Fingertips Q&A: Shelby Earl

Singer/songwriter Shelby Earl answers five questions about the state of music in the digital age.

Shelby Earl has just released her first album, but it’s been a long time coming. The Seattle-based singer/songwriter spent years—the entire ’00s, pretty much—working in music-industry day jobs while knowing deep down that she herself had music to write and sing.

And then, late in the year 2009, she quit her corporate job, found work as a waitress, and committed to making the album she was aching to make. The end result, Burn The Boats, got its name from something her stepfather said about her career change—that she had “pulled all the boats ashore and burned them” in full pursuit of her true path.

In the long process of coming out, as it were, as a musician, Earl has had a ringside seat to the crazy show the music industry has been putting on since the turn of the century. Now that she’s a recording artist herself, she understands the challenges of being a musician in the digital age all the more vividly.

Burn The Boats was officially released this week on Local 638 Records. The song “Under Evergreen” was featured here last month. You can listen to the whole thing (it’s very good), and buy it, on Bandcamp.

Shelby Earl

Q: Let’s cut to the chase: how do you as a musician cope with the apparent fact that not everybody seems to want to pay for digital music?

A: This is a timely question for me right now. Its one that’s been discussed by music industry folks for quite some time, but I’m only just now feeling the effects of it personally. Earlier this year I finished my self-funded album and did a “free download” promotion with a major music retailer. The numbers were staggering to me. Basically, for every six people who downloaded one of my songs for free, only one purchased a song. It was a great promotional tool in terms of visibility, but 6:1 free vs. purchased downloads certainly wasn’t the ratio I was hoping for (or expecting).

I was paranoid that the music itself was the problem, but I talked to my partners on the retail end of the promotion and they shared that these numbers were exactly in line with what they’re seeing every day. It confirmed for me that the “apparent fact that not everybody wants to pay for digital music” is an actual fact. People are consuming plenty of music these days, which is fantastic, but the sense that they don’t need to pay for it is terrifying to me as an artist. Why? Because making, recording, printing, promoting, and distributing music is expensive and it’s a full-time job. It is hard enough for professional, independent artists to reach a sustainable financial balance, but if our art no longer has a monetary value in the market place it will be next to impossible.

All of this said, I realize some artists believe quite the opposite to be true. They say: “give it away! It’ll reach more ears! All the money is in touring anyway!” But I disagree, not only because every opportunity to make my living is crucial to me (in order to continue the writing, recording, promoting, etc. referred to above), but also because I believe that what I do has value in the world. And everyone knows that when you pay for something, you value it more. At the end of the day, I don’t want to pour my heart and soul onto recordings that become just another free download in someone’s library of gazillions. I want my music to be worth something to people, just like a painting or a book that they keep and return to over time. Bottom line: I pay for things that are worth something to me and I’m quite sure they mean more to me for that very reason.

Q: What do you think of the idea of “music in the cloud”? How do you feel about the lack of direct ownership involved? (I might also ask how you feel about putting the act of listening to music at the whim of network coverage, and at the whim of companies which may or may succeed…but that’s probably leading the witness.)

A: I spent years at a desk job and did the bulk of my music listening online during the day. So I know, firsthand, how easy it is to just listen to what’s available to you for free (whether it be in the cloud or on music streaming/share sites) and then call it a day without ever buying any of the actual albums. Again, this scares me as an artist. Maybe it is just fear of the unknown about how this will all play out and how I will ultimately be compensated for my work if people start to pay only for music streaming subscriptions, I don’t know. But I don’t want to repeat myself here, so I digress.

I think these music consumption changes are just making everyone a little uneasy, like any major society-wide behavioral shift will do. From the consumer standpoint it is great to be able to share and access music so easily, but it can also be a bit unsettling to not have the same sense of ownership that comes with buying hard copies of CDs or LPs or even downloading MP3s to your computer hard drive. In many ways people are defined by the things they own and a little of that is lost when it’s all floating out in space. My personal music collection has all but maxed out my computer’s hard drive, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to move it to the cloud. I know it’s the next logical step, but it feels like letting go of the reigns a bit. And of course, to follow your lead, it does feel risky to put the music (and other files) you do purchase out into the cloud when none of us know what the fallout could ultimately be. What if one day I click over to the cloud and MY JAMS ARE GONE?!!! WHAT THEN???!!!

Q: How has your life as a musician been affected—or not—by the existence of music blogs?

A: I think all independent artists are affected, and helped, by the existence of music blogs. Personally, I found it a very affirming, encouraging experience to self-release my album, without a publicist or any kind of press-generating machine behind me, and to still get written about online. Music bloggers are the ones who’ve made me feel like there was momentum and positive energy behind my efforts. Sometimes, as an artist, that’s all you need to keep going, a sense of momentum. And thankfully, I haven’t had anyone bash me yet, though that is certainly a risk when individually run blogs are the ones setting the tone for so many listeners. I’m sure it’ll happen at some point because everyone knows “you can’t win ‘em all”, but it’s been all hearts and flowers thus far.

Honestly, the coolest thing about the blogger-musician relationship is that it’s reciprocal. Musicians need writers to let the world know they exist and blogs need readers. Nearly every time I’ve been written up this year, the blogger has asked me personally to post and promote the write-up. So I think that as long as bloggers and musicians maintain the attitude that we’re both trying to get good music to music lovers and we need to work together to do so, then the existence of music blogs will continue to be an incredibly positive thing for everyone.

Q: What are your thoughts about the album as a musical entity—does it still strike you as a legitimate means of expression?

A: I think the album can absolutely still be a legitimate means of expression for artists if they choose to put their energy into crafting a collection of songs that are meant to be heard in a particular order, but it doesn’t worry me that listeners can “cafeteria” their listening experience these days. I aim to write songs that stand alone, that exist in their own realms. If anything, it’s freeing to me that each tune can now be treated as an individual experience. It is of course possible that I only think this way because I find sequencing incredibly challenging. It’s the same for set lists with me. I have more than enough tunes to fill out an hour or two of music, but it’s the listener experience that I will lose sleep over.

Q: There is obviously way way more music available for people to listen to these days than there ever used to be. How do you as a musician cope with the reality of what surely seems to be an over-saturated market?

A: Honestly, I ignore the fact that there is so much music out there. It would be totally pointless and defeating for me to spend time and energy on the fact that the market is so over-saturated. Because at the end of the day, I’m only interested in reaching the listeners who want and need the music I’m making. And I regularly remind myself that I’m not in competition with anyone else. I’m not angling for anyone else’s piece of the pie—I’m simply making the music I have to make, for my sanity and for my soul, and I trust that it has its own place in the world.

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