Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Janis Ian’s Talking Gay Marriage-21st Century-File Sharing Blues

As the sun sets on June and Gay Pride Month, today marks the 43rd anniversary of The Stonewall Riots.  The event officially marked the beginning of the movement for gay liberation, the time when activist groups in the New Left tradition began to form a militant alliance for equal rights; one year later, the first Gay Pride parade was held on Christopher Street in New York.

In 1969, Janis Ian did not yet identify as a lesbian, but as an 18-year-old folksinger who’d made her name at 13, inspired by the Greenwich Village folk scene, she was sensitive to the civil rights fights of her day and made a point to sing out. Her 1965 song,  “Society’s Child,” concerned interracial romance at time when it was still illegal in some states; in 1967 “Society’s Child” became a hit.  Forty years later, Ian was among the few people to write a song and sing about gay marriage (titled “Married in London”).

Her views on the very 21st Century issue of file sharing were also cause for controversy:  As an early adapter to the Internet, in 2002, she came out strongly in favor of free downloads which was not the position the record companies were taking. (For an economic breakdown on the ways in which file sharing is harmful to recording artists, I recommend you read everything David Lowery has written on the subject, starting with this letter to a file sharing enthusiast, which went viral last week). Ian paid for her outspokenness and details the story in a  series of articles and within the interview below.

Though I regret that more of my  conversation with Ian didn’t make it into the manuscript of Keep on Pushing (our conversation took place while the book was in editing), I am presenting my talk with her here, largely as it appeared in Crawdaddy!  Since we talked in 2010, the writer of “Society’s Child” has since turned 60; she and Pat Snyder have also celebrated 20 years of love and partnership.

“I predict that within the next two to three years everyone is going to go back to telephones,” says Janis Ian. Sound unlikely? That’s what people said when she launched a website and message board in 1992 and bet on music’s future at the dawn of the world wide web, too. Proving the skeptics wrong, Ian took more heat in 2003 when she came out in favor of file sharing, a view not generally shared by her contemporaries.  And yet, as the decade closes, Ian, a self-managed artist, has found the totally wired life to be less than satisfying; though it’s great for her business, it’s not necessarily good for her art.

“This is my year of I Can’t Cope Anymore,” she says. “I don’t Twitter; I have a MySpace page that hasn’t been updated since 2008. I have a Facebook page, and I get a gazillion friend requests everyday. Why would I want to be friends with you? I don’t even know you!” Though Ian’s exasperation may sound like every boomer’s reaction to the interweb, she’s clearly no techno-phobe or old fogey; she’s simply a techie with a desire to unplug and, as an early adapter to online music and one of its biggest advocates, she’s allowed to vent. “I’ve always been interested in technology. I had a home IBM machine when they first came out. When I was 16, I did binary programming to earn extra money for awhile,” she explains. “I had been online really early—early enough that my AOL name is janisian. It was just obvious that this is where it was going. I mean, it was really obvious. It wasn’t obvious to me that we’d have iPods. I would never have dreamed about that. But it was obvious that this might be an amazing means of transportation and connection.”

“Connection” is a word that that comes up often in Ian’s story—as a songwriter, her career is based on reaching people—but plugging into a collective, connective power has been more like a mission for her. In 2002, Performing Songwriter published her piece “The Internet Debacle”, though before the article had even gone to press, Ian had royally pissed off the powers at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and others in positions of influence in the music industry. “Am I concerned about losing friends, opportunities, my 10th Grammy nomination by publishing this article?” she wrote. “Yeah, I am. But sometimes things are just wrong, and when they’re that wrong they have to be addressed.” Ian took the position that free downloads were good for catalog sales, contrary to the industry’s claim that they were killing the business. And though she didn’t expect the article to be posted on over 1,000 websites and become subject of discussion from USA Today to the BBC or to create the firestorm of controversy it did, she is no stranger to friction: Her career was founded at age 13 when “Society’s Child”, her song about interracial love, was initially hated, banned, and ultimately honored as the groundbreaker it was. It is amidst a similar backdrop of high achievement, low ebbs, and complete chaos that Ian has constructed a life that has included not only music, but the study of acting and writing science fiction.  In 2009, she released her recorded best on a two-disc collection of Essential Ian and told all in a book, Society’s Child: My Autobiography, now released in paperback. But make no mistake about the compiling: They’re just warm-ups for another song, another tour, and another day at the job site. As for so many workers, slowing down isn’t an option for Janis Ian.

