Why is it that almost nobody in the US knows who Ben Harper is?
November 15, 2004 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Why is it that almost nobody in the US knows who Ben Harper is? He's incredibly popular all over Europe (a special number of Les Inrocks all for him); he gets good reviews even in the American press; he made a record with the genius Blind Bloys of Alabama and is a very handsome young man, too. He even dates Laura Dern, for chrissakes. All the cool kids (and ex-kids) in France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, etc love him to bits and pieces. Americans don't. Why?

oh, yeah: he also jammed with the luminous Beth Orton. Short of walking on water, he's done it all.
posted by matteo to Society & Culture (42 answers total)
 
Hmmm. Well, if it makes you feel better, matteo, I and pretty much all of my friends know who Ben Harper is. I just happen to think he's useless. *shrug*

That said, while I'm sure you had no dark motives for posting this--in fact, I'm guessing that you're mostly interested in promoting a fellow that you think is unjustly ignored--but I'm not sure that this is the sort of thing that AskMe is set up for. There isn't any good answer to your question at all.

However, I am tickled by "Blind Bloys of Alabama."
posted by Skot at 10:07 AM on November 15, 2004


What makes you think he's unknown? I can't speak for Americans but he's very well known in Canada and Canadians don't usually wipe their asses, culturally speaking, without permission from the USA so I'd be very surprised if he was unknown there.

He bores the tears outta me, though, and I can easily name 100 musical artists who *are* unknown who trump him in every regard (except maybe looks). :)
posted by dobbs at 10:09 AM on November 15, 2004 [1 favorite]


American commercial radio sucks, and without the support of commercial radio you can't sell records in the quantities required to get on the cover of Rolling Stone. Most radio stations are programmed by their corporate owners at the national level, far disconnected from the preferences of local listeners. Playlists are shrinking because people are listening for increasingly shorter timespans (and ratings go up when people hear more songs that are familiar to them).

Getting on those ever-shorter playlists requires an ever-larger cash expenditure on the part of the record labels. (Payola is still the fundamental basis for the relationship between radio and the record companies, they've just found ways to do it within the boundaries of law.) So even if he's putting out radio-friendly records (catchy, not too complex, about 3 1/2 minutes long), Harper still can't get on the radio if his American label feels it can get a better return on its investment by spending a little more to place another artist and a little less on Ben.
posted by jjg at 10:12 AM on November 15, 2004


I can't imagine what a Beth Orton jam session would be like.

I've heard of him but don't especially care.
posted by kenko at 10:16 AM on November 15, 2004


veering off on a tangent: jjg, what would make a label decide to focus on promoting a North American artist in a European market versus an American one? I'm thinking not only of Ben Harper here, but other, more pop-y throw-aways (think Anastacia)

Bugger, no mention of any Ben Harper Euro-gigs in the near future and the powers that be haven't decided on the venue for Wednesday's 6€ Beastie Boys show. At least there's Ani DiFranco tonight...
posted by romakimmy at 10:19 AM on November 15, 2004


Most of my friends and acquaintances know who he is, but that includes a lot of musicians. Still... it seems like the college crowd is into him, and a number of the radio stations play his stuff (even some of the mainstream stations).
posted by weston at 10:22 AM on November 15, 2004


I'm interested in the reverse question: who doesn't know about him in the US? I do, and all my friends do. It's true that I don't hear him on non-college radio very much, but, because of the reasons jjg stated, I don't listen to the radio very much either.
posted by jessamyn at 10:24 AM on November 15, 2004


you're mostly interested in promoting a fellow that you think is unjustly ignored

is AskMeFi a promotional tool? hardly, I'd say. I'm just curious at a very unusual career -- usually the American artists who go number 1 in Europe are number 1 in the US, or at least in the Top Ten (as romakimmy points out, Anastacia).
Not Harper.
I'm just surprised at how an American artist can be number 1 in sales -- I repeat, number 1 -- in Europe without being at least famous in his the US.
"Diamonds" went straight to number one in a few countries here.

