The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

31 July 2004

Gotta have pop

Phil Dennison on the marketing phenomenon that is Ashlee Simpson:

Through the clever management and marketing by her father, she's got a top-selling record; a record that's sold three times as many units than her more-famous sister has ever sold in a week. But who the hell was Ashlee Simpson a week ago? A year ago? Who the hell had ever heard of her? What has she done to EARN this?

That's what really gets to me, as a musician myself: What has she done to earn this? Has she spent years shopping her songwriting around to other artists trying to build a name? Has she had to build a reputation by playing every joint with a stage and a PA, performing for four people, the bartender and beer money? Has she had to pay real dues of any kind?

Nope — she's simply followed the path laid down by Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, and Britney and Christina, and Avril, and a million others just like them. (And arguably — well, maybe not so arguably — the Shangri-Las and Diane Renay and Leslie Gore, but still. Like I said, it's not like I have illusions about this.) Surround yourself with good management and good handlers, and present yourself as a pre-packaged brand, and you too can get a hit record.

Brook Benton spilled the beans forty-two years ago in "Hit Record":

People always ask me, "How do you make a hit record?"
And I tell them, "It's you, the public, who make the hit records."
But here's what I do:
Now, I get a little beat [cue drums]
And I get a little song [cue piano]
And I get a little group [cue "Yeah-Yeah" girls]
Then the band comes along [cue everybody else]
That's all, that's all, that's all, that's all,
That's all I need — to make a hit record.

Debbie Gibson didn't play any cheap dives in her formative years, but she did sing kid roles in musical theater, she made a couple of minor opera appearances, and she started writing songs at twelve; she wrote all ten tracks on her first album (Out of the Blue, 1987), coproduced a few, and produced one ("Foolish Beat," a #1 hit) herself. No slouch, the Debster.

The one thing Phil's Sixties examples have in common is that they all, due to the vagaries of fate, managed to connect with legendary producers. The Shangri-Las had issued a couple of flop singles before George "Shadow" Morton took up their cause; after Bob Crewe was called in to produce Diane Renay's last record for Atco, he signed her to a management contract and gave her the deluxe treatment; and Quincy Jones found Lesley Gore singing at a New York hotel, brought her to Mercury, and produced all her early hits.

Still, none of these stories are at all reminiscent of, say, the Golliwogs, a name inflicted by a record company upon Tommy Fogerty and the Blue Velvets, who spent a decade or so in various California musical backwaters before emerging from the swamp as Creedence Clearwater Revival. (And the first CCR single, you'll remember, was a reissue of a Golliwogs stiff: "Porterville".)

If I see a difference between Then and Now, it's this: Then, the record men were hoping to make money. Now, the record men are hoping to make more money than anyone has ever seen. The difference is more than quantitative. And as playlists tighten and consultants dictate and publicists shout from the rooftops, The Industry wants instant returns on its investments, and to today's J. Random Labelhead, a superstar is worth a hundred steady catalog sellers.

And finally, everyone should go track down Tiffany's 2000 album The Color of Silence, not just because it's good, which it is, but because it's actual evidence that teen-dream vocalists can produce something worthwhile — eventually.

Posted at 10:10 AM to Tongue and Groove

Phil sounds a little like he thinks hard work alone should open the doors. That's as silly as believing that talent alone is all it takes. Talent, hard work, and cold-eyed good judgment put together will take you a lot harder than talent and hard work.

Posted by: McGehee at 11:42 AM on 31 July 2004

Farther. "...will take you a lot farther..." Not harder.

Posted by: McGehee at 11:42 AM on 31 July 2004

Don't look at me. My eyes are apparently too warm, and my judgment too questionable, for any degree of success beyond this one. :)

Posted by: CGHill at 7:44 PM on 31 July 2004

Doesn't have to be your own judgment -- beyond that of finding a sufficiently cold-eyed person to advise you. In which case the talent and hard work would be involved in convincing said to apply his/her judgment on your behalf.

Posted by: McGehee at 3:33 PM on 1 August 2004

It's not that -- I don't think hard work is sufficient, but I do think it's necessary. Seeing the reward given (Is a #1 record a reward anymore? Was it ever?) without the hard work is galling.

Posted by: Phil at 7:06 AM on 2 August 2004

Well, when the doorkeepers are human beings, standards tend to be more flexible than they justifiably should. It sucks, but that's life.

Posted by: McGehee at 8:35 AM on 2 August 2004