Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A Changin’
Bob wasn’t singing about the music business back in ’64 but that first verse certainly sums up the landscape for artists today. And “if your time is worth savin’” as a singer-songwriter, you will find some sage advice peppered throughout the following interview with Ellis Paul.
Since 1990, Ellis Paul has toured extensively playing festivals, colleges, and clubs on the North American music circuit and in Europe. He has performed over 5,000 shows. Twenty albums of his own music were recorded for both Rounder and Black Wolf Records. Ellis has been the winner of 15 Boston Music Awards and was given an Honorary PHD for Letters for his writing by the University of Maine.
Over the years, Ellis has mentored and taught the craft of songwriting to hundreds of songwriters through his workshops, retreats and one-on-one sessions. We’re privileged to have Ellis leading the charge here at TrueFire as we embrace the singer-songwriter category of education.
Given his accomplished career as a professional singer-songwriter and his vast experience navigating the various iterations of the music business including these present challenging times, who better than Ellis to ask what it takes to be a successful singer-songwriter today?
– Brad Wendkos
How has the singer-songwriter scene evolved from the ‘50s to present day?
In the 1950s, it was a lot of Tin Pan Alley-style songs. Popular music was Big Band era—Sinatra and The Rat Pack (songwriters working mainly out of New York). I don’t think Nashville had produced the Music Row that we know of today at that point, but Tin Pan Alley was definitely thriving. Irving Berlin was alive.
It was post-war and the songs that were being written were in many ways meant to sort of heal and celebrate and bring the country back to the center-place. Within that, there was a contingent of people who were like Pete Seeger and the folkies. They started to gather around this idea of more shared wealth and it was the days of communist-scaring and Pete Seeger was blacklisted and that kind of thing was going on in that period as well in the late 40s, early 50s. The McCarthy Era scared out a lot of the folkies.
Fortunately, rebellion was happening on the rock and roll side of things and people like Chubby Checker and Elvis Presley were starting to emerge. And rock and roll, even though it didn’t deal with a ton of political issues at that point, the music itself was anti-establishment and the writers were singing about sex-drenched innuendo and double entendre. All that stuff was somehow working its way into popular music and popular radio. The emergence of black artists was happening as well within that, which is great. All of the blues forms and rock and roll forms were happening and giving birth in the 50s.
Then the 60s happened. The first part of the 60s obviously was the folk boom. Dylan came out in the early 60s. And Peter, Paul and Mary were probably the biggest pop act in like 1962-63 worldwide. So, they were selling an extraordinary amount of records. The music was pretty community-based kind of content songs.
It’s interesting that that when the Beatles broke, it kind of killed that sort of sing-along version of folk music that has become so popular and suddenly rock and roll was art. It took a few years for them to get to the point where they were putting up Sgt. Pepper. It was released in 1967. Instead of that four-chord blues, rock and roll thing that Chuck Berry was doing, suddenly there were seven chords and these amazing melodies.
That gave birth to the singer-songwriter movement led by artists like Joni Mitchell and Dylan, experimental rock and Neil Young popping out and all of the more singer-songwriter folks in the 70s that emerged–Carol King, for example. That was more about expressing yourself and doing it artfully, combining the content of what those older folk songs were with self-expression, like the Beatles were doing. And James Taylor was emerging.
The 70s were more about the singer-songwriter and you weren’t getting the Tin Pan Alley-style songs in the mix like they were in the 50s and 60s. It became more about an artist who is writing for themselves and performing as themselves, as artists like Simon Garfunkel, James Taylor, John Prine emerged and so on. End of the 70s, the disco era is kicking in and punk music was coming to the fore, which ultimately kind of put a clamp on the singer-songwriter thing. One guy with an acoustic guitar singing songs and one guy on a piano singing the songs became less of what was happening on radio.
The 80s was post-disco. Michael Jackson sort of led that whole decade. Again, the songs became a lot more about production, a lot more about production value, less about the content of the song and more about the hook of the song and the danceability of the song. I feel like in the 80s, the singer-songwriter was lost. And then Tracy Chapman broke in the late 80s, and kicked off a new boom that happened in the Northeast in the U.S. In that boom was Suzanne Vega and all of the Boston area, New York area singer-songwriters that started reaching out and spreading through the web of the U.S. on the folk circuit. Patty Griffin was there, Martin Sexton, Darrell Scott, the list goes on and on. And then John Gorka, Shawn Colvin, those people in Boston emerged.
There were radio stations playing singer-songwriters that were commercial stations. For a while in Boston, I got more airplay than Aerosmith. I would go out to a theater in town and there’d be a thousand people there to see one man and the guitar. It was a pretty special time for all of us there.
