Frank Zappa: Barking Pumpkin Records

By Paul Zollo

Performing Songwriter, June 1999

I'll admit that when I interviewed Frank Zappa in 1987, I came to our meeting with a profusion of romantic assumptions about his life, almost all of which he quickly deconstructed. I knew of Zappa in all his incarnations – pop songwriter, modern classical composer, social critic, guitar god – and had arrived at his Laurel Canyon home on this summer night to talk about the lofty places his music had lifted him to over the years. Zappa, however, had little patience for such loftiness and preferred to focus our conversation on earthly and pragmatic concerns, such as the creation, control, and distribution of his music. "There is a practical side to making records," he said on more than one occasion. "The money doesn't fly down from heaven, you know."

It's this famous pragmatism that led Zappa to become one of the first major recording artists to start his own record label, Barking Pumpkin. After suffering through the agony of protracted lawsuits with record companies over the control of his creative output, and after years of selling millions of albums only to see most of the profits going to record companies, Zappa recognized that the only viable way to take control of his music was to own it outright.

As he explained in the 1987 interview (portions of which are reprinted here), he started Barking Pumpkin for two main reasons: so that he could call the shots as to how much of his immensely prolific creative turn-out was released; and so that he could make a profit on records even if they failed to become the million-plus sellers required by big labels.

Zappa was never your average recording artist. Though he was undeniably an internationally known rock star, he did that work to fund the work that mattered most to him. "It's expensive to be a composer," his wife, Gail said, "and rock 'n roll is what paid for his habit. It was a by-product of his real interest – writing music." To this day people have fragmented notions about who he was and what he did. To the devoted, he is the only composer of any value America has produced in this last century. To many he is an outspoken political activist who went to progress to speak out against the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC) and all forms of censorship. To some he remains the wild Zappa of the sixties, fronting the Mothers of Invention, who, in 1966 released Freak Out, the first double album and the first concept album in rock history. To others, he is among the most heroic of guitar heroes, having touched places with that instrument previously untouched by any others. To many, especially those outside the realm of American influence, he is one of the few genuine musical geniuses of the 20th century, known not only for his songs but also for his chamber music, orchestral suites, ballets, jazz compositions, concertos, symphonies, and more.

Perhaps because of this disparity in the public's perception of his work, Zappa was quite disdainful of most popular songwriters, their songs, and their audiences – a disdain he did nothing to mask in the interview. Years later, as other righteous artists such as Ani DiFranco have shown the world that it's possible to have success as a musician on your own terms, one must wonder if Zappa would remain as fervent in his scorn for today's songwriters and their songs.

Since his death in 1993, the control of his music has been in the able hands of his wife. When Frank was tangled up in lawsuits, it was Gail's idea to start a mail-order company to bring in income. That little company, which she ran out of their living room, quickly blossomed into a successful record label, selling Frank's full catalog of albums. His network of fans around the world is so vast, and their desire for anything he ever recorded is so pervasive, that Gail and company were soon filling regular orders for 50-70,000 customers, and their little company became a big business.

Gail has also continued in his tradition of fighting the good fight, becoming one of the most generous supporters of the Democratic Party and thus a political force to be reckoned with in California.

What follows is an interview with the Zappas in two parts, the first excerpted from a conversation with Frank in 1987, and the second from a talk with Gail Zappa on April 22, 1999.

Frank Zappa, 1987

You said that you stopped playing guitar because you didn't feel there was any marketplace for your guitar music. But isn't there always going to be an audience for what you do? Does Frank Zappa really have to worry about the marketplace?

Sure. Certainly. Remember – I'm selffinanced. The money doesn't fly down from heaven or from a recording company. It's all what I can afford to spend to do what I do. There is a practical side to making records.

And then there is the amount of what you can refer to as assumable risk: How weird can you get and still make a living? I think I've experimented well with the fringes of that concept. I'll take it to the max. I will stick my neck out. I'll make albums of stuff that if I had a normal record contract with a normal record company, I would have been dropped from their roster centuries ago.

Some of the things that I've recorded that I happen to like the best are the things that people in the marketplace find the most repulsive about what I do. If you ask anybody what their favorite song is that I've done, most people would say "Peaches in Regalia" or "Mudshark." They have little or no concept of what some of the other more adventurous things would have been.

You're a songwriter who has seriously studied the elements of music. But there are many songwriters – even successful ones – who have never studied music.

They don't want to know. I think that when you have award shows that glorify the most ignorant among us for doing things that are called excellent merely because they've achieved large numerical sales, it is not much of an incentive for a young songwriter to come along and say, "I want to learn how music works." Because there's just no reason to participate in the construction of music on an intellectual level when all you have to do is just get lucky one time and then have the record company do the payola. Then you will be the next guy to be standing in line to get a major award. So that's the message that is sent to the marketplace for all the new guys coming in. And there's no glamour to doing the laborious job of developing a personal theory of harmony, or a personal feel for how you want rhythm to function in your work.

See, I make a distinction between a songwriter and a composer. They're not always the same kind of guy because the goals of the two types of disciplines are not always the same. Composers may write songs, but it is very seldom that a songwriter will do a composition.

