Music loses its power when it has to compete. It’s that simple. You can’t fall in love with a song if you don’t have a chance to get lost in it. And I think music has lost a lot of its power since the proliferation of smart phones. What irony. We now have the perfect device and infrastructure to access just about every piece of recorded music the world has ever produced. And that same device has taken all of that music and made it background noise. Try a test: pick an album, put on your headphones, and see how far into it you get before you are interrupted.
I keep wondering about this. When was the last time an album came out that everyone had to hear? A record that everyone was talking about, and that made it into permanent rotation? A recording that created conversation, and sparked debate about where it sat in the hierarchy of whichever genre it was in?
I played Nick Drake for my daughter the other day. We were in a hotel room in Monterey, and it was raining. I made a Spotify mix of his whole catalog, and let it play while my daughter colored. A little later, she was dancing around the room, lost in the music. She had heard a particular track that she wanted me to find again. We sat there scrolling through the songs and playing a few seconds of each one, until she recognized the melody that struck her. It was “Three Hours,” a raga-esque folk song with an ominous energy from Five Leaves Left. She wanted to hear it over and over again, as she made up a dance to the song.
I sat watching her, mesmerized, and started thinking about poor old Nick. Here was a guy who put out the aforementioned Five Leaves Left at just 20 years old. It was clearly the work of a major talent, and an instant classic, but no one bought it. Nick went back into the studio and made another record, the stunning, orchestral Bryter Layter. Again, no sales. He was operating at the very top of his powers, making completely original, compelling work, and no one was listening.
Island Records believed in Nick, and even after two albums with virtually no sales, let him record another one – Pink Moon – arguably his masterpiece. (Can you imagine a record label today letting an artist record a third record after seeing such losses on the first two? Well, that’s what record companies used to do – develop artists.
Pink Moon sold even fewer copies than his previous records. Despondent and suffering from depression, Nick withdrew into himself and moved back home to Far Leys, Tanworth-inArden. In 1974 he committed suicide, believing he had completely failed as a recording artist.
Nick Drake’s music was eventually discovered, of course, and he is now recognized by serious music fans as one of the most important musical artists of the twentieth century. And I’m sure Island Records did quite well with his catalog over the years.
It strikes me that Nick Drake is sort of like any number of fledgling musical acts in this day and age. Records are now released into a void, with the hope of a viral YouTube video or some other internet sensation to push them into 140-character conversations that hopefully last more than a week. And most of it goes unheard. Unless it has a hook, a gimmick, a giant marketing campaign, or a product placement tie-in, a song has a hard row to hoe in 2014. I wonder if the next Nick Drake, or the next Leonard Cohen, or the next Warren Zevon has already made a few records and can’t figure out why no one is listening? Maybe they are already discouraged and thinking about trying something else entirely, or worse yet, trying to find that gimmick or hook or product placement idea that will generate some sort of audience.
I feel like more and more artists are slipping through the cracks of a culture that is inundated with an overabundance of chatter, distraction and over-stimulation. Did you hear Beck’s new record? Was it good? Better than Sea Change, or worse? Everyone listened to Sea Change. It was an important record at the time. Who listened to “Morning Phase” over and over? It seems like it came and went. Did it ever have the opportunity to get stuck in your head? Or was there just not enough time?
Next time you hear about a great record, try sitting down and listening to it all the way through, without interruption. Turn off your devices, lock the doors, do whatever it takes, but give the record a chance. It just might surprise you that music still does have power, if we only give it our full attention.
Taylor Goldsmith was born too late, that I am sure of. His band, Dawes, makes great music on mostly vintage instrum ents, and the songs hold up on any size stage – from an arena to a living room. They have backed up Jackson Browne and Robbie Robertson, and have even opened for Bob Dylan. They record to tape. If this were1974, they would sell lots of records, get hefty advances, sizable marketing campaigns and a five-record deal from a major label. (They would also probably get screwed out of most of their royalties, but that’s another story). They would be written about by important rock critics of the day, and would be on the radio enough to generate sales (by my guesstimate) of 500,000 to a million records each time out. They would have had big houses in Laurel Canyon, and led the lives of well-to-do rock stars like The Band. In fact, they would probably be a lot like Stillwater, the fictional band of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous –they could even make the cover of the Rolling Stone.
Dawes and its frontman Taylor Goldsmith, this issue’s interview subject, are among the lucky few. Deservedly so. Listening to Goldsmith’s songs is like curling up with a great book on a rainy day. And he gets better with every record. Dawes has found an audience, broken through and have already seen more success than Nick Drake ever dreamed of. I wonder how many artists out there aren’t as lucky? I wonder if our current musical landscape is creating more Nick Drakes – beautiful talent that can’t find an audience in a culture that cares less and less. I guess I’m saying that when you find a band or a song that catches your ear – give it a chance. Let it wash over you. Heck, make up a dance routine to it. Answer those texts later. This has been a public service announcement on behalf of all the best songs you’ve never heard.
– Sam Jones, January 2015