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MAY 2017

ROSE COUSINS SHARES NEW VIDEO FOR “GRACE” – FROM INTERNATIONALLY ACCLAIMED NEW ALBUM “NATURAL CONCLUSION”

WATCH AND SHARE “GRACE” HERE

“The simplicity of these songs is deceiving; as sparse as they feel, her voice draws you in until you realize you are at the heart of the storm” -The Guardian

“deeply caresses her exquisite vocals through a dozen songs that form an exploratory, intimate meditation on the mysteries of being human” -LA Times

“When Rose Cousins sings she soars and swoops, never to show off but always in service to the song” -The Washington Post

Just in time for the Mother’s Day weekend, JUNO Award winning songwriter Rose Cousins is sharing the new video for “Grace” directed by Jenna MacMillan from her latest, internationally acclaimed album, Natural Conclusion. “The video enhances the heart of the song: regret, humility, atonement, forgiveness, the plight of being human,” says Cousins. “The experience for me, is enhanced by the generosity of the truly meaningful cast of the choir.”

“I had this video idea for ‘Grace’,” continues Cousins. “Me, solo at a piano in a church with a choir that is revealed at the end. I was intrigued by the videos that PEI filmmaker Jenna MacMillan was making for my friend Kinley Dowling so I dug deeper into her work, was very impressed and also thrilled at the idea of working with someone from home.”

“The making of it is a perfect small town story of needing help and the community showing up to make it happen. We contacted the church, collected friends and family and made a beautiful thing. The choir includes my Mum and Sister, a friend I’ve known since kindergarten, one of the first friends I made in University, several PEI musician friends (including Kinley), a former CBC journalist, a retired theatre director, a friend’s daughter.”

Out now via Outside Music, The Guardian says of Rose Cousins’ Natural Conclusion, “…her voice draws you in until you realize you are at the heart of the storm,” while The Washington Post notes that “When Rose Cousins sings she soars and swoops, never to show off but always in service to the song.” No Depression furthers, “Cousins and Henry have created an emotional landscape full of beauty and conquest. It is formidable.”

On Natural Conclusion, Rose Cousins steps boldly forward, a fully mature writer and artist in her next great stride. Cousins enlisted Grammy Award winning producer Joe Henry for the recording of Natural Conclusion. She and Henry each gathered trusted colleagues and met in Toronto. They were joined in studio by engineer Ryan Freeland, drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist David Pitch (Bonnie Raitt, Billy Bragg), pianist Aaron Davis (Holly Cole), and guitar player Gord Tough (Kathleen Edwards, Sarah Harmer). Also lending their talents to the recording were touring mates Asa Brosius (Anais Mitchell, Heavy Blinkers), and Zachariah Hickman (Josh Ritter, Ray Lamontagne). Kinley Dowling (Hey Rosetta!) added strings in the studio and joined the choir that also included Hickman and longtime friends Jill Barber, Caroline Brookes (Good Lovelies), and Miranda Mullholland (Great Lake Swimmers).

WATCH AND SHARE “CHAINS” (OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO) HERE
WATCH AND SHARE “WHITE FLAG” (OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO) HERE

MORE PRAISE FOR NATURAL CONCLUSION
“hazily atmospheric and strikingly intimate” -Montreal Gazette
“Rose Cousins strips songs to their pointed and somber essence” -The Philadelphia Inquirer
“an emotional landscape full of beauty and conquest” -No Depression
“intimate, acoustic and beautiful” -Exclaim!

learning takes guts

Learning doesn’t come easy.

It takes time to observe, consider, synthesize. It takes patience.

It takes willingness to be uncomfortable. To work outside your comfort zone.

You have to admit you don’t know how to do something. Admit that you want to know. And face the possibility that you may or may not be able to master whatever it is you are trying to learn.

Learning takes practice, feedback, reflection.

It’s not efficient. It’s messy. You have to make mistakes. You have to methodically work through all the steps. Sometimes back up and do some steps over. Slow it down. Speed it up. You have to then do it again. And do it again again. Repeating that positive skill or behavior.

Learning is not for the weak, the lazy, the uncommitted.

Learning takes commitment.

It takes guts.

In Susan Ambrose’s book “How Learning Works,” as an expert educator she talks about creating the environment to reach an optimal state of discomfort for a student. That some discomfort is inherent when one is in a learning state, but if the discomfort becomes overwhelming, the learner can start to shut down – not let as much information in – become resistant, defiant, and demotivated to learn. She talks about making uncertainty safe, avoiding the notion of a single right answer, examining your assumptions…

All of these elements are useful to consider. Whether you are learning an instrument, a web development programming language, or networking to get to know a new community or team.

The good news is you are experiencing all of these things because you are brave. Because you are driven. Because you have a natural curiosity that drives you to grow.

Well done!

Learn The Hard Way, Then Let It Be Easy

For a couple years now, I’ve been threatening to write more about the lessons I learn in the garden.

That’s right. About four years ago, I started a garden.

It wasn’t much of a decision, and it wasn’t much at first. I was given a large bag of potatoes the first time I visited PEI (commercially packaged and declared at the border, just so u know). I made potato dishes every day for weeks, but couldn’t eat them all quickly enough.

A few grew eyes. So I planted them.

And just like that, I became a grower.

The first year was just potatoes in a little forgotten side yard plot, and some cherry tomoatoes in pots on the porch. The next year I expanded – added more tomatoes, and herbs. Then another year, I cut a small square garden in the back area of the yard, which has expanded each year since, to eventually grow Zucchini, Summer Squash, Butternut Squash, Cucumbers, Beets, Carrots, Turnips, Spinach, Kale, Mustard Greens, Lettuce, Tatsoi, Celery, Onions, and Brussels Sprouts – when all is said and done, these years later.

My expansion started with the one patch of grass we were unable to get to grow. Small at first, each year enlarged in celebration of the previous year’s success and in hope for the year to come.

I did everything by hand.

– Used an axe to cut an area into the mature grass, and to cut strips in the sod.
– Used a shovel to skim the sod off section by section.
– Transported the earth to a compost pile and other areas of the yard that needed evening by wheel barrow.
– Hand picked grubs out of the entire area (which I learned was the main infiltrator keeping things from growing).
– Hauled in various rounds of compost (all local to New England – a mixture of Lobster and local farm cultivated).
– Countless hours on my hands and knees, digging potatoes by hand, working out music marketing problems as I moved across the ground.

Each year, at the beginning of spring, I spend days turning over the earth by hand with a shovel and fork, and mixing in compost where I think it needs it. I take extra care in initial removal of grass and weed roots, establishing even soil quality, and general defense of the garden boundary, to prevent infiltration of the rich soil that hungry grass offshoots reach to find. I plan where things should go, how much space they need, how tall each plant might grow, how much time different parts of the garden might take to cultivate. I have to envision what they will become, from the seed they are at first, to give them the best chance for life.

I am glad I always take the time. To prep the bed well.

I know it will pay off. There’s never a doubt of that.

I share these feelings about artist management. I’m always glad to take the time to prepare well. To talk it out. To think it through. Every bit of consideration is worthwhile. It pays off later, when there isn’t time to go back and redraw foundation. Others may think it’s wasted time. That action is more important. Even my previous blog might indicate that, to a certain extent. So conflict noted. But while others act frantically, I’ve never regretted working out the details and thinking ahead to the future.

A well planned garden makes mid-season spontaneity and flexibility easy, affordable and scalable.
A well planned campaign does the same for an album release, or a career.

That’s just one of the gems I have learned from gardening.

Here are some others:
– Every good thing takes time and attention. But not too much attention.
– Some things need space to grow. Some things like company.
– Everything has its season. But it won’t always follow the rules.
– There are no experts. Only those with experience-honed instincts.
– It doesn’t matter what works for anyone else. It’s what works for you that counts.
– Don’t harvest too early. Or too late. Patience. But not greed.
– Trust the process.

More on all of those lessons another time! This season, it is something else that strikes me.

It is a lesson about doing it yourself versus employing a machine.

I’ve reached the level of gardening skills that it’s now okay for me to let certain tasks be easy. I’ve earned that. This year, I introduced the modern marvel of a power tiller to the equation. I gave in and involved a machine in my bed preparation. And that is a good thing.

I turned half of my garden over by hand, with my trusted shovel, as I’ve done every year before. But the other half I turned over with small tiller I borrowed from my neighbor. And the expansion will be done with the tiller this year as well.

I realized by holding onto the way I had always done it, the way I knew and was comfortable with, I was inhibiting scale and growth, and undermining the reasons I was doing this in the first place. I was afraid of the things I didn’t know. Afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle the machine. Afraid I’d look dumb to the friend I asked for help. Or worse, to my other neighbors, who are older, more accomplished gardeners, and might witness my failure.

But the fact is everyone learned what they know sometime, somehow.

What a relief it was to find out that it wasn’t embarrassing to ask for help at all! My friends were happy to be of service, and share their knowledge. It was no skin off their back. My garden growing well wasn’t going to keep theirs from doing the same.

I am still glad that I want to know how to do something with my own hands before I use a tool to do it faster and more easily. I value that, and keep it. I know it is inherent in maintaining high quality in my work. I want to know what work goes into everything. The work I would relinquish to shortcut. So I can really see the new productivity and learning opportunities afforded by the machine.

So I can consider… What will I do with my time now that I am not out there digging?

This is the constant question we managers struggle with. The best use of our time. The use that will propel us forward – in our knowledge, in our skills, in the value we add, in the ways we can grow. The use that will make the most impact for our artists.

When to delegate. When to do it ourselves.

