A Musician Learns to Use the System
By ROBERT HILBURN, Times Pop Music Critic

The complaint we've heard time and again in recent years is that record labels are under extraordinary pressure from conglomerates to produce huge quarterly profits. As a result, there's no time for career development anymore. If an act doesn't come up with an immediate hit, it's likely to find itself out the door.

Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, 35, smiles when he hears executives talk about the good old days. That's because he was in a band in the '80s that signed a two-album deal with a major label--only to be promptly dropped after the first album stiffed.

If that was the low point in Morello's career, the high point began in 1991, when he formed Rage Against the Machine with singer Zack de la Rocha, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk.

The L.A.-based band's sound was about as far from the commercial sensibilities of the time as you could imagine: an aggressive mix of rock-rap energy and radical politics.

But the foursome asserted commanding force in its live shows and on its three albums for Epic Records, becoming a critical and commercial smash and laying down the blueprint for what has become the hottest sound in rock: rock-rap. In a recent interview, Morello, who graduated with honors in social studies from Harvard University, spoke about the record industry from an artist's perspective, touching on the lessons he has learned and the warnings he is eager to share.

Question: What has your experience been with record companies? Do you think bands used to have it easier?

Answer: I've come to think of the music business as this layer of people--the managers, the attorneys, the record company executives--who are like the landlords of this building that is the music industry. Whether we are talking about the '80s or the '90s, the bands just rent a room for a short time. These landlords all know one another and have business dealings with each other, long before you put your band together and long after your band is dropped from the label. Their interest is more in keeping the building in good shape than in the interest of the people who check in and out. When you are fortunate enough to be in a band as successful as Rage Against the Machine, you get to rent the penthouse suite--but only for as long as you are able to sell records.

Q: So, what's the lesson in that for a band?

A: The important thing is to know what you are up against. Unfortunately, I think that artists suffer from a lot of naivete. I know I did when I came out here from Illinois 1/8in the '80s 3/8. I had read a lot of the books about the industry, but none of it really prepared me for what I found.

Q: What happened to you with your first band, Lock Up?

A: We had a two-album guaranteed deal. But when our first album flopped, the label dropped the band. We asked about the second record and they said, in effect, "Do you have the money to sue us?" And, of course, we didn't. So with Rage Against the Machine, we made sure we wouldn't be powerless again.

Q: How did you do that?

A: We said the company had to not only guarantee that we would be able to make three albums, but if they reneged on the deal, there were specific amounts of money they would have to pay the band if they didn't make album two or album three. And it was substantial amounts--enough to make us feel their commitment was genuine. Plus, Michael Goldstone, who signed the band, also had Pearl Jam, which was the biggest band in the world, and Michael was saying we were an important band, too. That helped our standing.

Q: A lot of bands in the '90s say they went to independent labels rather than majors because they were afraid of losing control. Have you had to fight hard for creative control?

A: It really never has been an issue. But again, it was something else we insisted on before we signed a contract. We stipulated that we would have 100% control over every aspect of our careers, from album covers to videos to T-shirt design. That's something bands should remember. If a lot of labels are competing for you, take advantage of it. Set your own ground rules.

Q: What if the first album hadn't sold well? Do you think relations with Epic would have been less smooth?

A: Oh, absolutely. I harbor no illusions that one reason is that we are successful. There are people at the company who have faith in us, but there is probably also this feeling that these guys are doing something that seems to be connecting, so why mess with it?

Q: Some people thought it was surprising you went on MTV's "Total Request Live" when the new album, "The Battle of Los Angeles," came out, because the show is dominated by teen heroes like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Was that something the record company talked you into?

A: No, that was our decision. I never want to be elitist, and that's where a lot of kids see their music. We weren't going to skip the show because Britney Spears rather than Soundgarden may be on the day after us. The only concern for us is that the music and the politics are uncut. It's not like we are donning midriff outfits and sweaters in order to pander to the programmers or the audience.

Q: Did you have any feedback about it from Rage fans?

A: Well, yes. There was a raging debate on some of the Web sites. Some fans didn't like us going on there, but, again, I think there's nothing better than having our video for "Guerrilla Radio" in between a couple of those whack-ass videos that they're playing these days.

Q: Your success has opened the door for a whole flood of rap-rock bands. Does that surprise you?

A: Yes and no. Who would have guessed when we were just starting out in our grimy studio out in North Hollywood that a genre would spring up around us? I remember how hard it was to find a manager. There was this one powerful manager we talked to. He didn't want to manage the band, but he liked us and he sat down and tried to give us some advice. He spelled it out just like I was a little kid or something. He said there's no future in this "rap thing--it's got no melody, no hooks." He said we put on an exciting show, but there is no way we are going to sell records or have a career. The funny thing is we are now looking for a new manager, and he's one of the people who is trying to meet with us. I can't wait to see him again--to see if he remembers the conversation.

Q: Is it gratifying to see how every label is trying to sign its own Rage Against the Machine now?

A: To me, it's just another sign that the industry hasn't changed that much. Everyone is chasing after what's successful--and not just the record labels. Most musicians do the same thing--not because they believe in a particular style, but because they think it'll help them get signed. I moved out here when Guns N' Roses had gotten signed and everyone wanted to be like them. After that, the Red Hot Chili Peppers came along and you'd see so many bands fronted by shirtless singers making wacky faces. Then Jane's Addiction arrived, and you had these poets with dreadlocks playing spooky rock. Now, you see a lot of bands with a little bit of rock, a little bit of rap and someone making funny noises on guitar. I think one of our biggest breakthroughs was that you see a lot of multiethnic bands out there. That was another thing about Rage that once confused people. A lot of people didn't know what to make of a band that had a Chicano singer, an African American guitar player and a Caucasian rhythm section. Now, you see multiethnic bands all over the place.

Q: What about the future? There have been a lot of theories in recent years about what's going on out there: Rock is dead. Electronica is the next big thing. Hip-hop has peaked. What's your feeling?

A: The only thing that is certain is the unpredictable nature of things. You never can predict the most important things. You could have gotten all the music industry heads together and not come up with a Jane's Addiction, for instance. But somewhere brewing in some basement or attic is going to be something as startling and as great as a Jane's Addiction or a Nirvana or a Clash or a Public Enemy. Those bands don't come out of some planning session, they come out of some musician's imagination.