Today, we put "Five Questions" to Richard Barone, leader of the '80s pop band The Bongos and, more recently, the author of the book Frontman: Surviving The Rock Star Myth. Richard continues to be active in the music scene, releasing solo albums and has recently started work on an ambitious, historical retrospective entitled Sorrows & Promises, chronicling the early Greenwich Village singer-songwriter scene of the 1960s. Friends and fans are invited to pre-order and participate in the process at PledgeMusic.com.
You write in your book Frontman, that the strategy of major labels was to "take you by the hand to walk you into oncoming traffic.” The ‘80s had some pretty heavy traffic, with the drugs, MTV, AIDS, etc., and, while not a career goal, it appears survival alone was an accomplishment. How hard was surviving the music business in the 80s?
Well, everything I wrote in Frontman is, of course, from my perspective, which was and is different from the perspective of the major label execs. Record companies like RCA, Columbia, Universal were huge corporations and as such were always at odds with their artists. It was precisely that dynamic though; that love/hate, attract/repel, art/commerce dichotomy that perhaps kept the industry afloat and prospering for the decades it did. It was by the mid-90s that the corporate climate became particularly toxic, I believe. And now, in 2016, the complacency brought on by a more artist-driven approach and the DIY mentality that I championed has removed that conflict, resulting in what, in my opinion, is a rather tepid pop music landscape. Now there appears to be no danger, no risk-taking; the artists have become the executives. Parents even like them.
I always thought of MTV, when they played music, as an absolute positive, of course. It might have provided a rather shallow level of "fame", but it was appropriate at the time, and it was in the true spirit of POP music and culture. As far as the dangers, drugs were certainly nothing new in the 80s but they did play a big part — along with promiscuity — of putting artists at risk. Especially when combined with never-ending touring and seemingly unlimited funds. Those of us who emerged with some semblance of health and sanity were certainly the lucky ones.
For both consumers and artists — and labels, for that matter— the music industry has vastly changed since The Bongo’s heyday. Frontman was published in 2007, and the changes since that time alone are staggering. How does an artist keep up and what is your advice to emerging bands?
Haha true, but the music industry is always changing, in flux, and hanging on a thread. The music industry was never "too big to fail". From piano rolls to wire recorders to wax cylinders to 78s, 33 1/3s, 45s, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, MP3s... the formats have always evolved. The (potentially fatal) problem now is the serious notion that consumers don't feel obligated to pay for their music, especially when the primary way music is distributed does not involve a physical item to sell. Why pay for something that doesn't really exist , and that you can get for free? And streaming services have devalued music to an even greater degree as well, paying a fraction of a penny per play to artists and publishers, if anything at all. It's more than just ironic, it's downright cynical that one of the leading internet "radio" streaming services is called Pandora, because it was a Pandora's Box that was opened in the late 90s, and what resulted from that opening can never be contained.
My advice to artists is to be artists. That rule never changes. The more yourself you are the more chance you have of becoming a success. Imitating others does not work. If you are truly driven to perform, write, sing, and record, then you have no choice but to do it. If you're just in it for the money you could be let down because it can take years of work to make a profit. But if you're truly an artist, your success is instant - each and every time you express yourself.
We just featured, and gave away a fascinating new book on Tiny Tim, who befriended you and some underage friends, and gave a private show, offering up words of encouragement. Is the advice-oriented approach of “Frontman” a kind of pay-it-forward?
Tiny Tim was a great inspiration to me because he was an example of true original. And when he allowed me, at age 16, to record and produce music for him in the studio, well that was a great boost of confidence and encouragement to me. I only wish I could have had those recordings released when Tiny was alive. But I was still in school at the time with no industry connections yet. At least I was able to release them posthumously, in 2009 as Rare Moments Volume 1: I've Never Seen a Straight Banana, available on iTunes and at Amazon.
Yes, the mentoring aspect of Frontman was certainly inspired in part by Tiny Tim, and the encouragement he gave me. The original format of Frontman, when I started writing, was a "how-to" book: "How to be Richard Barone" was the working title, funnily enough. That original premise, though, is still a recurring thread throughout the book. Starting in 2011 I have lectured and taught at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, again in the spirit of sharing what I've learned and hoping it can be useful to up-and-coming artists.
The book makes clear that you have had a lot of famous friends in the biz— Lou Reed, Mick Rock, Jules Shear — just to name a few. Are there networking secrets you offer up in the book, or is it simply that you’re a “nice guy?”
It's not about being a nice guy, although I do very much condone being nice. It's about being productive, creative, in-the-moment, and articulate. It's about sharing, and knowing when to let someone else shine. There's a lot more, but those are some of my ground rules.
We understand you’re working on a new book. Want to give us an advance scoop?
Well, I will say that it is both a textbook — based on and going beyond the course I've been teaching at NYU — and also an entertaining book for consumers, with some insightful interviews with well-known artists. And I can say that it is the very first book of its type, that will hopefully continue the spirit of sharing knowledge and mentoring that I started with Frontman.
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