Working for a Song: Vermont Musician Bow Thayer Illustrates Challenge Facing Independent Artists
Bow Thayer takes a break from work on a stone stairway in his Gaysville yard to reacquaint himself with an old guitar while his son River, 3, plays nearby. Thayer has built a studio at his home that serves as rehearsal and recording space. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Bow Thayer has been touring with his band, Perfect Trainwreck, during the month of May. His bus is painted to promote the Tweed River Music Festival. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Bow Thayer, of Gaysville, Vt., works at home before a weekend on the road with his band. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Bow Thayer moves a load of gravel to level a stone stairway he is building at his home in Gaysville, Vt., as his wife Lori Bullett works nearby with their son River, 3. "I do this for my sanity," said Thayer of his building projects. "I have a hard time focusing on things. My mind's like a whirlwind from the minute I get up. This quiets it down a little bit." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Gaysville, Vt. — On a chilly day last week, singer, songwriter and band leader Bow Thayer was replacing the stone steps that run up the rise above his house to the recording studio.
He’d torn up the steps and the adjoining patio a while back to accommodate the underground hot water pipes for his new heating system. Now, he was under the gun to get stones back in place before departing to play some clubs in Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Asbury Park, N.J.
“If I don’t get this done, I’m going to end up in divorce court,” he said with a laugh.
Thayer, who is 46, has been in the music business for more than 30 years, performing, writing and recording. He hopes to make a little money during this weekend’s shows, something that didn’t happen during the band’s performances the week before in New York state.
And although he really wants to cover the expenses of the tour, he’s hoping at least the shows will give Bow Thayer and Perfect Trainwreck some exposure, getting the group’s name before the right people — or at least a lot of people who will build his fan base outside of New England. That might lead to better gigs and bigger bookings. He’s also hoping to sell a few CDs — particularly his new one, Eden — and some “merch” — T-shirts and other band memorabilia.
“The only way to make it in this business is through exposure. You have to get your name out there, and then you hope something will happen,” he said.
“Around here, I know people will show up. They know who we are, and they know our music. But when they don’t know you, it’s a different matter.”
Trying to increase the band’s recognition away from its home territory is expensive, Thayer said. There’s the gasoline and wear and tear on the bus, the cost of food and hotel rooms, and paying the band — “I always make sure the band gets paid first thing,” he said — all for a $250 gig.
“Maybe some people will show up; maybe they won’t. It depends on how much they promote us. It’s pretty disappointing to go all that way and play for four people who don’t know who in hell we are,” he said.
Thayer doesn’t make a lot of money — about $18,000 last year by his reckoning, and he’s being audited by the IRS for that — but he’s optimistic that the right promoter will turn up at a show and fall in love with the band’s music, or that one of his songs will be picked up to run on the soundtrack of a television show, or somehow he’ll find enough money to really do it right.
“My dream is not only to have enough money to live on, but to be able to pay the band to rehearse here (in the studio) every day and to pay them a per diem when we’re not playing gigs. If we could do that, we’d really be good.”
In the meantime, he keeps working at music as his sole source of income, scraping together enough money to produce a new CD every few years. He keeps writing songs and playing gigs at weddings, in bars and the occasional 400-seat hall.
Thayer and his wife, Lori Bullet, and their two children and dog, Libby, live pretty simply. They have a nice home that’s a work in progress — a cabin that Thayer has expanded into a sizable house. It sits up on a hill with a large deck overlooking the White River and the hills beyond. He’s a skilled carpenter, a trade he plied to pay the bills before he decided to devote himself full time to music.
They get by on what he makes and what Bullet is paid for a couple of decent part-time jobs. The new wood-fired boiler provides radiant heat for the house and the studio and saves about $3,000 a year they would have spent on oil. He’s saving money with the studio, an attractive three-story post-and-beam structure he built with used materials and wood he harvested from his property. He did a lot of the work on Eden in the studio, and the band can rehearse there.
