Music News: Nabil Ayers on Ed Eckstine, Blackout Tuesday, and hopes for change

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The Current Music News for June 17, 2020 (MPR Video)

Today we bring you a special episode of The Current Music News.

This is my conversation with Nabil Ayers, who's the U.S. General Manager for the record label 4AD. He's also a musician and a writer, and recently in the New York Times, he had an interview with Ed Eckstine, who was the first black person to be appointed head of a major label in the U.S.

This past Friday we talked about that conversation, and we talked about all the conversations happening in the industry around Blackout Tuesday.

Well, I'm glad to be connecting with Nabil Ayers, U.S. general manger of 4AD, a U.K.-based record label that is home to it seems like about half the artists on The Current's playlist — Grimes, The National, Big Thief, Velvet Negroni, U.S. Girls — the list goes on and on.

Yeah, you guys are very kind to us. Thank you.

Thanks for helping bring all this music into the world. So just sort of for the layperson, your job is U.S. general manager for this record label. What does a day look like for you? What does your job entail?

Right, I mean it's hard to explain. I've been trying to explain it to my mom for the whole 11 years that I think I've worked there, but there are people in our office who obviously work with the radio stations like yourselves. There are people whose job it is to try to get reviews and do press and get our bands on TV. There are people who do advertising and marketing and a lot of back-end stuff like accounting and artwork and design that make videos and really have a lot of people who do very specific things, and it's my job to sort of oversee all those people and make sure it happens in I guess a cohesive way and figure out the timing and work closely with the artists and their managers and the U.K. label where things are technically based. In a way, there's not a lot that I do myself. It's a lot of meetings; it's a lot of talking to people, a lot of emails and a lot of coordination I guess. Yeah.

And you are also a writer and a musician, which brings us to the specific impetus behind our conversation. As a musician you played with, you pointed out to me earlier, Tommy Stinson...

Right. Of course. I didn't even think about the Minneapolis connections. That's right, yeah, I remember I think we played two nights in a row on that tour in Minneapolis. It was really fun...a long time ago.

Was that 2004, you said?

That sounds right, yeah.

And you've played with bands including the Lemons, who signed to Mercury Records in 1995, which was, you said, the first time you got to meet Ed Eckstine.

Right.

Who you recently caught up with again. He was head of Mercury Records at the time and was the first black individual to appointed head of a major U.S. record label.

Yeah, that was a really interesting story. I mean at the time it was 1995. It was a long time ago. The internet wasn't what it is now so...I remember hearing that he came from a R&B background and that he was the first black president of a major label, but that's kind of all I knew and it wasn't very easy to just look up and figure out everything. And we didn't work that closely with Ed. I think we just had the privilege of meeting him quickly because we were a new band signing to the label and that's something you get to do. And so we sat and talked to him for 10 or 15 minutes and he seemed great, but I didn't really get to talk to him about any of that. We just talked about my band. And that was kinda that.

I've been writing a memoir and some of that is in it: my story about being in the Lemons and even that actual meeting and what I was really thinking then, and so it kinda got back into my head, and so a few months ago I decided to try to reach out to Ed. He was very easy to get hold of and he lives in L.A., and so I was there in January and that's when we actually met and had a long lunch. He has such a more interesting past that I'd realized, and [we] sort of got some great stories from him and that was pretty recently. So fast-forward to a couple weeks ago when I started hearing about Blackout Tuesday, my company...we were kind of, of course into the idea and the cause and the concept of people pausing to think about everything that's happening in the world and how they can contribute and make a change, and we did decide to close our office for the day.

And so personally when I decided what I would do, I thought how can I do something meaningful, something connected, I thought well, it would be great to just call Ed again. That would be fun. We had such a great conversation a few months ago — feels very appropriate and then of course this sort of other part of my brain, the writer part, was like well, it would be even more interesting to call him and document that conversation, sort of try to make an interview about race in the music industry then and now and what he's experienced and what I've experienced. So that turned in to this piece that ran two days after the interview in the New York Times, which was kind of crazy.

Yeah. So thinking back now on that conversation, what has really stuck with you? What impressed you most about the substance of your conversation?

Oh, man. There's so much. I mean, his background is incredible. He's the son of Billy Eckstine who was a very famous singer in the '50s and '60s, probably even earlier, who I wasn't super familiar with. I'd always heard of him but I didn't realize just how famous he was. He was friends with Jimmy Carter and Willy Mays. I mean really a big star, so this is kind of where Ed grew up, and he had amazing stories about working for Quincy Jones, which was kind of his first real job for 10 or 11 years before he entered the major label system.

What really struck me most about him is how, despite being a black man in the music industry, none of his stories were about how difficult it was for him and how hard it was, and of course those stories exist and they need to be told, but it's also really nice to hear the opposite — that he was smart and talented and lucky, which of course always applies, and really excelled for those reasons.

Yeah. You talked about color lines in the music industry in terms of, he had some frustration around the fact that historically the music industry has thought that, well, if you look this way, this is the kind of music that you can make and that you can work in on the industry side, whereas if you look this way you do that kind of music, and he kind of wanted to see that broken down.

Yeah. I remember I owned a record store when I lived in Seattle for a long time. It was called Sonic Boom, and Kelis, who I think everyone knows from that song "Milkshake," but she has earlier record. There's a song called "Caught Out There" there that the Neptunes produced. I think this was like 1999 or 2000, and I remember seeing the video on MTV and thinking "Whoa, what is this. What haven't I heard of this? I own a record store, I know the rep from that label, all this stuff." And I called the rep the next day saying, "What's the story with her? And can we get a copy?"

And the rep said, "Oh, that's on the urban side. We're not working that."

