An Interview with David Crosby
David Crosby is
a music legend known for his solo performances as well as his work
with the Byrds, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. In this interview,
he recounts how the music industry has changed over his career. "When
it all started, record companies -- and there were many of them, and
this was a good thing -- were run by people who loved records," he
says. "Now record companies are run by lawyers and accountants. … The
people who run record companies now wouldn't know a song if it flew
up their nose and died." Crosby also argues that the quality of
music has suffered because of corporate interference. "It doesn't
matter that Britney Spears has nothing to say and is about as deep
as a birdbath," he says.
… When did you decide … to try for a career in the [music] business?
When did I decide to go into business? Well, it wasn't a business, when I decided. It was simply a need to sing. I started singing in coffeehouses when I was still in high school, in Santa Barbara. I took a job washing dishes and busing tables in the coffeehouse, so I could be there, and would beg permission to sing harmony with the guy who was singing onstage. That was the first time I ever got on a stage in front of people. Of course, I didn't get paid, but for me it was the big time.
And when did you know it was what you were going to do with your life?
There are several flippant answers to that that I will try to avoid. I think very early on. My father being in the movie business, I thought being an actor would be great. But when I started singing to people in coffeehouses, you know, singing folk music and then, later, singing songs that I started to write myself, I felt more than an affinity for it. I felt a calling. You know, it was like having something come into your head and tell you that you needed to do this, very strongly. It was a calling and it was unequivocal. That was too much joy, you know what I'm saying? I loved singing.
We, in the purpose of this film, think of Woodstock as the kind of "big bang" moment. It was where culture and politics and everything all kind of came together…
Describing Woodstock as the "big bang," I think that's a great way to describe it, because the important thing about it wasn't how many people were there or that it was a lot of truly wonderful music that got played. The important thing was it's the moment when all of that generation of hippies looked at each other and said, "Wait a minute, we're not a fringe element. There's millions of us! We're what's happening here!" It was that self-awareness, you know, that, up to that point, it really hadn't happened. …
I think it was, you know, it was important to us because it launched our career, but--
David Crosby is a music legend known for his solo performances as well as his work with the Byrds, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. In this interview, he recounts how the music industry has changed over his career. "When it all started, record companies -- and there were many of them, and this was a good thing -- were run by people who loved records," he says. "Now record companies are run by lawyers and accountants. … The people who run record companies now wouldn't know a song if it flew up their nose and died." Crosby also argues that the quality of music has suffered because of corporate interference. "It doesn't matter that Britney Spears has nothing to say and is about as deep as a birdbath," he says. This interview was conducted on March 4, 2006.
That's what I was going to ask you. What did it mean to you guys?
We had already had some success. You know, the Hollies had had more hits than we've ever had, already, for [Graham] Nash. Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds have had a good running. So it wasn't the launch point for us, you know, really. It was the launch point for CSN. It was when everybody became really aware of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. We had the top album in the country, but Woodstock really pushed it over the top.
The American way is business, lawyers, all that s--- follows some cool, cultural moment. When did it, if ever, did it feel like the others guys kind of came through the door behind you and started to do whatever they did?
It's a point that's actually fairly definable. At the point when the overall take from the music business probably passes, let's say, a billion dollars -- now it's off the top of my head, the actual number you'd have to ascertain -- but there was a certain point at which the take got big enough to where the big boys got interested. They said, "Oh, wait a minute, that's some serious cash. I better go over there and rake off some of that."
When it all started, record companies -- and there were many of them, and this was a good thing -- were run by people who loved records, people like Ahmet Ertegun, who ran Atlantic Records, who were record collectors. They got in it because they loved music. …
Now record companies are run by lawyers and accountants. The shift from the one to the other was definitely related to when the takes started to get big. Somebody [in] a forensic accounting job could probably establish the exact moment at which it reached the level that brought in the sharks. …
How did you know they were there?
