Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music

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Reviews of books about people like Ralph Peer invariably take one of two approaches. Either they assume you know the importance of the person in question, and spend their time arguing the merits of the book’s interpretation of their legacy. Or they assume you have no idea who the person is, and spend most of their time educating you about why you should, ultimately tacking on a few lines about the book in question at the end of the review.

I’m not going to do either of those things.

Because what makes Ralph Peer important to us isn’t so much that he made the first recordings of country music (although he did). Or that he effectively brought music and music publishing to Hollywood (although he did that too). Or that he revolutionized the music publishing industry at least twice. Or that he was instrumental in introducing Buddy Holly to his wife (check). Or even that for a few years he rented his guest house to a struggling young actor named Marlon Brando (yeah, crazy, right?).

No, what’s truly remarkable about Peer, and what Barry Mazor has done an exceptionally good job of bringing to life in Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music is this: Peer was a genius at “the next”.

Ralph Peer had the uncanny ability to master the tactics and details of his business at one phase, and then identify how that business was changing and what the tactics and details would be in the next phase, and then master thoseas well – usually well before his contemporaries did. And that’s worth learning from.

Peer got his start when his father started selling phonograph needles in the Midwest – which may not sound like much now, but it was an edgy move at a time when the only way anyone made any money in the music business wasn’t through records (which is why you needed phonograph needles, remember?), but through the sale of sheet music. Thus when the music industry ignored jazz, for example, it wasn’t because jazz was “black music” (although, well, okay it was that too), but because you couldn’t write jazz down– and therefore couldn’t make sheet music out of it, and therefore couldn’t make money off of it.

Peer noticed he was selling a lot of phonograph needles, and then phonographs, to the rural poor. But he also noticed that the top selling records of the time were classical, which Peer figured wasn’t necessarily what the public – or this particularpublic – wanted. And that drove him to head out into Appalachia with the first mobile recording equipment to capture country music on vinyl – despite the fact that the music business at large didn’t think it would pay.

Which is how Peer discovered the Carter family. And Jimmie Rodgers. And hundreds of thousands of records in sales. And how Peer, because he was literally recording them, became their producer. And then, because he was promoting them and their music, their manager. All of which is a far cry from selling phonograph needles, right? But there’s more. Because he soon began representing other artists. And then began controlling the publishing rights of all this new music he was capturing. And not just of Country Music, but of Jazz (he recorded Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton as well), and Latin music in the 1940s, and then World Music, and then Rock and Roll.

Now, take a breath and look at that. From early jazz and country through rock and roll. From phonograph needles to global publishing rights. That’s remarkable. Now look around today. Despite the massive change the music industry has experienced since Napster reared it’s litigious little head, who has weathered it and had ears open enough to navigate it as successfully as Peer did in his day? You can point, perhaps, to music executives who diversified across genres – but across such wildly different business specializations? And across such massively evolving technologies?

And yet, the number of times Peer had to manage the change his industry was enduring because of the rise of some “new media” – records, radio, Hollywood, television – is as astounding as it is continuous. And each time, his approach was never – as it is for many others then and now – to try to destroy the innovation. Peer’s approach was consistently to understand it and then ride it to profitability.

What makes this important, of course, is not simply that it has to do with the music industry (though that would be reason enough since it generated $17.2 billion in 2016). What makes this vitally important is that all of us, ultimately, are faced with exactly the same challenges that Ralph Peer so brilliantly managed to navigate. Every brand manager, CMO, VP of Marketing, Creative Director, Copywriter, Account Person ad infinitum ad nauseam, is constantly faced with a rapidly changing world in which the success we achieved last year, last month, last week, yesterday, an hour ago, are meaningless in the face of the massive technological, demographic and economic changes we are continually facing. Those who adapt, succeed. Those who don’t, fight the change until they eventually die.

But here’s the thing: it’s really hard. Because our success, no matter how small, no matter how large, invariably invests us with the belief that the world and circumstances in which it was achieved are static. And thus repeatable. And thus provide us with an illusion of the stability and comfort we constantly crave. But the problem is, it’s just an illusion.

Barry Mazor’s book shows us that Ralph Peer didn’t just understand this, he lived it. Which gives the rest of us hope that we can too.

Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music by Barry Mazor was published by Chicago Review Press on 11/01/14 – order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).