Frank Zappa: Portrait of the Artist as a Businessman

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By Rob Partridge/Paul Phillips
Cream, January 1972


"If you're making £10 a night, you'll be screwed. When you're making £1,000 a night, you'll still get screwed . . . only you're being screwed for more.' A rather simplified assessment of the economics of being a rock star, but, unfortunately, an assessment which too many artists can back up with experience. Unless...

Frank Zappa is perhaps the epitome of the rock star as businessman. The touchstone of his philosophy has always been to read the small print and, preferably, help to draft it himself. Zappa, right from the start of his career, has been careful to ensure that he knows what's going on around his musical activities. Getting it right in the studio is only the first step, knowledge which has come too late in life for too many people. Even when he branched into film with 200 Motels, Zappa had no intention of playing patsy for some fashionable director. He (or the Mothers) was the star of the show, and he intended to run it. In this interview, Rob Partridge and Paul Phillips of Record and Tape Retailer discuss with Zappa the business side of his activities – marketing, contracts, royalties; the side of the business which most artists deliberately ignored, probably because of the ulcer risk. It's not too difficult to imagine Zappa spending his convalescence after his Rainbow Theatre encounter scanning balance sheets. He may not be in it only for the money, but he likes to ensure that what money belongs to him, he gets.

The first thing we want to establish is what the American music industry was like when you first recorded in the mid-sixties. Was it equipped to handle a band like the Mothers of Invention?
In the United States at the time the Mothers began, the top musical figures were the Beatles, Herman and the Hermits, the Byrds, Dave Clark and the Rolling Stones. Apart from the Byrds there wasn't much in the way of American acts. That was the general trend of the music business – nice attractive young lads playing attractive, pleasant, listenable semi-cosmic pop music. Most of the guys in the Mothers of Invention were unattractive old lads and we had an immediate merchandising problem. Consequently the public, because it was orientated to mass attractiveness, found it hard to project into our vibes.

You originally wanted to call the band just the 'Mothers'?
Yes, it was called just the Mothers, right up until the day we signed with Verve. They refused to sign a group with a name like that because they thought it was obviously dirty. We were pretty anxious to get a record out and so we added 'of Invention'.

That situation was presumably the beginning of your frequent battles with record companies?
Well, they haven't all been battles. With every record company there's always some point where you can get along. But during your term of contract you'll find there's always somebody in an office, maybe two or three people, who do not have your best interests at heart.

They can make life miserable for you, and also do a disservice to the listening audience, by either making your stuff hard to get by not taking proper care of distribution, or by giving you a bunch of problems with censorship of the material on the records.

Did you refuse to compromise?
Dealing with a record company you try and compromise as little as possible. At least that's what we did. I didn't feel like having some guy who's an executive there telling me how to make my music.

Have you also retained control over the merchandising of your product?
We have control over the advertising. We can choose to let the record company people make up our advertisements, or we can make them up ourselves. Warner's give us a yearly budget with which to buy advertising space and carry out the grim task of making the public aware that we have cracked off another album.

How do you see your present role? Are you getting tired of making records?
I'm not tired of making records. I'm tired of the process that you have to go through to let people know that your record is finished and is now available for them to listen to.

What's the alternative?
There isn't much of an alternative unless you want to make a record and leave it on a shelf at your house.

When the group first started recording, you had major problems finding airtime. Do you still have that problem?
I'll give you an example. When the 200 Motels album was released recently, one station in Los Angeles played it all the way through, all four sides, every night for two weeks starting at midnight – with no beeps. Shortly thereafter every disc-jockey on that station was fired in a block and the station manager told them in parting 'I am going to take the Mothers of Invention off the air waves and replace them with the Fifth Dimension'. So yes and no, we still have problems with airplay.

Freak Out, the band's first album didn't receive any airplay. How did you sell that album?
It was sold by word of mouth. The advertising campaign on Freak Out cost 5,000 dollars while the album production cost 21,000 dollars. The advertising campaign consisted of – stage one, a puzzle which was made from the album cover. The record company sent it out to disc jockeys one piece per day for two weeks. Now if you're a disc-jockey and somebody's sending a little piece of a cut-up album sleeve to you, you're really going to get excited. Right? That was the first stage.

