Industry fails the best musicians

Published on the Next Great Generation »

We’ve all witnessed frustrated yet gifted contestants get kicked out of TV talent shows on which the guy or girl with personality, fans and some guile — though not necessarily the better artist — goes on to take the top prize.

This non-correlation between talent and achievement doesn’t only apply in reality shows, but in the music industry at large. I’ve noticed that my favorite folk rock artists unwillingly follow the same frustrating trend, even though I find these little-known musicians way better than the Gagas and the Biebers.

Folk rock also happens to be one of the few genres that requires real talent to combine ethnic sound with recognizable rock elements. Folk rockers must be artful, savvy and possess distinct and unfailing vocals. But those who love the artistically glorious but commercially abortive folk rock scene might be wondering, where’s our audience? Isn’t their talent enough to bring in crowds?

Teddy Thompson. Photo by Martin Palmer.
The “New York Times” called artist Teddy Thompson “one of the most gifted singer-songwriters of his generation.” A descendant of folk rock nobility — Thompson’s folks (pun intended) are celebrated ‘70s musicians Richard andLinda Thompson — he has looks that can draw fans of both sexes, young and old, across cultures. Yet even after ten years in the business and five studio albums, he only has a meager thousand followers on Twitter today.

Patrick Park. Photo by Sherman W on Flickr.
In perhaps the same streak of talent and hampered success is Patrick Park, whose voice “recalls an older tradition of musicianship that translates across generations.” Despite a short stint contributing to “The O.C.” soundtracks, a contract with Hollywood Records and great reviews, his albums haven’t made it mainstream.

Ever heard of William Fitzsimmons? “The Guardian” described his record as “one hell of an album,” but right now, he is only as big as his beard and negatively compared to the more successful indie folk rock act Sufjan Stevens.

For these folk rockers, it’s not record labels that are to blame; rather, it’s the pop music world, in which they just can’t seem to find a place. “(The label) had no idea what to do with me…they were always trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” Park says. Thompson agrees: “Even for the people in the business who are the real music lovers, it’s really about putting things in the right boxes, and my style doesn’t fit into a box,” he said in the same “Times” article.

But if it’s the hybrid genre that’s holding them back, one has to wonder why folk rock greats like Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young and (if you agree) Ray LaMontagne maintained a huge following for so many years.

William Fitzsimmons. Photo by Yuhei Fujiwara
We can only guess, then, the reasons why these young, talented, folk rock musicians haven’t made it big: an unwelcoming market of mostly pop music consumers, their record labels’ lack of marketing and PR efforts and, maybe, because the personalities themselves ironically lack charisma, which can’t be taught. In other words, what they need is more than just a lucky horseshoe or Irish blood.

Malcolm Gladwell confirms that genius alone — and, in this case, musical prowess — doesn’t necessarily make one a winner. It starts with natural talent, then one lucky break after another, sustained discipline and hard work, a “cultural legacy” and the world’s support.

“We overlook just how large a role we play — and by ‘we’ I mean society — in determining who makes and who doesn’t,” writer Gladwell wrote in “Outliers,” a book that debunks fly-by theories of success.

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages today that determine success — the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history — with a society that provides opportunities for all,” Gladwell wrote.

Music fans among us cannot be spared the guilt of keeping ethnically rooted artistry like that of Thompson, Park and Fitzsimmons from blooming. Instead, we back variations of formulaic pop music by our zealous devotion to commercial achievers like Rihanna and Katy Perry without trying to explore indie labels or even our own community’s traditional tunes.

Music has become an integrated art form that gives premium to stage presence, packaging and performance, making us associate good music today with a seductive dances or outlandish costumes. But we also tend to forget that music is fundamentally auditive — that is, meant to be heard without our eyes playing a part.

If only we first listen to lesser-known artists whom we don’t see on TV and whose faces aren’t framed posters in record bars, I think we’ll find the kind of music that genuinely speaks to us as individuals simply by its pure form. This is how we help give such talents a fair chance, and, in turn, we discover the musical aesthetic that appeals not just to our senses but to our minds and souls, free from dictates of popular opinion. This is how I found folk rock. #