The most significant problem for makers of music today is the problem of distribution. Anyone trying to make a living from recorded music, or even, to some degree, from performance, struggles with the infinite reproducibility of the digital realm, and with the problems of piracy and streaming, with the meager rights that musicians still retain to their work. That is, unless this hypothetical musician is willing to take on some or all of the work of the record company him or herself. In the course of thinking about these issues, I recently stumbled on a compelling example of crowdsourcing as a response to the distribution problem, and from an unlikely precinct. Longtime readers of this column know of my unrestrained devotion to the work of American composer Frank Zappa, and it turns out that Zappa’s widow, Gail, the keeper of that particular flame, has been attempting to farm out distribution of an unreleased project of Frank’s to the fans by licensing distribution rights to whoever is willing to pony up a thousand dollars for the chance. (See details here.) Gail Zappa has also reclaimed rights to all of Zappa’s prior recordings, and zealously guards distribution of those, making her among the most significant of self-distributors of musical product anywhere. The Roxy and Elsewhere prequel, Roxy By Proxy, which is the crowdsourced album in question, therefore represents a new twist in the legacy of Zappa’s music, and, I think, a creative and bold move. Because the original Roxy and Elsewhere was among my most fervently worshipped Zappa albums back in the day (along with Hot Rats and One Size Fits All), I was surprised and fascinated to hear about this project, and, naturally, I gave it some thought. Would I spend a thousand dollars that I don’t really have on a project like this? Am I any kind of salesman? While I thought this through (my waffling has not yet reached a conclusion), it seemed like it would be an illuminating experience to talk to Gail Zappa about her experiment in crowdsourcing and democracy. I worked for a few weeks to procure an introduction (thanks Nadje Noordhuis, you genius). And apparently, sometimes, if you ask nicely, eminent personages who are way more important than you are simply say yes.
So, confabulating a reason to be in LA, I proposed dropping in at the Zappa residence in Laurel Canyon, and soon I was there, in Frank Zappa’s studio, and saw his mixing board, and a guitar or two, and a lot of the appurtenances that would amaze musicians past and present. I actually experienced some symptoms of vertigo while on the premises, because of how important to me this visit would have been throughout my childhood. And still was. Indeed, it is incredibly moving how vitally Frank’s music and presence continues to be felt—by his family, of course, but also by people who care about the further-out fringes of what music is and can be. Frank, in some aesthically rich and material way, lives on, and his work lives on too. Gail Zappa, it’s worth saying, however, is somewhat burdened, or so it seems to me, by the obligation to continue to release work for the deranged fans. We should feel her pain. Still, she is charming, funny, suffers no fools, knows exactly what she wants, and I very much enjoyed talking to her. Let any celebration of the Zappa name and legacy not obscure an important issue here: distribution. Today, Gail Zappa is exhibit A in a much-contested aspect of the musical world. And: if you want to experience some of the rigors of this conflict firsthand, you have, now, the opportunity to be a record distributor of a legendary, Grammy-winning, classically inflected musical revolutionary, and it will only cost you $1000 plus some mechanical royalties. An interview with Gail Zappa follows, and it takes up in mid-conversation because I could not refrain from talking to Gail about everything else, too, in addition to this problem…
Gail Zappa: …The problem with composers, as Frank said, is that they are the most unrequired job in America. Frank said he probably would have been a major criminal, given his brain power and his attention to detail, had he not been a composer. But being a composer is not something you can’t help.
The Rumpus: I want to come back to that question! But I want to talk a little about distribution. I got incredibly interested when I read recently about the Roxy By Proxy distribution rights you guys are selling. It seems to me such an unusual and original way to think about distributing music.
Zappa: It is, and it’s an experiment in terror so far, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re asking people to put their money where their mouth is, literally. It is not many people who are prepared to do that, and it’s not for what seems the obvious reason: because they don’t have the cash. People could get their best friends to put up a hundred bucks each and go for it. There are all sorts of ways that it could be accomplished. The surprising thing is that there are not that many people that get it. They all think you’re offering something, that they’re supposed to get their money back, and, you know, everyday people are asking for money for something, and no one gets anything back but the sheer pleasure of being of assistance. In this particular case, they’re all like, “No, the math doesn’t work.” I’m, like, “Yeah, welcome to my world.” I should be making these albums for you so you can throw tons of abuse my way verbally for any attempt I make to honor Frank. It’s just so ridiculous.
