Chapter 16 – Operation Distract-a-Billionheir

Saying there’s no money in Music would be like saying there’s no money in the US. There is, it’s just all crammed up at the top.

In the US, 5 percent of the adult population controls 62 percent of the wealth. The next 15 percent control 31 percent, leaving the bottom 80 percent of the population with the remaining 7 percent of the wealth. That’s right. According to Wikipedia, the bottom 80 percent in this country hold 7 percent of the assets.

It would be difficult to figure out statistically how that compares to the Music Business. But if I had to make a guess—and it’s probably a pretty good one—I would say that the top 1 percent controls 90 percent of the revenue generated in the Music Business. In other words, as obscene as income equality has gotten in the US economy, it’s nothing compared to how revenues are distributed in the Music Business.

Now, consider these concurrent realities:

Trade schools spit out thousands upon thousands of future Producers on a monthly basis into an already über-competitive job market of a contracting industry chock-full of Producers and engineers with scads of RIAA Gold and Platinum awards.

Torrent sites based in Russia and China collect a fee in exchange for unfettered access to millions of illegally stored intellectual products. The Creators of that property get nothing out of that. Not a penny. And this isn’t a small problem, either. We’re all getting crushed by it. Best as I can tell, my books are downloaded from torrent sites at a rate of eight to one against sales. I can make that determination based on the download tallies that these sorts of sites keep. That’s right, the Torrent sites flaunt the popularity of a Creator’s work, thereby guaranteeing more illegal downloads.

Big Tech Streaming—and that includes video-sharing sites—essentially colludes with Major Labels to pilfer money from a generation of Songwriters and Producers. The Majors have the catalog that Big Tech needs access to, and so it’s the Majors that get the Tiger’s Share of the revenue generated, much of it delivered in the form of advances rather than as payments for works streamed. This leaves some question as to whether the Labels are even bothering to distribute that money to their Artists in a fair and equitable manner. Actually, there’s no question. They don’t and aren’t.

Welcome to the clusterfuck that is the Music Business.

To make matters worse, now Artists have to be experts in everything that goes into making and selling records, including search-engine optimization (SEO), website design, and Internet marketing, which doesn’t leave much time for creating. There used to be enough money to go around in this business such that everyone could do one job and do it well. There was the Artist, who would write and perform the music. The manager, who would take care of the business so the Artist could stay focused on creating music. The Producer, who would help the Artist arrange the track and deliver a great performance. The recordist, who captured the moment. The Mixer, who came in and balanced the arrangement. The mastering engineer, who prepared the track for delivery to the consumer. The Mook Record Exec, who brought the Artist weed and pretended like he knew something about music. The Mogul, who ran the Label that hired a whole team of people to market and promote the Artist. Everyone had their own unique and important full-time job.

Now look at us. It’s just as Aardy pointed out the first day. We are operating as the Artists, the Songwriters, the Producers, the Recordists, the Mixers, the Mooks, and the Moguls. And it would make sense for us to perform all those jobs, but I might point out, we also have a Distribution deal that came with a $50K advance!

How the hell did that happen?

As you can imagine, when you perform that many jobs, things have a tendency to slow down. Sometimes they even come to a grinding halt. That would be the case here, as I was getting nowhere with the mix. Dejected, I planted my forehead against the glass of the Raven MTX.

“Talk to me,” Aardy encouraged.

“Something’s just not right,” I groaned.

“I figured that around day two of this madness. It’s now day five and you still don’t have a mix.”

Just to give you some perspective, a mix doesn’t take five days. A mix, which results from the process of balancing all of the parts in an arrangement, takes a day, if not half of one. Granted, if things get particularly hairball, then a mix can take up to three days. They don’t ever take five. Even a twelve-minute-long track, which seemingly takes forever to mix, doesn’t take five days. And seeing as the run time on the Douchebag Song is three minutes and thirty seconds, there was absolutely no earthly reason why I should still be mixing this track, other than the fact that I still wasn’t happy with it.

Aardy had demonstrated remarkable patience these past five days, as had Kanish. But then, Aardy wasn’t producing this record. His job was to shut the fuck up until such time as I needed him. Kanish wasn’t even around and for good reason. He was on a critically important mission. We call it Operation Distract-a-Billionheir.

The plan was simple. The mix was taking longer than expected, and we needed time. We couldn’t possibly risk the Rev and Mukesh releasing their song before us. The best way to prevent that was to leave the Rev without a performer, and so Aardy asked Kanish to take his friend for a multi-day tour of Los Angeles. I mean, you can’t record a vocal if your Artist won’t go the studio, right?

Look, if you find that plan despicable, I have three words for you. Eight fucking figures. Okay? So anyone calling out my morals can fuck off. Music can be a blood sport. Especially today.

Ahem.

