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.

  • Susan

    Ellis Paul commands a room with his talent and relatability. Love his storytelling.

  • Warren Parker

    Nice article, and thanks for the WarHen shout and the shot of Sarah White & Josephine from our showcase earlier this month. But I gotta give credit where credit’s due. WarHen isn’t just me – It’s a co-venture with Michael HENnigar!!

    • Giles Morris

      Got it. Sorry about that Warren and Michael. We’ll note it online. Is there a WarHen chant?

  • Ravensworth Studios

    A worthy read…and, certainly reminds us that life can be tough for working musicians. We try to do all that we can to support local music and our talented artists…but, it also takes a village to raise them up. Going to shows and buying their music certainly helps!

  • kitchin

    Wonder if it’s the $0.99 single more than “file sharing” that has tanked music revenues. And “the
    music industry was still heavily fueled” period. So much money then, it
    could fund movie studios many times over. (Case in point, Sony made
    back a multiyear disaster in the film business with one financial
    quarter’s income from Sony Music.) Now it’s the reverse, more or less. The $0.99 single and low-paid legal streaming services. Of course the previous world was unreal and could not last. Same thing may hit Hollywood.

    • Giles Morris

      K, really good question. As I’m sure you know, they’re related. I really didn’t get into the specifics of the way the industry has changed because it would have take 1,000 words just to get to the beginning of how mechanical royalties work for authors these days. Suffice is to say, less money than ever for the generators of intellectual property. Purcell had an interesting quote that I couldn’t fit in the story in which he basically said we’ve gone from paying for intellectual property to paying for access to it.

      • andy gems

        the early days of the record industry were all about the single so to a certain extent, we’ve come full circle back to the single.

        file sharing made a very big impact on sales of recorded music – if anything, the .99 single helped revive an otherwise sagging industry.

        and really, the bottom line is the transition to a digital medium. it was obvious to anyone paying attention back in 98/99 that content was moving to digital distribution and the days of physical product were numbered.

        when the industry moved to CDs, the writing was on the wall. vaults full of master tapes become obsolete and digitized content ensured that every consumer was buying a “master” copy of the content that could be replicated endlessly without any degradation of quality.

        i would argue that we’ve always paid for access to intellectual property and the ownership of intellectual property has always remained with the copyright holder, only the medium has changed.

  • omom

    You never hear John Dearth or B.C. or Rick Olivaris bitching about not enough people showing up at their shows so they can make more money. These musicians do what they must — so they may do what they love. They are not spoiled or self-important in anyway, and it comes through in their music which they happily share for pretty much nothing whatsoever every single week…some of my best musical experiences were had listening to them.

    This obession that some in Charlottesville seem to have about famous singer-songwriter/bands etc., amounts to some weird bourgeois fetish in my opinion…most of the greatest musical talents didn’t make squat, and even more will probably never be known. The roles that most musicians have had in societies through human history were one’s that edified local culture through a participatory spirit that celebrated common experiences and socially significant events. But most of the “talents” in this article contrive these values at best and reek of a disconnected self-interest at worst…though some fans somehow latch on to them because, sadly, they know of nothing better.

    i still think if a band is truly interesting and offers their audience something truly worthwhile, that they will succeed just fine. Maybe it’s more difficult now because one can’t as easily profit from record sales like years ago, but this just means you need a better live show. It’s about a sustained interest, and most bands don’t have it.

    Most bands play a part on stage or consist of members who develop a persona beginning when they decide they want to be famous or whatever…people see through it and these contrivances don’t sustain interest. Nobody really gives a crap after any initial buzz, because such bands don’t offer anything authentic in the present moment…each show is just the same mediocre movie played over and over again. The bands that scratch their heads and don’t understand this, just aren’t hip enough to begin with, and this is ultimately why they fail in the long run.

    I have no sympathy whatsoever for struggling songwriters or bands — they are ridiculously fortunate to even have the chance to pursue such a life-style with any expectation of making a living. There are countless people with real jobs that just don’t give a crap about them…and that’s precisely the task for these “artists” — to get enough people to give a crap about a live show, which must offer something that recorded music and videotaped shows don’t. Otherwise all this talk amounts to rock-star wannabees crying ‘boo hoo hoo…why can’t i be rich and famous?…why don’t more people notice me?’

    It’s no surprise that most of these singer-songwriters/bands come from relatively comfortable and privileged backgrounds, where they steer free from any REAL struggle in life while standing upon the shoulders of countless musical legends who were mostly poor and often unknown, while retaining expectations of some kind of monetary reward for their perceived importance to society….ridiculous!

    • omom

      …having pissed all that out, i must confess that i didn’t read the whole article…oops — i’m actually anfan of both sarah white and carl anderson

  • andy gems

    i’m wondering whether i should ignore omom’s comment because he/she wrote a lengthy reply to an article that he/she confessed to not even reading in full or because it’s off base.

    speaking from personal experience, i would say that all of the musicians in the article and john d’earth, BC, and rick olivarez all do what they must so they may do what they love.

    i think the vast majority of musicians do what they must so they may do what they love.

    again, speaking from personal experience with each and every artist covered in this article and the 3 omom mentioned in his/her comment, i can say with certainty, that not a single one of them is spoiled or self-important and they all play music because it’s in their bones and they love it and they’ll all do whatever they have to, to continue playing.

    to suggest otherwise is off base.

    i’ve got the desire to rebut just about everything else in omom’s comment since so much of it is off base, but then since he/she didn’t even read the article, i’m not surprised.

  • andy gems

    and very nice job on this article – it was very well written and very well done.

    though to a certain extent, i think it highlights the lack of well written and well done music coverage being done by our local weeklies and i think that lack of coverage speaks directly to the question, “Why isn’t Charlottesville Athens?”

    and don’t get me wrong, the cville has been doing a much better job lately of including regular music content both in print and online, but coverage of the music scene in town by all of our local media is still not what it could be to help create a more vibrant music scene in town.

    again, excellent article! more please!

    • muzack

      @ Gems – Ok, since it’s the media’s fault this town isn’t music enough, if they wrote about MMA fights would they make this place Vegas?

      • andy gems

        i certainly didn’t blame it *all* on the media – i’m just pointing out that the lack of music coverage in our local weeklies is just part of the answer to the original question and making the claim that increased coverage of the music scene in town would contribute to a more vibrant music scene in town.

        and yes, once the main street arena starts doing regular MMA fights, coverage of those fights in our local weeklies will def. help create a more vibrant MMA scene in town.

  • Grumplestiltskin

    Cville you do know your pages take forever to load, no?

    I have to agree wth Omom here. Get real kids, it’s the old many called few chosen conundrum. This isn’t choosing nursing, plumbing, or law school, and it’s absurd to expect a living from every earnest attempt. The people who make any kind of living from playing their original music have always been a precious few. And now with every kid with a copy of Pro Tools producing credible recordings from home, there’s just an absolute glut of very good music out there, so there’s nothing precious about music anymore; mp3’s sell for the same price as pack of gum. All the groups featured here are good, but that’s not enough (although I’d tell Carl Anderson to go for it, because he’s bordering on great). And please can we get just over Dave Matthews? It happened but don’t stand around waiting for lightning to hit the same tree again. Get out the Real Book and play Misty if you want a job as a musician.

  • MIke

    Charlottesville does not have as many venues as Athens Ga, Also two very different colleges. Athens has 200 bars in a 4 block grid and many of them have areas for musicians to play. Athens is also much less expensive for artist to live as opposed to living in Charlottesville.

    Athens is a hotbed of talented musicians and on any given day you can hear someone that should be the next DMB, I mean REM there.

    Athens has the fabulous 40 watt club, In my opinion the best music room on the east coast and one of the more popular venues and has been home for REM, Panic, B52, Drive By Truckers,Vic Chestnut, Indigo Girls, The Whigs and so many more.

    The closest thing we have is a room in “The Southern” that compares to The 40 watt. I think Andy does a great job with what he has to work with there, However they are just getting Red Lights leftovers.

    The Athens artist community is well organized and unified, Charlottesville has one person that monopolizes and manipulates the whole music scene and until that person is willing to step out of his comfort zone, Charlottesville will never be Athens Ga.

    Artist need to educate and promote themselves if they want to coexist in this new era of music and make a living at it. The best thing SOB did in my opinion was to distance themselves from RL and look for someone that is a little more hungrier and take them to next level

Comment Policy