When I texted my neighbor to say I couldn’t believe I was already done tilling, she replied, “It’s allowed to be easy.”

I can’t think of better advice for an artist manager, ahem, I mean for a gardener.

Thanks, neighbor. And thanks, garden.

Walk forward. Make choices. Believe in them.

I’ve heard a few people say, at different times, “A bad decision is better than no decision.” Sometimes quoting a business book. Sometimes Norman Schwarzkopf. Sometimes their older brother who runs a sandwich shop.

The first time I heard the saying, I wondered if only those who always make great decisions have the privilege of uttering it.

But the more I think about it – and find myself in situations that cause me to quote it back to myself – the more I agree with it.

I try not to make bad decisions. I am a thinker. A researcher. I evaluate many sides, collect intel, and make choices that are as informed as possible. I believe there is a time to think and a time to act.

But contemporary business requires action. I’ve “thin sliced” the situation and then something clicks in me, and I know it’s time to make the call. For better or worse. And GO.

Sometimes the mere act of being in motion is more important than which direction. Getting stuck in the quicksand of ‘what ifs’ and ‘yes buts’ can steal the momentum (and energy) you need to get over the hill. Momentum that can get you where you’re going, whatever route you take.

Indecision paralyzes. At first it just stuns. In that moment, it’s not too late to right the course and move on. But if you let it in, it distracts the operation, makes it hard to remember the original vision or mission. Instead of goal-driven, a project can become at thicket of doubt. Smaller decisions start to grow up like vines, over the bigger decision. More extensions grow, reaching and affecting more and more people involved. A culture of doubt is created.

If you weigh all the options, and don’t move forward but circle around in them – and just can’t make the call – or worse, doubt your choices at every turn – you will struggle. Your team will struggle with you. Struggle to help you believe, or to believe themselves. Either way, their energy will be mis-directed and lost.

If you make a choice, and believe in it, you will make it fly.

And by extension of your confidence in it, others will buy in and be there to support you, adding their energy to its fuel. Unified momentum. It will soar.

Belief is everything.

Walk forward. Make choices. Believe in them.

More reading:
BOOK: Malcolm Gladwell’s book “BLINK”
ARTICLE: “A Bad Decision Is Better Than No Decision At All” -Entrepreneur Magazine

Cooking class

A great marketing plan is like cooking a great meal.

It’s about preparation, ingredients, timing, when to turn the heat up, when to turn the heat down, and knowing what goes well together.

Don’t over-season. But that doesn’t mean your meal has to be bland. Allow the distinct flavors to come through. Don’t muss it all up in one pile of mash.

Try something new. But by all means do your homework – get a good recipe.

Think about who you’re cooking for – know what your guests are allergic to.

Be prepared for things to go differently than expected. Make sure you have enough of what you know people are going to want more of, and be ready to make more of other things if you are pleasantly surprised by something you didn’t know they’d like.

Pay attention to what’s leftover – remember that for next time.

And most of all, enjoy the experience of making the meal – as it is most of the experience!

Making help easy

I still get a rise out of Tom Cruise’s “Help me help you” speech in Jerry McGuire.  I can’t help it.

I’m not writing to tell you to go easier on your helpers. To appreciate them more. Respect them more. Or understand them more.  Actually, I know you appreciate them. Respect them. And understand them. You know how much they mean to you. You show them all the time. In the ways you thank them, in how hard you work, and how committed you are.

I’m writing to tell you that making your dream come true is about long haul coalition building. Not just getting the one person, two people, or five around you right now. But to inspire every person you encounter along the way. To make it easy for them to support you.  And as you do, above all else, to ensure you are winning more than you lose. Because you will lose some. That is okay. That is just a fact of life and being human. Nobody needs to be perfect. Perfection isn’t what builds the bigger things.  Attention is.

So often in the music business people focus on who they want to “get.”  A manager. An agent. A label. A publisher. A publicist. A radio promoter. A distributor. A DJ. An interviewer. A critic. The getting becomes a carrot to chase. And once they “get” the deal or the gig or the person, they think they’ve won.  But people are not acquired. The getting is not the win.  The deal isn’t what we’re after.  It’s the relationship.  And all that relationship cultivates.  And how it moves over time.  There is no getting – only relating.

Coalitions are built of team members, it’s true. But the mortar that makes your team strong is made of people who support you, wish you the best, and sometimes are able to help – in little increments – whether or not they are “on the team.”  All the little increments of help and hope make a difference.

We can’t please everyone. Nor should we try. But we can make it easy for people to help us – in our own authentic ways.

We can remove paths of resistance, and offer people simple ways to further our cause. We can design our asks so yes is easy.

Teams are built quickly, but coalitions are built over decades.  You can’t rush it so don’t even try. Just trust that each supporter/investor you gather is another inch toward your dream. That every person matters. There are no important people and unimportant people. We are all humans.

You build coalitions by showing up where the people are. They won’t come to you. You have to go to them.

You keep coalitions by being consistent. The thing that surprises people about you will be the thing that gets attention. But the things you are consistent about are what become your MO – your reputation – what you are known for.

Change is a process.  Coalition building is, too.

The next time you ask someone to do something for you – be it large or small – think of these questions…
– Are you asking them to do something that is easy for them to do?
– Are you making it easy for them to do it for you?  If not, can you?
– If you make it even just a little bit easier for them, will they be more likely to help you?
– What does the way you are asking indicate about who you are? What is the nature of your relationship with them?
– What relationships of theirs are you asking them to leverage on your behalf?
– Is what you are asking them to do on par with what you can do for them now or in the future?

In all things, we are at our strongest when we operate together.  You have that on your side always.  People want to belong. They want to be part of something that is growing.  If you can find ways to make it easy for people to be part of what you are doing – if you can draw on their strengths in ways that further their own missions as well – if you can make their investment as much about them as about you – you will find yourself surrounded by a family of true supporters.

You can do this.

Awards, red carpets, receptions and knowing people

The longer I work in this business, the more I marvel at the ego gymnastics we put ourselves through. And the more I marvel at it, the easier it is to do a double back dismount after a giant on the high bar with a cocktail in hand. (in case you are curious)

This week, I was at the SOCAN music awards where our client Rose Cousins performed “If You Could Read My Mind” in a Lifetime Achievement Award tribute to Gordon Lightfoot. It was a meaningful reason to be somewhere. I’m a longtime fan of Lightfoot, and I can’t think of anything more powerful than seeing one songwriter I greatly admire (and get to work with) perform in tribute to another, who is an absolute legend.

SOCAN Music Awards

It was so great to see folks like Jill Barber and Kathleen Edwards take home SOCANs. To watch as so many writers and co-writing relationships, across all genres, were celebrated at the event. And to congratulate and commune for a night.

In moments like these, I am reminded how lucky I am to do this work, how inspired I am by colleagues and artists, but I am also reminded of another thing…

We are people.
We fit in. We stand out.
We relate. We are different.
We belong. We are remarkable.

Everything that we are works in contradictions, and also creates friction. It is a friction that can debilitate some if taken in desperation, but I prefer to see it as a happy friction, and keep it on my good side.

I know some people who go to industry awards events a lot “get the drill” and start to look at them as just another thing you do when you work in the industry. In and out, bup bup bup, snap snap snap, flash flash flash, and there you go. When I first started going, I thought that was my goal. To get to a place with it where I felt like it was old hat and easy, like it didn’t matter, so I could just move through it, know what to do, where to go, let interactions and conversations happen. Minimize it to make it socially easy. Do the thing. You know?

But I gotta say, that’s just not my way. That hasn’t happened. And well, I’m kinda glad now.

I hope I never lose the sense of wonder I feel about these events.

How powerful it is to gather various sub-sections of the industry – teams of people who work so hard, and see them – for just a moment – be recognized for their efforts and achievements.

Are these events nerve-wracking? Totally.
Does everyone pretend they aren’t? Probably.
Do some people or projects not get recognized that should? Oh come on, of course.

And sure… It does feel different the more people I get to know and the more our artists grow and are known. But that is just natural in any environment. We have to be on the outside of things before we are on the inside.

But generally, if we welcome ourselves to the moment, the moment welcomes us back.

So, here is my advice if you are headed to an awards show or industry event…

I encourage you to let it matter. Let yourself feel uncomfortable or intimidated if it’s your first or second time. Be okay if you don’t know people – and trust you will continue to know more and more. But most of all…

Don’t suppress your sense of wonder. Protect and defend it.

Don’t worry about being cool. Be totally uncool. Be YOURSELF.

If you let yourself see and hear the moment, through your own eyes and ears, you’ll experience the moment to its fullest!

A toast to the venturers

Every year I say WHAT A YEAR. As if it’s the first time I’ve thought that.

I take stock of what we’ve learned in the year. I marvel and what our artists have accomplished – outwardly and inwardly. The journey of the artist is public and private, professional and personal.

In 1993 I adopted a mantra that has stuck with me, and never failed me the last 20 years and counting. “My life is an adventure.”

I said it to myself when I was first coming out, a challenging experience. When I battled my way through college. When I boarded a flight to San Francisco with a suitcase and a guitar, without the person I was to be moving with. When I first saw Los Angeles, in over my head managing photo shoots. When I first saw Times Square, hanging a car on an outdoor board. When I jumped into digital. When I walked into my dotcom job the morning I was sure to be laid off. When I landed back in Boston to start all over again. When I first volunteered to help a musician. When I dropped everything and went to business school. When I met and married my partner. Each of the three times I tried to go full time in music. And I say it to myself every time my company agrees to work with a new artist.