And I remember saying, like, "Well, what do you mean? I'm a record store. I sell music. I saw this video. You work for the company."

And it wasn't like "No, we won't send you a copy," but it was like, "No, we're just not really...that's not on my list of things to talk about. We'll get you a CD but that's that."

And then soon after that on the same label, that Nikka Costa record came out and there's a song called "Like a Feather." Kelis is black; Nikka Costa's white, I think; I might be wrong. And that record was absolutely worked by those people to our store and I think it was for those reasons. I think this is alternative, this is R&B because of the race of the people involved. And it was really weird and I think maybe I'd been really naive at the time because our store was so alternative, indie, that it just never happened to me in that way. It was never put right in front of me like that, but it was still like strange to me. It was like, "Oh, we're not touching that because that's urban."

That seems like so many conversations right now are about, generally speaking, the fact that we have this horrible history of racial segregation and slavery in the U.S. and there was a sense like oh, we've worked on this for so long now, right? Things must've got better. Of course in some senses, but so many things are the same.

Right, but some of the the...I think some of the "working on it for so long" stuff, then things tend to sink in and remain as they are, like these "urban" departments. But the amazing developments this week I think are both universal, right, and the Grammys getting rid of that word. And I think that's a huge, huge step for a huge organization. [It] can really help make a difference. So it is still happening.

To clarify, getting rid of the word "urban."

Yeah, yeah. I think there were two or three Grammy Awards that used to include the word "urban," and I think now maybe it's "Progressive R&B," but they deleted the word or changed the definition, which is great.

So now that your interview with Ed is out there, and I'm sure a lot of your friends and colleagues in the industry have read it, what conversations have you been hearing around that interview and what have people been saying to you? Any reactions?

I've had incredibly great feedback and I'm really surprised that I didn't get any bad feedback because that I've been writing a lot of shorter pieces like that and they're usually connected to music and race and kind of my background, and as much as I tend to get good comments, I always get bad comments, whether it's a comment on a tweet or something anonymous on the internet, and maybe it's out there but I haven't found anything about this piece, which surprises me, and which I think is great, but I've gotten overwhelmingly good feedback from people basically saying "Ed was great, these stories need to be told, thank you." So it's really exciting.

In the wake of Blackout Tuesday and all the discussions around that, have you seen any other sort of hopeful signs in the industry or indications that some real change might happen and not just symbolic gestures?

It feels like it. I mean everyone who's making a statement seems to be — you know, obviously for political reasons, but hopefully for good reasons too — saying not just black lives matter, but black lives matter and here are the three or four things we're doing to make change in the future so it's not just a statement but it's actually a statement of future actions to come. So I've seen tons of that. I don't know if it will ever be perfect, but it absolutely feels like there's a lot happening in the music business right now. The two women who started Blackout Tuesday are on the cover of Billboard, which is incredible because, I mean Blackout Tuesday, was a week-and-a-half ago. They had to have replaced another cover and gotten together the story and this photoshoot incredibly quickly, which I think is a testament to Billboard saying something important and making a good move.

Yeah. It's been really impressive how all the conversations of the past two weeks of course about police brutality, the death of George Floyd, but about everybody in every industry no matter what corner of America or even the world you're in, looking, saying, "This isn't just about the police. This is about me, this is about our industry, this is about what can we do."

Right, and as much as it feels like it's sort of in our bubble when they do look outside or hear things...it's the NASCAR thing. I mean it's really happening. Taylor Swift, who — obviously music, but I think falls outside of my bubble — she was one of the first people to say something about Trump and George Floyd and I thought that was really impressive.

Yeah. Well, and another thing that people were saying around Blackout Tuesday was okay, so here's what labels and music industry can do moving forward, but let's look back as well and look at some of the contracts that were put in place.

That's a big one. Yeah.

Yeah. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

AYERS: Yeah. I can't speak with absolute authority. I don't know what those deals looked like. This is all based on conjecture, but notoriously, labels, especially way back — '40s, '50s, '60s — gave black artists much less good deals than white artists, artists who sold tons of records, artists who made money themselves and made money for labels. I mean, certainly white artists also got bad deals, but supposedly black artists got worse deals, and there's a lot of people saying it's time for some of these labels to not only...I mean, Warner for example, doing this hundred-million-dollar fund is great and I, again, don't know that Warner has bad deals with labels, but if they did, in addition to that hundred-million-dollar fund, it would be great if they went back and revisited those deals and did so retroactively.

Yeah. And labels like Warner Bros. have now absorbed so many other labels that they inherit the contracts that were made by other people at other times.

Right, right.

Yeah. So now BMG is saying they're going to go and look at all of their historic contracts, and people are talking about the idea of unrecouped debt, which I think the average music fan might not realize...wait a second; an artist, even an artist I might think of as legendary, could owe their label money still?

Right. Not literally "owe," but I guess "be in debt to" via sales, meaning when you sign with a record company you typically — and I guess I'm talking more about bigger labels or major labels — as an artist you typically get an advance, which is an amount of money that is basically saying, "Here's some money now because we think this is money you will make later through sales." So you get the advance; you start selling records; the label spends the money on things and advertising and radio promotion and whatever, and then you as the artist get generally a small percentage of those sales, which puts that advance and all those expenses closer to zero, and once it gets to zero you start then getting more money. And what they're saying is after two decades, there might be artists who are unrecouped who still owe money on that balance, and that the label should just let that go and start paying them out.

Yeah. Well, thank you for talking about your conversation with Ed and all these topics and congrats on...maybe a little early to say "congrats," but your memoir is going to be fantastic.

Thank you. Still working on it but thanks for having me.


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