Monday, January 19, 2009

Janis Ian Tells All

Janis Ian became famous at fifteen years old in 1966 when her song "Society's Child" about an interracial love affair became an international hit. Her new autobiography "Society's Child" is a fascinating tale about her decades long struggle both with her personal demons and against her record companies. Her early success led to extreme personal turmoil and to her record company exploiting her; her story makes the reader look at the dark underside of how the American music industry works.

Ian is very frank about her childhood made up of equal parts personal trauma and musical riches. Her father was first a poor farmer and then a struggling left-wing Jewish high school music teacher who lost job after job when the FBI spoke to his bosses. Further, as a young adolescent she was molested by her family dentist. She grew up feeling a cultural outsider and a sexual victim, speaking about these traumas to no one.

Yet her family gave her a rich musical upbringing. Her father had started teaching her piano when she asked him to at age two and a half. Her doting parents encouraged both her reading and her music. Her parents sent her her to left-wing music camps where leading folk musicians such as Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, and Bernice Reagon were roving music counselors. Ian got exposure and connections in her early performances in the folk music clubs in Greenwich Village, but she rejected folk musicians' distrust of the big recording industry and pushed early for mainstream pop music success and fame like her idol Bob Dylan had.

She did enjoy parts of her meteoric early success such as befriending her music idols, but her life fell apart fast. Her parents fragile marriage couldn't deal with their daughter's success: she made more in a month they did by working all year. Her father charged her mother with infidelity and divorced her, soon fleeing across country. Ian felt angry at her mother, deserted by her father, and without any family, coping with the pressures of her record company to immediately produce a new album and tour tour tour. She never questioned why even though her first album was a hit she wound up owing her recording company $100,000. Instead of questioning, she crashed, got pneumonia, and had a nervous breakdown--at this point she looked like her friends Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix who lived hard and died young. Instead Ian fled music to work seriously with a therapist in Philadelphia. Her therapist helped Ian for the first time get in touch with her feelings which helped her song writing tremendously, but she was broke and a music has-been at 21. She was still alive.

During her twenties Ian repeated the whole cycle again: years of working writing songs and touring for spare change; signing with a major label and putting out albums which got her an Grammy award; touring relentlessly; her personal life exploding; and then the crash at 32. Again and again she chose to fall in love with people who leeched off her and then deserted her or attacked her. Like other young musicians from Elvis to Kurt Cobain big success seemed toxic to Ian.

Also, since Ian was 15 she had let her manager, lawyer, and tour agents make all her career decisions, so in her 30s she was stuck in a horrid contract she hated producing an album an year for seven years with a grueling tour schedule thrown in. She then walked out of her CBS contract. Since she was 15 she had let her accountant totally handle her money; when she was in her thirties the IRS went after back taxes her accountant hadn't paid; also she found out he had been stealing from her. She wound up alone, divorced, and totally broke as the IRS took a million dollars from her. Ian lays out why a famous musician could also wind up really miserable and broke.

What's remarkable is that Ian is a survivor. She moved to Nashville, got a new therapist, restarted her career and met a new woman with whom she had an adult, stable relationship. In her forties she began to seriously ponder how she had always lusted for fame and had always followed the "established pattern; manager, major label, make a record, tour behind it." Following this pattern had let to her physical and mental crashes. In 2002 most of the music industry was bemoaning how downloading songs on the Internet was hurting them, but Ian wrote an article "The Internet Debacle" saying that musicians needed the Internet to promote themselves and that the industry angered customers by charging high prices for albums they made cheaply. Many in the recording industry attacked her for this critique.

In a second article she suggested a new business model of "downloadable music, video clips, links to artists websites .... " A year later Apple was beginning to do as she suggested. She started her own record label "Rude Girl," produced her own albums, managed herself, and was for the first time she felt getting fairly paid for her recordings. She had put into practice her idea about being a musician in charge of her life and without a major record label. She found living better.

Rather than crashing until she died, Ian found a way to live with herself and with her music. Her book looks squarely at current debates in the music industry, arguing that the old way of operating was horrendously costly to musicians and fans alike so new ways would be better.

1 comment:

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