I’m with the band: meet the pitiful proteges of pop music patrons

From Kurt Cobain espousing the middling Melvins to Kanye West signing a singer from the library circuit, an artists ability to make great music doesnt always mean they can identify it

Last week saw the release of the painfully bland new album by Vance Joy, one of the many proteges of Taylor Swift, who took him out as a support act on her 1989 world tour (though apparently they dont talk any more). Swift has form for bigging up other musicians: she has championed not just Vance Joy, but Haim and Ed Sheeran (who in turn has championed Foy Vance, another singer-songwriter confusingly close in name to Vance Joy, but no relation).

However, Swifts proteges have tended to be artists already on an upward curve, already with major label deals and some success. She has not yet mastered the art of picking up on an artist no one has displayed any interest in and incessantly shouting about them, until all her fans have gone to the gigs, bought the T-shirt and discovered for themselves how dubious their heros judgment is. Unlike this lot

Kurt Cobain

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Patron saint of lost causes … Kurt Cobain. Photograph: Frank Micelotta Archive/Getty Images

The Nirvana frontman was the patron saint of musics lost causes. He was a man dedicated to promoting his friends, his heroes and anyone who had once released a 12 single that had sold seven copies. And those people reaped the rewards of his patronage. The fearsome noise band the Melvins got a major-label deal, with Atlantic, thanks to Cobains support. You could make up a band, [and] make up a quote about them [that] Kurt Cobain said. The Melvins were the greatest example. Kurt liked the Melvins, so everybody had to go sign the Melvins, as Janet Billig Rich of Nirvanas management firm told NPR earlier this year. The Melvins three major label albums for Atlantic left the US album chart entirely untroubled, they were dropped, and it took until 2010s The Bride Screamed Murder for them to score a chart placing at No 200.

Mind you, that label was obviously a sucker for Cobains taste. Eugene Kelly had been half of the enjoyably perverse Scottish indiepop also-rans the Vaselines, whom Cobain adored (and whose Jesus Doesnt Want Me for a Sunbeam featured on Nirvanas Unplugged album). So, naturally, he took to getting Kellys later band Captain America (later renamed Eugenius for blindingly obvious copyright reasons) on to his bills. And duly, Atlantic came calling for Kelly. Eugeniuss two albums for the label, Oomalama and Mary Queen of Scots were precisely as successful as you might expect from a middling indie band promoted above their abilities, and they soon split.

Morrissey

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A gateway to terrible bands … Morrissey. Photograph: Sheila Rock/Rex/Shutterstock

Being a Smiths fan in the 80s was perilous. Not because Morrissey might at any moment open his mouth and reveal himself to be a terrible human being, but because he might at any moment open his mouth and inveigle you into buying a record by a terrible band. Some were more awful than others. The Primitives were a cheerily fuzzy post-Mary Chain pop band whose chart success owed everything to cleaning themselves up with 1988 single Crash, and nothing to Morrissey banging on about them. But dear God, you got to see a certain pattern emerging in the groups he championed.

For a start, they might sound not unlike the Smiths, only not as good, because they didnt have the melodic genius of Johnny Marr (see Raymonde, fronted by Morrisseys old friend James Maker, who sounded uncannily like his mentor). Or they might sound not unlike the Smiths and be prone to saying the unsayable, in true Moz fashion (see hard-left janglepoppers Easterhouse, who found that expressing sympathy for Soviet communism was not the surest route to chart success). You could create a fairly sizeable festival out of forgotten bands championed by Morrissey; the only question would be where on the bill to put Blackburn indie no-hopers Bradford.

Michael Stipe

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Chum to the meek … Michael Stipe. Photograph: Ian Hodgson/Reuters

REM fans were often more disappointed than Smiths fans after investigating the groups mentored by their favourite singer. Occasionally Stipe struck gold he championed 10,000 Maniacs, who truly merited championing, and the Indigo Girls. He stuck up for cult acts, too, giving unstinting support to Vic Chesnutt. However, its entirely possible that no one would ever have heard of Hetch Hetchy had they not featured Stipes sister, Linda, and been produced by him. And its absolutely certain no one would have heard about Chickasaw Mud Puppies without Stipes intervention. On the one hand, REM fans were left with an awful lot of records they were unlikely to return to. On the other, much of Stipes support was devoted to local bands from Athens, Georgia, and its hard to quibble with someone making the effort to support the music scene in the town that nurtured them. Just dont listen to the records too often.

Kanye West

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Part of a long and rich tradition … Kanye West. Photograph: Leon Bennett/WireImage

Hip-hop has a long and rich tradition of its stars nurturing other MCs, who they help propel to commercial success (so rich is that tradition that the proteges have their own specific name: weed carriers). Kanye West exemplifies the process, having begun as a protege of Jay-Zs, before generating his own family tree of rappers, singers and producers: John Legend, Hit-Boy, Travis Scott, Big Sean, Kid Cudi and so on. But let us recall instead the least likely of the Western endorsements.

In the mid-2000s, Ben Hudson was the frontman of Mr Hudson and the Library, a wholly unremarkable band whose principal points of interest were that they employed steel pans and did a tour of libraries. This did not result in incredible commercial success, despite a major label deal: at one point you could have caught them playing a gig outside my house (which was nothing to do with me, though it did leave me with a continuing aversion to his music). And then Kanye West heard him, and signed him to his GOOD Music imprint. Suddenly Mr Hudson went from touring the UKs libraries to composing on 808s and Heartbreak, working with Jay-Z, and Future and Miley Cyrus, and becoming a successful songwriter for hire. His solo career continues, too, yet the world remains stubbornly uninterested.

Paul Weller

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A new Berry Gordy? … Paul Weller. Photograph: Tom Beard

Simply talking up his favourite artists wasnt enough for Paul Weller. Instead, he fancied himself a new Berry Gordy, and as the Jam drew to a close, he set up his own imprint for his preferred soul/mod sound, Respond Records. Weller offered his services as songwriter, producer and guitarist (under the pseudonym Jake Fluckery). There were some minor hits along the way, including Tracie, signed after responding to an ad in Smash Hits seeking a singer for the Questions. She sang backing vocals on the Jams final single, Beat Surrender, and then with the Style Council before her solo debut, The House That Jack Built, reached the Top 10. Julie Hadwen and Tony Burke responded to the same ad, were introduced by Weller and then duly left Respond to have a hit with This House (Is Where Our Love Stands). As for the rest of the Respond roster whither ND Moffatt? Or A Craze? Or Meff? More than any other set of proteges, the story of Respond proves that someones fans will buy on a recommendation once, but their loyalty stretches only so far.

  • This article was updated on Wednesday 28 February to correct an error: the Melvins had three albums on Atlantic, not one.

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Marissa SafontI’m with the band: meet the pitiful proteges of pop music patrons

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