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Vows & Promises

pinky swearBy Nancy Buchan

Here we are at the beginning of a new year, (2015 in case you really partied hard on New Year’s Eve), optimistic and full of well-meant resolutions. Or vows. Or promises. “I promise to be a kinder person.  I promise to quit smoking and to lose weight. I promise not to eat a bag of chips with dip and call it a two course meal. I promise Oprah not to text and drive. I promise not to wear anything with horizontal stripes. I promise to conquer the Spanish language – practice scales – work for world peace…..” Now I might manage to keep the resolution about the stripes, but like the majority of us, by the second week of January I will have broken most of these resolutions….

There’s a huge history of broken promises in the music business. The club owner who promised to pay a certain fee to a traveling band but who decides to screw them over, knowing they are on a schedule and can’t stay around to do anything about it. The other artist who swears he’ll give you a co-write status on his album, since you did much of the work, but doesn’t. The graphics jerk who promised not to use that horrible picture of you, but does. The engineer who promised to tone down the reverb before the final mix, but doesn’t. The piano player who borrows 20 bucks nearly every gig and always promises to make it right, but rarely does. These guys get away with it because they know that unless your band is at the top of the success heap, you don’t have lawyers in your pocket and there’s no paper trail to prove your claims. The worst of the deceivers, however, were and still are the record labels. Even with a lot of their power stripped away by the use of the internet, there are still many slippery and sneaky guys out there ready to take a musicians talent and products and give nothing in return.

When record companies first started, their services were required in order for people to listen to recorded music. Making and selling records (whether LPs, 8 tracks, cassettes, CDs, or DVDs) was a major undertaking – studios and manufacturing plants had to be built, technology and techniques developed, distribution contacts made, and advertising put in place. Many record executives were crooked in their business practices, callous about music in general or racist in their treatment of artists, but at least they provided a service. Making recorded music available to the masses required spending lots of money, which in turn required lawyers and a legal structure that would make sure they got a hefty return on their investment.

With the advent of the World Wide Web, many things have changed, some undisputedly for the better, some for worse. There are free downloads now of music and the technology is so good and readily available that anyone with a computer and a little skill can make their own recordings and place them on websites. The expensive studios are no longer necessary, and record companies that once charged an exorbitant fee for providing recorded music to folks to listen to are no longer the only game in town. Now their main function is to prohibit people from listening to music unless we pay them off. They used to provide us with the tools needed to listen to music – now they charge us for permission to use tools we already have and that they did not provide. It’s more like a listening tax than any real service. The entertainment industry is obsessed with mega-mergers – twenty years ago there were more than sixty record labels in the states, now there are five big ones, and those guys are trying to cripple the independent, un-signed artists. The new scammers are the guys online who promise to place your music in appropriate sites for selling downloads, and who claim they will give you the appropriate share of what they collect. Many, many artists have found it nearly impossible to get a valid accounting of what is owed to them, and if you have the means to hire a lawyer to go after them you’ll find they are very good at stalling the process.

The TemptationsJust one example – The Temptations, that wonderful pioneering male vocal group, have been in litigation for years with Universal Music, one of those conglomerates who now have control of many musicians catalogs. Their label just can’t seem to find the pertinent data to pay them their fair share.

These big labels, and ASCAP, want to be paid for ringtones – not just for the purchase of them, but for every time your phone rings! The big companies have a theory that making the recording louder or mangling the dynamics on it will make it more noticeable to the buying public – they hide behind this gross ignoring of the musicians intent by calling it ‘Digitally Re-Mastered’. Digital music services pay labels advances in the millions for access to their catalogs, and that money is rarely shared with the artists, especially the smaller and less well-known artists. They thrive on making musicians feel like petty jerks for asking for an accounting of their sales, and they further muddy the waters by counter-suing other big sharks like Napster and Amazon.com and Apple iTunes.

Country singer Kenny Rogers sued his label, Capitol Records, asking for an audit of his sales, and after 2 years they changed their lawyers and he had to start all over. If you thought the days of poor, ignorant and trusting musicians being scammed out of their royalties by the labels was over, think again – the slimeballs have just gotten slicker.

Geesh – the injustice of it all – makes my heart and head hurt. Let’s move on to songs about making resolutions and promises. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band put out a great song called “I’ve Been Looking” many years back – it’s one of those that can stand the test of time. “I’ve been looking for a love. Someone to hold as I lay sleeping. I’m not talking about someone who’s scared of promises or keeping ‘em.”

Country artist Vince Gill wrote a song called “Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye”, which says “Promises for keeping – it’s natural as breathing.  Love what love’s revealing – willing to trust.”

There’s a kzillion songs called “Promises”, and Randy Travis wrote a good one with that title. “And I’ll make promises – Promises to change. I’ll make her promises – swear I’ll rearrange. And I’ll start giving all the love she needs – if only she will stay. And someday soon I know she’ll leave without a trace, for broken promises will tear her dreams apart – just token promises will someday break her heart.”

Lynn AndersonLynn Anderson was a multi-award winning country artist who had a string of hits in the 70s and 80s, most notably her world-wide mega-hit, “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”. “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden. Along with the sunshine there’s gotta be a little rain sometimes. I could sing you a tune and promise you the moon, but if that’s what it takes to hold you I’d just as soon let you go. So smile for a while and let’s be jolly – love shouldn’t be so melancholy – come along and share the good times while we can…” Its crossover appeal and national exposure on TV made it one of the most successful and popular songs of its time – #3 on Billboard and top of the charts in other countries – an unprecedented achievement.

Another of her songs, “Promises, Promises”, is particularly poignant – “Then you promised me a ring – a wedding gown and all of those things. But I ain’t seen no diamond yet.  Promises, promises, that’s all I ever get – promises, promises, that’s all I get.” Well, I hope she at least got her well-deserved royalties, ‘cause she’s had serious drinking and legal issues in the last decade or so. Several DUI arrests, a shoplifting problem (she swiped a Harry Potter DVD, of all things), and another charge for punching a cop who was giving her a sobriety test. Sad but true – fame and fortune are elusive things in the music business…

Hopefully one of your resolutions this year will be to get out and listen to live music and to support musicians by buying their products directly from them. Ben Jammin’ and the Howlers, (aka Bunch of Damn Monkeys) will be playing around the Quepos area, along with many other fine musicians just trying to make a living and provide you with music! You can find the Monkeys most every Friday night at the beautiful and spacious Roca Verde Bar and Restaurant just south of Dominical. We promise to play our hearts out for you and to have fun! Hire live players for your weddings or parties – otherwise you might get a bill from ASCAP for playing the canned music you already bought!

“If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedth out of his mouth.”    Numbers 30:2     the Bible

“A promise is a transaction whereby a person makes a vow or the suggestion of a guarantee.”          Webster’s dictionary

“Music is spiritual.  The music business is not.”        Van Morrison

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.  There’s also a negative side.”        Hunter S. Thompson


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