Rob Patterson

Selling Out to the Big Boys

We get mail. Not much of it (hint, hint), but readers do write. And recently Scott Shoup wrote to pose this question:

"I live in Tampa Florida, and read your column in The Progressive Populist. Clear Channel owns the outdoor amphitheater that a lot of national groups play at.

"Personally, I can't stand this corporation and believe that they're so far to the right in their political agenda that they have been a significant force in changing the political tone in this country through their massive ownership and ability to censor the content of what gets played on their radio stations. I know that this media behemoth organized CD burnings of the Dixie Chicks when their lead singer spoke out against the President a few years ago.

"My question is: Why would some of these artists, who appear politically progressive in their craft, play at a venue owned by this corporation that is closely aligned to the right wing/Republican Party in this country? Is it because their touring is done by a promotion company, and therefore they that can't control what venues they play at? Or is it just good old-fashioned hypocrisy? I hope you can understand what I'm concerned about here, and can shed some light on my frustration."

As I wrote back, the simple answer is: money. And by inference, yes, at least some amount of hypocrisy.

Of course, it's more complex and nuanced than that. Once a musical artist has a major label recording and national touring career, they are compromised at least to some degree by the associations of such. Hey, just signing the contracts that record labels use -- not all that removed from indentured servitude -- puts any moral and ethical person in a position that is hypocritical.

Clear Channel owns more radio stations in major markets than any other company, and they've been known to wield that power to get acts to play their venues. It can be detrimental to an artist's career not to cooperate with the Clear Channel juggernaut. And because record labels want their artists to get radio play and have to deal with Clear Channel stations every day, there is label pressure, I am sure, not to buck the system.

Most major artists are booked by one or another of the major talent agencies, which also have to deal with Clear Channel venues every day, so there is also pressure there. And in between the agent and the artist is the artist's manager, who often makes the decisions about what dates to accept on a tour (usually based on where the best offers are). A lot of artists are not all that business savvy or prefer to concentrate on their art and let the biz people do their biz, so they get booked into venues and are presented with tours more or less as fait accompli.

I have no doubt that some artists think, okay, well even if I compromise myself by playing Clear Channel venues and get played on Clear Channel stations, I can then play benefits for and contribute to or support causes and organizations that reflect my political beliefs. Or write and record songs that reflect my social and political commitments. And they assuage their souls by doing so. There is some logic there, I imagine.

Everyone has to choose where they draw their own lines, I guess. And one thing I dislike about so many "armchair liberals" -- and I suppose I am guilty here too in some way -- is that they talk/vote/contribute the party line, but when it comes to making a living and career, they don't necessarily let their political views dictate how they do business and consume products. If all of us liberals did, we'd be buying hybrid cars and investigating the companies that make the products we buy to make sure we aren't giving money to firms that support political agendas or practice labor and environmental practices we oppose. But that takes great commitment.

Many "liberal" artists are just like the rest of us: They talk it but only partially walk it. It takes courage to stand up and say no and define how one lives so as to not give any support to companies that don't share our political views.

Too bad, because the dollar is the most potent political weapon out there. But we all have to make compromises every day, unless you're, say, maybe Billy Bragg.

Don't get me wrong. I am proud, being part of the popular music community, that in the last election a good number of artists tried to do their share to defeat the Bush juggernaut. And as a free speech liberal, I am also proud to live in a country where Charlie Daniels and Toby Keith can use their fame to be jingoistic jerks.

But our musical artists are only part of the solution. And in the current climate, many of them -- God bless you, Natalie Maines -- have done their bit as best they can. And when Pearl Jam went up against Ticketmaster, it didn't exactly help their career.

If we want our musical artists to put some of their mouth where their money is, the best thing all of us can do is help create a culture throughout the left of trying to use whatever economic power we have to fight for what's right. After all, lead by example. And the most powerful revolutions come from the masses.

Then again, America's real economic power is cutting brush with Shrub in Crawford while Rome decays and is still alarmingly vulnerable to terror attacks on our nuclear and chemical plants, water supplies -- and the list goes on.

Sigh ... complexity, nuance, compromise and (even minor) hypocrisy. Life in the modern world.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

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