March 13, 2009

Read This Out Loud: Billy Corgan (Updated)

How does one begin an inaugural blog post? If I were making a speech, I might start with, "is this thing on?" which, coincidentally (or not), is the title of my good friend and blog inspiration A. Fiercehair's personal blog.

Instead, I'll start with the first installment of what I hope will become a regular feature on this blog. Now, don't expect regular features to be, well, regular. I know theme blogs reach a wider audience than hodgepodge personal blogs, but this blog decidedly falls in the latter category. I will be posting my reflections on music, baseball, teaching, food, and all the other things in my life.

I'm calling this regular feature Read This Out Loud in honor of my first-year writing students. Every time I run aground on one of their sentences, stranded on a sandbar of labyrinthine syntax, I place a nice comment in the margin to the effects of, "Read this out loud. You can hear the cadences of speech in your own writing when you read it aloud to yourself." This is my subtle way of saying, what the hell does that mean?

And who am I telling to Read This Out Loud today? Billy Corgan. Yes, that Billy Corgan, the frontman of the Smashing Pumpkins. Perhaps you've heard of the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger that's all the rage on Capitol Hill lately. The proposed merger would join together the largest online concert ticket retailer with the largest owner and promoter of live music venues, so it's kind of a big deal in the music community. You know the shtick: large corporations band together to increase profits and screw over the little guy. Except, in this case, it might actually be true. There are a number of reasons people are opposed to the merger—too many to go into here—but the overall consensus is that the merger would essentially allow the new company, Live Nation Entertainment, to fix prices and scalp their own tickets, as well as run smaller ticket companies like StubHub out of business.

It's obvious that a merger like this one, which would revolutionize the face of live music, doesn't come along every day, so Congress is investigating the issue. And here's where we get to Corgan, who just so happens to be managed by Ticketmaster CEO Irving Azoff. Corgan recently appeared before Congress to support the merger, and in doing so, he joins the ranks of Seal, Journey, Shakira, and Van Halen as respectable *cough* purveyors of music *cough* to praise the deal. This concession is part of Corgan's rapid descent into commercialism. I will be the first to admit that I loved the Smashing Pumpkins. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is one of my formative albums, and it influenced my taste in music for years. I still enjoy the album, but Corgan's recent shenanigans—releasing special edition after special edition of the latest Pumpkins album in order to pump up dwindling sales, alienating fans by deriding them for not appreciating the disaster that was Zeitgeist, and now his appearance in front of Congress—have turned me off the band.

Endorsing the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger is quite a reversal for the Pumpkins frontman, as well. In the past, he has avoided Live Nation like the plague, instead touring through independent Chicago agency Jam Productions. He's also spoken out against Ticketmaster. In this light, it's hard to see his open embrace of the merger as anything more than a thinly-veiled plea by his manager, Irving Azoff. That Corgan would allow himself to be used in this way does not make me think any higher of him.

And the best part is yet to come. Corgan also wrote a letter to Congress elucidating the inner workings of the merger. I've posted the letter in full (from the Chicago Sun-Times blog) below:

Dear Chairmen Kohl & Leahy and Ranking Members Hatch & Specter:

The merger as proposed before you on the surface may seem to be too much power in the hands of the few, and I can understand the need for Congress to review this matter. Here I would hope that my 20 years in the recording and touring business will allow me some candid authority on these issues, and would help shed some light for you on some of the nuances that perhaps could easily get missed.

The 'system' that was once the modern record business, essentially ushered in with the meteoric rise of the Beatles, is now helplessly broken. And by almost every account available cannot be repaired. Personally I would add to that a healthy 'good riddance,' as the old system far too often took advantage of the artists as pawns while the power brokers colluded behind the scenes to control the existing markets. This control often saw the sacrificing of great careers to maintain that control. Look no further than the major record labels' intense fight to slow down the progress of Internet technologies that more readily brought music and video to the consumer because they couldn't completely control it. This disastrous decision on their part has destroyed the economic base of the recording industry. It is now a shadow of its former self.

Artists now find a heavy shift of emphasis to the live performance side, and this is where this merger finds its merit. The combination of these companies creates powerful tools for an independent artist to reach their fans in new and unprecedented ways, all the while restoring the power where it belongs. In today's ever changing world, the ability for artists to connect to their fans and stay connected is critical for the health of our industry. Without sustainable, consistent economic models upon which to make key decisions, it is both the music and the fans that suffer.

In short, we have a broken system. This is a new model that puts power into the hands of the artist, creating a dynamic synergy that will inspire great works and attract healthy competition. The proposed merger you have before you helps create those opportunities by boldly addressing the complexity of the existing musical and economic landscapes.

Billy Corgan
Corgan begins his plea by admitting that the merger seems like a bad idea. Wait, wait! he says, not all is as it seems. He promises to "shed some light for you on some of the nuances that perhaps could easily get missed." "Perhaps could"? Are you sure you're qualifying yourself enough, Billy? I'm also extremely dubious of a 370-word letter illuminating any "nuances." I'll give Corgan the benefit of the doubt, though.

That is, until the final two paragraphs. The second paragraph makes the rather ambitious, though not entirely crazy, claim that the modern record industry is broken and irreparable. In fact, Corgan hits the nail on the head with his statement that the industry has battled digital distribution to its own detriment.

Corgan's letter quickly descends into the chaos of vaguery, though. "The combination of these companies," he says, "creates powerful tools for an independent artist to reach their fans in new and unprecedented ways." Really? How, pray tell, Mr. Corgan? Well, it turns out that the merger does so "by boldly addressing the complexity of the existing musical and economic landscapes." Here we return to my original question: What the hell does that mean? Billy Corgan promises us "nuances" and provides only mystery.

The larger question, for me, has to do with the man behind the Pumpkin, Irving Azoff. Is Azoff really the architect of Corgan's sharp U-turn on Ticketmaster and Live Nation? If so, is this the best he can come up with? Is this just empty rhetoric, or are there some real benefits to the merger? I could always turn on C-Span and see for myself, but that would require knowing what channel C-Span is.

Update: Apparently, the whole corruption thing is a lot bigger in the ticket business than I thought. If there's a silver lining in the TM/LN merger, it's the scrutiny the industry is now receiving (prompting even the Wall Street Journal to write about it).


  1. My very first post was about waiting for carpet cleaners. And starting a blog.

  2. While this is a great start for you, it’s an inauspicious start for me. “Completely helpless spouse”? My recommendations: Best Beloved, One True Love (OTL, for short), My Better Half, or really anything that is not negative.
    Congratulations on being done with the Comp exam!