JAIMIE VERNON – IT DICES, IT SLICES, YOU CAN WEAR IT AS A PARTY HAT
The world of Boomer pop culture continues to die off in epidemic proportions. It’s now officially becoming depressing. Aside from the shocking – and still reverberating – passing of Prince we’ve lost Canadian actor/singer Don Francks, actor James Carroll, beloved ‘The Flying Nun’ matriarch Madelaine Sherwood (also Canadian) and now the master of the original infomercial Philip Kives – the King of K-Tel – at the age of 87.
I’ve written about the part that K-Tel compilations played in my musical upbringing earlier this year. It is available Here
But I never really knew about Kives himself who was born in Saskatchewan and launched a thousand compilation albums and kitchen gadgets from his headquarters in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s a hell of a story. Future Governor-General The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson did a piece on Kives during her days as a reporter for the CBC. Here she does a nice expose on the man behind the Miracle Brush, The Patty-Stacker, the Record Selector, Veg-O-Matic, and 22 Original Hits/22 Original Stars for ‘The Fifth Estate’.
It’s no coincidence that the record compilations gained so much traction – at least in Canada – as they coincided with the advent of Canadian Content Legislation in 1971. Prior to that Kives had been struggling with Top-40 hits packages under his initial corporation Syndicate Records. By folding that label into the K-Tel empire he was able to build a brand that relied heavily on cheaply licensed and slightly out-dated CanCon. Fledgling labels just trying to recoupe their investments in new Canadian talent were happy to give songs a second life at a fraction of the royalty rate hoping they’d proliferate – albeit in edited form – in even more households. Christmas was a haven for these comps and gifts. You couldn’t get a bigger musical bang for $4.99 anywhere.
It occurred to me after absorbing the K-Tel back story that Kives was, for all intents and purposes, one of the first music biz hustlers to design the music model still being used today by companies like Spotify: Maximum profits to the labels supplying the tracks, maximum profits for K-Tel exploiting the tracks, maximum enjoyment to the listener…and SWEET FUCK ALL FOR THE ARTISTS.
It was PT Barnum-like carnival sleight of hand with Kives juggling hundreds of copyrights for mere pennies at any given time with revenue being funneled through other K-Tel projects (like The Mood Ring, The Bottle Cutter, and Baby Duckling Wine). The labels were adverse to report their piece of the action to the artists and everyone went about their business without much resistance.
At some point the artists fought back in an effort to strengthen their contracts to account for compilations like K-Tel, Ronco, TeeVee International, Adam VIII and others. In fact, the raise in royalty rate ended K-Tel’s ability to maximize profits on comps…and they went bankrupt in the 1980s. Damn those artists for wanting fair pay. They ruined an entire kitsch industry!!
Meanwhile, Columbia House Record Club found a similar means of exploiting thinly defined contract wording to do the same with their mail-order business. But instead of compilations, they were exploiting the complete works of some labels and/or artists. The bottom line was that the profits were tilted in the company’s favour – making most of their dough not off the sale of records, but the postage and handling paid by customers to ship it. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know immediately that they were not making the money from selling 12 records for 1 cent. That part was a lost leader. The real money came in the service they provided. Columbia House would be squeezed out of business when the music world went digital. If you can’t ship physical goods, you can’t overcharge for shipping. Their entire model collapsed as did their competing rivals BMG Music Club in the 1990s.
And so we sit on the cusp of a New World Order. The music biz continues to lick its wounds on the tail end of a digital revolution. A smart enterprising company could make a go of the Columbia House model again now that the vinyl boom is officially a real thing. Most hipsters would prefer to buy their vinyl in person, but there’s enough app twitching over-worked consumers who’d gladly want that vinyl delivered.
Except…well…Amazon has destroyed the service industry as well. They’ve become not just retailers, but a shipping enclave (they’re about to introduce delivery drones!). Their warehousing tendrils are so far reaching that they’re never more than a day from getting any product to any person anywhere in the world. And they’re doing it at a loss. Why? Because the name of the game now is to control EVERYTHING. All things to all consumers. No one can compete. And that means they get to control the flow of all consumer wealth – which is very profitable. Where the hell can you get the new McCartney box set shipped cheaper and faster to your home than through Amazon? Not even Wal-Mart can compete.
We’re less attached to consumer goods overall these days. It was a hard won war by the eco-friendly movement. Oh, we still want to own shit but not at the price of inconvenience – just ask a Millennial. We collect less stuff because it costs too much to store and curate. A comparable K-Tel compilation now is a 3000 song playlist on a smart device (and that’s just Bobby Hebb’s music!). We’re not using Amazon to acquire the playlist of songs…but we will use them to buy the device they’re played on.
We have a near perfectly autonomous service economy with impolite, uneducated, poorly skilled worker drones left tending to the front line. The companies servicing the customers have been exclusively reactionary. “I want my movies to stream now!” or “I want the new Beyoncé video album downloaded here.” And the corporations deliver with about as much warmth and interaction as Max Headroom.
With the exception of Steve Jobs’ Apple Kool-Aid industry, there isn’t a single forward thinking company anymore that is innovating to create stuff we didn’t know we needed. There are no Philip Kives out there creating life hacks in a box for $5.99*. That means no manufacturing economy. That means no jobs. Maybe musicians taking a hit for their art served a larger purpose in the 1970s. Keeping the world economy moving. Maybe artists, unbeknownst to them, aren’t just pawns in the new economy – but the catalysts. It’ll be interesting to see how that pans out for them and the planet. [* plus shipping].
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Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon