Shelby Earl wasn’t always a professional singer and songwriter.
Earl began a stint as an Amazon employee in late 2007 as an Associate Vendor Manager in the company’s music department, which saw her co-managing record label accounts with the company. But this came to an end in 2009 when she decided to strike it out on her own as a full-time musician.
Since then, she’s been featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and had her album, Swift Arrows, in the number one spot on Amazon’s “Movers & Shakers” chart for two days.
She took the time to answer a few questions for us on Amazon, her music career, and living the good life.
BUSINESS INSIDER: What did you do at Amazon?
SHELBY EARL: We worked closely with labels to cook up promotional plans around their various releases throughout the year. You know all those little blurbs on the Amazon site? The boxes of editorial content that promote products? Well, people write those, and I was one such person.
I enjoyed certain aspects of the job where music and writing were involved, and I loved working with the labels (I had come to Amazon from a record label and I related the label folks best), but Amazon’s corporate culture ultimately wasn’t a good fit for me. Frankly, I don’t see that company as a good fit for “creatives” in general. It is much better suited to analytical types who enjoy data and metrics.
That said, I’m thankful for the experience because had I still been at a label, or in another music industry job I enjoyed, I may never have taken the leap to become a full-time musician.
BI: When did you start playing music? Did it come naturally or was it a lot of work?
SE: I started singing when I was very young. And from the age of about three on, I told everyone who would listen that I was going to be “a singer.” According to my mum there wasn’t a whole lot of natural talent to speak of in those early years, but what I did have a lot of was passion and determination. I started studying with a voice coach at the age of 11 and didn’t stop until just a few years ago. Now I just go in once in a while for “maintenance.”
I dabbled with the guitar a little throughout the years too, but I was never as serious about it as I was about singing. For years I played in bands as the “lead singer” and then finally, in my early 30s, the guitar started to click for me. At the same time, I was cultivating a burgeoning interest in songwriting. These two newfound passions — songwriting and guitar playing — began to feed each other quite nicely and I became consumed with the process of becoming a singer-songwriter.
BI: Was there anything specific that got you thinking about quitting Amazon in favour of music?
SE: There were many moments that led up to me quitting my job. As I mentioned, I had started becoming quite consumed with songwriting. So much so that I was thinking about songs all the time, jotting down lyrics in staff meetings, etc.
But the big revelatory moment happened one day when I was sitting at my desk, miserable, staring at a spreadsheet, perplexed as to how my life had come to look like this, and I suddenly realised no one was making me be there. No one was making me live the life I was living. And if I wanted, I could just change it. It wasn’t that my job was too hard or that I wanted to give up, it was that I realised I could live a much bigger, more meaningful life than I was currently living.
I’d always dreamed of my life being global — of doing work that took me around the world — where I would meet and interact with all kinds of people (I love people and I love to travel). And I dreamed of making something that mattered. But instead my life felt like it was shrinking quickly and I couldn’t see the meaning in the work I was doing. It was in that moment of clarity that I knew it was time for a big change.
BI: What was the thought process like leading up to your resignation from the company? Did people think you were brave/stupid/smart to quit?
SE: People are often inspired by my story and they love to tell me they’re going to quit their jobs too. I always tell them A.) not to blame me if it doesn’t go well (heh), and B.) to make sure they have an exit plan! That exit plan for me involved waiting to give notice until a certain amount of my stocks had vested (this money became my recording budget), and saving as much money as I could so I had a little cushion when I finally leapt.
I also made sure I had my home office all set up and studio time booked for the week after I left Amazon so I wouldn’t go too long without focus and structure. Much to my surprise, most people in my life, my parents included, totally celebrated my decision to leave and have been rooting for me ever since. I’m eternally grateful for that support, and for people’s continued encouragement through the ups and downs of life as independent artist.
BI: What were the first weeks of “unemployed musician” like?
SE: [They were] blissful! I finally got to focus on music-making and recording full-time, which was a lifestyle I’d been dreaming of for a very long time. However, things got challenging about six months in, when my financial cushion had dwindled and I had to face the reality of no monthly paycheck coming in. But as I’ve told people many times, I’d never been more broke and I’d never been happier in my whole life. And from where I stand now, this sense of fulfillment is worth every moment of struggle.
BI: Did working at Amazon somehow prepare you for life as a touring musician?
SE: I’m not sure working at Amazon necessarily prepared me for touring life, but working in the music industry proper (I’d been a booking agent, event manager and radio promotions person) certainly did. I think I work well with my industry counterparts because I understand their perspective. I think the knowledge and experience I gained in my industry years has served me quite well as an independent artist. No one will ever accuse me of being a musician who doesn’t get “the business side of things.”
BI: Does Amazon carry your music?
SE: They sure do! And they’ve been quite supportive of both of my albums. They’ve done song of the day features, free downloads, “artist to watch” features, and they’ve listed both of my albums on various editorial “best of” lists. I’m very grateful for their support. And it’s amazing to see how, yet again, my time spent there was not in vain.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.