I just want to say, for the people that are willing to participate, who really do get it—and there are very few of them, given the potential for what this could be—they are so amazing, because they don’t care if they ever sell a record. They just want to do it. They just want to help or just be part of it. Like you said, it’s an unusual opportunity. Part of the reason I wanted to do it this way was to educate the audience, and they’re finding out exactly what I wanted them to find out. But then they don’t take the next step which is participate. So if you think that you can sell records, as an artist even, I’m saying, “Here, take a Frank Zappa record. You don’t even have to make one of your own. Let’s just start here and see what you can do with it.” And once you ponder the question of distributing a record, you know, you realize, “Oh, this is what artists go through every fucking day of their lives.” This is how it works, or how it doesn’t work, especially if you want to do it without a record company.
Frank did this with no help from anyone for years. For decades. He was probably one of the first independent artists to go all the way, because the first record company he signed with started censoring his records. They told him who he could record with and who he couldn’t. They were trying to build some sort of stable of artists, and so they collected the key people in bands. Those guys were locked down. Those guys were your guitar and your lead vocalist, because those two are the ones who more than likely wrote the lyrics and all of the music. So those guys would be locked up so they could never do anything with anybody ever again, everyone else could go do what they liked.
Rumpus: When exactly did you get this idea?
Zappa: Actually, years ago, I thought that this was possible. But I didn’t have the energy, the time, the resources, to put it to work for me, because I was in the middle of a lawsuit. It’s time-consuming, energy-consuming, like a big monster that has moved in next door to you and who just uses you like the place that you park your trash cans. So you’re dealing with all the bones and debris, all that dead crap left behind. That’s what it was like, just conjuring up all kinds of hideousness. So then I begin in earnest by talking to lawyers about this project and figuring out everything I could: what the consumer issues would be and what the security issues would be, what you have to say and how you have to say it. It’s complicated when you’re doing this with a record, because it’s not just the production quality, which is different. If you’re a comedian, you’re just one guy who goes onstage. It’s so easy—you could turn on any type of tape machine. There are no real production values. Roxy, although it’s not a complicated affair, is really a prequel to the film which everybody has been waiting for.
The problem that you have with these things is that your imagination is so much more powerful than what there really is. If you’ve ever had to recall your past in some way and you open a drawer of old photographs that your parents kept, there are always pictures of you smiling and charming, and then a bunch of people you don’t know who they are. Could be aunts, uncles, could be the postman for all you know. Who are these people? Your parents are never in the picture, because they are the ones taking them. So you’ve got these unrelated images that are disconnected from your memories. It’s kind of that like for the people who have built up this mythology around the Roxy film. They’re going to be disappointed to find out that it’s not the picture of their dreams. But as an artifact, it’s pretty great.
At the time, it was the least conflicted project. In other words, there was nothing about it that anybody could make any demands on. It wasn’t subject to or involved in any way in any lawsuit. So I thought, This is the perfect one. The landscape has changed now, but I’m still going forward with this. Right now, we’re just dealing with the issue of collecting the payment and being able to deliver the goods in a timely fashion. The bottom line is: we have to come up with an end date and a delivery date. We always had to do that, but it has become complicated. How venders collect and what the restrictions are with respect to consumer-issue laws—like that, that’s what we’re dealing with right now. It’s complicated by virtue of the fact that each master is going to be embedded with information. In others words, it would be easy if I say okay and make a bunch of records and started shipping them out. But it’s not like that, because each one has to be embedded with personal information that identifies each distributor uniquely.
Rumpus: The actual product will indicate that this particular distributor is the one who distributed this copy of the album?
Zappa: Yes, and what that does is it tends to protect us both. See, I really wanted people to understand what it’s really like to be in the business. Here’s your master, okay, you’re licensing it. You don’t own it, but you have a certain period of time in which you can exploit this master, and the contract is very clear about what you can and can’t do. That’s point one. Point two is: Okay, now I’ve got this thing, how do I control the quality? Well, I have an opportunity to buy this record directly from a manufacturing plant where each copy is exactly like the next, it hasn’t been interfered with, quality control is absolute. We are offering this opportunity to these people at a wholesale price specific to them. Nobody else can buy it at a wholesale price except the distributors.
