With one hour left of his three-hour set at Trailhead Pizzeria on the outskirts of Bloomington, just eight people remained to witness one of the 44-year-old’s last performances under his given name. In February, the Muncie, Indiana, native will officially begin performing as a made-up character, Los Angeles-born Marlowe Shepherd. It's the first step in overhauling the way he markets himself as an artist. After two decades of performing, the sustainability of his old identity disappeared, and he had to reinvent — or, rather, backtrack to — a different strategy based solely on touring and vinyl album sales. Once again, he had to find a way to make a living out of music.
“You have to drop the ego side of it, which is hard to do because we all are driven by it, wanting to be known,” Shepherd said.
Jenny Bell, who owns Trailhead and Scenic View, knows Shepherd by his given name. She said he’s always professional and respectful, always appreciative to have a chance to perform. He enters the venue — he has also performed at Scenic View many times — sets up, shares his music then leaves with gratitude.
The decision to rename himself was that of Shepherd and his Los Angeles-based executive producer, Derek Jones, who has backed Shepherd for the last 15 years. In a few months, Shepherd will embark on a 41-city, 250-show tour through the Southeast. He’ll do it again the next year. He will play in nursing homes, record stores, restaurants and bars, and he’ll perform two or three sets every day and one every night. Along the way, he’ll promote his self-titled vinyl album.
“I’m pretty much just distancing myself from the digital world,” Shepherd said. “Not for trying to be a trailblazer or anything, just trying to make a living as a musician.”
After years of adapting with digital downloads and songs available for online streaming, Shepherd realized he wasn’t making enough to stay profitable. Streaming tools such as Pandora and Spotify are excellent for the consumer, but he would only receive $10 or $12 for hundreds of thousands of streams from the sites he used, he said. According to 2013 data from the a Musician Digital Royalties public document, musicians using Spotify as a medium to sell music would need more than 4 million streams, or plays, per month to make $1,160 per month — minimum wage.
Even so, CD and digital album sales are continuing to decline: The 2014 Nielsen Music U.S. Report shows that, just from 2013 to 2014, total album sales have dropped by 11 percent — from 289 million to 257 million — and digital music consumption increased from 314 million to 326 million.
However, vinyl sales have increased by 52 percent, from 6.1 million to 9.1 million. Shepherd is selling his vinyls for $30, and he said he has no intention of discounting it or allowing any online previews. That’s why he needs to perform as much as possible to get his name and his music in public, he said.
It’s not about reaching the most people, he said. It’s about reaching the people. He only needs 1,000 fans, 1,000 albums sold to make a blue-collar living. While he said he recognizes that many people will enjoy his performances and still not want to spend $30 on his album, he said the people who do will get the same version of his songs they heard live. The low budget he took for recording this time around meant only five days to record, mix and master before sending to a manufacturer, and many of the songs were recorded simultaneously in respect to vocals and guitar.
His old website links to several social media sites — Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, YouTube — but all accounts are either erased or void of content. He has a new website, marloweshepherd.com, where a short biography reads “Marlowe Shepherd does not acknowledge a culture of Spotify-lists, cheap pate, nor a world full of best-selling albums served up at petrol stations.” He has removed as much music as he is legally entitled to from the Internet, but 28 original songs are still wrapped up in licensing agreements with labels and won’t disappear for a few years.
His music — a mixture of jazzy vocals and acoustic accompaniment — will stay the same.
“I’m still playing those songs, so I’m not reinventing myself as an artist,” he said. “It’s just I’m reinventing how I get paid.”
On days that aren’t too chilly, Shepherd posts up on one of the benches in front of Uptown Café on Kirkwood Avenue. He croons jazzy vocals while pedestrians smile or bounce to the beat or throw a few dollars into his guitar case as they pass by. He smiles and sings to them, head swiveling as they come and go. It’s one of his favorite places to perform, he said.
Shepherd’s upcoming tour is the longest he’s ever undertaken. Being on the road, though, is nothing new, as he has spent his entire career either touring or spending a short time living in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, London and, most recently, Nashville, Tennessee.
Bloomington is temporary, as with each of these other places. But it’s where he has friends and family and a place to stay for these few months before the tour begins. He just arrived a month ago, but even so, he said he’s already sick of it. Staying in one place makes him claustrophobic, and by time he packs up and hits the road, he said he won’t be quite himself anymore.
His is a troubadour’s lifestyle, he says.
“I really refuse to do anything else, so that comes with — I don’t know, there’s actions and reactions,” he said. “There’s a reaction to saying I’m not going to do anything else.”
For Shepherd, that reaction is lacking enough permanence or financial means to have the usual staples of a man his age: a family, a house, a mortgage. The lack of financial stability was something Shepherd had to come to terms with as both an artist and a human being. You can’t raise kids on a dream.
He had to accept the thousands of hours he spent working on his craft — and the immense meaning it gave his own life — would not bestow on it a price tag. It’s like writing a book, he said. A writer may spend a year on a novel, but it doesn’t mean that person is entitled to X-amount of dollars. A piece of art’s worth may be obvious to the creator but nonexistent to the consumer. Shepherd said it’s a form of insanity.
“I’ve tried to do other things, and, as I’ve gotten older, there’s an urge to settle down to some extent,” Shepherd said. “You get into a long-term relationship and that makes you stay somewhere, and then if that’s not you then that can be quite heartbreaking if you’re not — if you feel like you want to do something and you fight for it and it doesn’t work, then it’s always heartbreaking.”
At Trailhead, Shepherd sang Nick Drake’s “Place To Be.” A couple at the bar observed, and four people at a back table played cards with occasional exclamations of “Hearts” or “You’re on fire.”
“And now I’m older see it face to face / And now I’m older gotta get up, clean the place / And I was green, greener than the hill” — suddenly, a loud popping sound interrupted him. His guitar lost a string.
“Oh mercy, that’s like getting shot,” he said to a few weak chuckles. “Well, I’ve never been shot — it’s like getting stung.”
When the set was over, he stepped outside to smoke a quick cigarette, then he packed up his equipment while thanking one of the waiters, who was handing him tips he had collected from the restaurant’s patrons.
Shepherd will keep doing it — the traveling, the playing in the street, the meeting new people — as long as he can. He said he finds the whole idea of his new act, of “Marlowe Shepherd,” amusing, because what’s in a name? Marlowe Shepherd has no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. He has no history, and he doesn’t plan to tell one.