Change in attitude, change in management, new management. You'd just be dealing with different people. You know, you'd go to a meeting with a record company and it wouldn't be a guy there who knew that you had written a new song and thought that was cool. It would be a guy who knew that he had moved 40,000 pieces out of Dallas this month, and he had no idea, pieces of what? None.
It actually happened that way?
Yes. The people who run record companies now wouldn't know a song if it flew up their nose and died. They haven't a clue, and they don't care. You tell them that, and they go, "Yeah? So, your point is?" Because they don't give a s---. They don't care. They're actually sort of proud that they don't care.
Look at it this way. A couple of years ago, somewhere between a fourth and a third of the record business was owned by a whiskey company, who shall remain nameless, but were notably inept at running a record company. And they sold it to a French water company, who shall also remain nameless, but knew even less. Now, those guys haven't a clue! [laughter] They haven't a clue. And they don't care about having a clue. They are trying to run it as if they're selling widgets, plastic-wrapped widgets that they can sell more of. And they want easily definable, easily accessible, easily creatable, controllable product that has a built-in die-out, so that they can create some more.
By that, I mean, "Get me a lead singer. He's got sort of an androgynous blonde hair, very pretty. We need a guitar player, sort of hatchet-faced, wears a hat, plays very fast, very dramatic. He must be very dramatic. Get me a pound of bass player, pound of drummer. I don't think he needs keyboards; I think we look good. And we'll call them the Bosco Bombers! No. The Bad Dogs, that's good! I like that!" And then you sell it. You sell the hell out of it. You spend $500,000 on record promoting, and they make a lot more.
But they're making little cardboard cutouts. They hire a producer, they hire writers, and the people that they put out in these little boy bands. And in the current stuff now, they don't even bother getting people to play. Don't bother with that guitar player, bass player, drummer -- nonsense. That's all nonsense to them. Got to look cute, have a flat tummy, and be controllable. And then they put you in these little cardboard cutout bands.
The people in those bands can't write, play, or sing. They make them sound good with pro-tools, because if they sing out of tune, they can just say, "Oh, punch a button. Put it in tune." Which is very frustrating to people like me, who spent, you know, 30, 40 years learning how to sing in tune in the first place. It is partly their own, you know, greed and, and lack of taste, but it's also partly a condition that's endemic in the country.
The current ethos in the United States of America is all to do with surface and nothing to do with substance. It doesn't matter that Britney Spears has nothing to say and is about as deep as a birdbath. It matters that she has cute tits, and that's all that matters. She doesn't sing in concert; none of them do. Those are samples. Push a button, out comes the vocal. Do you ever notice, when you're listening to them in a live concert -- any of them, Janet Jackson, any of the rest of them -- that they're not breathing heavy? Even though they're dancing like crazy. That's because you're not hearing what they're singing. You're hearing a tape.
How did we get here?
Greed. Greed, simple a thing.
Be specific. I mean, Jesus, one moment, you're talking about Woodstock and the incredible beauty of what you guys had--
And many others.
-- everybody on that stage, many people on that stage did, to Britney Spears shaking her tits. How did we get there?
Several ways, the first of which -- and I'm probably shooting myself in the foot by saying this publicly, but to heck with it, it's the truth -- the first of which is VH1 and MTV, who unwittingly and without any mal intent -- you know, they didn't mean to do anything bad -- have turned it from being a musical experience to being a theatrical experience. Again, what you look like, not what you can do.
That's not a good thing, because it means that anybody that looks good in a well-shot video is suddenly at the top, whereas hugely talented people, who are great musicians, can barely get arrested. I mean, they can barely get any notice at all. And that's not a good thing. That's had a terribly bad effect on the music business, and on music.
Where were you when, if you remember, when you first heard of MTV, and what did you think of the idea?
