Like so many other artists of her generation Suzanne Vega has had to adjust to a new reality. First at A&M and then Blue Note, she spent more than two decades as part of a traditional record company structure where budgets seemed endless and she thrived with global hits such as Luka and Tom’s Diner.
But then the decline came. Her albums started charting lower and after 18 years she was dropped by A&M, only to suffer the same fate at then EMI-owned Blue Note. It was a real shock to the system for someone who had become accustomed to selling healthy quantities of records and was now living in a new world order where the public’s demand for albums continued to shrink.
“When the record sales started plummeting I started to feel that I had lost something, but then I realised it wasn’t just me,” she tells Music Week. “It was everyone. No one is selling records and with every year the CD sales are getting lower and lower.”
Vega’s response has been a back-to-basics approach, launching her own record label called Amanuenis Productions, firstly to issue re-recordings of the singer-songwriter’s glorious back catalogue and now in Tales From The Realm of the Queen of Pentacles her first studio album since 2007. In the UK it has come out via a label services deal with Cooking Vinyl and delivered her a first chart album in 18 years.
“That was the heartening thing about having my own record label being able to make a living,” adds Vega who will perform at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards at London’s Royal Albert Hall on February 19. “I have my albums and people buy them at the shows and I sign them and it’s more meaningful than a free download, so that’s worked for me. If you set your sights a little more practically and you’re not in [the budget of] the $200,000 video or the outfits you can make a living.”
It has also meant living her life now in a more modest, realistic way in New York City where she grew up, but in 2014 she can say with confidence: “I’m feeling more secure. I went through a period where I had huge success and had a big house and a lot of clothes and a lot of junk over the years, but now I’m doing things on my own terms.”
Those own terms include a new album, which she has been able to write and record over several years and in locations including London, Chicago, LA, New York City and Prague. As she explains to Music Week, that freedom has been made possible by having her own label. “I can now argue with myself,” as she puts it.
Starting your own record label has presumably given you a lot more artistic freedom as you are now the boss.
The thing is I always had artistic control. I always had a pretty good relationship with whoever was the record company president of the moment. I could always walk into their offices and say, “Hi, do you like what I’m doing?” Most of the time the answer came back, “Yes” except when they don’t like you and then they drop you. That’s the only bad part when you get to the end of that relationship and then you have to start all over. I always had artistic control, now I feel that I have longevity. I can look at the project from a long period of time instead of feeling like, “This doesn’t stick. Let’s just move on,” which tends to be the way a big record company thinks. If it hasn’t caught fire in a few months then they will just move on to the next project, whereas I feel I’m in it for the long run.
Your mum was a computer systems analyst, so has that influenced you in your approach to technology?
Only that I’m comfortable with it and I think of it as a friend. It’s not the alienating thing some people think it is.
Obviously since you started technology has played an ever greater part in the industry and how people listen to music, including now streaming. Do you have a view on that?
I do. I told my manager I didn’t want to do streaming. I tried Pandora for a while and I said, “I don’t want to do this”, but he pointed out as the record company I would actually make money that I wouldn’t make as the artist so he urged me to reconsider and I guess I have because I know it provides a certain amount of exposure. But it’s only because I have my own record company and therefore I can get a bit more of the profit. Other than that I agree with David Byrne. I think it’s an unfair system that doesn’t reward the artist in the way it should.
The new album features the unlikely prospect of you sampling 50 Cent’s Candy, which is on the track Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain. Who’s idea was that?
It was [album producer] Gerry [Leonard]’s idea. I kept talking about 50 Cent and the productions of Scott Storch and the Arabic strings he favours and I spoke to Gerry and I said, “Do you think we could do something like this?” He said, “Not only could we do something like it we could just take that” and it hadn’t occurred to me we could just take it so we tried it out and it worked really well.
Your use of Candy Shop made me think of DNA taking your a cappella recording of Tom’s Diner and completely reworking it as a dance track in what initially was a bootleg. In what circumstances did you first hear that?