All in, I’ve probably said it thousands of times. (I Googled how many days I’ve been alive since 1993, and am pretty sure it’s over 7,000 times.)

I am constantly reminded how lucky I am. How lucky we are.

We make music. We travel the world. We meet all sorts of people. Some we delight. Some we disappoint. Some we amuse. Some we infuriate. But we affect people, and that is the point. We make a difference.

Every venture is a leap of faith. (Leap being the key word.) A vulnerable moment that ushers in more vulnerable moments, if we do it right. And the collective of those vulnerable moments, what we do with them, how we navigate, and who we spend them with – this is the journey.

So this New Year, I raise a toast to the venturers!

You brave, courageous individuals – who endeavor to dream, and follow that dream. Big or small.

You patient, persistent soldiers – who take every step, cherish the walk, know what it takes, and choose loving the journey over hating the obstacles.

You resilient, passionate creators – who can’t be stopped, must continue, weather the ups and downs, and emerge from every storm still floating in the direction of your best hopes.

I raise a glass to you. You know who you are.

We sure are grateful for you.

Dr. Michael Fiveash

Teachers make us who we are.

We do what we do because teachers showed us possibility.

They expected more of us. They asked us questions. They showed us new ways of looking at information, the world, ourselves. New ways of asking our own questions. They taught us how to think.

In high school, I had the perfect storm of three classes that changed my life.

1) ENGLISH LITERATURE: Critical thinking and eloquent writing are learned skills. Practiced craft. My opinion matters. Thank you, Patricia Maier.

2) PSYCHOLOGY: Understanding people is about patience, asking the right questions, listening, observing, and maintaining objectivity. Thank you, Elaine Engelberg.

3) MYTHOLOGY: Art is the greatest expression of humanity. In all its forms. Classical to contemporary. The Odyssey to The Simpsons. Thank you, Michael Fiveash.

I am a Music Manager. I studied English and Philosophy at Tufts. Chicano Studies at UC Berkeley. Business and International Marketing at Simmons School of Management. I was an advertising executive before starting my own company. We make and promote music. We support creators and thinkers and dreamers and lyricists and song makers. I can’t imagine doing any of this without those three lessons.

I am also now a teacher in the Music department at Northeastern University. I am always aware of the great responsibility in this, but never more so than today – upon hearing of a great educator’s passing.

I would be a different person had I not been taught by Doctor Fiveash.

I would be a different manager, reader, thinker, feeler, listener, teacher, citizen.

I am often reminded how lucky I was to go to Lexington High School in Massachusetts. A public school that employed committed educators like these three. Teachers who expected excellence, and modeled it in their actions, in their expressions, in their lessons. A school system that saw fit to invest in class topics that went beyond the “usual” curriculum – and inspired students to carve our own unique paths in college and beyond.

I know my path was paved with an alchemy of these classes and many others. Yet Fiveash lessons stand out, and return to me in unexpected moments as I do my work of today. I still pause when I see epithets, and think fondly “ahhh, the grey eyed goddess” – they stand like yield signs as I merge on my way. I still marvel at allusions to ancient art in today’s pop culture, and savor when animated movies, video games and tv shows wink and nod to classical myths and characters. I still stop and break monster tasks down when I get overwhelmed, take them in sections, do the work to figure each out, slog through to reassemble them, and celebrate the revelations that come of that demystification process. (It’s always worth it!) And most of all, I am reminded that the fun IS the challenge. That all our minds are capable. There is room for everyone. That expecting more of myself and others IS the only way forward.

In short, the man made a difference.

Gratitude.

Doctor Michael Fiveash (1946-2013)

michael fiveash

Myth and artist brand management

Brand managers talk a lot about “essence” “identity” “iconography” and “myths”… They spend hours and countless studies to hone in on what’s “at the center” of a brand – and what the little things are about the product(s) that illustrate that core to the public. They build frameworks and graphic standards guides to steer marketing teams to “stay on message” to “stay on brand…”

Have you done this for your team? Are you just inferring to your publicist what your brand is, or do they know, really, what you are about? Are you expecting your agent to just “get it” or are you telling them what you are about? Does your bio even tell your brand story??

What are you doing to keep your team on the same page about you?

Artists are often understandably afraid to think about their brands because they worry the process of doing that will demystify something magical and integral about who they are. They worry if they know what those things are, the spell will be broken and they will cease to be authentic.

But if you don’t think about those things, then you are reinventing the wheel every time.

And if you don’t think about those things, likely you are devaluing some very important things about you.

And if you don’t think about those things, then how are you deciding what to say? How are you prioritizing?

Do you know what you are about?

Now, some artists are very lucky in that their brand is SO STRONG that everything they do emits the message. They stand for one thing so boldly, that all they have to do is show up and it reverberates from every note, every wardrobe item, every expression, every piece of merch, everything that comes from the artist.

But most artists are not like that – most resist being one thing. They have many interests, that shift over time. They want to defend the intricacies of who they are. And in that resistance, they run the risk of creating brand confusion – or in some cases even conflicting messages.

Like it or not, you represent something to fans. There is an unspoken myth they believe, and you play an important role in their own expression about what is right and wrong with the world. It’s not a bad thing! It is sacred. It is part of the artist-fan unspoken contract…

Often this myth is driven by the context/vibe of the first song(s) your fans heard. For artists who had particular songs that introduced them to audiences, that song IS the foundation for the mythology the fan perceives about the artist. An artist’s relationship with that song, then, becomes vital to career health.

It’s not so bad. Because most often that song IS so good because it represents the heart of where you come from. So be kind to that song. And whenever you feel far from your fans, go back to it. That song IS your friend, even if it’s an oldie.

It is wise to assess every so often what your fans think you stand for, and compare it against what you want to be known for. Are they a match?

If they are not a match, you must ask yourself… Have you tried to tell this about yourself yet? Do you believe your brand can make that shift? Is it believable? How long will it take to get there? What do you need to do? What choices should you make differently to position yourself that way?

If they are a match, you still have homework! You must ask yourself… Are you being ambitious enough? What do you need to do to grow and evolve your brand story? Healthy brands evolve, and evolution leads to new pathways and new fans. Stagnant brands struggle to grow. Make sure you don’t de-volve by getting stuck in the brand that used to be you!

Most of all, remember that having a BRAND IS GOOD.

1) It informs decisions – and actually makes them much easier to make. For you and your team.

2) It is the cornerstone of fan loyalty. Fans stick with the artists they “know” just like they stick with the companies they trust.

3) It affords you business benefits like price flexibility, negotiating leverage, competitive consideration advantage, and increases the quality of partners who want to work with you and what length they will be willing to go for you.

4) It informs the way you communicate with people. Especially in moments when you don’t think you know what to say, you will! And in a fast-paced environment like today, where deals are done over Twitter direct messages in 140 character increments, and miscommunication a constant peril, having the immediate ability to say something “on message” in real-time is essential!

Real social media engagement

Real conversation takes self awareness, confidence and faith.  

When marketers advise large companies how to leverage social media, they start with brand essence, voice, and personality – searching for unique ways the company can carve an authentic presence.  They identify the elements first, then who can best carry that message – in spirit, technical ability and practical availability.  They identify key speaking points, topics of most importance, editorial schedules.  They target and tag and create lists and offers and messaging.  They create process, and measurement plans.

As music people, we think we are so different.  That we know something marketers do not.  Because the artists ARE our brands.  Our brands ARE people.  Who express themselves authentically on a daily basis – it’s what they do.  We can’t help but do social media well.

Not so.  Artists fall victim to the same temptation companies do:  one way communication.

It takes SELF AWARENESS to realize you are the only one talking.  That you talk too much.  You don’t listen enough.  Wherever you are – in person at a cocktail party, remotely on the phone, or virtually on social media – Talking is only one third of conversation.  Listening and Thinking are also necessary for meaningful exchange.

And yet, how often do we prioritize Listening and Thinking in social media management?

Too often, music social media managers prioritize to-dos as follows…

  1. We focus on status updates, tweets, photos and tags first.  We want people to see and share our content.
  2. We sometimes reply to comments and retweets.  We think that encourages people to share our stuff more.
  3. We sometimes look at the things people write on our walls.  We respond when something resonates with us, but not always.
  4. We don’t always reply to direct messages received.  Nobody else can see, so these exchanges are lower priority.

What kind of way is that to run a business?  Could a company get away with thinking of their customers that way?  If anything, companies like Zappos and Amazon have taught us that every customer’s experience matters in an age where loyalty counts and word gets around.

It is important to take a good hard look at yourself, and how you prioritize communication.

Are you having conversation?  Or are you just talking at people?  At the end of every month, do you know more, the same, or less about your fans?

It takes CONFIDENCE in your work, who you are, and the fans you attract, to believe that if you open up conversation to include others’ voices, it won’t go wrong.  It takes even more confidence to believe it will always go right.  Marketers struggle with this, too.  Inviting customers to say what they really think can be scary.

What if they don’t like me?  What if they aren’t that committed afterall?  What if the only ones who speak up are fanatical outliers – and they alienate my core customers and fans?  What if I don’t like my customers?  What if they say things about me that are not true?  What if I don’t know what to say back?  What if they have nothing to say?

The questions that plague marketers plague artists and music companies, too, whether or not they want to admit it.

Desire to control others comes from fear and insecurity.  Companies want to control messaging because there are things customers can say that will hurt.  The company has real traits they want to hide, downplay or change, and other traits they want to feature instead.  They want to lead people to believe something.

How human is that?  Sound familiar?

What are you afraid a fan will say about you?  What would happen if they did?
What do you want fans to think and say about you?  How do you get them to do that?
Is it working?

