What's going on in Billy's head?!

March 15, 2009


As the leader of alternative-era heroes the Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Corgan is one of the most successful musicians Chicago has ever produced.

And as the major-label system that has dominated the music industry for seven decades crumbles around him, the 42-year-old graduate of Glenbard North High School is doing everything he can to maintain that rock-star status -- from lobbying Congress, to breaking a long-held principle against selling his music to Madison Avenue.

"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," Corgan wrote in one recent letter to Congress. "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."

Few musical advocates would disagree with that statement. But some of the answers that Corgan is proposing are prompting longtime fans to ask, "What the heck is Billy thinking?"

The Great Pumpkin declined an invitation from the Sun-Times to expand on his recent statements. Via e-mail, he wrote, "I am loathe from here and ever on to talk about the music business. So honestly I'd rather not comment."

Ironically, that statement came about a week after he wrote his first letter to one Congressional subcommittee, and a week before he donned a suit and tie and traveled to Capitol Hill to read another letter to a different committee.

Let's take a closer look at the bees in Billy's bonnet.

Backing the Ticketmaster/ Live Nation merger

With the exception of Bruce Springsteen, major recording and touring artists have been silent about speaking out against the proposed merger of America's largest ticket broker and its dominant concert promoter -- perhaps out of fear of reprisals, as some congressmen have charged. Meanwhile, only a handful have endorsed the plan, including Seal, Shakira, Journey, Van Halen -- and Corgan.

"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," Corgan wrote to the Senate Committee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, which held a hearing on the merger last month. "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."

Critics of the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger range from congressmen on both the left and the right to many musicians' rights groups, and they all say that it will result in less competition -- the opposite of what Corgan contends -- since many acts will be forced to perform with the giant company or forgo touring altogether, as Pearl Jam discovered when it battled Ticketmaster in the mid-'90s.

Corgan often has avoided working with Live Nation -- performing throughout the Midwest with independent Chicago promoter Jam Productions instead -- and he has been a harsh critic of Ticketmaster's system, even exploring alternative means of ticketing at hometown shows to assure that seats went to fans instead of scalpers.

What changed? Corgan has now put his career in the hands of super-manager Irving Azoff (see sidebar), who also happens to be the executive running Ticketmaster, and who stands to be one of the top forces in the new company if the merger is approved by the Justice Department.

Backing the Performance Rights Act

Last week, Corgan testified before the House Committee on the Judiciary in favor of another controversial proposal, recently introduced to both houses of Congress by the major-label lobbying group, the Recording Industry Association of America. The plan would force conventional or "terrestrial" radio to pay performance rights for every recording it spins on the air, in addition to the songwriting royalties it already pays.

While both kinds of payments have been required of Internet and satellite radio as well as television broadcasters, terrestrial radio has long avoided paying performance royalties under the reasoning that playing a recording on air essentially is a free ad for the artist that might lead to album or concert ticket sales. (In fact, it has often been alleged that artists and record companies paid radio to play their music instead of the other way around -- "payola," it was once quaintly called.)

"From my perspective, this issue is one of fundamental fairness," Corgan told Congress. "If the performance of a song has value to a particular terrestrial radio station in its airing, I believe it is only right to compensate those performers who have created this work. Simply put, if a station plays a song, both the author and the performer should be paid." (Since Corgan is both, he'd be paid twice.)

The problem here is that in an effort to wring a few extra coins from giant radio chains such as Clear Channel and Infinity -- and the royalties really only amount to fractions of a penny per spin -- the Performance Rights Act would severely hurt if not financially cripple community and independent radio stations, just as Internet radio has been walloped by this extra cost. Artists will lose in the end, since radio will simply play less music. As NAB Radio Board Chairman Steve Newberry told the Congressional committee, "Your local radio stations will be forced to cut services or employees, may be forced to move from a music format to a talk format or may be facing bankruptcy."

Backing the use of his music in TV commercials

After a career spent carefully controlling the use of his songs, earlier this year, Corgan and Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin recorded a new tune titled "FOL" specifically for an ad introducing Hyundai's new Genesis Coupe during the Super Bowl. And a few weeks ago, he went even further, licensing one of the Pumpkins' signature tracks, "Today," for use in a commercial for Visa credit cards.

