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Vanessa Daou: Future States of Music


Bio: Gifted with a unique combination of poetic lyricism and a sensuous voice, singer and songwriter Vanessa Daou has defined the sound of New York's progressive jazz infused electronica and downtempo music since the early 1990's. Today Vanessa is releasing her 7th solo recording, is Music Editor at aRUDE magazine, and writes about music and the arts on her website.

Q: Vanessa, you came from a period of success in music of the 1990's. How would you describe the fallout from 2000 on, and how could we have ended up in a healthier state today?

V: I think in many ways, the Music Business has lost sight of its core values. Discovering great talent used to be about the development of a noble idea: to leave a legacy of great and meaningful music, to put something out into the world that would truly resonate. Although there has always been greed as a motivation, the impetus was always to make lasting, timeless music. Where there used to be a cluster of truly visionary A&R executives who drove things creatively, the top tier music executives of today are governed by a kind of ‘herd instinct’, a ROI mentality whereby they move en masse with one purpose, toward the money.

Signing an act used to be a highly intuitive and selective process, necessitating not only skill, but those intangibles like vision and instinct. There was a nobility and elegance to the process, embracing a kind of ‘Queen Bee’ economics, where the artist was at the top of the hierarchy, treated with the ultimate respect. This approach "paid off" in the end, but it took time, patience and commitment.

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The idea of elegance and order has been rejected, replaced by more of a negative artistry aesthetic, it has become a parasitic rather than hierarchic relationship. Whereas the Artist used to be at the top of that hierarchy, the executive is now at the top and the artist is at the bottom, a disposable asset. Continuing the Queen Bee metaphor: from the outside, instead of the orderly and aesthetically driven enterprise of the Bee hive, we see an unsightly Hornets' nest, representing a rapacious industry that lacks any higher sense of order or duty.

And as egos grew along with profits, the idea of the 'A&R Guy' (as they were mostly referred to) became anathema. The whole idea of an artist's 'Repetoire' is as good as obsolete. My record deals with both Columbia & MCA involved 7 album commitments, and I was only able to squeeze out if them because of the foresight of my brilliant and forward-thinking lawyer, Richard Grabel, who included clauses that allowed me to exercise certain 'out' options. Bob Krasnow, who signed me to MCA, was one of those legendary 'A&R guys' whose primary motivation was to put great music and art into the world. When he left the label – which had more to do with internal politics than with anything else – I opted out of my contract by virtue of a “key man clause”.

This would be the best possible approach for artists today: as it puts the artist first. With this ‘artist comes first’ type contract, both parties have to work hard to make the arrangement work, but in the end the artist is free to move on if they are being stifled creatively or not promoted properly. The way it works now, labels will sign an artist mostly to 1 album deals, dropping them if they don't prove profitable from the start. That artist then carries all the negative baggage associated with being ‘dropped’, and unable to get another deal.

Q: Many of the older veteran musicians we have interviewed spoke of the simplicity and lower costs in making and releasing an album. Is this a case of the studios pricing themselves out of what the market could bear, as many have gone under?

V: Continuing the "Queen Bee" comparison, the demise of the Music Business is a bit like Colony Collapse Disorder. There are so many intangible, invisible and negative variables that have gone into play, it's difficult, if not impossible, to single out one cause or culprit. The pricing out of studios occurred during this unraveling.

Advances in technology made it easier for the artist to take control in the studio and not only create the music, but to engineer it as well. This led to a generation of musicians and DJs who learned enough of the technology to be able to fulfill these tasks (although that's not to say that in doing so they achieved the same level of artistry and finesse as highly trained audio engineers) At the same time, the drying up of funds at the record labels compounded by the high cost of recording made it impossible for artists to continue to outsource, especially at the top tier studios. This process created a negative feedback loop.

Q: As the industry lost money, so too did it lose dedicated music buyers who felt ‘sold out’ by a bottom line approach to producing the art of music. What do you feel were the affects of loosing such record buyers, and how can we get back to a place where the relationship between artist and public is health again?

V: The bottom line approach led to a diminishing of quality as well as a devaluing of the object; the LP being replaced by the cassette, the cassette replaced by the CD, the CD losing out to the mp3, and the free download - as we've seen - winning out in the end.

