As the stars converge and the hype builds for the 31st Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Brooklyn tonight, it's important not to lose sight of an inescapable fact: By any measure, the Rock Hall is an American institution with a tarnished public image. Sad to say, but it's lost hearts and minds. When tickets for your annual watershed gala event are going on StubHub for $12, and the simulcast of said event at the museum isn't sold out, well, those are bad omens.
There's an acute public perception problem here, and the reasons go beyond why your favorite band isn't in the hall yet; in fact, let's please put those reflexive, tiresome, moody blues to rest for now. In considering the Rock Hall gestalt, there are two entities that feed off each other. First there's the museum in Cleveland, which opened in 1995 and is an exceptionally-curated music fan pilgrimage. Secondly and most significantly, there is the organization that spearheaded the museum, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, NYC-based and formed in 1983 by the late Ahmet Ertegun, Jann Wenner, Seymour Stein, Jon Landau, and others to recognize achievement in popular music.
That mission sounds simple enough. In fact, the early years, marked by the privately-held induction ceremonies at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, were a relatively non-controversial, celebratory breeze. Elvis! Chuck Berry! Bob Dylan! Aretha! The Beatles! But as decades have gone on, and as Wenner has dubiously claimed "all the no-brainers" are inducted, it seems that myriad issues have cropped up that threaten to irrevocably damage the very idea of "The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." These issues include, but are not necessarily limited to, transparency, communication, gender equality, credibility, common sense, and conflicts of interest:
Transparency - Most people that follow the hall closely, as well as casual observers/everyday rock fans, get a sense that most major Rock Hall decisions are being made behind closed doors. This is a non-profit that is driven by donations, but the institution seems to act with impunity and zero accountability. Does anyone on the outside, let alone donors, know what's going on? Sure, financial numbers get disclosed. But missing is the basic information that would actually matter to the populist masses the Hall is purportedly courting to buy memberships and tickets to the museum/induction ceremonies. The most corrective measure the Hall could take toward transparency would be to disclose the vote counts that decide who gets inducted. A press release is issued, and news outlets and social media are abuzz on announcement day, but it seems no one truly questions the results. (Does anyone truly believe that Steve Miller got more votes than Janet Jackson? That's not to take sides in support of either, but most fan polls outside the Rock Hall's bot-corrupted fan vote had Janet well ahead, and you'd think there would be at least some parallel).
Communication - The fact that most people believed that N.W.A. would perform at the induction ceremony tonight, only to be highly disappointed yesterday when they saw Ice Cube's interview in the New York Times saying they weren't performing due to disagreements with the organizers, is a prime example of the Rock Hall dropping the ball when it comes to communication. How long was this known? It certainly wasn't in the Hall's best interest to disclose that fact. Going broader in terms of the 2016 ceremony, why are there only five performer inductees this year? Previous years have had quite a few more. A sixth slot could have gone to a deserving artist like Yes. Again, there are no real answers from the Hall, just speculation across the board that maybe they're trying to shorten what have been admittedly long ceremonies.
Gender Equality - There's not a single female inductee this year, not even a single announced presenter tonight that is female. Furthermore, per the essential Rock Hall resource Future Rock Legends (futurerocklegends.com), "Of the 547 Rock Hall voters we have on our unofficial list, 9.3% are women." Expanding the voting body to include more women is urgent, crucial, and ridiculously overdue.
Credibility - The Hall-run, official fan vote for the 2016 induction class was an abject disaster. Overtaken by bots and registering an inhuman 160,905,154 votes, it's exhibit A for the Hall to come up with a more secure, credible fan voting system. (And yes, Chicago fans, the point is taken that you are passionate, and that you voted a bunch. But you didn't vote 37 million times, as the official Rock Hall fan vote would have us believe.) This needs to be fixed before the next set of nominees is announced.
Common Sense - When choosing which band members to induct (or not induct at all, as in tonight's Steve Miller "sans Band" scenario), the committees apparently need to do more research, consult the bands, and use some common sense. In the case of Deep Purple, vocalist Red Evans is being inducted, but bassist Nick Simper was excluded, which is confounding as they played on the same records and were in the band at the same time. Yet every drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers was inducted? Inconsistency at best.
Conflicts of Interest - The late Bert Berns is being given the Ahmet Ertegun Award for Lifetime Achievement tonight, an honor that is apparently determined not by voting but via the unilateral decision of a nomination committee. Steven Van Zandt and Paul Shaffer are producing a Broadway musical about Bert Berns, and they are both on such a committee. The red flags being raised here, justifiably so, are conflicts of interest, and the overarching sense that the Rock Hall insiders are just going to do whatever they want. Berts, a storied '60s producer, record man and songwriter, has accomplishments that have more than earned him this honor, but it's too bad his induction has this shadow of impropriety over it.
In closing, the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten, upon learning of his band's induction, fired off a burning missive to the Hall in 1996, calling it a "piss stain." He added, "Your anonymous as judges but your still music industry people (sic)." Maybe Rotten's was among the first hearts and minds lost.
That doesn't mean the Rock Hall can't course-correct and win back those that still believe in a credible, well-executed, and balanced recognition of musical achievement. Fixing these issues isn't just the right thing to do; it may even secure the Rock Hall's long-term future.