This Article Originally Published May 1999 by Doug Minnick
In accepting her Grammy this year, Sheryl Crow told of overhearing a conversation at a party the previous night in which someone said of her "She's just so much ...better now." This prompted Sheryl to thank her record label A&M for letting her develop as an artist. For letting her grow into the artist she had become.
What do you suppose she meant by this? That they gave her unlimited artistic freedom? That they gave her a million-dollar studio budget, some musicians, a limousine, a pat on the back, and told her to come back when she had finished her masterpiece? "Let us know when you've realized your artistic vision, Sheryl, then we'll make you a star."
Not exactly. What they did was take her album when she turned it in and threw it out. And for this she thanked them.
The first album you heard from Sheryl Crowthe one with "Leaving Las Vegas," All I Wanna Do," "Strong Enough," and all the rest, wasn't her first album at all. Her first try didn't make the cut. Not one song. And for this she thanked them.
Sheryl must think she's better now, too, or she wouldn't be thanking anyone.
Same story with Melissa Etheridge. First try went straight into the garbage. It was her second record that everyone heard. It happens all the time. It may not be entire albums that get trashed, often it may just mean getting sent back to write and record a few more songs looking for "the single."
When my lame band was struggling for riches and fame, we had it all figured out... and it was nothing like that. Some late-Seventies version of George Martin was going to come along, give us the keys to the studio, a limousine, pat us on the back, and make us all stars. Based, of course, on the sheer genius of our music. It's not as if we had decided we wouldn't let anyone tell us what to do, it just never occurred to us that after making us fabulously wealthy, the record company may want to have a little something to say about what kind of record we made. It was a long time before we realized how much there was to learnabout music and about the music business.
I wasn't there, but I'll bet when Sheryl and Melissa got the news, their reaction was probably not "oh thanks, I was hoping you would throw my album away!" There is usually a certain level of ...conflict, shall we say. Criticism is never easy to receive, as many TAXI members tell us all the time. Yet, there is always room for improvement. At least you should hope so. If not, your career is over.
Let's say you got a record deal tomorrow. Let's also say your first album then becomes a big hit. Your financial worries are over; your dreams are coming true. What are you going to do when it's time to make record Number Two?
You're going to try to make an even better record, of course, and you're not going to do it in a vacuum. There are always others who will have their opinionsproducers, collaborators, A&R folks, band members, label presidents, the promotion department and others. If you are able to listen objectively, many of these people may actually have good ideas. Part of your job as an artist is to separate the good from the bad, knowing when to fight and when to give it the old college try.
Some of this is about personal relationships. Nobody likes a jerk. A willingness to be a team player can win important allies. If you alienate the label president or the promotion department by being a stubborn prima donna, how hard do you think they're going to fight when some radio program director resists adding your record to their playlist?
Hey, I'm all for artistic integrity. The artists that are able to do something different, to break new ground, are often the ones that have the longest careers. OK not always, but often.
Ever check out one of those box sets from your favorite artists which contain all of the outtakes from previous albums? How many of you like the outtakes better than the songs that actually made the original record? Why do you think they were outtakes? Because nobodynobody is able to realize their greatness one hundred percent of the time. Mark McGwire doesn't hit 70 home runs every season, Richard Petty doesn't win every race, Francis Ford Coppola doesn't make "The Godfather" every time out.
The greatness that is achieved rarely comes without effort. Vincent Van Gogh did dozens of sketches and color tests before committing the final work to canvas. Dennis Rodman stays up all night in Las Vegas to reach the proper state of mind... (OK, bad example).
In spite of the stories we all hear about how a hit song "came to me in a dream" or "just poured out of me in ten minutes," those are the exceptions, not the rule. They just make better press. Most writers tell us of constant work and development; of always striving to make it a little better.
Every artist wants to create the perfect marriage of art and commerce. And it is the artist who recognizes his need for improvement and realizes her potential for growth who will succeed.