What music fans could learn from Terry Callier.

Terry Callier‘s life offers an object lesson in a standard trope, in the music industry. We all know the one – the humble genius, misunderstood by a rapacious industry machine, denied the success he deserved and forced to labour unrecognised programming computers instead of writing songs. In fact, Terry did pretty well compared to the vast majority of artists. You’ve probably at least heard of him. His music is widely known and as so often, will now be better known (and sell better) now he’s no longer with us. Like Nick Drake and many others.

The blame – if there is any – for the lack of full recognition for these kinds of artists is usually laid squarely at the door of the industry. Obsessed with money, it fails to recognise or properly promote these artists, or if it does, rips them off. A lot of the time, though, it also comes down to personality. Not all artists are as comfortable with self promotion as, say, Amanda Palmer, the doyenne of the crowd-funding game, prepared to lay herself out naked and invite fans to pay to paint her green. It helps she already had a fanbase (due to previous major label money spent on promoting the Dresden Dolls) but this is what is required of artists these days. If you don’t sell yourself, you’ll get nowhere.

So what are artists like Callier supposed to do ? Suppose you are a musical genius but have neither the time nor inclination to spend 50% of available time promoting yourself, designing websites, covers, crowd-funding games, doing social media, and all the other stuff that gets in the way of actually making some music ? Yes, musicians now have all the benefits of cheaper recording tools, instant distribution on the web, instant ability to communicate to thousands round the globe- (not that this works too well – we all know the problem of musician created spam, and we all ignore it – it killed myspace) – and in that respect we no longer need big labels for anything other than promotion.

Or we shouldn’t … yet the effect of the internet has been the opposite of might have been. Even so-called ‘DIY artists’ now have to play exactly the same promo games as the major labels. We are all ‘commercial’ now, whether we like it or not. Artists now need 20 million Spotify plays, every single month, just to net minimum wage. The option of making ‘non-commercial’ music (ie, everything that isn’t straight pop. rock, and hip hop) is still there, but on the average ‘sales’ (ie, streams) those artists are going to get – anywhere between 10,000 and 50,000- there’s simply no income worth counting. It’s beer money, if that. Too many possible sales are lost to pirates, peer-to-peer sharing, and all the other ‘illegal’ ways people now get their music.

Artists know perfectly well that the clock can’t be turned back, that expecting recordings to earn the money they used to simply isn’t going to happen anymore. But that leaves the ‘humble genius’ out in the cold, even more than they used to be. However much they love the art and want to make music, the simple financial pressures of life will mean that it becomes harder and harder to take the risk, to find the time both to write the music, record it, and promote it.

The time has come for music fans to take up the baton dropped by the record companies, to do their part in the new ‘contract’ between those who create and those who consume. For too long, music fans have had it all their own way. They have music on tap, mostly for free, or nearly free. They can find just about any music ever made at the click of a mouse. And they feel entitled to all this. Yet there will be a downside. More and more artists will simply find that producing music for ‘consumer use’ becomes too difficult, too costly, and those artists not too comfortable with pushing themselves or making the compromises necessary to achieve mass consumption will simply stop making music. It’s always been a hard game, but now the cliff face is so high few will find the courage to climb it. Those with any kind of family responsibilities will simply not be able to make that choice anyway.

If your preferred kind of music doesn’t happen to be the (mostly) pap served up by the major labels, then you can no longer just expect it to be served up to you by any form of mass media, whether that’s TV, radio, or the internet. They will only push music they’ve basically been paid to push, even if that’s indirectly (ie, via the advertising that pays the bills for commercial radio) – and if you like artists like Terry Callier, then you’re not going to find them in the mass media.

It’s time to be (however much we hate the word) “pro-active”. Put the time in. Go searching sites like Bandcamp, follow up shares from your friends, and if you find something good, share it on social media, and go on sharing it.

And above all – PAY for it. I know musicians always end up with this request, and most of you feel we shouldn’t.

Well, consider this.

There is a huge difference between zero and 1. Zero pays nothing, achieves nothing, contributes nothing. 20,000 x 0 = … 0   Nada. Nothing. Nowt. Sweet FA.

Yet 20,000 x 1 = 20,000. If you only pay £1 – just £1 – to artists who are offering their work at a ‘name your price’ level (and a lot of us do) – and if enough of you do – then the chances are good that artist will have the wherewithal to continue to create. But if you pay nothing at all, then you can be fairly sure that at some point the artist will simply stop creating.

It shouldn’t be too much to ask. You’re all quite happy to pay £2.50 for a rubbish cup of coffee from Starbucks that cost pennies to make, and is gone in 5 minutes. Yet somehow you believe that paying even £1 for music that cost thousands to make and lasts a lifetime is something you shouldn’t have to do, anymore.

We’re not asking for millions, for fame, for fortune. Just enough to continue to create. And if you prefer to blame the industry for Terry Callier’s lack of proper recognition or ‘success’, fair enough – but in the future the blame for that will have to be laid at the music fans’ door.

The music fan now has all the power. It’s YOU who is responsible for what music gets made, YOU who is responsible for supporting the artists you love. Don’t expect the industry to do it, because the industry is only interested in lowest common denominator music that can be sold to millions.

It’s up to you, now. If you find music you love, pay something for it. Or you probably won’t find it again. And you certainly won’t find artists of the calibre, honesty, and humble genius of Terry Callier.

1 thought on “What music fans could learn from Terry Callier.

  1. Rob

    Hi Tom,

    I largely agree but I’ll repeat a few points I’ve made before. No artist is going to make a living from streaming music subscribers, unless something changes. There are several successful business “models” (they aren’t really models, you can’t pick one up like a blueprint). Each modern independent artist does their own thing, but none of them work by pumping Spotify plays.

    As you know I follow quite a few independent artists, pro and semi-pro, and I would say the world you hope for is here now. But it won’t be for everybody. A lot of artists are still disappointed and maybe this isn’t their time, or maybe they’re not good enough.

    I don’t know if Terry Callier was happy with his lot. He was certainly a great singer and as you say quite widely known. I have no idea whether he made a living but he certainly seems to have had a good musical life. One thing I have learned is that chart success is no longer any kind of benchmark. Every artist has their own ambition and their own definition of success.

    Finally I disagree about Amanda Palmer and her record label. Before she was signed she made a living from busking, music or anything she could, and she financed the first Dresden Dolls record without a label. Based on that success she was signed but the label was not good for her or the band and they terminated the contract. I can’t see that her label did anything for her at all (they are now bankrupt) but I do see her working 24 hours a day on her career. It’s true, some acts are assisted by a label but not that many, most bands these days have to demonstrate considerable success before they get any interest at all.

    The nature of the new music business is something we won’t see on TV or in the media. It’s a much more individual industry with smaller audiences and low key careers, but people can earn a living nevertheless. Often their fans are the only ones who know they exist.


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