Contemporary companies embrace their weaknesses.  They see customers talking as opportunity to learn and respond – openly and honestly.  Discussion can change customers’ minds, empower other customers to voice alternate opinions, and shift the conversation to illustrate what really matters.  This does not happen if conversation is one way or controlled.

Artists must do the same.

Where CONFIDENCE is derived from belief in ourselves, our team and our work – belief that we have done all we can do, FAITH comes from another level of belief.  Belief in what we do not tactically control.

An artist must believe in their fans.  An artist must believe they have attracted the right fans and that those fans will articulate.  In the best case scenario, an artist is a fan of their fans, too.  It is a mutual admiration society.  (Companies strive for this, too.)

Fans are attracted by art, essence, inklings, commonality.  They follow because they are like you.  Or because they want to be like you.  Or because they are glad someone like you exists, whether or not they are like you.  These things can’t be predicted.  They can’t be measured.  Sometimes, in art, it is a collection of things.

Conversation is always better when we relate to the person we are talking with.  The only way to have real engagement is if we also have FAITH that because we are just as we are, we are relevant.  We will be seen and understood.  And we will hear and understand.

An artist must believe that by making art that is true and quality, it is relevant.  And worthy of conversation.

A TALE OF TWO PARTIES:  ILLUSTRATION OF SELF AWARENESS, CONFIDENCE AND FAITH

Social engagement online is just like going to a party…

PARTY ONE:  When we go to a party begrudgingly – heels dragging – out of obligation – forcing ourselves to be social – we never have fun.  We shake hands, but we do not meet people.  Conversation feels stilted and forced.  We are thinking about other things while talking, and can’t wait to get home.  We feel like we wore the wrong outfit, brought the wrong dish, said the wrong things.  The party sucks.  Because we go to the party without SELF AWARENESS, CONFIDENCE and FAITH.

PARTY TWO:  When we believe a party will be fun, it is.  We know we will see “our people” there.  We trust the host, know we will meet people we like, embrace a sense of wonder about it, and are ready to enjoy ourselves.  We look forward to the party all day.  We travel to the party with a strong sense of self, knowing who we are, and why we were invited.  We walk in confidently, knowing we belong – or if not, knowing we will soon, in some way.  We have faith that other good people are going to show up, also sharing this mindset.  And the party is awesome.  The conversation is awesome.  The Listening.  The Thinking.  The Speaking.  All of it.

As an artist, yours is not to just think about what party you want to go to, but rather…  Which party do you want to host?

Social embeds, practically speaking

I saw a post on a listserv today. I thought I’d share my response to it here for our blog readers, too. In it a question arose about which widgets should be embedded on artists’ websites. I get that question a lot from clients and colleagues. It’s one I’ve thought a lot about, and am always working to stay on top of. At Market Monkeys, our recommendations are always changing as new tools emerge, existing tools are enhanced, and most of all, as our artists’/clients’ needs, devices, and behaviors change. Here goes…

Question: (I am paraphrasing)
What social media buttons and widgets should I embed and where? Which are more important? (and she listed a string of social/digital companies – to which I’ve replied directly to each below, and then added POVs on additional ones she didn’t ask about after that)

Answer:
Whatever tool(s) the artist uses effectively! And make their favorite one most prominent.

If the artist doesn’t use a tool effectively, it’s best not to highlight that with an embedded button or widget. That might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many sites have links in their MAIN NAVIGATION to social media sites they never update, just because they think they are supposed to. This is not like a diet. You don’t buy pants a size smaller as incentive to work to fit into them. I can assure you – like with the pants, no amount of putting buttons on your site is going to make you a better social networker!

Put the artist’s best foot forward. If they are “better on Facebook” go with it. (Hopefully they aren’t “better on MySpace”…)

For some of our artists, the answer is Twitter – for some it’s Facebook – for some it’s YouTube – for some it’s Instagram – for some it’s their email or blog… SELF AWARENESS FIRST AND ALWAYS.

As for the specifics, I can tell you how we use code from other sites…

Facebook – we go with Like and Share buttons, not the feed/timeline embed. Recommend buttons confuse us. So Like button in the main nav, at least on the homepage. Share buttons on blog posts, or particular pages/content you want people to share on Facebook. If you use WordPress or a similar content management system, this might be a simple on/off switch and doesn’t have to be a manual embed everytime.
Customize Facebook buttons, grab plug-in widget code, and go >>

Twitter – we use both the embedded feed and the Tweet buttons, depending on where we are in the site. Twitter’s embedded feed widget is more fun to watch than Facebook’s – and can even be interesting for fans who don’t use Twitter. We usually have that on the homepage, and Tweet buttons alongside the Facebook share buttons described above. We don’t usually use Cards and embedded Tweets yet, but we can see possibilities for that, especially if WordPress integrates a plugin in the future that could automate the use of that code.
Get Twitter button code >>
Get Twitter timeline widget code >>
The latest on Twitter embed options >>

Reverbnation – We don’t use it much with our artists. But we do use other direct to fan tools, and embed their widgets – primarily the ones for music players, email capture, download giveaways, and digital and physical music/merch sales. Our favorite is Topspin. We actually spent years working with multiple partners, and found a lot of merit in tools like Nimbit and other kindred partners, but in the end Topspin was the most professional and aggressive with respect to its development pipeline. They built a starting-place platform with a vision for the future, and they have been able to best keep up with change as smartphones and tablets and WordPress and clouds and other 3rd party partner tools and technologies have become more and more popular for artists and fans alike.

Soundcloud – We use it in specific applications, like for promotional pages, or specific ad hoc one to one mailing. Some people use it for all the players on their sites – it’s more common for booking agencies, music production companies and bloggers than for artist fan-facing websites. We use the direct to fan tool widgets so they tie back to sales on artist sites. But Soundcloud is great. And people in the industry are familiar with it. Like with YouTube, best practice is for an artist to have their own account in their name. We originally started with all of our artists in our account to hopefully bring them cross-pollination, especially when Soundcloud was new and just getting started. But now we have found it more appropriate and advantageous for them to have their own accounts in their names, so they can build a following and analytical data that goes with them over time.

MySpace – We kept the buttons to MySpace on artist sites for a while. Justin Timberlake has long threatened to bring back sexy there, but maybe last year we finally gave up and started removing MySpace links from all our artists’ websites as redesigns were done.

What else??!!! The big one you are missing most here is YouTube!
With “watch consumption” on the rise, and the vital role that plays in discovery and sharing of new music, YouTube might be one of the most important social/user generated media sites to prioritize!! Your artists should have official YouTube accounts, and they should both “upload” their own official content and “playlist” videos others post of them that they like, so those are sure to be featured most. Whenever someone sends me a link to their website because they want me to hear their music, the first thing I look for is a link to live performance video. First. Before bio. Before audio. Because video tells me 10 things quickly. If I don’t see a video right out front, but I see a link to YouTube, I go there.

A couple others that are worth knowing about…

Instagram: A lot of artists like this because they can post photos and don’t have to write status updates. It feels more creative to some. We haven’t loved the widgets/embeds out there that we’ve seen so far, so we haven’t *quite* yet been embedding artist photo streams on sites. But we hope someone will develop a great Instagram embed, or that Instagram will become more embed-friendly in the future, and we have reason to believe they will… because some of our artists are very active and I know they would love to feature those images on their sites for their fans.

Pinterest: Still building following, unclear if it will reach critical mass. still baffles and befuddles many. but the numbers are clear – they had huge exponential growth in users in 2012, which came with it a natural level of “kicking the tires” style usage. 2013 will be a deciding year from them – will all those new users remember their login passwords 6 months from now?
Interesting research from Nielsen on Social Media with particular focus on the demographic that is using Pinterest >>

ArtistData and Songkick and GigPress, oh my…
These are all commonly used calendar widgets/tools. We currently use ArtistData for most of our sites, as the tool is sufficient and delivers all calendar data to other prominent calendar databases across the web, mobile, and local news outlets. We have been patiently awaiting further product development/enhancements by parent company Sonicbids. Virtually no development has happened since Sonicbids acquired ArtistData in 2010, but we are hopeful that Sonicbids’ recent acquisition by Backstage (Jan 2013) may change that. In the meantime, we continue to use the ArtistData tool, and use CSV exports and imports so that we can use site plugins like GigPress, to keep artist’s calendars look, feel and functionality up to speed with the ever-changing demands of mobile, tablet and digital browsers.

Hope this helps!

mc

For the sake of art or money

Recently in an undergraduate discussion about the music business, we endeavored as a group to place artists – mainstream and independent – on a spectrum with ART on one end and MONEY it’s polar opposite. The exercise was intended to get the students to think about the constant friction that exists for artists when making art for commerce. We discussed examples of times when artists (or their management/labels) have been faced with decisions between the two. Much to the point of the exercise, the students were valiant in stating their opinions – why they put each artist where – recognizing the influence money and business has on art. But now three weeks since, I can’t help but continue to think about the conversation. The ways the exercise was apt and the ways it was flawed.

We work to make money to live to make art, which is our work.

If art is our child, we do anything it takes to feed that child. Anything.

But we don’t do it out of vanity. We do it for transformation. To make a contribution. For people, even if we can’t see or name them in our moments of creation. We do it from acknowledgment and faith that they are there.

In a conversation with a lifelong mentor the other day, we talked about the spectrum of INTEGRITY and SUCCESS. Invariably we fell into a groove of comparing the two as if they are mutually exclusive, acknowledging simultaneously that is flawed – but we indulged ourselves nonetheless. After that conversation I had the same feeling. I can’t help but continue to think about it. Because I still believe ART and INTEGRITY can live in peace with MONEY and SUCCESS. It is not the common or easy path, but it is possible.