In the 90s, there were clubs in every corner in the Northeast. You could play in churches and in theaters and colleges, nightclubs, bars. Everybody was presenting folk music, and in radio stations in Boston. Lots of New York playing this kind of music.
And then, in the 2000s the movie “Brother, Where Art Thou?” came out from the Coen Brothers and it had an Americana soundtrack, which is sort of a mix between country and bluegrass. That was the biggest record of the year. It won Record of the Year at the Grammys. It sold like four or 5 million copies. Suddenly, the singer-songwriter was less cool and trios playing banjos, mandolins and acoustic guitars became the cool thing. Everyone was wearing flannel and beards. Suddenly, the shift in the American songwriter movement was more towards Americana, less towards the pensiveness of the singer-songwriter.
There’s a place for singer-songwriters out there on the American folk circuit. The Americana thing is thriving, and a lot of songwriters and touring bands. Bands are really hard to keep going. You have to be pretty extraordinary to be successful in a band because the expenses are so high tour-wise and the Internet has completely changed the focus of record labels. So independent music is what most of us are doing at this point (myself included). I was signed to a record label in the 90s and put out seven albums. But now it’s about YouTube and Facebook and Instagram and Spotify. This is the challenge of where we are now.
We are at a cultural crossroads that have taken music out of the hands of the few and given it to the hands of the many. Which means more people can actively engage in it.The music business is no longer reserved just for the talents of a handful of artists who were lucky enough to get signed and have a major label behind them.
Today, hundreds of thousands of artists can forge a career for themselves. There are singer-songwriters that are not even touring. Some of them are just playing from their home and putting their music up on Spotify. And doing YouTube videos and Facebook Live and they’re managing to collect an Internet audience springing in a trickle of money, maybe not enough to live on, but they’re having access to tens of thousands of people.
I see some of these videos of musicians doing cover songs of popular music that are coming out on the top 40. Then they do an acoustic version of the song the second it hits the charts and they’re getting 200,000 to 300,000 hits on those songs. There’s all these ways to engage as a musician with the Internet. But it starts with great songs, then it goes to great performing, and then it goes to great marketing and social media and getting your songs recorded well.
That’s a lot of layers. Unfortunately, for better or for worse, all of that is in the hands of the creator now: The creator of the music. The burden is pretty great, but you don’t have to leave your home though to have access to people and that’s a beautiful thing. So, I’m doing shows from my living room and 400 people from around the world tuning in on their laptops and computers in their homes and watching me play, which is extraordinary. I don’t even have to leave the house to make a little bit of money and entertain people. To think you can do that from a cell phone is just remarkable.
What does it take to be a singer songwriter today?
The days of earning a living from record sales alone are long gone. And relying on your label to handle promotion, marketing, and all of the myriad business tasks associated with touring and selling records is likewise a thing of the past for the vast majority of artists. In fact, even having a label is rarity today.
So today, how do you be an artist when the majority of your time, 90% of your time, is tactically at a computer screen and trying to make Facebook posts and book your own shows and be your own record label and be your own videographer? And, how do you do that — and be successful at it — while nurturing your creativity, writing, recording songs, and touring extensively to earn a living?!
So, how do you do that?
Today, I released a video and it’s going out to the world for the new album and I recorded it with my cell phone and edited it on my laptop and didn’t spend a dime on it and it’s a great video.
It’s going out to the world and will probably have 40,000-50,000 hits on it in a week or so. There was no intermediary really involved in it, other than just the promotion person I hired to get the word out. So, it’s all on me. The song was written by me and recorded by me. I did the video. The album is owned by me. All the money is going back to me. But, if this was on Atlantic Records, that same moment might be seen by 500,000 to 5 million people.
And so yeah, I’m in control. I get to do all the choices. I love the creativity, but I don’t know that we’re going to get a James Taylor or a Joni Mitchell in our culture again because it’s just so hard for songwriters.
I somewhat feel like the successful singer-songwriters of today are the ones who are not just amazing songwriters, but also really good at social media and managing their own business. I think you have to, if you want to really make it today as an artist, you have to be a good business person. You have to be organized, you have to have your creativity feed into your business style and your postings and in your photographs.
You have to allow that creativity that you’ve been pouring into the songs to pour into your business presentation. In order to have impact, it’s like the only way you can really be heard.
While technology certainly had a role in dismantling the traditional music business of record sales and royalties, you seem to be fighting fire with fire by using technology to replace those lost revenues?
Yeah. That’s certainly true. When records sales left, about a third of my income left as well. There used to be stores that would sell 10,000-20,000 records of mine every year, and then I would sell 10,000-20,000 records, and all that income is now gone. So how I’ve made up for it, is by stretching out, doing things that are outside of the normal definition of what a songwriter does.
