Setting the Tempo

How bandleaders have managed music making, from Duke Ellington to Lauryn Hill.

Bruce Springsteen, Prince, and Ani DiFranco.
Bruce Springsteen, Prince, and Ani DiFranco. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sean Gardner/Getty Images, Yves Lorson from Kapellen, Belgium/Wikipedia and Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images.

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There’s a whole subgenre of business literature that uses the “rock star” as a model for managers and CEOs, trying to distill career lessons from the likes of James Brown. Musicians certainly can be models of creativity and innovation, it’s true, and bandleaders are indeed employers, often managing “staffs” of side players, roadies, technicians, and others. But beyond that, the comparisons usually strain credulity as attempts to drape a layer of glitter over the tedious details of corporate management. Rock bands and rap groups don’t tend to have human resource departments, and if you want a blueprint for how to handle money, the last place you should look to is the typical musician. Still, while the ways they relate to their peers and subordinates might not look much like any unit of an insurance company, it’s not a trivial matter—it can have serious consequences for other people’s livelihoods and their emotional well-being.

It can be tricky to dig out the truth about any particular artist’s management style. The public seldom hears about grievances from within a star’s camp until long after the fact, when someone is writing a memoir and ready to settle a career’s worth of accounts. Before that, in the insecure life of even a successful working musician, you never know when an old frenemy might turn out to be your pipeline to the next gig. You don’t want to be iced out forever because, well, you know what you said.

Recently, though, the keyboardist and producer Robert Glasper apparently stopped caring. Glasper, who’s been a lively conduit between contemporary jazz, hip-hop, and neo-soul for more than 15 years, went on an extended rant in a radio interview about another artist who’d recruited him and four other top players a decade ago. The job was a 20-minute corporate gig for which, he claimed, the artist was getting paid a half-million bucks and the hired hands, to put it mildly, weren’t. Yet she made them rehearse 10 hours a day for a week, while every day she threw out the work they’d done the day before and changed all the arrangements—or else didn’t show up at all. They were instructed never to use her first name or look her in the eye. On the final day, she cut the musicians’ already-modest pay in half.

The prima donna in question? Lauryn Hill. Glasper also referred back to the lawsuit that surrounded her landmark 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, where her musical collaborators claimed she’d robbed them of credit as co-writers. “You haven’t done enough to be the way you are,” Glasper capped his complaint. “The one thing you did that was great, you didn’t do.”

Granted, Glasper’s tone could raise questions about whether he would have complained about a male bandleader in the same way—not even the musicians who sued her denied that Miseducation was her vision. Given Hill’s reputation, however, for arriving on stage hours late at her own concerts only to play curtly abbreviated sets, it’s unfortunately easy to swallow that she can be just as impolite to the people behind the scenes. (Hill responded to Glasper’s allegations in a Medium post on Monday.)

Yet her alleged transgressions are petty compared to some of the more notorious cases in music history. James Brown was famous for “fining” band members large sums if they made a minor mistake on a note, flubbed a dance move, or had insufficiently polished shoes: He would flash his hand at the offender on stage to indicate how much they’d just been docked; audiences thought he was making a dramatic dance move. Like Hill, he often failed to give credit to the players’ creative contributions. In 1970, his entire band, loaded with the finest musicians in soul, quit en masse over mistreatment and pay disputes. (Arguably, his music was never quite the same.) Still, Brown plainly earned his title of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business in every show, and like many legends, he gets the defense that he asked no more of his players than he did of himself.

Another of those, Prince, later borrowed Brown’s “fining” system, though he applied it less ruthlessly, and when sound engineer Susan Rogers lost her temper when he tried to fine her one night, and threw her money in his face, they quickly made peace again. (Later in life, when he was born again as a Jehovah’s Witness, most of his fines involved dirty words, and $20 bills for his “swear jar.”) Most musicians seem to have treasured working for Prince, despite his demands for round-the-clock availability and unquestioning loyalty.