Stage two was the manufacture of bumper stickers that had the company logo almost as big as the typeface. Stage three were buttons, which also had the company logo so large as to make them undesirable for wearing. That album sold 30,000 copies by the end of the first year, so everyone thought that these guys aren't going to get another 21,000 dollar album budget. We cut our second album for about 11,000 dollars and, at that time, we moved to New York and started playing there.

We were seen in live performances and sales started picking up on both albums. At that point we were in a position to negotiate another advertising budget on the second album which eventually amounted to 25,000 dollars, more than twice what the album cost to make.

Were you able to put your own ideas into operation at this stage?
Yes of course. When we signed with MGM, aside from the fact that we didn't legally have the power to control their advertising, when we saw them doing something we considered wrong we were in a position to complain about it. When they gave us the 25,000 dollars to advertise the second album, Absolutely Free, we did the whole campaign ourselves. I think we were the first group to put large amounts of money into underground newspaper advertising, which got directly to the people who were interested in what we were doing.

When did you meet your business manager, Herb Cohen?
In 1965.

What were the events which led up to both of you forming the Bizarre label?
Well, due to a peculiar circumstance, somebody at MGM forgot to pick up the option on our contract, so we shopped around various other record companies for a deal on our own label. We went to Columbia and they offered us a certain amount of money which we did not feel was adequate, so we kept on looking and finally got a good offer from Warner Brothers which we accepted. We got a good deal all the way round from Warner's.

One of the most interesting aspects of our deal is that we own our masters. At the end of the contract with Warner Brothers we get our masters back and that's what I call a good deal. That's one of the most appealing things anybody could write into a contract. A person makes a record and what normally happens is that the record company owns the tapes – it's not your music anymore. I happen to like the idea of maintaining possession of the so-called works of art I'm involved in. Warner's have a five-year sell-off period on the items and then all the master tapes revert to us.

Why did you form the Straight label?
Well, Bizarre was basically the Mothers and other acts that I specifically wanted to produce. The deal with Warner's gave them first option on my productions. If they didn't like anything I produced we were free to put the thing out ourselves on any other label we choose. Instead of turning round and leasing out those other albums to another company we set up Straight.

We had our own independent distribution, and the problem any small company faces with independent distribution is that distributors don't pay. So at a point where we were having a lot of trouble collecting from the distributors, we renegotiated a deal with Warner's where they would take over Straight as well as Bizarre. Straight was however, originally designed as a completely independent operation outside of anybody else's distribution. We had separate deals for the label all over Europe which is one of the reasons why Straight would come out on one label here and Bizarre would come out on another.

What is your relationship like with Warner's today?
I would say certain artists are doing better with Warner's than others. The company has certain things it is better at selling than others.

Has the company ever questioned your right to release a certain album?
No, in fact they're taking an important risk with the release of a nine-record set in March. They're printing up three triple album sets and releasing them all at the same time – which is a pretty heavy investment for an underground combo.

How much will the sets retail for?
Seven dollars 98 for each triple pack.

How have you managed to get such a low retail price?
By taking a cut on the amount of royalties I receive.

Yot did thet on the first album, Freak Out?
I did take a cut on Freak Out, yes. I gave them a special rate on the publishing royalty in order to be able to release a double album. For these three record sets the royalty rate is also down. I thought I would pass the reduction onto the purchaser to make the things more easy to obtain.

How many artists are presently signed to Bizarre?
To Bizarre itself, it's just the Mothers and Wild Man Fischer, whose album is out but we have given him his contract back.

What happened there?
I hate to use the word but he's crazy. To produce more than one album for Wild Man Fischer you'd have to have an awful lot of leisure time, have a very strong clinical interest in that sort of behaviour or be a masochist – or a combination of all three – because it's very difficult to work with him.

Has Bizarre complete control over packaging and merchandising?
Yes, as much as possible. I like to have a say in the way our material is represented to the public but it's not always possible to control each and every advertisement. We're over here on tour now for seven weeks and during that time you never know if somebody's going to sneak out an advertisement – that has happened before. Some of those things have turned out to be embarrassing and we try and watch out that the advertisements are consistent with what the material really means.

