The role of the singer/songwriter has been democratized as never before. As more and more musicians have taken to writing, recording and releasing their own work, what constitutes success has been redefined. We have entered an era of microstars and niche cults, where a performer can sustain (or at least justify) a career with a small but loyal fan base nurtured show by show and song by song. For every Sufjan Stevens or Sara Bareilles enjoying high-profile careers, there are thousands of artists who are building devoted followings below the level of mass exposure.
Bhi Bhiman is the sort of singer/songwriter who stands out from the crowd. The fact that this 29 year-old St. Louis native (now a Bay Area resident) is of Sri-Lankan ancestry helps set him apart from similar acoustic guitar-strumming solo artists. But it’s the big wailing quality of his voice and the literate, bitingly satiric nature of his songwriting that makes him truly noteworthy. Songs like “Guttersnipe” (a modern-day hobo’s anthem), “The Cookbook” (a dead-on dissection of a corporate fat cat) and “Kimchee Line” (a vignette of a harried North Korean worker) combine a strong command of craft with an underlying compassion and sense of the absurd, inviting comparisons with Randy Newman and John Prine.
Bhiman has earned the praise of long-time rock critic Robert Christgau and a featured spot on Britain’s popular TV show Later…with Jools Holland. In days gone by, his career path would probably have led him straight into the arms of a major label. He may end up there yet, but in the meantime he’s accomplished a great deal with independent releases and opening gigs with the likes of Josh Ritter and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. He has a career strategy in tune with the realities of the moment. “I’d rather have 1,000 people who really like me than 10,000 people who think, ‘that’s pretty good,’” he says. “My secret goal is, I want to me the best singer/songwriter out there… I like to win. My parents come from Sri Lanka, where they rank the kids as number one on the island if they test really high. ‘Number One on the island’ – that’s the phrase in our family.”
Bhiman could be content to be top dog on his own island of cult popularity. He has learned to keep his fans engaged through Facebook posts and Twitter tweets, letting them know his sports preferences (he’s a Cardinals fan) and sharing photos from the road while updating his touring schedule. His two albums – especially his sophomore release, 2012’s Bhiman – have received strong reviews. Still, he doesn’t seem the type to be content with scaled-down success.
Like many of the artists who have made a go of it on their own, Bhiman is leery of signing a record deal. “That’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “I don’t want to give up a lot of freedom. However, a big label deal would bring me quite a lot of money, unless they shelve me… There’s a lot of sneaky moves people (at record companies) make, like trying to own my songs for the rest of my life. So I’m not paranoid, but careful about stuff like that.”
Despite the sharp drop in CD sales, Bhiman is among those who haven’t given up on the album form: “I was definitely trying to make a good album with Bhiman. But at the same time, it’s not necessary to do that, at least for some people. It’s a singles society in a way and you can record an album, never release it and just release singles every month if you wanted to. But I’m not a singles guy very often. Next time I record, I will be trying to make a full, coherent album.”
Confident yet realistic, Bhiman views his career with mixed emotions. “I’ve been doing this for a while now,” he says. “I’ve had doubts and I’ve considered quitting, not really believing in myself. It’s been tough – there’s been massive highs and sad lows. I’ll put it this way: If I have a kid and they want to be a singer/songwriter, I would not be super-happy. When you have to be on the road all the time, it’s not a great way to live, in my opinion.”
Beneath the level of singer/songwriters aiming for the big, life-changing break is another strata of artists whose goals are more modest, or at least less defined. These talented men and women are making up their own guideposts of success as they go along, taking detours in and out of active careers. They may not know anything about the ways of the commercial music industry – in fact, they may not see themselves in show business at all. Yet their talent is genuine and their ability to touch others with their music is real.
