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“Thank God For Trent Reznor”

hangman_cd.jpgWhen 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
fans.
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.
ezrin_cp.jpgThere’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

Bob Ezrin photo: CP

Comments

  • Brian

    I couldn’t agree more. The new wave is already in motion. Talented people across Canada are looking for new avenues and necessity has created a new music environment. Instead of listening to all these people lamenting about the downfall, it’s time to look at what artist’s are doing to create a whole new way of getting their music out there. Bob using Trent is a great example. Control has switched over to the artist and there are plenty of options to choose from to get the word out to the people. It will take some time for these artist to break through, since it’s still the cooperations that still control the mass market. But it’s inevitable that they will also be affected by the shrinking “labels” and come around to this new landscape of music. They don’t call it rock n roll for any ol’ reason. Music shall always move on.

  • John Duncan

    I definitely agree with what Bob’s saying about the big labels today, although I do suspect he’s looking at the past through rose-coloured glasses.
    Even before the consolidation and corporatization of the last few decades, the music industry had more than its share of snakes. Obscene contracts that transformed artists into indentured servants in perpetuity were commonplace through the 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s.
    Singers and groups who didn’t write a word, some of whom couldn’t even play an instrument, have been with us as long as record labels. Despite Bob’s wishful thinking about “passionate amateurs who revered artists”, Colonel Tom Parker certainly presumed to tell Elvis what to do.
    Attempts at manufacturing hits, attitudes and fashions are nothing new either.
    The only difference is that three or four media conglomerate behemoths didn’t hold the majority of sales. There were the same slimeballs in the labels beforehand, it’s just that before the consolidation the big record companies had more A&R men to nurture talent and were less risk-averse.
    Honestly, his letter’s sort of insulting to the hundreds of indie labels out there today. They’re a lot fairer to the artists than most of his mythical labels ever were, and pretty damn effective at getting great music made and heard.
    And anyways, Steve Albini said it all better way back in ’93. ;)

  • larry

    Brilliant. Let’s give Bob the same credit of staying true to his vision.
    I think megalabels and RIAA grew out of:
    1) distribution control – stores could only stock so few albums, and limited shelf space created the need for big hits to turn over inventory. Unlimited internet distribution means unlimited access to infinite varieties of music. Don’t forget RIAA (Song, BMG, EMI) got caught price fixing CD prices.
    2) promotion control – using radio and mix DJs to get certain songs/artist mass exposure. We all know garage bands can’t get famous in their garage. Also remember the RIAA (Sony, BMGG, EMI) got caught giving payola for preferential play listing.
    So while an artist can “stay true” and reach out to achieve their level of success according to popular tastes, visibility matters most. I think the future hit artist will need to be more promoter than musician just to stay visible.
    In some garage there is another Britney, Madonna, and Bono.

  • Carly Beath

    My favourite recent related anecdote was about how the RIAA started going after people for posting “leaked” NIN songs ahead of the album’s release, when it was Trent himself who had done it, by placing USB drives with the songs in concert venue bathrooms (ok, so maybe not himself, exactly. He probably got someone else to do it, but it was his idea). As one person was quoted as saying, “They were going after people for something the label fucking signed off on!” That whole crazy viral campaign about Year Zero was brilliant.

  • zappepcs

    You have ‘nailed’ it so to speak. Trent actually gets ‘it’. His understanding of the new communications medium that is the Internet far surpasses both the video and audio entertainment industries understanding of it… by a very big margin. Trent knows how to create buzz, value, and interest. These are the things that the RIAA is supposed to do for artists, but sadly, they have no clue how to do that anymore. They are a waste of time and money. Go Trent

  • rek

    Is it too early to say the Internet killed the video star-makers?

  • kev.

    Trent Reznor is the Glenn Gould of my generation.

  • Schmange

    Well said…nice to know there’s still people in the music business who feel that way.

  • frank

    …great article! also, i couldn’t agree more with the following quote: “Thank God for Trent Reznor!!!”…..

  • Cam Jones

    Dam Right! Thank God For Trent Reznor!!! who else has ever done anything even close to this?? ever? this is the best idea to ever happen, its soo amazing how hes been able to get the fans involved in all of too, with the websites n puzzels! n the secrete shows!!! he has risen farrrr above any other musican has right now, and u can be sure that other band lables will try n push there bands into copying what hes done, this has never been done before, an i am loving it, i follow the websites everychance i get if feels good to get involved with it all anbd jus makes the whole experience of buyin the new album jus that much better!! so yes THANK GOD FOR TRENT REZNOR!!!, at least someone still has an original idea of how to entertain the people!

