The Man Who Passed on Rush: Malcolm Gladwell Has a Lesson for You

Malcolm Gladwell, meet Larry Harris. You two might have a lot to talk about.

While wandering around Rush is a Band the other day I came across an old post about Larry Harris’ memoir, And Party Every Day, in which the former Casablanca Records executive talks about his big mistake in not signing Rush when he had the chance.

Rush had just released its debut album on its own Moon label, and Harris flew to Toronto from L.A. to watch the band play at Colonial Tavern. As Harris writes, it might have been the flu, the bad flight, or the bad acoustics at the club. Or it might have been the band’s attractiveness deficit (they weren’t pretty). In any case, he took a pass, and Mercury quickly stepped in and signed them. Harris makes it clear he regrets the decision:

“Even now I cringe just looking at these words,” he says. “The band I chose not to sign was Rush.”

This is the very opposite of what happened to Kenna, the Ethiopian-born singer-songwriter whose biggest claim to fame might be the chapter Malcolm Gladwell devoted to him in his book Blink.

Gladwell showcased Kenna as a case study in what happens when talent experts get it wrong.

For years every record label executive that heard Kenna was convinced he was going to be the next big thing. The songwriting was there, the singing was there, the showmanship was there. The only thing that wasn’t there was an audience. No one knew what Kenna’s genre was. Not quite funk, not quite alternative rock, not quite electronica . . . he occupied a kind of musical no-man’s land.

To be fair to the artist, he’s had genuine success, with a number of strong singles. I’m sure many aspiring artsis would be thrilled to reach the level he has. But Gladwell’s point is that the experts tend to see things through very different lenses than everyone else. And that’s certainly the case with Harris and Casablanca Records, although for the opposite reason than what happened to Kenna.

In Harris’ case, you had the “expert” who saw little to recommend the band. That’s certainly his prerogative. But signing bands isn’t about what you like; it’s about what consumers like. His big mistake was ignoring the growing clamor for the band from the people who count: the people who buy music.

At the time Harris went to Toronto, the band was generating an unmistakable buzz, according to a number of accounts, including a memoir from Donna Halper, the music director at Cleveland’s WMMS, which first played the band in the U.S. People were calling WMMS and record stores trying to find out who they were and where their record was available. That kind of groundswell of support was the very thing Kenna didn’t have in his early days, if Gladwell’s account is accurate.

There’s a lesson here that’s being ignored by music industry “experts” once again—those at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They’re looking for artists that meet their self-annointed criteria, but are they paying heed to what people are saying?

Well, Harris can take pride in one decision that the Rock Hall has made. It just included Donna Summer in its list of finalists for induction in 2012. Summer is a Disco singer that Casablanca did sign. That’s a big win for Casablanca. For the Rock Hall? Maybe the experts should ask Rock fans whether it is.

—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault

More This and That.

~ by rvkeeper on November 23, 2011.

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