What makes a musical act stand the test of time? Fashions and styles come and go, but some acts stick around forever. Why?
Let’s take the Doors. They only had 3 Top Ten hits: “Light My Fire,” “Hello, I Love You,” and their (surprise) most performed song, “Touch Me.” Their songs, images, logo, and recordings are all still ubiquitous, woven through the fabric of our culture and daily lives in T-shirts, videogames, films, TV shows and sporting events.
Is it because of Jim Morrison’s premature death? Some sort of lingering fascination with what might have actually happened? Is it because the group wrote, sang and played better than their peers? Was the music “ahead of its time,” did it have a certain timeless to it?
When you compare the Doors to other groups of the era, why have they outlasted so many of their contemporaries even though they haven’t been a real group for 50 years? Compared with the Doors’ 3 Top Ten hits, check out the corresponding hit counts for these acts who were also prominent in the 60’s and 70’s:
Three Dog Night (11)
The Association (5)
The Carpenters (12)
The Lovin’ Spoonful (7)
The Rascals (6)
Simon and Garfunkel (8)
Tommy James and the Shondells (8)
The Turtles (5)
Sly and the Family Stone (5)
Hell, even Gilbert O’Sullivan had 3 Top Ten hits, same as the Doors. And my guess (no science here) is that all of the above groups put together don’t sell as much merch today or get listened to as much by as broad a demographic as the Doors still do.
Now you might argue that a group like the Doors treaded new and different ground, but I would argue that Sly and the Family Stone or Simon and Garfunkel had an equally significant cultural impact. I’d even argue that in their own way, Sonny and Cher (5 hits) had as much of an impact on American society in the late 60’s and early 70’s as the Doors did.
If you go down the road of song craftsmanship you also come to something of a dead end. There aren’t many better songwriters than Paul Simon. And Three Dog Night recorded a huge number of songs by the best writers of the last 100 years: “One” by Harry Nilsson, “Eli’s Coming” by Laura Nyro, “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” by Randy Newman, “Joy To the World” by Hoyt Axton, and “An Old Fashioned Love Song” by Paul Williams. There are no second-rate songs in their oeuvre.
Looking at the question of did an act have better promotion and “Did they have a little help?” might bring you to Tommy James and Roulette Records. It’s possible (!) that some DJs might not have wanted to get on the bad side of some of Morris Levy’s friends and just went ahead and played the damn records. But you can’t take away the fact that Ritchie Cordell wrote a great song in any universe for the group, “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
So clearly there are a lot of factors to be explored in career legacy and I’d like to throw in just one more. Obviously, I’m not unbiased here, and don’t mind taking a bow every now and then, but I think that catalog management (from both the publisher and the legacy brand manager, thanks Jeff!) has to come into play. Yes, my company manages song catalogs, and I think quality administration makes a huge difference in earnings and legacy.
Songs that have been bought and sold and aggregated into tranche-like financial commodities often end up at big multi-national publishers that have millions of songs. It’s likely that only a few of the “music people” at these companies even know or have ever even heard the songs they control, and the cultural context in which they belong or would know the difference between “fluff” and “gravitas.” People straight out of college (or not) quoting for licenses of the songs by Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, or Paul Williams might not have even heard of these folks.
Often, catalogs go into an administrative black hole based on the seductiveness of advances, and not into deals based upon the care, reverence, and diligence that not only maintains but also re-focuses popular culture on a song. It’s the difference between a corporate automaton not caring about whether the conglomerate recoups its $500,000 versus being administered by someone who is passionate about the artist’s legacy. It’s the difference between making quarterly numbers and building long-term stature. I like to think what my company does makes a difference.