A Virtual Life

“I was just reading a New York Times article that said Americans have now added the equivalent to a month of work hours to our work year since 1955,” says Ian. “But to be fair, almost every independent artist I know over the age of 30 is going through the same thing. The world has gotten so much more complicated and immediate; it’s sucking all our time. None of us have time to write, to play with each other… though I don’t know if it’s that different than it’s ever been. You could probably listen to Beethoven bitching about business… We’re all trying to guard our legacies, and at the same time, make a living.”

When Ian titled her 2006 album Folk Is the New Black, she wasn’t kidding: Compared to when she wrote her first song in 1963 and began to haunt Greenwich Village, there are exponentially more folksingers in the land than there are coffeehouses for them to perform in, though few of them will leave the legacy to protect that Ian will. As an exceptional product of her times, Ian played the B-3 organ into the wee hours alongside Jimi Hendrix in Village clubs, while she also had an interest taken in her by Leonard Bernstein, among other extraordinary highlights. As a teen, Ian walked with music’s giants. “[Dave] Van Ronk was great to me, always. Baez was great to me, Odetta was wonderful to me… Joplin was great to me, Hendrix was great to me, the guys in Joplin’s band were great to me… everybody except for the folk Nazis… I was pretty fortunate.” Yet none of her experiences embedded in the ’60s rock scene prepared her for the 21st century and what it had in store for her as a performing singer-songwriter.

“I’m on the same treadmill as every day-jobber I know, in that, I’m fighting to stay current and am getting further and further behind. Part of it is my choice: I would love to have a great manager, but a great manager is not going to make enough money off someone like me. I would love to have a great personal assistant, but I really can’t afford a great personal assistant. On the other hand, I’m dragging around 45 years of luggage.  In this brave new world, I’m looking at five boxes of audiovisual tape that need to be transferred to digital. I’ve got two tables of CDs of myself, which I haven’t listened to, things like living room concerts and master classes. I’ve got two bags worth of slides that need to be transferred to digital, but first I have to go through them… I’ve got boxes and boxes of CDs that need to be sorted. I have two piles of CDs that people want me to listen to, and my desk is an archaeological dig. Meanwhile, I’m trying to deal with a former webmaster who went AWOL about six weeks ago and left me with nothing… this one went off with all my artwork.”

Remember, this is Janis Ian talking: Former child prodigy, writer of “Society’s Child”, “Jesse”, and “At Seventeen”, maker of over 20 albums, including one that went to number one. If things are so difficult for her, the average working songwriter is likely to be screwed. “My friend Jeannie said, ‘You know what, Janis? So you’ve got extra zeros in what you have, but you’ve got extra zeros in what you owe.’ And if you think about it, if I didn’t have hit records, I wouldn’t be paying $600 a month in storage to make sure my masters are safe. It’s all this extra stuff that comes with it that means someone like me is eventually going to start talking with places like Berklee College and saying, ‘Take this stuff off my hands and I’ll leave it to you.’” I’ve heard of the acquisition of a living artist’s ephemera by institutions of higher learning—surely there is one awaiting her call.

“I don’t even want them to buy them,” she clarifies. “I just want them to store them. It would be great to find buyers. If you find any, send them my way! It’s the same problem with instruments. I have probably 20 guitars and they’re wonderful guitars. I bought a lot of them in the early- to mid-’70s. I have a really nice vintage Les Paul. I’ve got one of the first Eddie Van Halen’s. I’ve got a Lloyd Baggs, and he doesn’t even make guitars anymore. I look at them and think, ‘If I sell all these, I could probably finish paying off the mortgage.’ So why am I looking at all these guitars that I never play? I looked at my partner yesterday and said, ‘You know, we keep working our asses off, so we won’t ever be impoverished. At what point do we get to sit back and enjoy it?’ I feel like we’ve all fallen into my parents’ trap… much as we tried not to, here we are. I’m sorry, I’m blathering on.”

