Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why acts don't make it - the brutal truth

I was listening to an interesting programme about Judee Sill which is coming up in a couple of weeks on Radio 4. Sill made a couple of very good albums for Asylum in the early 70s. She had a song called "Jesus Was A Crossmaker" that was almost celebrated at the time. Celebrated, at least, among the people who might have watched "Old Grey Whistle Test" or read the "Melody Maker". Obviously not mass but better known than most things.

Sill died in 1979. There had been a lot of sadness in her life: drugs, accidents, abuse. When that happens there's always the chance that thirty-five years later Radio 4 will commission a programme about you called The Lost Genius Of Judee Sill.

But here's the thing. When acts make it big they take is as proof of their talent. They did it on their own.

When they don't make it big they always blame it on something or someone specific. The record company went out of business, the radio banned us, the drummer left, there was a strike, there was an oil crisis or a war, there was somebody who had it in for us.

If the artists don't make such a claim then enthusiasts have to make it for them. The story here is that Sill outed David Geffen, the boss of her record company, on-stage. In this narrative he had his revenge by dropping her from the label. I'm not sure the record business works like that. It's more likely that his company had put out the two albums they were obliged to release under the terms of Sill's contract, records which hadn't sold. Therefore they decided their money would be better spent on somebody else.

Simon Napier-Bell was talking the other night about how performers have a combination of self-belief and chronic insecurity which you would consider mad if you encountered it in a member of the public. This same egoism drives them to believe that the only thing standing between them and widespread acclaim is some kind of wicked plot. They would rather believe that somebody has been deliberately trying to do them down than to accept the truth, which is that we, the public, weren't really bothered one way or the other. We're the villains, not the mythical "suits" or the tin ears at radio. Our natural state is indifference. We bought some other music or we didn't buy any music at all. We forgot. We passed by on the other side. We have lives in which your career doesn't figure at all.

When we don't buy your record it's nothing to do with you. As the ex-girlfriend would say, it's not you; it's us. But whereas she would be saying it to spare your feelings we would say it because it's the brutal truth.

But performers, whose job is the winning of hearts, find this impossible to face.

Makes me think of the episode of Frasier called "The Focus Group" in which the star is so obsessed by the one listener who says that he doesn't like him that he follows him home to try to get an explanation. With disastrous results.


  1. If Judee Sill had been a success she probably wouldn't have even made it to 1979. Got to say 'Jesus Was a Crossmaker' is still a hell of a good song.

  2. There's definitely something in what you say, David. I recall interviewing the drummer from Canned Heat 25 years after Woodstock - on the way to play in a small pub's upstairs room in Belfast - and he was still convinced there had been some sort of conspiracy to keep them out of the film, that they had blown everybody else offstage, etc. These were views he held passionately and he believed that film 'plot' to have been responsible for their lack of major success thereafter.

    To be Devil's Advocate, one could certainly look - as the Canned Heat fellow must surely have done - at the huge effect the Woodstock film had on Alvin's Lee's career, or that of Richie Havens or one or two others. If Canned Heat had appeared on a popular bit of celluloid undoubtedly they'd have sold a few more records in the short term. But they still had a couple of hit singles and a good deal of public awareness entirely independent of the Woodstock film - people weren't being deprived of the only possible glimpse of what they had to offer. One feels, surely, that the purveyors of relentless boogie more or less found their level, reached the quantity of people interested enough in their thing to buy records or tickets.

    I understand from a mutual acquaintance that Leslie West also feels bitter about being left on the cutting room floor of the same film.

  3. I think there were quite a few acts who played at Woodstock who weren't in the film, mainly because they didn't think they were getting offered enough money or they thought it would interfere with some other deal. The Band, Creedence, the Grateful Dead were all there. Think the first bit of music in the movie is Canned Heat's "Going Up The Country". They don't appear, though. They were not a visual concept.

  4. “Our natural state is indifference. We bought some other music or we didn't buy any music at all”.

    Fully agree. It’s the way of the world. And isn’t it amazing how so many “were ahead of their time”.
    I gave up championing music I particularly like years ago. I’ll still say “Give this/that a listen if you get a minute.” Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Occasionally I mention Steely Dan to blank looks. And the days when folk would say, “Do you mean Steeleye Span,” are long gone, too.
    I’m the same, mostly. I will listen, but not forever. If dipping a toe doesn’t stir something, I’ll listen elsewhere. Often, though, no matter what the urging, I’ll wait and if whatever it is comes my way and I like it it fine. If not, oh well.
    Bad management, bad representation, bad promotion (as in none) are all in the mix somewhere, to varying degrees, all serving to smother the magic. But there’s more; there’s always more. And much if is as Mister H says.
    It’s highly likely that David Geffen decided not to renew Sill’s contract because she wasn’t selling; it may be that he took offence at what she’d said and that was a sort of final-nudge factor. But who knows? Invoking the Indifference Clause once again, the matter leaves me in shoulder-shrugging mode. I’ve never liked her music, but, so what. Some people did, but not enough to sell enough.
    She’s not alone.

  5. There is some merit to the "ahead of their time" argument, though I'm not sure it's the one people have in mind. Some things sound more right thirty years later than they ever sounded at the time. Nick Drake is a case in point. And the listener has changed as well. The music falls more sympathetically on an ear which has been softened up by something that's gone before. One thing I do know for certain is that nothing puts you off music more than people telling you that you absolutely have to hear it. It's like being introduced to a person and being told you'll get on like a house on fire. We prefer to be the judge of that.

  6. Anonymous9:20 am

    Hi David, thanks so much for posting this and for listening. The biggest frustration with making this doc was that it had to be 28 minutes long, lots of good detail and nuance got lost. It was definitely more complex that her outing him, of course. It must have been the culmination of a number of factors including her being released alongside some more easy to market artists who possibly got more promotion than she did. Also she was a 'tricky character' and said what she thought in interviews, so a loose cannon and too much trouble for the number of records she was selling. There was a nice anecdote about how the one massive billboard promoting her record came down pretty much the day after the outing comments so there must be some truth in that too. Don't cross David Geffen...! In all honesty I'm just glad I got to play half an hour of Judee Sill records on prime time Radio 4. Thanks again for listening - Ruth

  7. HI David
    I have a friend who has just "discovered" Judee Sill, after listening to a cd I played. Until I told him he didn't know how or when she died. Still relevant and current to him.
    I'm planning on introducing him to Big Star next. These band stories nearly always end in tears, but some great music along the way.

    John S