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Passion vs. Fashion

Had some technical issues that made blog posting impossible, but now that they have been cleared up I'm glad to be back.

I was listening to an interesting three-part documentary on BBC Radio 2 about Jac Holzman and Elektra Records.  He started the company in the mid 1950s against everyone's advice and recorded folk music, which was his personal passion. The recording industry at that time was mostly interested in hit singles, but Holzman was fascinated by albums and the idea of a group of songs creating a whole unified statement.

His first success was recordings by Theodore Bikel, an actor who also performed folk songs from around the world, particularly in Russian and Hebrew.  In the 60s he discovered Judy Collins, the psychedelic rock band Love, Detroit punks The MC5 and The Stooges, and most famously, The Doors. In the 70s Elektra artists included Bread, Carly Simon and Harry Chapin, who initially turned Holzman down to go with Clive Davis at Columbia. Holzman showed up at Chapin's house and said he wasn't going to leave until they worked out a deal.

The gist of the documentary was that Holzman always went with his gut instincts, was personally involved with the recording and development of his artists and believed first and foremost in the power of good song writing. What amazed me about the history of Elektra and about Holzman is the eclectic range of artists. He didn't care so much about genres of music or what was in fashion as he was about the quality of the music, whether it be rock, folk, pop or classical (he also had a classical label called Nonesuch). Holzman got out of the business in the mid 70s when lawyers and business managers took more power and he had less access to the artists themselves.

I find great inspiration in the story of someone who found success by following his passion. His artists didn't always sell so well and he took many chances, some that paid off and others that didn't. I'm trying to think of someone like that today, either in the music business or, more pertinent to myself, in the book industry. There are new magazines (online and in print) by young passionate people all the time. New publishers are popping up here and there. The spirit of adventure doesn't seem to have died altogether.

But where are the visionaries of the industry? Is the economy so bad that everyone feels they have to keep their heads down and focus on the bottom line? Established publishers pick up new writers and drop them like used Kleenex if they don't produce the coveted best seller. No one has the time or inclination to develop new talent. They all want to find the next J.K.Rowling or Rawi Hage? Fine. Me, I'm looking for the next Jack McClelland or Anansi Press. Or better yet, the next Jac Holzman.

I don't want to romanticize Jac Holzman too much. By all reports he was a businessman with his eye on the dollar.  He knew which side his bread was buttered on, but he also seemed to also have a need to feed his soul. Somehow, artistry and commerce lived side by side in his world. That's a world I would love to see with my own eyes.