Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver is a mild-mannered hipster heartthrob who crafts his rustic, emotionally fragile-seeming folk-rock in a secluded Wisconsin cabin. Charles Manson is a babbling former cult leader rotting away in a California state prison for an infamous murder spree. According to Pandora Internet Radio, they’re a lot alike.
Pandora, of course, is a pioneering music streaming type that boasts some 200 million users. You set up Pandora “stations” based on artists or songs you like, and Pandora does the rest, populating the station you’ve created with artists who have similar sounds. If you set up a Bon Iver station, you will eventually hear one of Manson’s gruff, atonal songs, “People Say I’m No Good” (a title that makes quite the understatement), slither its way out of the speakers.
Manson was an amateur singer/songwriter who got frustratingly close to the ’60s West Coast rock vanguard and, as we’ll discuss in a minute, much of his material has long been available. But it’s vexing that Pandora plays would think users would want to hear his songs based on the approval the listener has given a man who serenades yoga classes.
How did Charles Manson get onto Pandora? Did a committee in a room somewhere debate the decision? Manson tracks can also be heard on Spotify and Rdio. These streaming sites are redefining the pastime of listening to music and in doing so they were delivering a convicted killer with megalomaniac tendencies more listeners than he could have ever received before. Any qualms about that? We set out for answers.
But first, Manson’s discography. American’s least favorite houseguest recorded a few demos during the years he spent hoofing around California with a guitar on his back. Even though he made a few industry connections while sharing his growing harem of confused drop-outs with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, Manson never got to put out a record –that is, until he became the most famous criminal.
As he was on trial for what was then the most shocking set of murders anyone had ever seen, a music industry contact named Phil Kaufman with whom Manson had done time in the early ’60s, got ahold of his self-recorded demos and compiled them onto a 14-track, 30-minute record. (Fun historical aside: Kaufman went on to a long career as a roadie and was part of the posse that stole Gram Parson’s body and immolated it in the Joshua Tree National Park.) ESP-Disk, a New York City label specializing in free jazz and underground rock, released the album under the title Lie: The Love and Terror Cult. At the time, label founder Bernard Stollmam told The New York Times, “I think [Manson] should be examined, in the same way we examined Hitler. Nobody objects to Mein Kampf being published.”
The songs were scratchy imitations of the anti-establishment flower-children music of the day, even if they were a little harsher than the ones Judy Collins was recording. According to District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s bestseller Helter Skelter, the prosecution enlisted a folk music expert to analyze Manson’s songs. “Somewhere along the line, Manson picked up a pretty good guitar beat,” he reported. “Nothing original about the music. But the lyrics are something else. They contain an amazing amount of hostility (‘you’ll get yours yet,’ etc.). This is rare in folk songs, except in the old murder ballads, but even there it is always in the past tense … Very spooky”
After ESP folded in 1974, Lie was periodically out of print but available on bootleg. Meanwhile, low-quality prison recordings permeated the darker corners of record collecting and tape trading cultures, supposedly originating from places like San Quinten and Folsom prisons. Every now and then, a fringe label somehow got ahold of one and received a bit of press for releasing it. (Manson Direct, a site run by his two most reliable outside-world contacts has a list.) Compilations of songs, spoken-word poetry, phone interviews, diatribes, guitar tuning, tape hiss and occasional coughing made their way through double-cassette decks and CD burners, as Manson remained the object of both morbid fascination and a small truther-like movement that believes he is innocent and was defamed by The Establishment to be held up as an example of what happens when you take LSD and obsess over The Beatles.
Today, Manson’s stuff is more available than ever. In 2005, ESP-Disk was revived from the massive graveyard of defunct labels and resumed issuing Lie, as a deluxe edition with bonus tracks (because every album released from 1965 to 1993 must, at least once, be rereleased as a deluxe edition with bonus tracks). Then, Magic Bullet Records, a real record label (home to All-American Rejects and Boy Sets Fire) started releasing Manson’s prison output. Two albums have come out so far, with two more supposedly to come. As for the style and quality of Manson’s prison work? L.A. Weekly‘s Paul T. Bradley, one of the few critics to evaluate a piece of it, dubbed it “a rudderless stream of poorly recorded brain diarrhea set to guitar-strumming.”
And whereas Manson’s songs were once only available through record shows, edgy urban CD stores and seedy friends with tape trading connections, the ones released by competent labels are now on iTunes, Amazon, Spodify, Rdio and Pandora–the same places where kids stream One Direction tracks, moms buy Adele songs and homebody freelance writers search for something like Bon Iver.
We reached out to a few of these sites to ask how they wound up housing the most infamous, disturbing and possibly tasteless discography out there. (Think about it. Can you name any musical output as off-putting because of who recorded it? Maybe Jack Kevorkian’s jazz albums if you are hardcore Catholic.) Was there any debate?
Spotify spokesperson Graham James told us there is a vetting process for songs to be uploaded to the service, but Manson’s work “did not raise any red flags.” As for what would get a song excluded from Spotify, he said, “We don’t have any public info on that. Sorry.”
Michael Addicott, manager of curation for Pandora said the decision to add any artist is well considered. “We build the collection from an inclusive point of view, considering long-term cultural and historical perspectives in addition to current popularity,” he said. “In the specific case of Charles Manson’s music, it is historically relevant and we collect music like this deliberately.”
“We would love to vet content before we feature it, but we can’t,” said Shana Fong, a spokesperson for Rdio. The service started just three years ago and has amassed a library of 20 million songs. At that pace, the company can’t stop to review tracks.
Fong was very helpful in explaining how songs make it onto streaming services. Rdio and its competitors didn’t seek out Manson or even deal directly with one of his labels. While behemoths like Sony and Universal have armies of lawyers to negotiate with streaming services, smaller labels turn to a third party distributor. The Orchard, which specializes in spreading the music of indie labels online, has distribution rights to 7.5 million songs, including the entire catalogs of ESP and Magic Bullet, and Rdio picked up its offerings wholesale.
A song is recorded by an artist and released by a label. That label enters a deal with a distribution company which bargains with a streaming service for its entire load, and that is how any unsuspecting patron of these streaming services can wind up accidentally listening to Charles Manson over breakfast one morning.
The Magic Bullet label didn’t respond to my interview requests, so questions regarding whether or not this is making any money for them (and Manson) went unanswered, but it’s doubtful. Proceeds from Lie, and covers of its songs, have long been sucked up by a $500,000 wrongful death lawsuit won by the family of murder victim Wojciech Frykowski. Each copy of Lie is printed with a disclaimer insisting that the money that would go to the artist goes to the family of a victim (as per the “Son of Sam law”). When, at the near height of their popularity, Guns ‘N Roses harvested outrage by recording a Manson cover, all it did was contribute to the checking account of some people in Poland. (Besides, no one makes any money on Pandora.)
Even if Manson isn’t adding to his commissary account from his work is available to a degree that was unimaginable 15 years ago. It’s still creepy to see it shoved alongside every legend, nobody, one-hit wonder, side project and minor genre player who ever put out an album. It used to be that stocking a Manson album was a sign you were a proud deviant. But now we’re living in a post-DJ, post-record store cultural landscape where there is no real human behind anything.
When Manson plays on the Bon Iver station, it is like Pandora had just failed the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner. There is no DJ, just a system of soulless algorithms that rely on superficial descriptive tags and can’t tell the difference between a Grammy-winning Starbucks favorite and walking symbol of drug-addled depravity. To Pandora, they’re just two artists who have “mellow rock instrumentation,” “folk influences,” and “mild rhythmic syncopation.”