One of the funniest memoirs of a music career is So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘N Roll Star by Jacob Slichter, drummer for Semisonic . According to that memoir, the fate of bands and musicians at MCA Records for a period of some years was the opinion of one of the young sons of a label executive. When one thinks of some of the notable acts of MCA during this particular time, not only Semisonic but also Shaggy and the New Radicals (all of whom are mentioned in the book), the fact that the promotion they received and the push they got from their label, which held a great degree of power and authority over these bands, was dependent on the goodwill and opinion of a kid was something quite horrifying to imagine. It would be no surprise at all if there was a lot of bad blood from musicians towards someone with that kind of power who had no business making decisions of such importance in the lives of hardworking musicians.
This is not an isolated occurrence either. One time I was flying across the United States as college student between my family’s home in Tampa and where I was attending college in Southern California , and I happened to find myself sitting next to someone who considered himself to be an A&R guy, someone who knew something about the sorts of songs that would likely catch fire on the radio. As a radio DJ myself, although I did not tell him this , I listened politely to his rant. This particular gentleman commented that one of the rap acts on the radio, Everlast, shouldn’t have released “Black Jesus” as the first single from his third solo album because it lacked the sort of pop hook to be a popular song. The song itself was moderately popular, a Top 40 hit in the UK, a top 20 hit on the alternative charts, and overall it ranks as his third most popular single as a solo artist after “Ends” and the monster hit “What It’s Like,” discounting his collaboration with Santana, “Put Your Lights On,” which was a hit on about the same level as “Black Jesus.” No one criticized Everlast for having a minor hit collaboration with Santana, though, and it is not clear what song off of the gold-selling album Eat At Whitey’s would have been more catchy and a bigger hit than “Black Jesus” was anyway. I liked the song well, enough, and it was moderately catchy, even if it was certainly a pretty heavy song. Perhaps I have more tolerance for heavy songs than most, but I kept my opinion to myself as I did not feel it would be productive to get into an argument with someone who was trying to make a point and not listening to what others had to say.
There is a whole family of songs that detail the troubled relationship between bands and their music labels, and a whole body of literature dealing with the subject as well . Even a fairly brief recounting of some of the more prominent songs ought to make it clear that there is a substantial hit market for songs that were written in response to label demands. For example, Australian duo Savage Garden was told to go write a song just like “Truly, Madly, Deeply” because their sophomore album was thought to lack a hit on the same level, and they came up with “I Knew I Loved You,” which was certainly a smash hit, if not quite in line with the rest of the material the song had released, which was a bit more uptempo on their second album. Lisa Loeb, while recording her sophomore album, was told that the album lacked a hit, and she crafted the clever “I Do,” which appeared on the surface to be a song about a dysfunctional romantic relationship and ended up being a song about the dysfunctional relationship between a talented recording artist and a label that doesn’t hear a hit on an album. To Loeb’s credit, one of the other songs on the album was a minor hit as well, the upbeat and catchy “Let’s Forget About It,” which likely was the song that she could hear as a hit with her well-tuned ears. “I Do,” of course, ended up being an even bigger hit. Some bands have even stopped recording an album when they record a song that they and others believe will be a hit. Filter did that with their top 20 hit “Take A Picture,” Shawn Colvin did precisely that with her breakthrough hit “Sunny Came Home,” Train did that with the title track on their sophomore album “Drops Of Jupiter.” And so it goes. These are all artists whose albums were largely recorded when they made songs that they thought were going to be a hit, even if the bands themselves did not make every one of their songs such an obvious attempt for pop chart domination.
What is it that record labels and artists were fighting over? Record labels themselves, with rare exceptions (Herb Alpert comes to mind) are made up of people who cannot make good music themselves, but who wish to profit off of the creative power of others who do not often possess by their own lights a great deal of business expertise. On the one side there are artists in search of a decent and honorable lifestyle, and on the other side there is the need of material to market and sell to make a decent and honorable lifestyle without having a great deal of creativity. Art and commerce do not make ideal partners. Artists, and I speak as one here, tend to be people who are somewhat prickly about being true to themselves and their own muses. Such people often take criticism of works very personally, as well we ought considering how close and personal those works are. Yet in order to make a living through one’s art, one has to find an audience and likely a market, and that means having an attentiveness to the needs and concerns and interests of others. It is hard to be true to oneself and simultaneously attentive to others, and it should come as little surprise that the music industry should be so full of such difficulty in this difficult tension.
What does it mean for us, though? Most of us are not the sort of people who are likely to ever achieve a great deal of fame or profit in our artistic endeavors. If we are fortunate, we have a few friends or family members who compliment us on our attractiveness when we post our selfies online, or who encourage us in our singing or writing or other artistic endeavors, who serve as that small and loyal audience that we can rely on to give honest and kind feedback to what we have created, and who can be a sounding board as we wrestle with our artistic vision and our creative ambitions. The tension between the self and others is one we all have to wrestle with in our own ways. Do we hole ourselves away from friends and family and roommates because we have books to write and blogs to read? Do we try to listen to others and their concerns and their perspectives so as to enrich our own and the art we create out of the fermenting influence of perspectives and stories other than those of our own that we know so well? Do we seek to make our works accessible on some fashion to others, so that we may reach them where they are and help move them along in a direction that makes them more sensitive to the promptings of God above and of human beings around them? Whether we look at our own marketing efforts, our own writings, our own public speaking, our personal evangelism or whatever other activity we are involved in, we are faced with the same dilemma in that we can only speak or write or create out of our own hearts and minds, and yet that message must be be understood and acted upon by others whom we have no power over except the subtle and indirect power of influence. In the end, we return to the problems of communication that fill our lives, the struggle to understand and make ourselves understood.
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