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"My whole career has been an attempt at being self-serving."
LOOK WHO'S LEFT
An exclusive HITS dialogue with Artemis President/ CEO Danny Goldberg by Roy Trakin
Music industry veteran Danny Goldberg’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit (Miramax Books) is an autobiography of his career in the record industry and as a political gadfly. It covers his childhood in a progressive/liberal New York family; his seminal No Nukes album and documentary; his controversial battles with PMRC founder Tipper Gore over rock lyrics; his stint as West Coast Chairman of the ACLU, and his work with Led Zeppelin, Bonnie Raitt and Nirvana. The book is a critique of the Democratic and liberal establishment’s abandonment of popular culture and reaching out to its youth constituency, with a bittersweet subtext of boomer obsolescence. Our conversation with the Artemis Records President/CEO took place on an overcast Santa Monica Thursday, with the Apocalypse Now-like buzz of helicopters overhead, which we later found out was due to an elderly driver plowing into a local Farmer’s Market, killing nine people. It was an apt metaphor for our discussion of musical—and political—endgames.

One of the subtexts in the book is boomer angst, the idea that we’ve betrayed all our ‘60s countercultural ideals.
For years, I thought about writing this book. Ever since my initial encounters with Tipper Gore, I kept notes on my meetings and experiences just in case. My friend, the political writer Jack Newfield, encouraged me to do it whenever I’d go off on one of my rants. And then the 2000 Democratic convention came along, Gore was nominated, and I thought, if I don’t write this now, I’ll never do it. But it wasn’t easy. I got easily distracted and discouraged, and it took energy to get over that. I hate writing, but I love having written.

The book is a political autobiography.
I thought that was the only viable way to do it. Otherwise, I’m just a guy with a lot of opinions. My bona fides were that I’d worked in pop culture and rock & roll for 30 years. I had to establish my credentials to make what I was saying interesting. My editor kept stressing the need for anecdotes instead of pontification.

Your thesis is that the Democratic and liberal establishment has abandoned youth culture, but my theory is Republicans like Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh co-opted it.
The Democrats stopped talking to people who listened to rock music. Maybe they associate it with the McGovern debacle, which I think is an irrational connection. The people that got into politics were lawyers and academics; they were not attuned to pop culture. They were policy wonks, not literary, art or music majors. Which disconnected them from their natural constituency. I don’t blame young people. I blame us for not talking, and listening, to them.

As an actor, Reagan was the first Republican to attract young people because of the way he utilized the mass media.
You had eight years of an incredibly sophisticated president when it came to speaking the language of regular people, not the language of PBS or the Op. Ed. pages. He’s still the core of inspiration for the modern Conservative movement. Our people somehow have been trained to avoid pop culture references. Because they focus on the worst aspects of the ‘60s, instead of the best. The ‘60s had Charles Manson, Altamont and drug abuse, sure. But overwhelmingly, the accomplishments were real. Civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, free speech are four huge ideas that were launched in the ‘60s and have a consensus in America today. And the music of the ‘60s is called classic rock for a reason. It’s destructive for Democrats to shy away from that. You need cultural linkages to talk to people, not just each other.

Clinton was pretty effective at manipulating the media.
Clinton had one foot in the wonky, intellectual, modern Democratic elite, but he also grew up working class with a single mother in Arkansas, loving and playing music, eating at McDonald’s. He has a common touch. He bridged the two worlds. He used his personal popularity to get elected twice, but he didn’t use those tools to sell ideas. He didn’t leave any ideological footprints, like Reagan did.

Do the Democrats have a chance in 2004?
Who knows? The odds are against it because Bush is a tremendously well-funded, politically astute incumbent. But it’s possible that between his economic and foreign policy, he’s vulnerable. And that’s beyond the Democrats’ control. What is in their control is to run a campaign that means something. So that, even if they lose to Bush, they leave footprints. For instance, Adlai Stevenson lost twice, but he left a footprint for John Kennedy to walk into. Barry Goldwater was slaughtered, but he left footprints. I would even say McGovern left a footprint for Clinton, whose first political job was working for McGovern.

Any of the current Democratic candidates stick out of the pack?
Personally, any of them would be fine except for Joe Lieberman. He would be worse than Bush. He hates popular culture. As a New Yorker, Al Sharpton’s our local candidate. I like him. I don’t think he has a chance, but I respect him and I’m glad he’s in the race. Howard Dean is really an interesting guy. He’s the guy to beat right now. He’s raised more money than anyone. He won the Moveon.org poll. If the election was held today in New Hampshire, I think he would win. He’s tapped into people’s frustrations with the Democrats, he’s openly embraced young people and created an interesting Internet site. But he’s no panacea. He’s not as progressive on some issues as John Kerry is, though, so far, I don’t think Kerry’s been very effective. I’d like to see Kerry unshackle himself from this Washington rhetoric that masquerades his more interesting qualities. I hope he doesn’t turn into Al Gore. Gephardt is an interesting guy, but he needs to find an emotional chord, because he’s too cerebral. I’ve given money to Dean, Kerry and Bob Graham… Any of them would be better than Bush or will run a better campaign than Gore. But I can’t raise enough money to make a difference. I’d rather just try to urge all of them to do a better job of communicating, and maybe I can find some way to help.