He’s already written the songs for the next album, although it will be a couple of years before it’s produced, and he’s got a big show coming up at Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction on May 31. Thayer and the band will share the stage with two other groups for three sets that night.
He’s also getting ready for the Tweed River Musical Festival in August, an event he’s produced for the last five years that draws 2,000 people to Stockbridge. He expects to cover his expenses and to make a profit for the first time this year, he said.
A Little Help From Their Friends
Throughout history, artists have depended on the kindness of friends for support. Thayer and other independent musicians are no different. They know the days of catching the eye, or ear, of a big record company are fading.
Today’s musicians have to promote themselves if they’re going to make it, said Burlington-based singer and songwriter Gregory Douglas, who has recorded eight albums and worked as a producer for other artists. He also advises and coaches musical artists about the business, teaches a music business course, and will have another album coming out soon on his Emote label.
“I was playing too much, and now I really enjoy the back stage of things,” he said.
For the last four of his albums, Douglas has raised the $5,000 to $10,000 he needed through crowd-sourcing. His successful efforts preceded the creation of such managed crowd-sourcing websites as Kickstarter.
Douglas raised the money through his website from fans. For investing, supporters receive rewards, such as signed albums, a private concert or their names in the album’s liner notes. “It’s a way for them to be part of supporting an artist, and the artist covers the cost of production and keeps the proceeds from the sales,” he said.
“A lot of artists are stuck half in the past,” hoping that they’ll land a big recording contract, Douglas said. “I tell my students that they have to think outside the box, embrace a new perspective and have a different mind set. They have to do things themselves and create their own goals. This is an exciting time, but you have to take advantage of steering your own course,” he said.
A good example is Vermont singer and songwriter Grace Potter, who once opened for Douglas and who is now making it on the national music scene with her band, The Nocturnals.
“She has always had a crystal clear path of where she’s going. She’s been unyielding, and it was no surprise that she’s gotten where she has,” Douglas said.
Another way to financial stability for songwriters and musicians is to land a song or two on the soundtrack of a television show (Potter has done that) or in a commercial. But it’s not easy. When the television show Nashville put out a call for unreleased songs, it got 50,000 submissions, a recent report on NPR noted.
“I’ve sent songs to Nashville , and I call and remind them every few weeks that I’m still out here,” said Glory Reinstein, who owns and runs Bluebird Promotions, a Colchester, Vt., company that pitches songs for artists to radio, television and for commercials. Bow Thayer is one of her clients.
“New indie artists need to get their name out there, and as they say, ‘cut through the noise,’ to distinguish themselves above the rest, and they need to do it cheaply. It’s very difficult.
“It’s tough for good indie artists. I really feel for them. They have to go around to gig after gig for very little money. It’s hard, and for some of them, they have to make a decision is it worth it,” Reinstein said.
Under New Management
Recently, Thayer got a break after he reached out for help to his friend Scott Florance, an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles.
Florance has known Thayer and been a fan since about 1995, when he used to see him play at Toad Stool Harry’s, a restaurant and bar Thayer and his first wife owned in Killington, Vt. “I recognized him as a tremendous songwriter and singer right away,” Florance said last week.
A year or so ago, Thayer called Florance and asked him if he’d help produce the new album. He said he wanted to do something different, to get away from his bluegrassy, Americana genre. “I decided that we should do the album in a professional way, and we’ve done that. If it doesn’t meet our expectations on sales, then he’ll at least have something that he’s really proud of, and there’s something to be said for that,” Florance said.
Since then, Florance also has taken on the role of Thayer’s manager. He hasn’t given up his day job, but he’s trying to introduce Thayer to the people he knows in the L.A. music business and to help him expand his fan base beyond New England.
There is no question that Thayer is successful in Vermont, New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts, and he could just keep playing in that area and make a living. But he doesn’t want to do that, Florance said. “He’s very serious about trying to make it outside of the area where he’s known. I think he can do that.
