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

One thing White has always been able to manage is writing songs. She grew up listening to her parents’ records, mostly ’70s rock, latching on to Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Linda Ronstadt. She studied literature at UVA and taught herself guitar. Her songwriting process, she says, has never been as disciplined as it has been inspired.

“I’ve had songs that came to me in a dream. Like a melody or something. A lot of people will say that there’s no way anything just comes to you from God or something because we’re surrounded by so much influence that it’s clearly some kind of amalgamation of ideas that you’ve picked up from everywhere. Nothing’s original,” she said. “But I have thought to myself, and I would never say this on tape or in a publication…” She stopped there and put her tongue firmly in her cheek before finishing… “that I was channeling something from somewhere else. That it didn’t happen through me.”

One of White’s first original tunes was a story song called “Edgar” about a Vietnam veteran, inspired by John Prine’s “Sam Stone.” She still plays it as a honky tonk shuffle with her brand new band Sarah White and Josephine.

“In the beginning when I wrote songs it was very insular and kind of like girl in the bedroom with a guitar kind of thing,” White said. “As I learned more and started playing with other people, and I always tried to play with people who were better than me, I learned more about process and structure.”

During the indie music explosion of the late ’90s, White got into bands like The Breeders, Belle and Sebastian, and The Pixies. She signed with the UVA grad Darius Van Arman’s Jagjaguwar label in 2000 and put out Bluebird, but never found the same success that label-mates Bon Iver and Sharon van Etten did. You can still hear the indie sound in Sarah White and The Pearls albums, particularly in songs like “Fighting Words,” which could easily have been released on Omaha’s Saddle Creek label.

“That’s when I really started listening to music in a way that I was trying to figure out how people were putting it together,” she said.

With her new band, White’s gravitated back to her roots. Her dream, she says, is to finish an album she’s been pecking away at for three years.

White said she’s struggled to get her head around the reality of the file-sharing universe.

“You’re kind of expected to be your songwriter, your promoter, your label, your everything,” White said. “I think it’s both freeing, like anyone can do it, and at the same time it’s a lot of work. I’m not good at marketing. Other people are way better at it than me. My interest in that is half-hearted. I try but I can’t keep up with it. I would rather play music with my band. Go record.”

White’s gift is in her phrasing, both musically and lyrically. She transforms simple material into dreamy, aching questions and never relies on formulas to resolve her songs.

From Sarah White & The Pearls’ song “White Light”: “I like the white light of the T.V. I like the midnight when it’s easy. I like the daylight when I’m busy. I like the sunlight in my face.”

Since Devon Sproule and Paul Curreri left town, White’s the most visible member of a whole crew of talented Charlottesville musicians who got their start in the ’90s and have either left town to chase the scene or stayed put and never really caught their wave. I asked her about how she’s seen things change around town since Red Light transformed the music scene.

“I don’t know that it’s changed so much for local acts. I think the Pavilion is great and the Jefferson. There’s people coming here now that would never have come here before and that’s great but that doesn’t really mean that it opens up a door for any regional or local acts because of the nature of the business,” she said. “You’re not going to open for them because they have their package.”

She runs through a series of possible reasons why it’s hard to launch a music career here. People don’t want to pay. It’s hard to cover a venue. There’s too much free music. Not a close enough connection between the UVA student body and the local music scene. In the end, she concedes, it may just be too small a town.

Her dream?

“My dream is to finish my record that in my head I’ve been working on for three years now. Really, that’s my tangible dream. To finish it. And then my dream is to have it heard. And then my dream is to have someone, I don’t know, some hero, say, ‘Damn that’s good,’ and then I ride off to Bodo’s,” she said.

No success like failure…

“I’ve known for a long time that this is it. I really want to make a run for it. I like writing songs. I feel like it’s one of the things I’m pretty good at, a marketable skill.” That’s the voice of singer-songwriter Carl Anderson, 2006 Albemarle High School graduate.

Anderson formed a band called Pine Radio right out of high school, which managed to record an EP and play 10 shows, but the group fell apart when the other band members went away to college. Anderson stayed put and kept playing music, hooking up with Carleigh Nesbit, with whom he played “a lot of shows” over the space of a few years.

RI_ IMG_0355
Carl Anderson grew up in the Wolftown community and graduated from Albemarle High School in 2006 determined to make it or break it in the music business. Photo: John Robinson.

Anderson said he never moved away because he didn’t see the draw of a bigger market.

“It’s less important. The Internet’s changed everything in that way. Everythings happening online,” he said. “Charlottesville’s a great place to live for touring. You can go out on the weekend and play D.C., Philly, New York, and Boston and the same thing in the other direction. You can play North Carolina and Georgia.”

Anderson built his reputation around town playing The Local’s open mic night. He went to Nashville briefly to write for a small publishing house called Ash Street Music, but he gained traction and momentum last year with the release of his first full-length record, Wolftown, which he recorded using money from a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Anderson tours alone in his Toyota Corolla and has found favorable audiences as an opening act for Sons of Bill in regional tours. You can find Anderson’s record on Spotify and he uses to contact small venues and organize tours. He’s confident that his audience is building, but he’s not sure how he’ll make a living in the business.

“Money is a whole different story. I think licensing and publishing is really a place I’ve been focused. Trying to connect with people in Los Angeles and Nashville that work for television shows and place songs in commercials,” Anderson said. “I know there’s money there. But I’m pretty comfortable not making a whole lot of money. I can go out and tour solo in the Corolla with no overhead and if I make $150 a night playing I’m doing pretty well. Or at least I can get by.”

This year, Anderson is focused on finding an agent to help him build his career. To that end, he’s been working closely with Ian Solla-Yates, WNRN’s director of promotions, for the past few months. Every artist I spoke to for this story mentioned that the local radio stations in Charlottesville, particularly 106.1 The Corner and WNRN, have been a huge help to them by playing their music and offering encouragement.

“It’s easy to have doubts when it comes to this, because it is hard to make it now and it is different than it was,” he said. “You have to really go out and work the market because you can’t sit around and wait to be discovered.”

Anderson works as a cashier at The Farm in Belmont during the day and he’s written 17 new songs in the past three months, enough for a new album. Like most musicians these days, he uses a Facebook page, a website, and a mailing list to keep in touch with his fans, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time on goofy videos or writing confessional blog material.

“I think there’s a balance. If you’re too available it doesn’t come across the right way. It can feel contrived,” he said.

Anderson remembers a Ryan Adams concert when he was 16 as a turning point, the moment he recognized this was what he wanted to do. When I asked him about songwriting influences, he mentioned Adams, John Prine, and Joe Pug.

“Here’s this guy getting up on stage alone and it was still…at that point the work has to be so good. Every single line. With a lot of songs, it’s one hook. With Pug, it’s every line. It just made me kind of think I had to take the song more seriously,” he said.

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