August 4, 2018

The Museum is Fine... But There are Cracks in the Foundation

The museum is great. 

A recent visit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame museum in Cleveland reveals an institution in the midst of a renaissance. Behold the sparkling, gold-encrusted signature wall chronologically displaying the inductees. The interactive screens where visitors can vote for acts they'd like to see in the Hall. A busy slate of rock fan-friendly events, including concerts and live chats with such luminaries as the Moody Blues. It could practically be called the "Blossoming Music Center," evolving under the steady hand and metrics-focused stewardship of CEO Greg Harris, erstwhile VP of Development at Coopertown's National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Harris and his organizational structure, with a mission to "engage, teach and inspire," are executing as well as can be expected; the museum they oversee is about as impressive as the place will ever be. Huge financial donations have helped (most recently, $10 million from KeyBank, making museum admission free for all Cleveland residents for 10 years).

Another result of a sizable gift ($9 million from Sherwin-Williams executive Chris Connor), and the museum's crown jewel, is the recently added "Power of Rock Experience" in the Connor Theater. It's a potent, multi-sensory film experience, and notably, the final work of esteemed Stop Making Sense director Jonathan Demme. "Power of Rock" peaks at the end with the choicest of all Rock Hall induction moments: Prince's mesmerizing, immortal guitar solo during the George Harrison-honoring "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," played alongside Tom Petty in 2004. That both of these legends have passed in the last two years punctuates this film with a jolting emotional heft. In effect, it fulfills the promise of rock and roll — it moves you.

The Connor Theater's "Power of Rock Experience" 
The museum is really not the issue, then, when Rock Hall discussion comes up, as it does in regenerative fashion each year come "Rock Hall Season," i.e. the time of nominee and inductee announcements. (In some quarters, it's a year-long conversation... guilty as charged.) For perspective's sake, it must be called out  the general bulk of the population shrugs this Rock Hall thing off for the most part, save for noticing who gets nominated/got inducted, and then bitching about it.

Don't get it twisted: When anyone complains about their favorite artist not being in the Rock Hall, it's 100% not the Ohio museum they are attacking, whether they know it or not. The culpable entity, of course, would be the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, the New York City-based shark tank that, via its Nomination Committee, decides which acts are nominated and inducted. If it helps, think of the Foundation as the museum's "Upside Down" a la "Stranger Things"... except darker, oozier and with far more ruinous tentacles. 

The Foundation's myriad problems now directly feed into its most graphic advertisement, the annual, Klipsch Audio-sponsored, HBO-broadcast induction ceremony. The gala is now a stricken beast, lumbering along and basically functioning, but still struggling to accomplish the idealistic goals of its original mission  to honor artists that demonstrate excellence and influence in the realm of rock and roll. What started out as a private, Waldorf-Astoria-held pleasure cruise, with no-brainer artists and a physical media-driven business model that made everyone in the room disproportionately rich, is becoming far more treacherous as the 21st century unfolds. Technology, newer generations' fragmented tastes, and shorter careers for artists could very well torpedo this institution into utter irrelevance, foundation and museum alike.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum
The 2018 induction ceremony is a telling case study for the foundation's problems. Unquestionably, there are always some heartfelt moments and galvanizing musical performances at this event. And really, there's little to be gained debating whether or not the reunited Cars, in likely their last-ever performance, sounded good (they sounded pretty brilliant to these ears), or whether Lauryn Hill went on too long (she didn't, considering the significance of Nina Simone, the inductee she was performing for). Those kinds of qualitative gripes around performances distract from more salient issues like the institution's lack of diplomacy, common sense, and integrity cracks in the Rock Hall Foundation, effectively. 

