Several years ago I took an entertainment law class at NYU with an instructor who had worked a great deal in the music industry. At that time, around 2004, he proclaimed the music industry as we knew it, to be dead, and so he had turned his efforts to film and film scoring to try to make up for the lost income. But what were the many recording artists who had spent a lifetime amassing their bodies of work supposed to do in an industry that seemed to have eyes only on American Idol? The clever ones learned to reinvent themselves.
Musicians, and particularly rock stars, have long had to cross the line most other artists can pretend to ignore—the promotional line. There still exists the self-defeating illusion that painters and sculptors are too refined to participate in the marketing of their work, that novelists and poets don’t need to know their numbers. But musicians have always been immersed in a more commercial world, perhaps because their livelihood and the continuation of their careers depended on the whims of hormonally imbalanced youth, where most writers and artists cultivated more discriminating audiences of advanced age. Music is all about impulse, and the marketing to a purchasing public has been that much more strident.
But to their credit, many musicians learned to live with this crass reality, and learned to perform the same songs over and over again to increasingly ridiculous stadium-sized crowds, using everything from wires, moving stages, and pyrotechnics, while wearing what should have been embarrassing outfits that will forever be immortalized on youtube.
They learned to make love to the camera while hot actresses pouted behind them and to make silly dance moves for videos that could help drive sales of their albums. Let’s give them a hand, because they get what we have been so slow to globby onto.
…That art is not above the masses. It is for the masses (we’ll talk about former Poet Laureate Billy Collins another time). And the best way to keep being an artist is to learn how to continually expand your audience, who, after all, are fickle and tend to get bored and wander off to play with some other artist who managed to catch their attention.
I just bought tickets to see Kenny Loggins in concert later this Spring, as a birthday gift for a friend who’s never seen him live. But she knows his name, and I know from attending other concerts that he really puts on a good show. Not a big show or a flashy one, but he seems to really know who he is and connects with each audience in a personal way. I seem to remember his concerts better than many of the others I’ve attended in the last several years, and I’ve gone to see the Eagles, the Who, Poco, Aerosmith, Carly Simon, Carole King and Dan Fogelberg (so sad to have lost him!).
Loggins tours almost every year and usually comes somewhere close to where I live, and the price point is reasonable, so it makes for a great outing for friends of various ages, especially since his music is still pretty middle-of-the-road (MOR) with a good mix of accoustic and rock (Poison did a pretty good cover of Your Mama Don’t Dance ).
Kenny Loggins has been around a long time. I’m sure he won’t mind my saying that. I used to listen to his early albums when they first came out, and then my life actually got interesting (to me at least) and I stopped following what so many of my favorite performers were doing. In the beginning, I think he would have been legitimately classified a “rock star.” These days, the concept of rock star is defined by corporations and American Idol ( I will not help them any further by giving you a link here), and so I think he’s now more of a niche performer. But he’s still out there doing what he’s always done, and in my opinion, doing it better, even though he’s certainly flying lower on the radar.
Loggins came before MTV. He’s actually featured in a number of commercials for old record collections, and one for the Midnight Special, which so many of you may be too young to have ever heard of, and which, by the way, was a very cool show. He evolved from a duo act as Loggins and Messina in the 70s (they had a reunion tour in 2009), to a huge solo tour and duets with Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac) and Michael McDonald (The Doobie Brothers), both off the Nightwatch album. Radio in the 80s was mapped with Kenny Loggins music, especially from movie soundtracks. The synthesizer brought a new, densely electronic sound to music and disco was king in the 80s. Loggins made a smart lateral move into movie soundtracks without totally compromising on disco as the BeeGees did (and paid for). He became known for theme songs for movies like Caddyshack, Footloose, Top Gun and the Tigger Movie.
He morphed through other phases as he grew (up/older), experimenting with his personal values and beliefs, and showing less consciousness of the marketing trends in music, resulting in what was probably his best original album, Leap of Faith, a collection of environmentally-conscious songs with crisp production values and richly rhythmic arrangements. This was interspersed with three albums of children’s songs (including the song he is most identified with, the House at Pooh Corner, and the updated Return to Pooh Corner), a Christmas album called December, and an album based on an inspirational book he cowrote with then-wife, Julia, called The Unimaginable Life.
In the late 90s and heading into the new millennium, Loggins, like many performers from the 70s and 80s, saw a decline in his career as the record industry became increasingly run by large corporations. He has commented on it in interviews and it’s understandable, since his CDs are frequently not found on the racks of the remaining “record” stores.
When I spoke with Jon Pousette-Dart last year, he voiced the same frustration with the music industry that doesn’t seem to value the accumulation of vast amounts of experience by people already perceived to have tremendous talent. Pousette-Dart was the frontman for a niche acoustic rock band back in the 70s, the Pousette-Dart Band. The 80s completely buried his sound, but he managed to find it again himself through his solo efforts in the late 90s and early 2000s. He said that he would gladly give himself over to a recording company that would take on the promotion of an album, but recording companies aren’t willing to take on the risk. He was offered a deal if he personally shouldered the expense for the master recording (while giving up creative control)—and what is the point of a recording company then? So, you can find the album Heart & Soul, which Pousette-Dart recorded himself, being distributed from his website.
Back now to Loggins, in 2008 he recorded How About Now, which, he explained at one of his shows, was distributed exclusively by Target, because “that’s the way music is done these days.” He sounded a little sad, and it seemed sad to me that such a monumental artist felt he had to package himself through a discount store, but I ran out and bought the album, and found it very entertaining. One of the lyrics had a line, “hell’s finally frozen over, and I’m puttin’ on skates…” Maybe that describes his whole approach to life, or at least his approach to maintaining a career in one of the toughest businesses going. And the moves paid off, because now you can visit the Kenny Loggins Store on Amazon.com (way to go!).
Part of being an artist is learning how to survive the winters of your career—and there will be many. I tend to find lessons in the lives of others, even if they don’t appear to relate directly. None of the arts is tougher to navigate than the music world, which became mired in litigation as digital files flew across the internet at lightening speed, not even bothering to register with BMI or ASCAP.
Fortunately, it seems my NYU instructor may have prematurely given last rites, as the music world seems to be hanging on (albeit with gasping breaths). But those of us who grew up listening to AM radio can’t and won’t let go, and finally, artists from Kenny Loggins to Jon Pousette-Dart are finding out how to reach us with their new music. If they can do it, then surely writers can find their audiences, painters can find their admirers, poets can find their listeners, and the art world is―at least temporarily―safe from extinction.
Listen to more about Loggin’s approach to marketing music from an interview on RetroRewind.
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