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Performing Songwriter Cover

Dead Artists:
The Ultimate Success

Originally published in Performing Songwriter Magazine
Issue #55, May 2001

When editor Lydia Hutchinson first approached me about doing an article for a special issue about independent artists, I confess I wasn't very excited. After all, how many truly independent artists have there been? Once I started doing my research, the answer was clear.

None. The very nature of being an active artist is collaboration and interdependence. Troubadours of the medieval era still needed food and lodging as they made their rounds, and Shakespeare wouldn't be remembered if not for the actors and the theatre he used. Bach was dependent on the goodwill of his patrons, who were often his main audience as well. Artists in our own time are dependent on everyone from manufacturers to distributors, from promoters to audience members. Arguing that the act of creation itself is independent doesn't work, either; how many of us could do without our instruments, our pads, our pens, let alone all the influences that go into the making of a piece of art?

In fact, I would posit that all the way back to the first caveman (or the first caveband?), artists have never been truly independent.

That said, I tried to come up with another angle. How about Ani DiFranco? There's an artist who's done it her way, refusing high-dollar offers from the major label and running her own record company. But Ani and the thousands of other "indie" acts out there are still dependent on factories, promoters, lawyers, crew members and dozens of others who make their work possible.

It brought me up short. Here I am, an artist who's career fairly reeks independence and integrity under fire, yet when I look at my own life, it's a welter of connections. From my booking agent and soundman to the audience members and ushers, from my co-writers to the people who make my guitars, even down to the companies that make my cassette recorders, my computer, my paper. If I really think about it, very little in my life is independent, except the music I hear in my head. And even that is constantly embellished by what I hear on the radio, at the supermarket, in the dentist's chair.

I began to wonder if I'd ever had an independent idea in my life.

It annoyed me. I started to speculate on ways to get away from the infrastructure. Surely there was a solution. How could I put myself in a position where I could be truly autonomous? After weeks of mulling over the problem, the solution finally hit me.

I could be dead.

At that point, any ideas I came up with would be truly original.

As I considered further, I realized that becoming a Dead Artist would mean I got a lot of unexpected benefits. Time, for one. These days I probably spend three days a week on non-artist "stuff"- legal nonsense, booking nonsense, tape copying, figuring out who to pitch my songs to, answering email, plotting with my support team. I could save all those hours. No one would call me with questions if I was dead. No more long lunches with co-writers, no more changing guitar strings, no more struggling to find 3,000 meaningful words a month for these articles. I'd buy a lot of time.

And stress. No deadlines to meet, no chasing after royalty statements, no worrying over mortgages. There'd be no one saying "If you don't find four hours to do these interviews, the shows won't sell." or "Why can't you just listen to it once, surely you can find ten minutes."

And money. As a Dead Artist, I would be saving a ton of money. Dead Artists don't need soundmen. Or road managers. Or managers, agents, business managers, lawyers. They don't have to do anyone favors, either. No more calls saying "Can't you please do just this one benefit for children who were bullied in third grade?", resulting in me losing my shirt paying my soundman, my flights, my hotels.

No one would ask me to do benefits if I was a Dead Artist. In fact, they might even do a benefit for me, and I could get back at all those other artists who never had time before.

The idea has its attractions, and I'm not the only one to notice them. Record companies love dead artists. In fact, most of them begin preparing for our departure long before we plan to leave. If you're a major artist, it's standard for the record company to carry an insurance policy on your life "just in case". After all, you're a big investment for them.

Often management will do the same. In fact, when Janis Joplin died there was a lot of gossip about one of her managers, known for his hard-edged business dealings. Rumor was that said manager had, if not aided and abetted her drug use, at least not discouraged it. The street buzz was that on signing her, he'd also taken out a million dollar insurance policy. That was an awful lot of money back then.

Well, think about it from his point of view - as long as she was alive, he'd always have to worry about whether she could stay clean long enough to make the next album, or the next show. Once she died, he could merely sit back and collect royalties.

I even heard talk that after realizing just how many unreleased tapes Jimi Hendrix had socked away, certain persons in his organization decided life would be more lucrative without him. I don't pay it much credence, but it goes to show that the industry is all too aware of the benefits having a Dead Artist on the roster bring.

Live artists deal with the subject of their eventual demise constantly. When I did my first tour after twelve years away from recording and performing, I was amazed at the amount of press people showing up at my concerts - I wasn't that famous. Their questions were unusual, too. After the standard "Where have you been?" and "Why did you start recording again?", they'd ask things like "What do you think people will say about your music 100 years from now?" and "How do you want to be remembered?" One even asked what I wanted written on my tombstone! ("This is what happened when she stopped talking"?)

It took me a few weeks to figure out that they were all just updating their obituary columns on me. Yes, all the major newspapers keep files on Famous People Who Might Die Suddenly Someday, things they can run on a moment's notice when we kick the bucket.

