!

Regarding my work, I have ALWAYS wanted it out there, and I have been doing everything in my power that I possibly can to simply get it out there; ever since I made my first little record in a Gary Indiana recording studio back in 1970. I’ve never given up, gone away, or taken a break! This is again, part of the Chicago revisionist history that is blindly accepted as fact. It has been my daily mission to promote my work and my message, everyday, even on Sundays, when I’m being punished for my weekly sins, LOL.

That’s why I started 829 Records, to get this most radical portion of my catalogue to everyone. With its first project, What’s This? 1976-1979 to be released in just a little over a week, it can be heard for what it really was and is! With all of the tapes formerly lost and the enormous monetary expense it has been for me to put it all together, from my vantage point, it is nothing short of a miracle that it is finally seeing the light of day!

Here, over thirty years later, it’s finally mine (What’s This? 1976-1979), and you (the world that wants something transformational, real and non compromised) can have it!

Jim Skafish

© 2008 Skafish

Back In The Day/Musings

Jimmy, did you really push Joan down the stairs?

Posted by Skafish on

When most composers write songs, they rarely write lyrics that are stated as literal prose.  Imagine if the following were the words to a new hit single: “I was walking down the street and happened to meet up with John who I had a conversation with.  John said, “Hello fella, long time no see, should we go out to lunch some time?  I work till five o’clock every day except this Saturday”—STOP!!!  Could you imagine a lyric like that, yet alone trying to sing it?  It would be so dreadfully boring that it wouldn’t even be funny as a HA HA HA Parody. (LOL)

Lyrics, like poetry, provide an often-different less pragmatic mode of verbal communication from conventional linear writing.  With lyrics, the lines, parameters and structures are less literal, more open-ended and far blurrier.  (For example: I remember hearing David Bowie talking about cutting up lyric lines and words and sort of arranging them all together). When interviewed, Mick Jagger said that when he’s writing a song, he first writes down the words strictly as prose.  Then he adapts the words and works with them to becoming a lyric.

Lyrics are often metaphorical on purpose.  I’ve heard many artists say that they would like to have the listener take whatever they feel (in a sense whatever they want) from a lyric – not shove the lyric down someone’s throat as a verbatim statement.  Kurt Cobain had commented that literal lyrics were one-dimensional and boring and that he tried to keep his lyrics blurry.  With that blur, there are many potential interpretative possibilities. It’s sort of the difference between looking at a clear simple picture, versus an image with multiple dimension, shades, hues, textures, layers and even effects.

Some lyrics are stream of consciousness as in Walk This Way by Aerosmith or Come Together by John Lennon while he was still a member of the Beatles.  These lyrics can take the listener on a sort of surreal journey, as these words often filter up from the subconscious of the writer.

Most people don’t have any problem with the above-mentioned styles of lyrics.  They can be interesting, open to interpretation and thought provoking.  What people usually do have a problem with though are the types of lyrics that dramatize a situation, often violently.  A lot of people, especially non-music fans take these lyrics as being the gospel truth of the writer – as if the lyricist meant every word completely graphically.  Especially if it’s violent, it would be presumably stated strongly, therefore, it incites reactions in people who don’t understand the art form as a medium or the real meaning behind the song.

Of course, Rapper Ice T didn’t really mean that he was plotting to go out and kill policeman in his song Cop Killer.  The song came out originally on Body Count in 1992, an album by the rap & heavy metal band of the same name which Ice-T had been fronting.  Said Ice-T, “I’m singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality.”  Ice T considered Cop Killer to be a protest song.

However, the song wasn’t perceived simply as a protest song by a portion of society that was loud and vocal regarding their disdain for the song.  In addition to the actual lyrics, the fact that he is a rapper and that the music itself sounded intense, are all contributing factors to people’s supposed outrage.  Ice T received intense protests, pressure and death threats from the police, government and conservative social groups and shortly afterwards, the offending song was removed from the record.  In the next year, Warner Brothers dropped both the band and Ice-T as a solo artist from their label roster.

Ice T ran into his problem regarding Cop Killer with the general public (the police and the good law abiding citizen thing) but certainly not his fan base.  His fan base loved the song and identified with it largely from the vantage point of an “internal revenge fantasy” based on getting even with the police, who may have oppressed them or treated them unjustly, especially in the inner city.