"Oh, it's great! What a great thing, yeah! We'll, we'll tell the story in pictures while we're telling a song. That'll be fantastic!" I didn't think down the road. None of us did. We didn't see it coming. But what happened? It changed it from being about the music to being about what you look like. And that was a terrible blow to music, because now you've got all these people who look great and can't write, sing, or play.
Did you ever make a video for MTV or VH1?
Sure I did. I made a couple of CSN. I made one myself that Sean Penn directed for me. He actually called me up and asked to do it, for a song called "Hero" that Phil Collins and I wrote. But it didn't get played. I'm not cute. I can sing, but I'm not cute. And so, of course, it didn't do anything. That was a bad effect.
There is one other thing that has affected the music business drastically and badly, and it's a tough one to, to put salt on its tail and explain to people clearly and acceptably. Conglobridization (sic), big word -- means "big fish eating little fish," means big companies eating little companies, until there's only a couple of big companies. Crosby's rule number one, axiom: the bigger a company gets, the less it gives a damn about you. Okay? Crosbo wise.
That's had a very bad effect! Huge companies don't even know who is on their roster. They haven't a clue, and they don't have the time or the money or the inclination, or the ability, to see a budding young artist and nurture them and bring them along. They don't have the wit.
Ahmet Ertegun -- he saw Aretha Franklin signed to Columbia, who were trying to turn her into a lounge act, and he said, "Oh, these guys don't know what they got!" And he hired her away. And six months later, she was the biggest star in the country, because she could sing like God on a good day. She's fantastic. Okay?
But it took Ahmet knowing that, for that to happen. That doesn't happen now. That doesn't happen. Every once in a while, there's an aberration, a crack in the pavement. Somebody like Shawn Colvin will have a hit like "Sunny Came Home," because it's just so good, that it slides in between all of the meaningless, tasteless, cardboard cut-out crap.
You know, it's a funny thing. We spent time with a lot of people in the last month or so, and they'll all say, "I've just found the new Norah Jones. I've got the new Norah Jones. You know, she sounds just like the new Norah Jones."
See, that's the wrong thing. They're out there looking for a clone of whatever's at the top. Norah Jones is a breath of fresh air. Norah Jones can sing and play. She's got some talent. I was totally ecstatic that that girl got noticed, because she's wonderful. Her hit, another aberration. You won't see it again, because she's not what they want -- too deep. She's a real human being; she has real stuff to talk about. They don't want her. You won't see her. She won't stick around; she won't have a second hit. Won't happen.
… I'd like to know the nature of a deal, a record deal. You don't have to be specific about the money if you don't want to be, but it would be interesting to know about recoupment, how it works, how much money you guys would get at the beginning, and how long would it would take you to get it back. …
A record [label] is essentially two things. It's essentially a vendor and a bank. What they do, in terms of working with artists, the old days -- and still to this day, to some degree -- is they give you the money to make the record, for which they charge you what amounts to a million percent interest. They give you the money to make the record, but when they get the record, then they own it and they do everything they can to cheat. Everything. Recoupment.
They'll try to cross-collateralize it to everything you ever made. So if they don't succeed with this record, they can hold up your royalties on everything else you've ever done, to recoup. They try to get some of your publishing if they possibly can. Of course, we don't give it to them. They try to be able to sell your stuff in packages. In other words, take pieces of your album, put them with other people's pieces, and make package albums. We try not to let them do that. They try to only pay you publishing on 10 end songs, which means, if you had 13 songs, you can't put the other three on because they won't pay you.
I think one of the
most glaring examples of what they do wrong is they cheat as a matter
of policy on paying, because they know that you'll have to, first,
hire an accountant and audit them. Then, when you get the audit figure,
and they owe you $486,000, they'll offer you 30 percent, 30 cents on
the dollar in settlement, knowing full well that you'll ask for 100
percent and that you'll settle somewhere around 50. The other 50 percent
is free money. They knew it going in. They intended to do it from the
beginning, so that they could get the other 50 percent for free. Hence,
just a little bonus thing, thank you very much, and it's from heaven.
