A rare sighting of the recording artist Karl Blau playing on the steps of the Unknown Studio in Anacortes, Washington. From my archive.
The DVD of Neil Young making his “A Letter Home” at Third Man Records, included with the vinyl boxed set.
This photo comes from my research library, and my other life as a history researcher and oral historian. This is a picture of Harold Bock, a World War II Conscientious Objector. Harold was an activist, writer, life-long educator, and musician, an accomplished guitar player and singer. If you didn’t know this was a picture from the 1930s, you’d almost think it was a contemporary photo of a folk recording artist today. Harold could sing many Woody Guthrie songs from memory, and frequently did during conversation. I recorded several. He was the real deal, blending music and personal belief and action and humor. Harold passed away last summer.
No searching necessary. Sixto Rodriguez is on tour now…
Have you ever noticed that you’ve never seen an interview with any of the editors who turned down the first Harry Potter novel in 1995? There must be quite a number of those folks still around, if the legend is correct. J.K. Rowling was turned down by eight major publishing houses in England before Bloomsbury said yes to her vision of wizards and dark lords. And yet, even with all the success the Potter franchise has amassed over the years, we never hear from the people who said no—that no one would ever buy the first Potter book, let alone others. And forget movies and merch.
This, being another big anniversary year for the Beatles, have you also noticed that, somehow, the Beatles managed to get themselves famously turned down by Decca following their “test” session on New Years Day in 1962, and, like the Harry Potter rejections, no one wants to step forward and talk about it? Even now, during this time of wonder at all the Beatles achieved based on those first 15 shaky demo tracks, we’ve never heard from the guy who said the Beatles would never catch on. Come on, tell us about it!
The Decca case is more fun than the Rowling case because it seems like everyone connected to that historical recording session and everyone having anything to do with the Beatles’ rejection has found a way to go on record saying that they had nothing to do with the decision, or they weren’t actually in the room at the time, or they were too junior in the Decca machine to make any decisions. But someone at Decca was convinced that guitar “beat” bands were finished.
A few days ago, I was standing in line at a Starbucks and one of the customers ahead of me turned to ask me if I watched one of those talent-spotting TV shows. I forget the name of the show because I never watch TV, and I was annoyed being asked any questions while minding my own business in line. This person went on to tell me that one of the CDs in front of the pastry case had something to do with one of those shows. I noticed Ray LaMontagne’s latest CD was there, but Ray wasn’t the subject of this person’s interest because he hasn’t appeared on one of those TV shows. I wondered what made this person think I’d care.
Then it hit me: It’s scary for some people to listen to new artists without them being pre-selected, that even bad TV talent shows provide a welcome mechanism for making musical choices. It has nothing to do with the lofty and potentially paralytic investment process major corporations go through when deciding whether a new artist is worth bankrolling to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Being cautious in that world makes sense because jobs hang in the balance. But a form of this same paralysis reaches down to the ordinary person facing a decision about a new record by someone they’ve never heard of.
I have a friend who frequently reminds me that most people hate music, so deciding on their own what to listen to, especially if it’s new, is an impossible leap to make. I have another friend who says that most people “lock in” on the music they like by the time they’re 16, and after that never add any new artists to their playlists. The barriers most people face are self-imposed.
But the Potter and Decca blunders make me think this fear is even deeper. Behind every decision about something visible in our lives, like the music you love or the books you read, is a lingering social pressure that we experienced probably as children. Some forgotten vestigial shame from a time we chose to like something that our peers hated. A choice we made that didn’t meet with the approval of others. We liked something different—and we didn’t want to be different. Years later, such fears surface when we’re standing in places like the line at Starbucks, facing off on a handful of random CDs we could buy with our coffee. How can we pick new music without reopening old wounds?
It’s easy! Just pop up to Bandcamp and have a wander in their musical garden. Pick an artist and listen to some tracks. Most new artists have very low prices for downloads, and it’s just between you and the website. I like Bandcamp over some of the Internet radio websites because you can still listen to lots of new music, and Bandcamp passes along most of the money to the artists. Internet radio sites have a poor track record of paying artists real royalties. They brag that they pay millions, but the reality is that most artists see very little money (new artists get hit the hardest). I also like NoiseTrade, because it’s an artist-driven portal and because everything there is free. You can meet thousands of new bands for free. Of course, you can choose to tip the artists (if you’re feeling the love). Between these two sites, you can sample and collect a vast library of new music. You’ll even recognize their names when they travel through your area, and may take the chance to see them in person.
We’d like to think we could have seen the potential in Harry Potter. And probably everyone would like to think that if they had been in that Decca studio in 1962 and the young Beatles (George was still 19 years old) were standing in front of them, that they’d have made the right decision. But that kind of decision-making takes practice and courage. It’s not about what it takes to make the multi-billion-dollar decisions of big business. It’s about something more personal. It’s about overcoming fears that stretch back to when we were kids.
It’s just music. If you find something and you love it, that’s where the journey begins for you. Go ahead. Take some chances. Cultivate some guilty pleasures. Expand the soundtrack of your life. Do it today.