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Dead rock stars and the new music paradigm: the Zappa "Roxy Proxy" flips the script on bands, fans and the industry



Most casual fans of “music” will view an event like the recent fiftieth anniversary performance of rock n’ roll unit The Rolling Stones as a triumph, a celebration of tenacity and stamina in a world obsessed with planned obsolescence and the next new thing. But it is a well-known fact that casual fans miss everything, which is why it takes a critic to point out that a band like The Rolling Stones is perhaps only rolling their decrepit bodies out of their luxury assisted living centres because their back catalogue no longer generates the cash flow that the upkeep of their vampiric states require. Yes, the crash of the traditional music “biz” has been harder on some than others: that twenty-something chillwave act can still take their iPhones to the gig with them on the bus and just hit “Play” when they arrive onstage, but those doddering fools who still insist on playing instruments, in fealty to ancient customs hardly remembered, must find continued solutions to the problem of how to continue paying the bills.

Of course, don’t fret for The Rolling Stones; luckily for them, outlandish tickets prices to their reunion shows mean that Keith Richards will, at the very least, be able to hang on that one open-C chord for the next decade. Save your pity, then, for the less fortunate veteran rockers, particularly a special class of oldster hit hard by these austere times: the dead. “Oh sure,” you’re saying, “what do they need to worry about? They’re dead!” As if it were that easy. When us mere mortals die, we get put in the ground and life goes on; when a rock star dies, however, there is an estate to fund, an empire to maintain. Until recently, the dead found it not particularly difficult to keep the whole hamster wheel running, from the astounding posthumous record sales of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin to the truly impressive torrent of releases put out by Dead Jimi Hendrix, Dead Elliot Smith, and Dead 2Pac.

But with record sales screeching to a halt, and the living musician forced to put on performances for money once again, the dead are put in an uncomfortable situation. One need look no further than the current promotion being put forth by the estate of legendarily bearded guitarist Frank Zappa, where, with no lucrative “reunion” gigs in the cards, creative solutions must be entertained. This project, dubbed by Zappa widow Gail Zappa “Roxy By Proxy”, will perhaps go down in history as one of the most ambitious and ground-shifting attempts at record promotion in the history of recorded music, far eclipsing the hubbub surrounding Kickstarter and the like.

Some back history: Frank Zappa is a famed guitarist, songwriter, conductor, performer, and roustabout, who shocked the world in the late 60s with his sarcastic songs about food (keep in mind that this was a good decade or two before “Weird Al” Yankovic). His storied career came to an end on December 4, 1993 when prostate cancer forced him to stop releasing ten zillion albums a year. After his passing, his unwieldy oeuvre was exhumed numerous times, sometimes even with “digipaks”-- all was well. But throughout, Zappa fanatics often spoke in hushed tones of the legendary “Roxy In LA” tapes: live recorded film and audio of a run of performances by Zappa and his band at Hollywood’s Roxy Theatre on December 8,9, and 10, 1973 that is purported to be, as a Zappa fan would say, “tight as balls.”

How tight is that? Keep in mind that this is a mean and lean Zappa, high on the rush that created the classic 1973 LP Over-Nite Sensation, a sleazy magnum opus that brought the world such rumbling orgy-starters as “Dinah-Moe Humm” and “Zomby Woof”, songs that would teach a young Steven Tyler how to teach a generation of hair metallers how to talk dirty to MTV. It all started there, on that Roxy stage, with primo Zappa, before he sold out the next year with the lame and puerile “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”, a childish ditty and a hit for its album, Apostrophe (‘), Zappa’s sole platter to reach the Billboard pop album chart Top Ten.

Some of the Roxy material was included in the 1974 live record Roxy & Elsewhere, but fans clamored for more of that three night stand’s hott, hott lixxx. And in recent years, with the advent of “digital” technology, FZ’s vault-masters cruelly taunted the faithful by giving sneak peeks at this hitherto-unseen footage, going so far as to include a trailer for the “Roxy” DVD on the Baby Snakes DVD.

