Danny Peck is a struggling new artist with a record deal on RCA, produced by the world famous Desmond Child, and booked by the high-powered agency Creative Artists Agency.
Struggling you might say? That’s right; it’s tough these days to get your message across in the cut-throat business of rock ‘n’ roll.
We talked with Danny Peck about the reality of today’s music world.
Q – Your first song was “While Lyndon’s Lying, People Are Dying” which you wrote when you were only ten years old.
A – Actually, I was even younger. I think I performed it when I was ten. I wrote it a year earlier.
Q – Did you even know what you were singing about?
A – Yeah., I did know. Both my folks, particularly my father, were anti-war activists at the time. The protest movement was just beginning at the time. It was probably 1964, but I’d already been to a hundred demonstrations via civil rights and other issues of the day. So, I think I had a certain understanding of the issues then. I was a child, but there was a sense that our country was fighting an undeclared war ten thousand miles away against an underdeveloped country. The basic issues just seemed kind of unfair. Just from being in demonstrations as a kid. “While Lyndon’s Lying, People Are Dying” kind of came, whether it was a slogan or whatever, the expression probably stayed in my mind. My first performance of the song was at a teach-in at a university.
Q – Do you think a song can make people more aware of what’s going on around them?
A – On an intellectual level, no. In terms of conveying facts, I don’t know if people really pick up concrete facts in songs. If a song is kind of successful, you hit people in an emotional level. Political songs, if they’re successful, can somehow connect with the injustice, the pain, the sense of people waiting to be free, as like in old spirituals. They didn’t directly comment on the civil rights issues, but the emotional context of yearning to be free, came through. With the best political songs, they’re really songs that hit you on an emotional level. In that sense, I think all art connects, to our emotions and makes us care sometimes about an issue, and then maybe you’ll find out more about the facts.
Q – You put out your first record 15 years ago. Were you part of a group then?
A – No, it was exactly identical I say to now. I was performing a lot acoustically at the time. I was a busboy in a restaurant and playing more like kind of hoots and Monday night at The Troubadour. Actually at the time, The Improv had a weekly 5 minute comedy thing. They actually had another night for songwriters, but I like the comic night. The comedians were a better audience. Sarah Bernhardt used to show up there, and stand in line. It was geared for the comedians. They’d only let you do one song. The first time I played for Clive (Davis — President of Arista) in his hotel, and the deal went down fairly quickly. He came over to the restaurant where I was working as a busboy the next day, and kind of signed me out of the restaurant.
Q – So what happened with the record?
A – It ended up kind of getting caught in a certain time travel. Clive works in a very slow process. For young artists it’s kind of frustrating. I think a long time went down between the time I first signed and actually did the record, in terms of who was going to produce and that kind of stuff. And once the record was done, it was held up for a long, long time. Clive responded to my energy, responded to an overall view of me. I don’t know if he really got the music. I think if I had moved to New York. I would’ve been much more successful at that label. The key with Clive was involving him even more. In hindsight being on the west coast hurt me, just ’cause it was always going through a lot of people before it got to Clive. Actually when I was together with Clive I got stuff pretty much the way I wanted it. Clive didn’t hear a single on the record, so they put out the album with no single and very little promotion, and got me on the road. Just me and my guitar. The tour was successful in the sense that people were responding to me without the record really being in the stores. Clive started delaying the second record, you know, there’s probably more specifics, but bottom line is, he kind of stopped the second record. I think I owed them two records in my second year. Basically, I was unhappy, and I fought to get myself dropped from the label. I was a young man, and I don’t think I understood the whole business process. I don’t look back and blame Clive. Looking back on it, I probably see it as a mistake, but life goes on.
Q – Did you also perform as a solo act in L.A. for a long time?
A – No, I actually put together a band through the 80’s. It was called The Danny Peck Collective. I started out solo, then after about 20 minutes another guy would come up, and then another guy. I always worked with an acoustic guitar through a period where nobody played acoustic too much. There wasn’t much of an acoustic scene, coffee houses and that kind of stuff, so the rock clubs were pretty much your venue.
Q – Besides the gigging around, you also took odd jobs. Like what?
A – Restaurant jobs, delivery jobs. I also took a lot of singing gigs, singing for other songwriters, never commercials. I always drew the line, and said I would never sing for product. There’s about 5 million demo tapes out there for blackmail if I ever do make it big. (Laughs). I’ve sung every kind of bad song you can ever possibly imagine. Because I loved to sing, I always viewed it as a challenge and fun work.
Q – Danny, what’s wrong with the way a record co. signs an artist to a label?