Songwriters tend to write in a song form. And if you compare it to architecture, it's the difference between building a cathedral and building a Taco Bell. And fast food is important when you're hungry. Fast music is important when you need something to drive to.

Is it your opinion that the state of songwriting is bad and getting worse?

No, the only thing that saves it is the fact that the American's memory span is so short that they actually believe that when they hear the latest regurgitated version of a style that was prevalent five years ago, they believe it's new. I mean, I'm amazed that some of the stuff that is passing for New Wave music today is 1960s semi-folk-rock chord changes that have been reorchestrated to use 1980s technology. It really is the same.

Do you feel that it is possible to use that restrictive song form and still create something good?

Sure, it is always possible. But when a guy sits down to write a song, he's not sitting down to make history, he's sitting down to make money. I don't think the urge to be timeless necessarily permeates the pop tune marketplace. The urge to be rich permeates the pop tune marketplace.

Any songwriter who had to choose between being rich and being timeless, if he chose timeless, he's probably out of a job. There are just too many commercial pressures on the guy at the end of the food chain, the guy who writes the song, because before he thinks about anything else, he's already looking at airplay or looking at MTV. I think there's got to be an inkling in the back of every songwriter's mind like, "How will this shoot? What will they do when they make a video of this one?" So what's that got to do with writing a song?

Is it possible for something good to be heard – even if it doesn't fit the formula?

Not unless there's a massive change of attitude at the distribution level – which includes the places where music is dispersed: radio, TV, jukeboxes, whatever – until current values disappear. Until then, there is little hope that a person who is doing anything other than formula swill will have an opportunity to have his music recorded, let alone transmitted.

Do you feel there is any inherent need among people to have serious, expressive music as a part of their lives?

The problem with that concept is – would they know it if they heard it? Would they like it or would they prefer it to other stuff? See, an audience gets trained. They're trained by their environment. And what they hear on the radio has nothing to do with life – it's all freeze-dried and dead. It's like dead artifacts that are repeated over and over again. The repetition helps to sell records, but the repetition reduces the composition to the level of wallpaper. And it has reduced wallpaper to a lifestyle.

But a great song can withstand repetition.

But let's take a look at the broad spectrum of what everybody knows as common American coinage, the musical experience of being an American. The boundary of your musical experience has been determined by accountants. Unless you are going to seek out the newest and the finest of whatever is available in any field, what you are presented with as your set of alternatives that you will choose to inhabit your lifestyle is tiny.

Because of the way that the business is structured?

If a record sells 50,000 copies, it's a commercial failure. But you're still reaching 50,000 people. If you were a classical composer and you sold 50,000 albums, you'd be a hero. I mean, the regular pop industry spits at 50,000 records. I regularly do 50,000 records. The only album I ever had that was in the million plus category was Sheik Yerbouti, and the only reason that it sold that much is because the song "Bobby Brown Goes Down," which could never be played in the U.S., was a hit all over Europe. The bulk of those sales were outside the U.S., so it was an unpredictable fluke. Usually my record sales are in the 50,000 to 300,000 range depending on what the content of the album is.

Do you consider sales of 50,000 records to be a failure?

I think that that's about the bottom margin for feeling okay given what it costs to make an album. You know, the success, if you're going to look at it in financial terms, you have to look at the difference between what you spend to make it and what it nets you after it's gone into the marketplace. And because I have my own studio and do my own stuff, I can actually make a profit at 50,000 records, where another guy probably could not.

What would be your advice to songwriters - should they try to write a good hook or simply try to write a great song?

It depends on what he wants to do. If he just wants to make money, he should copy everybody else's stuff, which is what everybody else is doing.

But you can only do that for so long.

That depends on how good a copier you are.

How about if someone wants a serious career as a songwriter?

Basically, it's a career in being a fraud. It's just like when someone says, "What would you advise a young composer?" I always say, "Get a Real Estate license." You can't earn a living being a composer in the United States. But as far as being a songwriter goes, you can make a lot of money if you will listen for what everybody else has done that has been successful, and tweak it around to the point where you can convince an accountant at a record company that you're fresh, new, and original. This is usually accomplished by changing your hairdo periodically and having a good wardrobe. That's basically the business you're entering. The idea of writing a nice tune is the farthest thing from the minds of the people you will be doing business with, and that is the reality of the business.

If you were to do a statistical analysis of some of the most popular, big selling tunes that have been on the market in recent days, you'd see not too many notes. the chords don't give you too many surprises, and the beat is boom-bap. So if you want to do that and make a lot of money, it's not too hard to learn.

But if you want to write the great American tune, I would say to get a Real Estate license.

Gail Zappa, 1999

What were the main reasons that Frank felt he wanted to start his own label?

Primarily artistic control. Barking Pumpkin was really started just to be free of those kinds of criteria that are required by the label and by the distributor. And also because it was more lucrative, potentially, than an artist deal. Plus we wanted to experiment with mail order.