But it was not to be, as the cruel Lucy’s-Football-esque torment dragged out for year after year. Until now, when the Zappa Family Trust has unveiled their clever and paradigm-shifting plan for distributing this much-sought-after prize. “Roxy By Proxy” is the name of the distribution plan for the soundtrack to the Roxy film-- as described in an email sent to the subscribers of the mailing list of zappa.com, “76 unadulterated minutes of fabulous frenzy.” “Oh my god,” the Zappa maniacs shrieked, “I must hear this music, what can I possibly do to make it happen?”

In short: form your own “company” in order to help “distribute” this “lost” “classic”. Here is the text of the email sent this week to Zappaheads:

From: Zappa.com
Date: Wed, Nov 28, 2012 at 9:16 PM
Subject: THE ZAPPA PROJECT/OBJECT of your DREAMS!
To: ownerofmanytrenchcoats@gmail.com

Dear People of Earth who are interested in anything & everything concerning The Roxy Performances,

So you’ve always dreamt of being a music mogul and running your own record company, huh? But you ask yourself, “How could I get a Real Record Deal?” “I mean,” you say to yourself, “I think I could do this as well as anyone – I have important opinions to share.” Well here’s your chance to be part of Zappa Music Business History and become an AUTHORIZED DISTRIBUTOR of a Real (REAL!) Live (LIVE!) Zappa Record. One more time for the world: Recorded by Zappa, Performed by Zappa, featuring some of your favorite Mothers, and Material, AND all under the Roof you’ve been waiting for: The Roxy! No ELSEWHERES about it.

What??? It’s True. We here at Zappa Records are looking for a few good men and women – approximately 1,000 highly motivated, sensitive and discerning individuals – to sign up as Official Independent Distributors of a never-heretofore-released, thoroughly Authentic Zappa Master Recording. And this is not just any thoroughly authentic Zappa Master Recording either. No, this is the one many of you have been beyond craving. Please sit down to read this part: This is the Roxy – the Soundtrack – yes, it is the introductory Soundtrack, the Prequel if you will – the Project/Object of your Dreams. 76 unadulterated minutes of fabulous frenzy await you. And the opportunity of a life–time:Roxy By Proxy! Should it be determined that you become an Officially Licensed Authorized Zappa RBP Distributor, you can make as many copies of the record as you can possibly distribute – AND exce pt for reporting to us your sales & customers (just like any other record distributor) and paying us the publishing, YOU keep the money. AND you get to collect royalties from what is sold at Barfko-Swill AND you will also be entitled to a special wholesale price available to the OLAZRBPDs (Officially Licensed Authorized Zappa ROXY BY PROXY Distributor) exclusively.

Apart from being Official Release #96 this is a Music Biz First. How is that you might well ask: We figured you might like to participate in the wonderment so we have devised a way to let you in behind the scenes of every Artist’s necessity - a music distribution deal – but in this case we’ve cut to the chase. We need to get the record to you so why shouldn’t you be part of the process? You can help us help you by helping you help us.

So here’s the deal: getsome.zappa.com for all the information and the ACTUAL LICENSE.

Thanks in advance for your Consideration.

xxx,

gz

"Music is the Best!" ~FZ

So that’s it-- just spend a thousand dollars, and the record is yours! GZ is right, this is indeed a “music biz first”: the “fans” are now the “record company”, and the “artist” is now the “cashbox”. It’s an idea so great, you wonder why other dead artists hadn’t thought of this first. Keep in mind that this plan comes amidst a massive campaign to release newly remastered FZ albums, complete with absolutely no new material or bonus tracks, to a fanbase that has only been guilted into buying these albums a minimum of three or four times in various formats.

However, the most genius part of the Zappa “Roxy Proxy” plan still awaits: remember, by plunking down 1K, you aren’t just in possession of a round piece of plastic, you are now in business with the Zappa Family Trust. And if you read the fine print, you can find out just what that means when you attempt to plot out your distribution plan for this important record. Here’s the pertinent part of the plan, should you choose to do business with “ZFT”, as the insiders call it:

When will you receive the Master CD? The Master CD will be shipped to the address you provide within 8-10 weeks after the close of offer period (i.e., 5AM on December 28th). We will strive to ship all the CD Duplication Masters on or about the same day to ensure a fair delivery timetable for each Distributor.