No need to apologize, I tell her, I’m listening hard. As a self-employed writer married to a self-managed musician, I doubly understand Ian’s dilemma of running her self-proprietorship while keeping an eye on the future. Plus, Ian’s stories are not only relevant to self-employed writers and artists, they contain valuable information for anyone interested in this business we call music.

The Industry of Music

“We used to be in the business of music, as in busyness. We are now in the industry of music. That makes us more like US Steel, Alcoa, GE, than anything to do with the arts. I hope that it would be self-limiting, like museums are, but it’s not because of technology. So what you have are these huge, moribund institutions—what are there, three record companies now, maybe four? And they change just as slowly as any institution.” Ian suggests that it’s literally a lack of vision that prevents the changes from rolling. “If you’ve ever tried to get a streetlight put up, you know how slowly these things work. I think what’s happened is something very similar to why Columbia Records lost out on the Beatles and the Stones and the early wave of pop music: Mitch Miller was head of A&R, he detested rock ‘n’ roll and said it was pap. When my first webmaster and I first went to BMI and ASCAP, back in the early ’90s, and we said, ‘People are buying albums off of this new medium; there is going to be a way to give them sound bytes off of this new medium and you have to start negotiating right now [for payment of royalties],’ they laughed at us. They thought we were stupid. The record companies are the same. It’s only this last year that things have begun to change at all.

“It took them ’til three or four years ago to realize that domains would be a good thing to own. Remember when they were all trying to compete with Napster? The crappy websites they put up? Oh my god! Thank god for Amazon and iTunes, because those two have done more to help the music business than the record business has done. Sorry, but we’re on a pet peeve of mine!”

There is plenty of irony in Ian’s early argument for ownership and online music, and it isn’t lost on her. “Here I sit, worrying about how I pay the enormous cost of maintaining a huge website and I noticed Sony maintains Leonard Cohen’s and James Taylor’s and Paul Simon’s. They get a free ride. And that’s a huge advantage. On the other hand, you don’t own your own domain. I don’t know, maybe they have leasing deals. Knowing Paul, that’s entirely possible. Pluses and minuses,” she says. “Free downloading wasn’t hurting anyone but songwriters. Songwriters are getting screwed by free downloads.”

Nevertheless, Ian has always made music available for free on her website. You can go there right now and download her topical song about gay marriage, “Married in London.” Ian is so hot on providing music for free that record executives once suggested a boycott on her, though there has never been much love lost between her and her former labels. “Again, from personal experience: In 37 years as a recording artist, I’ve created 25-plus albums for major labels, and I’ve never once received a royalty check that didn’t show I owed them money,” she wrote. As an artist who has always made her living from touring, the exposure the web affords her has been worth the trade-off.  “… When someone writes and tells me they came to my show because they’d downloaded a song and gotten curious, I am thrilled!” again, quoted from “The Internet Debacle.” Ian may be the exception to every rule, but seven years after she and others fought in its favor, the free download is an expected and accepted part of music consumption.

“I own a lot of my work, because I had very good lawyer. I don’t own the early stuff, I own 13 of my albums in North America and I own 16 worldwide. That’s the only way an artist can survive the new model, by keeping ownership and publishing. Because I was successful, I could go back and renegotiate. What I keep telling younger artists is the truth is that no one has sold a million albums or made a living only through the internet. Once that happens, the whole paradigm changes. But at this point, if you want a career that’s lucrative or powerful or has that amount of exposure, you still need a major. Certainly, if you want an international career, you still need a major. I think if the majors start behaving like responsible adults, who knows, it may work out. But greed always gets the best of everybody. It’s hard to convince young artists that 100 percent of nothing is really nothing. Half of my songs were reacquired, after I’d given up 50 to a hundred percent of the publishing. If you aren’t in a position of strength, the stuff is lost forever.”

