black crowes press shot

The Black Crowes released their last studio album in 2010: a semi-acoustic compilation reimagining some of their past tracks. 12 years on, their fraternal fulcrum of Chris and Rich Robinson is reunited and touring again, and they have been back in the studio recording more new takes on older songs.

This time, the songs aren’t their own. ‘1972‘ is a collection of six covers recorded as an ‘Amazon Original’ EP for Amazon Music. At launch it’s a digital exclusive for that service, with the band additionally selling CD and vinyl versions.

It’s an interesting example of the kind of catalogue-focused partnership that artists and streaming services are exploring nowadays.

In this case, that catalogue includes the Crowes’ own, with the EP featured on Amazon Music’s ‘(RE)Discover The Black Crowes‘ playlist. But it also includes the songs covered, from the Rolling Stones (‘Rocks Off’) and The Temptations (‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’) to David Bowie (‘Moonage Daydream’) and T-Rex (‘The Slider’).

Music Ally talked to the band’s manager, Mark DiDia from Red Light Management; to Rich Robinson; and to Amazon Music’s global co-head of artist relations Stephen Brower, to get a sense of how the project came together.

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The manager: ‘This band’s always had integrity’

DiDia goes way back with the Black Crowes: he was general manager of Rick Rubin’s label Def American / American Recordings in the early days of the band’s career, and has been working with them since the Robinson brothers reunited in 2019 for a 30th anniversary tour of their debut album ‘Shake Your Moneymaker’.

The idea for ‘1972’ was sparked by Apple TV+ documentary ‘1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything‘, which documents the intersection of music and politics/activism that year.

“I called Stephen up and said we should do something like this with the Crowes. Not only could they crush a bunch of covers from back then, but we realised that 2022 is the 50th anniversary of 1972,” says DiDia.

“I was at high-school then. For me, it’s the best year ever in rock! We started looking at all the records that came out in 1972, and holy shit: ‘Exile on Main Street’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and… All this great stuff. So what if we covered some songs from 1972?”

The Black Crowes has always been a fluid entity in terms of members. Guitarists and bassists have come and gone; original drummer Steve Gorman and the Robinsons remain estranged (lawsuit included); and keyboard player Eddie Harsch died in 2016.

One of those bassists, Sven Pipien, is part of the reunion tour, but otherwise it’s essentially a new band, which played a part in the appeal of ‘1972’.

“We have a brand new band, and we wouldn’t have to have the pressure of going in and writing new songs. Even though we do have a bunch of new songs written, we’ve not been into the studio with this new band yet,” says DiDia.

“We don’t care about chart positions: it’s not trying to get to number one. It’s just something cool and fun and easy, and kinda like: salute the past!”

Early in their career, The Black Crowes were famously thrown off a ZZ Top tour in 1991 after criticising the the headline band for taking corporate sponsorship. Fans with long memories may thus raise an eyebrow at the sight of them teaming up with a tech giant in 2022.

DiDia doesn’t avoid the issue. For him, this is partly about personal relationships, having been friends with Brower “long before his days at Amazon” when he too was working label-side.

“Amazon Music is very artist-friendly, they do cool projects, and they go way above and beyond the mainstream, which is kinda the artists I deal with,” he says.

“There was a time when the band would never play ‘Shake Your Moneymaker’ in its entirety. That’s not who they were. They probably wouldn’t have partnered with a company like Amazon. But we look at Amazon as a cool music service, and Stephen is a cool guy,” he adds.

“There’s got to be a cool factor with everything. We’re not going to whore ourselves out and show up for everyone who’s offering a dime! You’ve got to look at every opportunity that comes your way and measure it. This band’s always had integrity.”

In 2022, the music industry has an increasingly strong sense of how older catalogues can be marketed for new (and old) listeners in the streaming world. It’s one reason why investors are paying so much money to buy the rights to those catalogues.

The Black Crowes’ lengthy hiatus, when the core members weren’t speaking and didn’t have a manager looking at their catalogue or pushing it forward for streaming playlists, means that once both of those things changed, a positive upswing came fast.

“If you look at our graphs and charts that have to do with streaming, everything’s up over 200% in the last couple of years,” says DiDia. “The rock genre is probably one of the last ones to switch over, to gain mass acceptance in the streaming world. But it’s coming! It’s starting. The catalogue is doing so well.”

