Can Charlottesville singer-songwriters make a living in the file-sharing age?

Sarah White and Josephine performing at The Southern Cafe and Music Hall during a WarHen Records artist showcase earlier this month. Photo: Martyn Kyle. Sarah White and Josephine performing at The Southern Cafe and Music Hall during a WarHen Records artist showcase earlier this month. Photo: Martyn Kyle.

“Why isn’t Charlottesville Athens?” James Wilson said, repeating a question I had posed to him. “They have R.E.M. We have Dave Matthews. We both have about the same amount of venues, same size. It’s a tough one. It really is.”

It was clear, watching Wilson, that it wasn’t the first time he’d considered the subject. In a sense, he’s been living it ever since he got together with his brothers five years ago and started a band, Sons of Bill, named after their UVA literature professor dad. Wilson is a singer-songwriter. The kind of person who wakes up every morning thinking there’s a melody waiting for him and it’s his job to find it.

He’s also the kind of person who showed up late for an interview at his own house twice, once because he needed cigarettes and the other because he had to walk his parents’ dog. The second time, he unfolded his 6’2″ frame out of a weathered Jeep, apologized profusely in his mannerly and down-home way, before leaning up against the back of the truck, hanging his boot heel on the fender and turning his face to the sun to light a cigarette.

James Wilson is a sepia-toned hero of honky tonk stuck in a digital world that makes his literate head spin. Ask him a question, and you can see him turn inside out chasing the answer, like it’s as elusive as a song, or like you’ve asked him about Faulkner’s portrayal of the Southern man.

That morning, leaning back against his truck just off Avon Street, he treated the industry question with a practical philosophy, like working out how to get a truck out of a ditch.

“Dave could sell out Trax every single fucking Tuesday night. And then he’d go to the Flood Zone in Richmond on Thursday night and sell that out. Every week,” Wilson said. “We’re one of the bigger bands to come out of Charlottesville and we can only sell out the Jefferson three times a year. And that’s overplaying. Our agents are pressuring us to not play so much because it’s too hard to get people to come out.”

James Wilson. Photo: Jack Looney.
Sons of Bill frontman James Wilson says his new song “Bad Dancer” was inspired by John Cusack’s portrayal of Lloyd Dobler in the film Say Anything and by Homer’s The Odyssey. Photo: Jack Looney.

Sons of Bill got together when three of the four Wilson brothers (James, Abe, and Sam) found their way back to Charlottesville in 2007 for various reasons and picked up two friends who could play drums and bass (Seth Green and Todd Wellons). They entered a UVA battle of the bands contest after a couple of practices and won the contest, which furnished them three days of free recording time. Two weeks later they recorded their first record, paying out of pocket for four additional days in the studio. That spring they sold out Starr Hill Music Hall twice and unloaded the 1,000 CDs they made almost overnight.

In the wake of becoming the town’s new “it” band, Red Light Management swooped in and got their signatures. Fifteen years ago, that narrative could have been the prelude to a meteoric rise through the ranks of the music industry. But the Internet has changed the business. Sons of Bill recently broke with Red Light to go it alone. Wilson and his bandmates make what he calls “a very small living” playing music professionally.

“It was mutual,” he said of the management split. “We didn’t make enough money that it was affecting anything significant to them. At the same time it was our lives and we needed more attention that they couldn’t give us. It was in our best interest to go on our own.”

The band will release two brand new songs this month, recorded at White Star Sound in Louisa County and pressed as a vinyl 45 by Warren Parker and Michael Hennigar’s Charlottesville-based label WarHen Records.* They are still looking for new management, but in the meantime, they’re set to employ a new business strategy with the help of local digital marketing company Vibethink (who made C-VILLE’s new website and does digital marketing for The Festy Presents) to get their music to fans and promote their album Sirens, which was released last year.

I interviewed five singer songwriters with really different perspectives on the music business in a town full of musicians. All of them are working hard and none of them is getting rich. Is it the town? The painful and slow adjustment to a new model in the music industry?

The fact that we can even ask why Charlottesville isn’t Athens is probably a sign of the town’s musical ambition. The University of Georgia is quite a bit bigger than UVA and more connected to its downtown, but there is still the sense that because of the Dave Matthews Band and Coran Capshaw and Red Light, Charlottesville is poised to become a new industry hub, a place where singer-songwriters can come to meet the business folks who will take a chance on their talent. That would make it, the logic follows, the type of town where the top local acts might have a leg up on landing a space on a national tour with a big name act, or at least, a decent chance at building a regional following.