The experience of Emily Arin is not unlike that of many singer/songwriters who fall into the above category. The 35 year-old Glendale, California native’s music is delicate, well-crafted and bittersweet in tone, somewhat reminiscent of Leonard Cohen or early Paul Simon. Forty years ago, she might’ve been snapped up by a label like Warner Bros. or Elektra/Asylum, showcased at a listening room like New York’s Bitter End or L.A.’s Troubadour and given a modest budget to record a debut album meant to earn airplay on freeform FM or college radio stations. Today, the sort of thoughtful acoustic-based music that Arin makes isn’t particularly useful to what remains of the music business establishment. Such artists are expected to go elsewhere to help cultivate their niches.
Arin’s journey to find an audience for her work has been a roundabout one. Connected with it has been a search for personal wellness that goes beyond the material rewards that record companies used to dangle in front of artists. Her experiences mirror those of many singer/songwriters who aim to find a greater sense of meaning in their lives by forging a bond with a relatively small but significant groups of listeners.
Arin studied piano as a young girl, switched to guitar in high school and had written a few songs before she began studies at Dartmouth College. A weekly gig at a campus venue gave her some performing experience, though her shyness eventually led to her being fired. After graduation, she passed through a series of jobs that led her back to California, where she took a position at her parents’ insurance company in L.A. “I felt very lost after college,” she admits. “I was still writing songs, just for myself. I would play little coffee houses, thinking, ‘I am such a poseur, this is something I am not really good at. But I got enough encouragement from friends to keep going.”
More false career starts followed, including two years at a Traditional Chinese Medicine school, another stint at the family insurance company and two weeks of classes at L.A.’s Musicians Institute. The one thing that stayed constant for her during this unsettled time was her music – “It wasn’t easy for me to write a song, but I was compelled to do it,” she recalls. Unemployed, out of school and desperate for direction, Arin experienced what she calls an “oh shit moment” in May 2006: “I thought, ‘I’ve got to figure out some way for people to support me before I write.’ So I figured out how to set up a website and opened up a subscription series. I sent an email to everyone I could think of and I explained, ‘For 12 bucks, you’re going to get a new song every month with a story…’”
Running through her email list of friends and family, Arin got 70 people to sign up, enough to commit her to recording a dozen new songs in her bedroom. Without realizing it, she became an early adopter of the crowd-sourcing model that became the basis for Kickstarter and similar funding platforms later in the decade. Recording in her bedroom on basic equipment, she began sending out a steady stream of tunes to her subscribers over a year’s time. “Once I sent out a new song, I was immediately thinking of the next one,” she says. “I wrapped up a lot of my self-worth and validation in doing that. It was sort of my life raft in a way.”
At the end of 12 months, Arin had written and recorded a CD’s-worth of material. She got her sister to shoot a cover photo, pressed up her “clunky” home recordings and released the project as Time and Space in June 2007. She offered the album for sale on her website, though the majority of the 2,000 copies she printed were given away to anyone interested. “I’d hand out the CD almost like a business card,” she says. “I did want them to be a part of my livelihood, but I also valued the connectivity of exchanging CDs with people and having a good experience that way.” (This de-emphasis of CDs as a money-making product is common among singer/songwriters. For many artists, the CD has become a souvenir to be autographed and sold after a show rather than a reliable source of revenue.)
Running out of money, Arin moved to Montour Falls, a small town in New York’s Finger Lakes region where he parents had opened a café. While working as a grill cook there, her album was discovered by legendary freeform radio pioneer Vince Scelsa, who began playing her songs on his program Idiot’s Delight, heard on New York’s WFUV. Scelsa was known as a connoisseur of good singer/songwriters, so his endorsement carried considerable weight with his devoted listening audience. With his encouragement, Arin went on a month-long performing tour and began to think about recording another album.
Arin hired Philadelphia-based producer Greg Weeks to give her next record a more professional sound than her first homegrown recordings had. Weeks agreed to work with her for a small fee, then became disillusioned with recording in general and handed the project over to colleague Brian McTear. At this point, expenses began to mount and Amis cashed in her 401K to pay for musicians and studio time. She had already alerted her fan base to expect a new album, so there was no turning back.
