As music artists seek notice from fans and the industry, it’s vital to observe a key factor concerning peoples’ ability to recognize talent, even greatness.
You may have already read about the social experiment the Washington Post conducted two years ago with world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell. It was actually Bell’s idea to perform undercover as a street musician for a day at a Washington Metro station. What many don’t know is that the Gene Weingarten story earned a Pulitzer Prize that year for feature writing. What many do recall is the fact that a venerated violinist went virtually unnoticed, unappreciated and unrecognized.
What the public took away from the story — rightly so — is the fact that people pass up life’s jewels, even when they’re right before their, well, ears. But this tale holds a much greater meaning for artists of all stripes.
Center stage for artists sits the concept of context. What does that mean? For decades, I’ve observed that people, music industry pros included, often don’t recognize greatness in its raw form. When it comes to music, listeners need to have a song or an album framed for them in a validated form.
There are many examples, but here’s a case in point from my own experience as a songwriter and recording artist. In the late 1980’s, I began a ten-year stint as a Nashville songwriter. The first two years were rough, but when I got the hang of it my material and demos became street-ready, as they say. A number of those demos were sung by Trisha Yearwood. Then, she was known as Trisha Latham (her name from her first marriage), and was unsigned and unknown. The first demo I heard her sing on left me slack-jawed, and not just because of the material, which did eventually get signed to what was then PolyGram. By the time she hit the first chorus, I knew I was hearing a major star in the making.
But here’s the point. As I played those demos for music publishers and A&R execs, it amazed me that not a one commented on the singer. So I started what was to become an experiment of my own. I’d ask, “so what do you think of the singer?” They’d invariably say, “who is she?,” to which I’d reply, “Trisha Latham.” Then, they’d say something like “never heard of her,” and that was the end of it.
The reason they never heard of Trisha is because she was being developed privately through Garth Brooks’ camp. A&R in any music town expect to see upcoming talent in the clubs, so the assumption (as it was with Trisha) is: “if I don’t know her, she can’t be any good.” Again, it’s all about context.
Several months later, Trisha’s first single – “She’s in Love with the Boy” — came out, making Music City history for duration at number one for a female artist. By then, she had returned to her maiden name, Yearwood. I made the rounds of many of the same offices again, playing those Trisha-sung demos. This time, by the third note, I’d hear, “That’s Trisha Yearwood!,” to which I’d reply, “yeah, so where were you last year?”
Of course, we’ve all heard the stories of how most famous artists have their walls lined with record-label rejection letters, and, if you’ve paid some dues in the biz, you likely have a collection of your own.
So what’s the point of all of this? People – pedestrians and pros alike – miss greatness all the time. Even in the biz, there aren’t that many John Hammonds, Ahmet Erteguns and Russell Simmonses. If it were that easy to spot top talent, A&R would be a cinch.
So how is this study of use to the music artist? Simply as a point of reference, to understand why some audiences, some pros have been missing your best stuff. Maybe you’ll never write or produce a truly great song. But, if you work hard for a long, long time, chances are very good that you will come up with one, maybe more. For that reason, it’s vital to be armed with such perspective.