Much of that back catalogue resides within Universal Music Group, and DiDia says the label is “thrilled” with the work the band and management have been doing. They are currently working on a box-set for the next album anniversary, 30 years after the release of sophomore album ‘The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion’.

“It’s going to come out in the first quarter of next year. We found all this great shit in the vaults. 60 hours of film concert footage!” says DiDia. “Everything we could imagine and more has been saved and catalogue. It’s been a bit of a treasure hunt.”

All of this nostalgia may seem focused on fans who loved the Crowes first time round, but DiDia says that the ‘1972’ project, the streaming growth and the tour is also attracting newer listeners.

“Kids are listening to their folks’ records. And one of the advantages of us not being around for 10 years is that kids – well, people from 25-35 years old – have never seen the Black Crowes. They’re excited,” he says.

“We see it in our streaming numbers for 18-34 year-olds. Those have grown significantly since we put the band back together, and we’re seeing a lot of kids at concerts, coming with their parents.”

There’s a clear strategy at work to fuel all this, but DiDia stresses that the core remains the band and their music, rather than marketing goals.

“I’m proud of the fact that I get to work with these guys again, and we have an ‘us against the world’ mentality. There’s been a lot of bullshit with the band over the years, and internal strife and struggle, but the bottom line is they’re a great rock’n’roll band,” he says. “It’s all about good music, and it’s about the songs.”

Black Crowes 1972 EP

The artist: ‘I saw it as an opportunity to make some great music’

Talking to Rich Robinson, it’s immediately clear why the ‘1972’ project passed the Crowes’ cool test: it’s a year and era he looks back to with admiration.

“If you look at music at that time, it seemed to be untethered and unaffected as much by greed. It seemed very free: it wasn’t an established thing. All those artists were free to create the music they wanted to create,” he says.

“The uniqueness of each artist was what was so cool about it, if you look at what was big or what was released at that time. They didn’t have the overgenrefication of everything, if that’s a word!”

“It was simply rock and roll music. From ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ to T-Rex to David Bowie to Little Feat to the Rolling Stones to Rod Stewart, everyone and anyone in between was all just music. They were all so unique and brought so much to the table. That’s kinda how music should be.”

It’s fair to say Robinson isn’t a habitual listener to the top-hits playlists of the streaming era – “Why are we trying to homogenise music? Most of the pop music today sounds the same, same writers, same sound…” – so diving into 1972’s output to choose what to record for the EP was a labour of love.

“We went back and forth trying to find which songs would be the best, and arrived on the songs that we could bring something to. We’re paying homage to these songs: we’re not trying to rewrite them,” he says.

“But just by proxy of doing them, it’s going to sound like us. I play the way I play, it’s going to sound like the Black Crowes. But it was cool to say ‘let’s try this a little bit this way’… and to bring this new band that we have into the studio and feel their energy.”

“Being in the studio is different from playing live. We’d played something like 38 shows with these guys [at the time] and realistically you need 100 shows to really figure out what a band is going to really become. I think you need to do 100 shows! Just where everyone learns that language. So to me, it’s always a fascinating prospect then being in the studio.”

For Robinson, ‘1972’ was a creative endeavour rather than a DSP partnership – “I saw it as an opportunity to make some great music; the other stuff is where Mark has his reasons and relationships and things like that” – as well as a chance to be back in the studio with his brother. “A cool way to dip your toe in the water…”

Robinson has mixed feelings about the modern streaming landscape, accepting that “it’s cool to have access to everything” while suspecting that “human nature tends to have more respect for the things they have to work for” – music discovery in this case.

“Take vinyl. Vinyl is a process: you have to go out and buy it or order it; you have to unpack it; there’s a smell, a tactile feeling to it; you have to get up off the sofa and turn on the stereo; put the vinyl on the turntable and put the needle on… and then you have to flip it!” he says.

“So if we understand on a deep level there’s a process and a vibe to it, we have more respect for what is not easy,” he continues, drawing a parallel to a world where “you have 84 million songs at the tip of your tongue” along with the noise of YouTube videos and social media. “We’re bombarded with entertainment!”