I look at myself and my business now as a media company and I managed to replace much of that lost record sales income with online income — teaching at TrueFire, hosting camps and retreats, doing online concerts, having online subscription channels, creating teaching tools like my posters, and all of the other stuff that I’m doing. I can do a lot of it from home, which is really, really great.
In fact, on the way here to speak at SERFA, I put a cell phone on a stand in my car and I did my TrueFire channel video in the car. I think it came out great and so did my students.
I just said, “Listen, this is why videos are important. I’m releasing a video tomorrow and here’s the story.” My audience loved it!
You often refer to yourself not only as a singer-songwriter but also as a media company. What do you mean by that?
I feel like I’m a very creative person. I have been from the very beginning of my life and all the way through school with my parents fostering that creativity and helping to make that happen. Now, it’s clear that my role in life is not as a touring singer-songwriter. It’s more of a media company.
That’s the only way you’re going to have success in this technological era that we’ve entered. You can’t call yourself a singer-songwriter and expect to be successful just based on that thing that you do of writing songs and touring. You are the person that’s getting the music out now.
You are the record label and manager. You’re guiding the booking. You’re doing everything. Then you’re doing videos and marketing and all of that stuff. I decided that if I’m creative as a songwriter, why can’t I be creative as a business? As a media company? So, I started focusing on really creative storytelling and creative presentation.
All of the video music videos that I’ve been working on, they’ve got to be creative partners with the content of the song. The more I’m in control of that, and the more I’m the one guiding it, the more I feel the fingerprint of my DNA is there as an artist. I want that to be in every branch of the media company that I’m creating. That means books, videos, songs, posters, art, and albums. That’s what I produce. I produce content.
Teaching people online, doing courses for TrueFire, I’m mentoring people one-on-one online. I want that to be part of the media thing and that obviously involves video and recordings. I want to tell my story not just as a songwriter, but as a media company. My hirings from here on out are going to be based on who is media savvy that can support this mission of my new company.
It’s not going to be who can make me the best songwriter in the world and the most famous, it’s going to be who’s going to be a great partner in making all the branches of this media company reach out into the world and share my creative life, which has evolved way beyond just my songs.
Beyond song craft, what other skills, technical or otherwise, does today’s singer-songwriter need to cultivate?
Well, certainly video is really important. You’re running a media business. Your home audio recording skills, of course, have to be great for your own music. Those skills are really important for home demos and stuff. But also, the video aspect is really important.
I’m about to put out a new record. I’ve already done three videos for it. I’ve spent a total of $450 for three videos so far. So I’m doing it basically all in-house. I just bought cameras and I’ve learned video editing and developed a better understanding of storytelling as a video maker.
As a songwriter, you visually tell stories through lyrics and music and kicking that skill into the video-making is really important to sell yourself and to sell your songs and to sell your albums with. That’s a really, really important thing to know.
Understanding the Internet and all of the relevant search words and how that science works with your postings is also a really important thing. Understanding social media and how to effectively use it, how to speak from the heart while you’re doing it, rather than just selling, selling, selling. All of those things are really important skills.
Given the demise of record sales and royalties from those sales, is mailbox money still attainable for artists?
Yes, while mailbox money from record sales may be declining, it’s still achievable. For me, mailbox money represents my songs working for me rather than me working for my songs. It’s the difference between me filling my car with a bunch of CDs and hauling ass around the country selling these songs.
It’s the songs themselves working in a way, like in a movie, television, or advertisement and we put them out in the world, suddenly you get this check in the mail from your Performance Organization, SESAC or BMI and you made $3,000 in the Netherlands because somehow that song found support across the ocean and is earning income for you, which is really, really great.
So, coming up with ideas where you can get that kind of income. Amazon is really great. I’ve put out children’s books and sold a couple of children’s books online through a publisher, which brings in royalties for me. The CDs themselves bring in royalty, although that’s getting less and less as CDs go out of fashion. Spotify, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, all of those bring in a trickle of money. If you’re lucky enough, and you have a song that breaks, that gets a couple million plays on YouTube. We can make $4,000-$8,000 dollars from that attention and that’s an amazing thing.
So, the dream, of course, is that if something were to happen to you and you can’t travel, you can’t be there on the road, or you have a kid that gets sick, and how do you make money? Having that mailbox money is sort of like a safety net.It will help you in retirement. It’ll help you.
What are other ways that artists today can generate that lost mailbox money?
Today, you get mailbox money through streaming and airplay, and that’s about sending out your CDs to radio stations and making sure you’re set up on Spotify and Amazon and iTunes. That’s an obviously good thing to do and sometimes it’s only a trickle of money.