Society’s Child Comes of Age

Ian’s first demo was recorded in 1963. Even in her earliest works, like “Hair Spun of Gold”, a kind of “It Was a Very Good Year” rendered as a folk ballad for the teenage set, she revealed an understanding of the world beyond her 12 years of age. The songs, as well as “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)”, were featured on her 1967 self-titled, Shadow Morton-produced debut album. Morton was known for his involvement with the three-minute teen dramas by the Shangri-las from Queens, but Ian was a different kind of New York girl: Her parents were subjects of surveillance for their political beliefs and Ian was pressured to adapt “Society’s Child” to steer away from race matters. However, her folk roots and convictions told her not to back down.  Though the song was withdrawn, two years later it became a hit, and helped secure Ian’s future as a working musician when she was featured singing it on a television special hosted by Leonard Bernstein. Ian’s teenage hit-maker status also made her the perfect fodder for the teeny bopper magazines, of which she was no fan. The more conservative New York Times didn’t write much about her and Ian didn’t like Rolling Stone’s treatment of female artists. But she fondly remembers Crawdaddy!, which she said filled the breach. “Crawdaddy! would write about you like you were a full artist and you were doing work that might survive your life,” she says. But Ian was having trouble surviving her own life: Burnt out by the demands of teen stardom, she took what would become her first in a series of breaks from the spotlight. In her autobiography, she writes of the time between “Society’s Child” and her next success, the heartbreak song “Jesse”, as a time when she felt as if something was terribly wrong with her. Accidentally discovering the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, she found in his lines the freedom to devote herself to being an artist instead of pop stardom.

My eternal soul
Redeem your promise
In spite of the night alone
And the day on fire.

“I’d finally connected,” she writes. “Someone else felt like I did. Someone else had been an outsider, had tried to fit in, and had failed. Someone else gave words to my feelings, made me aware that out of such torment could come great art. And what a concept, that the artist must remake himself daily, and redefine himself in every waking moment! What a notion, that words had colors, feelings of their own!” And so it was Ian who remade herself for the first time. She broke back into the business at the time of a new women’s singer-songwriter’s movement, the outgrowth of the larger women’s liberation cause. Her song “At Seventeen” revealed the experience of teen alienation from a woman’s point of view and earned her a Grammy and a number one album in 1975. But there are days when Ian feels remorse about her greatest hit. “I hate to think that ‘At Seventeen’ is any part of that whole bleeding-all-over-yourself school of songwriting, writing from the internal rather than the external, that really started with the whole Joni Mitchell thing and hit a heyday in the ’70s and came right back at us after disco. At the end of the day, all of our lives are so boring compared to the grand scheme of things.” I suggest that “At Seventeen” still strikes a universal chord of outsider experience. “I would hope so, that would be great. That’s certainly how I approached it. But in my occasional ‘My god, what have I created?’ moments, I don’t think so.” She continued to write while her songs were getting cut by major artists, but after a good run and dogged by personal and health problems, by the mid-’80s, Ian was ready to retreat again. “My career was pretty much over in 1986,” she says. She used the time-out to study acting with the Stanislavski Method teacher, Stella Adler. “She gave me a language for what I only felt in my heart,” Ian wrote in her autobiography. “She set me free, telling me it was not only good to be an artist, it was noble.”

Returning to recorded music again in the early ’90s with her album Breaking Silence, she used the moment to come out as a lesbian, convinced that if sharing her experience could help someone, her pain would be redeemed (today she lives in Nashville with Pat Snyder, her partner of nearly 20 years).  The comeback had her juggling positive press attention and live dates, but once again, she was on the recording and touring treadmill. “I had something of a resurgence… but it got really old really fast.”

Having risen to the challenge of re-establishing herself as a musician in a fickle business, Ian then proceeded to reinvent herself as a science-fiction author and as a columnist (her sci-fi short stories have been published in various anthologies and her work as a columnist for Performing Songwriterand The Advocate is archived at her website). She continues to devote more time to prose writing and a couple of years ago took a year off to write her autobiography; she found that she liked the stay-at-home writer’s life, way more than the road. “For the first time in a decade and a half, I actually had spare time. I reaffirmed some friendships and I made a new friend, which for me is a lot; I don’t make friends quickly. And I went to the clubs a bunch and re-familiarized myself with a lot of songwriters and singers, got to listen to music, I took some trips… I went to Virginia to hear bluegrass. I actually had a daily life. And then I looked at the economy, because I was thinking of trying to build my world around a life like that, and I thought, ‘I can’t afford this.’ So it’s back on the road. In some ways, that’s my day gig. Why should I be any different from anyone else with a day job? At least my day job is something I love doing.”