It is a choice to remain focused. To remain true. To stay the course of our own creation. To have faith and believe that all the previous choices in our lives have led us here. To keep our choices, and not fear them. To trust our previous, present and future selves. And to trust that this moment is the beginning of the next moments to come – and they are important.

We are a product of our vision, experiences and environment. The invisible path we set out on. Acquaintances, interactions, impressions, attitudes. Surroundings and circumstances. Serendipity. Universe conspiracy. A collection of moments that share something in common – that we are in them.

We transform all of this into expression – visual, musical, tactile, edible. And because we share being human, these diverse expositions of our inner and outer personalities are sometimes universally relatable – sometimes individually relatable. By many. By few.

It’s the connection moment we strive for. We can feel when we have created something so true that it is relatable. We hunger for it.

We do not make art for art’s sake or money’s sake. We make art for people’s sake.

And making art that way leads to both money and integrity. But they are not goals or routes – they are not ends or means. They are bi-products of a creative life lived with intention.

You are not a fraud.

I sat before a classroom of undergraduates last Friday and told a student who humbly admitted to feeling like a fraud while working at an internship that if she felt that way, then she was in exactly the right place. Pushing herself to her full potential. And she should not give up.

It felt a risky thing to say to a group of young people, all eagerly navigating their identities and the start of their careers. I wonder what I would have thought if someone told me that when I was 20 years old.

When we are poised to leap forward, and face challenges seemingly over our heads, it can feel that way. No matter how much we worked, prepared, and sought opportunity, when we get there we still can’t believe it. We feel like someone made a mistake handing the baton to us. If they only knew who we really are!

The secret is, we all feel that way RIGHT before pushing through to the other side of that feeling. When we have that moment of feeling a fraud (and it IS exactly that feeling – it’s the only word I’ve heard people use to describe it), it is precisely because we ARE real and capable.

People who are frauds don’t get that feeling. I assure you. Only real people do.

I say this confidently because over the years I have heard it from MANY people who I know to be honest and very successful. Some I would never guess to have a low confidence moment in their lives.

When I first discovered it, I was shocked. I was quickly rising in the ranks at a major advertising agency, having just earned an MBA. My best friend was a few years out of law school, similarly on a partner track at a major corporate law firm. We were wearing suits, toting crackberries, and meeting with people far senior to us with big titles in posh conference rooms across the world. We ate fancy dinners and car service drove us to and from airports in every city we hit. We nailed negotiations, presentations, deals and contracts weekly. But inside, we both still felt like arty college kids who scribbled in our journals, obsessed over love interests, scrounged for quarters to do laundry, ate too many late night M&Ms, and took Greyhound buses and rode bikes to get places. Not Lincolns.

We both thought, if they knew who we really were they’d escort us from the premises. Shut down our expense accounts. Apologize to our clients. No number of intricate deals she closed or successful campaigns I launched would prove to us that we belonged. We didn’t tell anyone – we kept the secret, figured we must be doing some form of “fake it to make it,” and hoped the feeling would pass when we finally were worthy. We didn’t even tell one another. Until one night, while lamenting our workaholism over wine, we revealed to one another that we felt exactly the same way.

Number one sign of success. Feeling a fraud.

It’s true.

So next time you feel like you don’t really belong where you are – just take my word for it – you absolutely DO.

You earned it. And if you didn’t earn it yet, you are about to.

People trust you because they know you can do it. And you can trust THAT.

Ripples

When I worked in advertising, everything was cause and effect. The creation of it, the measurement of it, the intricacies of timing, location, duration, message, motion, color, volume, and the impact of one thing on another. Immediately and over time. Stock was put in getting from dot a to dot b.

Often there were a few routes to get there. Most of the time, the tools and resources available and choices to be made presented themselves quite clearly. We could see the known touch points. We made impressions at intervals to produce empirical results. After the ads had run there would be a halo affect, and we would analyze integrated impact, but after the post-buy analysis was complete, it was done. We built brand equity over time. But more so we measured immediate impact. What our ads did to sales that week. That month. That quarter. That year. Lifetime value was a topic, but more in theory than practice.

In music, I make decisions every day I would never have made in advertising, and I still believe they are right. Because the road is not direct. There are no signs or maps. The road turns back on itself, sometimes years later. It’s not even paved for many stretches, if you’re doing it right.

Sure, there are times when deals are clear. Option A or Option B. Assume more of the risk in the deal and you stand to make more of the reward. Sure. Take a hit now to make a step up tomorrow. Of course. Trading money for exposure. Day of week for the right bill. Percentages for leverage.

But it is the ripples that make the most difference. The things you did or started to do years ago, that come full circle. And it’s not just karma. It’s actual ripples. The little email exchange you had in 2001 that led to you meeting so-and-so in 2005 that led to you seeing them at a festival in 2008 that led them to introducing you to someone else in 2010 that led to you doing business with that person in 2012.

The longer we work in the business, the more people we meet, and the more we do, the more ripples we create. We must nurture the currents that carry those ripples so they reverberate.

So… It’s not just about making good or bad impressions. It’s about sending out telegrams to yourself in the future via choices and relationships you cultivate now. Tuning in to receive those telegrams over time. Trusting that what you are doing today is building something for tomorrow – creatively and professionally – for yourself and for others. Aggressively pursuing your goals, but also letting things happen when they are supposed to. When you are ready for them to come to you.

Respect and Reverence

What is respect and what is reverence? Who deserves respect? My, how often respect is misunderstood!

In the music business, some days we feel big and some days we feel small. We do it to ourselves. We let others do it to us. And sometimes others aren’t even trying to do it to us, we just feed on however we read their attitude or energy – and we take our own little ride. Up the rollercoaster. Down the rollercoaster.

This is no surprise. In any business where there are critics, where only a few can shine at any given time, and where there are presumably gatekeepers who hold the key to opportunities to shine, dynamics of power and leverage and control are abundant. And certainly, music is such a business.

We are all living in this petry dish of how we deal with it.

And for each of us, it is a lifelong journey.

What I want to discuss today is how admiration and respect come to play in this landscape. I have been thinking about this a lot lately because I admire a lot of people. I am a fan. I have a great deal of respect, especially for folks in this business who manage to carve out lives representing music and artists they care about, and who still follow the inner compass of their passion. People who are still close to why they got into this business in the first place – no matter how long ago it was. Principled leaders.

I have been surprised at times by how colleagues in the business have reacted to moments when I reveal my admiration for others. I have heard comments like, “Well, he’s just a man, Michelle,” or “He’s not that big,” or “She’s just like you, I don’t know why you make such a huge deal out of her.”

I of course know that people are just people. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I believe in authentic connection. And ability to authentically connect hinges on the belief that each of us are just people doing what we do, and we all have grounds on which we can relate, even if we are in different career stages. But it is interesting to me that some of my supporters are made uncomfortable when I express mentee-like respect for others. Their responses suggest they almost feel a need to downplay the other person in order to reassure me that I am significant. They see my admiration as a weakness – that by elevating someone else I am revealing that I do not believe in my own abilities. This is not the case. I feel safe respecting mentors and colleagues BECAUSE I feel secure in my abilities and talent. I feel comfortable with where I am on my journey. And I look to others for opportunities to observe and learn – from afar or near – how to continue to grow on my road.

I also think the comments come from something else. Sometimes it is hard to recognize the difference between Respect and Reverence. And in order to avoid risking misplaced reverence, we sometimes stifle respect, its vital safer sister. This is what is most intriguing to me.

In my personal emotional glossary…

RESPECT is when you esteem someone, their life work, experience and what they have to say, based on some action or trait you have observed or believe to be present. You may disagree with that person, but you ultimately value the grounding and substance of their perspective and believe they represent intellect and issues you care about. Respect can grow from observing a lifetime of work, or it can spark from action or achievement in a given moment in time. The person is human, flawed, and can be humbled – sure – but you choose to give them respect. And it feels good to respect them, because respect is also an expression of faith. A positive.

REVERENCE for a person is when you elevate someone to be so high that they are no longer human. They become so precious that you exclude any sense that they might be flawed. You might recognize the challenges they face as a human, but you see only what they represent on the larger scale. In my life, I reserve reverence for faith – for god – or the spirit that represents god, for lack of better language about it. To me, I do have reverence for only a few extraordinary humans – like Mother Theresa, Ghandi and Mandela – who truly have done works of kindness and shown extreme perseverence that impacted millions of people worldwide. I am willing to concede reverence for these individuals because, there is no question in my mind, I absolutely do protect the image I have of them and they absolutely do represent something holy to me.

I believe my colleagues’ remarks come from them thinking that what I am expressing is Reverence when what I am actually feeling is Respect. They feel the need to remind me that the person I am talking about is human. That they take a crap just like everyone else. That they have insecurities. That they’ve made mistakes. That I don’t need to put them up on a pedestal. Because they think I am made smaller looking up at that pedestal. But in my mind, I am not putting them on a pedestal. I know they’ve made mistakes. I have sometimes even participated in or been impacted by their mistakes, large and small. But I still see value in the respect I have for them.

While flaws may sometimes be human points of connection, I do not need other people to be flawed in order to relate to them. I do not need other people to be small for me to be big.

I believe embracing the light and power and energy in other people, learning from them in that place, from what they are living when they live their best selves, is a force that can open that light and power and energy in ourselves.