Frank was an unusual artist in that he created music in many genres, while record companies typically want artists to stay within narrow stylistic confines. Was that part of the reason to start your own label, that no record company was really prepared to deal with the totality of his creative output?

Well, actually that does go to it to some extent, because typically – in those days, and even now – an artist agreement means that you have to deliver a product which they then allow a certain time-frame to fully market. And Frank was interested in being able to do a number of different types of projects, depending on what was available to him in terms of resources and what his interest was at the time. So he might want to put out three albums a year instead of only one every 18 months. Or he might want to do a boxed set. And there was a lot of resistance in terms of his artist deals to be able to do that. So if you have your own label, then you're saying what you want to do and what you can do, and that's what we did.

Did you find that Frank could put out more albums each year and also make more money on those albums?

Yeah. In those days for the equivalent amount of sales to break even, you would need one-fourth as few sales and make four times the amount of money.

At the time that Frank mad, decision, did he know of any other recording artists starting their own labels?

No. Not really. That's not to say that there weren't a few people around who were aware of the benefits of being able to do that. But I don't think anyone was as actively in control of their outpu as early as Frank was.

When Frank started the label, did you have much involvement in it?

The original version of the label was a mail-order operation that we did with CBS. That was yet the subject of another lawsuit. There were several lawsuits that we had with several different record companies. There was a Barking Pumpkin Records that was distributed domestically by CBS very briefly, that we felt there were some problems with. The final incarnation was that we had a label and I started a mail-order company at the same time. And so that's when I really got into the business, and ran just the administration of the record company as well as all the mail-order business.

And that was a business that you ran from your home at first?

Yeah. The T-shirts, yeah, definitely in the very beginning (laughs). We were sitting on the floor, folding T-shirts and stuffing them in paper bags. Yes.

How long did that period last?

Actually, that was pretty short, because, you know, Frank didn't want to be in what he called the "dry-goods business." Which is why those sorts of things are labeled dry-goods in the catalogue. He was only really interested in selling recorded material. You have to remember, we were in the middle of a lawsuit with Warner Brothers. We had no income, and they had taken four albums and put them out and failed to pay us. And so they were freezing us out of the marketplace. That mail-order company supported us and paid for that lawsuit so that we were able to finally, once and for all, get everything under control. Under Frank's control. All of his catalogue.

Did he not like the idea of selling T-shirts because he felt it was inappropriate for an artist's image to be exploited like that? Or was it something he felt should be done, but didn't want to do himself?

Do you remember Sniglets? They were little sayings that people would wear. There were books that came out with them. Frank had invented a Sniglet called "Insignoramus." And that is a person who wears a T-shirt that says something that that personality identifies with. I would say that's probably a better explanation.

So he didn't have a lot of respect for fans who wore his image on their T-shirts?

Well, you're drawing a conclusion there. I'm saying he was trying to point out the absurdity of adhering or identifying to anything of that nature in a serious way. But he was also interested in having the focus of the mail-order company be about music. Certainly he liked merchandise and he certainly wanted to do T-shirts on tour and stuff like that, but he didn't want the central focus of the mail-order company to be dry-goods. He wanted it to be about music. Not that he was opposed to T-shirts.

When you started the company, you were essentially teaching yourselves how to run such a business. Did you make any mistakes?

I would have to say I would have learned nothing had I not made mistakes (laughs). That's how one learns. By making them.

What were the biggest mistakes you made?

The biggest mistakes I would say are failing to have a full understanding of copyrights. And the value of intellectual property and how to protect it. If you're going to go into business for yourself as an artist, do yourself a big favor and get as much of an education as quickly as possible by whatever means necessary before you start shipping out records in the area of intellectual property rights, specifically copyrights. If you don't know how to protect it, you end up spending a lot of money on legal bills. You send a lot of children who are related to lawyers through college.

Is it accurate that there is an enormous amount of unreleased music in the vault?

Well, there's an enormous amount of music, yes, that's accurate, because he taped a lot of his performances. And Frank was one of the most heavily bootlegged artists, because every show was different from every other show. So in that sense there is a lot of music. Maybe some of the songs are the same, but they're different performances and different groups, different incarnations, different arrangements, in addition to some music that no one's ever heard. Yeah, it's accurate to say there's an enormous amount of music.

Is there much studio work we haven't yet heard?

(Pause) We haven't been through everything but I'm inclined to say there was far less studio work that's available than live tapes. There's one album called Dance Me This that will come out, that is a Synclavier album.

Do you have any notions about how Frank is being remembered – whether it's romanticized, or if people realize the entirety of his work?

I should preface it by saying that Frank wasn't interested in being remembered. Which I think any healthy human being who is awake would understand. And on the other hand, yeah, I think people are interested in hearing his music. I get lots and lots of requests to perform his music. From orchestras, groups, student orchestras, whatever.

Why is it that Frank didn't want to be remembered?

I didn't say that he didn't want to be remembered. I said that he had no interest in being remembered. It was not interesting to him.

Did he have any doubt that people would continue to enjoy his music beyond his own lifetime?

I don't think he considered that. Frank was really good at thinking about things that he wanted to think about. I don't think that came up on his radar screen as being interesting.