It used to incredibly difficult to become a successful musician. Before the days of bedroom recording and social media demos, successful bands were signed up to a record label, who would not only distribute records but organise gigs, merchandise and media appearances too. This also meant that someone had to think that the band in question would be a money maker, taking into account image, musical talent and of course appeal.
Looking back at some of the biggest names in music, it’s quite easy to assume that a raw talent like Elton John or Adele was instantly welcomed to the fold, their music selling power so obvious from the word go. In fact, the complete opposite is true for a lot of bands and musicians who almost didn’t make it to stardom.
If you don’t know who the Beatles are, we suggest you stop reading this and go and find out. Breaking multiple records for album sales and pretty much transforming pop and the music industry, the Liverpool foursome began life playing bars and clubs in Liverpool and the North of England, and notably Hamburg, performing as residents in the city’s red light area. Although they formed in 1960, it would be almost 3 years before Brian Epstein would spot them and sign them to EMI. The years that followed included several movies, endless TV appearances, multiple awards and platinum records.
This was also the dawn of another phenomenon in the music industry: band merchandise. It started with T-shirts, but as the 1970s wore on, merchandise began a real money-spinner, including mugs, badges and guitar picks. Today the industry is bigger and broader than ever, with bands now selling things like stuffed animals, lighters and cigarette papers with their names on. High profile music acts even have games based on them, the Beatles; along with the likes of Elvis and Michael Jackson, have their own online slots.
Record companies like the Beatles’ first label EMI, as well as Universal, Sony and Warner Brothers ruled the roost way before the independents like Capitol came along and changed the relationship between musicians and executives. Recording music wasn’t at all accessible and equipment was infinitely more expensive than it is now, so time spent using mixers, microphones and instruments cost more too. This mixed with the investment needed to press a record and ship to shops across the world in some cases makes the 79p we used to pay to Apple’s overhead-free iTunes store before streaming arrived frankly extortionate. There was a risk that a record would lose money, making music a lot less disposable compared to the MacBook-produced music we hear today.
Debbie Harry and Blondie started life in a similar manner, except it took even longer for them to score a hit record, with 1978s Parallel Lines. Harry was 33, and Blondie had been touring and playing since 1974, just going to show how hard it was to get even a sniff of success.
If acts were seen as too much of a risk, then it either meant no record or severely constrained creative rights. If there were fears that an album just would sell, then an EP might be granted. Some bands were lucky if they got a single that wasn’t jammed onto a compilation or paired with another act as a B side.
Another remarkable effect of the fickle nature of music consumers is the slow rise to popularity. The slow burner isn’t as common now, but there are quite a few acts who just weren’t popular when they first started out, or needed a few albums to get going. Ask anyone to name a song by journey and it’s likely that they’ll name Don’t Stop Believin’, popularised recently by Glee, The Sopranos, and multiple adverts. The truth is that Don’t Stop Believin’ never made it to the number one spot and Journey had moderate album sales in their prime, with the majority of purchases and streams made after the song had a ‘rebirth’ on these TV shows.
Some bands have had an exceptionally slow rise to fame, or more annoyingly for them, sell more albums after death. It’s estimated that Back to Black sold 1.7 million copies in the year after Amy Winehouse died in 2011, an album that had sold a few hundred thousand while she was still alive. Amy Winehouse is a good example of the slow rise to superstardom getting a boost by death. Eva Cassidy, who is best known for her version of somewhere over the rainbow, was barely known outside of her native Washington DC before her death at 33 years old, which subsequently gave her a number 1 album and global recognition. Her estate is now worth over 500 times what it was before she passed away.
The key takeaway from these bands who took a while to get going is that they all displayed perseverance to eventually make it. The manufactured bands and talent show winners who ride formats to the top of the charts may strive hard, but it’s now so much easier to get your song heard by millions of people with services like Spotify making it quite simple to release a track. The only problem now is that musicians don’t receive nearly what they could have in 70s, 80s and 90s. Bands who were big in the late 2000s just don’t have the same staying power as they would have had when music was a lot more ‘cherished’. It’s hard to think of a Queen or Stone Roses being forgotten about to the level of the Kaiser Chiefs or Goldie Lookin’ Chain. Today, it’s less the slow rise to prominence and more the rapid decline from 15 minutes of fame.