As you can surely tell, I was beginning to feel the pressure. We had one shot at this, and frankly, I’ve been all fucked up because I must somehow negotiate my decisions from the perspective of Mook, Producer, and Artist all at the same time, an impossibility if there ever was one.

“Aardy.” I sighed in exasperation, my head still down. “What about the video?”

“That would require a mix.”

“Yes. I understand that, but I’m not having a mix issue. I’m having a Production issue. It’s also a Mook issue.”

“How can it be both?”

“How can it not be both?”

“You don’t have a Mook on this project.”

“I’m the Mook. By default. I’m virtually auditioning for the role.”

“Well, I’d say you’re failing miserably at it.”

Aardy isn’t really the hand-holding type. He tells me like it is, which is why we work together. Unfortunately, I was in a delicate state, and that particular reply wasn’t helping matters. Neither was an incoming Skype from Paneer. Fuck! Normally, I’d have declined the call, but it’s not like I was being productive.

“Hello Paneer,” I said coldly.

“I would vehdy much like a report on your progress. My patience grows weary.”

I’m not sure how patience grows weary, but the sentiment was clear. I needed to send him something to listen to; otherwise everything could get really fucked up, and fast. It’s one thing for Kanish to be cut off from his Trust, which he has ways around. I was far more concerned with Kanish being recalled back to India.

“I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised,” I said. “We’re just putting the finishing touches on a song now. Shall I send it to you?”

“What is this Song you speak of? What is my son’s role in it?”

“Talking about music in the abstract is a waste of time, Paneer.”

“You are a cheeky and difficult man. Send it to me presently, then,” Paneer scolded as he hung up the Skype.

I immediately prepared my current mix for transfer to Paneer.

“You’re nuts,” Aardy said.

“I have to send him something, and that’s all we have.”

“You’re opening a can of worms. What if he gives you notes?”

“Notes! That’s absurd. He’s not qualified to offer us notes!”

“Neither are Mooks. Why not just send him a track you mixed last year?”

“Dude. What year is it? I can’t send him something that he could just Shazam. The guy’s a tech magnate. I’m better off just letting him hear his son’s talent for himself.”

I put the mix up on my Dropbox, messaged Paneer with the link, and ten minutes later we were back on the Skype.

“What is this that you have sent me?”

“I told you. It’s a track that Kanish and I are producing together.”

“Kanish is the one making that chattering?”

“It’s called rapping. And yes, that’s Kanish. He’s quite talented, you know. You should be proud of him.”

“Don’t be absurd. It is not my son’s obvious talent that concerns me. Let me tell you, it is this arrangement of yours. It is all wrong. What kind of hack Producer are you after all?”

“Yes. Thank you, Paneer. The track isn’t even finished yet.”

“You are vedhy right about that! Where the hell is the motherfucker sitar?”

The sitar?

The sitar?

The sitar!

THE SITAR!!!!

Of course!

The motherfucker sitar!

“That’s it! Paneer! You’re the best!”

“What is it that I have done to make you so happy? This concerns me.”

“A motherfucker sitar! That’s exactly what this track needs! Thank you!”

“This answer does not satisfy me!”

One of the negative effects of never being satisfied is that those around you stop trying. So I hung up the Skype. At that moment, convincing Paneer to give Kanish access to his trust fund again was not my most pressing matter. If all went according to plan, Kanish would no longer require Paneer’s money. The best gift I could offer Kanish was to help him acquire his independence. We were well on our way.

“I would call those notes,” Aardy gibed. “I take it you now want to add a sitar.”

“And Indian percussion, among other things,” I replied. “I’ve been getting so bogged down negotiating everything with myself that I totally missed the obvious. We need to tie in the Indian element.”

“I thought that’s what the Bollywood strings were for.”

“They’re too subtle. We need to make this track even more Indian.”

“I think that’s a good idea. Do you know a sitar player?

I really only know one sitar player, and that’s Bob Coke.

I’ve worked with Bob on more than one project. I met him in the mid-’90s when I was mixing Ben Harper’s Fight for Your Mind album. He was a co-Producer on that album. I also recorded him playing sitar for the French Artist Piers Faccini. Bob was the perfect candidate to play sitar on the Douchebag Song. Unfortunately, his outgoing voicemail message was explicit: “Thanks for calling. I’m in India and will be unreachable for the unforeseeable future.”

Kanish and Mukesh returned from one of their many Distract-a-Billionheir jaunts. Mukesh was once again wearing all-white muslin loungewear. As cozy as his outfit appeared, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable walking around society draped in stark-white pajamas. But then, I’m not a Billionheir.

Sevaka began to pull out many large bags full of overpriced Universal Studios apparel. Then he began to pull out cartons of Woodcock Reserve wine.

“The wine! We totally forgot about the wine!” I exclaimed.