How Will I Know When The Master Is Shipped? We will notify each Officially Licensed Distributor that the CD Duplication Master has shipped. If there is a problem with successful payment, we will notify the distributor via email as soon as possible.

How Do I Make Money? Each distributor may set the price for the Distribution CD and sell unlimited numbers of complete, physical CDs at the retail level. You will also participate in a royalty pool derived from sales of ROXY BY PROXY CD on Zappa Records through Barfko-Swill at Zappa.com as described below. Note: You can give the CDs away as gifts! There are no exclusive territories for each Distributor.

Are There Distribution Restrictions? Yes. Distributors may only sell the CD at the retail level, which means you cannot contract with any music distribution company. The CD or individual tracks may not be uploaded to file sharing sites (of any kind) for sale via digital download or sold via any other digital distribution method.

How Do I Manufacture the Physical CDs from the Master CD? You may secure your own manufacturer to make copies of the Master CD. Under this approach, you will owe us a mechanical royalty of $1.20 for each CD sold or delivered, payable per the terms of the distribution agreement. In the alternative, you may use the Zappa Family Trust’s authorized third party manufacturer to make copies of the Master CD. Under this approach, each CD will be provided to you at the wholesale price of eleven dollars plus shipping and handling. On all such sales, the mechanical royalty of $1.20 will be included in the price to you. Further, for any sales of the physical CDs made by the Zappa Family Trust through its Barfko-Swill website, we will pay you a royalty based on a percentage of the difference between the retail price and wholesale price as set forth in the terms of the distribution agreement.

What Kind Of Marketing Materials Can I Use? The Zappa Family Trust will provide each distributor with authorized marketing materials for use in advertising and promoting the Zappa CD Master Project. Any and all marketing materials created by a distributor must be approved by us in writing prior to use by the distributor.

Are We Partners? No. Each distributor is acting as an independent contractor for this specific Zappa Master Project and not as an employee, agent, or partner of the Zappa Family Trust or Barking Pumpkin Records. Each distributor is solely responsible for maintaining customer lists, accurate financial records and payment of any local, state, or federal taxes or fees. PLEASE NOTE: The Zappa Family Trust retains the non-exclusive right to distribute the CD itself through its Barfko-Swill website to consumers and the exclusive right to distribute digital and any and all other formats.

Now, assuming not all of you out there are poindexters with calculatorheads, I’ve gone ahead and done some of the dorkwork for you, and it seems that at $1.20 a CD for “mechanical royalties” for CDs that you may sell, it works out that, if all of them sold, you would have forked out $2,200 for a CD. But you might get to hold on to a few of those “authorized marketing materials”, which we insiders who named things in the BSB era (“Before Soulja Boy”) call “swag”-- so a few grand and you get a few posters. Did we mention “tight as balls”?

It really is a heady time for the music business, isn’t it? Up is down, black is white, record companies and famous rock stars are buh-roke, and fans (at least the small number who are endlessly generous and curiously game for any type of exploitation) are the deep pockets of the industry. Back in May of this year, I wondered, in the wake of ex-Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer’s massive Kickstarter campaign, who were the people who would give ten thousand dollars towards the release of her eventual-and-quite-decent album Theater Is Evil. But seeing things progress to the point of this rather shameless shakedown from Club Zappa, Palmer’s fundraising exploits seem fairly benign in comparison.

Of note, as a post-script, is the post-script of GZ’s email, the four final words of what has proven to be Frank Zappa’s epithet, below quoted in its complete context:

Information is not knowledge.
Knowledge is not wisdom.
Wisdom is not truth.
Truth is not beauty.
Beauty is not love.
Love is not music.
Music is THE BEST.

And it is definitely true that music, as an ethereal and ephemeral experience, can indeed be “the best” (although if that music is Zappa, “THE BEST” is best experienced in small doses and doesn’t include his later orchestral works). However, it is truly captivating how fiduciary concerns, time and time again, pollute the natural dissemination of “THE BEST” in the service of giving restitution to people, some not even living anymore, who are increasingly distant from the time when they were producing some new “THE BEST” that anyone would want to hear.
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