Far worse, after all, was someone like the 1960s and 1970s avant-garde rock hero Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, whose almost Manson-esque manipulation techniques when working on his extraordinary double album Trout Mask Replica included confining the musicians indoors for weeks and depriving them of food and sleep. Not to mention, according to drummer John “Drumbo” French’s memoir, attacking them with sticks and on one occasion pushing French down a flight of stairs. (By most reports, the Captain mellowed later in his career, before retiring from music to concentrate on painting.)

Less acute but more sustained, the late Mark E. Smith of iconic British post-punk band The Fall was renowned for getting into drunken fistfights with band members onstage and firing so many players over the years that you’d need a database to chart them all—something the music journalist Dave Simpson attempted when he spent two years tracking down every ex-Fall member (at that point, 43 of them) for his 2008 book The Fallen.

While such scandals turn into legends—smuggled tapes of drummer Buddy Rich and singer Paul Anka screaming at their bands, for instance, became prized bootlegs and later internet staples—we tend to hear a lot less gossip about the good or even great bosses of the music world. Only fan-magazine puff pieces talk about the pop stars—Nashville’s Kenny Chesney is one name that’s been mentioned to me—who generously reward their bands with a group vacation at the end of the tour, look out for their families, and make sure there’s continuity between one spell of work and another. In the recent documentary Hired Gun, about the lives of side musicians, pop singer Pink and veteran rocker Alice Cooper, for instance, are singled out by current and past hires for how they nurture their employees, promote a supportive atmosphere, and encourage their band members’ independent artistic ambitions.

A rare case of an upright musical boss making news was the folk-punk singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when, under of the auspices of her independent Righteous Babe Records label, she made a point of providing health insurance and other benefits to her signees and employees alike. But DiFranco is an outspoken feminist activist; many other musicians might do the right thing while preferring not to politicize the issue. And on the flip side, while many “indie” musicians and label owners might talk a lot about opposing the corporate music model, it’s obvious from countless stories that being DIY is no guarantee that they won’t be unfair to their artists and business partners.

The classic example of a great musical boss is big-band icon Duke Ellington, who was renowned for shaping his music to suit the distinct personalities of his soloists, herding the often-misbehaving jazz cats of his ensembles with patience and grace and treating them fairly as employees. Ellington himself was modest about those abilities, often joking, “There is nothing to keeping a band together. You simply have to have a gimmick, and the gimmick I use is to pay them money.”

No doubt it helped Ellington that popular music’s organization during the big-band era was unusually orderly. As Joel Dinerstein argued in his 2003 book Swinging the Machine, such groups mirrored the structures of industrial-era business, with the bandleader as a company president and the musicians arrayed at their bandstand stations like workers on an assembly line or administrators at their desks. “The visual style may have reflected seamless corporate order, but the artistic dynamic was one of controlled power,” wrote Dinerstein, “in my view the predominant element of a distinctively American Machine Age modernism.”

In those pre- and postwar years, those clear hierarchies were counterbalanced with unusually robust labor unions for working musicians at the same time that union membership was peaking in the general labor force. There were explicit rules for how rehearsal and performance time was to be set and compensated. The power of the musicians’ unions diminished conspicuously with the coming of rock ’n’ roll, partly because the union leadership refused to recognize these kids as professionals. (They couldn’t even read charts!) And, in a countercultural spirit, the players themselves didn’t want to see themselves as workers—work being what they’d become musicians to avoid. Yet without the power of collective bargaining, the music business becomes a race to the bottom as people who are chasing the dream of a creative life are willing to work for closer and closer to free, rather than give up their spot to someone who’ll do it cheaper.

While bandleaders can sometimes seem exploitative, remember that they’re almost always in a subservient position themselves to agents, managers, club bookers, concert promoters, record labels, and other layers of über-bosses. Sometimes, too, leadership will be divided internally between the central creative force or frontperson (not always the same entity) and an internal “musical director” or logistics wrangler. When decisions are split, it’s often unclear who has the primary authority.

