Open Letter To The Zappa Family Trust

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Dear Zappa Family Trust and The Internet,

What is THIS?!

http://www.thezappaestate.com

Frank Zappa’s home studio (Utility Muffin Research Kitchen) being put on the market for $5.5 million, available to any random rich person, is a disaster to me. I suspect I am not alone in thinking that this historic site should be preserved as a museum or music school. Even worse, it *seems* it is being sold to pay back Zappa Family Trust debts.

[ ADDED 7/8/16: They are also auctioning Frank’s possessions here: http://www.juliensauctions.com ]

2016-frank-zappa

I write this open letter to the Zappa Family Trust (especially Ahmet and Diva) with the hope that something good happens.

Why was its preservation not presented by the trust as an option — rather than a Kickstarter for a single documentary? I know I am not alone in my desire for the Zappa Family Trust to protect Frank Zappa’s musical legacy — not just as digitized recordings, but in a way the public can touch and feel and learn from. A music school or at the very least a museum would be a dream come true.

[ ADDED 7/11/16: There is now a public petition you can sign below. ]

CHAPTER 0: I CAN HEAR THE ZAPPA INFLUENCE

To be honest, I have spent more time listening to Frank’s interviews and reading The Real Frank Zappa book than I have listening to his music. He was a hero of mine because of his do-it-yourself, independent business ethic that was inseparable from his creativity. He seemed to do what he wanted, when he wanted. He spoke his mind to anyone, without his livelihood depending on who he might offend. “That’s the way I do my business, and if you’ve got a problem with it, let me know. The results speak for themselves.”

Some of his musical compositions were, of course, beautiful. But I suspect they rarely sounded the way he intended — as he was limited to whatever “rock ’n’ roll” ensemble and technology he had available to perform them. He was truly a “classical” composer that found a way to make his music entertaining and profitable — by exploiting his unusual name, appearance, and personality. Had he not been such a wild “character” singing songs about poop and boobs, his “higher information content” music may have never been heard. Unfortunately, there is a bigger market for entertainment than there is for classical music.

Anyway, now that you know my personal opinion, here are some disclosures.

ZappaHouse_01

CHAPTER 1: PERSONAL DISCLOSURES

I’ve never met Ahmet or Diva.
I might have been introduced to Moon briefly one time at a concert.

I have met and actually worked with Dweezil. Over the past few years he has hired me to do a few low-budget promotional videos at my standard rate, like any sporadic freelance client. I am not on his payroll. I won’t be retiring to Palm Springs any time soon.

CHAPTER 2: THAT TIME I TRIED TO DO BUSINESS WITH THE ZAPPA FAMILY TRUST

As I said before, I met Dweezil because of a Frank Zappa cartoon I made: “A Business Lesson From Frank Zappa.” Dweezil saw it and contacted me. He told me he loved my animation style and inquired about working together.

Frank Zappa: Will That Be An Aisle Or A Window? (Cartoon) from Carl King on Vimeo.

Coincidentally, very soon after that, a friend put me in touch with Gail Zappa (Frank’s wife) via email. I have removed minor details from the following emails to protect personal info.

From my friend:

9/21/11
I spoke with Gail Zappa last night and she saw the cartoon. She seemed to enjoy it but as expected, she wanted you to contact her about some of the content. She expressed that she wanted to supply you with Frank’s music so people wouldn’t think that was his.

You see, I had hired Stephen Cox to compose an original piece of music that emulated “The Girl In The Magnesium Dress” from The Yellow Shark.

Getting permission to use real Frank Zappa music sounded like great news to me (sorry Cox), so I emailed her:

9/21/11
Dear Gail,

I was asked to contact you regarding the Frank Zappa cartoon I recently made. It was expressed that you’d prefer to use Frank’s music.

I think that’s a great idea and I’m happy to substitute Frank’s music. If possible, I would love to use a piece from The Yellow Shark, specifically “The Girl With The Magnesium Dress.”

Thank you very much for watching the piece and giving your blessing. That FZ interview clip has been a major source of inspiration for me for many years, and I’d love for more people to experience it.

-Carl.

Her response:

9/21/11

Whoa! Hold your little horsies. We have some things to work out. You never had permission to use FZ’s image (voice), likeness (cartoon), name, trademarks (moustache, Pipco, Zappa, Frank Zappa, FZ), or commercial use (posting), primarily because you did not ask. And you so easily could have, yes? No is no whether you ask or not, unless you are told by the owner (and in this case and generally, in writing) that you can and no third party, especially one who is not an owner, has the authority to grant permission. And you posted this. Not ok. I do not have to cooperate but I am willing but it is going to cost you. I will call you if you are interested to see what I really have to say firsthand. Let me know soon, otherwise you have 24 hours to remove it from everywhere you can.

Thanks!

gz

Not quite the response I was expecting! After the shock wore off, I wrote back:

9/21/11
Hi Gail,

I’ve taken the videos down from everywhere I can.

I apologize for not asking your permission to make the cartoon clip. I’m not generally aware of trademarks, but thank you for letting me know about that. I can understand that you have to be protective, because so many people try to exploit Frank’s work, with all the festivals and tribute bands, etc.

