Chapter 4: Lawyers, Guns, and Money (Mysteries of the Music Business and the Pop Charts)

I’ve been writing feature articles about musicians for about two decades now, if you count my early work for my college rock magazine Nadine (named after the Chuck Berry song, and edited by a crew of friends who are still among the coolest I’ve ever known). First interview: They Might Be Giants (“Wow, you really know our material,” John Linnell said. “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have lied so much.”) First interview I got paid for: A short Spin profile of Bad English, the now-forgotten fusion of John Waite and Journey’s Neal Schon, who had a #1 single with “When I See You Smile.” (“Is it too Keith Richards?” Waite asked me as he tied a scarf around his ankle. Even though it was my first time backstage, I knew instinctively that of the many problems that afflicted his ankle-scarf, an excess of Keithness was not among them.) The interview that got me a job at Details: J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. (no pithy quote in this parenthesis—he just grunted at me a lot and crushed peanuts the whole time we spoke). Anyway, the point of this chapter introduction is not just that I used my access to the music world to answer a lot of the questions in this book (although that’s true) or that I can use these introductions to tell self-indulgent war stories if I feel like it (also true). It’s this: a lot’s changed about the music business in the past twenty years, and I am now a well-informed observer instead of a bewildered outsider wondering what exactly a “mechanical royalty” was, anyway. But one thing has remained constant: if the record companies can screw a young act, they will.

1. Who had the most #2 singles without hitting #1?

2. Did Neil Young really buy 150,000 copies of his own Comes a Time just so he could destroy them?

3. Why are CDs released on Tuesdays?

4. Help me settle a bet! A friend of mine insists that Billy Ocean had exactly three #1 hits—and that all of them had exactly eight words in the title. I say that can’t possibly be right: “When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going” obviously has nine words in the title!

5. Sometimes I’ll see an import release of one my favorite bands in my local record store with two or more extra songs on it. Why do the foreign releases get so many extras?

6. What song has been covered the most?

7. Did James Brown really fine his musicians if he wasn’t happy with their performance? How much?

8. Before Nelly did it with “Dilemma” and “Hot in Herre,” who was the last recording artist to have both the #1 and #2 songs on the Billboard Top 100?

9. Everyone knows John Lennon and Paul McCartney signed a bad songwriting contract while in the Beatles. George Harrison, however, never complained about any ownership problems of his songs. Was he bound to a different contract?

10. I heard my CDs will disintegrate after 20 or 30 years–is that true?

11. On their album Last Splash, the Breeders cover a song called “Invisible Man.” I’ve looked everywhere, but I can’t discover who wrote it. You’re my only hope–do you know who wrote the song?