The Recording Artist as an Indentured Servant

Soon after I became part of Fillmore Management, Lamb and Victoria were recording new albums. I had never been in a recording studio nor knew what a recording session was like.

My first session was at the Wally Heider Studio, one of the San Francisco greats, located in the old Tenderloin District. Santana, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Steve Miller, The Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Herbie Hancock were some of the bands that recorded their albums there.

One of the great San Francisco bay Area recording studios.

One of the great San Francisco bay Area recording studios.

Building Plaque for this historic recording Bay Area recording studio.

Building Plaque for this historic recording Bay Area recording studio.

The receptionist pointed me into two dark rooms separated by a huge piece of plate glass. Bob Swanson and Barbara Mauritz of Lamb were recording songs for “Cross Between,” their second album.

I walked into a dimly lit room and introduced myself to Fred Catero, one of the greatest recording engineers of all time. He was seated the controls of a very complicated console with levers, knobs, lights and instrument panels. He explained to me that I was looking at a mixing board, each lever accessing and controlling volume at one of the microphones in the other room. As Barbara had not yet arrived, he had time to explain what some of the other equipment in the room was all about.

One of the mixing boards at Wally Heider Studios, San Francisco.

One of the mixing boards at Wally Heider Studios, San Francisco.

In the second room, behind the glass, Bob Swanson was tuning his guitar and Walter Rapaport was setting up microphones and joking with Bob. Walter was the sound and road manager for Lamb; in the studio he acted as a production helper. The album called him “a shepherd’ which was an accurate title for someone who know what Lamb’s music should sound like and worked with an engineer to get it.

When Barbara Mauritz arrived 45 minutes time was spent setting her up with microphones and testing recording levels at the mixing board.

Then Bob and Barbara tried out a song. For whatever reason, there were a lot of false starts and stops during the song and there were a lot of breaks. Fred would talk to them and instruct them when to start. Fred explained that he could piece together the best parts of a song without their having to play and sing it perfectly all the way through.

During this time, I’m counting minutes. Wally Heider was charging $250 an hour, about $4.00 a minute. During that four-hour session, almost two hours were time spent on lateness, false stops and starts, jokes, breaks. Maybe two songs got recorded. Fred was the soul of patience. One of his jobs was to help musicians relax, so he gave them a lot of leeway.
David Rubinson, Executive Producer for the album, popped in for a few minutes.

FredCatero, upper left, and David Rubinson, producer, Fillmore Records

FredCatero, upper left, and David Rubinson, producer, Fillmore Records

As today, money spent recording an album is a loan from a record company to be paid back (recouped) out of the money earned in sales (royalties). Lamb would spend an excess of $250,000 recording “Cross Between” and it would take sales of more than 150,000 records to recoup the expense. Until then, their living would depend on earnings from gigs and advances (about $15,000 per album, also an advance against future royalties).

At the rate of time spent on that very first session, I well understood why many bands became indentured servants to the record companies during their entire musical careers. Unless they sold millions of records, recording expenses kept compounding, album after album. The farther behind a band got, the harder to sell enough records to recoup expenses. Lamb perhaps sold 150,000 copies of their first three recordings and racked up more than $750,000 in expenses!

BarbaraMauritz and Bob Swanson of Lamb. Photo by Peter Olwyer.

BarbaraMauritz and Bob Swanson of Lamb. Photo by Peter Olwyer.

The ‘loan’ made it very difficult for bands to change record labels, even when their albums did not sell nearly enough to ‘recoup’ expenses, much less make any money for the bands. And if they did sell millions, I discovered, record companies often ‘cheated’ on what they reported was due. Whole companies were set up to ‘audit’ the royalties owed for 10% or more of whatever they recovered. What does this tell you? That there had to be enough money owed the bands for those companies to make a profit.

As an example of a lifetime of indentured servitude, Pamela Polland’s album “Gentle Soul” was re-released on Sundazed Music in the last few years. I asked her if they were paying her. She wrote, “The reason I can’t get any money is because A) I still owe Sony a couple hundred grand for the cost of all three of my albums: “Gentle Soul,” and my two solo albums, the second of which was never released. And B) when a company like Sundazed does a re-issue, they pay Sony, not me. Sigh.”)

Bob Swanson was to find essentially the same explanation when he tried to get Sony to pay for re-releases of Lamb’s albums.

Holding Down Expenses
One of my jobs as a manager was to try and hold down expenses for recording. A lot of money could and did get eaten up in experimentation, mediocre sessions, tuning, and ideas for adding flutes or violas, or even whole orchestras. Bands would come up with ideas for new tunes or new arrangements and the clock would keep right on ticking. Part of the reason for this was that many bands heard what they were playing for the first time over very very good speakers. Once they did, they knew what had to be changed, or done better or differently. Drummers sometimes needed metronomes because they didn’t keep accurate beats. Guitars frequently went out of tune, and so on. Unfortunately, $250 an hour was a harsh price to pay for learning to listen.