You can go online and register your songs at various libraries that are screened by moviemakers and television advertisers and who are searching for songs to be used in film and music and the music in advertisements and things like that. That’s good.
You can teach, obviously, as I’m doing on TrueFire, and get a dedicated fanbase through your teaching skills and mentorship. I think that’s very valuable in sharing your information with people. I think that one-on-one, it’s really valuable to people who are looking to get better at music. So teaching is really great.
Performing online, again, like Concert Window, taking advantage of YouTube in a way to generate income, using AdSharing on YouTube videos. I lead vacation trips to Alaska to Ireland, to Maine. I lead a group of vacationers out every year and do music at night for them. Then I have a working vacation during the day, which is great. And obviously I use my other art skills. Anything I’m creative at, I’m monetizing somehow.
How are you generating mailbox money through online mentoring and teaching?
I produce interactive video courses on songwriting with TrueFire, which are sold online and generate royalty income. I produced teaching posters for songwriters that, in a glance, can give people inspiration for the day as they go about the task of writing. So, that creates Amazon orders and more revenue. I’m teaching and mentoring people through my channel on TrueFire, which generates subscription revenues. I’m just building it, but I feel like my songwriter channel is a place for people to go and have a touchstone with a community of other songwriters where, especially if they’re isolated, they don’t have access to other people who are doing this kind of art. They can go, they can see how one songwriter is living his life and what that looks like and get a little mentorship from me and maybe insight into how to be a better musician on their end.
Give us a glimpse of what life on the road looks like for a singer-songwriter just starting out?
Well, you start with recorded music, creating a website for yourself where you can establish some sort of business identity and brand online to reference for getting shows and for fans to go out and get information on you.
So, you go out and record an album, you create a website around your business, and then you send that album out, probably these days as an EPK with a photograph, some videos of you online that you’ve put up on YouTube.
Then you start making cold calls and emails to venues that you know do original music to try and get some work. Then, a lot of people will get a string of shows that go out for two or three weeks and jump in their car and they do their first tour that way.
They go play to 10 to 15, sometimes 30 people on a good night. House concerts, coffee shops, maybe an opener for a national act at a club or two. But that takes hours and hours and hours of many fruitless emails that go out and they’re so frustrating cause no one responds to them.
But, over time, you build your reputation with those venues and you become a regular at those venues. And the fruit of that work pays off when people start showing up more and more.
The more you go, the more they come. So, it starts with a 10-person audience, goes to 25, and it goes to 35 by the third year. By the fifth year you have 75. Then, suddenly, there are 150 people there. You’ve built your audience simply through album sales at the shows, a little bit of Spotify, YouTube play. Then suddenly that same circuit where you were only making $200 a night the first trip through and now you’re making $1,000 to $2,000 a night. And that’s the best-case scenario. It rarely goes that smoothly for everybody, but it’s pretty much the way I worked.
What advice would you give to an aspiring singer-songwriter?
Well, number one, it all starts with songs. It’s all driven by the quality of your songs. They have to be honest, they have to be well crafted, and they have to be produced in a way that makes people respond emotionally to them. Everything that you do is based on those things.
Then you have to organize your business. Ask yourself what do you want to do? How do you want to live within a career of being a songwriter? What does that life look like to you? What are your goals? What are your lifestyle choices? That’s going to be different for everybody.
I would strongly suggest creating community around you, finding other songwriters who are in your space, finding mentors who are beyond you in both age and experience who can keep your mistakes to a minimum. They can tell you what mistakes they made. They can make your learning curve quicker.
Take classes, go to retreats, go to these music conferences, and meet people because it’s about information, it’s not just about doing this from home and looking on the Internet and thinking all the answers are there.I think you need to get one-on-one with people who are doing this like you are and like what you want to be doing. You need to learn from each other.
Fortunately, with songwriters, it’s a pretty great community for finding those people and people are generally willing to share. It’s competitive, and it can be as cutthroat as any other kind of competitive business, but there are friendships to be made and great experiences to be had. Believe me, the payoff of those things, the friendships, the experiences far outweighs the money that you’re ever going to make, whether you’re Paul McCartney or Ellis Paul. It’s those connections and the lifestyle of living in very, very creative life. There’s no monetary value you can put on it.
Then, learn how to use social media, because every songwriter from this date on has got to be a master of that part of their business in order to be heard, and in order to have those great songs heard because a great song that’s written but not put out there properly.
It’s sort of that tree falling in the forest thing. If it makes a sound and there’s no one there to hear it, is there a sound to be heard? That’s the same way music is.