Courtney, Jenga and a Hangover
Okay, so normally this not my M.O. I don’t usually take this tack toward subject matter or even people with regard to blogs or posting. Meaning: I don’t regularly feel compelled to call someone out. Now, I’m not totally above the temptation. I’ve—from time to time—called out my share of network news anchors and politicians and even rebuked a few energetic Facebook posters.
With regard to the Net, we’ve all had lapses in judgment – you know, the hangover moment where you wake up the next morning and think “Nooo! I wish hadn’t done that”.
It requires so much discipline to avoid the temptation to act impulsively when we have our finger resting on the proverbial trigger of the loaded six-shooter known as the Internet. Hell, for all I know, I may be guilty of doing that right now … although I must confess, I’ve had the makings of this blog floating around in my noggin for weeks now, trying to mentally compile it into something meaningful and then of course rationalizing it’s publication.
So, while this post is not really impulsive by definition, it is probably no less fraught with peril. But after considerable thought, I think the risk just might be worth it because when it comes to the type of behavior on I’m going to describe, where on the surface it can easily look warranted and even at times comical, but underneath is really reckless, impulsive, bullying or even possibly misogynistic, it feels like some context is needed. Especially so when it has such negative ramifications on our profession; i.e. professional audio. When it does, I feel compelled to chime in
So buckle up, here we go. By now, I’m sure that many of you have heard about the recording efforts of self-proclaimed recordist J.M. Ladd and the events that followed his recent efforts. According to what I can gather on the Internet, Ladd was hired through a local venue to record a Courtney Love performance at the venue. At the conclusion of the event, apparently Ladd submitted an invoice for his efforts but was subsequently not paid for services rendered.
Ladd, apparently was very upset that “the venue representative” — and please remember this part — “the venue representative” — did not pay him for services rendered. So, in turn Ladd, instead of keeping his grievance with the person who hired him, decided to exact damages on whom? Courtney Love, NOT “the venue representative” with whom the original deal was struck.
And so the certain hangover is set in motion. He decides to seek payment in the form of retribution by releasing, for the entire world to hear, Courtney’s raw vocal and guitar performance to the world. All in a petty and misguided effort at some sort of revenge or vengeance for not being paid for his efforts. What ensued was the predictable viral sh#tstorm.
Now here is where, honestly, it gets really fascinating to me, especially from the sociological context. I’ll save the integrity slant for the big finish.
Let me start by asking; how many people in the world would characterize Courtney Love as a polished and skilled vocalist? I’m pretty certain she’s well aware of who she is and what she is trying to get across in her shows and her performances and it’s certainly not about polish, it’s about attitude. I mean, what did Ladd think he was going to “expose” exactly? Conversely, does anyone think Courtney is “embarrassed” by this recording? I don’t see her as someone who lacks confidence or conversely is trying to sell herself as something she is not. She knows what she is, and frankly to her credit she OWNS it. Something sorely missing from a LOT of music that even dares to call itself “rock” these days.
I mean if you find yourself thinking her vocal performance is “awful” I ask you, what exactly prompted you to listen to it and by what measure are you judging it? Hopefully you’re not using the American Idol or The Voice benchmark. Would you judge Johnny Rotten by the same standard? Neil Young? Bob Dylan? Heaven forbid a vocalist as revered as say a Robert Plant? Are you looking through the prism of whether her work is credible by how in-pitch her vocal is or how well-executed her guitar playing is? If so, you’re missing the point in my opinion and just my guess here … In the end she could give a rat’s ass and honestly has no time for you anyway.
Frankly IMO a little Courtney Love is the shot in the arm rock music needs at times like these compared to shiny vocalists who can execute all of the vocal aerobics in the world, perfectly in pitch but never offer an emotionally or lyrically meaningful moment during any of it. Anyone who would listen to Courtney’s style of music with that kind of expectation is never going to “get it” anyway and frankly the joke is on them. “Just keep walking folks, nothing for you to see here.”
Okay, since we’re halfway down the rabbit hole anyway, I’ll ask for little more grace (or rope around my neck) to allow me to continue on with my own personal context on this. Here it goes; I’m of the opinion that Rock – when it’s right in the head – has never been about pretty, perfect vocals, guitars and drums. It’s about attitude and contrast. When it’s at its most potent and effective is when it’s spewing raw emotion all over whomever is within spewing distance.