And Dead Artists do pretty well once that bucket's been kicked. Look at Robert Johnson, hard-pressed to earn a living and virtually unknown to the general public during his lifetime. There are now dozens of retrospective CD's available of his work. He even gets a featured spot in the Coen Brothers movie "O Brother Where Art Thou?". You can bet they didn't have to pay him scale, or provide a fancy dressing room trailer!

Record companies love dead artists. They can continue releasing product ad infinitum; in fact, quite often the heirs demand that they release as much as possible, as soon as possible. Costs are minimal - new packaging, occasional re-mastering of old sides, a promotion campaign that doesn't have to deal with radio tour budgets or demands for per diems. Much easier to do once the artist is dead - who's going to insist on creative control now?

It's cheaper all around for the record company. They already has a retail bin in place. If the package gets tired at retail, they can ask publicity and promotion (who are on salary anyway) to find a new "hook", and throw out a "brand-new" version for sale all over again. Fans who've illegally recorded the artist's shows can sell them at great profit to the labels, who will then place them selectively in "new" packages and advertise "bonus" or "alternative" tracks. When all else fails and retail is shot, there are always the record clubs and the cut-out bins. Dependable catalogue sales will continue, with no additional cost to anyone.

Sometimes the record company actually enhances the artist's career once they've passed on. Rykodisc, for instance, seem to do a wonderful job of preserving the artist's intent while continuing to generate income. Witness their usage of the Frank Zappa catalogue; Zappa left thousands of recordings which are being released in a sensible, respectful way.

More often, though, Dead Artist releases border on the absurd.

There was that Gram Parsons tribute consisting of unfinished songs, which were then completed and sung by other writers. Maybe there was a reason he left those songs unfinished in the first place?

Rounder took Keith Whitley's earlier recordings and re-issued them with a new backing band, changing the sound from bluegrass to a "more contemporary" country sound. I suppose true Whitley fans might enjoy it, but it does sort of defeat the original intent. One wonders if these artists would be pleased to see their names live on in this manner, or if they'd just laugh at the absurdity. But who cares if they're pleased or not? A Dead Artist can't exactly bring suit against the label for "failure to live up to my reputation".

With the miracle of technology, we can even make records with dead people who haven't recorded in decades. Sons who never spoke to their fathers in life now step up to the plate and sing with the dearly departed. Videos come out with children staring soulfully into their deceased parents' eyes as both sing from the heart. With digital editing, footage shot forty years ago can be blended with current footage to make it seem like everything was filmed together. Famous people's children rarely attain the commercial or artistic heights of their forebears. Now they have a chance to eclipse their parents, or at least to share in the glory.

There are problems, of course. Unless you've left a large body of unreleased work behind, labels and heirs can only re-cut old masters with new bands, or re-master for stereo, quadrophonic, digital etc. It's difficult for a Dead Artist to tour, or do interviews. If you've left enough film footage, or kept a verbal or video journal, these problems can still be surmounted, but it takes more work for those remaining behind.

Then again, not doing interviews might work for the Dead Artist, rather than not. The mystique generated by seclusion has been a tenet of the entertainment industry for decades, best exemplified by Garbo's famous "I vant to be alone", or Dietrich's refusal to speak with or pose for press or photographers. As to touring, cover bands could be sent out with the approbation of the labels - take four guys who can play a bit, throw on some makeup, pay them each a small salary, and call it the Kiss Homage Tour. What's not to like?

And, as one anonymous label executive told me, "Dead artists are a lot easier for us to work with.No annoying managers telling label heads they're bungling incompetents. No one flying in on a promotion tour demanding first-class tickets, expensive hotel suites, limousines, champagne, then refusing to do interviews with the major papers or insulting their journalists, publicly accusing the record company of theft, cancelling television shows on an hour's notice, changing the schedule because their dog needs to be walked. Personally, I prefer them - we always get along fine."

Dead Artists generate a lot more income than they earned while alive. Part of it's inflation, part of it's management. When Elvis died his estate was minimal; he left his ex-wife, Priscilla, as executor in order to protect their daughter. Under her canny eye, he's worth 100 times more now than he ever was alive. And he doesn't have to worry about his weight any more.

If the artist has been dead long enough, the record company makes money by default. My royalty rate for my first album (cut in 1966) was two percent. Standard rate now is sixteen. Who do you think is pocketing that other 14 percent?

Theatrical uses benefit from an artist's death. While we're alive, we control who does what with our names and likenesses. The chance of my allowing a movie of my life bearing the title "Society's Child Does It Again!" are pretty minimal. One could argue (and people have) that I'm depriving myself of a great deal of income turning down offers like this, and begrudging late-night television junkies their much-needed humor break, but so long as I'm alive, I control what's done in my name.

Not so after I'm gone; my heirs can live it up on the Riviera while "Janis Ian - At 17 to 50" sells in video cut-out bins.

Even artists who were dead while they lived can benefit. Consider the Grateful Dead. This past decade has seen a tremendous rise in their fortunes, helped of course by Jerry Garcia's untimely end. Artwork, memorabilia, neckties… the possibilities are endless.