  • Trent

    Hi my name is Trent Reznor and I know Bob Ezrin. That twenty grand i put in your pocket for this article really helped that loan repayment huh? Any time man…

  • Stephen

    Close enough, but thank Trent for Trent.

  • Anon

    I doubt Bob Ezrin needs money, it is apparent from his words and his actions. Producers such as Ezrin are catalysts for new artists. They do not stifle creativity like the major labels are doing right this very minute in every major city.
    Not long ago, Producers WERE the record companies. They were also musicians. They were also A&R. Most of them were also fantastic engineers. Anyone who even THINKs about getting into the music business, needs to study the true producers who remain in this world. They are a dying breed (for lack of a better word), which when they pass, is going to usher in an even more “bottom line-laden” musical community. A world without art is a world without a soul. Stop buying music from the labels who are suing its listeners. Stop listening to radio that is not independently-ran. Go outside and listen to your local artists who are playing little clubs and coffee houses a block away. And then, find their virb or myspace page and buy a CD directly from them. Eventually, the major labels won’t have enough money left to stifle creativity. The reason they have so much money right now is because of people like Bob Ezrin. If you want to read about what being a Producer really is, I implore you to read “Behind the Glass” by Howard Massey.
    Ezrin definitely hit the nail on the head. Because this is also happening in other areas of entertainment. I work in the video games industry at a rather large company. Deterioration of artistic intent is beginning to become a reality in my industry, as the bottom line is more important than the people who create and produce the art. To the disgust of all but the executives, it has become more important to create energy in the form of currency than it is to express energy in the form of ideas and emotion. This is the nature of modern-day business. Swallow or be swallowed. This needs to be stopped or one will be swallowed and I’ll be damned if its music.

  • k

    I think this was an important letter to publish. It is a clear message of dissent from someone who has been involved in some of the greatest pieces of music in history, so I think that makes him well qualified to make bold statements in regard to great and mediocre art.
    You can’t expect an industry rooted in creative innovation to flourish when it is surrounded, perpetuated, and led by medocrity. We all need to take notice of that; executives, artists, and consumers alike.
    There was a previous comment about how this is unfair to indie labels. Let’s not kid ourselves. The indie labels of today don’t exactly have the spine of a label like SST decades before; that would sacrifice their health and financial well-being for the artists they signed. Matter of fact, most of your independent labels today follow suit quite well with the majors. They are just as good at looking at what is bubbling up and gaining popularity as the big boys, it’s just when they do it they get a microsecond of street cred before the band gets a horribly polished photo on AP and you begin to see that line between indie fanbase and TRL hilarity bleed together homogenously.
    In closing, NOBODY has YOUR best interests at heart. So, as long as there is a healthy constituency of people who have an open and independent mind, and aren’t afraid to play around with, or ruin, well established notions of what art is, I remain very optimistic.

  • Jesse

    Haha, that’s my uncle Bob. My Mom’s brother.

  • http://undefined Elaine

    Yes there have always been cold heartless snakes working for record companies. These people are out to make money plane and simple. The demand for profit growth every year and the greed that controls them is making the industry into what it is today… Obsolete. Artists have the technology at there fingertips to get themselves introduced to the world, now its only about how to stay on top. Marketing and strategy are key, weather it be doing something light hearted and catchy or taking a risk and being thoughtful and smart about your craft and making sure what you put out is the best reflection of yourself, there is a market for it. There are millions of people Connected on this planet through file sharing, streaming and social networking sites. Word travels fast, So if you have something worth listening to and you push it the right way you can stand on your own two feet without these big labels. It Takes Time, Patience, Creativity, initiative, then comes the merchandise and ticket sales… its smart… after all isn’t seeing a bad live one of the best experiences you can have, and holding the 12″ LP with all the art work that comes with it, what every true fan enjoys? Even though we are becoming more of an online society nothing beats “live and in the flesh” Tangible. People will pay for it, if they believe its worth it. I for one would rather pay it directly to the Artist then to a bunch of greedy suits who care nothing for the art and take most of the profits for themselves.