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Rock and roll musicians face an increasing problem with drugs

With musician deaths by overdose mounting, record labels and managers are trying to tackle the problem

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A record-label employee who lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side often spots musicians she knows from other parts of the country wandering around her block at night. These rock & roll tourists aren’t just there to check out the part of town where Rent is set; they’ve come for the block’s renowned curbside heroin trade. ”My neighbors and I joke that we don’t have to bother picking up the [paper] to see which bands are in town,” says the label staffer. ”We’re constantly running into them in front of our buildings, and they’re extremely nervous when we go up and say hello.”

Indeed, music-industry veterans are wondering if ”Where to Score” has become part of the typical tour itinerary. In cyclical pop-culture fashion, drugs — most notably heroin — have reemerged as almost a standard rite of passage in music circles. Since Kurt Cobain’s smack-fueled suicide two years ago, the rock world has been plagued by an alarmingly steady string of drug-related deaths. And near-fatal incidents are occurring with even greater frequency: The May 28 arrest of Depeche Mode frontman David Gahan for drug possession, after he apparently overdosed on cocaine and heroin, was a typical, almost routine, example.

Not routine are recent developments that indicate the industry’s legendary drug tolerance may be wearing thin. Last month, Stone Temple Pilots canceled a series of concerts, bluntly announcing that singer Scott Weiland ”has become unable to rehearse…due to his dependency on drugs.” And most significantly, on June 20, Michael Greene, president and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, will convene hundreds of executives and recording artists behind closed doors in L.A. The group hopes to agree upon practical procedures to keep industry folks from dropping like lab rats. This comes on the heels of a preliminary NARAS drug confab last December, assembled by Greene just after Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon died of a cocaine overdose. ”Record companies have to be willing to delay a record or a tour so that the artist can get treatment, realizing that it could cost them some money in the current quarter,” says Greene. ”I would like to see what Scott Weiland [now 28] is gonna write when he’s 35. I really would.”

Just say whoa. The overarching question behind such laudable sentiments is, Can NARAS, or the labels, get into the business of policing? Contrary to rumor, mandatory drug testing is not being seriously proposed. Unlike pro athletes, musicians are not corporate employees but independent contractors. And NARAS remains ”100 percent opposed to any Big Brother kind of approach,” Greene insists. ”You can’t make people go into treatment. You can create an environment in which they are not supplied with the money they buy their drugs with.”

Not so fast, says Pilots manager Steve Stewart. ”If band member A is a very productive, hardworking, drug-free person,” he says, ”but member B is the guy who’s the drug addict, does the label stop paying one fifth or one fourth of the royalties?” Adds John Caldwell, who served as the Pilots’ day-to-day management rep until last year, ”If a record company comes out and says, ‘We’re withholding royalties,’ I can tell you from my experiences that it would probably result more in a response of ‘F— you’ than ‘Okay, I’ve gotta get my s— together.”’