“Wine?”Aardy said as he perked right up.

There was a time when I was into wine. I’ll still drink a glass occasionally with dinner if it’s served, but these days expensive bottles of wine are wasted on me. Just the same, I was thankful that the weather wasn’t overly warm lately, as we would have surely managed to cork the whole lot. Aardy immediately opened a 1992 Woodcock cabernet.

“Do you know how much all this wine is worth?” Aardy asked, still rummaging through the boxes.

“No idea,” I said. “Well, some idea. They’re expensive. But beyond that, no idea.”

“Some of these bottles have to be worth close to a thousand dollars.”

Mukesh excused himself to go to the loo. Kanish waited patiently until Mukesh was fully out of earshot before inquiring as to our progress.

“Is the mix done now?” Kanish whispered.

“I’ve had a revelation.”

“I should take that as a no?”

“I want to tie in your roots.”

“Tie in my roots? I should have dreadlocks?”

“Not your hair, your culture. I want to add a sitar part.”

“You took five days to decide that we need a sitar part?”

“Spoken like a true Mook,” I said.

“You’re calling me a Mook?”

“When you act like one I am.”

Mook Record Execs are notorious for cutting down the creative process with their negativity. When I was producing Australian phenom Pete Murray’s album back in 2006, I had a Mook question me as to why I was recording the “big single” for the fourth time. This was a classic case of the Label insisting on a song that didn’t really fit the Artist, tasking me with figuring out how the hell to make it work for him. As it turns out, I did. It was the biggest hit of his career, but that might have something to do with the fact that I kept going back and recutting the track until it was right.

Kanish was mildly amused at my rather surly response. As it was, I wasn’t happy that it took me five days to figure out I needed a fucking sitar. It was bad enough that his father was the one to point it out. I most certainly didn’t need Kanish giving me shit about it.

“My apologies,” Kanish offered. “I think sitar is a fantastic idea. I only tease you because I have a solution to our problem.”

“Our problem?”

“You need a sitar player, do you not?”

“We do. You know a sitar player?”

“It just so happens that my friend Mukesh is an excellent sitar player.”

I was just about to shoot the idea down outright, but then Mukesh appeared before I could.

“Sitar? I have been playing the sitar since I was a child,” Mukesh proclaimed.

“Yeah, well, unfortunately, I don’t have a sitar.” I sighed.

“But Ben Harper has vehdy many sitars at his store. He is your friend, is he not?”

Mukesh was referring to the Folk Music Center, which is owned by Ben Harper, and which has been in his family for some generations now. The center is located in Claremont, a charming artsy town nestled in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest. I typically shop there around the holidays to pick up unique musical instruments as gifts. I’ve been eyeing the sitars there for years, but could never justify the expense. For starters, I don’t play sitar, and I rarely ever have the need for one. As appreciative as I was to Mukesh for the help, the issue here wasn’t actually finding a sitar. This is Los Angeles—you can find anything here. The problem was the proposed sitar player. I didn’t even want Mukesh to hear the track, let alone play on it.

“I think that’s a great idea, boys,” Aardy said. “Why don’t you have Sevaka drive you to the Folk Center and pick up a sitar?”

The boys summoned Sevaka, hopped in the Bentley, and took off for Claremont. I addressed my concerns to Aardy.

“Dude. I don’t want Mukesh to play on this,” I whined.

“Because he’s going to hear the track and steal it before we even release it?”

“Mock me if you like. There’s something deeply evil about that kid. I don’t trust people who wear all white. It’s like he’s making a conscious decision to literally hide his true colors,” I reasoned.

I wasn’t basing my distrust exclusively on his fashion choices. Mukesh was the very definition of an entitled Billionheir, and he’s a bit of a Douchebag to boot. Had Mukesh shown up on my doorstep for a mentorship, this adventure probably wouldn’t have lasted more than a day.

“Look at it this way,” Aardy said. “You could have a sitar on this track by tonight. And then you’re done.”

Aardy was right as usual, of course. I took some time to add Indian percussion parts to the production.

Kanish and Mukesh returned with a gorgeous sitar and a whole shitload of Indian percussion instruments, none of which we needed at this point. Just the same, I was happy to add them to my percussion collection.

For those of you unfamiliar, a sitar is a large guitar-like instrument with strings that lay across a fret board. Below the frets, there are a slew of thin-gauge strings that run the length of the neck, and which resonate in a drone-like manner based on the sound emitted by the upper strings. Given its size, the instrument is typically played in a seated position.

Introducing a sitar into popular Western music is certainly not without precedent. The Kinks used sitar on “See My Friends.” But it was George Harrison and the Beatles who first featured the instrument on their track “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” George Harrison was so fascinated by the instrument that he sought out Ravi Shankar from India to teach him how to play it. They collaborated on some records, too. Interestingly enough, Ravi Shankar fathered early-aughts pop star Norah Jones.

