A. Compean asks:
I have a question about selling an artist. What are the main aspects that the audience wants? Of course good music is key, but with so many bands and artists that have "staying power", how would you make an artist stand out among others?
I began my career in the mail room of the William Morris agency in 1961. Shortly into my tenure as an agent trainee, I was assigned to intern on the staff of Colonel Tom Parker, the legendary manager of Elvis Presley. The Colonel maintained that the object of personal management was to build duration into the act. Considering the abiding popularity of Elvis and his music that goal was certainly accomplished in the case of the King of Rock & Roll. His fans remain loyal to this day.
This abiding loyalty is part of the enduring legacy of one of the greatest live performers of all time. Elvis was a student of the blues and gospel music. The blending of these two genres was originally presented by the great black artists who became the founding fathers of Rock & Roll. Little Richard, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry created the elements that brought music with a beat to prominence in the fifties. Elvis, Bill Haley and Buddy Holly emulated their unique style.
The success of all of these great artists can be attributed to a number of specific qualities they were able to demonstrate throughout their careers. The singular most important ingredient was extraordinary material. As the old lyric goes, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." In this context "swing" means that magical, indescribable something that makes a song appealing in the first place. When a song has "it" we all want to hear it again and that is what makes hits.
For artists to endure they must continuously add hit material to their repertoires. The most long lived careers are usually attributed to artists who write their own material. However, many successful singers rely on the vast songwriting and music publishing community for their songs. With millions of tunes to choose from, it is almost as difficult to "discover" a great new song as it is to write one.
Regardless of the source, a hit record begins with the right combination of melody, meter and message. The tune, the tempo and the tale must be carefully constructed by skilled craftsmen. Through a calculated blending of music and poetry the mathematics of the masses provides a unique thrill that humanity craves. Millions of fans constantly search the Internet in hopes of finding a song they love. When they do, the song is quickly shared by text and MP3 files.
The second most important attribute of enduring artists is "vocal chops." A great singing voice is a virtual necessity when it comes to attracting and maintaining a strong fan base. Each genre has its signature qualities when it comes to voice. A country artists may not share any similarities with a soul singer, but Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklyn are able to touch the hearts of millions of fans in totally different ways. The music of Frank Sinatra, Elvis and The Beatles relied heavily on strong vocal performances and they remain at the forefront of three different popular genres.
Charisma is another requisite aspect to adding staying power to the life of a musical attraction. Beauty, sex appeal, charm and personality are prime ingredients for attracting an audience. Sinatra was considered "dreamy" by his legions of "bobby-soxers" as his fans were known. Elvis was heavily criticized for being way too sexy for the fifties. Paul McCartney, dubbed the "cute" Beatle had millions of teen age girls crying to be with him in what was called "Beatlemania."
These specific qualities each provide some part of the over all package and it requires a careful cultivation of them all to create a star. Often, particular excellence in one or more of the primary ingredients can make up for a lack of talent in another area. Brittany Spears' beauty and performing skills eclipsed her singing ability. Beyonce Knowles , on the other hand, delivers a strong, sexy performance, a great voice, and movie star looks in a dazzling combination. Singing ability can out weigh most of the other requirements.
Every artists comes to the professional ranks with certain native abilities. Talent is measured by one's skill at presenting their assets in a balanced, harmonious and entertaining manner. Some of these ingredients are fixed and some are able to be enhanced through disciplined training. Virtuosity as a musician can contribute a lot to an artist's credibility and endurance in the competitive world of music. The greatest technicians engage their instruments incessantly.
Image and attitude are magnets that increase interest and inspire hero worship. When building an act, it is important for a performer to address all of these issues and work diligently on every aspect of their careers. On top of all these factors a comprehensive knowledge of the systems, mechanics, protocols and politics of show business are vital to long term survival. A clear vision defined by short and long term goals helps artists and managers make good diurnal choices.
All artists begin their careers at Rock Bottom and they strive to reach The Big Top. There is a natural resistance to their progress. The status-quo does not smile fondly on the new competitors. In my fifty year career in the postmodern record business, I have never met an artists who didn't think he was going all the way. Ninety-nine percent of them were wrong and these odds have not changed in The Music Renaissance. Easy access does not guarantee success.
Showbiz still remains the most competitive environment on the planet. There is one thing that magnifies the possibilities and reduces the odds of failure. That is the emotional commitment that some people bring to the pursuit of their dreams. A passionate dedication to one's art, an obsessive desire to achieve their goals, unbridled optimism and an aggressive work ethic can eclipse all the other ingredients. Very often the less talented person with more desire wins.