I ran into a problem too, for my song Joan Fan Club which was released on my first LP in 1980, but for me, it was the complete opposite problem that Ice T dealt with in Cop Killer.

In the song Joan Fan Club, I put myself in the role of the ringleader, summoning the troops (in this instance the cheerleaders, jocks and normal popular kids in high school) to attack Joan (who was fat and ugly.)  I wanted to make the song as vile, disgusting and intense as I could!  Yes, I meant every word of it!  I was going to recreate the drama and make people live through it!  That would make my point – Live through this and see how it feels!

Here is an example of the lyrics:
Joan is the girl she waddles in class
I’m gonna stick some thumbtacks in her back
Gonna push her down gonna spray her with mace
Gonna touch her little pizza face

Joan is the girl we make her cry
She shivers and shakes on Friday night
Gonna egg her house throw some trophies too
Joan we’ve made this fan club just for you!

Can I have your autograph?
Hey fat pig we’re gonna push you down the stairs
That’s right we’re gonna touch your little pizza face
FAT! Hey fatty, you’re a real fox
You know the whole school wants to go out with you
Written in 1977 – © 1979 Skafish

Skafish performs with cheerleadersSomething I didn’t expect though, was that many people took these lyrics as literal.  You might ask, “Why shouldn’t they?  You sang them and wrote them, didn’t you?”  I erroneously assumed that EVERYBODY would know that I didn’t really mean that I was intending on acting out these lyrics or advocating for anyone to do so for that matter.  How could they?  That me of all people: someone with a nose the size of an adult man’s small penis, boobs, huge feet, dressing strangely and wearing make up was going to attack someone in school — like I would even have the nerve to think of doing so for one minute!  I was busy fearing for my physical safety every day — not attacking “fat and ugly” girls.  Remember kiddies, Jimmy wasn’t the prom king! (LOL)

The problem started with the fact that my fan base really liked it – they loved Joan Fan Club!  They perceived me as mean spirited, clever and oh so cynical!  The song mirrored their own viciousness vicariously lived out through the song and me and their post teenage angst holographic illusion they created of me.  On top of that, they damn well expected me to live up to it – I better call them, or at least someone remotely fat and ugly names if they were in my presence, especially if others were near.

It really kicked into gear when Glinda Harrison and I first launched in October 2000.  We started getting emails from the vast world of cyberspace where fans were initially cordial and I responded back to them.  Then suddenly, they viciously turned on me!  I committed a horrible sin!  One worthy of a lifetime of eternal damnation…I was (I can barely get it out – I’m choking up right now – please be delicate with me) nice to them.  OK—I finally said it!  I WAS NICE TO THEM!  (Please don’t tell anybody) –I was actually friendly!  Don’t hate me, please…

“Jimmy, did you really push Joan down the stairs?  And if you didn’t you are a complete Official Joan Fan Club underwearfake and sellout” was the gist of some of these emails received via  These kinds of “fans” (term used loosely) tried to pigeonhole me.  Now that’s funny!  Anyone who knows me or has listened to any of my work should know that I can’t and won’t be reduced to one-dimensional shtick – disingenuously living up to the fans expectations, keeping the gravy train rolling.  If I was ever going to do that, I would have played it safe from the beginning – and playing it safe in the music business is very simple.  As an artist, you attempt to live up to the expectations of your fan base.  It is just like being a politician and playing up to your constituency.  Whether in music or politics, it really means that you better be pretty darn one-dimensional: not complex, contradictory or multi faceted.  I remember hearing Nikki Sixx of Motley Cure laughingly saying that his group would lose their audience if that audience thought The Crue drank milk.

I’ve lost fans many times throughout my career by not living up to their expectations and by following my own singular artistic evolution.  Honestly, that’s quite fine with me and I don’t mean that in a quasi defensive way.  I’m happiest being me and yes, I am a very complex and hard to define individual.  I could never make performing and creating similar to a predictable office job…Why do it then?

Just a few weeks ago I actually ran in the same problem with being pigeonholed once again.  This time, the vicious attack was based on me doing something oh so bad – eternally sinful…oh my God, I’m going to be hated by everyone forever now — What would the punk and punkettes think of this?