It's a cascade effect that occurs when systems are not treated properly: they become depleted, dysfunctional and eventually diseased. Those dedicated music buyers were replaced by a new generation of music downloaders who never experienced that reverence for the object and the art. This devaluing of the object translated into a cheapening of the process and the loss of a financial framework for the artist: It comes down to not only a loss of money for the artist, but also, I think, a loss of respect for the process.

What’s happening in the Music Industry is a lot like what’s happening on Wall Street in relation to Main Street: the mergers and buyouts have created huge organizations which is so far removed from its core that it has lost sight of its fundamental purpose. So, the soundbite – the ‘meme’, if you will – is that the Music Business has lost millions and millions of $$ due to illegal piracy since songs went digital. And like all memes, this one has been stuck on ‘repeat’ since the popularity of the internet seemed to rise in direct relation to plummeting profits for the industry. But perhaps that inverse relationship was presupposed, and the fall in profits had as much to do with a dearth of creative output?

The digital sales/piracy debate has been a smokescreen for the real burning issue which is the absence of any support network for artists, and consequently, a lack of great artists. There are many intangible factors that came into play that led to the demise of the Music Business, and now, with the shuttering of sites like Pirate Bay, the “good news” from the Industry is that digital album sales are up for the first time since 2004. And while it’s necessary in every industry to monitor and measure the numbers, who’s measuring the intangibles like creativity, poetry, longevity, cultural resonance, artist development and the like?

Q: We know historically that musicians/artists were the last to be compensated for the sale of their work. With today’s industry reshaped and changing daily, how could we create a more balanced industry that fairly distributes the wealth made from music?

V: While the Music Industry has come a long way - where entities like ASCAP, BMI and SoundExchange, for example, monitor digital song play & compensate writers - there's still a long way to go. I think that Recording Artists and Musicians would benefit by forming a unified front, the way the Freelancers Union has done for health insurance. They need to realize that they are the ones with the power; there would be no 'Industry' without them.

Looking back to when this downward spiral of the Music Industry occurred, the focus on the bottom line triggered a series of negative results: Focus on the bottom line resulted in ---> a need for profit driven Music Executives who replaced the previous model of the visionary A&R Executive ---> spawning a generation of artists whose music was produced to entertain the masses ---> engendering a listening public reared on music manufactured for mass appeal ---> creating an expectation on the part of the listener that music needs to be entertaining.

Today, we have a generation of Music Executives who only sign artists who are most able to “entertain” them the most. With this mentality, an artist like Leonard Cohen wouldn't have a chance, yet he's an example of an artist who, over the course of decades, is renowned for his art and unreservedly revered by the current as well as past generation of musicians.

Q: Many today look back at the 1990’s as a great time for music of all styles. But more than the healthy business, there was a great sense of connection and involvement from music listeners with the artist. This relationship appears to have suffered from the fallout of the 2000’s. What are your thoughts here and what could help improve the picture?

V: Fragmentation in all systems - whether creative or political - leads to its demise and eventual dismantling. Eventually, it becomes a defunct entity/organization. Corporate buyouts & mergers, as we've seen during the 90s and 00s, have led to gigantic companies who by necessity focus on the bottom line. This led to an awareness in the public that by buying music, they were no longer supporting the artist, but supporting a system that represented greed and power. When it became known that a mere 25 cents of the buyer’s $15.99 purchase of a CD went into that artist’s pocket (that is, after the record label has fully recouped their expenses), the buyer felt cheated, duped. I think that’s when this downward spiral started, it’s then that the idea of downloading felt less like a criminal act and more like a rebellious one.

Another huge factor was MTV’s change in programming philosophy and the shuttering of ‘The Box’ video outlet. These provided avenues for discovery. There's no room or place anymore for these types of channels, since listeners have shifted their attention to YouTube. But I think there would have been a way for these channels to morph into something innovative, like creating a huge on-demand database for music videos and or curated online forums for videos by cutting-edge and unsigned acts.

Q: Vanessa, you were present to see the beginning of digital distribution and were keen to retain your rights therein. Where would the industry be today if it had created a super store for all digital content in their catalogs?

V: I think the industry would be just where it is today, grappling for answers and groping in the dark. It’s been a bottom line, thinking ‘inside the box’ mentality that has thwarted progress and creative momentum. There’ve been no great innovations in the Music Industry since the mp3.