There are all sorts of reasons for a performing songwriter to consider becoming a Dead Artist. You'll be providing work for your friends and heirs - anyone who ever knew you can write a book, sell their story to a tabloid, book a memorial concert tour in your memory (proceeds to charity of course, after expenses). Heirs can make a virtual career out of you when they never had a career of their own; just check out the "family websites" of various Dead Artists for tips.

You'll make life easier for your beloved manager and agent, too. There's no chance Dead Artists will suddenly decide to "find themselves" by moving to India for a year. No concerns about you announcing you want to "get serious and write opera now". No sudden decisions to make avante-garde forays into niche markets like jazz or new age music, no interviews disparaging everything you've ever done to date as being "my formative, childlike years".

Yes, I think dying would be the ultimate career move. I'm a little worried, though, because I'm not the only one preparing to cash in on this idea. In the past few years, "Elvis" performed with a full orchestra at Radio City Music Hall (as well as starring in several new films). Natalie Cole was Grammy-bound after a duet with her late father, Nat "King" Cole. The Beatles top the charts again, and "Always Patsy Cline" regularly breaks box office records. Hundreds of unknown blues players are being sampled without royalty payments; hell, if no one knew who they were alive, absolutely no one will know now that they're gone!

Record companies are getting savvy about it as well. My own label, BMG, have an enviable list of Dead Artists on the roster, particularly in the classical field. Arthur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz, Toscanini, Richter, Mario Lanza are all outselling their lives. On EMI and DG, Maria Callas and Herbert von Karajan both get recognition they'd never have been given in real life; beautiful commemorative sets celebrating the 10th, 15th, even 20th year of their death with re-releases, new compilations, and updated biographies.

It's a dichotomy of human nature that so many of us are worth more dead than alive. Dead, our foibles and frailties can go unnoticed. Dead, our friends and family (and audience) can remember only the good, and ignore the whining and ineptitude that characterized us in real life. With the artist safely out of the way, our work can stand alone, and be appreciated without the necessity of dealing with our addictions, our messy finances, or our stupid rider demands.

Guidelines for Preparing to Become A Dead Artist:

  1. Make a lot of work tapes. Just sit down with a guitar and sing absolutely everything you've ever written into a tape recorder. Don't worry about quality; the mastering people will take care of that.
  2. Start a journal. Keep it hidden, but make sure you tell your lawyer or manager where they can find it. Make it interesting. Lie. After all, no one can prove you didn't sleep with John F. Kennedy, or get zonkers with Jim Morrison. Try to divide it by years or decades; that will make it easier on your heirs when it comes time to sell the book.
  3. Leave a lot of cryptic notes, like "Call Mick back re next record" or "Finish song Bette asked for and mail right away". Your heirs will spend years looking for non-existent money and publishing scraps. It's good for them - they didn't work for any of this while you were alive, why shouldn't they put some time in now?
  4. Make a lot of works-in-progress tapes. Come up with a chord progression, "la la la" your way through it once, and mark it "To Be Finished".
  5. Leave notes on projects you mean to get around to but didn't. For instance, make a list of twelve songs you like and jot down some ideas for a Broadway musical. Take notes on an adaptation of King Lear, with song titles to go with it and a plan to take it off-Broadway. What about that movie of your life that David Lynch spoke with you about a few years ago? the TV series based on one of your more popular songs that Chris Carter wanted to write and produce? Those people won't remember not having the conversations with you; they're way too busy for that. And it might get your heirs in the door.
  6. Leave a few confessional letters around to people you weren't particularly close to in life. That will give them some extra income for a few years, and make you look like you really cared about them after all.
  7. Do a lot of photo sessions, particularly candids, particularly when you're not looking your best. This is for the tabloids. (You've got to try and hit all the bases here.)
  8. Leave a video-taped message for your fans. Or two. Or ten. With instructions that they're only to be opened on the anniversaries of your death. Try to anticipate technological advances as you speak; that way, in addition to being remembered as a swell singer/songwriter, you'll become a prophet who lived without honor in his own land. People love an underdog.
  9. Don't pay your bills. That's what estates are for.
  10. Die intestate. Don't bother leaving a will, it won't matter in the long run. Once you've created this welter of intellectual property, your heirs and various companies will be fighting over it for decades anyhow. Ultimately, dead is dead, and you can only control your creative output for so long from beyond the grave.

In all seriousness, the truth of the matter is that there's no such thing as a dead artist. Every artist alive stands on the bones of those who went before. Each time I step on stage to sing, I stand on Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and every other singer I learned from. Each time I write a song, I stand on Johnny Mercer, Lennon-McCartney, and dozens of others who've influenced me. Picasso is alive in that print on my wall, the cave artists speak to me through television shows and books, and I expect even I might be remembered as long as my songs are played. That's the ultimate truth, that art lives on long after we're a heap of bones in the ground.

Thanks to Tina Abato, Greg Barbero, Alice Drake, Sandra Eikelenboom, Evil Dick, Fred Koller, Frank Morey, Megan McDonough, Peter Schindler, Nancy Picconi, Dave Yeskel, and others who prefer to remain anonymous.

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