Frank Zappa, at The Royal Garden Hotel in London, September 1974

Frank Zappa, London, 1974. Photo by Ron Burton. © Mirrorpix.

Yesterday I went to Zappa.com, the website of all things Frank Zappa, to look at what — if anything — is being done to make his music available to the digital generation.  Zappa.com and the rest of Zappa’s business interests are overseen by the Zappa Family Trust, headed by Frank’s widow Gail Sloatman Zappa.

I consider Frank Zappa to be one of the most underappreciated American musical geniuses of the twentieth century, a bandleader and composer who should be up there with the likes of Ellington, Davis, Mingus, Carter, and Copland.  But the best word to describe what the Zappa Family Trust is doing to preserve and spread his music for posterity is a Yiddish one: it’s a shanda.  For you German speakers out there, this is equivalent to Schande.  It’s a shame and an embarrassment.

Back when Rykodisc controlled Zappa’s recorded catalog, it was possible to buy Zappa’s music legally as DRM-free downloads on sites like eMusic.com.  Then when Warner Music Group acquired Rykodisc in 2006, it took all of the label’s music off those sites.  At the time, downloads were sold with DRM on sites like iTunes, but WMG did not make Zappa titles available there.  Nor did the company license Zappa’s music to subscription sites like Rhapsody (or, later, Spotify).

Now, iTunes and other major music download sites are DRM-free. but Zappa’s catalog is nowhere to be found… legally.  On Zappa.com, all that’s available for digital download is a handful of newly-released concert recordings.  There’s also a “Zappa radio” MP3 playlist for those with WinAmp or other web radio player apps, which plays all Zappa music at the mediocre bitrate of 64kbps.  You can go to a “custom radio” service like Pandora or Slacker and construct a “Frank Zappa radio” station that plays a Zappa cut every few songs.  But otherwise it is not possible to get Zappa’s music digitally.

This is a travesty.  It prevents young people from discovering Zappa’s music, and it forces existing fans to choose between buying and ripping CDs (a lengthy, bothersome process) and obtaining the music from illegal sources.

Frank Zappa himself understood very well the necessity of competing with illegal sources.   He released a series called Beat the Boots, in which he sold known concert bootlegs — dubious sound quality and amateurish cover art included — so that he at least could profit from them instead of bootleggers doing so.  (The series is still available.)  Evidently, the Family Trust doesn’t share the paterfamilias‘s hard-won wisdom.

Furthermore, various Zappa tribute bands exist, many of which feature some of the large number of musicians who passed through Zappa’s band — a badge of honor indeed, given the technical complexity of his music as well as his reputation for fierce discipline as a bandleader.  But the Family Trust uses trademark law to limit their ability to publicize themselves: for example, they can’t say “plays the music of Frank Zappa” in gig listings or use “Zappa” in their names.  The best known of these bands is Project/Object, which the Zappa Family Trust threatened with a lawsuit.  Various contemporary classical outfits also perform his music.

These limitations may have something to do with the fact that the Zappa Family Trust has its own “official” Zappa tribute band, Zappa Plays Zappa, featuring Frank’s son Dweezil playing guitars from Frank’s collection as well as occasional guest appearances from former Zappa sidemen on joyful, competent, and respectful covers of dad’s tunes.   But equally worthy tribute acts such as the Ed Palermo Big Band (New York) and Le Bocal (France) must labor in the shadows and rely on email lists and word of mouth to get people to their performances.  This is not the case for the legions of Beatles, Stones, or Led Zeppelin tribute acts.

Finally, Zappa.com itself has the look and feel of a cheap amateur job.  Its site copy relies on cheap verbal Zappa clichés in a way that recalls Mad Magazine, and its e-commerce engine doesn’t work very well.  It’s a web 1.0 isolationist “strategy” in a web 2.0 era where Zappa should be everywhere online.

Despite the fact that some of Zappa’s music is not exactly fit for radio airplay or children under 18, the Family Trust should be doing much, much more to spread his legacy and introduce the “born digital” generation to his genius.  They could even (gasp) make more money in the process.

By the way, the digital download I purchased on Zappa.com (with some difficulty; the site’s PayPal interface doesn’t work) was a 1976 live set from Australia called FZ/OZ, featuring the band from the Zoot Allures album plus vocalist/reed player Napoleon Murphy Brock from Zappa’s previous band.  Though overly long on the cheap porn songs from Zappa’s mid-70s period, it does contain some sterling FZ guitar solos and great drumming from a very young Terry Bozzio.

Update: In July 2012, the Zappa Family Trust finally — FINALLY — started distributing Frank Zappa’s music through digital channels through a distribution deal with Universal Music Enterprises, part of Universal Music Group.  The entire catalog is now available for download (iTunes, Amazon.com, etc.) and interactive streaming (Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG, etc.).  Almost all is forgiven, Gail.

I say “almost” because of the senseless limitation on tribute bands, and because the Family Trust still hasn’t gotten it together to release one particular item that has reached legendary status among Zappologists: the long-promised video of the 1973 concerts at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles.  The performances, some of which are available on Zappa’s Roxy & Elsewhere album, feature a band lineup that many consider to be his best ever, including fusion star George Duke on keyboards and Ruth Underwood’s dazzling percussion virtuosics.  C’mon, guys…

Another update: After years of dithering, the Roxy material was finally released in 2014, not as a DVD but as an audio CD. It features material from the Roxy dates that wasn’t released on the Roxy & Elsewhere album, and liner notes from Ruth Underwood.  It’s not available through mainstream distributors, it’s a little rough around the edges, and there’s a little too much time spent on clowning around with the audience (for a released album).  But oh, that band…

Yet another update: Roxy the Movie was finally released in October 2015, on Blu-ray only.  The movie packs in more material than the CD, including tunes that fans will recognize from You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 2, the amazing double live set recorded in Helsinki a year later with a smaller, road-tested version of the same band.

Return of the Son of Update: In 2016, a rift developed between Dweezil Zappa and two of his siblings who took over the Zappa Family Trust since Gail died the previous year.  The public feud apparently grew out of a dispute over music licensing and revenue from Zappa Plays Zappa concerts.  At first, the feud led Dweezil to stop using the Zappa Plays Zappa name, instead touring under the unwieldy moniker Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa.  Then, in late 2016, the ZFT filed for a trademark on the name “Zappa,” which would force Dweezil to pay his siblings if he wanted to use his own last name in a musical context.  At this writing, Dweezil has launched a crowdfunding campaign on PledgeMusic to fight the trademark.  Shades of the two feuding Yeses in the late 1980s.

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