The first time I heard Terra Naomi was at the Ho Ho Hotel Cafe Holiday bash in 2010. The annual holiday celebration in Hollywood brings together singer/songwriters who are a part of the Hotel Cafe family who get up and play a couple songs each. I was new to LA and the Hotel Cafe was my holy grail. When I was a wee young singer/songwriter in Minneapolis I dreamt of one day playing the Hotel Cafe (that dream has since been realized about a dozen times – still just as special every time).
The wonderful thing about the Ho Ho Hotel Cafe holiday show is that because the performers are heartbroken singer/songwriters, you ain’t gonna hear the standard holiday selections. No “Holly Jolly Christmas” or “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.” However, I think I heard 4 different renditions of Joni Mitchell’s “River” that night. Terra Naomi played a new, non Christmasy, original of hers, “I’ll Be Waiting.” And I was stunned. Heartbroken and torn up. It was one of the most honest, beautiful and heart-wrenching songs I had ever heard. Not just that night. Not just at the Hotel Cafe. Ever.
I knew I had truly found a special artist. I made a point to meet her after her two songs and started seeing all of her shows around town.
Fast forward 5 years. I finally learned her full story when she asked me if I would be interested in sharing it with the greater music community via DMN.
Her, How Signing A Major Record Deal Nearly Destroyed My Music Career testimonial, became one of the most read stories of 2015.
As the first YouTube star on the platform, she knew she was doomed when at the first meeting she had with the label’s marketing manager he said “so tell us about this YouTube.” She stated:
“It was 2007, I knew about YouTube, all my friends knew about YouTube, I’d launched my career on YouTube, and the people now in charge of my career knew nothing about YouTube?!”
Labels seem to always be 5 steps behind the public. Behind the trends. Behind the fans. Behind!
In her piece, she revealed what most artists are too embarrassed / ashamed / disheartened / fillintheblank, to admit: she made a huge mistake. Signing to a major label when her career was starting to take off, was the wrong decision.
What Terra had to learn the hard way and what most artists soon learn shortly after signing to a major label is the old men in charge of the (old) music industry don’t give two shits about you. They care about themselves. They care about money. They care about their luxurious lifestyles. They care about sales standards set by those who came before them. And Terra was just another “failed” artist. Collateral damage. No biggie. The label had Amy Winehouse to make up for this minimal loss.
But what most people don’t realize is that success or failure on a label really has very little to do with the music, talent or an artist’s work ethic. It has a lot to do with the whims of those in charge at the label. And what most don’t realize, is that when you convince an artist that their entire career is dependent on the label’s definition of success (i.e. superstardom) and it doesn’t work out – for whatever reason – you crush that artist. Emotionally. Spiritually. Fundamentally. You convinced them that you, and only you, had the key to their success and if you couldn’t do it, no one could. So they’re left to think, “I’m finished! I’m a failure. I had the backing of fill-in-the-blank-label and they couldn’t do it for me. I must not be good enough.”
Except this is so disgustingly far from the actual truth. Considering 98% of all major label acts “fail” by label standards, clearly labels don’t really know what they’re doing. And they don’t have artists’ best intentions in mind with any of their practices. Who is really working for whom?
“Record contracts are just like slavery. I would tell every artist not to sign ” Prince
“The major label music industry has completely ruined every aspect of their business. At every step of the way they’ve had the tools offered to them to create an industry that works, and they’ve completely blown it. That’s why we never had any interest in signing a contract with one of these companies because they’re clearly completely clueless.” – Win Butler, Arcade Fire
“Record labels are the worst right now. No one knows what they’re doing.” –Adam Levine
Remember Katy Perry was dropped 3 times by 3 different labels before she broke out with “I Kissed A Girl.”
But that’s just one superstar’s story. There are literally thousands of artists who never got that 2nd (or 3rd, or 4th! chance like Katy Perry did). And there are literally thousands of artists who are succeeding just fine with an independent music career – without the help of a major label. Without the need for superstardom. And are happy doing what they love supporting the lifestyle they’d like to have. They just fly under your radar, that you don’t think they exist. But I promise you, they do.
Success can only be defined by you. No one else. Never forget that.
Terra Naomi is now in her late 30s. And she feels like she’s starting over. She recently penned a Medium post about what it’s like to be a woman “on the wrong side of 30” re-igniting a music career. She, once again, is vulnerable and honest – something so desperately lacking in today’s music industry:
“I came to understand that while men could take their time in creating their lives, careers, and families, women were not afforded the same luxury. My generation of girls was not encouraged to ‘love ourselves.’ While we were encouraged to ‘follow our dreams,’ it was perhaps even more important to look good while doing it. We did not talk about self-love. We were taught to view other women as competition in an ever-shrinking pool of opportunity.
“I know what it feels like to be told someone in the industry is not interested in listening to my music because they ‘already have a 20-year old who is doing basically the same thing,’ as if a number is the most important determining factor in the value, substance, and quality of art. (And if I were a man, would you have asked my age? Probably not. And is that question even legal??)
“So this one’s for the ladies. For those of us who know how it feels to grow up believing we have a shelf life, making sacrifices in one area or another because we were told we could not have it all, regretting the decision we made when things went awry, and fearing it was too late to pick ourselves up and start again.”
In reality, Terra Naomi is not starting over. Or starting again. She never stopped. She has always been an artist and every artist has ups and downs. Peaks and valleys. Sure, some peaks are higher than others, and sadly, many valleys are dangerously deep. But, once an artist always an artist.
Sure, many of her initial YouTube followers from 2007 are no longer with her, but some are (she’s already raised over $30,000 on her new IndieGoGo campaign and has hundreds of thousands of plays on Spotify).
I would encourage every indie artist to set attainable goals with a strategy on how to achieve them – without permission from some ‘industry exec.’ Because, now, more than ever, artists don’t need permission. Create art you believe in. Make it true. Make it honest. Put everything you have into it. Don’t cut any corners. Surround yourself with good people who want to help – regardless of their credentials or status in the industry. And work your ass off engaging your fans, your niche, your tribe. Pay attention to them. Cherish them. Respect them. Don’t worry about the rest of the world. Build it with those who believe, first and foremost. The tribe starts small, but you grow together.
And remember, you are making a difference in their lives. You don’t have to headline Madison Square Garden, get 100 million plays on Spotify, win a Grammy or top the Billboard Hot 100 to be successful. Those are superficial measures of status. Like a Ferrari or a private jet. What do they even mean? That you’re rich? Hell, more often than not these days, it doesn’t even mean that.
Are you happy? Are you a positive influence on people’s lives? Are you affecting people on a deep, spiritual level? Are you fulfilled? Those are true benchmarks of success. Trophies, chart positions, and cosmetic accessories will never bring true happiness. So why do we let others define our success by those standards?
Terra Naomi is a brilliant artist who is affecting people in a very significant way. I’m one of them. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve put on “I’ll Be Waiting” and went there.
Age is meaningless. Terra Naomi could be 38, 75, or 17. It doesn’t make a difference. Her art is what matters. And her tribe will stand by her as long as she keeps delivering honesty.
I backed her Indiegogo campaign. And you should too.