How about Dennis Kucinich?
He’s a really fascinating guy. Amazing life. Mayor of Cleveland at 23, longtime vegan, visionary. But he’s running a boring campaign. You need prose and poetry to really lead people. He’s too prosaic, even though I think he’s incredibly exciting in terms of what he says. Dean has found a poetic voice through his anger, and it has taken on a larger emotional meaning. And that’s what you have to do to play that game. You have to cross over to Top 40. You can’t just have Triple-A.

Were you surprised at the cultural backlash against the Dixie Chicks?
Any kind of chilling effect is terrible. I take great happiness in the fact that I don’t think the chilling was anywhere near as bas as it was, say, during the McCarthy period or the late ‘60s. Don’t forget John Lennon was fuckin’ arrested. The Dixie Chicks sold $49 million worth of tickets on their first tour. That was not the case, for instance, with the Weavers, whose career was practically destroyed by blacklisting in the ‘50s and the Cold War period. So I’m encouraged. It’s too easy to get depressed and despondent, which feeds all the negative things as badly as any opposition does.

Some people have called your book self-serving.
My whole career has been an attempt at being self-serving.

What’s going on with the music business?
It’s very tough. It’s a depression in the record industry. Everyone will have to get used to making less money. And spending less money. Until we fix it. And that’s not going to happen overnight. You can’t be blind to the reality. We have to figure out how to add value to what we’re selling. I don’t consider downloading the problem. It’s more the ease of burning a full CD. You can’t burn a T-shirt or a poster. Looking at what the film business did with DVDs provides a helluva clue. Both sides of the dilemma are irrational—the hubris, the sense of entitlement, the idea the boom times will never end. But the other end is equally false—the despair, the gloom. Just as quickly as things got bad, they could get better. I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s going to take a year or two or three. There’s nothing that can be done but live through it. There’s no point denying it’s a depression, though. If you survive, you can come out the other side.

Is your model of a midlevel record company viable?
We’ll find out. We wouldn’t mind hitting a home run, but it doesn’t require one. Our audience is older, so we have a lot less people burning copies. We just have to think of ourselves as part of the music business, not part of the record business. I’m certainly excited by Apple’s iTunes. I bought a Mac just so I could play around on it.

Are you in favor of the RIAA’s policy of litigating illegal downloaders?
We’re not a member of the RIAA. I didn’t want to be bound by what they did. I felt it was an organization where we’d have no influence, and yet would be bound by their decisions. Because of our size, we have a different agenda. I have a long personal friendship with Hilary Rosen, but I’d like to be able to tell people, "No we’re not suing Napster or Kazaa." It’s a better image for an independent company. Having said that, maybe, by suing, it will deter some of these people. It’s a complicated issue. I don’t want to second-guess them. But it’s not in Artemis’ interest to play that game.

Are you happier now than you were at major labels like Atlantic, Warner Bros. and Mercury?
I especially miss Atlantic. The camaraderie that Doug [Morris] created, with Sylvia Rhone, Jimmy Iovine, Val Azzoli, Jason Flom and Mel Lewinter, was amazing. That was a real team. I missed some of the clout that comes with running a big company. What I don’t miss is the enormous amount of time I spent with corporate infighting. It seems half my time was spent with internal issues. It didn’t bring out a side of me that I liked very much. The way I spend my time now feels a little more meaningful. Obviously, it doesn’t have all of the rewards—either emotionally or financially. There are things I miss about being with a big company, but there are things I can live without. I love working with artists like Steve Earle, the Pretenders, Jesse Malin, Warren Zevon, the Vanguard Classics catalog… The smallness of it allows me to be more intimately involved with things, and that is emotionally very rewarding. There’s a control over the day-to-day destiny of a small company you don’t get at a bigger organization.

Isn’t the promotion of this Warren Zevon record a little exploitative?
It’s Warren’s project and he’s still alive. He did 100% of this himself. He’s an auteur. He’s completely in control of every aspect. He wrote all the songs—except for "Knocking on Heaven’s Door," which was his idea—selected every single musician, supervised the recording, every word on the credits… He’s not in great shape, but he’s still alive, which is a miracle. The doctors thought he wouldn’t make it past last November. His first goal was to make it through the new James Bond movie, which he did. And now he made it through the birth of his grandson. I pray that he lives a lot longer, but I told him, anytime he wants to start on the next record, I’ll do anything for him. He’s a very nice person as well as a genius. We’re very proud to put this record out there.

How do you feel having written a book?
It’s the only thing in my life I’ve done without a guitar player or an investor. It was something I could do myself. It’s a process I’ve always enjoyed. If I could have made a living as a writer, I never would have done anything else. I still probably can’t make a living as a writer, but I can at least do it for fun. My biggest anxiety was thinking, when I finished, it wouldn’t get published. The byproduct of the book is, there have been reconnections with people that turned out to be emotionally rewarding. So much of what I’ve done professionally is utilitarian—me doing something for somebody or somebody doing something for me. It’s easy to think it was 100% utilitarian. But the truth is, it’s only 95% utilitarian. There really is a fraction of real friendship and feeling, and that’s an amazing thing. And if the book has done nothing but that, it’s been worthwhile. The plusses have more than outweighed the minuses. That anyone would read it is a miracle.

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