Suing Neil Young
Do you remember the infamous incident from the 80s when David Geffen sued Neil Young for recording music that was “not representative” of Neil Young?
I’m thinking of this in connection with recent posts by me and Shawn about commercial-versus-artistic, publishable-versus-unpublishable. Specifically this comment sent in by Susanna Plotnick:
If we are working on our own, creating new forms, breaking rules, aren’t we courting ‘unpublishability’? Where do we draw the line between courting publishability and being a hack?
An excellent question. But first back to Neil Young:
When David Geffen launched Geffen Records in 1980, he paid big bucks to put under contract a stable of major stars–John Lennon, Donna Summer, Elton John. And Neil.
Geffen wanted his new company to take off like a rocket, matching his earlier success with Asylum Records (Joni Mitchell; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Jackson Browne—and Neil.)
Instead everything started bombing.
Albums came out on the Geffen label and sank without a trace.
Including Neil’s. (Does anyone remember Trans or Everybody’s Rockin’?)
Neil was experimenting. I was paying a huge amount of money and these records were selling nothing.
David Geffen was not used to failure. He didn’t like it. He snapped.
They sued me for playing music that was “non-characteristic of Neil Young.” Now that is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. But they did it. They sued me for millions of dollars.
Even Geffen’s former partner Elliot Roberts called the lawsuit “unconscionable.”
I was sued for being myself. [I was] sued for being an artist.
But doesn’t David Geffen have a point? He’s paying Neil a lot of money. Isn’t it Neil’s job to step up to the plate? Deliver some hits, dude!
(This story and these quotes come, by the way, from a terrific PBS documentary called Inventing David Geffen. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a college education in creativity, success, and all the craziness that comes with such pursuits.)
So who’s right—David or Neil?
The question brings us back to Susanna’s query: What is the artist’s role?
Is it to make hits? To “succeed?”
Or is it to follow her own muse, even if it means never being published?
The voice of sanity in this debate comes, not surprisingly, from Jackson Browne (as quoted on-camera in Inventing David Geffen):
[The work an artist does] is not a work for hire. You don’t hire me to make you money. I make music, and you [David Geffen] are licensed to do something with it.
David Geffen took an understandably commercial-minded approach to the situation. He’s in business. He puts out a product; he wants the product to sell.
The mistake he made is that he’s in the business of art. And you can’t produce art the way you produce corn flakes or Ford F-150s.
Neil Young and Jackson Browne have to follow their muse. And that muse may lead them, from time to time, into some pretty quirky territory.
There’s periods for all artists. They go up and down like waves on the ocean. Perhaps [David Geffen’s] mistake was not seeing that he was guiding artists through different periods … He was more concerned with the fact that in the public eye he seemed to be failing. He was at the top of his game 95% of the time, so when he made a mistake, it blew his mind.
My own thought regarding this brouhaha is to bring it back down to you and me, as writers and artists and entrepreneurs:
The point for us is that we, inside our own heads, alternate between playing the David Geffen role and playing the part of Neil Young.
Should we become homicidal (or suicidal) when our stuff crashes and burns? Should we call out the lawyers and sue ourselves?
Or are we permitted sometimes to go nuts artistically and chase rainbows that have zero chance of commercial success?
My view is we should aim for some point in the middle.
Of course we want our stuff to succeed. Of course we want people to hum our tunes and tap their feet to the music we put out. But we can’t second-guess the audience. We can’t write with an eye to what “they” want. Because not even “they” know what they want.
We have to listen to our internal voice. We have to lead. And we can’t blame ourselves for trying stuff that, as Seth Godin says, “might not work.”
The good news, at least from my experience, is that sometimes when we think we’ve left the solar system entirely, we wind up doing our most commercial work.
As Crash Davis once said, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes you get rained out.”
I hereby resolve to guide myself through those ups and downs on the ocean. No matter how bad I screw up, I will not sue myself.
Definitely aim for the middle.
Somewhere in the middle is located the attempt to make new, interesting, and yet recognizable work for the genre we write or compose.
