An Interview With Jeff Rougvie, Salem Resident and Rykodisc Pioneer
By Jeff Rougvie & William Legault
SD: With all this success, what happened to Rykodisc?
JR: The label took off fast and had to expand to keep up. Then our distribution network fell apart, so we built our own with Rounder, which was costly. We got great catalogs like Elvis Costello and the MGM soundtracks, but we also bought the Frank Zappa catalog for $20 million. Frank was dead and his widow was impossible. She prevented a lot of interesting things from happening, so people forgot who Frank was and his records stopped selling. Even if you’re dead, you need to keep people interested. If no one’s talking about you, it’s over.
Bowie was still paying many bills, but that deal was a license and the term ended, creating mounting debt. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who seemed like a crackpot to me, bought the company and closed the Salem office. I left. Chris & his cronies ran Ryko into the ground, so his bank took it back as collateral against his debt. That bank hired some of us back, and the label became profitable again. But a bank doesn’t want to own a label, even a profitable one, so they wanted to sell. There was a bidding war that Warner Music Group won, in 2006 – pretty shocking, especially considering the music environment.
I quit shortly afterwards, and three of us went to work for EMI in New York, to revamp their “indie” division, Caroline. The week I arrived, the guy who hired us and signed off on our plan was fired, so we were in limbo, and all we could do was hang on in a hostile, corporate culture. EMI was sold about a year later and I left about six months after that. The commute to New York was killing me
SD: The music business has changed dramatically since the internet explosion, starting with Napster and iTunes, and so many illegal sites where music can be downloaded for free. What’s your opinion on the current state of the music business?
JR: It’s brutal, and not just because music is available for free. Easy access to cheap recording means anyone can make a record, and there’s a belief that the freedom of the internet leads to talent being found, that would otherwise have gone undiscovered. The truth is real talent is rare. Justin Bieber is almost certainly the most successful artist discovered on the internet. Is that a win
Also, streaming is good for consumers, but terrible for artists. It’s great for major labels, who share in ad revenue they don’t pass on to the musicians. Artists are starting to push back on that, but it’s a very complicated fight. The major labels will all eventually be sold to Comcast or Apple or someone even worse.
Bowie said “in the future, copyright will be meaningless.” He was pretty good at predicting the future.
But the music business is one of the few areas of art that benefits from gatekeepers; it just got too corporate and drove out the mavericks.
SD: What do you think of the vinyl resurgence?
JR: It’s great for mom & pop record stores, because it helps keep them in business, but it isn’t good for the music business overall. It’s a trend, like collecting Beanie Babies or Funko Pops. The bubble will burst. I have great nostalgia for vinyl, it’s how I started to listen to music, but it degrades every time you play it. It’s born to die, which may be poetic, but if you really want to hear music in a clear, full range, a well-mastered CD is still the superior format. We’re going through a phase where it’s considered uncool, but even as music sales decline, most music is still sold on CD.
SD: So there is hope for the CD
JR: I believe people will buy CDs if you do them right, which was the Ryko mantra. I’m starting a CD-only catalog label in the next few months, which very much goes against the grain of popular wisdom. Counter-intuitive entrepreneurship was what conjured Ryko into existence. Salem will have a record label again.
I also have an office in Salem where I consult with musicians and other artists, writers, ad agencies, TV & Film people. I help them with music, marketing, and pop culture issues. Right now I’m helping a household name with action figure production –it’s always interesting!
I also do expert witness legal work for the music business, which I love. I’m fascinated by entertainment and IP law, but don’t have the
time or ambition to take the bar with everything else I’m doing.
SD: What do you think of the HBO show about the 70’s music business, “Vinyl”
JR: Years ago I conceived a novel, a thriller, that takes place in the music business. It’s now being adapted into a graphic novel. I’ve been writing it as a straight prose novel for years. It’s authentic, unlike “Vinyl”. TV and movies never get the business right, which is a shame because it’s a really fascinating subject. A Scottish guy, John Niven, wrote the best, most authentic fiction about the music business, a really black comedy called “Kill Your Friends.” It overtook “Fear And Loathing” as my favorite book of all time. But they made a movie from it and it sucks, which proves my point. Read the book, it’s amazing.
I find “Vinyl” is an insult – not only to reality, but fiction. It’s frantic, but boring. Terrence Winter, one of the main creative guys on “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire” just bailed from the show, which seems smart. I’m surprised Scorsese stays involved, but he and Jagger are friends. Mick’s kid is great in it, though.
SD: Anything else?
JR: I could go on forever, there are so many great stories to tell, meeting Beatles, Springsteen, working with two of my heroes – Mick Jones from the Clash & Tony James from Generation X, watching records take off and others die. Rykodisc was a special label and an amazing place to work, and it’s largely forgotten now, which is a shame.
To hopefully help rectify that, I’m doing a talk, lecture, presentation, call it what you will, focused on Bowie and Rykodisc at CinemaSalem on May 12th. We’ve got a great band called Daily Pravda who’ll be playing (full electric!) classic Bowie songs to provide relief to my yapping. I hope people will come out – it’ll be a blast.
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