Not only was my job to hold down expenses, but to argue with record companies about expenses that were charged my artists that I considered unfair. For example, When Pamela Polland recorded her first album for Columbia Records, Clive Davis ‘assigned’ a young, very untried producer to work with her. The producer spent in excess of $35,000 ‘mixing’ the album because he couldn’t quite make up his mind about how prominent Pamela’s vocals should be and whether there should be more echo, on her voice; whether the drums should be louder and on and on. He was indecisive at every turn and to compensate tried everything. I know because I attended those sessions. Even though I hadn’t had a lot of experience, I knew that the producer was spending Pamela’s recording budget on ‘learning.’ She, not the record company, was on the hook. And that pissed me off.

When I went to New York, I made an appointment to see Clive Davis, then head of Columbia, the record company that signed Pamela. I was in high dudgeon and demanded that $25,000 be taken off her recording budget and explained why. Clive finally agreed. He later told me I was the only manager that walked in and asked him to do this.

After that, my motto became, “You don’t ask, you don’t get.”

Brian Rohan: The People’s Lawyer
Soon after joining Fillmore Management, I met Brian Rohan, the third member of the Fillmore triumvirate (with Bill Graham and David Rubinson), a handsome, burly Irishman that I nicknamed the Marlon Brandon of the record industry. He got the prettiest women to fall madly in love with him and then treated them in the cavalier fashion of a scoundrel and a rogue.

Rohan got his start in San Francisco by defending pot and LSD dealers and saved them from the clutches of jail. For this he became known as a ‘people’s lawyer. Ken Kesey was one of his clients and so was Neil Cassady, Jack Kerouac’s sidekick, who was a close friend of mine when I lived in San Miguel de Allende and started managing a band there.

Rohan negotiated all recording and publishing contracts negotiated on behalf of Fillmore Management, Fillmore Records and Pamela Polland. He was the lawyer for the Grateful Dead. He negotiated the most complete and remarkable contracts recording artists signed at that time. His negotiating tactic was procrastination. He would drive record company executives crazy with a stall until they gave in to his demands. Drove the bands crazy with waiting as well.

One day Rohan asked me if wanted to go with him to the Grateful Dead house in Larkspur (a Marin County town, just north of San Francisco). I was introduced to a bunch of guys lolling around the couches with their girlfriends, the smell of pot prominent. Before too many minutes went by, Brian launched into a half hour diatribe about how much money they were racking up in studio time. “You’re never going to make any money. . .” They just rolled their eyes. It was legion in San Francisco that the Dead always spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on recording and sound equipment when they gigged. They had a huge draw at their gigs, but it wasn’t until the eighties that they actually had a hit song with “Touch of Grey.” It was the band’s only commercial hit. The song is known for its refrain
“I will get by / I will survive.”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l38YXrGJxx0 Bill Graham Memorial Concert 1991.

The Grateful Dead recorded American Beauty at Wally Heider Studios, San Francisco, CA.

The Grateful Dead recorded American Beauty at Wally Heider Studios, San Francisco, CA.

What is more unbelievable is that the first Dead concert I went to was after I quit Fillmore Management in 1974. I was way too busy to go to concerts for other than the bands that I managed. And when I did have a free evening, I’d just as soon spend it at home with my two children.

Promotion
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of my job was to persuade record companies to put promotional dollars into recordings of the bands that I was managing and persuade promotion people to get their records played on the radio. Promotion almost solely meant getting radio stations to play music of newly released albums.

By taking record company executives to ‘lunch,’ I learned that few had never even listened to the music.

Then I learned what the actual system was for assigning ‘priorities’ for airplay within the record companies.During any three-month period, a record company might release up to ten albums in any one genre, primarily rock, country and middle-of-the road. Three might be records of known stars—the major promotional dollars would be spent on them. Three releases might be from artists that were beginning to have promising followings and promo dollars were targeted for cities that they were popular in. Money for the albums of say four unknowns was divvied up according to the push of managers, whether there was even a possibility of a ‘hit’ single on their albums, and any number of other factors. Who got what portion of promotional dollars was pre-decided in a meeting of the record company president and his promotional and marketing staff.

One day, the promo guy at Warner Brothers called to tell me that one of Lamb’s singles was going to be put on radio rotation all over the country and to listen in the next day to the promotional conversation as he instructed the regional guys. But when I listened in, I heard him tell his regional guys to push Malo, a spinoff of Santana, that David Rubinson was also the producer for. When I called, quite pissed off, he blandly told me that David Rubinson had called in one of his favors.

Once again, I was fighting internecine warfare within Fillmore Records. Even harder to stomach was that some of the members of Malo were too incapacitated by heroin to go on the road and support that album, despite the airplay they received.

Payola
And then there was payola. Pay for play. Payola was cash spent under the table to bribe DJ’s or major station conglomerates to play certain tunes. Very illegal, but i those days standard operating procedure between record companies and radio stations. Payola was extremely difficult to prove because the cash couldn’t be traced. And it wasn’t just direct pay for play.

