BY VIVIAN MCINERNY | OB BLOGGER
Writing a hit pop song was the best business plan Marv Ross never made.
In 1980, the Portland native wrote and recorded a catchy little original called Harden My Heart that helped Quarterflash land a deal with Geffen Records. The song, sung by his wife and band mate Rindy Ross, made the coveted Billboard Top 10. Their debut album sold over one million copies.
Ross still writes music but now he, like everyone from Lady Gaga to the unknown vocalist with a ukulele and a webcam, gives it away to sell it. It’s a crazy business model that works. People heard Katy Perry’s single Roar, for example, more than 192 million times on YouTube for absolutely free. If less than one percent of those free loaders plunk down money for the album, Prism goes platinum. In theory, the more you give, the more you get.
It’s kind of like The Secret of music sales.
Digital technology and the Internet make that model a necessity.
“Once you turn music into zeros and ones . . . it revolutionized the idea of ownership,” said Ross. “Trying to own information or trying to own art is in the past.”
For independent artists producing on a smaller scale, as Ross is doing these days, it’s relatively easy to make music available to the public. The hard part is getting them to hear it above the roar of the crowd.
“The amount of music out there is unbelievable,” said Ross. “I think the public is overwhelmed. I am.”
Ross once considered working with a type of song broker to market his tunes to other musicians but decided against it.
“I didn’t, luckily, need to financially,” he said. “Also we didn’t want to look back.”
Instead, he continues to challenge himself creatively, working on multiple projects through the years and experimenting with different styles and genres. In 1991, he formed The Trail Band to play period music in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail. The group still performs holiday music at several venues in Oregon each year, and has recorded 13 CDs donating a percentage of ticket and disc sales to a favorite nonprofit. Ross estimates Friends of the Children has benefited well over $250,000 to date. He also wrote a musical The Ghosts of Celio staged in Portland in 2007 and 2011. He’s working on a second. Earlier this fall, Ross released a Quarterflash album of all new songs called Love is a Road.
And, yes, he shared the title track for free via social media and the band’s official website.
Still, Harden My Heart and four other Top 40 hits Ross wrote decades earlier, continue to generate revenue for both Geffen Records and Ross. Geffen has publishing rights to those original recordings. Ross owns the copyrights to the songs themselves so earns money not only when the recordings play but also when other artists record his songs. That first hit single, for example, still gets occasional radio airtime, and has been used in theatrical, television and movie soundtracks.
"Because it is an iconic ‘80s sound," says Ross, "if they put that in the background you say, 'OK, now we’re in the ‘80s.'"
And that has to be music to his ears.
Vivian McInerny blogs on pop culture for Oregon Business
Ross photo credit: Owen Carey