As the leader of alternative-era heroes the Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Corgan is one of the most successful musicians Chicago has ever produced.
And as the major-label system that has dominated the music industry for seven decades crumbles around him, the 42-year-old graduate of Glenbard North High School is doing everything he can to maintain that rock-star status--from lobbying Congress, to breaking a long-held principle against selling his music to Madison Avenue.
"The 'system' that was once the modern record business, essentially ushered in with the meteoric rise of the Beatles, is now helplessly broken, and by almost every account available, cannot be repaired," Corgan wrote in one recent letter to Congress. "Personally I would add to that a healthy 'good riddance,' as the old system far too often took advantage of the artists as pawns while the power brokers colluded behind the scenes to control the existing markets."
Few musical advocates would disagree with that statement. But some of the answers that Corgan is proposing are prompting longtime fans to ask, "What the heck is Billy thinking?"
The Great Pumpkin declined an invitation from the Sun-Times to expand on his recent statements. Via email, he wrote, "I am loathe from here and ever on to talk about the music business. So honestly I'd rather not comment."
Ironically, that statement came about a week after he wrote his first letter to one Congressional subcommittee, and a week before he donned a suit and tie and traveled to Capitol Hill to read another letter to a different committee.
Let's take a closer look at the bees in Billy's bonnet.
* Backing the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger
With the exception of Bruce Springsteen, major recording and touring artists have been silent about speaking out against the proposed merger of America's largest ticket broker and its dominant concert promoter--perhaps out of fear of reprisals, as some Congressmen have charged. Meanwhile, only a handful have endorsed the plan, including Seal, Shakira, Journey, Van Halen--and Corgan.
"The combination of these companies creates powerful tools for an independent artist to reach their fans in new and unprecedented ways, all the while restoring the power where it belongs," Corgan wrote to the Senate Committee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, which held a hearing on the merger last month. "This is a new model that puts power into the hands of the artist, creating a dynamic synergy that will inspire great works and attract healthy competition."
Critics of the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger range from Congressmen on both the left and the right to many musicians' rights groups, and they all say that it will result in less competition--the opposite of what Corgan contends--since many acts will be forced to perform with the giant company or forgo touring altogether, as Pearl Jam discovered when it battled Ticketmaster in the mid-'90s.
In the past, Corgan often has avoided working with Live Nation--performing throughout the Midwest with independent Chicago promoters Jam Productions instead--and he has been a harsh critic of Ticketmaster's system, even exploring alternative means of ticketing at hometown shows to assure that seats went to fans instead of scalpers.
What changed? Corgan has now put his career in the hands of super-manager Irving Azoff (see "The manager behind Billy Corgan: Meet the "Poison Dwarf"), who also happens to be the executive running Ticketmaster, and who stands to be one of the top forces in the new company if the merger is approved by the Justice Department.
* Backing the Performance Rights Act
Earlier this week, Corgan testified before the House Committee on the Judiciary in favor of another controversial proposal, recently introduced to both houses of Congress by the major-label lobbying group, the Recording Industry Association of America. The plan would force conventional or "terrestrial" radio to pay performance rights for every recording it spins on the air, in addition to the songwriting royalties it already pays.
While both kinds of payments have been required of Internet and satellite radio as well as television broadcaster, terrestrial radio has long avoided paying performance royalties under the reasoning that playing a recording on air essentially is a free ad for the artist that might lead to album or concert ticket sales. (In fact, it has often been alleged that artists and record companies paid radio to play their music instead of the other way around--"payola," it was once quaintly called.)
"From my perspective, this issue is one of fundamental fairness," Corgan told Congress. "If the performance of a song has value to a particular terrestrial radio station in its airing, I believe it is only right to compensate those performers who have created this work. Simply put, if a station plays a song, both the author and the performer should be paid." (Since Corgan is both, he'd be paid twice.)
The problem here is that in an effort to wring a few extra coins from giant radio chains such as Clear Channel and Infinity--and the royalties really only amount to fractions of a penny per spin--the Performance Rights Act would severely hurt if not financially cripple community and independent radio stations, just as Internet radio has been walloped by this extra cost. Artists will lose in the end, since radio will simply play less music. As NAB Radio Board Chairman Steve Newberry told the Congressional committee, "Your local radio stations will be forced to cut services or employees, may be forced to move from a music format to a talk format or may be facing bankruptcy."
* Backing the use of his music in TV commercials
After a career spent carefully controlling the use of his songs, earlier this year, Corgan and Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin recorded a new tune entitled "FOL" specifically for an ad introducing Hyundai's new Genesis Coupe during the Super Bowl. And a few weeks ago, he went even further, licensing one of the Pumpkins' signature tracks, "Today," for use in a commercial for Visa credit cards.
Licensing songs for advertising remains a controversial issue, particularly when a song is an especially poignant one, and good arguments can be made on both sides. But Corgan made one of the best against the practice in an interview with Newsweek in 2004.
"If your music is not sacred to the point where it's a really, really, really heavy decision about whether or not you would allow somebody else to exploit it, then what's not for sale?" Corgan said. "'Today,' which ended up being a pretty big song--that song literally saved my life. I was completely suicidal, and I wrote that song in a cold bedroom on a day where it was like, 'I'm either going to kill myself today, or I'm going to live because I'm sick of thinking about this.' When I played it, it was an intense, extreme feeling. Last year, I was offered heavy, heavy money to license that song. I actually turned down two huge, huge, seven-figure-plus deals last year for two songs."
Again: What changed? Well, these are hard economic times for everyone--even rock stars with a posh North Shore mansion and a fondness for jetting around the globe. So perhaps Corgan's commercial sell out and his attempt to shake down terrestrial radio are just two more distressing symptoms of this awful recession.
Harder to accept is the vision for the brave new world that Corgan is espousing. "All areas of the modern music business are currently feeling the shifting tides as new models emerge and old ones are broken up," he wrote. The tragedy is that this one-time visionary and skilled reader of the cultural zeitgeist, having established one of the most successful careers of his generation, is in the perfect position to test a truly independent new model. And instead, he is championing a new boss that opponents say will be even bigger, more cumbersome and less encouraging of competition than the old one.