“He’s a really talented guy, but nobody beyond his base knows him. And we have to prove that he can pull people into the seats. That’s what we’re doing now.
“The worst thing that he has going for him is that he lives in Vermont. He needs to live in a major city like New York and L.A. He doesn’t want to leave his family, but he might have to move out here for a couple of months and play and get known. That’s something that’s being considered,” Florance said. “We’re also working on something in Europe. He has some following in Europe, and Europeans seem much more accepting of a great storyteller like Bow. That could work for him too,” he said.
“We’re also working on selling some of his songs. If major artists picked up his songs, that would put him on the map. We have a library of probably 150 really good songs. It’s impressive.
“He’s committed to being a musician, and we’re trying to make it work.”
A Rapidly Changing World
Thetford resident Ed Eastridge has worked as a recording engineer with top artists including Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Wynton Marsalis, Diana Krall, Richard Thompson, Vince Gill, Linda Ronstadt and many others.
He and his wife, singer Dixie Eastridge, have co-founded Big Mo records, which was selling 30,000 to 40,000 jazz CDs a year until recently. Sales for the label’s remaining three artists, Joey D. Francesco, Rod Piazza and the late Danny Gatton, are now only around 1,000 a year with additional revenue coming from downloads from iTunes, Ed Eastridge said.
The sale of music is going digital, he said. “People, collectors mostly, will still buy CDs and vinyl. They just like to have them around, and they like the artwork, but the future is digital,” Eastridge said.
Even the digital sale of albums and individual tunes is rapidly changing, said Neil B. Niman, associate professor and chairman of economics at the University of New Hampshire Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics. The future of the record business is going to be streaming services that require a fee. The services will sort and select music, and subscribers will be able to access the music at any time, he said.
“There’s going to increased competition for leisure activities like listening to music, and people are not going to go to the trouble to discover and go online to search out music. The services will do that for you. It will solve a lot of problems like production and distribution. There will be more accessible music, and it will build demand,” Niman said.
The shift to streaming services is already occurring, he said, noting that Google announced its streaming service, All Access, last week, and Pandora and Spotify have been offering the service for some time.
Google is charging $10 for its service. Pandora and Spotify offer free services, but also charge $10 a month for enhanced versions.
According to a recent survey conducted by The NPD Group, a global research and marketing company, Pandora and other subscription-based and free Internet services account for 23 percent of the average weekly listening time among consumers in the 13-35 age group, an increase of 17 percent over the previous year. Free Pandora accounted for 39 percent of that age group’s Internet listening.
AM/FM radio accounted for 24 percent of music listening time for the 13-35 group, a decline of 2 percent in the last year.
For those 36 and older, Internet streaming services accounted for 13 percent of music listening, while AM/FM radio dominated listening methods with 41 percent, the NPD survey said.
“Driven by mobility and connectivity, music-streaming services are rapidly growing their share of the music listening experience for teens and young adults, at the expense of traditional music listening methods,” Russ Crupnick, NPD’s senior vice president of industry analysis, said in a news release in April.
Google has signed up the largest record labels to launch its program. In the future, independent artists like Thayer will have to pitch their albums to the streaming services, Niman said. “For the artists, it will be much like the old model, when they pitched music to radio stations and the radio stations paid them. Now, they will pitch the music to the streaming services, which will pay the artists a fee like the radio stations did for playing the music,” he said.
The services will allow users to pick and choose the music, will make suggestions and will store the selections on the cloud so consumers will have access to them at any time. “You will be able to pick and choose the music you want to listen to and hear it any time you want. You no longer need to buy the CD, store it and dig it out when you want to hear it,” Niman said.
All most artists can do in this market “is keep playing quality music until something happens to you,” Thayer said.
“But if it doesn’t happen, then at the least you have the satisfaction of making quality music.”
Warren Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3216.