I had the pleasure – yep you heard me right, the pleasure -- of seeing Hole when they were just breaking and on the rise at a small venue here in AZ. Honestly, in all my years of attending shows, I’ve rarely been at show that felt so urgent. I was totally engaged and really uncomfortable all at the same time during a show. At times the tension and anticipation was thick enough to cut with a knife. It was a show that was emotional, and real, and at the same time beautifully walked the razors edge of possibly collapsing into chaos at any second and taking the crowd right down with it. At times I thought I was going to crawl right out of my skin. The performance was about anything but perfect musicianship or performance. What it was about was THAT VERY MOMENT IN TIME. I walked out soaked in sweat and feeling like “Whew! Okay, yeah, rock is alive and well. Carry on please.”
And that is the part that Mr. Ladd has no chance of ever understanding, let alone respecting. To him someone else’s art and effort was worth trashing for a few self-serving dollars to account for his couple of hours of work. If he did respect it, he simply would not have done what he did.
Courtney is certainly not the first vocalist to be subjected to this kind of behavior by someone with the keys to the hard drive. Some of you who are old enough may remember a similar incident with Linda McCartney some years back. Of course there are the more recent public vocal revelations of Britney Spears, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry and most recently Mariah Carrey.
Ya know here’s the thing, and given what I do for a living it’s the primary reason this type of thing bothers me so much and why it resulted in this blog. For those of us who work in the live sound and live recording field and are privileged enough to be considered professionals – and it IS a profession by the way -- we understand and embrace that there is a bond of unwritten trust that exists between artist and mixer. And the bond is especially strong between the artist and the recordist. The artist leans VERY heavily on that bond and trust. There’s a kind of marriage of two sentiments; “Dude, don’t embarrass me” in direct unison to “Dude, I’ve got your back”. It is part of what allows the artist to be emotionally free and fearless during a performance.
For the live mixer, it can at times result in an act of nobility which means that even if the vocalist is having a tough night, you do what you can to protect them—even if the quality of your mix, and YOUR reputation, takes the hit for it.
For the live recordist it means, you respect and honor the fact that you have access to recordings that could possibly show the artist in a very bad light if maliciously presented to the public, especially if presented out of context. Yep, you heard it here first folks, NOBODY is great every single night or on every single take.
There is an expectation by the artist that you will HONOR that access because of just that fact.
What Mr. Ladd, along with all the other unscrupulous, self-serving morons who felt compelled to publicly release these out-of-context vocal performances did, was unwittingly kick away half of the Jenga blocks that represent the complex bond of trust between all artists and all recordist and mixers. All they accomplished in the end was to destabilize the stack of intricately connected blocks that represent the level of trust between artist and staff from that day forward.
One could easily say their actions were selfish and self-serving, but in the end what did those actions actually accomplish? It certainly wasn’t any possibility of financial restitution. Was it some sort of sadistic satisfaction or peace of mind? Really? REALLY? How vapid, shallow or spiteful do you have to be to get satisfaction from doing something like this?
No, I would submit to you that all that Ladd—and all those who would subscribe to his methods—accomplished in their actions was to put a price, an absolute dollar value, on their own integrity. They were willing to wistfully trade it away for … yeah, wait for it … the amount of the unpaid invoice. What was it? 200.00? 500.00? 1000.00? Was it worth it Mr. Ladd? Getting many calls to record anyone lately? Whatever the figure, Mr. Ladd has also ensured that all of us who do this kind of work for a living will be paying just a little bit of that invoice for some time to come.
So, before you’re tempted to think “Well, if the person who hired him would have just paid the invoice, none of this would have never happened” ask yourself this: What is YOUR reputation and integrity worth? No, seriously, what is it worth in dollars and cents? Try to put an actual dollar figure on it and whatever figure you land on, simply disregard it because Mr. Ladd just settled the issue for you with the dollar figure at the bottom of his now infamous unpaid invoice. Well played Mr. J.M. Ladd, I, and the rest of the pro audio industry thank you sir.
Yeah, not so much …