What do you think of the overall quality of record company promotion?
Well a lot of artists don't want control over promotion. They like to think of themselves as strictly artists and they don't want to get involved in that business stuff because 'I'm too artistic to worry about that thing'. I think that attitude is foolish because there might be somebody in the company who has (a) no regard for music in general, (b) no special regard for your music and (c) an outmoded idea of the way in which to merchandise music. You can wind up looking like an idiot if you don't take a hand in it.

I think it's better to accept some of that responsibility otherwise you are at the mercy of a company's advertising department. I'm sure that each guy in the advertising has some kind of record he likes to listen to and so therefore some products he will be able to identify with and do a better job on. That is not normally the case as applied to the Mothers of Invention.

How many people are involved in Bizarre?
A book-keeper, a couple of secretaries, one other guy called Zack who assists with promotion – live concerts and so forth – and Cal Schenkel who works with me on advertisements. He actually executes the advertisements and I write the copy for them.

How do you envisage the future of the company?
Well, first of all the company has survived whereas a lot of independents who started at approximately the same time got snuffed out along the way. I'm sure the company will keep going.

Why did they snuff out and you survive?
I don't know, but we're still here.

You haven't signed a lot of acts – which is a mistake many independents make isn't it?
That sort of mistake is dangerous not just for the record company but for the act that you sign up. You have a certain amount of responsibility when you sign somebody up and you have to see what you can do for them.

What is your attitude towards bootlegging? Your music for 200 Motels has been released as a bootleg.
There is a bootleg of '200 Motels' but it's not the film score album, it's a performance we did live with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. We've made some attempts to stop that but it's very difficult because of the way the law's structured in the United States.

What moves have you made?
The album was advertised in the Los Angeles Free Press through a box number. We hired a detective to go and see what could be picked up on the box and to try and ascertain who had actually manufactured the record. We got some information on it, but then what can you do? The laws in the United States don't really do much to protect the artist in any regard. Americans don't seem to feel that an artist is of any value to the cultural development of the country. It's an industrial society, they're geared to a different kind of consciousness.

But what, however, is your personal attitude towards bootleggers?
I don't think they're doing anybody a favour except themselves. You don't think for instance, that unreleased tapes by people like Dylan and so forth have any value for the listener? I would say this – if those tapes were intended for release, then I'm sure that Dylan or whoever would have put them out. I wouldn't appreciate somebody taking something I didn't want released and putting it out. That's not doing a favour to anybody, except the bootlegger who's going to trade in on the name of the artist.

There's still proof of a demand for bootleg records however. Isn't there a case for artists destroying the bootleg trade by putting out previously unreleased material?
Well, what do you call the nine-record set. There's plenty of stuff in there that has never been released. I mean – it's all unreleased.

Is it material you previously meant not to release?
No, it's stuff I've always meant to release but it took a while to convince somebody that you could get it on the market without losing a quarter of a million dollars on it. That's how much it's going to take to press and advertise it.

What are your primary problems today?
Simply the problem of getting the music to the largest possible market.

This is presumably, a problem of promotion and distribution?
Right.

How has the economic situation affected concert appearances?
Concert appearances have also suffered because of the slump. A lot of groups who were working in large halls to huge capacities suddenly found themselves playing to smaller halls with lesser capacities and also for less money. The groups which were working in the medium size halls are now working in tiny halls and the groups which were working the tiny halls are working in the clubs again. The groups which were working in the clubs ain't working at all. That's what you call a depression.

Does it pay to take a band like the Mothers of Invention on tour or is it a promotional thing?
It pays in the United States – it does not pay in Europe. The economics of it are pretty staggering because what we earn in Europe will be less than half for an equal dimensions tour in the United States. Certain things remain constant in terms of expense, so it's not really a profitable thing at all to come to Europe to do concerts with a group the size of the Mothers. Your ticket prices are about half what they are in the States, the size of your halls is very small compared to where we work in the United States and so the grosses can't be as large while the other expenses remain constant.

Why do you bring the band to Europe if it's not profitable?
I happen to like playing and I might as well do it here as any place else. We've been to Europe every year since 1967, once or twice anyway, and we have very good audiences – I would say the group is at least twice as popular over here so why shouldn't we come and play?