We must be willing to be fans of other people – and be willing to show our fandom. Being a fan carries a tremendous amount of ENERGY. It is innocent and honest. It is not embarrassing – it is ADMIRABLE. It feels empowering even. We can all relate. You can’t hate that emotion. You can only love it. Being a fan is freeing. It is an expression of faith in something outside of ourselves. Of caring about something enough to say it out loud. In a world where it feels unsafe to believe at times.

Some may think I’m old fashioned. That this notion of respect comes from having grown up “the old way” or risidually valuing “authoritative hierarchical ideals.” But I don’t think I’m old fashioned or brainwashed. I just can’t imagine working without respect and admiration. To me, it is a tremendous source of energy and expansion, not deflation, to admire and respect someone. It is a source of inspiration to celebrate another’s successes and seek ways to incorporate lessons from their triumphs into my own life and work. It is encouraging to see how they have navigated failures, and learn from those as well.

Have we been let down by our heroes so many times that we no longer allow ourselves to have them? Has it become so hip to be a self-made person that we are afraid to admire and seek mentors? To learn from experience? Why are we always trying to skip that part?

It is an act of courage to believe in another person. It is equally an act of ignorance, which stifles growth, if we fail to believe in mentors who present themselves to us along our journeys.

We don’t have to know everything divinely! We don’t have to learn it all for ourselves and reinvent wheels. We don’t need to prove to elders that we belong here. We do not lose anything by admitting admiration. We must have the courage to esteem our predecessors, to value their experience, to ask those who have been there before, and trust ourselves to synthesize that information with our own experience to navigate the best we can. This is our education.

We have a connection

In this business, we struggle with two things. How to reach many people. And how to reach one person.

Inevitably, no matter how authentic and sincere we aim to be, as driven individuals, we look for ways to reach more people. Questions pop into our heads. How can we get more email addresses? How can we make more friends? Get more followers, likes, what have you. How can we sell more albums? Get more listens? More spins? Put more butts in seats? Can we sell the show out early? Can we add a second show? Will people come? Do they care? And if they care will they continue to care? Am I doing what I have to do now to keep folks interested later? What is it that is resonating with people? Do I really know? Should I do more of that? Am I doing enough? Is that what I want to be known for? Are my goals realistic? Fantastical? Is there something wrong with that?

If those questions aren’t happening to you *sometimes*, you either have your head in the sand or you just aren’t being honest. If they are happening to you all the time, my friend, okay… take a deeeeep breath. We are gonna take a big step back. It’s not as bad as it seems!

Like I said… There are only two things you need to struggle with. And one of them is solved by the other.

In this business, we like to categorize people. I’m guilty of it. Afterall, I am a marketer. I believe in target market segmentation and tailored messaging geared toward unique audiences. But sometimes I have to remind myself — at the start of it, we are all just people. And each time you make a connection, it’s with one person not 5 or 10 or 50 or 500 or 10,000. It’s one person.

The best way to reach many people is to reach one person.

As a marketer and manager, I’m always struggling with how to boldly pitch my clients – to represent them well.

  • With honesty so whatever I say is as true to what it is they do as possible.
  • With accuracy so the message reaches the right people.
  • With urgency so the message is delivered in a timely manner – in the right moment for it to be received.
  • And with a sense of audience. That I’m not just pummeling people with information they don’t want, but with a message that matters to them in a language that resonates.

If someone doesn’t want to hear from you, they aren’t going to listen to you when you contact them. No matter what you say or how great the music is.

So what makes a person want to hear from you?

Connection.

And connection is human. Not fabricated or marketed. It is just there. It is real. Sometimes it happens overnight. Sometimes it takes years. It depends on the person. Just like all the best things.

Stop selling and start connecting. Listen as much as you speak. Anticipate where your audience might be coming from, and share what you have to say with them in a way they can connect with. In a way that feels like you are talking to them individually. Not to everybody around them. Not at them. With them.

There is this attitude sometimes – and it is infectious and addictive – that you have to pitch yourself constantly. That if you just get your pitch to as many people as possible, a certain percentage of those people will inevitably respond. That if you don’t reach reach reach for these people, you are missing opportunities. And as a manager or publicist or agent, perhaps not doing your job.

But quantity doesn’t come from quantity. It comes from quality. Quality connections are not made based on blanket impressions at a minimum conversion rate assumption. They are made over time, with repeated relevant conversations, and based on validation from third party impartial sources.

It’s not how many people you hit with your message – it’s who you connect with in a meaningful way. And do they have ability to connect with others in an equally meaningful way on your behalf? And are other people reinforcing their perception of you, so that when they want to join you, all points in their universe are encouraging that instinct?

Two music business examples to consider…

Example one. Bob Lefsetz doesn’t want your MP3s.
I heard a music industry mogul speaker at a conference recently say to an audience of independent artists and presenters, “I don’t want your MP3s – stop sending them to me.” And I totally understand what he was saying. He used the word “unsolicited” – which is always the industry’s way of saying “don’t call me I’ll call you.” But he’s only being honest. He is testifying to the mindset he is in when he is at his email. The feeling in his heart when he sees an email with an MP3 attached, before he’s even opened the email is, “This is going to suck.” And I don’t blame him for feeling that way! Do you?

Are you listening to his testimony? Or ignoring it?

I often find the basic rule of asking someone how they want to be communicated with is under-followed. People will tell you their preferences – it’s like a basic human urge – when asked it’s not something we tend to withhold. And it is a huge sign of respect, in my opinion, when someone asks. But by all means, if they tell you LISTEN and FOLLOW their advice on how to communicate with them!

Example two. Award nominations emails are making me cranky.
For the last two weeks, my inbox has been flooded with messages because I attended a music conference last year. Mass emails (technically SPAM) soliciting me to nominate their acts for awards six months later. All these emails do is annoy me. They don’t get me to do what the people sending them want me to do. They aren’t thinking about me and my likelihood to nominate. They just think if they deliver impressions maybe someone will check out their artist. Really?? Is this the way I am likely to discover my new favorite act?? I don’t think so! When I see the emails come in, I delete them right away. And almost everyone else I’ve talked to has done the same. Presumably not the reactions the senders are hoping for. I just don’t see the point. It is a whole lot of well-intentioned bright and talented people, wasting time writing emails that aren’t moving anyone to do anything. Just filling inboxes. Because maybe they feel like they have to? Obligation??

I always say, don’t complain about something unless you are prepared to offer a solution. So, what would I have them do instead? In this case my answer is – targeted conversations. Simply have conversations with some of the people they know in the community. It doesn’t take quantity to make quantity – it takes quality.

Whenever there is a situation where we don’t KNOW what the path to selection is, when we don’t KNOW the way to proceed, when we can’t SEE the path that has always worked before we got here, it is a natural instinct to cast a wide net and see what we fish in. That is what is happening here. The fact is, people don’t really know HOW nominations happen, so they are doing blanket outreach in hopes they might hit on it in the dark. I would suggest – when you see others casting the net wide and you feel that urge – question it. Think. Ask yourself, “What message would reach me?” And then follow your own compass.

So those are music business examples. How does this translate with performance and fans?

It is obvious when an artist is performing in front of people versus when an artist is connecting.

I’ve heard a lot of people write about and argue the purpose of the creation of music. Those who are art for art’s sake say that musicians create from themselves first, that creativity is pure, and audience reaction should have no bearing on the value of art. Those who are art for commerce’s sake say that musicians must factor audience when they create, as the purpose of music is to reach many – and the perspective of the many must be considered in order to be reached.

My favorite recent quotes about this were from three different people:

  • Jon Strymish, music photographer: “Art is not a job. It’s a way to communicate. Which seems so obvious, but seems like something society has completely forgotten. And I feel inspired by these people who make music as a way to communicate.” (from the short film IF I SHOULD FALL BEHIND by Rose Cousins)
  • Meg Hutchinson, singer-songwriter: “Creativity has always been an act of transformation for me. When the work is honest, when it strikes a nerve at the center of ourselves, it cannot help but resonate with others.” ( www.meghutchinson.com )
  • Bob Lefsetz, blogger: “personal, when done right, is universal.” (from post at 9:34pm yesterday – www.lefsetz.com )

Each artist has a different relationship with the extent to which they consider fans when they are writing and when they are performing (and often the extents differ). And at what stage they consider fans. And in what ways that is or is not exhibited. And then ultimately, the fans vote in their reactions at shows, in their purchases, reviews, remarks and recommendations.

What are the songs that resonate most with fans? The ones that feel personal to them, even though they were personal to the songwriter first. Each individual listener feels the song is telling their story. They feel the songwriter knows something about them. One to one to reach many.

What are the jokes that get laughed at most? The ones we relate to. The ones that make us say, “Yeah, I’ve totally been there!” Ellen Degeneres and Seinfeld both formed entire careers on the basis of humor that is personal and universal. Notice they never get laughs at the expense of others. Their laughs come from the individual experience that everyone has had. Ellen can get more laughs out of how difficult it is to open scissors packaging – because everyone has been there. What reaches one reaches many.

What are the stories that get repeated most? The ones that feel like they could have been ours. Ones that recount a specific experience, but an experience that can be told just as effectively by others. The message feels as relevant to the re-teller as it was to the original teller.

What are the Facebook posts that get shared most? The Tweets that get retweeted most? Personal and universal. Your observation, photo or video first, but it’s one others share and can reflect and remark on. In fact the whole notion of social media sharing is based on the basic human trait that we have a human drive to identify our connections – the preferences, experiences, observations, realizations and epiphanies we share mutually. Profound and mundane alike.

And on that note I will say – in a final thought – that it is important to make time and space and open your mind to whatever the connections may be. Don’t be so focused on results that you over-control the situation and miss out on a meaningful connection. Don’t get too caught up thinking what someone can or can’t do for you that you aren’t open to seeing or hearing what their real connection is with you.