There isn't any good answer to your question at all.

I disagree. jjg just made a great point, actually. I hadn't thought about that.
posted by matteo at 10:25 AM on November 15, 2004


what would make a label decide to focus on promoting a North American artist in a European market versus an American one?

The labels operate regionally, not globally. So Virgin UK gets to carry its own slate of artists independent of Virgin US. There are some cases of American artists who can't get a contract in the U.S. at all, but are successful overseas.
posted by jjg at 10:33 AM on November 15, 2004


it's my understanding that he's very popular on the (quite lucrative) jam band circuit here in the states. Maybe he likes it that way--he still makes money without being mobbed by screaming pop fans.
posted by whatnot at 10:34 AM on November 15, 2004


He's probably not more popular in the U.S. because he's not dull and derivative enough (blame radio?). Like Americans don't care for Ben Harper or Sloan, but they just love Nickelback.
posted by bobo123 at 10:42 AM on November 15, 2004


I was always impressed with my british half brothers for knowing about bands that in high school were "largely unknown" among my age group, like the smiths, etc. In britain they were basically mainstream. When I was over there this summer, the Guardian was giving away free CDs with bands on them that are still considered largely "college radio" here... (of course, now the cure is played on TV ads and TMBG has a tv theme song, so mainstream eventually catches up)

basically, pop music in america is just a whole different thing from college music, and so what's big here is big in a totally different market. It's the same way that educated germans have all read hegel and heidegger, and the french all know their sartre, etc. In america, it's a limited part of the population who know their quine or popper... or, forget the culture-based distinctions - europeans are just more familiar with philosophy and art. Americans are more interested in what's upbeat and useful.
posted by mdn at 10:45 AM on November 15, 2004


I doubt that 'American's don't like original music' or 'radio doesn't support original music' is the answer--since it's not as though he's not a pop musician who writes chart-friendly songs. I suspect it's more just a case of changing tastes, as with R.E.M., who were wildly popular here but now can't sell out their shows in the U.S., while in the rest of the world they continue to sell very well. For whatever reason, sometimes particular musicians don't mesh with the mass market, even if they have mass appeal.
posted by josh at 10:50 AM on November 15, 2004


Americans don't.

Hm. I don't know what you're talking about. I thought Ben Harper was quite well-known in the US. But then, maybe that's because he used to blow through my college town and play small stages long before Europe had a clue who he was.

I also saw the Blind Boys of Alabama live about 14 years ago.

Maybe you're hangin' with the wrong crowd? ;)
posted by scarabic at 10:51 AM on November 15, 2004


I thought he was rather well-known too. And very photogenic, yep.
posted by iconomy at 10:55 AM on November 15, 2004


As whatnot said, he's quite popular in the jam band scene. Also, among Pearl Jam fans.
posted by sad_otter at 11:05 AM on November 15, 2004


Let the healing begin in America across political and religious spectrum, as we join hands and speak as one on the subject of Ben Harper: meh. (On preview: sorry, jam band scene, I thought this was our big chance.)

Also, x's and o's for dobbs and his musical hundred(s) (just add an "s" there, sweetie, and we're in perfect agreement), most of whom would love to have exactly the kind of career Ben Harper is having, filled with love from Europe and indie film star sirens and cash money. He hit every branch on the damned luck tree except for the one marked "originality."
posted by melissa may at 11:09 AM on November 15, 2004


he used to blow through my college town and play small stages long before Europe had a clue who he was.

of course, mass success arrived quite late (as, after the double live cd), in Europe, for him. it seems to escape him in the US still, but I'm happy that I was partly wrong: my MeFi brethren do know him well. good.
but, after all, I was under the impression the MetaFilter is not always a 100% faithful measure of America's taste.

for our American friends, here's the -- quite appalling, I know -- official Italian Top 10 (keep in mind that non-Italian artists have about 48% of the music cd market, it means that Americans who go number 1 must sell a LOT of cds, competition from Italian artists is massive. tough market). as you'll see, Harper is (again) first. with a Gospel record, and this time not with an "easier" sell like "Diamonds" was.