And they do it, and it's totally dishonest. And they all do it. And
they do it as a matter of policy. They know they're going to cheat,
going in. …
What's that like, for you?
You know, when I was making a million bucks on an album, coming from where I came from -- I didn't have any money, I didn't know that I would make any money at all. It was like marbles. I thought it was fantastic, gift from God, wonderful, you know. It takes you a long time to realize that you're being cheated. Kids don't realize it at all, and usually their managers are working a deal with the record company themselves, you know. Very often, they're in the record company's pay as well. You know, "Look, we'll give you $5,000 if you keep quiet." Happens.
There's a lot of cheating and lying and stealing that goes on in any major business. And the music business is no exception at all. …
I don't think that there's much we can do about it. They built their business model in an era when they could make, I don't know, on a million-selling album, you know, they're making 10 million bucks or something, and they do eight of those in a year. That's what they built their business model on. And it seemed reasonable to build huge buildings and hire hundreds of people … and get a corporate jet or two. What a very grandiose idea of how to go about things.
Now they're going in the tank, because the world has changed, and they did not change with it. They bit the poison pill, without realizing it, when they went digital. Once a thing is in digital domain, it can be copied as many times as you want. And there is no system that can keep it from being copied. You can devise the most clever one you want, and I will bring some little geek with a pen protector in his pocket into the room and he will fix it in a minute. …
They bit the poison pill, and it's killing them. And I think what's killing them really, is that they have a bad business model that doesn't coincide with reality. I think the only way to sell records that I know about now that does look really, really, really promising is iTunes. I think Apple is the smartest company in the country, and they are doing something brilliant.
Why did that work?
Because it was simple, and it was already existing hardware. And anybody could have done it, but Steve Jobs put it together. It works like a charm. You upload it; they download it. They pay you a buck or two. It's that simple.
You getting some hits from that?
You bet. And I'm going to get a lot more. No packaging cost, no promotion, no lairs of distributors, each taking 20 percent off as it goes by. No returns, no free goods, nada! [laughter] No costs! That's a good business model that works, and it's working for them. They're a brilliant company, and that's a brilliant idea. And if I were in a position to invest in the stock market, which I wouldn't be, it certainly would be Apple, because that's the one that works.
Now, help me with the arc of your career and vis-á-vis the industry. There's a trough in there, some of it personal, some of it otherwise.
They stick with you? They help you out?
Yeah, my buddies do. Absolutely.
In the record business?
No, but my partner musicians do, particularly Nash, but Stills hung in there too, and Neil. When I came out of prison and was straight, they were more than happy to go back to work with me, and that was a real kindness on their part, and gave me the wherewithal to build myself back up to here, where I'm a successful guy and having a great career in doing music that I really love. And I'm very thankful. …
So, now, here we are, 2006, however long that's been. … Now what?
Well, for the business or for me?
For the business and for you, but you in the business.
Two different issues. Me, personally -- I didn't do this to make money. When I joined the team here, when I became a musician, there was no money to be made. We were folk singers, playing in coffeehouses. There was no money, and there never would be any money. The only people I knew who had ever even made a record was Peter, Paul and Mary, okay?
That's not why I do it. I'm happy. You know, cash is groovy. It's a great tool. I don't let it run my life. It's not why I do things, and I'm happy with that. I will, as we say in rock 'n' roll, run until the wheels come off, because I love what I do. I love creating music. I love it that I can sing. I think it's a hugely wonderful gift, and I am truly grateful for it. And I love doing it. So I'll do it until it's not fun. …
I don't make records anymore with any expectation that they'll make any money. Nash and I just made an album that's, I think without question, one of the best records we've ever made. And I don't expect it to sell at all. I don't expect any kind of commercial success with it. Not that I wouldn't love it if it did happen, but I don't expect it.
