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Lessons From "Legend": How Being "Artist Friendly" Can Hurt Record Sales

While reporting my recent L.A. Weekly cover story on Bob Marley's Legend, I spent a fair amount of time chatting with Dave Robinson, the founder of Stiff Records and the Island Records exec who put the compilation together. One of the many interesting things Robinson told me was that he thinks that it's possible that “Legend” wouldn't have been made under Marley's watch.

"Greatest-hits projects, the ones that really work, unfortunately work mainly because the people are dead," he said. "These kinds of artists, left to their own devices, would have a different greatest hits. A living artist will tell you that the greatest song he's ever written is the one he's last written."

Objectivity, he told me, is extremely important when putting together a hits compilation. No doubt. But, certainly, not just for hits compilations. And who's less objective than the artist?

Robinson's comments reminded me of a chat I had years ago with the head of a major independent record label (you all love the records they've released). A year prior, his label had released what I still believe to be one of the greatest album's in the label's catalog. But it didn't sell. At all. I mean that almost literally. So I asked him: what happened?

This label head was equally enthralled with the record and was incredibly disappointed in its abysmal sales numbers. He credited the commercial failure of the album to the opening track, selected by the band, the saddest of sad bastard music ever cut to tape – not indicative of the rest of the album, and at more than four minutes, a burden to suffer through. He thinks using the track to introduce listeners and critics to the band's sound (this was their debut) derailed the LP. I think he has a point.

“You know,” Chris Blackwell, Island's founder, told me, “how one track runs into another track is very important to an album.”

So true.

There are record labels at which the aforementioned artist would have been overruled, and the track listing would be sequenced to maximize commercial interests (and, considering that I skip said track every time, perhaps listener interests as well). But at this artist-friendly label, the artist was given the last call, and, if you believe the executive who knows how the business works, cost the label and artist a lot of cash. It's also cost potential fans an enjoyable listen.

Who has won by being artist-friendly here?

The music industry is a business. There's no shame in that. Artists who don't want to think about money and recouping the expense of recording and releasing an album are in luck, because they can play their nylon string guitars for their friends and not worry about money at all.

But artists who wish to reach a large audience would do well to remember that, while their gifts may lie in writing songs, others may excel in monetizing those songs, and ensuring that future records can be made.

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