Popular Music: Success Without Selling Your Soul
July 18, 2012
The co-writer of Darcy Farrow and the sole writer of Back on the Street Again has some observations.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I enjoyed reading your article on Amber Leigh. She seems to be a talented person and deserving of success. I think you're right about the need to focus, but it's easy to overemphasize the efforts of the artist herself when it's so often the other players on the team that make big things happen; not to mention the distribution machinery and the promotional budget.
As you know, I worked with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris in the early days of each of their careers. Linda never had to go begging for a deal, people fought and litigated over the right to put her in front of a major label microphone. She's a talented and genuine person, my favorite of all of them, but she never really had to lift the receiver to get things done in her career.
When Brian Ahern, who had great success with Anne Murray's early recordings (Snowbird) began to work with Emmylou Harris, he had no trouble getting Warner Brothers to give her the full treatment. Elvis Presley
kept a band of top players on retainer, and they were free to work on other recording projects in their off time. Emory Gordy Jr., Glen D. Hardin, James Burton, Ron Tut, all were playing behind Emmy before she sold a single record.
You really have to look behind the scene to see what makes a career work on the level of world class acclaim. It's not that the artists aren't deserving, it's just that so many are deserving and that it's only the few who have the major deal that get to see the light of day. A Taylor Swift doesn't come to the national attention without a huge marketing campaign, and a concerted, orchestrated ballet of effort between the record producers and the promoters, the agencies and managers. A look at the numbers would be very revealing.
Digital Music News describes Rihanna's recently-created Man Down, as "a big-budget, blockbuster-style blowout that remains unproven." The company has spent over one-million dollars for a single song, with expenditures for writers, producers, engineers, graphic designers, and promotion, the largest budget buster of all. I remember scandalous amounts of illicit substances and services, but I'm sure that sort of thing doesn't go on any more.
The article continues, "Actually, one of the biggest chunks goes to radio - or more specifically, buying a slot in the rotations of various conglomerates (whatever the kickback mechanism or influence vehicle). That validates information from earlier sources to Digital Music News, who note that getting mainstream radio rotation is virtually impossible these days without major label backing." http://www.digitalmusicnews.com/stories/063011song
Even then, the daylight can be very short. Think of Keir Dullea, in 2001 - A Space Odyssey, sitting in the pod outside the mother ship begging HAL to open the interlock, "Sorry Dave." Getting in can cost everything, artistic control, financial control, in a sense, one's soul. Still, a young person can risk and even part with her soul for a while and reunite later down the road having established a name that can provide for old age. Most of the names we know in the songwriter - folk realm established their credibility in the 60s, and are still making a good living. Even I get to coast on the small notoriety that efforts in those times has provided me.
My sense of things from this side of those great 60s it that the best course of action is to be an independent artist. One can have a perfectly satisfying career with a modest mailing list of people who value his work, and who buy the new CD or book and come out to listen when we come their way. I contend that it's the only sane thing to do, but I know that doesn't sound very exciting to those who think of success in larger terms. Wealth and fame are, of course, the two greatest impediments to enlightenment, but that didn't stop us from throwing ourselves into the fray back then.
Anyone who can play and sing as well as Amber does can make a great contribution to a community of folks who would support her on a respectable scale, I'm thinking of the Laurie Lewis level, not the Michael Jackson level. Most of our friends in the folk community don't have islands or personal amusement parks. Focus is important even when the evidence of your success is only visible to the few who know enough about what their listening to - to know how good it is. The great numbers of record buyers (or downloaders) do not. Don't get me started . . .