Because it won't get pushed. Because it won't get on MTV, because it won't get on VH1, because it will not get through Clear Channel onto the radio. That's not going to happen. They concentrate on the top 5 percent of stuff that they can predictably do, that will make them money, because that's all they care about. And they couldn't give a rat's bun's less about art. So, that cancels me right out. I'm about art; I'm about content. My songs are about something.
But David, everybody tells me there's this huge bulge in the demographic, that guys my age, who bought your music in the '70s, that we're out here now. We're buying Rod Stewart, Norah Jones--
When was the last time you went to the record store? Ah-hah! That's, that's how it works, buddy. It's the kids go to the record store, and the kids are -- I was going to say "stupid," but they're not. They're just ignorant. And many of them will evolve, you know, from really dumb stuff, because the dumb music is sort of like a joke that's only funny once. And you can only go to a Justin Timberlake concert once. You go a second time, you see the same thing -- maybe they got new fireworks, but Justin ain't got nothing new to say, okay?
And, so, then you start to evolve up. And maybe you wind up at Bruce Hornsby, maybe you wind up at Willie Nelson, maybe you wind up at Randy Newman, maybe you wind up at Joni Mitchell, maybe wind up at James Taylor for God's sake. But somewhere in there, you wind up loving music, and you evolve up to a level where you go after somebody who can really do it -- Shawn Colvin, Mark Cohn, people who can really do it. And some of those kids are going to evolve to there, and that'll be great. But I don't see success for singer-songwriters. I don't see it.
… In order to sell, you got to get through Wal-Mart.
That you do. Wal-Mart, Kmart, and what's the other one?
Best Buy -- are the two biggest retailers. They're a difficult problem also. You know, they have their own agenda. And, again, they want to aim at the very top 5 percent of what's available and selling, because that's all they want to sell. These are big corporations, and big corporations have agendas. …
Let me ask you this question. Would you have made it, now?
No. Absolutely not. If you brought the Byrds right now, took them to a record company and said, "Hey, these kids are great." [throat slashing noise] To Crosby, Stills, and Nash. To Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young! Any record company right now. [throat slashing noise] "Sorry, these guys are too weird, and that's too inflammatory, too political." That's the truth. We wouldn't get a contract. We would not get out.
What are the implications of that?
Are not good. We are losing the freedom of expression in our art forms daily. Now, I'm not trying to defend somebody like, you know, who's a shock-jock on radio, who gets censored for having people screw on a show. That's bad taste. And I think the people who run the company that's putting him out there have every right to say, "Gee, you know, that's not what we had in mind." …
But the de facto censorship of the commercial power of the conglomerates is very bad. Now, again, I probably shouldn't call them by name, but you know which radio conglomerate we're talking about, who, because a certain girl group said they didn't like George Bush, took them off, took them off the radio, took them off 1200 and some odd stations. That's a pretty effective kind of censorship. … That was a very bad thing, and it's probably going to happen more. And who's going to argue with them?
So, when people say it's a "perfect storm" moment for the music business -- consolidation of radio, consolidation of ownership, downloading piracy -- you know, all of it, do you care?
Yes, I care. Do I think they deserve to go in the tank, the big companies? Absolutely. They deserve what's going to happen to them completely. It's their own stupidity that's brought them to this point. And their own greed, and their own lack of taste.
I see plenty of future for music. Music is magic. It's been mankind's magic since the first caveman danced around his fire going "Ugga bugga, hugga bugga!" That was music, and he was happy. And we're still doing it, and it makes us happy. It will transcend; it will go on.
Music business altogether
-- a different thing. I think it's going in a tank, and I am standing
on the sidelines applauding. I think the way to do it is to find new
ways. I don't think any of those people are going to do anything to
try to defend their rice bowl, try to defend their parking space and
their Mercedes. I don't think they're going to look for a new way.
But I see Apple out there doing it. iTunes is a good idea. It delivers
the music to you cheap, pays us, doesn't cheat anybody, and it cuts
out all middlemen -- very good. …