There are a number of key and central realities in the business of popular music. One is that there is no natural connection between what’s good and what sells. The stories of mediocre talents that became successful are legion and, conversely, the stories of great talents that never seem to find popular success are equally common. Bob Dylan never sold as well as the Monkees and The Grateful Dead had only one Number One record in the entirety of its career.
Another reality is that it is difficult to spot what will and what will not become popular. When Brian Epstein attempted to get the Beatles signed to a recording contract, every major label in England including Decca, Columbia, HMV, and EMI turned him down. Finally, George Martin, who had never produced a pop band, agreed to sign them to Parlophone, an EMI subsidiary that, at the time, focused on novelty and comedy records. Within a year and a half, the Beatles had three Number One hits and placed eight songs in England’s Top Twenty. After the Beatles had dominated the British charts for over a year, the American arm of EMI, Capitol Records, still wouldn’t release any of the Beatles’ singles or their first album in the US. Capitol representatives told George Martin that he simply “didn’t understand the American market.” Finally, Capitol released “I Want To Hold Your Hand” in January of 1964 and within a month it held the Number One spot on the U.S. charts. Two months later, the Beatles held all of the top five chart positions simultaneously.
Similarly, when John Hammond signed Bob Dylan to Columbia Records, Dylan was known as “Hammond’s Folly” at the label. Columbia had so little faith in Dylan’s ability to succeed that Hammond paid for the first recording session out of his own pocket.
When CBS Records approached MTV with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video in 1983, the network initially refused to air it because they didn’t believe their demographic would respond favorably to a video by a black artist. In retaliation, Walter Yetnikoff, the president of CBS Records, threatened to remove all videos by artists signed to CBS Records from MTV and release a public statement that MTV had refused to air a video by a black artist. MTV relented and “Billie Jean” became the biggest hit of the year and is generally regarded as the video that “made MTV a major player in popular music.”
“Picking winners” in the music business is, obviously, not a science. There are hundreds of stories like those above about opportunities missed and artists who became major stars after being initially rejected by supposedly knowledgeable people in the music business.
Artists become eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25 years after the release of their first record. Criteria include “the influence and significance of the artist’s contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll.” Obviously, some artists become inductees because they are enormously popular. Others are inducted in recognition of the importance of their contributions outside of their popularity. And, for some, it is both.
Your assignment is to select four contemporary artists relatively new to the world of popular success — or about to break into the realm of popular success — that you believe will be inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 25 or so years. You need to offer both your predictions and a critical defense of why you believe your predictions are likely to come true.
This assignment comes from an informal survey that I conducted for many years when INART 115 was taught in a classroom. I would ask the class to identify four or five of their favorite current recording artists that they believed would still be popular in five years. Around 80% of the artists who were selected had vanished from the charts sometime during the following year.
In this assignment, your critical judgment and reasoning are more important than your picks…only time will tell if you are good at picking winners. Your picks may be defended because you believe that their popularity will continue and you need to explain why you hold such an opinion. Your picks may also come from a belief in the importance of their contributions and, again, you need to critically defend your choices. Think of yourself as a Rolling Stone or Spin or Pitchfork reviewer looking into the crystal ball and trying to see the future. Jon Landau wrote a famous essay in Boston’s Real Paper in 1974 that heralded the coming of Bruce Springsteen this way:
“Last Thursday, at the Harvard Square theatre, I saw my rock and roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.”
Landau then went on to explain in detail why he believed Bruce Springsteen was “rock and roll future.” He was, of course, right and in the years since that essay he has become Bruce’s manager and one of the most powerful men in the music business.
Remember, the assignment is to select artists that are “contemporary artists relatively new to the world of popular success – or about to break into the realm of popular success.” U2, Tom Petty, Madonna, Radiohead, and Red Hot Chili Peppers don’t fit into the category of “artists relatively new to the world of popular success” (U2, Tom Petty, the Chili Peppers, and Madonna have already been inducted). More to the point would be artists like Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Li’l Wayne, Drake, Katy Perry, MGMT, LCD Soundsystem, Florence and the Machine, Kanye West, St. Vincent, Adele, Arcade Fire, Kings of Leon, and so on.
Try to see “rock and roll future” today like Jon Landau did back in 1974.
It is, of course, advisable to cite outside sources for support and frame your argument in the form of a formal essay (Look over “Presenting Arguments,” “ Tips On Writing Papers,” and “Critical Thinking” in the Syllabus).
PS:Your assignment is to select four contemporary artists relatively new to the world of popular success — or about to break into the realm of popular success — that you believe will be inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 25 or so years. You need to offer both your predictions and a critical defense of why you believe your predictions are likely to come true.