Rock Legend talks inspiration, advertising and Andy Warhol

A rather frail Lou Reed took to the stage yesterday to give his perspective on staying relevant in changing times as part of Grey Group’s series of seminars with music icons. Introduced as one of the most profound influences in modern rock, not to mention a respected playwright, poet and photographer (with his own radio programme, ‘The New York Shuffle’, to boot), Reed knows a thing or two when it comes to creativity and inspiration.

From an early age, Reed was writing music and imagining a world outside of the “stultifying suburban bullshit” of his childhood. As soon as he could, Reed moved to New York City and took a job as a staff writer for Pickwick Records; a “schlock company”, as he calls them now, where he churned out surfing songs. It was here that he gained his first experience of working in a studio and actually got songs played on the radio.

Much of the seminar is spent reminiscing on Reed’s early collaborations with Andy Warhol, who incorporated Reed and the Velvet Underground into his ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable’ series of installations. “He was the most astonishing person in every way”, said Reed, although he recalls that Warhol would be less than impressed with his output. “He used to say to me,  ’Lou Reed, how many songs did you write today?’ And I would say, ‘Three.’ And he’d say, ‘Three?! What’s wrong with you? How do you ever think you’ll be anything? You’re so lazy. I can’t believe it. What do you do with your time?’ Meanwhile, he’d be doing his art 24 hours a day.”

Working with other artists has been a consistent motif in Reed’s career. His most recent collaboration with Metallica came about after they played together at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The result, a concept album entitled LULU, “got the worst reviews in the history of the world,” jokes Reed. “Metallica fans were horrified, and the band gracefully dropped out of the tour.”  Reed bemoans the fact that music is “all about the money.” The crowd cheers when he counters; “How about doing something for the love?”

Vivienne Westwood, a speaker earlier this week, said that the modern world is low on culture. What is Lou’s take? “I think the world is just opening up to culture, from new people, new ways of doing things, new fashions, new everything. I don’t think it was better before, it’s just different now.” Continually comparing the world as it is now to the world of the past isn’t fair, he says. If we do that, we might as well admit that nothing has been good since the days of Shakespeare.

That said, in the specific context of the music business, he sees the current landscape uninspiring; “I can’t tell the difference between the name of the song and the name of the group… Where’s Prince? Where’s a real guy out there?”   The only serious talent, in his view, is Kanye West. “The mixture of genres, the melodies, the sounds – he’s really good, no matter what you think of him on other levels.” Why then, asks Mellor, is there is dearth of talent in the industry? “Because it’s all been done before,” says Reed.

Following his on-stage chat with Tim Mellors, Reed answered questions backstage on how the music business has evolved. “Steve Jobs tried to make it into some kind of a business that benefits artists,” he says. In a way, he believes that things have come full circle for artists: “pennies for downloads.” But with the rise of music streaming programmes like Spotify and Pandora, fewer people are downloading, and even when they do, the artist gets less than a penny. Releasing music now is more of a promotional effort, he suggests, for gigs and tours.

While collaborating with advertisers has historically been seen as “selling out”, Reed acknowledges that “now it’s the opposite”. So would he advise young artists to go into the ad business then, instead of rock? “Get into the thing that is the best for you and gives you the most pleasure. It’s not about the money. If life were only about the money,” he says, “you’d be a politician.”

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