MONSTERS OF ROCK
The eighties ushered in one of the biggest egos the world had ever seen. David Lee Roth took the world by storm. With the success of Van Halen, the band he fronted, Roth was elevated to the top of the celebrity food chain. He referred to his persona as “Dave’s World.” Flamboyant pop rock ruled the radio airwaves while MTV offered an inside look at the extreme decadence surrounding it. Possessing a bigger than life ego became acceptable in American society for the first time. The days of polite entertainers with proper etiquette were tossed aside in leu of the new “me” society. A foundation of self-worship was laid for future rock stars, professional athletes and reality TV stars. Hence, the Monsters of Rock were born!
Working with celebrities in mainstream music was interesting, but it presented many challenges. Some handled fame well and were quite pleasant to be around, but many of the artists I worked with were difficult. At Capitol Records, we were instructed to keep the artists happy at all costs. Many of the artists were humble at the beginning of their career but would quickly turn into demanding jerks with the slightest bit of success. We all complained and despised working with them once they became jerks, but ironically, we helped create the jerks.
I had the opportunity to work with Garth Brooks in the early days of his career and through the explosion of success that put him on arena stages making him the top artist in the world. He was an extremely kind man in the early years. Garth’s success was a major contributor to Capitol’s bottom line, and utilizing his business savvy, he leveraged that contribution to the max. Shortly after his huge hit, “Friends in Low Places,” Garth aggressively renegotiated his record deal. The aggressive negotiations became a catalyst for discourse with the record label’s upper management, leading Garth to distance himself from all label employees. He was never unkind to me, but there was definitely a change in his personality. Upper management at the label suggested he had developed a dark side, but in reality, I think he probably felt misunderstood. Garth’s desire was to break every sales, radio and touring record in music history. He planned events that had never been done in the entertainment business and pulled most of them off with great success. I couldn’t help but wonder how tough it must have been for him to battle the monster gene. Millions of people around the world worshipped the man. All he had to do was walk on stage, touch his hat, and 100,000 people would go nuts! How can the human mind even begin to process that level of adoration in a non-“me” way? Britney Spears, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus have given us front row seats to witness the damaging effects worshipping young humans can have. Ironically, most of us are guilty of feeding the celebrities’ monsters as we pour out our worship toward them—a worship that God tells us should be reserved for Him.
After my career move to the Christian side of music, I expected artists to be different. There were indeed many godly artists I worked with, but some of the artists expected to be given preferential treatment, much like mainstream artists I had worked with. While their demands and expectations were coated with a smile and a godly-laced delivery, they no doubt wanted special treatment. If those artists found unsatisfactory representation in retail stores, label employees would catch grief from the artist’s camp. While the messenger was usually the artist manager, it was apparent the artists were driving the complaints. The Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Tower Records and Lifeway stores in Nashville were high-profile stores, as they were located in the artists’ back- yards. For some reason, those same stores were the toughest places to maintain satisfactory inventory levels. If one of our artists walked into Target and didn’t find their record, we would most certainly hear about it. So much so that we began visiting those stores daily, taking in free product to insert into the shelves and end caps in an effort to guarantee our titles were in stock.
Our shelf stocking practice kept the artists happy, even though they ultimately lost money on the sales of CDs, which were never purchased by the retail store. It probably wasn’t one of the wisest financial decisions for our company, but it kept the artists’ egos and management off our backs. Everyone was happy except our competitor labels who couldn’t figure out how we were able to get certain titles in Target or Best Buy. While it isn’t one of my proudest career moments, I have to chuckle when I picture a cashier at Target trying to ring up a CD that Target’s corporate office never purchased or set up in their system. In a similar fashion, we would regularly visit the Wal-Mart stores and move our titles to big end caps in the music section. One day while playing the Wal-Mart end cap title switch game, I was confronted by an employee who managed the Wal-Mart music section. In an effort to let me know he was on to our shenanigans, he informed me that the reps from our competitors would be in the next day to do the same with their titles, hence negating my efforts. Extremely embarrassed and convicted, it hit me how silly my actions were. Here I was, a vice president for a Christian record company, using ridiculous extreme measures to feed the monster.