When an artist, business, or on a greater scale, a country, becomes complacent or lazy, there’s a lack of movement. Movement is essential for development and growth. The Music Business has relied on the mp3 for growth, and because of the claim of damages by illegal downloaders, the industry has zeroed in on other ways to monetize the artist. This has led to further exploitation where now we see record labels making claims to all aspects of the artist’s money making radius, what’s known as the “360 deal”, from performances to merchandising. It’s now a “Lost Leader” generation of record labels, where, instead of setting a ‘value’, we see record labels offering singles at cost or for free, hoping to lure the listener in the hopes that he/she will purchase tickets and items in the future. This, again, goes to the perceived (and real) devaluation of music.

I think that if the Music Industry had created that 'Super Store' early on, we'd see the same responses in the open market: people creating their own opportunities to release music to make up for the lack of opportunities on the distribution end. There’ve been many responses to the Music Industry's hegemony such as MySpace, initially, then Pandora, iTunes, Lastfm, etc. This is the response of freedom, reflecting people's need to feel that sense of access and availability of the music they desire and require.

Q: There has been much talk about the affects of downloading music and the act of piracy. You have raised, as Bono’s manager did, the notion that other players are benefiting from piracy and that the ills of the music business may not be what the press covers. Could you explain your thoughts here?











V: It's a little bit like the game of Peek-a-Boo; the child sees the serious face disappear behind the hands, and then, is surprised when the same face reappears, smiling. The myopic focus by the Music Industry on illegal downloads has led to a distorted image and has perpetuated a fallacious argument about technology. There’s a false reality that is being presented as real, and, consequently, a false reality that is being assessed as real. Yes, the music business has experienced a significant drop in people buying the music they are selling, but it's just as possible that this decline in dollars reflects a dearth of great music.

Let's rewind the past, back into the 70s and 80s, for instance, where we had a generation of young listeners taping their music of the radio, and dubbing copies for their friends. Perhaps if there had been market research companies tallying the numbers back then, they would see the same disproportionately large number of listeners listening to their cassettes rather than buying the albums. I know I was ‘guilty’ of this when I was growing up.

How long does it take for most people to discover a great artist? That never used to happen overnight, it used to take 2, 3, sometimes 4 albums for that 'great' artist to be 'discovered' by listeners, and then, that listener, hooked on that artist, would go out to the local record store to buy every album that artist had released, only to discover a string of other great albums by that artist. How many times have you done that? And your friends, and their friends? It's how I've done things since I discovered Leonard Cohen, then Joni Mitchell, Blondie, The Ramones… It’s how most adult listeners procure their music, still, to this day.

But now, an artist can be spun into a legend literally overnight. Then, after one - or if they're lucky - two albums, the inevitable burnout occurs where expectations exceed results, and the artist s dropped by the record label, This has led to a fundamentally sick system, a landscape of confused and creatively spent, bedraggled artists and musicians, who, with more time and patience, might have become those great artists we now lack. Few are able to withstand this and move on, stronger.

I think this phenomenon, of overnight, American-Idol-type stardom, has led to a kind of malaise from discerning music lovers. They’re a bit tired of investing emotional energy and their dollars on acts that only release one album. They’ve been let down by the industry that used to feed them a steady diet of true artistry. Now, because of this radically changed philosophical approach by the creatively emaciated Music Business - where the bottom line trumps creative vision - listeners have been turned off. It’s an intuitive, not malicious, response.

Q: Historically, the transition happening in the music industry is unprecedented. Never before has an industry lost so much and had to reinvent itself. Where are the positives and real opportunities to create a better system for this century than what existed before?

V: The mergers and buyouts of the past decade have led to a Music Industry hegemony. This has created a lackluster musical landscape; since most big corporations are by their nature not risk takers, the music that gets manufactured and pushed through onto the public is usually whatever is deemed most marketable, a safe investment. But whoever would have thought Bjork was a safe bet, or Tracy Chapman, or R.E.M.?

The opportunities for artists now are many, and they lie in the ability of musicians to explore new terrain without the creative or distribution shackles that have traditionally been impediments. In terms of a better system, like all systems that undergo upheavel, what we're seeing is a new paradigm, one that hasn't been fully realized to be sure.

Q: The turbulence of the 1960’s still had a thriving music business and active audience. With two domestic wars, a struggling global economy, and an attention stretched public today, what kind of quality art can we expect in such difficult circumstances?

