When Larry LeBlanc of Billboard sent us a letter written by Canadian music megaproducer Bob Ezrin, we were intrigued. With the possible exception of new superpower Steve Jobs, the music industry has been circling the drain in recent years, temporarily jamming the flow with the barely-explored careers of too many worthy artists. Bob Ezrin has been there and seen it all, and he’s got something to say about it.
Behind the console since the 1970s, Ezrin is a first-hand witness to the wild days of sex-drugs-rock-n’-roll through to the era of digital downloading. A graduate of Toronto’s Oakwood Collegiate, Bob Ezrin first achieved fame producing classic albums from Kiss, Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel, and Pink Floyd (Ezrin is best-known for Pink Floyd’s magnum opus The Wall). He has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (2004), is a member of the CARAS Music Education program, and co-founded Music Rising—an initiative that is replacing musical instruments lost in Hurricane Katrina.
Ezrin also produced the 2004 Jay-Z documentary Fade To Black and these days, he’s helmed albums by 30 Seconds to Mars, The Darkness, Deftones, and Nine Inch Nails.
It is here where we catch up with Ezrin, who has penned a letter damning the lack of art and lust for commerce in today’s corporate music industry. The letter praises NIN’s Trent Reznor as the master of his own acclaim; a success nurtured seemingly in spite of the record labels. Ezrin remembers a time when the music business was built by “passionate amateurs who revered the artists, and who became their protectors, advocates and promoters.
“But now,” spits Ezrin, “the biggest part of the business is run by cold-hearted professionals whose reverence is for the bottom line, first and last.” (We can almost feel the planet’s orbit shift with simultaneous nodding by artists everywhere.)
Read on for more analysis and the full text of Bob Ezrin’s letter.
Like other “affiliate” labels, the Canadian mainstream music companies have also been plagued by a series of mergers and staff cutbacks over the last few years. Sony BMG’s February restructuring saw the ouster of president Lisa Zbitnew and a stable of key staff, and the company had already experienced the elimination of most of the Sony staff post-merger despite calling it an “equal represention” union. The Toronto-based affiliate also pruned-off domestic artists like Shawn Desman, Liam Titcomb and Jeremy Fisher (Fisher is now enjoying unexpected success thanks to being featured on YouTube’s front page, and Titcomb—son of musician Brent Titcomb—just finished recording a new album independently).
Just days earlier, EMI Music Canada also cut staff and liquidated half its roster in what some claim was anticipatory of a merger with the Warner Music Group (Warner has already made four failed bids for EMI). EMI is home to acts like Nickelback, Broken Social Scene, k-os and Feist.
Probably one of the most brilliant books on how it feels to be swept-up in the contemporary music business is Jen Trynin’s Everything I’ve Cracked Up To Be. Trynin describes being caught in a label bidding war, trying to avoid the Lilith Fair circuit, being juggled as a commodity, and being ruthlessly slashed from her label as quickly as she was courted, leaving her disenchanted and confused.
This is what the industry has become, and Ezrin doesn’t feel it can sustain itself as such. He calls for true artists to develop a determined, single-minded approach that doesn’t conform “at the expense of intuition.” He has lived through—and created much of—the Golden Age of rock music, yet remains cautiously optimistic that we can summon a new Golden Age of music, where artists are in control of their voices and value is placed on creativity.
Until then, we are reminded of the lyrics of “My Record Company,” by K’s Choice:
They like your band / They shake your hand
They smell like food that has gone bad
Today it’s you / Today will pass
I’m so sick of all this trash
The full text of Bob Ezrin’s letter follows:
Trent Reznor is a true visionary. He has broken and reinvented the rules of
engagement on every level, from recording to touring to interacting with his
He’s an intensely determined person—aware and on top of everything that happens in his name, from his music to his marketing. Trent controls all things Trent. Yes, he’s had help along the way, but he’s the captain of the Trent ship and his career is a product of his imagination and drive. He is not manufactured, homogenized, manipulated or packaged. He is Trent—and the rest of the folks get to react.
There’s a clue in here to how to run one’s life as an aspiring artist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in situations where aspiring artists (as you know, I hate the designation but will grant it to a few sublimely talented folks like Trent) have created something and have had a vision that has not resonated with their “handlers” from management to producers, to the record company to even sometimes their lawyer—and have succumbed to the pressure to conform to the taste and judgment of these people at the expense of their own intuition—and have failed either immedately or ultimately because, in the end, they simply weren’t distinguished enough to connect to a large group of people in a lasting way. They may have produced a “hit song” but they typically did not create a career.
If Trent had done what everyone wanted him to, he would not have become a better selling act or bigger star as some of his advisors may have secretly thought. Instead, he would have disappeared long ago.
No one knows the heart or genius of true artists but the artists themselves. No one can predict them or imitate them or even steer them towards success. They are, by definition, single-minded people who cannot—and must not—see things the way the rest of us do. Once upon a time, we had a business built by passionate amateurs who revered the artists and who became their protectors, advocates and promoters. These folks didn’t presume to tell their artists what to do. Oh, every once in a while, they might beg and plead for more or different to help them to do their job, but they never imposed their creative will on the people they most admired in all the world.
And so we had a landscape of determined individualists who made very individual music—lots of it. We all know who they were—and some still are. But now the biggest part of the business is run by cold-hearted professionals whose reverence is for the bottom line first and last—and who think nothing of imposing their ideas and will on the people they sign. And most of those signings are not because they are enthralled by genius or art but because they smell “a hit” or know that someone else does and that they’d better get in there first.
Now, when I say stuff like this, all the record company people get pissed off at me and say I’m an asshole and that they are there because of their love for music, etc. And I don’t doubt that this is what propelled them at the start (though I suspect the notion of getting rich and hanging with rockstars may have had a bit to do with it too), but how many of the new leaders of our industry are able to resist the pressures of making their numbers in favor of supporting their artists? In fact, isn’t their primary job to “increase shareholder value”? So, they really can’t resist those pressures honestly and still be doing what they’re being paid to do. The problem with this is that it takes more than a [business financial] quarter to build something of value and real art cannot be scheduled or projected—only commodities can. But if we’re just a commodities business, then by definition we cannot build anything of real value—for the shareholders or the world.
So, what’s the biggest lesson here? It is that, if we can all agree to do as Ahmet [Ertegün, co-founder of Atlantic Records] recommended and surround ourselves with brilliant people and help those people to develop their craft, their own voice, and become artists making things of real value, we might see our way into the next golden age of popular music.
Thank God for Trent—and for all the others like him who will not compromise and will fight to realize their vision. In the end, they might save us all.
Bob Ezrin photo: CP