But if we try too hard to figure out where to aim, then we will have put voluntary ourselves to the “Procrustes bed”, won’t we?
Michelangelo’s David statue https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_(Michelangelo) is an example of the middle way, I believe.
Recognizable style, but still innovating. Based on Renaissance artistic notions, but still revolutionary way ahead of it’s time.
A master piece that stands every test of quality and taste.
It’s not easy to say what exactly is or isn’t “the middle way”, but from my point of view I try to work my “statues” like the “David construction way”.
If the Muse push me one day to make a David statue like a Yu gi oh (http://yugioh.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page), I would it anyway, but I would already know that this piece of work will not mean something to anyone. Art is communication.
(Or, perhaps, I would have to wait 500 years and move from “my Florence” to modern Tokyo to find people that will understand it. 🙄 )
In a way, this sort of encapsulates the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, doesn’t it? The Apollonian side of us wants harmony and fine form–something easily understood by the world at large, something traditional, something popular. Meanwhile, the Dionysian side keeps delving deeper, looking to produce a work that is more free-form, more personal, more ecstatic. But it’s only when those two seemingly-opposing forces are in accord–when we ‘aim for the middle’–that good work gets done.
I’ve always thought of Neil Young as someone who’s a model for the War of Art type of mindset. Throughout his career he’s been producing work at an, almost, Woody Allen/Frank Zappa-like pace. His speech, when he was honored with the MusicCares Person of The Year award a few years ago, was a clear message that he was still plowing forward: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzsB_pQLvQ0 Looking forward to catching that Geffen documentary.
Mike, he’s a hero to me too.
Not a professional musician (any more), but a published novelist with 28 books under my belt. EVERY artist must create what’s burning a hole in his/her gut. Otherwise they will sadly lose respect for themselves, even when the money for mediocrity comes rolling in. A successful, famous and highly-paid whore—is still a whore.
I don’t think you should ever aim for the middle. That’s like aiming for mediocrity. You should always aim for the best, and sometimes the best is way ahead of the audience. Sometimes it’s right smack dab in the middle of the audience. You don’t get to decide what they like – you get to decide what you want to give them.
I would like to point out that “Trans” is one of Neil Young’s best albums. I certainly remember it. It may have been “experimental,” but its use of electronic instruments perfectly mirrored what Neil Young wanted to say at the time, which was pay tribute to his autistic son, for whom communication was a challenge. David Geffen wanted another “Harvest” – he wasn’t interested in Neil Young the evolving artist, but in Neil Young personas that had already sold. He didn’t get behind “Trans” and now it’s out of print. That’s a shame. As for “Everybody’s Rockin'” – that’s also a good album, with at least a couple of great songs on it. It’s the kind of rock and roll Neil used to play before he moved to California. It’s no different in intent from John Lennon’s “Rock and Roll” album.
Sometimes the company is wrong (the record company, the movie studio) and sometimes the audience is wrong – they might not get what you do until 20 years later. Or you might have an instant hit. You write successes the same way you write failures. I say aim high and accept that you will have bombs, sometimes big ones, and try to work with people who accept that.
Seems to me that if, because of some hot marketing idea, I’m creating something other than what my heart leads me to create, it will show in my work, and, more often than not, I’ll actually reduce my chances for successful publication. The Muse doesn’t always lead us to create pieces that become hits, but I bet there are very few hits that didn’t begin with an enthusiastic push from that little voice.
Trans is one of my favorite Neil Young albums! 🙂
Trans is one of my favorite Neil Young albums! 🙂
I’ll play a bit of devil’s advocate to some of the previous comments here.
I completely agree that as creatives we should go where our muse takes us. However, I see a common tendency among creatives to associate non-commercial with creative and vice-versa. The fact of the matter is that “commercial” means having an audience that is easily recognized. It does not mean better or worse work. And if we criticize an artist for creating “commercial” work because we believe this false trade-off, then we miss where the muse may be taking them and maybe where the muse wants to take us, too.
