Before rap music did the same thing to many major record labels that Toyota did to General Motors, musical artists loudly and regularly complained that the recording industry's systematic control over their output was a major bane to their careers and lives.
Perhaps it was Prince who best brought such dissatisfaction to mainstream attention. During his high-profile war with Warner Brothers, the artist then formally known as The Artist Formally Known As Prince began to appear publicly with the word "Slave" painted on his face.
So, check out this irony: Today in the Internet age, many modern artists are finding reality screaming at them the way it does from a line in a song by the rock group The Who: "freedom stinks of reality."
Because of music file-sharing sites such as Youtube, the dead and somewhat lamented Limewire and other free distribution channels, there are more ways of putting out music than ever before. But with the diminished power of labels, how can the modern pop music artist get her/his music out there and get paid from doing it?
That was the subject of a daylong symposium presented by the Memphis chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music this past Saturday (Sept. 29). Entitled Grammy GPS: A Road Map For Today's Music Biz, the symposium is one of many NARAS is staging throughout the nation to help musicians and recording industry professionals navigate the new mysteries of musical commerce.
"GPS was created to connect people that want to pursue a career in music today with significant people in the industry to give them pointers on how it all works," said Senior Executive Director John Hornyak.
As the head of NARAS' Memphis arm for 18 years now, Hornyak says the digital age is constantly evolving commercial impact is a daunting influence. Still, he said, the basics are the same.
"You still have to connect with the people that can help you. With social media there is a lot more direct access to fans and more live performance opportunities, but CD are selling less. You just have to figure out a different approach than five years ago," said Hornyak.
"Like with the labels, it's a thing where you don't miss it until it's gone, and some artists don't want to just make their music and not worry about the business side. But it's definitely a new day. You have to start building it yourself."
Susan Marshall, NARAS Memphis Chapter president, said in the digital realm one problem is that the credits aren't getting out there.
"In the old days you would open up an album or a CD and see who wrote the songs, who created the songs, who engineered and so on and so forth. In the music industry we live and die by our credits. It's how we get recognition, how we get our next gig and how we get paid," she said.
Throughout the day, a series of four panel presentations offered in-depth explorations of various topics. The lineup included a probe of the sound differences of the various delivery systems available today and an examination of how smaller markets can be key in pushing a musical act to the forefront.
With the support of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, GPS brought in several big names, including Ken Shepherd, manager for country music superstar Kenny Wayne Sheperd, hip-hop influence Talib Kweli, and musician, songwriter and producer Steve Jordan.
Jordan, who played in Paul Schaeffer's famous band on "The David Letterman Show" and produced work with Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, B.B. King and other A-listers, often visits Memphis to record at Royal Studios. Music fans here and worldwide know Royal for the signature sound of producer Willie Mitchell and superstar artist Al Green. Teenie Hodges, one of the keys to Royal's historic run of hits, sat in the front row as Jordan told the audience why he has brought artists such as the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, modern pop blues hit maker John Mayer and (currently) Boz Scaggs to Royal to get the "Memphis Sound."
"I first came here in 1988 when I worked with Keith Richards, and we had a song that we wanted to get that Memphis sound on, so instead of trying to get someone to try to reproduce it I suggested to him that we go to Memphis and get Willie Mitchell to arrange it for us," said Jordan. "He was available, we flew down and he put together the horn and string arrangements and that's how it began."
Jordan said the Memphis Sound is still here, crediting Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, now president and executive producer at Royal, and a vice president with NARAS, for preserving the techniques at Royal. Scaggs, he said, was well aware of the Memphis Sound legacy.
"He had recorded there about a decade ago, and his wife is from Memphis, too," said Jordan. "I thought I had this brilliant idea (to record in Memphis), but it turned out to be a no-brainer."
For Ify (pronounced "Iffy"), a young local artist, getting to speak with Jordan during a breakout moment was a fun day of learning things she hopes to employ as her career unfolds.
"It was pretty epic. I learned a lot about being a creative force, but how to market your music," said Ify.
"For instance, if your music is an easy listening type, go to where people play chess, or find a restaurant where people like that frequent and get your music exposed," she said. "You have to know how to find your realistic demographic and gain a fan base. Push. Push. Push."