A – First and foremost, you’re dealing with the bottom line, which is to sell records. For any A and R guy, he’s dealing with what’s selling today, and you have to kind of fit in a certain slot. For someone like me, whose music is a very merged kind of influences, I don’t fit in the slot. And so far for an A and R guy, you’re taking much more of a risk, ’cause you can’t say we’ll push this one just like Madonna, or Springsteen. The biggest problem for an A and R guy is how to develop something that is different, without pushing it into an existing slot. And beyond that, you’re dealing with what makes somebody an A and R guy. Who are these people? Are they 21 year old kids out of college? Generally they’re somebody who knew somebody. I don’t know what their criteria is. To me, the best way to sign an act is somebody who sings and gets the audience off. The acts that are signed off of their ‘live’ performances is in someway more of a real signing. I think that’s happening more now, so in that sense the industry is healthier now. In the 70’s and 80’s it was much more of a demo oriented, hit singles, and if you had a big lawyer, it got easier. It’s less a big connection now and it’s more back to the streets. The down side is a lot of music is a retread, a watered down version of the source. It’s increasingly difficult to remember where it came from. So everybody is pretty good these days, but does it inspire, does it move you forward? I don’t know. When I hear Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell on that level, I still either want to quit or write a new song. (Laughs).
Q – You were “discovered” once again, by a former record executive at a club called Genghis Cohen. Who was the record executive?
A – A guy named Alan Rindy. He worked I believe for Columbia in the 70’s and 80’s. What he created, in terms of Genghis Cohen is a really great place, because it’s not a coffee house. But, it’s not a big club. It’s like a funny in-between kind of place. It was definitely geared towards singer, songwriters. The vibe was similar to the old Troubadour Bar, back in the 70’s, when that was the songwriter’s hang. There was a songwriter’s night. It just seemed like a lot of people were networking there, and your audience always had a lot of other writers in it. That’s what really started cookin’ for me, that increasingly my audiences were my peers.
Q – And you only played one night a week, on Thursdays?
A – Yes. It became like my home base. I played every club and coffee house in the city at some point or another. It (Genghis Cohen) was a great base for me.
Q – What was Desmond Child’s approach to you?
A – He asked me if I had a manager. (Laughs). I kind of did have management at that time, but it was kind of fading. I vaguely remember he said I reminded him of a friend of his who died, or something like that, a songwriter friend of his. He pushed very heavy. I actually wasn’t that aware of who he was. I’m not that close to that side of the industry. I vaguely recall hearing his name. Obviously, I found out that he was a big, hit songwriter.
Q – What’s the reaction of the industry been to your association with Desmond?
A – There’s been some kind of preconceived notion of my record, ’cause I worked with him. On the upside, I think radio programmers like Desmond, but because they haven’t sent my record to pop or mainstream stations, that hasn’t really helped me. They’ve only sent the record to adult alternative which is a new format, a fairly small format which is growing, but it’s a longer process. He got me the deal, and I felt loyal to that. In my heart I felt I can make this work, and on a musical level we did, whether we delivered the kind of packaging… If someone could see me ‘live’ you would see what I do and that’s been the other frustration, in terms of trying to land a big tour right now. It’s been difficult. I just got a Joan Baez tour.
Q – How have your record reviews been?
A – We couldn’t get to Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times. We couldn’t get to Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone wouldn’t even review it. I can’t get a bad review from Rolling Stone. My attitude is like I’d like a bad review. Any press at this point is good. Again, it’s a juice situation, in this industry. Whose got the juice? My management got me Rob Light as an agent. This is like the biggest agent in the industry.
Q – He used to book entertainment for Syracuse University when he was a student there, in the 1970’s.
A – Right. I remember hearing something about that. Here’s a guv who came out and flipped, but he can’t get me any work. Nothing.
Q – What agency is he with?
A – C.A.A. (Creative Artists Agency). He’s a top agent. He does (Michael) Bolton, Barbra Streisand, Janet Jackson. But, does he book small colleges? No. To me, Rob Light needed Stephen Holden of the New York Times to write a big article. We need a Robert Hilburn. We need Rolling Stone. You need somebody giving you the juice. Stephen Holden saw me last June, ten months before my record was released, at a gig in New York, and loved it. Gets the record ten months later, and sees no other articles, and says, “I’m not sure now. I liked it better live’ “. When he saw me in June he was raving. That was kind of our big break. We had one guy we thought, but he backed out. Without that one major writer, the whole big critics thing is based on juice. Every grassroots thing we can do, we’re doing. I’m about ready now to go with a small agency in San Francisco. I have a guy at William Morris who was like my fan for years, and when we went with C.A.A. instead of him… We kind of went back to him, but at this point his bosses at William Morris are not as interested, because the record is out, and it’s not doing as much. The bigger agencies at this point, don’t want to know. If Rob Light can’t do it, that’s where a big guy like that working for you, can work against you.
Q – Because of your experience, you’re not bitter are you?
A – No. I believe the struggles in life are bigger than that. I feel no bitterness towards Arista or Clive or anything. I feel blessed that I’m doing what I’m doing. You get angry. It’s a fight. You fight for your life. You’re fighting for your musical hate exploitation. I hate oppression. I hate the pain and tragedy that surrounds our daily lives. I feel really good now. I got a record out. I never gave up. If anything, I dedicate this record to all the other singer, songwriters still struggling, because I’m sure I got turned down more than anybody ever did, and yet I never doubted my talent.