1) 'There Will Be A Light', Ben Harper (Virgin-Emi)
2) 'Genius Loves Company', Ray Charles (Emi-Mktg)
3) 'Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus', Nick Cave (Extralabel-Emi)
4) 'Buoni o cattivi', Vasco Rossi (Capitol/Emi)
5) 'Riot On An Empty Street', King of Convenience (Virgin/Emi)
6) 'Zu&Co', Zucchero (Polydor/Universal)
7) 'Anastacia', Anastacia (Epic/Sony)
8) 'Michael Bublè", Michael Bublè (Reprise/Wmi)
9) 'American Idiot' Green Day (Warne/Wmi)
10) 'Other Directions', Nicola Conte (Blue Note/Emi)



Maybe you're hangin' with the wrong crowd? ;)

that's for sure. I spend a lot of time on MetaFilter ;)

thanks everybody for the good answers
posted by matteo at 11:10 AM on November 15, 2004


I'm just surprised at how an American artist can be number 1 in sales -- I repeat, number 1 -- in Europe without being at least famous in his the US.

The charts are fucked, matteo. Take a look at this news item about one of my favorite artists: Bright Eyes. Not being a Billboard reader I can't decide if I'm just gullible and this is a hoax or I should be dancing in the streets.
posted by dobbs at 11:13 AM on November 15, 2004


Okay, I just looked at Billboard's site (no idea why it didn't occur to me to do that before). It appears I'm just gullible.
posted by dobbs at 11:16 AM on November 15, 2004


Dobbs, you're not gullible, it's just not that no one sells singles today, so it doesn't take many sales to top the Singles Sales chart. Billboard doesn't even have that chart available on their site unless you pay.
posted by smackfu at 11:28 AM on November 15, 2004


Oh, okay. Thanks for the clarification smackfu. I was baffled since I read this last week.

Also, matteo, I've often been confused on the way things break down geographically (even though I think Harper is plenty popular outside of Europe). I have some friends in a band here in Canada who've been slugging it out for years. At present they are on a label in just about every major country except Canada. Until just weeks ago they had a label on every continent except North America (they recently signed with a USA label). I can't make head nor tail of it.
posted by dobbs at 11:35 AM on November 15, 2004


Yeah, from the shows I've been to Ben Harper has had a big US following for at least the last 5 or 6 years.
posted by trbrts at 11:36 AM on November 15, 2004


I first saw him in the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown which was terrific and he was terrific in it (singing 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine').
posted by TimeFactor at 11:45 AM on November 15, 2004


I'm just surprised at how an American artist can be number 1 in sales -- I repeat, number 1 -- in Europe without being at least famous in his the US.

Jazz and blues musicians are frequently more popular in Europe than in America.
posted by kenko at 11:49 AM on November 15, 2004


Is this a joke? Maybe it's my demo, but it seems like every middle class woman 25-35 in New England knows who he is.
posted by yerfatma at 11:51 AM on November 15, 2004


On my one trip to the US, I had the misfortune to attend a Ben Harper outdoor show on the UCSD campus, and was astonished that so very many people (20,000) would watch such an incredibly boring artist. In fairness, they were all stoned students.

In the UK, Ben Harper couldn't sell out a venue the size of my front room (anywhere apart from London, where there are plenty of USians). So I don't really know where this question is coming from..
posted by ascullion at 12:09 PM on November 15, 2004


Nick Cave is the number 3 biggest seller in Italy right now? Holy shit, the cultural divide is a lot bigger than I thought. Someone explain to me what radio is like in Europe.