The question can also be used as a lens on the industry. Take the acts that put the two towns on the musical map a half decade apart. Thirteen years and nine albums after R.E.M.’s first record Murmur was named Rolling Stone’s Record of the Year, the band scored an $80 million record deal, the biggest in history at the time, when they re-signed with Warner Bros. in 1996. In the interim, bands like Widespread Panic, Indigo Girls, and Drive-By Truckers flourished, turning Athens into the “Liverpool of the South.”

DMB released a live album, Remember Two Things, on Bama Works in 1993, breaking industry rules by letting fans share nonprofit bootlegs and pre-empting the file-sharing issue. By the time they released Crash in 1996, they were the biggest band in the world. By keeping their publishing and merchandising rights and working each record on long summer tours, the band created a formula (not dissimilar to The Grateful Dead’s) that’s preserved its financial success across the file-sharing revolution. But another major act hasn’t come out of Charlottesville since then.

“When Athens really made its name, the music industry was still heavily fueled by record sales and success was gauged in that specific way,” said David Purcell, a professor of music business who also operates Music Royalty Solutions, a firm specializing in business management and financial solutions for independent recording, performing, and songwriting artists. “I don’t know that a scene is going to develop in the same way any more.”

Purcell has spent the last decade watching the music business change, as a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston and then as part of NYU’s music business program before landing as an assistant professor at Columbia College’s Arts, Entertainment, and Music Management program. He preaches a mantra of new opportunity to artists that includes pushing subscription platforms, merchandise bundling, themed tours, sharing fan bases, and pursuing licensing opportunities in the U.S. and abroad.

He also delivers a healthy dose of reality. File-sharing platforms like Spotify and Pandora won’t ever generate revenue for what he calls “the super-majority” of artists and he doesn’t buy into the notion that there’s money for everyone on the road. Instead, he sees the file sharing world as a kind of primordial soup out of which to grow a new species of music success.

“The likelihood of artists getting famous because they’re on Pandora or Spotify is miniscule. That being said, it’s still important that they use all the platforms. They really need to have a checklist of all the different tools and platforms,” he said.

Ultimately, Purcell doesn’t have any magic bullets. Streaming, file sharing, YouTube videos. iTunes and BandCamp, Spotify and Pandora. Placements in film and TV, and international publishing deals. Artists need to push in every direction, but they also have to recognize that the scale of success isn’t what it used to be. May never be again.

“Do they aspire for it to be a primary vocation and revenue-generating part of life or not?” Purcell asked. “If it is, you need to look at the reality. There are opportunities to make money, but you have to really target your audience and the amount of money you can make has changed.”

When Wilson was a kid, his dad, also a singer-songwriter, was playing Shakey’s Pizza and James was trying to sneak into Trax. Now he’s playing the biggest venues in town, but he can’t figure out how to make money.

“Nobody knows what to do to make music profitable. It was boring in the ’90s but you knew what you had to do,” Wilson said. “You found a band, you signed ’em and you got ’em on the radio, and it either exploded or it didn’t. It all revolved around selling the disc.”

Even if you sell a venue out, smaller bands have a hard time commanding the price tag to make it worthwhile.

“It’s cool for bands to bash the venues and I get it. I’ve been screwed. I’ve gotten my teeth kicked in. But I feel for them. A lot of times when they take risks they take huge losses and they’ve got to kick in the teeth of the bands they can make money off of,” he said.

As a songwriter, though, Wilson is in high feather. He spent a few months dabbling in working for a Nashville publishing house, an effort that produced a joke country song called “50,000 Times More Country Than You Are” and he’s about to release a sensitive single inspired by John Cusack and, true to Wilson’s literary roots, Homer.

“Bad Dancer” is the story of the angst-riddled boy who will love you best, the type of guy who can’t dance necessarily but won’t ever let you go.

“Have you read The Odyssey? I haven’t read that book in years. How he killed off all her lovers and burst into tears,” the song ends.

“The awkward lover is actually the best lover, but he’s on the outside, just like Holden Caulfield,” Wilson said.

* An earlier version of this story omitted Michael Hennigar as the co-founder of WarHen Records.