In the collective model of the rock band and, later, rap groups—closer to the tech startups of today than a traditional corporation—the main question isn’t whether the boss is just or unjust, but who’s the boss, or whether there was one at all. Often a band might start off trying to operate by consensus, but as they slog through tours and other obligations over the course of years, and especially when there’s more money at stake, antipathies grow between the better- and worse-organized, those who perceive themselves as contributing more artistically, and so on. Down this path lies the cliché of the split over “creative differences.”

I’ve seen up close, for instance, bands whose names I won’t mention that seemed to operate as politically enlightened, even activist, collectives, in which group members seemed willfully forgetful who’d been the main impetus and creator of the project. Then came a record deal, a higher-profile show, or some other catalyst for change, then the leader asserted leadership, and the whole band collapsed in a chaos of anger and resentment. This is what political organizers often refer to as “the tyranny of structurelessness,” in which the illusion that there is no structure conceals an implicit structure that guides what really happens and eventually undermines the group ideal. In general, it’s better to lay the ground rules out in the open.

In shop talk among musicians, this is all often framed as a choice between “democracy” and “dictatorship” in band organization. It’s amusing how often the singers and songwriters who end up holding bands together for years (though often not with the lineups they started with) can be found referring to themselves in interviews as “benevolent dictators.” One wonders how many of their “subjects” would agree about the “benevolent” part.

As Bruce Springsteen—the proverbial Boss himself—writes in his 2016 memoir Born to Run, “Democracy in rock bands is often a ticking time bomb.” He admits, “I needed the certainty of being firmly in control.” But he also says that to make a band last, he had to “come to one basic human realization. … The guy standing next to you is more important than you think he is. And that man or woman must come to the same realization about the man or woman standing next to him or her, [and] about you.”

Springsteen learned that lesson after he let his entire E Street Band go in the late 1980s for a decade, to the bitterness not only of many in that legendary lineup but of much of his own fan base. When he reassembled them in the late 1990s, he had to do some uncharacteristic groveling. (Although, like Ellington, he also had that handy gimmick of offering a lot of money.)

But that’s a mere shadow of the much more gruesome tale of Billy Joel and his longtime band, which is recounted in interviews in Hired Gun, among other places. After sticking with the same core backing lineup from the early 1970s onward, to the degree that Joel refused to work without them even when ex-Beatles producer George Martin came calling, he abruptly let guitarist Russell Javors and bassist Doug Stegmeyer go in the late 1980s without a word. As Javors puts it in the documentary, if he’d been laid off by a corporation, he might have gotten a gold watch; here, he didn’t get even a phone call. Stegmeyer reportedly never recovered from the blow and shot himself some years later. In the early 2000s, it came drummer Liberty DeVitto’s turn to be dropped—according to DeVitto, because he dared to ask Joel for some financial help in the midst of a costly divorce settlement. As DeVitto says in Hired Gun, “My wife buried me in sand up to my neck, and then Billy Joel kicked me in the face.”

If the bulk of these stories date to previous eras in pop music, it’s partly because of the justified guardedness among musicians that I’ve mentioned. But it’s also a sign of the way musical paradigms have been shifting again.

Today, when whole albums can be created by one person with a laptop, and when music is less geographically based and propagated so much on the internet, fewer stable bands are being formed. Instead there are networks such as Odd Future, the ASAP Mob, Atlanta’s Wondaland Arts Society (home of Janelle Monáe), loose conglomerations such as “Soundcloud rappers,” etc., who have more social than business relationships.

The nearest analogy to the past might be the ties between performers and producers—the ongoing clash between Kesha and her producer Dr. Luke over past alleged sexual abuse and coercion is, among many other things, a dispute about exploitation and unsafe working conditions. Regarded optimistically, it’s possible that social media exposure and pressure in such cases might provide a rough but usable substitute for the labor organizing of distant memory.

One thing certain is that in an age of precarious labor—the so-called gig economy—musicians are better prepped than most workers to face these new kinds of bosses. For them, they’re pretty much the same as the old boss.

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