All too often, I’ve seen people at conferences miss connections they have with others because they were so focused on handing someone their CD, or getting a business card, or shoving showcase info in their face. I’ve seen folks look puzzled and try to turn a normal human conversation toward what they think will be a “more productive topic” to discuss – when they didn’t realize that taking a moment to simply be human together IS the where connection starts.

I’ve done it myself. In fact, it’s such a strong urge at conferences and in limited timeframe business meetings, that I often have an inner monitor that keeps me in check. If I sense myself racing forward to the action, the next steps, wanting to be productive and efficient and overly drive the conversation in a way that feels forced – I hit the inner “hold up” button. In these moments, I just have to stop orchestrating, clear my mind, and LISTEN to the person who is talking. That controlling instinct is a natural thing that happens – because we are all driven people, we are type A personalities, we want to accomplish a lot, we are invested, we take our work seriously, and we sincerely don’t want to waste anyone’s time. But you know, sometimes wasting time isn’t a waste at all. It’s not wasting time if it is in the interest of authentic connection.

This is a long-term business. Not a short-term one.

I understand the urge to self-promote. I believe in being bold. In speaking your mind. In putting an emphatic foot forward. In first impressions. In being social. In getting yourself out there. Absolutely absolutely. But it’s important to find a natural way to form connections. To have the confidence to let your work and your reputation lead the way. And if you don’t have much work and you’re still forming your reputation – that’s ok. Be patient. Persist. The word DOES get around. If you share with the right people in the right moment in the right way.

The folks who find a way to do that are the ones who get listened to most – meaningfully so.

Focus on the one person, and you will reach the many.

Celebration

Tis the season to celebrate.  The season gives us permission.  Do we need permission?

It’s important, no matter how old you are or how far you advance in your career, to celebrate milestones –  all the wins large and small. It’s important to remember how much each positive moment means.

It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race.  To forget to celebrate.  Easy to just think about the dates you gotta book.  The album you’re trying to get out the door.  How tired you are.   How many emails are flooding your inbox.  The fact that you still haven’t booked a hotel room for next week.  The drive ahead.  The people who are annoying you.

Really.

We force ourselves to soldier on all the time.  We hold out for the big win to celebrate.  We tell ourselves we shouldn’t get our hopes up.  That we have to stay strong, keep a thick skin.  Prepare for disappointment.  Only celebrate when it’s in writing.  Only celebrate when it’s definitely happening.  Only celebrate when it’s a confirmed thing.

In this business, we are pretty much always prepared for someone to let us down.

What good is that?

Lately, I celebrate when someone calls me back.

I celebrate when someone agrees with me.

I celebrate when someone is moved by a song.

I celebrate whenever we get close.  Or closer than we were yesterday.

Come ON people.  Celebrate.

Do that little dance in your seat because you finally got a reply from a music supervisor you sent your music to last summer.  Bob your head and giggle like a child because the venue you’ve always wanted to play is thinking of booking you.  Be proud of the fact that you were considered for opening for someone amazing, even if you didn’t get it.

As you progress in your career, sometimes the achievements that were exciting to you early on can start to seem insignificant if you don’t stoke your fire for them.  We live and work in a community that has gatherings, conferences, festivals and awards.  These will take on different meaning to you over time, as you grow.  Do what you can to court your original enthusiasm for them.  Keep the child in you alive.  Remember what they are about.  Celebrate them.

Too often we train musicians and professionals in our community that in order to be cool or show progress, you have to get bigger than the things you used to do.  You have to distance yourself from your previous accomplishments.  And sure, I suppose there may be instances in which that’s true – that perception matters in certain circles.  But you know, times are changing.  We now have a full generation of music listeners who have experienced the discrepancy between stardom and accomplishment.  A generation that has watched celebrity be challenged – and humbled – by technology.

I don’t think anyone can argue with pure, authentic celebration.  It’s more becoming on an artist than acting too cool to be somewhere or do something.  Don’t become that jerk who thinks he/she is too good to be somewhere.  That doesn’t look flattering on anyone.  You don’t get brownie points for brooding.  If it is important to someone, it should be important to you.  See it through their eyes and celebrate it.

Celebrate more.  Your creativity will thank you.

There’s something Garrison Starr says in a song on her new album that is really ringing true with me lately.

It’s never gonna be the right time
It’s never gonna feel like a good time
No it’s never gonna be the right time
When you’re really tryin’
Not when you’re really tryin’

from “When You’re Really Trying” on “Amateur” (comes out in early 2012)
www.garrisonstarr.com

That line “it’s never gonna feel like a good time” has really been sticking with me day-to-day.  Because she’s right.  When you are really trying, and achieving, it doesn’t always feel like you are.  You keep thinking – oh when this or that happens I’m going to really stop and celebrate.  When we get to the top of the mountain, I’m gonna have all this time to party and take in the view.  It’s gonna be awesome.  All my friends will be there.  We’ll have a party.

But it doesn’t really work that way.

When we get to the top of a mountain, we see another mountain to climb.

That is the way of the achiever.

So why not celebrate the steps along the way?

The right time

There’s a right time for everything and everyone.

I am not one of those people that believes things are fated or not fated to be. But I do believe the universe conspires on your behalf. And if you piss off the universe by trying to force something before it’s due, it alters the thread in a way that may not lead to the most beneficial outcome. Kinda like in Back To The Future, you should and shouldn’t change the past – the optimal state of being is pushing that very fine line limit, and only going over it in extreme circumstances. It’s the wisdom to know when the circumstance warrants that is the kicker. To know when to be the master of your own fate, and when to trust that you are still sowing the framework for your future.

I was in the car with one of the greatest music writers and folklorists of our time the other day. (I know – lucky me.) He was apologizing for driving slowly, as if he thought his caution operating a vehicle was something I might judge. I had to tell him that while I might seem like a fast moving person, I am actually a very slow driver. I was in a bad car accident as a young person, and I told him I figure I already had my automotive lucky pass. He responded emphatically about how I should reconsider that notion. And he recounted to me a story of a taxi driver in Chicago who gave him a kindred lecture – which of course he delivered with amazing accuracy in the dialect and intonation of the original teller.

“Now don’t you think for a minute, son, just because good luck shines its light on you, that bad luck is gonna creep up on your back…”

The essence of which was to say that I should not go around believing that luck is extinguishable or that I can only get so much of a good thing. I knew he was right. So right. And it led to a lively conversation about how easy it is to slip into a cycle of creating our own mishap. We make our own futures – and if we go about thinking something bad might happen, inevitably it will. But if we believe in good fortune, well…

So we have to go around believing our dreams will happen. We have to show them they are welcome here, and furnish them with a warm, well-lit, healthy place to move in, stay and grow. If Virginia Woolf in her day suggested women obtain a room of her own to thrive in, I suppose I would suggest in this day, everyone should create a room for their dreams and hopes – where they are protected and nourished, allowed to change over time, free of scrutiny and “dont’s” or “can’t dos” that only stifle them…

Lorne Michaels said in his OWN network Master Class, that it takes Talent, Luck and Discipline to make it on Saturday Night Live. I think that’s just about right. But my definition of “Luck” is not some mystical magical thing. I think luck is about tapping into what’s magical about yourself, and paying enough attention so you are able to court that magic in all sorts of ways and moments.

To court magic, you have to believe in yourself and trust that there are people you are supposed to know, places you are supposed to go, things you are supposed to do – without getting so myopic that you miss the cues you have to see in order to seize vital moments. You see, cues about magic and luck come from the ground. Not from big egos or places of self-importance or grandiosity. You gotta stay humble and open to see them, to feel them, even though you need courage and confidence to act on them. That’s always the toughest balance to strike.

The most important times I put this into practice is in networking. When I started out in this business I made lists of people I wanted to meet like I would conquer them – check them off as I one by one could say I had called or emailed or accosted them at a conference. Now I make lists of people and put those lists away. I keep a running list of people in a draft email that I update and save as I come across names and companies. And I just trust if I go about my business the right way, I will naturally meet these people. At the right time. In the right way. With the right project.

Maybe that comes with time and experience – that belief that I will meet people. But of course, I also know I make an effort to circulate. I mean I’m not sitting at home waiting to meet Madonna or anything. But you get the idea. I get a little kick out of removing people from the list – because I really do find that I not only meet them, but some I am able to call friends before a year is out. Pretty cool. Mind you, there are people on that list who have been there for 10 years. And that’s ok by me. In the same way, I know I let this happen to me. I don’t mind being on other people’s lists, when I can tell they are willing to let it happen naturally, too.

It’s so hard to tell when the right time is to meet someone. And even more difficult to tell is when the right time is to call on them for help, collaborate with them on a project. But I know I meet everyone for a reason.

As Maya Angelou says, “Everyone is a teacher.” In the music business, all too often people boil other people down to what they can do – and how they can be used. If we do not perceive short term utility, the person is disregarded. That type of mentality is what killed the music in music business. We have got to be lifelong students of songs and each other if we want to change that. A great idea can come from anywhere. At the right time.

Music internships

I get asked a lot if we do internships. 

I don’t know what to say.  I mean, I believe it takes a certain number of hours in a job to get really good.  Years of walking, even though it feels like running sometimes.  And so yes, internships are a great way to get a head start on all the time it takes to learn.  I do believe in them.  But do I offer them?  That’s something I go back and forth on.  It requires commitment, time, and attention to manage interns well.  I take that very seriously.  So certainly, for the right candidates we accept the help, and are eager to train.  But we are very careful in the candidates we choose.  We expect every monkey to be an expert – and that goes for interns as much as it goes for managers.