I think there was a misunderstanding. I’m just the animator and I’m not looking for any profit from it. I’d also be happy to deliver the HD quality video to you or Dweezil for your archives.

I’d like to know what we can do to remedy this. You can always give me a call if you’d like at [number omitted].

She did not reply.

A month later, I followed up:

11/3/11
Hi Gail,

I’m interested in finding out how much it would cost to get your permission and clear the trademarks for the Frank Zappa animated clip — so I can post it on YouTube (no ads) / my website. I’d be happy to pay you something like $1,000 (or a licensing fee per year). I’m an independent animator / paying for it myself, and I wouldn’t be re-selling it. I’d post links back to the official Zappa.com. If you have some time, could you either email or give me a call?

Thank you very much, Gail.

No reply. That was it. Never heard from her again.
In my own personal experience, trying to do actual business The Zappa Family Trust is impossible. Rather than accept the payment of $1,000 (or an annual licensing fee per year), or even ask for more money, she just ignored me.

You’d think $1,000 (or more), at a time when the Zappa Family Trust was nearing (or already in) bankruptcy, would be welcomed.

Is this how to run a business?

ZappaHouse_03

CHAPTER 3: HOW TO RUIN A BUSINESS

With all the open letters and newspaper interviews going around, it looks like The Zappa Family Trust is not doing well, and has not be doing well for a LONG time.

Confusion. Conflicting stories. Rumors. Big numbers. Dollar signs. More confusion!

Here are some questions that the Zappa Family Trust *could* (and should) answer for the fans and all parties involved:

1.) How much money did Frank Zappa leave behind to the Zappa Family Trust when he died?
2.) How much is his catalog of music worth? “Tens of Millions” according to LA Times (June 24, 2016).
3.) According to LA Times (also June 24, 2016), the Zappa Family Trust is now MILLIONS of dollars in debt. What?!
4.) Is the Zappa Family Trust truly so insolvent that they are actually resorting to auctioning Frank’s personal possessions and selling his house and studio to pay back those debts? If so, this is quite desperate and sad.
5.) Does the Zappa Family Trust really not even make enough money to keep Frank’s house and studio? How long has this been known by the members of the Zappa Family Trust?
6.) If the Zappa Family Trust is under such extreme financial stress, why was Alex Winter granted rights to raise over $1.3 MILLION on Kickstarter (supposedly with no financial connection to Zappa Family Trust)? Why didn’t the Zappa Family Trust, instead, make a documentary themselves? Or multiple documentaries that each earn a profit? Or as I mentioned earlier, create a Kickstarter not to save just the vault but the whole house? How is it possible for something this financially destructive to happen? Did Gail’s intense protectiveness over Frank’s intellectual property result in this tragedy or were there sneaky lawyers milking the trust?
7.) Will Alex Winter provide a clear account of how that $1.3 MILLION is being spent? How much does he keep? How much goes to the Zappa Family Trust?
8.) Are those Zappa Family Trust financials (printed in the LA Times) correct?
9.) What plan is being put in place to turn this around?
10.) Why aren’t Moon and Dweezil involved in this process? Is the Zappa Family Trust deliberately excluding them? Why can’t (or won’t) Ahmet and Diva modify the terms of the Zappa Family Trust?

CHAPTER 4: IDEAS

Whew! Now let’s try to fix this.

Here are some ideas for The Zappa Family Trust (Ahmet and Diva specifically) —

1.) Hand over control of the Zappa Family Trust to a outside entity, a professional organization that has a track record and expertise with running the business of a trust for the benefit of the brand and its beneficiaries. See Wall Street Journal.
2.) Find some investors who can put together $5.5 Million, buy the house, and open “The Frank Zappa Museum and School of Music.” (P.S., before you say it: We can’t give up on this great idea because of something as petty as parking inconveniences. Welcome to the rest of Los Angeles!)
3.) Politely suggest to Alex Winter that his fundraiser money and profits should go to the Zappa Family Trust, and that the family should make the film, not him. For extra credit, publish his response.
4.) Take the house off the market right away and start a new campaign: every high-profile musician who got their start in Frank’s band, or claims he / she is a devout fan of FZ should pool their extra cash to buy the house… and open The Frank Zappa Museum and School of Music. Steve Vai, Dream Theater, Alice Cooper, and Matt Groening can all be founders. I’ll take a chance and say they’ve got enough cash between them. Is it really THAT crazy of an idea? Is it not the least we can do, after all that Frank did?

I suspect that some family members of Frank Zappa are so close to the situation, have such a personal attachment (and maybe negative memories), or are so exhausted from the drama and fighting — that they are overlooking the house’s greater historical significance. Frank Zappa has had a powerful and direct (yet mostly unacknowledged) influence on modern rock music. In this age of “everything is digitized” and “it’s the music that matters, not the house” we shouldn’t forget what it’s like to stand in the place that great things happened. Preserving historical sites is common practice. Independence Hall, Thomas Edison Winter Estate, even the Objectivists have preserved Ayn Rand’s writing desk at their headquarters. I have visited all of these and they left a visceral impression of “holy fucking shit, these incredible people really existed” that cannot be experienced through a digitized recording.

