When the pandemic came into focus Grace Petrie was thousands of miles from home.
Attempting to navigate the Australian leg of her sold out tour, lockdown saw the songwriter pack her bags and head home, her future suddenly uncertain.
Working in a frenzied fashion, Grace Petrie polished off a new album - the critically praised 'Connectivity' - and took part in a special project, raising over £11,000 for The Big Issue by posting covers on YouTube.
Maintaining her fanbase through relentless hard work, independently released new album 'Connectivity' up-turned expectations by gate-crashing the charts.
It's a result made all the more remarkable for the way it was released, with Grace Petrie eschewing the major streaming services for a more direct-to-fans approach.
Reflecting on her unexpected success, Grace Petrie writes for Clash about what she's learned - and what path the future may take.
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Last week was a big one for me. Against all odds ‘Connectivity’ - my new, unsigned and independently-funded album - got into the charts, debuting at 37 in the overall chart, reaching number two in the independent albums chart, and topping the UK downloads chart. Whilst it would be fun for me to pretend that this heralds some sign of previously unseen music industry significance, the real story behind this unbelievable result was one of pure fan power.
When the record was released we at GPHQ realised that the pre-orders numbered enough that we might just be in with a chance. After twelve years as an unsigned artist I had long since accepted that things like the chart were beyond my reach. But… we were so close. If we missed out by a couple of hundred sales because I hadn’t given it everything, I knew I’d regret it. So against my better judgment, and feeling incredibly silly, I put out a call to arms on social media – asking listeners to please, if they like my music, make sure to actually buy it – and before the chart closed Thursday night.
The response was breathtaking. In the next 24 hours, 678 people bought the record from Bandcamp alone. I am unspeakably lucky to have the support of a community I have picked up over a decade of touring in just about any line-up that will have me. Comments across all social platforms were filled with encouragement and screenshots of the downloaded record – but among them, like a black fly in my Chardonnay, was one stubbornly resounding question: why isn’t it on Spotify?
The decision to hold back the album from streaming sites – or the most unethically run ones, anyway – was taken extremely heavily. I lost sleep over it. Artists are so conditioned to believe Spotify is the big prize draw, and if you play you might just pull the golden ticket – have your song chosen for an official playlist, going out to millions of people – so who would rule themselves out of that? Not to mention the almost hegemonic cultural status that it now holds, with promoters now routinely checking your play count to decide if you’re a good booking; we need gigs, and we are told relentlessly that we need those numbers to look healthy to get them.
Ultimately, though, nearly two years’ worth of touring income lost to lockdown made the decision for me, and with studio debts still to pay I couldn’t afford to give the record away for fractions of pennies per play – at least, until it had paid for itself. When I explained to those looking to stream the album that I needed instead to sell it for a fair price, most of them were only too happy to download it. And please don’t get me wrong; I am unbelievably grateful for them all. But that gratitude shouldn’t stop me from saying that the number of people who needed to be given ‘a tangible reason’ to actually buy music they already wanted was staggering – and worrying.
Listen - it is truly not my intention to chastise people. But as an artist who has been lucky enough to make a music career viable, I think I have a responsibility to give voice to my growing discomfort that the ladder I climbed has disappeared beneath me. As a teenager in the 2000s I snuck into the music business through a window left open by Myspace and later Bandcamp which allowed me to sell music directly; and through the generosity of other artists found a fanbase as a support act. Selling self-released, shoe-string budget-made CDs at those shows paid my rent for a decade. Now CDs are on their way to extinction, I realise that if I was ten years younger, I never would have been able to make the leap into being a full-time musician. And while there are plenty who’d say that’s no great loss – the reality is that our current model of virtually unpaid streaming could kill independent music completely.
In most ways the internet has made music more accessible to unsigned voices: you don’t need to hire a studio these days – anyone with a microphone and a laptop can theoretically record. But as the streaming market becomes completely saturated with largely uncompensated music, the expectation that artists will pay for things like press agents, high quality photo and video materials and advertising to get their stuff heard – hasn’t diminished. If anything, the reliance on those things has grown.
And if music costs money to make but doesn’t pay – we risk turning it into a pastime of the rich. Streaming may be convenient, but if people stop buying altogether then artists without money will be priced out. And those truly independent voices, that labels and press and industry won’t support will be the first ones we lose.
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'Connectivity' is out now.
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