Mukesh, as it turned out, was a decent sitar player but a terrible listener, and I basically had to spoon-feed him the part and then put him in loop record in the hopes that he might play something useful. As much as I would have loved to use my position to beat the kid up a little—to knock the little shit down a peg or two—I was actually my usual encouraging self. Besides, he was doing us a favor, even if I was against his involvement.

Upon wrapping up our two-hour sitar session, I opened up the garage to get some fresh air. Mukesh and Kanish ran upstairs for some refreshments, and like clockwork the Rev pulled up in his Rolls. What the hell was he doing here?

“Hey, Zerman! You know, it’s the goddamnedest thing. It turns out I can’t record a motherfucking vocal without my Artist!” the Rev said as he lit up a butt. “I thought I’d come down and pick up Mukesh myself. You know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were trying to keep him away from me. Where is the little shit, anyway?”

Admittedly, Operation Distract-a-Billionheir was only supposed to buy us a day or two. Rev isn’t an idiot. Clearly we’d pushed the plan beyond its breaking point. Further problematic was the fact that Rev was about to cut vocals. That could only mean one thing. We were nearly out of time.

“Who’s playing the sitar?” the Rev inquired as he pointed to the beautiful instrument perched against the wall.

“Mukesh performed for us,” Aardy replied.

“He plays sitar?” Rev said with a rub of his chin. “Say, could I borrow that sitar for a few days?”

Motherfucker! The Rev was going to put sitar on his production too! Aardy, who remained calm, chimed in.

“Sure, you can borrow it,” Aardy replied. “It belongs to your Artist.”

“Ain’t that a son of a bitch! My Artist has a motherfucking sitar.”

The Rev seemed intent on completing his own mission called Operation Give-Me-Back-My-Billionheir-So-I-Can-Put-a-Motherfucker-Sitar-on-My-Production-Too. He loaded up Mukesh and the sitar into his Rolls-Royce, and with a tip of his hat, he bid us all a friendly farewell.

“All right, lets get this track done,” I announced.

“I think you’re done,” Aardy said.

“What do you mean, I’m done?”

“I mean you’re done. You’re way too deep. Let the kid have a crack at it. You need some distance.”

Aardy was right, and I knew it. I was completely oversaturated with the track, and given the chance, I would likely spend five more days fucking with it. The only thing that was going to help was for me to get away from it. Besides, if Kanish and I were to be partners, then I had to relinquish some control. I can’t do it all, no matter how hard I try.

We left the kid to his devices and had Sevaka drive us up to Manhattan Beach for a steak dinner and one of the $1,000 bottles of Woodcock Reserve. Sadly, the bottle was corked. Pure vinegar. I guess we shouldn’t have left them in the trunk of the car.

Aardy and I returned home two hours later, filled to the gills, only to find Kanish relaxing on the back couch.

“Hey! What the hell is this! There’s no resting!” I said sarcastically.

“I would vehdy much like to play you magic now.”

“You would, huh?” I replied dubiously.

I strolled up to the Raven, pressed play, and took a seat in my mix chair.

Behold! The track was a celebration! It drew me in, it made me move, and, most important of all, I couldn’t stop singing. Aardy kept yelling at me to stop, but then I’d forget and start rapping and singing again.

“You got it, Kanish! That’s the mix!” I exclaimed.

“Yes, yes, yes! This is so fantastic! Let’s put it out there!”

“Perhaps,” Aardy interjected, “we should play it for Willy first, gentlemen.”

“Ah yes, yes, yes. A vehdy good idea,” Kanish replied.

“Give me your phone, please, Zerman.”

I handed Aardy my phone, and he immediately texted Willy the news on my behalf.

“What the hell did you do to the mix?” I asked Kanish.

“Aside from adding a sitar, I have done nothing to the mix.”

“Are you trying to tell me that all you did was chop up the sitar and balance it in the mix?”

“That is correct.”

“You didn’t even use the Indian percussion?”

“I did not.”

“Motherfucker,” I said.

Oh, don’t be surprised. There comes a point in a mix and a production when one tiny little change in balance perspective can make the difference between absolute magic and pure shit. As it turns out, all this track needed for the past five days was a sitar.

Aardy held up the phone. A new text had come in.

“Willy says come by at noon.”

“That’s fantastic!” Kanish beamed as he sparked up our usual late-night Fatty in celebration. ”I suppose that means it is time for today’s lesson. Hit me with it!”

My phone buzzed again. It was a continuation text from Willy, which Aardy read to us both.

“He says to bring the Pharcyde.”

“You still want today’s lesson?” I asked.

“Now more than ever,” Kanish lamented.

“Man with no time and too many hats needs more heads.”

Mixerman

Chapter 17 – Shell Game
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