The following essay is taken from Song Stories: Music That Shaped Our Identities and Changed Our Lives. Edited by Berklee Online music business student Kyle Bylin, Song Stories is a collection of essays written by music professionals and independent artists about songs that impacted their lives.
My first gig out of college was working at State Street Bank in Quincy, Massachusetts as a mutual fund accountant. I was a history and politics major in school, listened to a ton of music, and hadn’t taken a math course since high school. The details are murky, but I remember some anxiety before graduation about post-college life, a quick meeting with the career advising center at Assumption College, and the assurance that State Street Bank was a great company to work for. I started in June of 1996.
State Street Bank likely is a great company to work for, but I found the task of calculating the net asset value for mutual funds on a nightly basis to be extremely difficult and not a great fit for my skillset. Not only was I trying to learn basic accounting in the early mornings before work (I didn’t fully comprehend the difference between a debit and a credit, for example), but I also was teaching myself to use the numerical keypad (I had never even heard the phrase “ten key”). In a room full of accounting majors, I was falling behind quickly. I left after four months or so. It was a character-building experience.
Around this time, a good friend of mine, Jon O’ Toole, had started an internship at a record label in Salem, Massachusetts called Rykodisc. The work he was doing at Ryko was like a dream, and as far from ten key and net asset value as you could get. Jon got me an interview with the college radio promotions director, and I was offered the position of “unpaid college radio intern.” In order to bring in some income, I leveraged my weak financial background to get a part-time job at Scudder Mutual Funds. I would work at Scudder in the morning, change out of my suit in the bathroom at noon, and drive from Norwell, Massachusetts up to Ryko in Salem to work from 1:00-7:00 PM.
While I was familiar with Rykodisc as the label that put out Frank Zappa, Morphine, and Medeski, Martin, and Wood records, I had no idea about the depth of their catalog. On one of my first days in the office, my boss took me into the mailroom and gave me a 20-minute overview of Ryko’s catalog — Ali Farke Toure, Old and in the Way, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Tom Verlaine — loading me up with key titles from each artist. In particular, I remember him very clearly handing me the first title in Nick Drake’s short catalog, Five Leaves Left. I was told something along the lines of “put this one on if you want to get the ladies.”
On my drive home that night, I listened to what my boss had given me. While most of the music was amazing (Ryko had some great A&R), the artist that really struck me was Drake. He was like a musical alien—his odd tunings and sparse instrumentation (“Pink Moon,” in particular) really appealed to me. I was apprehensive about my move to Ryko and unsure about my future in music, but when I heard “Cello Song,” I felt that everything would be okay.
How could it not be, when I was working with something so beautiful?
I was shocked to learn a few weeks later that the sales of Drake’s entire catalog, according to Nielsen’s SoundScan, were only about 90 units a week! Although R.E.M. and The Cure cited Drake as a major influence, Drake’s music was still relatively unknown. It became my mission to tell as many folks as possible about Drake. Although one can argue that Volkswagen did the heavy lifting of raising his visibility by using the song “Pink Moon” in a Cabrio commercial in 2000, I like to think I played a small part. Nick Drake and, in particular, “Cello Song” represent the beginning of my professional life in music.
Song Stories is available for purchase at Amazon.com.