Careers for a Song

By Jim Cullen

So you want to be a folk music star. You have your guitar, your mouth harp, your banjo and/or your fiddle and you'd rather sing than do most other jobs.

Don't count on making a living off your music, but if you don't want to rule out a career on the road, the North American Folk Alliance can give you a reality check. The Folk Alliance ( had its 18th annual international conference in Austin Feb. 10-14. Not only did some 220 bands get showcases in the downtown Hilton, as well as the opportunity for others of the 2,000 registrants to jam with like-minded folkies in lobbies and hotel rooms till all hours of the night, but the conference also offered workshops on practical matters, such as how to deal with the Internet, the record business, starting your own label, finding an agent and putting together a support team.

Jane Siberry, originally from Toronto, bridged the gap between folk and pop music when she recorded for A&M and Warner Bros. Records in the 1980s. She had her biggest hit in 1993 with "Calling All Angels" from her eighth album, When I was a Boy. But after her next CD, Maria, had disappointing sales, she started her own independent label, Sheeba Records, in 1995. Filling mail orders and other business demands kept her from releasing new original material, so this past November she instituted "self-determined pricing" at her Web site ( Buyers can download her music as MP3s for whatever "feels right to your gut." (While the suggested rate is 99 cents, she reports that 9% pay below that, 12% pay above and the average price she gets is $1.17.) The downside is she doesn't put out CDs, but you can download art and make your own CD.

This makes sense to Siberry, who recently shed most of her personal belongings as part of a "spiritual cleansing." She has reduced her music collection to 20 CDs, her book collection to five, her clothes to one suitcase and her furniture to zero.

"You do music because you love it, and then you have to interface with the music business," she said. "I don't understand why musicians expect to make a living," she added.

Terri Hendrix has been a local favorite in the Austin-San Marcos area for about 15 years, and formed her own label, Wilory Records (formerly Tycoon Cowgirl) in 1996. She says she pays her mortgage off the CD sales and MP3 downloads from her Web site at In the workshop, "How to Be Your Own Label," she urged musicians to get their own Web site and spring for a good graphic arts person to make it snappy.

"The perfect situation is when the [commercial] label is doing more for you than you can do on your own," Hendrix said, but often you do better on your own. Her sidekick, Lloyd Maines, a producer with long experience in Texas music, commented, "When you sign with some label, you're essentially signing away part of your soul."

The five things any aspiring musician should do, Hendrix advised, include 1) learning how to use a database so you can keep track of fans and industry contacts; 2) getting a Web site; 3) forming a team to help you with your business affairs; 4) registering your label's name with the appropriate county or state office; and 5) getting a post office box. Also, sign up with either ASCAP, BMI or other groups to handle song royalties. And don't let your distributor get too many CD copies, because it might be a while before you get paid for them, if at all.

Maines said the first thing to do "is to get 15 of your friends who believe in what you do to come to the coffee shop or wherever and support you." If you can't get booked into a venue, get friends to host house concerts, Hendrix added.

Growing up in Yonkers, N.Y., and listening nights to WWVA radio from Wheeling, W.V., Chip Taylor tried professional golf, but his biggest passion was country music. He did a demo when he was 15 and got rejected by a lot of record company people, he said. But his guitar player believed so much in his talent that he walked the streets of New York until he found a record company executive who would sign him. "If it wasn't for Greg, I wouldn't be here," Taylor said.

Taylor signed with Warner Brothers Records in 1961 and had his first big hit in the early '60s -- "Just a Little Bit Later On Down the Line," performed by Bobby Bare. During the 1960s, he wrote such rock hits as "Wild Thing," "Angel of the Morning," "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" and others.

He gave up music in the 1980s to become a racehorse handicapper and blackjack counter. While he acknowledges that gambling was an addiction, he adds, "I was good at it." His mother's illness caused him to start playing songs again for her and the addiction to songwriting returned, replacing the gambling addiction. In the mid-1990s, he went back on tour and in 2001, he teamed up with Austin-based fiddler Carrie Rodriguez, with whom he now duets. "My big thing since I returned to music business is playing for people," he said.

Folkies are legendary for arguing over what constitutes folk music. Taylor, who acknowledged that much of his early music -- such as "Wild Thing" -- would not fit the standard category of "folk music," said the distinctions are largely meaningless.

"To me, music communicates or it doesn't. Folk music is the music of the people, whether it comes from Little Richard, Elvis Presley or Peter, Paul and Mary."

The North American Folk Alliance has five regional chapters in the US and one in Canada. See

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2006

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