photo by Jane McGrath
You could say it’s been something of a year for Emma Swift. A year of defiance, triumph and, ultimately, a compromise which may yet be seen as a victory.
As the Nashville-based Australian explained in August when launching her debut album – an intimate and ultimately stunning collection of Bob Dylan covers – a couple of years of writer’s block, a home base embroiled in the worst presidency ever, depression, and a plague of near-Biblical proportions, didn’t auger well for the release of any new music.
And if you were to release new music when gigs were wiped around the world, doing it literally from home - on your own label (Tiny Ghost), packing the boxes and envelopes at your kitchen table, slipping in handwritten notes into the vinyl versions – would seem work enough.
But what about declaring that your album, Blonde On The Tracks, would not be available on any streaming service? CDs, tapes and vinyl? Sure. Bandcamp? Hell yeah. Spotify, Apple Music et al?
Thank you, but no thanks.
That’s gutsy. Especially as she was very vocal at every opportunity in advocating a boycott of Spotify. That’s also probably just crazy.
But here’s the thing, Swift’s album picked up a swag of reviews in mainstream papers and magazines; one of her gorgeous animated videos – for Queen Jane Approximately – went past 50,000 views in October; her songs have started appearing on lists of best Dylan covers; Blonde On The Tracks was on the Americana radio chart for more than a month and tucked in at #2 behind Adele in an Amazon best seller chart, was a top 20 release in the UK’s Americana chart, and in Australia didn’t just top the vinyl and country charts but dropped into the top 10 nationally.
Bloody hell. That’s some result. And the best fuck you to Spotify.
“I think that really not having a choice helps. I was rather backed into a corner when all the touring got cancelled,” Swift says on a Zoom call from Tiny Ghost central, aka her home in Nashville. “I didn’t have a record deal, I wasn’t locked into anything, I didn’t have anybody telling me that I couldn’t do what I intended to do: which was boycott the streaming services and release the record as if it was 2002.
“Certainly, I had people in the music industry telling me I was stupid, but I didn’t have an alternative source of income and I think there were many musicians in the same boat as me. I mean really, streaming services don’t pay artists very much money at all and that’s something that musicians have known for a long time, but have been very reluctant to communicate to their fan bases. I wanted to go out and let people know that these services aren’t adequate and if you care about musicians, and if you care about their art, it would be a nice thing, well more than a nice thing, an essential thing, that you go out and buy the record.”
How did she measure success in the first four months?
“The first couple of months of the record, the success of it was, was I able to recoup the cost of making the record? I did that really quickly: it happened in two months, which is extraordinary to me, because records aren’t cheap to make.”
After the first two pressings sold out purely from Bandcamp and her online base, Swift sorted distribution in Europe, the USA and Australia – “I wanted to make sure it was available in record stores and other shops.” – and in the absence of shows, built a connection with fans all around the world.
Necessity played a role in all this, but there was also a philosophical underpinning. When you make virtually no money from streaming services, the idea of your work being exploited by someone who puts in very little effort, collects money before you get to see it, is insulting.
The second element, is that artist-audience connection that sustains an artistic life, and not coincidently sustains a career that has now not just enabled but encouraged her to follow the Dylan covers with her self-penned The Soft Apocalypse, a taste of an album due next year of original material.
“It’s important because the music that I make is very personal music. It’s not made with commercial instincts; I make these songs because I legitimately am passionate about this kind of storytelling and I don’t really exist in the music business in the wider commercial sense,” says Swift. “I’m very much part of a subset of the industry that is working musicians, and for us is not about being on a pedestal, it’s about being part of the community. And being part of the community means actually reaching out to my fans, and telling them how it is, and responding to their comments.
“When someone emails me to say that like the record, I’m the person that replies, just as if someone emails me to say they hate the record, I’m the person that replies [she laughs]. If someone wants to leave a negative YouTube comment, I’m the person who gets to moderate that. There’s a whole world of us out there who are actually just day to day working musicians, and it’s a small business just like having a coffee shop is a small business.”
So how did this small business operator make this happen?
“From a very practical perspective, the first thing I did was I ran a fairly extensive pre-order campaign on my Bandcamp and what that did was allow fans to buy the records in advance which gave me capital to invest back into the record. Once I had the capital I was able to spend money on a publicist in the United Kingdom and United States, and a radio plugger in the United States. And the three of them were extraordinarily effective.
“My radio plugger got the album on over 150 radio stations in America. My press plugger got the first single, Queen Jane Approximately, to premiere in US Rolling Stone. And my publicist in the United Kingdom got the songs on BBC Radio 6 and Uncut magazine.”
It’s a mix of old school and new. Almost as if not everything has been upended by the digital world.
“The old methods still work and are still enormously important for the success of a record, especially when you’re trying to get someone to commit to a physical sale, rather than just a stream,” says Swift. “The funny thing about the music business is there’s always someone telling you how it should be done, but then it’s always changing. The best position an artist can be in his been able to pivot to what they need to do when it’s necessary.”
Which is a timely moment to hit what is probably Swift’s biggest pivot: making Blonde On The Tracks available on streaming services from December 9. Yes, even on the cursed Spotify.
Hypocritical? Or sensible, given when it happens, it will be done from a position of some security and strength? There is a long pause before Swift answers, and even then, it is a slow response as she carefully picks her way through.
“What I’ll tell you is that I had hoped by boycotting streaming services that some artists would follow suit. And what I discovered was a broad and disappointing unwillingness from people in my industry to protest,” she says. “People will complain, they are more than happy to complain, but they are not so willing to make a stand.”
Why does that matter?
“From a business perspective, where that puts me in a conundrum is that I am then competing for radio play, for recognition, for grants, for gigs when touring eventually comes back, with people who do just put their music everywhere. And from a pragmatic, business perspective, that’s not very smart,” Swift explains. “I am seeing, particularly in the UK, some concerted efforts to raise the rate on streaming, but more or less all of the world it’s a done deal. It’s really up to artists individually to tell their fan base whether or not it works for them.”
She pauses once more, and then says. “I’m pausing a lot, because it’s really difficult for me to articulate it without saying things I don’t necessarily want named”, before sighing.
“I would have liked to have seen, in a pandemic here, a better effort from artists to take a stance against streaming services. But apparently most musicians would prefer to have a second job then tell people that the label doesn’t pay minimum wage. And as I own my own record label, I didn’t have to do that, and once I recouped on the record, once I knew that I made it through this terribly difficult year and made enough money to pay my mortgage, I thought okay, you can go online for free now and hopefully I’ll get an audience.”
The positive way to view it could be that having made some money, having gained the attention of print and radio, and in no small way found herself a market, Swift can look at the streaming services as another arm in her marketing push and a way to widen her base, rather than her one hope for finding an audience. Any money she makes from here from those services, is bonus money.
“Absolutely, that is the positive spin you can put on it too,” she concedes. “For the first six months of this record I chose not to use that marketing tool because I needed to recoup. It didn’t make sense to give my album away to everybody as though they were a press person. And now it can go on the streaming services and everybody can find it and like it and share it.
“I really hope that’s what they do. I would love to emerge from this pandemic with a more substantial audience. I’d love to be playing shows and have the money to take a band out to tour it.”
For now, we’ll take the compromise, and the lesson.
“What I guess I’ve proved in this process is that you don’t have two play by the rules; you can make up your own rules and do it your way and join them when it suits you.”
The Soft Apocalypse is available now in all digital formats.
Blonde On The Tracks is out now, including on Spotify from December 9.