Wednesday, April 30, 2014

TMFW 34 - Ground Control to Major [Rating Agencies]

With the NFL draft on the horizon, many football pundits are weighing in on teams' various "needs" and on the "best" and "worst" contracts teams have been signing so far this offseason.  Among the discussion of the business of football has been some press for Fantex, Inc.   Fantex bills itself as a stock brokerage - it is registered with the SEC as an "alternative trading system" - and it deals exclusively in "tracking stock" for professional athlete contracts. 
Essentially, Fantex pays an athlete a fixed amount of money, upfront, for a percentage of the athlete's future income.  In the case of San Francisco 49ers Tight End Vernon Davis - whose "stock" started trading publicly on Monday - Fantex paid $4 million for 10% of all future income, whether it is from a playing contract, endorsement, television gig, motivational speaking, etc.  Then, Fantex sold 421,000 shares of "VNDSL" priced at $10 each.  That paid for the $4M to Davis, and netted Fantex $210K for its efforts.  Going forward, Fantex promises to allocate 95% of its 10% share to the VNDSL shareholders, net of its expenses.  So if Davis signs a big deal or becomes the next Payton Manning of endorsements (i.e. the guy who is on every other commercial during the NFL season), then shareholders might see a return on their investment.  But it's a long shot at best - Davis is 30 years old, he will make only $14M in his next three years before free agency, and his best current endorsements are for a "gourmet jerky" and something called "NutraClick." 
Still, the idea of owning a share of a pro athlete is pretty fun.  Fantex plans an IPO for Bills quarterback EJ Manuel, and (until a season-ending injury last year) had planned an IPO for Texans running back Arian Foster too.  Whether more athletes get involved remains to be seen, but the Fantex "bundle up and sell future celebrity earnings" concept is interesting.
Interesting, but not unique.  In the music industry (see? I told you there was a music fact in here), a similar offering was first made over 15 years ago by David Bowie.  In 1997, Bowie needed money to invest in his internet business (called "BowieNet," for real) and to buy full ownership of his songs from a former manager, who owned 50% of much of Bowie's catalog.  So Bowie worked with investment banker David Pullman, who packaged together and securitized future royalties and license payments for 287 of Bowie's songs.  The so-called "Bowie Bonds" were initially rated AAA (investment grade) by Moody's.  They paid a rich interest rate of nearly 8% over an average term of 10 years, and were offered at $55 million.  According to a contemporary Washington Post story, there was intense interest in the bonds.  But unlike Fantex, Bowie's bond issue wasn't available to the general public; instead, all $55 million was bought by Prudential Insurance Company. 
So the next time you hear about the "new trend" of celebrity financial instruments, you will know that Ziggy Stardust helped blaze that trail. 
BONUS FACT 1: It's not clear whether the Bowie Bonds were ultimately a good investment by Prudential (there is much on the issuance of the bonds but not much on how they fared), but after the advent of Napster in 1999 and the start of a significant decline in music sales - they were cut in half between 1999 and 2009 - Moody's downgraded the bonds three grades in 2004 to one notch above junk status.  
BONUS FACT 2: Following the success of the Bowie Bonds issuance, Pullman did a number of other "celebrity bond" deals, including James Brown, Ashford & Simpson, and the Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland.  Given the current state of the music industry (the ch-ch-ch-ch-changes since Bowie's '97 deal), the relative lack of artists that hold full rights to a catalog of hits, and the securitization of everything under the sun, the future is not bright for celebrity bond issues in the music industry.
BONUS FACT 3:  Shortly after Tim Tebow's first and only playoff win with the Broncos, TMFW favorite Jimmy Fallon - performing as "Tebowie" - did a terrific parody of "Space Odyssey".  It's worth the watch. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

TMFW 33 - The Zombies' Accidental Rookie Engineer (Who Went on to Big Things)

