Dear Zappa Family Trust and The Internet,
What is THIS?!
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 ]
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
Not quite the response I was expecting! After the shock wore off, I wrote back:
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:
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?
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.
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?