Frank Zappa: Technology, Business & the Web
During his lifetime, Frank Zappa was an inspirational free thinker, a compelling speaker and, often flying right in the face of the norm, held absolute conviction in his beliefs. For me, he was also the greatest and most inventive composer and guitar player to grace the planet.
Business Nous, Technology Vision
In addition to those bitchen’ factoids, Frank is also a business and technology hero of mine, and it’s maybe not so widely known how switched on to these fields he was throughout his career.
From the very earliest days of his career, Frank was determined to maintain creative and business control of his own product – by 1969, he headed a pair of record labels (Bizarre/Straight), releasing his own solo & Mothers of Invention material as well as other artists, including Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley and Captain Beefheart. In the mid-late 1970s, Frank demonstrated his absolute commitment to control, entering a legal spat with Warner Bros. records after they refused to distribute the ‘Läther’ four-LP box, instead chopping it into four separate album releases. He was vindicated in court, winning back the rights to all of his MGM & Warner Bros. recordings. All of his releases post-1979 appeared on his own Barking Pumpkin or Zappa Records labels.
After years of complacency, poor management, lack of innovation and an inability (or unwillingness) to explore new business models, many major record labels are on their knees today, a direct result of their ignorance of digital distribution – a concept invented by Frank way back in 1983. In fact, Frank’s idea to distribute music over a phone or cable connection was designed specifically to save money on distribution and curtail piracy. Yes, not only did Frank predict Napster, LimeWire et al, but he also came up with iTunes as a means to prevent the recording industry meltdown we’re now in the midst of.
Frank’s embrace of the latest technology began before the days of the Mothers of Invention – even in the early 60s he worked with a 5-track multitrack recording system, when such a setup was very high technology indeed and restricted to only the most expensive recording studios. In the 1980s, he began creating music using the New England Digital Synclavier digital audio workstation, largely obviating the human performers he had relied on for the rest of his career. As the Synclavier’s technology progressed, Frank stayed at the cutting edge – adding disk drives to store samples and more and more memory for multitracking. Compare the (Grammy award winning!) Jazz From Hell album with the final masterpiece, Civilization Phaze III, to hear the difference between the cutting edge FM voices of 1986 and the most sophisticated wavetable synthesis available in 1993. Frank’s Synclavier in its ultimate form was specced with 640MB of sample RAM. (In 1993, my desktop was running Windows 3.1 on a 486 with 4MB of RAM.)
FZ Online, 2011
Even in his absence, Frank’s following today is stronger than ever, thanks greatly to the dedicated community of fans using the web to share, enjoy and spread the word. Tomorrow, I’ll share my favourite Zappa-centric corners of the web, but for now, Easy Meat.