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the "British Invasion," which started with the Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964.  In August of that year, The Zombies had a #2 hit in the US with their first ever single "She's Not There."  The recording of that song is the subject of today's TMFW, but it's worth a brief detour to extoll the virtues of The Zombies' catalog.
<detour> At the end of this week's Mad Men, the credits featured The Zombies' "This Will Be Our Year," from their record Odessey and Oracle (full length record on YouTube).  Yesterday, Slate took that as an opportunity and made a post that highlights some of their best work.  Slate's selections are good, but they omit "Friends of Mine," which is also well worth the time. You can buy the mp3 version of Odessey and Oracle for $6.99 on Amazon; the record is easily worth it. </detour>
Okay, back to the story of the day.  The Zombies (that name apparently narrowly beat out the contender "Chatterley and the Gamekeepers") got their big break when they won a local "battle of the bands" contest.  Their prize included a recording session for Decca records.  Rod Argent, the principal songwriter of the group, took the opportunity to write a new song for the session.  Drawing inspiration (and the first line of his tune) from John Lee Hooker's "No One Told Me," Argent wrote "She's Not There." 
The band's first ever recording session was scheduled for an evening in June, 1964.  When the band got to the studio, they found that the Decca engineer assigned to work with them had been at a wedding earlier in the day, and had gotten very very drunk.  In that state, the engineer was very confrontational and loud, to the point that the band's lead singer Colin Blunstone started to question whether he was cut out for the music business.  In an interview from 2011, Blunstone told the story:
We got that session and we had a fine producer and engineer, but because it was in the evening, at lunch time, the engineer had been at a wedding. And he got very drunk. He also became very aggressive. We never met him before. I was thinking, 'cause he's shouting at us...I remember thinking if this is the recording industry, I don't think this is for me. That was my first session.
Thankfully, Blunstone got a reprieve from the abuse when the engineer passed out right at the soundboard.  From the same interview, Blunstone recalled "we were quite lucky 'cause he passed out. Just out cold. And so four of us got an arm or leg and we had to carry him up a flight of stairs and put him in the back of a black London taxi. And off he went home. His assistant took over..."
As it turns out, the assistant was a fellow named Gus Dudgeon.  Dudgeon had started at the studio as a "teaboy" and worked his way up on the controls.  But he'd never had the opportunity to work as a true recording engineer until his boss passed out drunk and they needed a quick stand-in.  (Note: this story sounds like one of those "too good to be true" tales, but it's told consistently in several different places.)
From his surprise start as a proper engineer, Dudgeon went on to great things.  Among dozens of notable projects, he produced nearly all of Elton John's records in the 1970s, including Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and he produced David Bowie's seminal record Space Oddity
Dudgeon and his wife died in 2002 in a car accident in England, but he left a substantial legacy behind.  One wonders whether the history of pop music might have been different if that initial engineer had RSVP'd no to his friends' wedding. 
BONUS FACT:  Gus Dudgeon produced XTC's great 1992 album Nonsuch, which featured TMFW favorites "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" and "Dear Madam Barnum."
BONUS FACT 2: Decca records famously passed on signing the Beatles after the band recorded several demos there at a tryout in 1962.  In passing on the band, the label allegedly predicted that "The Beatles have no future in show business."  Instead of The Beatles, Decca signed Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. They went on to have a handful of hits - including three singles that went gold - but they are probably most famous for being a trivia answer. 
BONUS FACT 3:  The unusual spelling of Odessey and Oracle is said to be an accident by the artist for the album cover, which the band was too nice to correct.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