Then you have a contract as the distributor and pay a certain price for these records. So with these distributors it’s just like in the real world. And you have a favored price and no one else can get that price, so there’s that, and it allows you to make some money. But the point here is really not to fill your coffers, because there’s a lot of competition, which is exactly like in the real world. The difference is, in the real world, these people are all licensed. They are stealing from everyone, and you’ll never get paid, and how fast can you sell your stuff before the market is saturated?
Rumpus: You mean before there are digital copies of whatever it is you’re distributing.
Zappa: Yeah! Or when there’s a real physical copy. Or when you know when it’s going to be posted, they stick it on their site or whatever they’re going to do with it. So I’m hoping these guys, because they’re fans, will actually pay me royalties. Let’s say you’re one of the distributors, Rick. Put down your thousand dollars, and I send you your master, and now you can make 25 copies of those and give them to everyone as Christmas presents. No one’s the wiser, except it would be nice if you paid me my publishing for the copies you make.
Rumpus: So you’re going to get mechanical royalties, that’s the idea?
Zappa: That’s the deal, that I would get paid mechanical royalties. Now who in the world does that? It’s bad enough they steal the master, but you’ve already paid for the master, but you haven’t paid the mechanicals. That happens when you make a copy and sell it or give it away. There are no free goods in this deal.
Zappa: Now if you want to buy ten copies from our mail-order company, those are all quality-controlled, and the difference, the amount you pay, already includes the royalties so you don’t have to account. The other thing I want you to do is account to me as a distributor. When I put out the records, when I make a distribution deal, those distributors tell me who they sell it to and how many copies. So I want nothing less. I want to know who you sold Roxy to, who you gave it to. I don’t need any social security numbers or whatever, driver’s licenses, but I need to know you gave away ten copies, and here’s the money. Ten copies were: my mom, my sister, my brother. Then I sold one to Joe Smith—which would be funny, because he’s a record company exec. I’m trying to raise the funds to make the movie. So this is not a reissue of Roxy and Elsewhere. We just did that, we just reissued sixty masters by Frank, and this was one of them.
Rumpus: Of course.
Zappa: This is from the soundtrack. It’s a prequel soundtrack, if you will, to the film itself.
Rumpus: So you’re not worried, then, about how many units it’s going to ship in this very interesting conceptual distribution.
Zappa: Well, I would like to ship 100,000 units to the people that pay $100,000 to distribute it. That’s my dream, that’s my goal. We’ll see how close I come to that, but no matter what, this record’s going out there.
Rumpus: So having now conducted the experiment, or being partway into the experiment—
Zappa: Partway into it.
Rumpus: —how do you feel about it?
Zappa: I feel excited that I made a point. Any artist who has captured the imagination of a fairly significant audience can do this, and they never need to talk to a record company again. Frank and I have always been advocates for the freedom of expression by artists, and early on, that included your right to associate with anyone you wanted to artistically. To work with whom you choose without these conflicts with record companies jealously guarding your output, making you an indentured servant because of your contract.
Rumpus: So would you do it again for another album at some point?
Zappa: I might. I might do it again for something. It just depends on the project. This is an experiment in educating an audience. If I was 22, I would kick some ass with this—but I would have no understanding of it at all at the age of 22.
Rumpus: How does it fit into the larger project of keeping Frank Zappa’s music alive?
Zappa: I’m glad you asked me the question about keeping music alive. I get letters every day from people who have discovered the music. And I’m happy to say there are no ex-fans of Frank Zappa’s. Once you’re there it’s yours for life. The real process is to create as much hubbub as you can to let people know there’s new material coming. There’s more stuff available. I don’t think there’s a problem with people discovering the music unless there’s no way to get to them. That’s the problem that you always have. Frank’s music was never for the mass audience, it’s not designed to appeal to people who want something…how can I say it? Frank says it better, and I don’t know the exact quotation. His music contains specific kinds of information that you won’t find elsewhere in rock and roll. A lot of it is musical information, a lot of it is training your ear. That was always something Frank was interested in. Live concerts were to train the ears and to introduce, constantly, new musical ideas to the audience so the next time they showed up or the next record they got they would be ready and receptive to whatever he wanted to spring on them.
