It seems like a storyline made for Hollywood: girl sings and struggles to hit it big; girl gets her break and signs record deal; record company controls girl and puts out bad album; girl runs from record label, hopes and dreams dashed.
In tune: Naomi will have performances in three cities beginning 30 November.
But American singer-songwriter Terra Naomi decided not to play by the plot. After leaving Island Records in 2008, dissatisfied with her work there, Naomi returned to the one place she felt in control of her own music: the Internet. And after a year of working on material she loves, the Internet is paying her back—literally. Her fans have raised enough money to take Naomi on a world tour. And her first stop on the international stage was at Mumbai’s Blue Frog on 26 November.
When Naomi started planning a US tour to promote her independently produced album, You for Me, she made an off-hand remark on the Internet radio station Ustream about the mounting costs of the tour. “I got several emails saying, ‘You’ve given us so much free stuff online, why not ask your fans to help with costs?’”
At first, Naomi felt awkward soliciting money directly from her fans, but she realized, “I do this because I love the music, but the reality is I need to make a living.” She says that if the new model is artist-to-fan direct, then “artists have to be comfortable asking their fans for money”. She tentatively put out a notice on her site asking for donations. Within two weeks, she had raised $5,000 (around Rs3.85 lakh)—enough to sponsor the US leg of her tour. “The response was completely unexpected and overwhelming. People donated $1 to $500.”
This was not the first time the Internet had surprised Naomi. Part of the new generation of American folk singers, along the lines of Damien Rice and ortoPilot, she first rose to prominence thanks to a 2006 “virtual summer tour” in which she uploaded hundreds of videos of her singing songs in her LA apartment on to YouTube.
One night, after watching Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, she fell into a disturbed sleep. Next morning, when she awoke, the song Say It’s Possible “just came out fully written”. She posted it online and within weeks, the song went viral. Viewers were covering the song and posting their own versions. It was translated into at least seven languages. Eventually, Gore heard it and invited Naomi to play at Live Earth, in front of 80,000 people, at Wembley stadium in July 2007.
Raymond Thibodeaux, a freelance journalist and, in his words, an “enthusiastic amateur musician”, also found Naomi on YouTube and instantly liked her sound. “She’s not writing for the market, she’s writing songs to express something deep within herself.” Based in Delhi, he felt frustrated by the lack of venues in the Capital offering acoustic music. He decided to start playing cover songs of folk-type music with a friend around the city to encourage venues to offer a different style of music. Five of the 15 songs were Naomi’s. He emailed her to thank her for giving them music audiences were responding to. She emailed back and said she’d love to come to India to play one day. Thibodeaux wrote back, “That’s not asking for the moon.” Playing her YouTube clips for a variety of clubs and sponsors, he quickly got Levi Strauss, the American Center, Fabindia and Mercy Corps to set up a four-city tour.
Blue Frog owner Mahesh Mathai says that when he saw Naomi’s work, he wanted her to play. He booked Naomi before the club started its programming for the year.
Naomi knows “it’s not typical music in India”, but a viewer from India recently posted on YouTube asking her if she could come play in the country after her US tour. “It was the fastest turnaround possible,” she says. “I wrote back, ‘Funny you should ask, that’s absolutely what I’m doing.’”
Terra Naomi is scheduled to perform in Bangalore, New Delhi and Srinagar. For details, log on to www.terranaomi.com/events
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