However, he also appreciates that these new platforms help people to discover and experience music from the past, whether that be Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters or jazz records that would have been hard to get hold of in the 1960s or 1970s, but are a click or tap away now.

“Any way kids can discover music is a good thing, and it can come from many different paths now,” says Robinson. “That opens up a lot of opportunities to really go deep and discover. So while it’s kind of a bummer to think that an algorithm is turning your kids onto music, on the flipside, I guess any way they can be exposed is good.”

The Black Crowes are navigating this new environment, but still with that strong sense of what is and isn’t fitting for their music.

Nobody is, for example, sitting the Robinsons down and telling them they need to get TikTok to build awareness in the Gen-Z demographic in 2022. Although if such a conversation ever did happen, Music Ally would absolutely want to be a fly on the wall…

“I don’t give a shit about TikTok. I don’t give a shit about any of that stuff. It has nothing to do with making music, it’s just making content for mass consumption, and there isn’t anything genuine about it,” says Robinson.

“Chris and I are stubborn. We’re not going to do what anyone tells us! We’ve been fortunate enough to not have to: we’ve always been left alone to our own devices, and it’s also about having the people around us that we align with.”

“A lot of bands don’t have that luxury, and that sucks. They become beholden to this, and it’s a real shame.”

1972 EP

The DSP: ‘It’s an organic conversation with the band’

For Amazon Music ‘1972’ is part of a wider strategy to work with artists around catalogues, whether that be their own recordings or (through covers) storied songbooks.

Another recent example came in January, with a month-long ‘[RE]DISCOVER’ campaign for what would have been David Bowie’s 75th birthday, including enlisting artist Spoon to cover his ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ track.

It’s part of a wider collection of ‘[RE]DUX’ playlists that set artists’ famous tracks alongside those of their influences and contemporaries.

Amazon also got Wilco to record covers of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘Dig a Pony’ as part of a big Beatles campaign in 2021, while tapping the likes of St. Vincent, Little Big Town and The Kills to cover tracks from Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees in 2020 and 2021.

“With Amazon Originals songs and projects, we’ve historically always looked to create unique content for our customers,” says Brower.

“I would say over the last 18 months to two years, the natural marriage of that with catalogue has really come into focus for us. Also, artists have often elected to do covers as an Amazon Original even when it wasn’t connected to a particular catalogue campaign.”

Brower stresses that these partnerships are structured as “earnest creative endeavours to the artists, not essentially a marketing campaign”. As DiDia said, ongoing relationships are also key: the pair had already worked on originals from two of his other artists: Counting Crows and Dirty Honey.

“When we landed on this idea of 1972, we thought wow, look at all these records that came out in 1972, and this band has a direct lineage to that era,” says Brower.

“That conversation was a very organic one between Mark and I and the band, and it was definitely something from an Amazon Music standpoint that we could build around. Not just this particular project, but by extension the [RE]DISCOVER program and the band’s catalogue.”

It helps that in this case, the Crowes are active again and on the road – currently on their North American tour with Europe to follow. With a year’s worth of concerts and festival slots ahead, Amazon knew that – in Brower’s words – “it’s not going to happen in a vacuum”.

The band will be dropping some of the songs into their live sets, then. “But just because they’re really fun songs to play, and they fit into the set in a way that’s very organic,” he stresses. “Having a project like this plays naturally into their active calendar.”

Brower thinks covers can play a powerful role in helping today’s music streamers discover catalogue songs and artists alike.

“As a music fan growing up, I discovered the band Humble Pie because the Black Crowes covered them. A lot of people discovered Otis Redding’s ‘Hard to Handle’ because of the Black Crowes’ version,” he says. “It’s always been a huge part of music discovery.”

He also talks about some of the ‘1972’ project’s other links to the past. The EP was recorded at the Sunset Sound studio in Hollywood, where ‘Exile on Main Street’ (the Stones album that included ‘Rocks Off’) was mixed.

Meanwhile, the release of ‘1972’ was marked with a Crowes livestream from the Whisky a Go Go venue 50 years to the day after Little Feat played it.

“It’s an organic conversation with the band. Certainly with Sunset Sound, being in a place with that history in the walls was definitely something that made this exciting for us,” says Brower. “There’s a lot of that connective tissue in this project.”

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