NPR’s “All Things Considered” aired a Radio Diary tonight about Rose McCoy, a member of New York’s “Brill Building” pop songwriting cabal of the 1950s and 60s. McCoy came to New York at the age of 19 with six bucks in her pocket and went on to have an incredibly prolific songwriting career.
The songwriting environment of that square block in New York was a hotbed of collaboration.
After work, many of the employees would gather at a restaurant around the corner, called Beefsteak Charlie’s. Soul singer Maxine Brown remembers that it was like a music marketplace.
“The place was hoppin’,” Brown says. “Writers, they would run over and pitch their songs. Just right there on the spot, start singing it. And the verse would be on a napkin, and he’d reach in his pocket and the bridge could be on a brown piece of paper bag … [A] lot of the songs that you heard back in the old days were sold right out of that restaurant.”
McCoy had teamed up with a songwriting partner, Charlie Singleton. They set up their office in a booth at Beefsteak Charlie’s.
“We’d write back there,” McCoy says. “People got to know us so well, they used take our telephone calls. We’d meet there every morning, 6 o’clock, and buy a little glass of wine for 30 cents, and we’d sip on that.
You can’t help but connect that to the entrepreneurial activity taking place in your average Starbucks today.
Hell, they even invented an entire company dedicated to bringing beggars (that would be guys like us who want money) and funding sources together on every street corner in America — STARBUCKS!
I am willing to bet that more deals are getting done at Starbucks than ever got done on the fairways, greens and tee boxes of the old boy network. Even at $4 for a freakin’ latte, it’s cheaper plus no sunburn.
–JLM (Jeff), via Howard Lindzon, via Fred Wilson
Collaboration, riffing, working together to create the perfect song, the perfect pitch, the next hit, the next killer app.
As the mid-60s approached, so did change:
The 1950s and early ’60s were the heyday of the professional songwriter in pop music. But in 1964, the music scene was about to change. That year, The Beatles had five of the 10 biggest songs on the Billboard charts. One was a cover of “Twist and Shout,” but the rest were their own songs.
“People like Bob Dylan, et cetera, start emerging [and] perform their own songs,” Bell says. “So they got recognition as a singer, but also a great writer. And literally I saw our industry, for want of a better way to put it, kick the songwriter to the curb, [and] Rose was just another songwriter.”
“When the singers find out they can write for themselves,” McCoy says, “they didn’t want to see your song. They wanted to write their own songs.”
As a result, the Brill Building songwriters had to find new ways to make a living. Carole King and Neil Diamond launched successful singing careers. Some became producers, while others left the music business.
Earlier in the day, I watched the Zapurder-esque video of Gary Vaynerchuk’s FOWA 2009 keynote speech:
Gary hits on a number of themes:
“Twitter is not a marketing plan.”
“Do what you love. Love your damn family and crush it.”
“The people willing to get obnoxiously dirty are going to win.”
But the core theme he drove home was that the content producers no longer need the intermediaries. Kanye doesn’t need Apple, he could do everything he does from kanyewest.com. The democratization of technology and of distribution means that talent wins out in the end for those willing to get dirty and “crush it”.
What Vaynerchuk, Dylan and Diamond Have in Common
Yet in thinking over these two pieces today, I’m struck by the contradiction in Gary’s message. He’s obviously crushing it, speaking all over the country, pumping out Wine Library TV episodes like a maniac. If you’re a lone democratized voice creating content, do you see the parallel to the Brill Building era? It’s not just being a brilliant content creator, just as it wasn’t enough after the Beatles arrived to simply be a brilliant and prolific songwriter. The ones who made the leap and survived were the songwriters–the Dylans and the Neil Diamonds–who got dirty, crushed it and amplified their skill set to adapt to a new environment.
The logical conclusion then, as it appears to be now, is to learn how to perform their own content. To become not just a content creator, but the performance artist. Alignment of passion.
There are no doubt wine store owners and liquor store owners as passionate about their work as Gary, who could create content and ideas just as good, but without that passion to work hard and put themselves out there to perform, you’ll never hear of them. Vaynerchuk is the ultimate performer of his own content–no one else could pull it off or amplify it any better than he can. You can’t perform a “cover” of an impassioned Vaynerchuk rant. Content and performer and performance are inseparable.
If you’re creating brilliant content, and you want it heard, you have to become the brand. Maybe it takes getting into fisticuffs with a hated rival. Maybe you have to speak at 300 dates a year. Maybe you have to have the shameless knack for self-promotion. Whatever it takes.
Content is just the start. Focus on building value and intellectual capital first, but realize that at some point you’re going to have to create the social capital, and then turn that social capital into flat out live performances. Keep this in mind when you have heady thoughts about democratization of voices, and the rise of the masses.
Rose McCoy is 86 now, living in Teaneck, NJ, about 25 miles away from Gary Vaynerchuk’s wine store. No word if she’s a Jets fan, but if anyone has the passion to turn her into one, it’s Gary.