[See Part 1 for Peters’ description of writing his latest, Birds of Relocation]
I spoke with Eric Peters following a recent benefit performance with Andrew Peterson. We sat in what would normally be called the Green Room, except these walls were painted like a forest. This was “backstage”, church-style. Peters had just packed up his own gear and carried it to another random Sunday School room. He had retrieved his own cell phone from his merchandise table where it was being used with a little magnetic stripe reader attachment to process credit card purchases. (He admired Peterson’s newer card-reader gizmo and learned that it was available at Radio Shack and not too expensive.) And now we sat, chatting, beside the crock pots and plates of homemade goodies. Such is the life of an indie artist. No guitar techs, no roadies, not even a proper credit card machine. At least there’s home-cooked food!
I asked Peters about some of the unique challenges in the life of an indie artist, and he was quite honest. I don’t want this to come across as a gripe session – Peters would be the first to tell you how grateful he is for the opportunity to write and play music – but I do think it’s valuable to peek behind the veil of the stage and the record to see the necessary machinations that made them.
TSO: I imagine that a lot of people don’t realize all that’s involved in being an independent musician. Out of all the details of the job, what’s the worst part?
I think most indie artists would say that booking themselves is the worst part, and I would agree with that. I’ve probably been grumbling about booking for years – people canceling, or people flaking out, saying, ‘Yeah, we’re interested,’ and then falling off the planet. It’s time consuming, but worse than that it’s self-promotion, which I’m terrible at. It’s like going to look for a temp job every single day. Recently I’ve found somebody who was a fan, and she brought me in for a couple of shows, and I saw how organized she was. I knew she was coming off another job, so I asked if she was interested in helping with booking. It’s been great. I still sort of do it, but it’s awesome now because I can point people in her direction, which is such a gift, it’s such a break.
TSO: What’s the best part?
What I love is playing live. It feels like a home when I get to play these songs that I’ve written. I can’t imagine not playing music. I certainly hope I get to keep playing live, and singing in front of people, however small it might be. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
TSO: What are some things you have to do as an indie artist that might surprise people?
For one, we have to drive ourselves. There’s no tour bus! We also have to ask to get paid, and talk about money. That’s really awkward for me. I would say, “Sure I’ll come play for five dollars. Is that too much? I’ll come down!”
The reality is, I’ve got to have some other income. For me, I started a little side business in lawn care. I’m busting it, working hard.
There’s no label. It’s a lot of work. What is the work? You make a record. You have to write songs for it. With a family, where’s the time for that? What income are you not earning while you’re doing that? There are the day-to-day and month-to-month finances; that’s super-stressful at times. There’s the finding of shows. I think people think shows just happen. They’ll ask, “Why don’t you ever come play out in Topeka, Kansas?” Well, nobody’s ever invited me. People think, just come. It’s not that easy. Part of me loves getting to educate people in the process. I’m thrilled that you would want me to come play, but that’s passive. Let’s make something happen.
TSO: What about the record-selling aspect?
Probably Monday I’ll have 1,000 CDs arrive, all packaged up and pretty. There’s a part of me that still thinks that’s really cool! On the other hand –I don’t know if people think that’s a lot, or not very many, but 1,000 CDs in your house – I have this realization of, “Oh my gosh, what are we going to do with these?” The only way these are going to leave is if I go out and play shows. They’re not going to a store. There are a zillion artists out there now, and the digital world has made it a very big musical landscape. Just trying to get heard, to rise above it a little bit, to get people to take notice, is daunting. I remember a time when it was a big deal to have a record, to put out a CD. Now, everybody and their grandma can have one. It’s a super-saturated market that way. Even having done this for 15+ years, I don’t know how to get heard. I’m really thankful for the Rabbit Room and Andrew and these guys who want their fans to know my music. In a way, that’s how I have a career: guys like that who love what I do and want their fans to hear my music. It slowly builds upon itself. There’s nothing stable about what I have and what we do. I mentioned 2009. That was me having done music for over ten years. There’s nothing that’s a given.
TSO: Apologies in advance for the trite question, but with all the challenges, what motivates you to keep going?
Deep down, it’s because I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel like in some ways, I was meant to write songs. More specifically, I feel like I was meant to write these songs, that they might speak into people’s lives, that hopefully I’m bringing something lasting and good and hopeful in to the world. One of my favorite things is performing the songs. It’s nice to write songs in my living room, but part of that feels incomplete, just being a song, until I get to play it for people, and share it. That’s the gift of it for me, and hopefully it’s a gift for whoever gets to hear it and is edified by it.