First off, the topic of diplomacy: The 2018 Rock Hall class felt slight, and perhaps a few evenhanded, polite discussions would have prevented that. Radiohead was by most accounts a shoo-in, but failed to make the cut. The obvious counterargument here is that voters simply did not check enough boxes for them, but that assumes good intent on the part of the Hall when it comes to who gets in, and how. As no official vote counts are released, and the Hall has a checkered history of Jann Wenner "by fiat, buddy"-style maneuvers, well, then, how can anyone assume good intent? Presumably, Radiohead, who correctly feel they don't really need this honor, did not want to play ball, had shows scheduled, and the Rock Hall foundation shunned them as a result, rather than reaching out and finding a compromise that might have gotten the band — after Nirvana, the consensus critical favorite rock act of the last three decades — to Cleveland. 
Elsewhere, Judas Priest was nominated, but left on the outside looking in. This is a worthy metal band that left their touring schedule clear induction weekend in case they got in, but, no dice. Imagine the 2018 ceremony with Radiohead and/or Judas Priest added to the bill. A longer night, sure (who cares?), but a better and more balanced program. Priest vocalist Rob Halford has been nothing if not nice and diplomatic about all this; the Hall could learn a thing or two from him. 

On the topic of common sense, it's as if the Rock Hall movers and shakers just aren't paying attention to details. For instance, longtime Bon Jovi bassist Hugh McDonald had to find out from his wife, who found out from social media, that he would, after all, be inducted with the band after initially being excluded. There is also a lengthy record of fumbles and Scott Norwood-caliber wide-right kicks when it comes to which specific members of inducted acts get in (every drummer that was ever in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but not Pearl Jam's Dave Abbruzzese?). In the Hall's latest affront to reason, Dire Straits ended up inducting themselves. A new low point, because I was in the room, and there were several Rock Hall Foundation players sitting at tables in front of the ceremony stage, looking bored. Get up there and say something for one of your honorees if no one else will, for god's sake. The Dire Straits induction speech decision was awful, no matter how it was arrived at.

Then there are smaller curatorial/showrunning details for this gala that boggle the mind, like finally getting Richie Sambora onstage to reunite with Bon Jovi, and then failing to convince them to perform their best, most consequential song ("Wanted Dead or Alive"). Perhaps that's nitpicking, but it still feels like a key, historical Rock Hall ceremony moment was missed there. Other examples abound, like skipping end-of-night all-star jams in 2014 and 2018 either due to avoidable ceremony running time inefficiencies or just a lack of creativity when it comes to assembling inductees for a finale. 

When it comes to integrity, and fragile rock star egos notwithstanding, the Foundation should simply release the final tally of votes to put to rest any suspicions of malfeasance. This would be a sea change, and a giant step toward transparency and credibility. They should also curb the "side door" inductions that can inadvertently disrespect an artist's legacy (most vividly seen with Nile Rodgers getting the Musical Excellence Award, vs. his band Chic being inducted) or come off as nepotism (McCartney greasing the wheels for Ringo's induction). Then there is a curious situation like 2015 inductee Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a "by fiat, buddy" inductee choice if there ever was one, their significant musical contribution notwithstanding. They got enough votes? Maybe they did, maybe they didn't.

Last but not least, a pivotal new development in the Rock Hall universe is the problematic-on-arrival Singles category, dropped in surprise fashion (akin to your parents telling you they're divorcing) at the 2018 ceremony. This category sort of works for certain acts ("Born to Be Wild" for Steppenwolf, "Louie Louie" for the Kingsmen), but it sure comes off like a "you're never getting in now" consolation prize for musical titans like Link Wray (honored for "Rumble") and early rock pioneer Chubby Checker (honored for "The Twist"). Ultimately, it's the TV game show parting gift of Turtle Wax. Better than nothing? Maybe, but when inherently worthy-of-induction artists start being detoured into the Singles category instead... say, the Zombies for "Time of the Season," MC5 for "Kick Out the Jams" or Kate Bush for "Running Up That Hill," people are going to be really upset and disappointed.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Singles Category, sprung from good intentions, nonetheless feels like a puddle of water forming unexpectedly in the basement — a tributary confluence of poor diplomacy, a lack of common sense and questionable integrity, seeping through the cracks in the Foundation. 

The Rock Hall brass could address and start fixing these issues, but are they willing to? Do these powers that be have the humility, focus and motivation to remedy some glaringly obvious problems? The credibility and long-term health of this enterprise depends on it.