Not Just In It for the Money

By Steve Hochman, Los Angeles Times, July 11 2004.

Get ready for the Zappa of the Month Club.

The family of the late Frank Zappa is putting together plans to release music from the composer-musician's vast vaults via a subscription service. They hope it will expand the Zappa legacy among his fans and establish a unique business model suited to such a unique artist.

The details are still being worked out, but Gail Zappa, Frank's widow, says that the concept is pretty simple. Fans will pay an annual fee (probably around $100) and receive a set number of new releases each year (probably five), some of which will not be available elsewhere. Subscribers will have some level of choice as to what titles they receive from an ever-expanding catalog, and will also likely get bonus material and other special merchandise. 

"We get people who say they only want to buy Frank's music directly from us," Zappa says, sitting in the family's Laurel Canyon house with their son Dweezil.

Beneath the house is the vault, a climate-controlled basement room stacked with shelf after shelf of audiotapes and films made by Zappa (who obsessively recorded nearly every concert he gave) in addition to studio recordings of his many band projects and classical compositions.

In the years since Frank Zappa's 1993 death from prostate cancer, the vaults have been largely closed, in part due to tension between the family and Rykodisc, the record label that owned the rights to the Zappa catalog. That deal expires in October, though, and the family is ready to open the door. 

"I've always said that my day job is to protect the integrity of the work," Gail says.

That, adds Dweezil, is why the plans were devised to retain as much control as possible over the archives.

"Our dilemma is we have a core audience that's very enthusiastic," he says. "But music appreciation is nonexistent these days."

Under a new label named Vaulternative, marketed through the website, two concert recordings were released in recent years. But the new program is really being launched with the brand-new Joe's Corsage, which despite a title playing off the 1979 Joe's Garage albums actually consists of demos recorded by Zappa with his first Mothers of Invention band in 1964.

Archivist Joe Travers has been combing through the tapes for material that could be released, and Dweezil is marshaling a remix program to put both previously released and new discoveries in state-of-the-art surround sound for a parallel release program.

The latter will be introduced with Quadropheliac, essentially an audio documentary being made from unreleased tapes on which the elder Zappa experimented with surround-type recording in the mid-'70s. At this point the material will be released only as hard-copy CDs, not as digital downloads - the Zappas believe the technology is too limited to do the music justice.

While others have had success with extensive archival projects, such as the Grateful Dead with its ongoing "Dick's Picks" concert series, it's the subscription angle that makes the Zappa plans stand out. Pete Howard, editor of the collector-oriented music publication ICE, thinks it's an overdue idea.

"As a business model it makes great sense for a label or people doing it," Howard says. "It keeps the ability to do product flow at a predictable level. And for the consumer and fan it has got to be win-win, because there will be all kinds of things coming out of the vaults that wouldn't otherwise. It ensures a steady flow of goodies. There needs to be a little blind faith that there will be quality, but that shouldn't be a problem with the Zappa material. I wish other artists would follow suit."

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