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Tuesday, September 09, 2003
burying the dead, part i

Warren Zevon died Sunday. This was not very much of a shock, as he had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer a year ago and had only expected at that point to live three more months. But he made it this long, and he got to see both the release of the album he had fought to make through his illness and the birth of his grandchildren. This sounds maudlin, I know, but I do find it genuinely touching. He was a very good musician and, from all accounts, a very kind human being, and he will be widely missed.

He is also, however, signed to the label for which I work, and that last album, The Wind, came out a week ago today, an event which I had some small part (quite small, really) in bringing about. And so I find myself in the midst of a rare-yet-common situation--the record label putting out product to, in some ways, capitalize on the death of an artist--one I've always been kind of fascinated by, and I thought I might give a try at writing about that situation in a way that might turn up some tidbits for people who wonder how the music industry works, and just how exploitive it really is. No idea how this will turn out (reportage not being the most common function of this blog, as we know), but hey, I'll give it a try.


First, some background: you may want to read the AMG entry on Warren, which probably gives a better summary of his career than I could. After signing to Artemis, he put out Life'll Kill Ya and My Ride's Here (the latter of which featuring collaborations with a number of authors), which each sold somewhere between 50k and 100k units. Like a decent proportion of Artemis artists--the Pretenders, Steve Earle, the Fugs--I liked how he made music more than the actual music that was made. He seemed a theoretical compatriot to Randy Newman, except he hadn't gone down the schmaltz path Newman's taken in recent years, and in that he felt a lot like one of my other favorite working-songwriter kind of bands, Fountains of Wayne. Which is not to say I thought the music was bad--I just realized it wasn't really to my taste, but was probably very good for other people.

Then the news came out that he had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, but he was going to try and make one more album before he died. And he set to it. There was an embarrassing stretch there when Artemis didn't have any money and so couldn't pay his studio costs, but we got through it. Warren and Dave Letterman had been friends for a long time, and he taped an episode of the Late Show in October 2002 in which he was the only guest. The episode itself is pretty moving if you get a chance to see it.

And then, a week ago, the record came out. It was a strange situation. The whole thing was preceded by a whole lot of press coverage, including a VH1 special on the making of the album, and so anticipation was running pretty high. Warren was still alive at the time, and so presumably he got to see the great early numbers come in (it ended up going into the charts at #16, I think). But then on Sunday he died.

I'm searching for some sort of parallel here. Certainly if there's anything I've learned from working at Artemis it's that while older, established artists have a pretty steady sales base, it takes something mysterious for a particular album to get attention, and that mysterious thing is "making a good album" only 25% of the time; indeed, it can be hard to tell when an older artist has made a great album, because it's so often overlooked. One thing that can happen, of course, is experimentalism or a big shift in their sound--Westerberg going electronic, Byrne's genre-hopping, etc. Another thing is when a new release happens to coincide with a critical reappreciation of a band's older work--c.f. the recent Sparks revival, or Neil Young's album with Pearl Jam, which is kind of a combination of the two criteria. And, of course, there's always the old reliable standby: death. But this situation isn't really like that of Joey Ramone or Joe Strummer or Tupac or Jeff Buckley or...well, you get the idea. There's not a whole lot of people who knew about their illness and their impending death and used it to make one last album, and lived to see its release. In other words, the album itself is made with the awareness of mortality very much in mind, and the post-death sales spike comes at roughly the same time as the album's release.

I actually heard the news from the Pitchfork newswire just before leaving for work on Monday morning, but when I went in there wasn't any noticeable change in attitude, although I guess this could have something to do with the fact that it was Monday morning. The first indication was when I heard some people in the promo department talking about needing to up manufacturing and shipments, but this had been sort of a problem all along: through the distributor's tentativeness, we hadn't had enough product to actually fill orders. It had already been looking like it was going to be a good seller, but now it looked sure to go gold. But still, not much chatter. And then some e-mails started to come in.

This, from a industry mag editor:

I just want send all of you in the Artemis and Zevon families my deepest, most sincere condolences on Warren's passing. While we were all expecting it, that does not change the sense of loss you must feel - his fans feel it too. Fortunately, we have all that wonderful music to fill the void.