TMFW 32 - The Special Forces Soldier Who Played in the Biggest Band(s) in Grunge

Last week, Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility, to great fanfare.  In their acceptance speech, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic were charming and gracious.  Dave made a point of thanking three guys who were drummers in the band before he was, and noted that they had helped pave the way and contributed to Nirvana's success.  Though he was apparently in the audience, the band did not specifically name one other former member: Jason Everman, who played guitar for the band and was the only non-drummer other than Cobain and Novoselic to ever be a full-time band member.
Everman was a part of the band for much of 1989, after the recording but before the release of Bleach.  In fact, when the band got the invoice for recording Bleach from the studio - for the amazing sum of $606.17 - it was Everman who found the cash to pay it (even though he had not played on the record).  Everman is listed in the liner notes of the record as a guitarist, and he  is featured on the cover of the record with Kurt Cobain.  He hit the road with the band in support of Bleach, and as the story goes Everman struggled with the tough life of a touring band.  His withdrawal and moodiness caused the band to abruptly cancel the end of its tour, and they were forced to drive 50 hours from New York back to Seattle.  Everman was fired shortly thereafter.  
But Everman's story does not stop there.  Very shortly after leaving Nirvana, Everman hooked up with another Seattle band that had just released their first major label record - Soundgarden.  He joined the band as their bassist and toured North America and Europe as Soundgarden was in the early days of its fame.  But after the tour concluded, the band called a meeting in Seattle.  Chris Cornell, Soundgarden's lead singer, expressed frustration with the band dynamic and Everman was surprised to learn that he was being kicked out.
So by mid-1990, Jason Everman had the remarkable accomplishment of having been a member of, and having been fired from, both Nirvana and Soundgarden.  Nirvana released Nevermind in September 1991 and Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger one month later.  The rest is history.
But Everman's story does not stop there.  As this long New York Times Magazine article explains, in 1993 Everman flew to New York City, visited an Army recruiting center in Manhattan, and enlisted.  He eventually became an Army Ranger, then later became a member of the elite Special Forces. Everman spent time in Latin America, in Asia, in Afghanistan and in Iraq as part of that team.  As the article notes, at each stop along the way his fame found a way to catch up to him.  One can imagine the fun of being at boot camp when your drill sergeant learns you were in two of the most famous bands in the world.
After over a decade in the Army, Everman returned to the US.  In his early 40s, and with help from the GI Bill and a recommendation letter from General Stanley McChrystal, he enrolled at Columbia University.  He graduated at 45 with a philosophy degree.
Even after they made it big, Nirvana never paid Everman back his $606.17 for the Bleach session.  Kurt Cobain facetiously characterized the money as payment for "mental damages."
BONUS FACT:  Along with Nirvana, the Rock Hall inducted a good lineup of artists on Thursday, including Cat Stevens, Linda Ronstadt, and Kiss.  It also inducted the first home-grown Philadelphia group and a TMFW favorite - the great Hall & Oates.  If you are ever facing a Hall & Oates emergency, dial up "Callin' Oates" at 719-26-OATES.  The service feeds you Hall & Oates songs by touch-tone demand, and is essential.  It's genius, even. 
If you are feeling even more adventurous, try The Bird and the Bee's all-Hall & Oates cover album Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 1.  (Rdio, Spotify)  "I Can't Go For That," "She's Gone," and "One on One" are all good examples.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

TMFW 31 - Prince [of] Wails


Today's TMFW is a very short one (and just under the wire).
For many, Prince (also known as "Prince logo.svg," or "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince," or later just as "The Artist") is the weird guy from Purple Rain.  Or the late-night basketball player with Charlie Murphy (language warning there).  Or the Batdance guy. But one aspect of Prince's music that is often overlooked is his guitar-playing skill. 
To put it plainly, Prince can shred on guitar.  I didn't realize or appreciate his talent until I saw this now-famous video of a "supergroup" playing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at the 2004 induction of George Harrison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  For the song, Prince shares the stage with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Dhani Harrison, and others, and for the first half of the song they play a perfectly serviceable cover.  Then, at 3:28, Prince takes over.  For close to three minutes, he plays a solo that floats in and out and over the top of the song.  It simultaneously fits right in and stands completely out.  It is amazing.  Then at the end of the song, Prince throws his guitar in the air and it seems to float away. 
That's it.  That's your TMFW for tonight.  It's Prince, destroying. 
BONUS FACT:  Last year, Prince did some actual destroying on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.  He appeared on the show to play his famous song "Bambi."  During soundcheck, Prince became enamored with a guitar that belongs to "Captain" Kirk Douglas, the guitar player for Jimmy's house band The Roots.  Prince asked to borrow the guitar for the on-air performance, and Douglas obliged.  Prince and his band tore through the song, then at the end Prince threw the guitar in the air.  Unlike his performance above (where he had someone to catch it), the guitar - a rare early '60s Epiphone Crestwood - crashed to the ground and broke. Not cool, Prince.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

