Frank Zappa Explains the Decline of the Music Business (1987)

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Bizarre Time When Frank Zappa’s Entire­ly Instru­men­tal Album Received an “Explic­it Lyrics” Stick­er

Hear the Musi­cal Evo­lu­tion of Frank Zap­pa in 401 Songs

Bri­an Eno Explains the Loss of Human­i­ty in Mod­ern Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • William says:

    “Zap­pa was nov­el” Indeed, but cer­tain­ly not a “nov­el­ty”, although he was sad­ly rel­e­gat­ed to that niche in which acts like Weird Al thrive.

    Zap­pa was much more than mere­ly the “grumpy uncle”. He was cyn­i­cal for a very good rea­son. He saw the future, and knew the future would suck. A prime exam­ple is in the post dat­ed just after this one, the Mar­vel Universe/“temp music” fias­co.

    Music now, like every­thing else in the enter­tain­ment indus­try, is designed sole­ly to keep the mass­es dumb and docile.

    A dystopi­an future is upon us-pass me the Soma!

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