There was what I used to call party payola: the free tickets, the back stage passes, the invitations to parties on record executive yachts, the free booze and drugs at conventions. It was an entrenched system that was impossible to buck, but something that was always there, taken for granted, like the air you breathed. And all around was a conspiracy of silence.

In 1973, Clive Davis was accused of embezzling $93,000 for his son’s bar mitzvah and fired. Other arrests were made and underlying it all was a huge investigation of payola. Nothing was ever proved and for awhile, payola became even more hidden.

The only person I knew that did jail time was an unassuming fifty-year old man, with a big paunch whose job it was to provide drugs and women (or men) for the pleasure of bands and executives at annual conventions. It was all part of party payola.

When an organization called Women in Music asked me to give a talk about how women could rise above being secretaries and public relations employees, I ended the lecture by saying: “If you do rise above those jobs, the biggest challenge you will face is dealing with people in positions above yours, most of them men, some brilliant, some incompetent, some stupid, many stuck in their own egos, some who consider themselves gifts to women and some corrupt—sometimes in one package. The most heartbreaking combination is brilliance mixed with corruption. These people controlled the money and the business attention that I and the artists that I managed received. Learning to maneuver without losing your sanity or your own sense of ethics will be your primary challenge.”

For sure it was mine; and when I couldn’t deal with it anymore with any sense of dignity or ethics, I quit Fillmore Management and the entertainment industry that went with it. The more I knew, the more I understood about how it all worked, the more squeezed I felt inside. And what I couldn’t deal with, above the corruption I was privy to, was that the bands were the fall guys, a lot of talent that became pawns of corruption and indentured servants to companies that did not serve them.

Artist Management: One Long Game of Creative Chutzpah

The first months that I worked as an artist’s manager for Bill Graham at Fillmore Management in 1969 was like attending an anarchist university. There were no structured courses, no schedule, no time clocks and no rules. Not only did I not know what I did not know; I didn’t know how tangled and corrupt some of the knowledge that eventually came my way would be and the toll it would take on me and the artists that I managed.

I was the only woman in management level in a building that encompassed Fillmore Records, Millard (Talent) Agency and Fillmore Management. I looked naïve and was on a lot of levels. Management was a competitive game with shifting team members within the company, a dynamic it took some getting used to. Sometimes learning was about what others didn’t know.

Management of bands at Fillmore Management was a lot more complex than just finding gigs for the bands and acting as surrogate den mother. My job included being the main money boss, chief sales person, contract negotiator, publishing administrator, mediator, press agent and person that hired and fired supplemental personnel, including musicians not central to the core band. I was expected to be conversant and knowledgeable about all the contracts that my bands had or would face.

My first surprise was that I learned it was ‘illegal’ in California (and a few other states) for artist managers to get gigs for their bands. That was the job of booking agents. The only time I saw this to be a real problem was when bands and their managers got crosswise with each other and bands then had an excuse to fire the manager.

It was also illegal for bands to play clubs that weren’t union. Jobs in union clubs were very difficult to come by for Lamb, Victoria or Pamela Polland. They were reserved for major rock bands that would fill the club with drinking customers.

And unless bands had big draws (audiences) outside of town, booking agents only got gigs for them during the three months after their records were released by ‘packaging’ them with more established artists. That was the harshest lesson about working with the Millard Agency. Sometimes members of Millard Agency would throw us a booking bone, often not.

Rock ‘n roll dominated the Fillmore conglomerate that included Santana, Beautiful Day, Elvin Bishop and Cold Blood. Bill Graham would try and book Lamb or Victoria at Fillmore, but more often than not, they would be packaged with name rock bands. When Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young headlined Fillmore West, the bands sequenced at the bottom of the poster were Cold Blood-Joy of Cooking -Lamb. I never asked Bill whether the puns were intended.DownloadedFile-1

Fighting within the company for attention to my bands was ongoing throughout the five years I worked there. it helped prepare me for the same dynamic when by bands had their records released on major labels (next vignette).

Maneuvering in these craggy shoals to make sure that my bands had paying work was chancy.

Creative Chutzpah
Bill Graham was not unaware that I was spending time on his nickel managing Pamela and looking for record deals for her. One day, he summoned me to the front office.

Gruff voice. “Why am I paying you to manage Pamela Polland?”

“First of all, at the time you hired me, I was getting it on for all the acoustic bands in the city. And fulfilling some management capacities for Lamb and Victoria by fiat. What was good for them was equally good for Pamela.” I took a breath.

“And second of all?” He said, more gruffly. His eyes bore right into mine.

“Second, the issue doesn’t seem to be that I’m not doing a stellar job for Lamb and Victoria. What is at issue is that you don’t want to sign Pamela to Fillmore Management. But neither do you want to lose my services on behalf of Lamb or Victoria. So maybe one way to resolve this is to cut a new deal. I’ll give you a small percentage of my management percentage for Pamela, in exchange for the same from Lamb and Victoria. Salary remains the same.”

This deal had come to me in a creative flash. It was a way out for both of us.

The offer came so far out of left field that Bill just stood there for quite a few minutes without saying anything. Then he held out his hand and we shook on it.