Rumpus: In a way, Dweezil’s doing the same thing by going out on the road and playing the repertoire in the way he is. [For some years now, Dweezil Zappa has been touring as Zappa Plays Zappa, playing the catalogue of his father’s music.] Was there ever a moment where the two of you sat down and said, “Here’s the plan to keep the music out there in front of the audience? Or is it just that that’s what he wanted to do?
Zappa: Initially, it was the three of us. We went on a tour of Europe to promote a series of concerts. It was me and Ahmet [and Dweezil], but then Ahmet wrote a book which became very successful for him and this opened up an opportunity for him to be what Frank said when he was born: This is the mogul of the group. He’s well on his way at this point. But Dweezil being the musican—the guitar player of the group—decided to continue on. He had tremendous odds against him, because the promoters, the venues, they wanted the old band members in the mix. Eventually we were able to convince people that it would be a failure to have those guys in the band. It’s nice to have them invited to sit in once in a while, but how to carry them around on the road when they’re making outrageous demands? And some of them are doing interviews and conducting themselves as though the world revolved around them. So that’s pretty unpleasant to have to deal with that crap, to be honest. And they’re really not doing the music justice. Some of them were doing things that they would have never dared to do under Frank’s baton, never. You know, one of the big difficulties I had with Dweezil, honestly, maybe even the only real difficulty, was that Frank never had, after the initial band, when he broke up the first band, lead singers. After that, all the parts were shared by whoever in the band was most willing to learn how to sell the song the way Frank had intended it. Frank was not a big fan of having lyrics, but sometimes he had things to say that lent themselves to lyrics.
Rumpus: We saw Dweezil play twice so far. I was astounded. There’s nothing out there like it, for that passion and regard for what his father created. And he’s a great player, of course. And this is sort of why I’m here trying to have this conversation with you. There’s seems something really elemental about the way this family is thinking about this man still and how passionately you feel about him. The distribution plan for Roxy, in this light, when considered along with your reissues and Dweezil’s touring, is a creative vision for the Frank Zappa legacy, and it all has a conceptual continuity.
Zappa: Yes, it does.
Rumpus: A continuity that is consistent with the ingenuity of Frank’s work in the first place.
Zappa: I think ingenuity is part of our DNA. That plus curiosity, plus the willingness to commit. Because you know you can’t get a guitar player like Dweezil without his commitment to the work that it takes A) to be the musician that he is and B) to the music itself. I mean he’s playing it in a way that Frank never attempted. He wants it to focus on the melodies that are so beautiful and Frank, you know, he created an organism that toured into which he could throw a wrench in anywhere he felt was necessary to make a point. His favorite way of composing was improvising. Dweezil pays homage to that in this certain respects but that’s not his favorite way of composing. Frank was in the moment. That’s the thing about musicians when you hang out with them. Musicians more than most people are in the moment. That’s the dual nature of that job.
Rumpus: So what’s left for you to do then?
Zappa: What’s left?
Rumpus: I mean, I assume you can open the vault annually for 40 more years.
Zappa: I probably could. I mean I never dreamed that my future would be my husband’s past. But it’s such a huge past in terms of the recorded content. It’s going to take a while.
Rumpus: Is it still fun for you?
Zappa: Oh, it’s always fun. Even when people cover the music. It’s fun, especially if they make you laugh. Usually I give stuff to Joe [Travers, the vaultmeister] or to Kurt. Kurt is the scoremeister now, and he’s also the bass player of the band, and he has a real facility for paying attention to the details. Simple things like which side does the note sit on on the stave? He notices what Frank does, and so if someone writes something and sends something to him, it’s like pulling teeth. “No, they can’t, they’re writing it down wrong!” So it’s one thing to write the music, it’s another thing to write it down, it’s another thing to play it, and something else altogether again to learn how to play it. These are the elements that are fascinating, and, you know, move my world. It’s nice to hear when someone gets something and the sincerity is enough to tickle you. They can have the wrong notes but the essence of it is there, so it makes you laugh, because even when Frank’s music is sad, it makes me laugh.
Rumpus: There are no more studio recordings to release, right?
Zappa: Well, we don’t know. We’re still in the position where we can say, “Oh, let’s do something like that,” and Joe looks for something like whatever we’re thinking about. As far as studio albums, there are still opportunities. There’s a handful of records, maybe less than a fistful of records we can do the making of. So there will be tracks from those sessions. We’re probably going to hit one hundred albums, official Frank Zappa releases, and sixty of those are recordings that he made.