TMFW 30 - "A Crummy Commercial​" From the Barenaked Ladies

In the classic movie A Christmas Story, there's a great plotline where the 9-year-old Ralphie waits excitedly for the mail to bring a secret decoder ring to translate messages from his favorite radio show "Little Orphan Annie."  It finally arrives, and Ralphie gets his first chance to decode the secret messages he's been missing for so long.  In a memorable scene, Ralphie locks himself in the bathroom and works out the first message.  As he finishes it, he reads the results: "be sure to drink your Ovaltine." Realizing that he's been connned by the show's advertisers, Ralphie laments "Ovaltine?! A crummy commercial!?"  That phrase has become a handy part of our family's vocabulary.
In 2000, TMFW-favorites the Barenaked Ladies engaged in a similar bit of stealth advertising.  The band's fifth record Maroon was set to be released on September 12 of that year, right in the heyday of the file-sharing site (and scourge of the record industry) Napster. At its height, Napster boasted 15 million unique users, and was famous for featuring "leaked" versions of songs in advance of their official release date. 
Knowing that users would be searching for their album in advance of its release date in hopes of catching a leak, Barenaked Ladies decided to engage in some creative subterfuge to promote it.  The band decided to self-leak the song "Pinch Me," which was to be its first single from the album.  But rather than offering the complete song, the band created a "Napster version" where they made clear that the user had just unwittingly downloaded an advertisement rather than a proper song. 
The "Trojan horse" version of the song opened with the first verse uninterrupted, but right as the chorus started up, it abruptly stopped and the band broke in with an announcement:
Hi folks this is Steven Page. This is Tyler Stewart.  We're two members of Barenaked Ladies, and although you thought you were downloading our new single, what you're actually downloading is an advertisement for our new album Maroon.  It comes out September 12th, and, uh, after that point I'm sure you can download lots of stuff from our record.  But until then you're just going to get lots of stuff with us bugging you. We fooled you, huh? We're sneaky like that; you can never trust a Canadian. Next thing you know, we'll be supplying your natural resources!
Similarly, at two other points in the song the band broke in with some silliness and distraction (though after the first "commercial," the next two breaks were just the band fooling around.)  The band's creative approach to promotion did not go unnoticed - it was written up in stories on (archive link), Slashdot, and others.
I thought of this TMFW when "Pinch Me" came on my iPod.  I was one of those who were fooled by the band's stunt back in 2000, but I was sufficiently charmed by the gag that I kept the "commercial" along with the actual song.  So now every time the song pops up on shuffle, I have to wait until the first chorus to know which version I am listening to. 
I tried to find a copy of the Napster version that is available online, and (surprisingly) struck out.  So I made my own and put it on YouTube: you can listen to the fake version of "Pinch Me" here.
BONUS FACT:  When seeking out lyrics for "Pinch Me" on Google, the very first result is to lyrics site azlyrics.comTheir entry for the song (and other lyrics sites too) includes the complete transcript of the fake version; apparently somebody unknowingly used the Napster version when creating the entry, and it has stuck.  In fact, an "official" version of Barenaked Ladies playing the song live on YouTube, which was uploaded by the company selling the DVD of the show, features those incorrect lyrics too.
BONUS FACT 2:  The band Metallica famously sued Napster when they discovered to their dismay that their song "I Disappear" had leaked there.  The band was one of the last holdouts to sell their music online (they hit iTunes in a limited way only in 2006), and their guitarist has said as recently as October of last year that "things like iTunes and streaming and social networking, it’s destroyed music. It’s destroyed the motivation to go out there and really make the best record possible. It’s a shame." It's some delicious irony (or perhaps hypocrisy) that a search of YouTube for "Metallica I Disappear" yields hundreds and hundreds of results, including the official video, which has been watched over 4.6 million times.  Metallica's official YouTube account, in fact, has over 900 videos uploaded. It's a shame, indeed.
BONUS FACT 3:  Starting in 2007, the Barenaked Ladies recorded and released a series of over 40 videos on YouTube that they called "The Bathroom Sessions."  The series features songs recorded in band member Ed Robertson's bathroom, mostly with only an acoustic guitar and vocals.  Here's a nice, stripped down version of "Pinch Me" from those sessions.
UNRELATED BONUS FACT / UPDATE: News came out last week that The WuTang Clan will sell only one copy of their "secret" double record The Wu - Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.  They will place the recording in a fancy engraved box made of silver and nickel, and will display the box in various museums - with the possibility for visitors to listen to the music through headphones - prior to auctioning the one and only copy. Gizmodo reported on the news as though it were "unprecedented," and the RZA commented that the one-off record would be "a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of music."  Perhaps Gizmodo and The RZA should read TMFW; if so, they'd know that this has already been done (several times, even).