Now, while I appreciate the condolences, this was a weird thing to hear; I'm sure all of his family and friends were deeply affected by the news, but most of us didn't really know him; he was an efficient but independant artist who lived on the opposite coast anyway, and we didn't hear much from him. Certainly no one around the place seemed sad per se.

This, from the radio promo guy at Artemis:

Just wanted everyone to know that 104.3 is doing periodic dj mentions of Warren. They just put a caller on the air that related a personal listening experience with Warren, and then they played "Excitable Boy". The morning show host, The Radio Chick, also did a similar tribute. One of their star DJs, afternoon jock Ken DaShow, is planning a Warren tribute for today with past clips and various tracks.

The radio calls and well wishes are coming in frequently.

And this, from a listener of said radio station (forwarded to us by the station's PD):

Talk about feeling old. I am 45 and have no children so I guess I can stay in denial. Last week I went into the local FYE (one of those chain stores in the mall selling music, videos etc.)to get the new Warren Zevon CD and I couldn't find it with all the other new releases so I asked one of the teenagers who work there where it was and asked me"who is Warren Zevon and is he popular" I proceeded to tell him I think he is popular and the CD was just released. He asks me how to spell the name, so he brings me over to the area where it should be (not with the new releases mind you) and there it is. So I tell this youngster "there it is" and he tells me "you know I been look at his face and he look really out of it" so I told him "he's dying. The kid says oh and walks away. I didn't think I was that out of touch. I have niece and nephews and one nephew is into Ossie Osboure and Black Sabath and he is 17 and my 22 year old niece goes to Bruce Springsteen concerts. Don't these parents teach their children about the classics of Rock. But any way Warren well be missed. I have been lucky enough to have seen him at the Beacon and the Stone Pony and loved it. As long as we have our memories and CDs Warren Zevon will live on.

So it all feels a little weird, and a little dirty, this making a cash machine of the dead, even though it's hardly as if we forced Warren to make the album. And given the increased attention that results from an artist's death, there's bound to be increased public interest, and it seems well and good to feed that interests. Certainly on a selfish level Artemis was not doing so hot, business-wise, and so a hit record would be an immense help to us and a good indication that a lot of people I like are going to remain employed.

And yet, it still feels a bit wrong. Maybe it's that unique timing I remarked on above--the fact that this isn't the way it usually happens. It's not as if the death happened and then a few months later an exploitive compilation comes out, as happened with the post-Strummer Clash comp or any of the other innumerable examples I'm sure you can think of. This was instantaneous: even as he died, the product was already on the shelves. It feels orchestrated, even though it's not; it feels like we're taking advantage of a situation even though we're really just doing our jobs, doing what we would have done anyway, doing right by the artist and his family.

I can honestly tell you that I never thought I'd say this, but it makes the first verse of Fountains of Wayne's "Mexican Wine" feel really relevant:

He was killed in a cellular phone explosion
They scattered his ashes across the ocean
The water was used to make baby lotion
The wheels of promotion were set into motion

I get that feeling a lot when I think about The Wind, the wheels of promotion being set into motion. It's just automatic, a natural reaction. Any death that's interesting sets off a round of storytelling that's inevitably connected with commerce these days, and that's both forgivable (because it allows the narrative to spread) and dastardly (because the source of the narrative is outside the teller; the body is dissolved and cannot benefit but can only be used). Any product that's associated with that death takes on a special meaning, even if there's no tangible difference--all of Warren's Artemis albums were heavily concerned with mortality.

What's maybe incidental to this but maybe also very important is that it's unclear if this album is really any better than his other two Artemis albums; certainly it would be hard to say that it's 10 times better, which is about the sales difference we're going to see. But I guess it doesn't matter, because as long as Warren's out there, that's what's important.


More on this story as it develops--maybe.

ADDENDUM: Didn't mean to imply that no one at Artemis was touched or saddened to a greater or lesser degree by Warren's death; I'm sure some folks were. I just didn't talk to anyone who was, or, really, who brought it up at all; it was kind of this thing you weren't really supposed to talk about, it felt like. Of course, this may be a function of the fact that Artemis has kind of "cleaned house" in the last 6 months, and there are really only 8 employees left who were there even when the last Zevon album came out. Hard to say. But at any rate, I'm definite that some folks there were definitely quite saddened by the passing, although as I say, the expectedness softened the impact noticably.