I was backstage at a show back in 1990 and my manager said, “I need to speak to you about this because some boys have taken your song and they have put this beat to it and they have violated the copyright law and A&M is really upset with them, but you better listen to it.” So I listened to it expecting to hear this mutilation and instead it was, “Wow, I really like this. This is really cool.” I thought it grooved and I liked it that they didn’t change the song. They weren’t making fun of it, so I said, “ Let’s get it and release it and just see what happens.” I thought it would be played in some dance clubs, but it was a huge, massive hit.
Did you then get free dinners for life at the actual Tom’s Diner in New York?
I did not get free dinners for life. I go there from time to time and I still have to pay. They still keep me waiting 20 minutes to get a cup of coffee and my name is on the menu but they’ve misspelled it so it’s a humbling experience and the whole place is filled up with clippings from Seinfeld [which used a shot of the outside as the diner where the TV comedy’s main characters Jerry and George would meet] and just one or two of me. As ever New York puts you in your place.
There is a song on the new album called Song of the Stoic, which you’ve suggested maybe Luka now grown up. When you were writing it did you have that in mind or did you only think that afterwards?
Afterwards. Afterwards I looked back on the song, “Oh, the two songs are connected”, but I hadn’t started with that idea.
Luka was back in your early days at A&M when it was still independent and presumably founders Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss were running the show.
That must have been quite an attraction for you, those two guys heading the label.
Yeah, they were great. [Vega’s then manager] Ron Fierstein said, “Let’s target A&M. They’re the smallest of the big labels. They’re a real artist company. They stand by their artists.” Back then I think they had Joan Armatrading, Joe Jackson. They kept saying, “No” [to me]. They said no twice and they finally signed me on the third go round after I got a great review in The [New York] Times.
Did you notice a big difference with the company when PolyGram bought it and it eventually became part of Universal?
Yeah. Each shift you could feel change in the atmosphere and sometimes you’re a favourite, sometimes you’re not a favourite. Sometimes there was a lack of communication between offices. Sometimes you were a priority. Sometimes you were not.
The music industry when you first signed a deal with A&M three decades ago to what it is now is completely different. It makes it hard now to appreciate the money flowing around in the industry back then, the extravagances.
That’s the thing when I remember being signed to A&M thinking, “This is crazy.” Some of the budgets. Even some dinners we would go out to were so reckless and so extravagant. Then we would have videos and you would spend $200,000. You could buy a house for that amount of money for just this thing that was going to be used a few times. It was so out of proportion, but that has been corrected with a crash. You just have to adjust.
A&M let you go and then the same thing happened to you at Blue Note [which released Vega’s 2007 album Beauty & Crime].
It was a shock because I really like [then Blue Note president and CEO] Bruce Lundvall and he was very warm and very sincere. I gave him a demo tape and he called me up at home one Sunday afternoon going, “I really love this. It’s great. It’s everything we want. It’s got poetry”, so I felt we were a good fit to get together so it was a shock when I heard the news [of being dropped]. “Well that was short” and I’ve seen him since then and he actually bowed down in front of me, which was kind of embarrassing and he apologised and said it wasn’t him that had done the deed, but if you work with a major label you always have that possibility the big fish is going to eat the little fish and you will be cut out.
Would you ever go back to a traditional label deal?
It really depends. I guess I would think about it depending what they offered and who it was. I do look at someone like Bob Dylan who is on Columbia and his situation is amazing. They put out all his old stuff. They put out his new stuff. Everybody benefits. He has the backing of the label and it works all round. It would be great if there were others, especially women. I don’t notice women being treated that same way. Joni Mitchell should have a deal like that where she is protected. She did a deal with Starbucks, but for a woman of that stature a record label such as Columbia would have been the way to go for her.
What do you make then of how women are represented in the music industry now, both as artists and executives? With all that twerking stuff and Miley Cyrus some might argue we have gone backwards.
I don’t think we’ve gone backwards, but I don’t think people are still really feeling the variety that women are and what they can be. There are more women making music. There are more women executives, I guess. But there’s this idea that sexuality is empowering. OK, fair enough, but not all the time. Sexuality is empowering with men as well, but you have a variety of men. You have men who deliberately act sexy like David Bowie or you have men who are intellectual and sexy like Bob Dylan and there’s a whole range of people in between. It should be the same with women. I don’t see why it has to all be all young girls showing off their bodies. That doesn’t work for some people.