NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Money and Music: What’s Up?

And the Curious Matter of Music's Vanity Cases

Editor’s note: Chet Flippo is on vacation and will return with a new column next week. In his absence, here’s a reprise of a popular Nashville Skyline column that ran on July 10, 2008.

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Well, I see that at least some financial news is heartening today. A Manhattan penthouse that I’ve long had my eye on has had its asking price cut, yet again. It’s on Central Park West, and what’s always appealed to me most about it is the top floor, which is a domed library retreat, which opens onto a terrace overlooking Central Park. I see the seller is now referring to that as the co-op’s “thinking level,” as opposed to what’s called the lower “working level.” At any rate, the price for this luxe duplex has dropped from right at $16.5 million last April down to $11.7 million. At that clip, it’ll be reasonably priced by the time the stock market stabilizes and rebounds and 401(k)’s become recognizable again. Whenever that is.

And gas prices, when I was in Florida last week, were creeping below $3 a gallon for regular. So, that’s encouraging news. I saved a few pennies there over Nashville prices. And I see that CDs, if you should still want any, are selling for around 10 bucks. Nielsen SoundScan numbers every week show that fewer and fewer people are buying CDs. This week, we discovered new back stories behind two Top 10 country albums. The first is a public disavowal of a new greatest hits album, as Tim McGraw did, calling the release “an embarrassment to me as an artist.” The other way was to lose a bunch of weight on TV, as Dan Hunt did. Those methods are not recommended to every aspiring country artist.

What’s a music career itself worth these days? Hard to say. The commercial payoff is not what it used to be, in most cases. Those who live and breathe music pursue it without contemplating any other path — no matter how much or how little money they earn. For other people, cost is no object. Their ambition knows no bounds.

Far as I can tell, although it’s probably too soon to gauge it yet, the financial meltdown has not stopped the vanity artists who have been with us for many years and likely will be here till the end of time.

These are the ones with personal fortunes to burn or those whose families are loaded. Or the ones who’ve attracted financial backers with more money than good sense. What it all comes down to is this: A wannabe artist who will spend whatever it takes to conjure up a musical career of some sort. If anything, as far as I have detected, hard times haven’t slowed down the wannabes from their tireless striving.

The vanity cases are a curious breed. Ambition, not talent, is the one thing they all share. And they belong to every music genre. I met my first one years ago in New York City. A rich family with a spoiled kid who wanted to be a rock star. Who thought he deserved to be a rock star. Couldn’t sing worth a damn or write a decent song or do any of the rest. But he had a pushy daddy and mommy who were used to having their money get them what they wanted. The daddy and mommy invited me to dinner. Interestingly, they didn’t bring the kid along. But they laid out the scenario, in circular, rather vague language. But they let it be known that they would let nothing stand in the way of making their precious offspring a star. And they hinted broadly that bribes would not be out of order. “You can make this happen,” they kept saying. No one with any brains would ever agree to be part of such a scenario. But plenty of people do get lured in, to their eventual regret.

This family finally did, as these wannabes still sometimes do today, found a record label that was thrilled to have eager investors underwrite the costs of trying to launch a career, with cash upfront for recording, touring and promotion expenses. They, not too surprisingly, never produced a hit for the precious child.

Once, in astonishment, I watched the spectacle of one very prominent vanity case, who shall also go nameless here, for a very obvious reason. Literally millions of dollars were poured into the campaign to make this young man a star. And it was not his family’s money. It was the Family’s money, if you get my drift. I am very glad that they never invited me to dinner.

No big hits for that guy, either. The listening public usually has picked the hits. Still does.

Success seldom comes for these people. But it does, now and then. The occasional career is launched. There’s more than one successful vanity case that I could name right now. But I won’t. And these days, when record labels are in the most precarious financial state in their history, the labels must be very happy to see money walking in the door, rather than seeing it exit in the usual reverse order. The big difference these days is that I see more and more labels actively courting vanity cases. Listen to the result, though, at your own peril. Good music endures. Flashes in the pan come and go.