Licensing songs for advertising remains a controversial issue, particularly when a song is an especially poignant one, and good arguments can be made on both sides. But Corgan made one of the best against the practice in an interview with Newsweek in 2004.

"If your music is not sacred to the point where it's a really, really, really heavy decision about whether or not you would allow somebody else to exploit it, then what's not for sale?" Corgan said. "'Today,' which ended up being a pretty big song -- that song literally saved my life. I was completely suicidal, and I wrote that song in a cold bedroom on a day where it was like, 'I'm either going to kill myself today, or I'm going to live because I'm sick of thinking about this.' When I played it, it was an intense, extreme feeling. Last year, I was offered heavy, heavy money to license that song. I actually turned down two huge, huge, seven-figure-plus deals last year for two songs."

Again: What changed? Well, these are hard economic times for everyone -- even rock stars with a posh North Shore mansion and a fondness for jetting around the globe. So perhaps Corgan's commercial sell out and his attempt to shake down terrestrial radio are just two more distressing symptoms of this awful recession.

Harder to accept is the vision for the brave new world that Corgan is espousing. "All areas of the modern music business are currently feeling the shifting tides as new models emerge and old ones are broken up," he wrote. The tragedy is that this one-time visionary and skilled reader of the cultural zeitgeist, having established one of the most successful careers of his generation, is in the perfect position to test a truly independent new model. And instead, he is championing a new boss that opponents say will be even bigger, more cumbersome and less encouraging of competition than the old one.

As diminutive as his Chicago client is tall, super-manager Irving Azoff is the man who stands behind Billy Corgan -- as well as the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger.

The enduring portrait of Azoff, now 61, comes from Frederic Dannen's classic 1990 history of the old-school music industry, Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business. Dannen wrote: "Azoff stood 5' 3" on a good day. Friends called him the 'Poison Dwarf.' He was easily one of the most loathed men in the music business. His tantrums were extraordinary. ... Needless to say, Azoff's artists loved him. Most every rock star wants an SOB for a manager," and Azoff was the kind of guy who once delivered a gift-wrapped box bearing a boa constrictor to one competitor.

He declined to comment for this article.

A native of Downstate Danville, Azoff was a music fan who traveled to Chicago to see the Beatles at Comiskey Park. He got his start booking bands in high school and continued during his time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He dropped out in 1970, moved to Los Angeles and landed his first serious client with his then-roommate, soft-rocker Dan Fogelberg. Soon, he also was managing the Eagles, Steely Dan, Boz Skaggs, Stevie Nicks, Heart and Jackson Browne.

A protege of David Geffen, in the '80s, Azoff became head of MCA Records. He rescued the label from bankruptcy -- and became the subject of a federal investigation of a New York mobster working out of MCA's offices. No charges were brought.

In 1989, Azoff left MCA to join Warner Music, where he was co-owner of a new label called Giant Records. He sold his share of Giant back to Warner in 2001, just as CD sales were beginning to slump. From there, he returned to artist management as founder of Front Line Management, with superstar clients including the Eagles, Christina Aguilera, Axl Rose and Morrissey. His biggest innovation: Exclusive deals with big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy to release his clients' new music, a move that alienated not only the old record labels, but the many mom-and-pop record stores who'd been loyal to those artists and consistently sold their music for years.

Last October, Front Line was acquired by Ticketmaster, and Azoff wound up as Ticketmaster's CEO. A major architect of the merger with Live Nation, he will serve as chairman of the board of the new Live Nation Entertainment, in addition to being CEO of Front Line, if the deal is approved by the Justice Department.

Many industry observers see an inherent conflict of interest in an artist manager also helping run the company selling the artist's recordings, concert tickets and merchandise, which is the world Live Nation Entertainment envisions. Whose interests come first: the artist's, or the company's shareholders? "The artist's interests always come first," Azoff told the Wall Street Journal last month.

Testifying before congressional subcommittees, Azoff maintained that the merger is necessary to "save" the music industry and put the power back in the hands of the artists. But as Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) noted, it also will make Azoff an even richer man -- and possibly the most powerful in the music business.