By David Randall
Last February”s Grammy Awards in many ways could be seen as the opening of a new era.
John Mayer beat out Elton John, James Taylor and Sting for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance on “Your Body is a Wonderland” from his release “Room for Squares.”
Norah Jones walked away with eight Grammys from her album “Come Away With Me” for everything from Album of the Year to Best Pop Vocal Album.
Both albums slowly creeped up the charts, eventually going multi-platinum, and now, as so often happens in the pop world, it seems that some are labeling or perhaps just wishfully hoping for a new world and a new market for singer-songwriters.
In the 1970s, the coffeehouse went mainstream with people like James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell and Don McClean selling thousands of albums. It was, perhaps, a high water mark and signal of hope for the singer-songwriters plunking out songs in their bedrooms and hoping for a market for their music.
Only time will tell if Mayer and Jones are the start of a wave or just a drop in the pan, but according to Kim Simpson, a veteran of both the Utah and Austin music markets, the success of artists like Mayer and Jones is indicative of how quality singer-songwriters can always have a hope for success.
“The market for singer-songwriters is always open — always; I don”t think it ever goes away,” Simpson said. “Anyone so inclined is perfectly within their rights to have a lot of hope about making it.”
The National Acts
Things have taken off for Jones and Mayer; however, like others struggling to make it in the industry, they came up from the bottom.
Mayer, a Connecticut native and son of parents who work in public education, was discouraged from his musical career by parents who had seen too many kids with big dreams and few backup plans.
“We”ve seen so many teenagers who didn”t pay attention to their studies because they had dreams of being a basketball star or whatever,” Mayer”s mother Margaret told Rolling Stone. “And in the end they got nowhere. We didn”t want to just go, ”Oh, yeah, John, good idea.””
But Mayer was unfazed by his mother”s antagonism.
“She saw my conviction as though I was in a cult and needed to be reprogrammed. So she took me to two different therapists to try to get me to stop playing guitar.” Mayer told the magazine. “I remember standing at my mom”s door and saying, ”Just watch, just watch.” ”
Pursuing his dreams, Mayer was accepted into Boston”s prestigious Berklee School of Music, but when he found it too heavily focused on technique rather than creativity, he headed to Atlanta where he started making the rounds at local clubs in 1997.
Soon enough, interest started building about Mayer and he started flying to New York to meet with record labels. Eventually he signed with a Chicago label, Aware, but was picked up by Colombia before “Room For Squares” was released.
“The record people would always pose questions to themselves and answer them,” Mayer told Rolling Stone. “”Do I think it”s a great record? Absolutely. Do I think that people would want to hear this record? I think so. Do I think that the climate is right for this kind of record right now? I”m not sure.” And I remember thinking, ”Can I just finish my smoothie and go?” I came in pretty headstrong.”
But all negotiating with labels has paid off for Mayer, not only with the million plus sales on Room, but his second album “Heavier Things” debuted at No. 1 in September, selling 317,000 copies its first week.
For Jones, daughter of Ravi Shankar, the legendary sitar player and instructor of the Beatles, it may have seemed her path was set from the start, but she, like Mayer, found her way into the business far from home.
The Dallas native, who studied jazz piano at North Texas University, found herself in New York waiting tables during a summer away from college when she decided to dive into songwriting and performing.
“The music scene is so huge. I found it very exciting. I especially enjoyed hearing amazing songwriters at places like The Living Room. Everything opened up for me. I couldn”t leave,” Jones says on her official Web site.
She soon signed with Blue Note records, and with the hit single “Don”t Know Why,” Jones slowly scraped together the millions in sales on her album Come Away With Me.
Selling at Home
It might not be a stretch to say that Mayer and Jones” stories fulfill the dream of every singer-songwriter – commercial success. And while their record sales and concert receipts may seem paltry next to the millions made by Mayer and Jones, Peter Breinholt and Ryan Shupe are two Utah singer-songwriters who have made not only a mark on the local music scene, but a decent living in music since the mid 1990s.
Breinholt, who caters to his Utah fans and rarely travels outside the state, says he can”t offer much help when it comes to explaining his break into the business.
“Yeah, I do all my own promotion, but I really haven”t done that much,” he said. “[Business] mostly comes to us.”
Breinholt said he”d always written songs but started getting excited about developing his talent when he saw the market for original music start to build around 1990 while he was attending the University of Utah.
“It was a big deal for me to see that switch,” he said.
When Breinholt started playing his songs to live audience at places like Mamma”s Caf? in Provo, he was surprised at the response.