When we started our management company, I knew we didn’t want any “monsters of rock” on our roster. Even with close examination, a few of those artists somehow slipped through. The monster will manifest quickly as the artist experiences any success. One particular artist we worked with ended up on a large tour. Even though their record company paid a large sum of money to buy their way onto the tour, they quickly adopted an attitude of entitlement. We spent a great deal of time before the tour preparing the artist for the reality they would face when the big tour ended and they had to return to the norm of playing for smaller audiences. Leaping from playing for 100 people a night to playing for arena-size audiences of 10,000-15,000 can seriously mess with an artist’s mind if they don’t remain humble and deeply rooted in God’s Word. We examined earlier what the Bible says about pride in Proverbs 16 and how it leads to destruction. Proverbs 11 reiterates the results of pride but also tells us the benefit of humbleness.
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.
(Proverbs 11:2, ESV)
Wisdom is one of the greatest gifts God gives us, as it keeps us in step with His plan and gives us the ability to navigate difficult encounters in life. Unfortunately for all involved, that particular artist was unsuccessful at remaining humble and keeping the monster in the closet. The monster manifested itself in such a way that our relationship was strained. As I struggled with disappointment, thinking we failed in teaching them humbleness, God reminded me that I am only an instrument He uses. While He may use us to plant seeds, He is ultimately in control, and it is His job to take it from there.
Another artist we worked with was blessed with a huge opportunity to play a high-profile festival in London with Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and The Dave Matthews Band. I must admit that weekend was one of my most memorable weekends in the music business. We were treated like rock stars and hung out with an elite list of celebrity artists. I was having a hard enough time keeping my own monster in the closet, but my job for the weekend was to look after this particular artist. The artist and I shared a beautiful room in a luxury hotel overlooking Hyde Park. I stepped out for a few minutes, and when I returned to the room, there was a nice little shocking surprise waiting for me. This artist had taken every square inch of space in our room for his clothes. Every closet, chair and dresser drawer were full of his things. I honestly don’t know how he managed to pack all of those clothes into one bag. As I entered the room and noticed he had even taken over the night stand on my side of the room and had clothes draped on my bed, I realized we might have a problem. His words? “Sorry man, I know I took up all the space in the room, but I have a lot of stuff. I am the artist, you know.” There was no offer to move anything. In that moment, I knew we had a rock star on our hands and our business relationship would probably be challenging.
Over the years, Diana and I have put a rock star litmus test in place. Although it’s not totally fool proof, it definitely gives us a quick insight into how an artist manages the monster. When we are looking at new artists, we have them stay a night or two with us in our home. During their stay, we closely examine a few things. The most important thing we want to know is whether or not they are looking to be served or looking to serve. That’s easy to assess fairly quickly. Do they grab their plates and offer to help with dishes after a meal? Do they treat the room they are staying in like a hotel room, leaving a mess for someone else to clean? Not that we expect guests in our home to clean, but it certainly shows a lot about person’s character if they offer to help. Some artists have been extremely grateful for the stay, while others treat our home as if it were a hotel with maids and room service.
I can remember one particular artist who was extremely narcissistic. Diana had been slaving in the kitchen cooking and cleaning for him for several days. One evening, we looked out on the porch and had to chuckle with amazement. This artist was stretched out on the chaise lounge on our porch, relaxing as if he were in paradise waiting for someone to serve his every need. All he needed was someone fanning him with a giant palm branch to complete the paradisal scene. That seemed like a pretty good sign that he would be trouble down the road. On the other hand, some artists have shown up with gift baskets or left thank you notes showing extreme gratitude. When we see those traits, we are encouraged.
What does God think about those who seek to be rock stars in Christian music? While I can’t speak for God, Jesus’ words teach us about seeking high places of honor.
When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, “Give your place to this person,” and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
(Luke 14:8-11, ESV)
Jesus himself modeled His words when He washed the disciples’ feet. The most deserving rock star of all time lowered Himself to wash the dirt off people’s feet. As He was washing their feet, He offered some great wisdom:
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments
and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.”
(John 13:12-16, ESV)
Reading those words should lead believers to conclude that rock star attitudes have no place in Christian music if the music indeed exists to honor and glorify God. Jesus’ words “for I have given you an example” don’t appear to be shrouded in mystery. If we are to follow His example, why would any Christian artist adopt a rock star attitude? He also gives us very poignant words in Proverbs.
Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished.
(Proverbs 16:5, ESV)
Why do Christian managers, booking agents and record labels create environments that foster rock star attitudes? Why does the Christian music industry create, promote and support award shows and red carpet events that emulate the mainstream industry by rewarding people for human achievements in record sales, airplay and popularity? I believe the answer lies in the existence of the monster gene or what the Bible calls “the flesh.” The monster seeks money, power and fame and is quite clever at making even Christians feel good about themselves as they feed it. Conversely, if we cease to feed the monster, the rock star attitude will not survive.