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By Johnny Angel

Kill the Accountants:
Big record company bean-counters once again miss the boat and the human dimension

I REALIZE THAT I'VE BEEN over-lip servicing the seemingly bottomless barrel of loathing I've got for the major labels and their machinations, but do forgive me one mo' shot, cuz it really hurts this time around. I promise to be funny and effervescent again in the future--cross my word processor and hope to die.

Long considered the best and brightest of the major labels, it seems that even the once-artist-friendly Warner Brothers/Reprise has succumbed to bean-counting fever. Recently, one of the label's cooler dudes (who shall remain nameless, as he wants his kids to eat) figured that it was time that the label produce a tribute record to the legendary, reclusive songwriter Skip Spence, remaking the singer's only solo disc, Oar, with performances by such Reprise acts as Flaming Lips, Neil Young and others providing their takes on Spence's wild vision. Seemed like a great idea to me, too, having been a Spence fan for as long as I can recall, and with Spence having regained his publishing rights recently, a good thing for a man who's been utterly raped by the record business. (Spence is a ward of Santa Clara County and was, up until a few years ago, an indigent transient.) The entire disc might have cost the label around $60,000 to make.

And it probably would have broken more than even, not to mention brought the company a lot of favorable press. But according to our man in Burbank, one of Reprise's A&R chiefs nixed the whole project because "there was no possibility of this becoming a big seller." Said A&R person figured that a record full of hippie-like ruminations had no way of cracking the charts, no matter what "names" contributed to it.

Well, as a recipient of Warner/Reprise product every month, I can tell you that at least 90 percent of what the corporation manufactures is gonna lose money--marginal pop, light R&B, weak-assed "alternative," faceless, nameless acts who will be in the ether by next spring. But the "possibility" of Alanis-type numbers is all that counts. Maybe--just maybe--one of these leering ninnies that grace the covers of said discs is gonna be the next big MTV flava, and won't that be oh-happy-day in L.A.?

Another Warner exec told me that she saw the future of smaller, more eclectic acts, and it won't be there at her label. "Everything has to appear to have the chance of becoming a blockbuster," she says. "As soon as it becomes clear to the company that they've fucked up, we drop the ball on that act, and stop allocating the resources it takes to really make a career." The same exec (also nameless, same reason) told me that "better that bands who play semi-popular stuff make and distribute their own stuff via IUMA and other Internet outlets--that way they'll get to keep whatever profits they make and they also don't have to deal with MTV!"

Warner used to be regarded as the most artist-positive label of them all, with label head Mo Ostin personally supporting acts even through hard times. Ostin believed in a concept long forgotten in today's record world, that an artist was to be developed and nurtured for the long run. That's a wise course given that the record company's back catalog accounts for 70 percent of its profits, and a good, deep source of long-popular discs will ensure a steady cash flow, as opposed to the flash-in-the-pan philosophy that now dominates. Welcome to the modern world, man.

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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