Why Some Musicians Make It While Others Remain in the Shadows

Sting at Final Four JamFest

It was the beginning of the new millennium. I had just exited graduate school and saw my engagement unexpectedly collapse only to discover this mythical thing called time on my hands. Me and a handful of friends dove into the Atlanta music scene head first, especially the singer-songwriters coming out of Decatur’s Eddie’s Attic. John Mayer had just graduated the scene and was within a few months of blowing up into the pop-God we would come to know him as. Eddie’s Attic was this brewing caldron of talent back in those days. You could pop in on a Wednesday night to see Jennifer Nettles (before she knew where Sugarland was), the Indigo Girls, Shawn Mullins, Jump Little Children and lesser known talents like David Ryan Harris, Jennifer Daniels and Daniel Lee.

Sitting in that 185-person listening room, you could sense you were witnessing something special happening. You couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was or who would break free to be consumed by the fame monster, but you knew it was there. Selfishly, I had placed my bets on who I thought would make the next big Mayer-esque splash, but it turns out I was wrong. My betting tickets turned into little more than worthless paper, and in the years since a nagging question has been slowly eating away at me, “why do some artists make it while equally, if not more talented, artists never catch fire.” I’ve tried to answer that seemingly simple question countless times over the years, but always came to pitiful and unsatisfying conclusions. It took a film about background singers to finally give me closure.

When I was watching the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom this evening, I knew I had to write up a review on this fabulous film. The background singer is such an important element in the fabric of music history, and this fact had shockingly never occurred to me. When I heard the stories of Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Merry Clayton, I started piecing together whose voices actually constructed the classic songs you and I know and love. Simply put, it floored me. Hearing these voices, it was crystal clear to me that they all possessed the talent to become the next Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin. Most had tried to become the frontwoman, but circumstance ultimately pushed them back into the shadows. If these uber talented ladies couldn’t make it, women who rubbed elbows with the mega producers and sang with the biggest artists in music, what chance does your cousin have playing the local coffee house?

I’m not here to be a dream squasher of any budding musicians out there, but watching this talent squandered by the music industry was down right offensive. The film managed to wrangle Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder to give long, thoughtful interviews on some of the best background singers in the business, and they all thought every one of them should be a star in their own right. Great work by Morgan Neville to secure these key perspectives which helped make this film.

So what was it? What is the answer to the age old question? [Spoiler alert] Ego seems to play a big part of it which worked against a lot of the background singers. It takes a lot of inflated self-worth and general narcissism to bask in the spotlight and deal with the wave of attention that fame brings. Most of these ladies said they wanted it, but when you dug deeper you just didn’t see that killer instinct shining through. Its a shame, but understandable.

Bruce Springsteen contributed another key reason–the array of people behind the scenes that make an artist a star. From the album producer and the songwriters to the musical arrangement and the label pushing it onto radio, there are so many elements that have to synch up perfectly to make an artist catch fire. Most of them are outside of the control of the musician. They can fight hard, but ultimately others have to sell their dream and reveal their talent to the listening public.

For all the answers though, Sting said it best, “It’s also circumstance, luck, destiny. I don’t know what it is.” That’s really it in a nutshell, isn’t it? That nagging answer has been with me all along. That’s why its always felt so damn unsatisfying because its not fair. I see bands all the time that just aren’t good live yet their albums feign all sorts of talent and creative flair. I’ve always dubbed them “studio musicians” as in I’ll happily pick up their next album, but please don’t make me sit through their live show again. This is a clear case where finding the right producer to maximize their strengths and shield their weaknesses, coupled with a label who believes in them, birthed a star. So much of music these days is based on an image or a brand. If your peg doesn’t perfectly fit that customized hole, you’re going to have a hard time finding your audience.

In the end, 20 Feet From Stardom was a great film that music lovers should simply devour. Its rich in music history and makes you look at our favorite art under a fresh light. Not to mention, its conveniently streaming on Netflix. As to the larger question of why certain artists break and why some don’t, I’m left feeling a little empty inside. I think we all inherently like to believe there is justice in this world and with the right amount of hard work and with the blessing of enormous talent that anything is possible. At least that is the trite bag of goods our parents sold us when we were young. For better or worse, it turns out there is more to it than that.

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