Patch of Land appeared in January 2011. The album boasted an atmospheric folk-pop sound, dressing up Arin’s waifish vocals with pedal steel guitar, cellos and Mellotron. The songs were the real drawing card, ranging from wistful love ballads like “Hidden Flame” and “When You Knew Me When” to character sketches like “By the Fiery Glow” and evocative poetic pieces like “Waltz for Spaulding Gray.” Taken as a whole, Patch of Land is intimate and confiding, small in scale and effectively so. It gives the sense of an individual, uncorrupted voice making music for the right reasons.
The story of Emily Arin (thus far) is recounted here because it tracks the experiences of many singer/songwriters these days. Like her peers, she learned to improvise her own strategy for getting heard and to set goals that were both idealistic and grounded in dollars-and-cents reality. Beyond any dreams of breaking into the big leagues, writing and performing songs became a way for her to pursue self-knowledge and address her struggles with depression and related health issues. The activity carried its own rewards beyond conventional show biz success.
Creativity as an act of catharsis and healing is a very real compensation for the hassles of being a singer/songwriter. It’s easy to dismiss this as mere self-indulgence and naval gazing (a charge lobbed at “sensitive” artists like Jackson Browne and Graham Nash in the 1970s). But really, the link between unburdening yourself creatively and uplifting others has always been a defining characteristic of the singer/songwriter. At its best, it’s not so much an act of egotism as a way to build community: “You Got a Friend” writ large.
“What I really wanted to do with songs was offer transformation of some kind,” Arin says. “For me, it was giving myself permission to feel sad, because we spend a lot of time in our masks for the world. In turn, I would get feedback from people thanking me – it was almost like I was giving them permission to tap into those emotions for themselves. So my music was a way to reach out and connect with people.”
Arin sees an explicit connection between her work as a singer/songwriter and her interest of alternative medicine. In 2011, she relocated to Philadelphia and began a therapeutic practice that has grown to include reflexology, energy psychology and mindfulness-based coaching. It seems less of a career shift than a natural progression for her, an outgrowth of her desire to find a way of life that combines personal growth with a stable career and continued involvement in music. The archetype of the self-destructive singer/songwriter – played out in the tormented lives of Tim Hardin, Nick Drake and Judee Sill, among others – holds no appeal for her: “I don’t want one of those biographical arcs where I’m a good artist and people appreciate me but I’m miserable as a human being. So the last few years have been me building a firmer inner foundation. When I perform out now, I’m better and enjoy it more.”
It may be that artists like Emily Arin are the wave of the future – or at least one way for the singer/songwriter model to remain viable. Performing deeply personal songs to a small audience in someone’s living room isn’t so different than guiding a client through a mind/body work session. Once the rules of conventional show business are cast aside, the role of the singer/songwriter is free to take on a variety of new forms, including that of healer.
Of course, it can be said that artists should concentrate on making art, rather than try to affect personal change in others. When the writing of songs becomes ancillary to some other purpose – no matter how high – there’s the chance that the work becomes compromised and debased. This question is worth keeping in mind considering the precarious ability of songwriters – performing or otherwise – to make a living nowadays. Eliminating the possibility of being paid decently to create meaningful music dishonors the very idea of the singer/songwriter.
Singer/songwriter Jimmy Webb is among many music professionals who have condemned the underpayment of royalties by Pandora Internet Radio and other online music services. “It’s laughable, it’s insulting for a young girl to get six thousand streams on Pandora and get a check for two cents, a young girl who’s start a career,” he said in a September 2013 interview posted on ASCAP’s website. We are going to pay the price for this as a nation one of these days because one of these days, somebody’s going to look around and say, ‘Where’s James Taylor? Where’s Joni Mitchell? Where’s Lyle Lovett?’ There won’t be any. There won’t be any because nobody’s going to work for two cents.”
Whether this grim prophesy comes true remains to be seen. In the meantime, thousands of singer/songwriters are making the best of the brave new world before them.