“I was a little overwhelmed by how quickly things happened for us,” he said. “Really quickly I was doing shows. People were really generous.”
In 1993, Breinholt used $1,500 he”d saved for a trip to South America to record his first album, Songs About the Great Divide, which is still his best seller. Now, four albums later, he estimates his total album sales to be around 100,000.
Breinholt said giving advice to those starting out can be a little difficult for someone coming from his position.
“How do you say to someone, ”Well, just play for people”?” he said.
Similarly, Shupe, with his unwaveringly ambiguous answers, found it difficult to dig up any certainty about the source of his success or much else about his career.
“How about this, we”ve sold at least 10 albums,” he said after questioning his initial guesstimate of 30,000.
Shupe, a fourth generation violinist, has been playing in musical groups since he was 10 and has toured across the United States and Europe.
The Ogden native attended Weber State University and has been playing to both local and national audiences with his group Ryan Shupe and The Rubber Band for the past six years.
Initially, the bluegrass/pop sound caught more attention outside Utah at bluegrass festivals, but more recently, Shupe has built an in state following similar to Breinholt”s.
“We have been blessed with a pretty good following,” Shupe says. “We”ve got more and more support as time goes on.”
And the support and work on Shupe”s part has led to a promising future for his group on the national scene. They recently played at the after party for a country music awards show, signed a major publishing deal and hope to work out a major label recording deal, though Shupe said it is “still in negotiations.”
Shupe said on top of talent it takes making the right connections and a lot of hard work to make a music career happen.
“I think you have to really believe in your songs and believe in yourself,” he said. “You obviously have to have some talent at it, but you have to get out and work.”
While Sarah Moore, publicist for both Shupe and Breinholt, agrees with the need for work to make a music career happen, she also attributed the success of her clients to a certain personal charisma.
“It”s the feeling you get when you are there more than anything that brings people back to the show,” she said. “It”s like after you won at the baseball game.”
Moore said she sees the payoff in the fans that come to show after show even though little changes.
“You need a combination, the music and the feel good coming together,” she said. “I”ve had so many people say, ”I”ve only talked to him once, but I feel like he”s my best friend.”
You just feel close to them, and it”s awesome music on top of it.”
Moore suggests that beginning performers work at developing their stage presence and “play as many free shows as you can.”
“Live shows are what get fans,” she said.
From the Bottom Up
Lisa Fraser, an English student at BYU, knows a little about live shows. She has found her so-far mild success as a singer-songwriter much the same way Breinholt did, by playing a few songs and letting success come to her.
After she performed at an unplugged showcase, an a cappella group asked her to open for them. A church mission and several performances later, a friend offered to fly her to Arizona to cut her first album Midday Songs.
“It”s a solo acoustic album,” she said. “It”s good quality, but it”s basically just guitar and vocals.”
Fraser said she can definitely see a market for singer-songwriters but learned quickly that trying to perform on a regular basis is a lot of work.
“This summer we only did three shows total, but it was an unbelievable amount of work,” she said. “There are a lot of people in the valley that are excellent songwriters, but it takes so much more than that.”
She also said she thinks putting a band together, rather than staying with acoustic and vocals, is the only way to go.
“Peter Breinholt is an anomaly,” she said. “There are a lot of people in TSSA (a local songwriting organization) trying to break onto the scene, but you can”t, unless you are Peter Breinholt, he just hit a chord that people here like.”
One option for artists like Fraser is to look to bigger cities to market themselves. That”s what Kim Simpson did in 1993 when he moved from Utah to Austin.
“It”s not a big money music market,” said Simpson, who still resides in Austin with his family. “It was mostly to make a lot of contacts and have a lot of opportunities to record.”
Simpson said he stayed busy as he pushed himself to be in his early years in Austin. He recorded two albums, Destination and Midnight Apparitions, which he says, “sold steadily in the local market,” though “no one got filthy rich off them.”
But in the end, he said the work and tedium of performing started to get to him.
“I just got tired of the grind,” he said. “We ended up buying a house here and I found a steady job and got into grad school.”
He said there are those in love with the music and those in love with the lifestyle.
“If you”re willing to get yourself on the road, the opportunities will most certainly arise,” he said, but “if any of that stuff starts to wear on you, then that”s fine.”
In all of his work and travels, Simpson says he has learned that music is important to him, but with additional perspective, “the overall ends are different; my values have shifted.”
Simpson continues to write and record and even asked about the possibility of coming back to Provo to do a show for some of his old fans because he has “three albums at least that are done and I”m still fiddling with.”