People like Ben Harper and Sarah McLachlan and Ani DiFranco are 'college bands' and by that I don't mean that they're necessarily promoted through college radio, but passed on through word of mouth from student to student. There's a college scene, and it mostly comprises music labelled 'alternative', which means music that is different or challenging, if only slightly. It's kind of a musical limbo, and sometimes genuinely good music gets sucked into this space. Often certain bands are deemed harmless enough to leave this dimension and enter the mainstream. The Dave Matthews Band is an example of a group that went through such a quarantine and was later deemed harmless and safe for public consumption.

I guess what I'm saying is that if a musician or group you like starts getting popular over here, you should see that as a sign, a bad sign, in my snooty opinion.
posted by picea at 12:13 PM on November 15, 2004


I'm just surprised at how an American artist can be number 1 in sales -- I repeat, number 1 -- in Europe without being at least famous in his the US.

This might partly be the Michael Moore effect - an American who's very critical of the socio-political climate in the US often finds a hungry audience in Europe.

Or it might be the Jimi Hendrix effect, whereby the US is too stupid to recognize an amazing artist until after the UK leads the way. But I'm not too happy with that comparison in Ben Harper's case. It's a little generous to compare him to Jimi, IMHO.
posted by scarabic at 12:17 PM on November 15, 2004


This American never heard of him. Female, 35, in Seattle, no idea who this guy is.
posted by GaelFC at 12:48 PM on November 15, 2004


well, gee i feel lucky to have a good college radio station to listen to. i think that at 30 my taste in music (and my exposure to new stuff) is so much better than what it was as an undergrad - i started listening to the college station at first because the morning DJ on my old station started sounding like a rush limbaugh clone and i was sick of that and the constant barrage of advertising.

so, yeah. ben harper. didn't he collaborate with ben folds and ben kweller calling themselves "the bens"? 'cause i loved that.

he's also toured with jack johnson, friend of mine went to the show and had a blast.

i put it down to corporate-driven radio. it's much easier to give us what they think we want - music from people we've already head of, or music that sounds just like people we already know - than it is to expose us to new stuff.

if it gets big enough on the college scene some industry dope will eventually start feeding it to clearchannel. and for the first time i'll be one of those trendy assholes saying "yeah well i listened to this band back when all they played were back room bars in small college towns".

(and i will say that too, if killer flamingos ever makes it huge...)
posted by caution live frogs at 1:05 PM on November 15, 2004


I don't personally know anyone under 40 who is unfamiliar with Harper's music. I don't personally know anyone who likes it either, except my hippy-dippy ex-girlfriend.
posted by dhoyt at 1:15 PM on November 15, 2004


Why have most Europeans never heard of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Huh? Tell me that!

Oh and I also know of Ben Harper, as much as I hear about other music I don't like but everybody tells me to like because then I'll get to hang with the cool kids who listen to music that Europeans like. Yeah.
posted by Stan Chin at 1:24 PM on November 15, 2004


Why have most Europeans never heard of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Huh? Tell me that!

One girl I know who taught English in Russia told me that every time she got out the guitar, they requested "Sweet Home Alabama." Explain that.
posted by weston at 1:35 PM on November 15, 2004


Why is it that almost nobody in the US knows who the Stormy Six are?
posted by kenko at 1:36 PM on November 15, 2004


We know who he is, we just don't happen to like his music much.
posted by falconred at 1:38 PM on November 15, 2004


they requested "Sweet Home Alabama." Explain that.

Heh. I woulda thought it'd be "Georgia on my mind."
posted by namespan at 1:53 PM on November 15, 2004


didn't he collaborate with ben folds and ben kweller calling themselves "the bens"? 'cause i loved that.

That would be Ben Lee.
posted by jjg at 1:59 PM on November 15, 2004


Germans love David Hasselhoff.
posted by britain at 2:38 PM on November 15, 2004


never heard of the guy. *shrug*
posted by bargle at 4:17 PM on November 15, 2004


A close friend of mine sets up Harper's guitar.

I am cool.
posted by trharlan at 7:21 PM on November 15, 2004


!
posted by matteo at 3:56 AM on November 16, 2004


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