V: Because of the creative and distribution freedoms we're seeing, there's been an explosion of immense and extreme talent. What occurred in the Art Business beginning in the 90s - where students are entering colleges with the specific aim of being artists - we are now seeing at the University level. Students at MIT, for example, can study Turntablism as well as Antarctica with DJ Spooky or Upright Bass with Esperanza Spalding at Berklee. These are positive dramatic shifts occurring at the level of learning, and when we see that, we begin to see a sequential culture that views things differently, more acutely and respectfully. I think we'll see an elevation of creative spirit in the next generation of musicians and executives. For now, it's a bit of a rag tag, scrappy, tattered Industry that must piece itself back together again. I think this next generation, like all re-booted systems, is one we’ll have to patiently hope and wait for.

Q: Your writing on the subject of changes in the field of music is both realistic, searching, and expressive. As a respected artist for your work, how do you feel about the state of music and changes coming as we move further into this and the next decade?

V: I feel hopeful that logic, order, and most of all fairness will win out in the future. Artists need to be treated with more reverence, so that we don't see the kinds of tragedies we've seen with Curt Cobain and Amy Winehouse play out right before our eyes. We live in a pimping, tabloid culture, and I think that musicians should look to other role models for guidance. I think this is happening, and I think that treating Contemporary Music as all other arts at the University level will go a long way toward elevating the field of Pop music overall.

Q: What are your thoughts on the state of music today where everyone can produce a recording vs the last decade of the 1900’s? [As as subtext, the director of the NEA when asked if there was too much art being produced replied, “Maybe there is”.]

V: I don't see anything fundamentally wrong with this. But I do think, as I said above, that there needs to be a level of learning before a musician, singer or songwriter can call themselves professional. As with any field, it's critically important to learn all the tools at your disposal as thoroughly as possible. It's not just about getting people to know who you are, or about being idolized, it's about getting to know yourself so that your art and creative spirit can sustain you throughout your lifetime.

Q: In music circles, we often speak of the ill affects of Clear Channel on radio, or Live Nation on tour monopolization. Could it also be said that artists/musicians also contributed to the state of music by feeding into a superficial kind of music the industry was promoting?

V: It's a bit like the chicken and the egg, it's hard to say which came first. I do think that many musicians with deep and inherent talent have fallen victim to a need to be idolized and worshipped; to be a 'Star' has become the goal of many before being a great Artist. There's a lot of pressure that's put on artists once they enter the system, so in many cases the artist has no choice but to play into that system once they've subscribed to it. An artist only has his or her inner need to consult, it’s a profound connection to self. Any need serve or stoke the ‘star making machinery’, as Joni Mitchell so aptly put it, will eventually lead to a dead end.

Q: For people who would like to keep up on your recent recordings and writings, where can they go online?

V: or and all digital outlets

Q: Clearly it takes both artist and audience to make the music world work. What can we, artists and listeners, do together to support the balance we all want of great music and supported talent?

V: Most of the truly interesting music that's being made today is being released independently. It takes a lot of digging to discover this great music, much of which is found of the fringes, the margins and the outskirts of mainstream avenues. Here is the brave new world of artists - pioneers, really - who are making some truly groundbreaking music, and it would benefit all of us to explore these outer edges and support these artists in every way we can, by Tweeting, embedding their videos, iLiking, as well as buying their music. This involves supporting artists at the fundraising level, at sites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, ArtistShare, PledgeMusic, and the like. These are exciting and expanding avenues for artists.

Q: It seems with each decade that nostalgia for the past and what was continues to grow. How do you feel about the climate of music today, and do you miss what existed before?

V: What I miss the most is that panoramic view, an immense and awe inspiring creative landscape, filled with the likes of Nick Drake, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones, Debbie Harry, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Miles Davis… and on and on and on.

It’s an immensely exciting time, as well as a complex and precarious one. The climate of music today can be confusing for those who have never experienced these ups and downs. Anyone who has grown up in the tropics will know how unpredictable and fickle the weather can be; one minute the sun's shining, the next minute the black clouds roll in and fill the sky, bringing thunder and lightning. Within minutes, the storm passes and the sun blazes once again. Bewilderingly, it’s another perfect day in paradise. It's an apt analogy, I think.

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