Don Was on iTunes and the death of liner notes
Got an e-mail the other day from my old friend, Steve Jordan – one of the greatest drummers on Earth … he’s played with everyone from Keith Richards to Sonny Rollins and produced a slew of artists like John Mayer, Solomon Burke and Buddy Guy. Steve asked, “How can NARAS [the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences] nominate an album for best engineered recording and fail to nominate the mastering engineer?” It’s a great question: Denying the Grammy to the mastering engineer is the musical equivalent of awarding a Super Bowl ring solely to the victorious quarterback while ignoring the contributions of his receivers and offensive linemen. In the football analogy, it’s more difficult to overlook the other players because we see them on TV, hear the announcers mention their names and read about them on the sports page. How many of you readers have even heard of a mastering engineer? Don’t feel badly – it’s not your fault. These days, you have to launch a dedicated hunt to find out about these things.
Since I started making records 30-some years ago, we’ve always made a point of mentioning the recording, mixing and mastering engineers along with the musicians, arrangers, songwriters and producers who contribute to the records. When those credits were printed on a 12-inch album jacket, the letters were large enough to actually read. Fans got a real sense of both the collaborative nature of recorded music and of all the work and dedication behind every album. Subsequently, smaller CD booklets necessitated an almost illegible print size. These days, the nation’s largest retailer of music – the iTunes store – has essentially eliminated credits, liner notes and printed lyrics from their digital packaging. I’m at a loss to explain Apple’s ambivalence about upholding the quality and value of the product that has fueled the success of their hardware. For those of us who grew up in Detroit, this kind of corporate cockiness should have a certain ring of familiarity: It’s an early symptom of the same shortsightedness that brought down the Big Three automakers and sent the city into an economic tailspin.
In the summer of 1966, I bought an album called Freak Out! by a then-unknown group called the Mothers of Invention at Lou Salesin’s Mumford Music Store on Coolidge Highway in Oak Park. It was a double album with an amazing gatefold jacket that retailed for $4.99. Inside there were extensive liner notes written by Frank Zappa that changed my life. In a subsequent interview, Frank said that the Freak Out! album package was designed to be “as accessible as possible to the people who wanted to take the time to make it accessible. That list of names in there, if anybody were to research it, would probably help them a great deal.” He was right: The first time I heard of Charles Ives, Willie Dixon, Captain Beefheart, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Eric Dolphy was when I read that list of 150 random notables (titled People Who Have Contributed Materially in Many Ways to Make Our Music What it Is – Please Do Not Hold it Against Them). My friend, Michael Loceff, and I took a trip to LA later that summer just to check out all the locations that Frank listed as freak out hot spots. When we finally reached the hallowed portals of Ben Franks restaurant on Sunset, we felt like we’d become part of a movement – even if it was 10 a.m., and there wasn’t a freak in sight! Years later, I got to hang out with the Mother’s drummer, Jimmy Carl Black. I was tongue-tied and awestruck to be in the presence of this cat whose mystique, for me, was based solely on his portrayal on the inside of album covers. Frank Zappa schooled us in counter-culture history, gave lost teenagers an identity along with a mythology and provided four sides of groundbreaking rock ’n’ roll for five bucks! Some 44 years later, I’m still a fan – that’s what the music business is about.
If Zappa released that same music today, we’d browse the 30-second samples on the iTunes store without the benefit of reading those mind-blowing liner notes. There’d be no context or depth to the whole experience. It’s no wonder that kids don’t wanna pay for music anymore – downloading a file of zeroes and ones for 99 cents has the same cultural allure as ordering a Ronco Veg-O-Matic from an 800 number.
I suspect that the blame doesn’t fall solely at the feet of iTunes. For all I know, they may be willing to offer all of the digital packaging that they’re supplied with. It wouldn’t be surprising to discover that it’s also the record labels who feel they can’t afford the time and expense required to make this information available. Distracted by the tsunami of horrifying financial trends, maybe nobody in the music business is seriously addressing the possibilities for digital liner notes and the improvement of digital albums. We’re missing the point that, just like domestic automobiles, if we offer better records at a reasonable price maybe people will start buying them again!
Years ago, we felt that the iTunes store was the only hope for the future of recorded music. They were treated with kid gloves by the musicians and entrepreneurs who devoted their lives to making and selling records. Nobody, myself included, wanted to rock the boat. Now I’m starting to wonder if this laissez faire attitude towards iTunes is becoming part of the problem and contributing to the devaluation of the album experience. Ten billion downloads later, it’s time for everyone – Apple, the record labels, artists, ASCAP, BMI, the Federation of Musicians, SAG , the recording academy, music publishers – to ante up and show more respect for music fans by insisting on providing them with the complete experience of recorded music. A great, timeless album is more than just an entertainment app.
Knowing the name of the mastering engineer and honoring his work is a sign of a healthy culture – an essential component to a functioning society. Right on, Steve!
Detroit’s own Don Was (producer of artists from Bonnie Raitt to the Rolling Stones, and co-founder of Was (Not Was)) has agreed to a stint writing for MT’s Star Traction blog. Your comments are encouraged.