Rumpus: Yeah. That’s awesome.
Zappa: And the rest of them are… The easiest way to explain this is if you look at the difference between the official discography, which is made of records initially released on Barking Pumpkin, and which are now divided into Zappa or Vaulternative releases. Zappa is everything Frank produced himself. Either he put together the whole thing, or it could be a collection of tracks that he produced. Vaulternative is material we don’t know what he was going to do with it, it could have been a mix and match. We have no idea what these things were going to be. It’s primarily live concerts, interviews, maybe a whole section of something that’s not enough to make a whole album but he was putting it together for something.
Rumpus: There’s not more synclavier music anywhere? [The synclavier was an early sampler that occupied a great portion of Frank Zappa’s last years.]
Zappa: Yeah, there is. The thing about the synclavier is a lot of it has not been released.
Rumpus: I really love that stuff. I’m a big fan of Civilization Phaze III.
Zappa: That’s really nice to hear. Surprisingly, there are people who say, “Oh, we don’t get any of that synclavier stuff at all.” There’s an equal number of people who are fervent about it.
Rumpus: I love it.
Zappa: The synclavier has about 400 compositions locked in it in various stages of development, so that’s another project, getting the synclavier stuff. I’d like to do two other things. I’d like to do a sound library. Frank always wanted to do a sound library—he sampled so many great musicians. For piano, for example, he sampled every octave, not just one (that you could just transpose electronically), and he did all different types of attack, with and without pedals, all that kind of stuff. He very much had the same approach with other instruments as well. So the orchestral library is phenomenal. But then you add to that the library of samples and bits that he created out of dust and debris—that would be pretty cool, too. Then everyone could sound sort of like Frank—sort of like Frank.
Rumpus: Did he not tell you that you should just sell everything and get out of the business?
Zappa: He said sell the masters and get out of this business—
Rumpus: So why do all this?
Zappa: He neglected to mention the publishing, and without doing that, you’re stuck. And when they start messing with the masters, it’s time…it’s like being in hell. It’s the ultimate identity theft when you start messing with somebody’s work. Thinking that you could edit the work, or mix it differently, or re-EQ it, or make claims about it that aren’t true. Or sample it or use it commercially in some way. Those are things that are unforgivable. I had to deal with that. Now I’ve got the catalog back. For whatever it’s worth, I’m the final word at the moment.
Rumpus: I know you’ve felt dismal about the MP3 situation, too.
Zappa: There were many problems with the idea of Apple, and I don’t care what anyone says, and I did write my “fuck you” letter to Steve Jobs. He single-handedly reduced music to that old saw, “I got it for a song.” Which means what? I got it for nothing! And he made music worth nothing, and the unhappy result is a world of singles. So there are no more concept albums. The only exception, I would think, is jazz, which should please you, and/or soundtrack work, which is unbelievable to me because they are collaborative events in most cases. So when you have a single composer writing his work, it shouldn’t be doled out in singles based on the length of a piece. If you think about how long it takes to write a piece of music for an orchestra, it’s outrageous to me, outrageous. The sampling rates are a concern. There are so many sampling rates up there now that sound pretty good.
Zappa: Certainly Apple has improved enormously. At the beginning, the sampling rate was an issue for me, but a bigger argument was over digital rights, which I had. I would have exercised them myself and was planning to, with all due respect. I think it’s okay that there’s digital music out there, because that does mean more people have access. I mean, you’re a student, and you’re studying music, and you want to find a CD of a whole work, but there’s one piece that intrigues you. It’s easy to get that piece for a dollar for the most part. And it’s so easy for people to carry around music digitally. Like for Joe and Kurt, the band members, and people who love music anyway, and they can just carry it with them or have access any way they want. My obligation is to release the music the way Frank released it.
Zappa: With the best possible way for it to sound on the day that Frank created it. Then, after that, I can move on, and we can remaster, and some things really need it, because the technology has changed so much. So I’m hoping to do more of that. We’re going to release a lot of stuff on vinyl, too. It’s so shocking to me. I just got proofs of a cover for vinyl, and it’s so big! It’s huge! Oh my God! You can almost count the pores in someone’s photography. Crazy, crazy good. So that’s exciting.
Photos of Gail and the studio are by Laurel Nakadate.