ZappaHouse_04

Imagine how many Frank Zappa pieces were composed in his home studio. All the famous tracks that were recorded there. All the personal performances captured. The stories that the FZ musicians could tell during a live broadcast. Think of the possibility of the next teenage Frank Zappa getting to visit (or study music in) that place and being inspired for a lifetime. So many documentary possibilities…

(Yes, I know — Frank Zappa said he did not want to be remembered for anything. But that’s not really up to him at this point.)

We should see past this moment, and realize that the Zappa Family Trust’s legal and financial abyss of the past 23 years will soon be forgotten by music historians. All of the mistakes can exist as a confusing paragraph in a book, and shared as little-known, darkly ironic facts on the Frank Zappa Home Studio tour.

OR… what if we wake up tomorrow and read in the LA Times that Justin Bieber has purchased The Utility Muffin Research Kitchen — and is tearing it down to build another McMansion?

Can’t we do something better? No?

8 thoughts on “Open Letter To The Zappa Family Trust

  1. I’m astonished that so many people allowed Gail to bully them into submission. I advised others to ignore her. They ignored my advice to their cost – several years of their lives wasted waiting for Gail to reply.
    Wanted to write to tell of my admiration for your wonderful animation of Frank. I think he would have loved it and would have invited you into his home to do further work.
    I also agree wholeheartedly with all your listed comments. Bravo.
    Pauline Butcher Bird

  2. Matt Groening loved Frank Zappa. He is also richer than all the kings of Europe, probably combined. I hope he buys the estate. $5.5 million is pocket change for him. If there’s anyone who could do this, it’s Matt.

  3. Carl, I loved your animation for many of the reasons that inspired you to create it.

    I too had my ZFT moment that made me feel like I was banging my head against a brick wall. My group recorded a cover of “Road Ladies” which was to be included on our album “Dances with Weasels”; my label provided a copy of the completed recording for review and permission, and we waited. And waited.
    I was warned that some artists had been asked to write out their arrangements for submission, which I thought was strange – we didn’t write out charts prior to recording. The song wasn’t that difficult, at least not for us.
    In the end, we received the same silence that you did, Carl. The months went by, and once the other tracks for the album were completed, there was no point in waiting any further – and so I decided to delete the track from the album lineup, and if permission were granted later, we’d make it available as a single.
    The track was submitted to the ZFT sometime in 1995 – as of the date of this writing (July 8, 2016), I haven’t heard anything. I’m thinking the answer was “no”. Oh, well. In other news …
    I like your idea of making the Zappa home and studio both a historic and an educational experience. I know that I would buy a ticket to have an opportunity to stand in the same space that so many great pieces of music were created, especially if all of the studio equipment was still in place, with maybe an engineer (perhaps Dweezil when he wasn’t on tour or recording?) providing a demonstration of how the music was captured onto tape or digital media – that would be so much better than just a static display of some non-operational gadgets gathering dust.
    Here’s hoping that your proposals gain some sympathetic ears – the ears of those who can give the word to get this project moving forward!
    Roland St.Germain

  4. I agree with everything Pauline said. Frank would have certainly loved your work. It’s unfortunate that no one discouraged you from contacting Gail. You woke the sleeping dragon, and likely could have left your animation of him running, as she apparently was unaware of it until you introduced yourself. With Ahmet as her appointed guard dog, the ban is likely still in place.
    Your proposal is brilliant. I hope it ends up as a museum, at least. I cannot imagine someone buying this fairly unattractive house without planning to raze it to the ground, which is a heartbreaking thought. Mainly because of the basement, where I spent most of my time when I lived there. It grew, and became Frank’s magical world. I’d hate to see it torn down, nor the contents sold off in some grotesque online garage sale, with the questionable Alex Winter filming it on his phone, as each treasured piece of memorabilia is yanked off the walls. “Gail’s Revenge”….is that going to be the title of this documentary from hell? It should be. I hope it never sees the light of day.
    Best of luck with this. I hope you can join forces with Arthur Rubin from Save the Zappa House, and anyone else with a like mind, and straighten out this epic mess. The Zappa offspring need to be relieved of this nightmare, and enjoy the fruits of their father’s labor….instead of some creepy lawyers and an alleged filmmaker who apparently sat at Gail’s bedside, convincing her that ANY of this other plan was a good idea, as she was dying. She was smart, but quite obviously out of her mind.
    I hope this works, and the kids can have some peace. They deserve it.
    Cheers,
    Lorraine Chamberlain
    AKA Pete

  5. Hi,
    Just read your letter and you actually foresaw the future – the house was eventually sold to non other than Lady Gaga. Who knows what happened with the equipment in the studio and with all the content in the Vaults? Who knows what the happy buyer got to keep and what was stored away in some warehouse, or even lost or was ruined during the moving process… I haven’t heard any update but the situation is really frustrating and sad…

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