“Remember the 60s?” says Frank Zappa in the interview above, “that era that a lot of people have these glorious memories of?… they really weren’t that great, those years.” Ever the grumpy uncle. But Zappa does get nostalgic for one thing, and it’s an unexpected one: the music business. “One thing that did happen in the 60s,” he says, “was some music of an unusual and experimental nature did get recorded, did get released.” The executives of the day were “cigar-chomping old guys who looked at the product and said, ‘I don’t know. Who knows what it is? Record it, stick it out. If it sells, alright!’”
“We were better off with those guys,” says Zappa, “than we are with the hip, young executives,” making decisions about what people should hear. The hippies are more conservative than the conservative “old guys” ever were. This Zappa of 1987 recommends getting back to the “who knows?” approach, “that entrepreneurial spirit” of the grand old industry barons of the 60s. One can almost imagine Zappa—in the 60s—pining for the days of Edison, who refused to give up on the wax cylinder but would also record virtually anything. If both the time of Edison and the time of Zappa were bonanzas for makers of novelty records, so much the better. Zappa was novel.
Still it seems like a funny sentiment coming from a guy who built most of his career in opposition to the record industry. But it was in the period of alleged decay that Zappa broke with Warner Bros. and founded his own label in 1977, making a deal with Phonogram to distribute his releases in the U.S. When Phonogram refused to release his 1981 single “I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted,” Zappa created another label, Barking Pumpkin Records, making sure he got to make and sell the music he wanted to.
In many ways people like Zappa—or later Kate Bush or Prince—anticipated our current music industry, in which we have artists starting labels left and right, controlling their own production and output. But those artists are mostly a tiny handful of hugely successful stars with mogul-sized ambitions. Does this help or harm the music economy as a whole? Independent musicians very rarely get the smallest window on how things work at the level of Beyonce, Jay-Z, or Taylor Swift (who “is the industry,” Bloomberg once breathlessly proclaimed). But as Zappa notes, “the person in the executive chair may not be the final arbiter of taste for the entire population.” Even if those executives are themselves artists, we may greatly benefit from a wider range of “unusual and experimental” sounds in popular culture. Zappa suggests the way to do that is to get the “cigar-chomping old guys” (and they were all guys) back in charge.
The rest of Zappa’s interview concerns the bogeyman of 80s and 90s music, the PMRC, and his very strong feelings about censorship, social control, and sex. It’s classic Zappa and won’t raise any eyebrows now, but it is interesting to hear his take on the decline of the music business since the 60s. We use different criteria to measure the apex of the industry—often depending on whether the labels or the artists made more money. Whichever period we lionize, for whatever reason, within a hundred-year window a tiny handful of musicians and record executives made enormous, dynasty-making fortunes. It just so happens that these days it’s an even tinier handful of musicians and executives at the top, making even huger fortunes. And there’s a lot more synergy between them.