I created a Christmas Jazz album?!?!  Yes, the same person who spewed sacrilegious lyrics, sprinkled authentically blessed Catholic Water on audiences throughout the world, made a Christmas Jazz record, with no shocking lyrics – or any lyrics at all!?!?

But this person who posted the nasty review was so uninformed that he actually thought that I (Joan Fan Club Skafish) wasn’t me (Christmas Jazz album Skafish.)  Believe it or not, he actually thought that I was a different Skafish and there were two Skafishes.  He couldn’t even begin to perceive that someone who did Joan Fan Club could have POSSIBLY did the Christmas Jazz record “Tidings Of Comfort And Joy: A Jazz Piano Trio Christmas.” Here is the one star review he wrote which was posted on iTunes:

Not THAT Skafish
Looking for “Joan Fan Club” or the quaint Christmas fave “Disgracing the Family Name?” Then go on, New Wave Seekers, because this is not that Skafish.

A common musically-gifted name. Like “Partridge”? XTC vs the lovely group with David Cassidy, methinks.

This pigeonholing process I’ve been through also reminds me of a story Andy Prieboy told me in the late 1980’s.  Andy and I went to high school together and played in a couple of bands back then – him as a singer and me as a keyboardist.  One of the bands, a group I formed called Sway, played at our prison camp high school auditorium, Bishop Noll Institute in 1973 and because the road crew was smoking pot backstage, we were banned from ever playing there again.  For those of you who don’t already know, Andy replaced Stan Ridgeway as the singer of Wall Of Voodoo and had international success in the 1980’s.

When Andy came back home to East Chicago Indiana to visit in the late 1980’s we reconnected.  Months later, he was back in Los Angeles, and when I flew there to perform for the IRS Records 10 year Anniversary in September 1989, I saw Andy again and played keyboards on some of his tracks in the studio.

Andy was talking about the international press core that he experienced traveling with Wall Of Voodoo and made the comment that the press wanted, expected, even demanded that he be a complete A**Hole.  After all, what else is a rock star?  And if you’re a real rock star, you must: do heroin, be rude, violent, not show up for gigs, puke in public, be tortured and act out and treat the press like shit.  Obligatorily, you must be arrested at least once!  Here, the press tried to pigeonhole him.

My typecasting problem with Joan Fan Club was different from Andy’s as it wasn’t from the press — and it wasn’t with overweight support groups protesting the song and calling me an insensitive person to people of plus size – like “I’m fat and I still love myself.  Let’s ban this terrible song Joan Fan Club.”

It was the simple fact that some of my fan base didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t the snotty monster my song so virally portrayed.  The song was supposed to emulate something quite ugly, even diabolically despicable about how horrible high school life can be for those who aren’t popular.  Joan Fan Club was about real life experience – my life experience – and I was going to damn well tell it my way – the way it actually happened.  I just put myself in the role of the attacker to make it as real as I possibly could and have the maximum impact I could hurl out to the world from my inner rage!  (Journalists knew the song was autobiographical by proxy, so I assumed everyone else would too.)

YES, I WAS JOAN!!!!!   As with most of my songs, Joan fan Club was about intense and confrontational social commentary – it wasn’t pretty what I went through – so the song wasn’t going to be pretty!  I was the one who was pushed down the stairs, attacked everyday – and threatened always.  My home was attacked – there was no place of safety  – the monster of abuse created the rage and that rage created the art which I am proud of for the guts it took to do it!

In reflecting upon what Ice T, Andy Prieboy, myself or any artist has been through regarding how the world as a whole reacts to what we create, perhaps it is always most important to remember to simply be who you are – just be you!  That has always been my philosophy.  Keep it simple!  Keep it real!  Keep it true!  It doesn’t matter at all what anyone thinks!

For the compromises one incurs to “make it,” the price tag is just not worth it: loss of self-respect, cynicism, losing your fire to create what only you can create and worst of all, boredom.  For Ice T, he was expressing his rage from the inner city – for Andy, why should he try to live up to a farcical “A**hole boy” stereotypic image of what the press core demands?  For me, I would never make fun of someone or be mean spirited to impress my supposed fans!  I wrote Joan Fan Club as a vehicle of social commentary, awareness, confrontation, purging and ultimately healing, even though some people didn’t really ever “get it.”

Let me know what you think!

Jim (not Joan) Skafish

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