Also, it should be pointed out that, while Jackson Browne’s commentary has truth in it, many creatives come to the publishing/record/etc. deal assuming this is what publishing and record companies do. Some do. Most don’t. As an artist, most companies assume you are developing yourself as an artist. They see their job as getting the work out there and everyone getting paid.
In my opinion, most of the artist/company conflicts are really uncommunicated expectations about what each side should bring to the table and bring to the contract and the value of these things.
Really, if an artist wants bargaining power, it’s our job as artists to develop ourselves, our work, our audience and be willing to walk away from the bargaining table. We need to be clear about that being what we bring, do what it takes to bring it, and make no assumptions about us “deserving” to be paid money unless we bring all three of those. If we’re not willing to do the work of those three things, we need to be willing to work in obscurity if an audience and money don’t magically appear. And that is perfectly valid, too. We just have no right to get pissed at the corporation if they won’t play our game by our rules if we don’t bring to the bargaining anything they want.
I agree. I think we have to recognize that if we want to work with publishers, record companies, etc., yes, they want to make money. Funding brilliant experimental books or music that nobody will “get” for twenty years or more is all well and good, BUT too much of that, and that publisher or record company ain’t in business anymore.
We don’t HAVE to work with a publisher/record company, especially in this day and age. But if we choose to do so, we have to recognize they are not Entirely Evil, it doesn’t *have* to be us and our pure Artistic Integrity against The Man.
I’ve always liked the idea of a challenge – can I write a story within the parameters of XX word count and YY other parameters and still push the boundaries? In some ways, having certain limitations or expectations is more freeing.
Since my interpretation is based on fragmentary information, it is speculative and may be wrong, but here it is:
Geffen was penny-wise and pound-foolish. He gave Young a contract with too much cash and too little profit-sharing. Since there was no incentive for Young to please anyone but himself, that’s what he did. Thereupon Geffen tried to get out of the arrangement. Hopefully he lost and Young was awarded court costs.
Good job, Steven, as always! Thank you. When I wrote my first book, I wouldn’t let anyone see it till it was finished. Why? I had written numerous screenplays, showed them around, and everyone had opinions. “You should do this, you should that.” It was driving me nuts as I tried to find the “commercial” screenplay. I finally said, “Fuck them,” and wrote that first book just as I wanted. It sold instantly to Random House and they nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. It was my baby. I did it my way and all those cliches. For my fourth book at Random House–I was walking various historic trails and writing about the history of the route along with my own adventure–the publisher insisted that the book, Walking to Canterbury, be less personal and more grounded in history. They assured me it would sell more copies. I didn’t believe them because I had developed a fan base that savored my personal take on things. I was right. That fourth book sold the least. My first book, Walking the Trail, about retracing the Cherokee Trail of Tears has now been read by half million and counting. Two weeks ago I brought out my 8th book, Native American Thriller–Part One, on Kindle. It’s my baby, my “I did it my way” kid. Yes, I employed my knowledge of mainstream readers and used my storytelling tools. But I wasn’t hesitant to take some curves on two wheels, burning rubber down Art’s Highway. I seemed to have found a smart balance between Art and Product because the thriller–being done as a series–is off to a fiery start both in sales and in 5 star reviews at Amazon. Many of you out there singing the same song?
any news on the videos on the foolscap method you were planning on putting up?
My apologies for the delay, KP. We’re working on some tech issues. That’s what’s holding it up. But the videos have been shot and edited — there are two of them, each about ten minutes long.
These Foolscap videos are part of a larger presentation that focuses on writing a “first novel,” i.e. getting from unpublishable to publishable. We’re aiming to have it by the first week in September.
Thanks for asking, KP. My apologies for the delay. We haven’t forgotten!
Ahhh, thanks so much. You’re the best. I really appreciate you taking the time to respond.
Look forward to the videos!
What was even more strange was when Fantasy Records sued John Fogarty for plagiarizing himself
I remember TRANS.
Great website. Plenty of useful info here. I am sending it to a few pals ans also
sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you on your
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