The Real Guitar Hero

In Beats + Bytes by Nue Agency

This weekend I had the privilege of seeing Gary Clark Jr. perform on SNL, one of the most coveted milestones for a musician. The SNL stage is not only historically iconic, it also feels more relevant than it’s been in a decade.

I first met Gary when he signed to Warner Brothers in 2013. Even though he is a low key guy, his vibe was contagious! I could immediately tell I liked him as a person, but it wasn’t until I saw him perform at Soho House a few days later that I truly grasped what he is capable of.

Gary is a modern-day “rock god.” He’s as gifted with his instrument as you can be, but he’s not relying solely on his guitar skills to get ahead. He is a mega-talent that stands for something. He’s remained relevant not only because of his ability but because he’s always gotten the right looks, in part because his manager, Scooter Weintraub, is a master. Still, until recently, that hasn’t translated into a broad audience.

Gary rocked SNL. Don Cheadle, the host, clearly had an affinity for him despite his own limitless gifts. Gary performed his new track, “Pearl Cadillac,” which dropped Friday. He also performed his new album’s title track, “The Land,” which we featured in the newsletter a few weeks back. It speaks to the current state of American affairs and reveals Gary’s strong POV. Gary is a rarity in that he has a message and major appeal.

So why isn’t Gary as big as he should be? We know “guitar music” doesn’t do as well on Spotify as other genres. His biggest track is “Bright Lights Big City,” an anthem for me personally, but one that benefited largely from being licensed by the NBA and remixed with a Nas feature. There’s no MTV, VH1, BET, Fuse, or Revolt playing his videos, which would help convey his powerful message. And his sound doesn’t necessarily fit on mainstream radio in the current environment either.

What’s the spark that could help him cross over?

I rapped with my friend, music aficionado Sean Glass, about this over the weekend. He sees it simply as “mindshare vs. market share.” Because of the systemic hurdles to a broader audience that Gary faces, he can either collaborate with more artists and position himself to pull their audiences in (mindshare) or attempt to ‘blur the lanes’ and move into ancillary markets (market share). The former might mean more hip-hop heads fuck with him (little-known fact: Gary can rap!) while the latter might mean a greater emphasis on merchandise, film, TV, IP, and tech to grow his brand.

At the end of the day, the path has to fit with Gary’s identity. And all that said, the Gary Clark Jr. live experience is so bonkers that, frankly, he’ll never be at risk of falling off. I’m just dying to see one of the greatest rock and soul musicians of our generation appreciated the way I believe he deserves to be. With a milestone show this weekend and a new album dropping next week, maybe his time is coming sooner than later.

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