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Selling Out?

by Dave Marsh

Doors drummer John Densmore recently wrote an essay in The Nation condemning corporate sponsorship of music. It centered around the Doors (over the objections of keyboardist Ray Manzarek) refusing to sell “When the Music’s Over” to Apple for a commercial.

Densmore offers every good argument against commercial sponsorship. The most important thing he says, though, is “I’m petty clear that we shouldn’t do it. We don’t need the money.”

What if you do?

I’ve campaigned against rock bands getting in bed with corporations ever since the Who signed up with Miller Beer in 1983. It wasn’t hard, because it was ludicrously easy to spot the specious argument for sponsorship as a lie: It would keep ticket prices down. More important, but never really addressed, the ad agencies and corporations bought starpower, and this called allegiances into question: What would the Who have to say when the Miller workers went on strike?

Like the brewers, most musicians _do_ need the money. For someone like Iggy Pop, “Lust for Life” in that ridiculous Royal Caribbean commercial might represent indispensable income. Is it possible to begrudge him?

In mid-July, Michael Felten of Chicago’s Record Emporium wrote a Weaselworld column. expressing shock that Wayne Kramer had taken on “corporate partners” – Apple computers, Fender guitar and X-Large clothing-for his current tour.

Michael asked me what I thought. I wrote back, “The day is past and gone when we can trash every musician who deals with a corporation, especially on a simple, professional basis like this.”

I meant that both Apple and Fender are tools of Wayne’s trade, and there has never, to the best of my knowledge, been criticism of musicians who endorse equipment. X-Large provides the clothes Wayne and his group wear onstage. None of this does more than let him get by without a day job. Nevertheless, had Wayne sold out?

When he got off the road last week, Kramer wrote Felten a scathing reply. (I hope Wayne will post this at his website, waynekramer.com.) Kramer, whose new Adult World continues his 35 years of making trenchant rock music, analyzes two of the most important issues. What are the needs of a musician and what does sponsorship (or “corporate partnership”) do to meet them? Second, what is “the role artists can play in changing what’s wrong with the world”? (In between there is much angry invective, which amuses me more than it does Felten, who got his own licks in.)

You need to know about this squabble among my friends for several reasons. To start with we need to develop much more sophisticated ways of measuring cooptation. From the way some people talk about making major label records, you’d think the United Auto Workers Union betrayed American labor by allowing its members to work for General Motors.

Part of that means remembering that not all musicians live well, and that includes many, if not most, famous musicians. Kramer defines the role of musicians as being messengers and storytellers. But that begs the question of whose message and what stories.

This discussion can’t get off the ground until we acknowledge that we lost the battle against sponsorship. Turn on your TV and you’ll hear the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “London Calling” selling beer and cars.

Does this mean we lost the war? Is music now so hopelessly compromised it can’t hold credible meaning? Kramer thinks that’s simplistic and I can’t disagree. Felten, upholding ethical purity, thinks we’ve reached the end of an ethical era and I can’t disagree with that, either. All I can see clearly is that our more important task is figuring out how to meet the needs of musicians-and everybody else-with justice and fairness. If there’s a solution, that’s it.

DeskScan (what’s playing in my office)

1. The Rising, Bruce Springsteen (Sony). Meditations on a line from what seems to be the silliest song: “Tell me, how do you live brokenhearted?”

2. Jerusalem, Steve Earle (E Squared). The real Neil Young.

3. Adult World, Wayne Kramer (MuscleTone))

4. Love That Louie: The Louie Louie Files (Ace UK)

5. Africa Raps (Trikont)

6. Plenty Good Lovin’, Sam Moore (2KSounds/EMI). The boring new Solomon Burke album that’s been such a critics darling can’t compare to the high-energy testifying going on in Moore’s long-lost 1972 solo album. The highlight is an extraordinary “Part Time Love,” but the whole album seethes with power both raw and refined.

7. Easy, Kelly Willis (Rykodisc)

8. Try Again, Mike Ireland and Holler (Ashmont)

9. Down in the Alley, Alvin Youngblood-Hart (Memphis International)

10. Live in London England, Dale Watson (Audium)

11. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin (ATO)

12. Viva El Mariachi: Nati Cano’s Mariachi Los Camperos (Smithsonian Folkways)

13. American Breakdown, Troy Campbell (M. Ray). At its best, much closer to his rock band roots in groups like Loose Diamonds and the Highwaymen.

14. A Cellarful of Motown: Rarest Motown Grooves (Motown)

15. Playing with the Strings, Lonnie Johnson (JSP UK)-The blues guitar genius with Armstrong, Ellington, Don Redman, a jug band and Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four.

16. Starin’ Down the Sun, Red Dirt Rangers (Red Dirt Rangers). Pick hits: “Dwight Twilley’s Garage Sale” and “Elvis Loved His Mama.” Sort of the Grateful Dead with a sense of humor and Okie funk.

17. Keep on Burning, Bob Frank (Bowstring)

18. Superbad! The Soul of the City (Time-Life)-Celebrating the ’70s while ignoring the Bradys, Kiss and the Osmonds.

19. Hard Candy, Counting Crows (Geffen)

20. Irony Lives, Paul Krassner (Artemis)

Dave Marsh coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. Marsh is the author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles.

He can be reached at: marsh6@optonline.net

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Dave Marsh edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: rockrap@aol.com. Dave blogs at http://davemarsh.us/

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