But she’s back on the road with a difference: Ian’s full rig, the outboard gear, the bank of pedals, and the guitar hero solos have been traded in for an acoustic. The only augmentation to her set comes in the form of stories, something she learned to tell while on her book tour. “The first time I tried to read from the book it was just horrible. So I apologized and put the book down and started telling the chapter as I remembered it. For me, the stories have become like the songs. They have their own rhythm and their own beat.” And if the book is any indication, they’re juicy too, though they are ultimately the stories of a woman in search of making a connection, with her muse, herself, and her people, the fans with whom she connected through the message board she built up in 1993.

“When my book came out last summer… they rented a bus and went all over the United States with me. If you do it right, it becomes a community,” she says. “I’ve been very clear from the beginning… I didn’t intend to make money off of that part, that I considered me paying for it part of the cost of doing business.”

Ian has also returned to songs of societal concern: “Married in London” tells of a marriage recognized everywhere but at home. “I normally don’t get up on a soapbox about things, but I was really furious. First I had to watch the Reagan years and the Bush years co-opt my country and turn it into a place that is not the place my grandparents wanted to come to, and then I was watching as my country turned its back on me and those like me, on every level—politically, socially, economically—and I was watching these people say to me, ‘All right, never mind the wedding ceremony.’ They were saying to me, ‘You can’t inherit social security. You can’t leave your partner everything.’ To me, as a songwriter, the copyright act now has reversions built in; well, those reversions can only go to your wife or husband, they can’t go to your spouse. So I can’t leave any of that to Pat. She has no standing. I couldn’t even leave it to her children. I was furious. My tour manager at the time said, ‘You need to move away from this; you need to put this in a song.’ I was writing a song that was really angry and then about halfway through I looked at it and said, ‘This is terrible… no wonder people don’t write angry songs anymore.’ It’s so rare to hear anything on the level of ‘I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.’ I thought, ‘I need to laugh at this,’ and so I started to write it, and it was funny. And then I thought, ‘How do I explain it to a straight audience without scaring them?’ Because that’s the trick with something like the gay rights issue. How do you present it without excluding anyone?”

There are a few more changes to the new Janis Ian: “Edging toward 60, letting my hair go white, getting rid of my lenses, wearing glasses on stage, which was always anathema, weighing more than I want to weigh… It’s all a part of saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to be 60 in a few years and this is not the same person, even if I sing the same songs a lot of the time.’” She has accepted her status among music’s elders. “You know, with Odettta’s death, between her and Van Ronk, I think it really came home for me, how limited these people older than me are. I mean, there’s Pete [Seeger], of course, who will apparently endure forever, and there’s Joan… Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell… Dylan, a lot of lost people like Ochs, Janis Joplin, those folks. And then there’s me, who’s kind of between the Baez/Collins’ and the Ani DiFrancos. I suddenly realized at Falcon Ridge [folk festival], I was being looked up to by the younger artists, as somebody to learn from and as a mentor… it’s really a weird feeling.”

Despite the usual complaints, Ian assures me there is an upside to the inevitable decline. “One of the cool things that you might look forward to about getting older, that I really learned from my book, is there is no shame in looking back. When I was younger, that seemed really embarrassing, but as you get older, you look back and you suddenly realize how many things you thought were so important were so meaningless and how many things you thought were not important are really a big deal.” Like? “Writing an article for Performing Songwriter about internet downloading would assume such huge proportions. It does kind of act as a leveler in your own head and your heart. It’s like being able to look back and go, ‘Pat and I are 20 years this year.’ That’s a leveler. I would never have thought that would happen. I think at the half-century mark we become conscious that, at its best, half our life is gone. But whether there is a way to start stripping away from my business, and stripping away at other things, and figure out what I’m going to give up in return for gaining some time, I haven’t figured it out yet.”

Perhaps when the telephone makes its comeback in a couple of years, as Ian predicts it will, we’ll give her a ring and find out how things turned out.

Filed under: Civil Rights, Folk, Greenwich Village, Interview, Keep On Pushing, , , , , , , ,

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