HotStar: Andrew Bird

Long before Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast, the fourth release for the singer-songwriter, Bird slogged it out on the road for more than a decade.

It was just him, a car, a guitar, a violin, his voice and an incredible ability to whistle. The journey brought him before oh-so-many small clubs and intimate audiences along the way while he lived and recorded modestly.

“There were years where I kind of thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be attached to some kind of hyped movement, get a leg up?” Bird told Pollstar. “But that’s just not the nature of the music that I make. I’ve changed so much within a record, let alone from one record to the next, that I’m usually changing too quick for anything.”

Come 2008, the folk explorer traded it all for a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall, a free concert in Chicago’s Millennium Park that drew nearly 15,000, a tight publicity schedule and a stack of favorable reviews. A cadre of music journalists has written in-depth studies of Bird for publications like New York Times Magazine and Spin.

And then there’s 2009’s Noble Beast, an album that is recognized by many as the Chicago native’s coming-of-age piece. One could argue he’s always been as brilliant, just unacknowledged. Maybe one big album isn’t a complete explanation for Bird’s sudden success.

“My M.O. has always been the live show. That’s where I put all my energies,” Bird explained. He’s known to avoid rehearsals, channeling that fear of the unknown into his performances. It’s resulted in an ever-increasing fan base. By his own account, Bird is the most active performer on Red Ryder Entertainment’s roster, taking on 200 venues a year.

“I’ve got an audience that expects the unexpected and is not expecting to hear the hits or the hooks,” he said. “Nor do I have an audience that’s got its arms folded, thinking, ‘OK, let’s see if you’re as good as the hype.’ … I probably have the loveliest audience you could ever hope to have.”

Bird has been with Red Ryder as a solo artist for about five years. He worked with company president Erik Selz while playing violin for Squirrel Nut Zippers in the ’90s but that doesn’t have a direct correlation.

“I think we’re working together despite those experiences,” Bird said. “He’s extremely attentive, has had a very focused roster and I knew I was going to get a lot of attention from him.

“He’s been in the community I’ve lived in for three years, and that helps to build a walk-in to your agent’s office where you can look at a map and talk about venues and stuff like that.”

The 35-year-old Bird has known his manager, Andrea Troolin, since his early 20s. Bird started recording when he was 19 years old and finished his first project four years later which he sent to labels, including Rykodisc. Troolin was the one listening to the incoming material and writing the personalized rejection letters.

“She wrote me back and said, ‘Do you want to do a record with us?’” Bird said. “And then she was effectively an A&R rep acting as much in my interest as she was the label’s, if not more so. When she left Rykodisc, it was kind of obvious she was already being my manager.”

Slow growth is a good business model for a musical career, but it wasn’t anything Troolin and Bird mapped out.
“With Andrew, I’ve almost been thinking of it like the 20-year plan as opposed to the three- or four-year plan,” Troolin said.

“I think it’s a more holistic way of looking at an artist’s career. I don’t think it’s perfect for every band but for an artist like Andrew, it can be.”

While other artists’ record sales are trending south, Bird sells more with each release.

“Noble Beast’s been out for three weeks and we’ve sold almost half of what we sold on the last album already,” Troolin said. “But I think the touring has helped us get there. In the leaner years, when he wasn’t selling as many records and didn’t have quite the full support of label, publicity and marketing, and all the great things we have right now, it was just him on the road. … And those were sometimes pretty brutal years.

“But every time we’d return to a city, we’d obviously get a bunch more people there. It clearly worked and they’re fans for life.”

After opening for acts like Nickel Creek, My Morning Jacket and Ani DiFranco, Bird has spent his share of time at the merch booth, talking to fans as much as playing for them.

“He did a lot of that for many years,” Troolin said. “He was very accessible. When you’re playing a big room like Carnegie Hall or The Orpheum, it’s really not tenable to go out, stop by and sign things anymore, but he’s a really affable guy, a real sweetheart and any time somebody comes up to him on the street, he’s very approachable. I think that helps people feel that connection to him.”

Troolin cited some examples as to why Bird has had to cut back on some of his accessibility. His tour is mostly 1,000- to 3,000-capacity rooms, for one thing. Also, a recent in-store appearance drew 300 people and Bird needed an escort to get out of the crowd. The massive Millenium Park show was another obvious sign of success.

“He started playing this one song and all these kids rushed the stage screaming and crying,” Troolin said. “It was like The Beatles for a second. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, when did this happen?’ Then I remembered. ‘Oh yeah. Ten years of hard work.’”