FREEDOM FROM THE PRESS
Caitlin Pickering asks:
How, as a manager, do you protect the artist without overindulging them? Someone like Dylan, for example, was highly cautious when it came to the media. He often alienated them. The media, however, can really impact an artist's fate. Too much bad publicity can begin to shrink the fan base. How do you walk the fine line between privacy and lack of accessibility?
There is an old showbiz axiom, often attributed to Colonel Tom Parker, "There's no such thing as bad publicity." Back in the latter fifties, as an emerging artist, Elvis Presley faced a tremendous amount of establishment and media resistance to his exploding popularity. Elvis' brand of Rock & Roll music was "black" in a violently racist America. His performing style was blatantly sexual, he didn't just challenge the moral standards of the day, he shattered them. The fans wanted more.
The greatest generation returned, victorious, from World War II and their grateful nation rewarded them with the gift of education. Millions of young men and women earned their college degrees under the G.I . Bill. This massive acceleration of intellectual development had an unforeseen consequence. A society long conditioned to obey, began to question authority.
Universal education suddenly exposed a major portion of our society to the Constitution and The Bill of Rights. A popular song of the day asked the musical question, "How do you keep the boy down on the farm, now that he's seen Paris?" The answer is, you don't. In fighting to protect our freedom, we discovered it. My father's generation invented the "American Dream." Their motivation was to win the war, so their children would not have to ever experience such horror.
The man in the gray flannel suit learned that he had rights. His next inclination was to exercise those rights and demand his freedoms. The middle class beurgeoned and parents tried to impose old fashioned standards of behavior on the "baby boomers." They only succeeded in precipitating an open rebellion. The Rock generation abandoned the goals of their parents and sought their personal identity. Their first major choice was to abandon their father's music and embrace Rock & Roll.
The sudden growth of Elvis' career was not the product of years of slaving on the road and the careful polishing of his talent. Elvis the Pelvis sprang into the public spot light in a sudden and
spectacular moment. His raw, animal persona instantly attracted a world wide audience that has never abandoned him. The international print and television media captured his every move. More than thirty years after his death, Elvis' estate still generates millions of dollars annually.
The public reaction to Presley's warm and gracious personality eventually eroded the negative press and even the parents accepted him as a great artist and performer. Throughout this process, Elvis never had to seduce the press. They were captive from day one and their coverage was more an observation of his life than an example of personal participation in the public relations process.
Although, he was down home charming and bright, he rarely gave interviews and he never pursued publicity. Perhaps this reserve only contributed to the media's insatiable hunger for all things Elvis. When America met The Beatles in the early sixties a similar media explosion dominated print, radio and television. The Fab Four didn't have to chase publicity, it was all around them, all the time. Their manager, Brian Epstein, and their publicist Derek Taylor, devoted more energy to protecting them from the press rather than exposing them to it.
In the fifties and sixties there was no insatiable black hole sucking up twenty-four hour cable news. There were no roving hordes of paparazzi stalking anybody flaunting their fifteen minutes of fame. Fan magazines were found at the news stands, not on television, like the full color, multi channel domination of the dinner hour that we experience today. Elvis and The Beatles were chased by the media and occasionally stopped long enough for us to get a glimpse.
The rest of the artist community endures a love hate relationship with the fourth estate. They want to expose their new albums, movies and personal appearances to their fan bases. Promotion is part of the artist's professional responsibility to the record companies, movie studios, TV networks, and concert promoters who invest in their careers. Its his job to sell the music.
Nobody works twenty-four hours a day. Sooner or later, the act has to sit down and let go. Rest and recuperation are the most important ingredients for an enduring career. The business of music must be conducted at a livable pace. Touring performers compete at a very aggressive level. The lifestyle is very demanding and athletic. The stress of constant travel, combined with the emotional peaks and valleys of performing, pushes stars into isolation, escapism and drug abuse.
As stars fade into decay, or disrepute, some of the attention is no longer welcome. That very adoration, once chased and cherished, becomes a vehicle for gossip, exposure and betrayal. But, there is no switch on the media monster; the appetite for destruction is insatiable and relentless. A tale of ruin and tragedy attracts far more interest than the story of the artist's halcyon days.
The manager must limit access to the star and control the flow of information to the media. The "official" artist's web site is the first source of the "story" which rarely overlaps the truth. When an artist who has built a rapport with the press, through years of interfacing, suddenly doesn't want to talk any more the gossip media embraces every possible fantasy. They should be ignored.
There is no quid pro quo in the media dance. The artist owes the press nothing and they are only as strong as their ability to say no. In normal times the media is the artist's ally and they both enjoy the symbiotic relationship. In times of tragedy, or scandal, pretty faces with cameras and microphones descend upon the scene of the crime. They assert freedom of the press and their right to know. I am always saddened to see the grieving family crying on TV the next day. They didn't know you can walk away.
Some publicity is desirable, some is not. Once you become a professional you have surrendered control. Be careful what curiosities you inspire. In a world of instant global communication, there IS such a thing as bad publicity. Careers are fragile and very unforgiving of the damage caused by strategic errors. If there are secrets, and there always seem to be, security and privacy protocols are imperative. The bad news becomes common knowledge in minutes.
Superstars always get over indulged. The pressure of a media cloud pushing in on the artist's world forces a sheltered lifestyle and a bunker down mentality. This creates an us against the world attitude resulting in the star dictating action and the entourage obeying. Excess wealth, isolation, extreme highs, enduring boredom and the illusion of power, all contribute to cultivated behavior. Managers must often make difficult choices when faced with enabling baser habits.
The media machine serves only its own interests. It is ruthless and incessant. Failure to learn this lesson, and understand the mechanics of public relations, has imposed great pain on the famous and their families. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all died in their twenties due to a failure to adjust to the rigors of life on the road. They escaped into drugs and believed their own press.
The lives of Elvis, Michael and Tupac were tainted by the poisons that lurk in the well. The media captured their stories in mountains of words and pictures. Their legacies are preserved in the extant record and the archive of professional opinion. Sooner or later, what actually happened doesn't matter, the truth fades and the legend prevails. Fans are by nature fanatics in fantasy land. Their perception of the relationship between the artist and themselves is almost always a fantastic delusion.
Artists must create their own story and project it into the main stream media through the Internet. Their managers and partners owe them the truth as they see it. However, honesty is a priceless commodity; and only the most secure fiduciaries risk challenging or offending the boss. Sycophancy is part of every star's relationship with the personalites that occupy his world.
Whether he is seeking media exposure, or hiding his weaknesses, an artist must invent his public image, or it will be invented for him. Walk as a spy amid the media minions, pretend to be one of them, but never forget they are dangerous and self serving. Romance the promotion your career requires. But keep your secrets safe and don't ever be afraid to protect your right to freedom from the press.