Ross Johnson has been around the Memphis music scene for over 30 years. He has some opinions. Here they are.
When Memphis recording studios were still using analog, reel-to-reel tape, I liked to say that if you gathered together all the taped music that had been made in those studios during the late 20th century it would likely reach to the moon and back. Most of that tape would fall under the category of vanity recording sessions. For those not familiar with the term, one becomes a vanity recording artist when one records music that is never released commercially by a record label, major or independent, or when that music is self-released by the artist (these days via musician web sites; surely you must have seen a few thousand of those by now) or never released at all.
People do vanity recording sessions because they have to for deeply personal reasons, not because there is a commercial interest in or audience for said recordings. Both Nashville and Memphis recording studios have done and still do a lot of business in this area.
I have done a ton of vanity sessions myself over the last three decades, joining a longstanding Tennessee music tradition. For the business of music is not necessarily the selling of it but often only the making of it. Certainly that is true in Memphis or has been since the commercial end of the music biz was summarily destroyed by local banking interests in the mid 1970s, never to return, no matter what desperate efforts have been made since then to revive it. What remained in the wake of that irreversible destruction were a number of functional studios and a large clientele of local musicians who paid to record in them whether a commercial release or not resulted from such sessions.
Not that my, uh, career as a vanity recording artist should be of any interest, but it is rather typical and representative of a Memphis music maker. Briefly (oh yes, please), it goes like this: my first recording session was playing drums for the late Alex Chilton’s Like Flies on Sherbert (yep, that’s how Alex spelled it) LP released in the fall of 1979 on Sid Selvidge’s local Peabody Records imprint in an initial pressing of 500, I believe. Of course, that record has been re-released by various labels, national and international, in differing track incarnations numerous times since then and I believe it is about to be re-released yet again.
After that I played on a truly uncountable number of recordings by Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, for the most part on what I like to term garage rock ghetto labels. Nothing wrong with those labels, mind you, outside of them not paying much in the way of artist royalties, but that is an honorable tradition practiced by both indie and major record labels since the phonograph record was invented and then marketed commercially (actually, local label, Goner Records, has always paid me and, I assume other musicians on the label, rather well for recordings and live performances; there is always an exception to the rule). At least, there were record labels of some sort paying for the recording and marketing of such music whether it ever sold more than ten copies or not.
Those initial semi-commercial releases served as a kind of gateway drug for me, setting off an irresistible craving to spend time in recording studios performing music of increasingly questionable merit. Quickly, I became habituated to doing more and more recording sessions for any label or band that approached me. I can say with some measure of truth that I can’t recall turning down a chance to do a recording session ever. Oh, I may have turned down a couple, but if you asked me to play drums in a studio then there was a very high probability that I would say yes.
Eventually this led to me doing more and more of what I might call rant records on my own where I would play drums and bellow gibberish into a microphone while the accompanying musicians cowered or snickered, hoping that I would not require a second take on such solo endeavors. And frankly, I don’t remember ever requiring a second take on any such recordings released under my own name. A word about these recordings of mine: let’s just say that they fit into no recognizable music tradition except maybe mental patient rock ala Wild Man Fischer or Roky Erickson or Daniel Johnston. However, the aforementioned nutcase rockers had/have something I have never possessed: some degree of talent and inspiration. Let’s simply say that they are spoken word records for the most part and that they are rather hard to listen to. I am no fan of my own solo work and on the odd occasion when I have heard one of my recordings played on a local radio station I usually wonder who that crazy person is and then realize that it’s myself babbling and nattering.
I am using the language of addiction here somewhat facetiously here but not really. What I have developed over the decades is recognizable as a disorder of some kind. I have turned into a performance junkie, a desperate creature who will not turn down any chance to play in a recording studio or a toilet club to a non-existent audience. And I’m not alone in my obsession/compulsion to perform and record. I see other hollow-eyed junkies like myself at vanity recording sessions and out in the clubs playing to an audience that doesn’t exist, but then a true vanity recording artist only needs an audience of one: himself (or herself; pardon the sexist language lapse).
Next time (if there is one, gentle reader), the sinister role of NARAS and open microphone nights in sustaining this phenomenon.