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Following Their Flame

The Byrds' famous prescription for rock 'n' roll stardom begins harmlessly enough: 'Just get an electric guitar, then take some time and learn how to play.' But their advice turns rapidly cynical, instructing rock dreamers to comb their hair right, wear their pants tight and sell their souls to 'the company.'

Nearly forty years have passed since the Byrds recorded 'So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star,' and the recording artist still makes his Faustian bargain. If things work out well, company muscle and know-how convert the artist's raw talent into brisk-selling merchandise. If things go badly, any number of hells can befall him. On the absurd end, the company (in cahoots with an imperious manager) can change the artist's name without telling him, which is how John Mellencamp turned into 'Johnny Cougar,' an identity that took him a decade to shed. More common is a record company's determination that one's work is unfit for release. The company will have its reasons, of course, but the decision is out of the artist's hands.

Consider the case of Fiona Apple. In 1996, at age eighteen, she released a CD called Tidal that earned both critical raves and platinum sales. Her 1999 follow-up, When the Pawn, only enhanced her standing as a serious artist with wide popular appeal. But when Apple turned in her third CD, Extreme Machine, in May 2003, executives at Sony Music decided it lacked a 'single,' or radio-friendly song that would drive CD sales. Delivery of an additional song did not change their minds, nor did a 'Free Fiona' campaign undertaken by her fans and protests outside Sony Music's Madison Avenue offices. The master tapes of Extreme Machine are reportedly sitting in a warehouse while Apple waits in rock star limbo, unheard from for six years.