I had internships when I was in college.  My first gig in music was an internship where I had to go around to every record store in the greater Boston area with a clipboard and count how many KMFDM and Nine Inch Nails CDs were on the racks, make note of their placement, and if need be sneak them a more opportune position. 

Yup, the little folksy girl pushed the hardcore stuff before anything else.  But that job taught me a lot. 

Here are a few of the truths and fallacies I learned when I was 19 years old that still affect how I work today…

My boss was the god of the office, and I knew even then – there was something terribly wrong with that.  He sat in a big desk in the middle of the office and everyone worked around him.  He wore a phone headset and spent all day calling people by their last name or “honey” or “sweetie” followed by a big guffaw of a laugh as if to say “we’re old buddies.”  And while I never let on, I was pretty sure the people on the other end of the phone knew how fake he was.  But then I thought maybe those people were just as fake, so it worked for him.  Who was I to question that?  The day he called me a “dyke” as if it was no big deal, I bailed.  It was my first taste of disdain for the industry as it was – and I know it gave me a sense that there was probably a different way to be in the music business.  That I could do it a better way.

So yeah, I bailed.  But not before I learned a few things…

Lesson One – The tedious things are the most important.  And they teach you the most.  Sometimes I see people try to delegate things they think are administrative in the name of efficiency, but really they just don’t want to do something that requires that much focus.  Really, the tedious things are sometimes the most important things you will do.  Don’t rush things that require your attention.

The reality is, executive work is administrative today.  The best leaders know how to DO things.  The internet has not only broken down the barriers to entry, it’s broken down the barriers in job descriptions.  You are as likely to find me programming a web page or mailing out posters as you are to find our newest, youngest employee.  And I’m not embarrassed to say that.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  A manager is NEVER too important to write a note to a radio DJ and stick it in an envelope with a CD.  Nor is an artist.

Taking trains and buses around the city to record stores when I was 19 was not only a gut check (did I really want to be in the music business or was it just a fantasy?)…  It was also a lesson in the hours and effort and gritty hustling it takes to make sure every t is crossed and every i dotted.  In those days, placement in record stores was everything.  Today it’s placement on web sites.  And today, I go through the entire litany of online music outlets to see how our artists are reflected.  Is it an old photo?  Is the bio/description recent?  Are all their albums listed?  Is there a link to where you can buy their music?  Is their placement buried or prominent?  I just don’t have to take the subway to get there anymore, but I still do these things.

I guess an internship, and probably also the first job after college, are big gut checks.  Can you do this?  Can you grit it out?  Do you have the drive?  The desire?  The hunger?  Do you want it enough?  It’s as important to prove these points to yourself as it is to prove it to the people you are working for/with.

Lesson Two – Phone voice is really important.  It just is.  Even in this day and age or internet, IM, Facebook and texting (and yes I certainly do a lot of business that way), you gotta be able to talk confidently, emphatically, passionately, sincerely, calmly, and carefully on the phone.  If not phone, fine then, Skype.

Lesson Three – Know how to do things yourself.  I learned this from my internship, but also from every job I ever had.  You gotta know how things work in order to be able to delegate the job to someone else.  That’s not to say hoard the work and don’t let other people to help you.  It just means know that you can fall back on your own two hands when the going gets rough.  (‘Cuz it will get rough sometimes, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that – it happens to EVERYONE in this business.  Twelve times over in fact.)

Lesson Four – Treat everyone like they’re a CEO.  I learned this from my internship, and also from the times I temped as a receptionist at different times between jobs and business school.  You never know who you are talking to, so trust your instincts but don’t make assumptions.  This is one of the things my mamma told me growing up that turns out to be very good business sense.  In this business, interns one day are running companies the next.  Always treat folks with respect, even when they seem like they don’t have a clue where the industry is going.  Sometimes those people have meaningful insight into a problem you’re working on, and all you have to do is ask their opinion.  Sometimes those people are three steps ahead of you, and they’re onto creating the next Google.  Seriously.

Lesson Five – Never say anything about a person (especially an artist) that you wouldn’t say directly to their face.  Another lesson from mamma that became evidently valuable in my first internship (he talked smack about people in the middle of the office all the time).  Let me just say, this is a VERY small business.  We all know each other, or are one or two people removed.  And we all get together at conferences multiple times a year.  The music business is a jungle of opinions, gossip and posturing.  Don’t feed that beast, cuz you won’t be able to tame it.  If that little pit in your stomach feels bad for what you’re about to say about somebody, just don’t say it.  Even if you trust the person you’re talking to.  You just never know when a comment you say one day is gonna come back and slap you in the face 8 years later. 

And mamma also always added – don’t put those thoughts in writing either.  For goodness sake.

From the time I was an intern all the way to now managing artists, the conversations I have heard and things people will say have floored me.  The old industry condoned people talking about artists as if they were crazed animals who didn’t know what end was up.  I always lose respect for people when they talk about their clients as if they are stupid.  In my opinion, if you think your client is stupid, then why are you working with them?  And if you think your client is stupid, what does that say about the fact that they’ve decided to work with you?  But it happens a lot.  Music business people sometimes bond over their clients’ neuroses, or they write off the fact that an artist doesn’t understand a particular part of the business.  It’s a delicate thing.

I don’t work with artists who are talked about like that – so that means I neither tolerate the people who talk about artists that way, nor the artists who allow themselves to be talked about that way.  And if I ever feel myself slipping into that “mode” or detect another business person is heading in that direction, I do whatever I can to maneuver to a more positive direction.  Great work does not come out of negativity.  You can’t succeed “in spite of” something.  But you know, I suppose that is a topic for a separate blog entry!

Anyway, my point is, this last lesson is sometimes harder than you’d think.  Afterall, as a manager it IS my job to have opinions, and it IS my job to determine which of those opinions are constructive and which are garbage, and then it IS my job to enunciate my opinions to the right audience at the right moment so they make a difference.  So just like a chef who has a higher likelihood of cutting herself at some point because she uses a knife so much, I have a higher likelihood of putting my foot in it because I use opinions so much.  So, whenever I’m not sure if something is constructive, or whether or not I should be saying it, I fall back on that golden rule I learned in my internship (and from mamma)…  I think, “Would I say this directly to that person if they were here?” and if the answer is no, I zip it.

What valuable lessons did you learn in your internships?

Principled leadership

I learned something this week.  I learned something big.  You know that feeling?  When you hear someone say something, read words somewhere, or see something happen and you know in that moment you’ve learned something that’s going to change you? 

In that moment it’s never something huge and complicated either.  It’s always something simple.  Almost obvious.  Something so easy to believe that you realize you kinda believed it all along, you just didn’t think it aloud quite that way.

This week I learned that to change people’s mindset on something, you must insert that notion consistently in everything around – so before people know it, they are used to seeing it, and think it already is that way.  Sure, you might make a big declarative statement about the idea you want to change in people’s minds to kick things off.  But that’s not enough.  Then, you must nudge people at every step until they’ve walked in your direction.

Sounds simple, right?

I mean, of COURSE you can’t change the world with one quick action. 

Of COURSE you need to thread it through many parts of our culture to make it so. 

It seems so obvious. 

But then WHY are we always trying to find that big thing that’s going to make a splash?  Why aren’t we looking for a million little things to accumulate the flood?

This week I went to a going away event for a woman named Deborah Merrill Sands.  She was the Dean of the Simmons School of Management – the only all women’s business school program in the world.  Until now.  She’s leaving Simmons to start a similar school on the West Coast at Mills College in Emeryville, California (near Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area).

A few years ago, Dean Merrill Sands added one word to the Simmons School of Management tagline.  It has always been “Empowering women for leadership” and she added the word “principled” before “leadership” – a slight change many people noticed, but only some discussed.  I guess I was one of the ones who didn’t discuss it, but who accepted it as party of my alma mater’s motto.  What did it matter anyway?  Who really thinks about their alma mater’s motto and whether or not it ever changes?  And it seemed like a pretty Simmonsy value.  So I just noted and didn’t think about it again.

But during her celebration, I realized, with great surprise, that her coining of the phrase “principled leadership” really did change my world.  In small ways, in great ways.  It was so subtle that I didn’t realize it.  But many of the decisions I’ve made in my career, and many I have encouraged others to make, have been based in the assumption that such thing as “principled leadership” exists and is a valuable thing.  The motto made it okay to care.  It gave me permission to keep a little ethical genie on my shoulder as I walk through my day to day business, who I always wanted to be there anyway.  And it made it clear, that principles are established not in the large decisions – but the small, every day ones. 

The notion of “principled leadership” shifts the bar on success.  We are always debating, especially in the music industry, what it means to “succeed” in today’s world.  Do you measure success in sales?  Fans?  Facebook friends?  Twitter followers?  Email subscribers?  Number of shows?  Songs?  Albums?  Fancy hats?

In “principled leadership” there is no success at the expense of the customers, the community, the environment, our culture.  As Temple Grandin said – what’s good for cows is good for business.

So what does that mean in the music industry?

Well, I’d say the record industry has provided many examples of what “principled leadership” is NOT.  But it has also many examples of principled leaders who have not achieved their full success potential.  That’s what I’d like to write about…

How to be a principled leader AND stay out of your own way.

Because it’s true – principles can slow you down.  Principles make you stay in business relationships that are not advantageous to you.  Principles can talk you into thinking a smaller level of success is good enough – because it feels more comfortable, and that way you are not faced with pushing the limits of what you think is right and wrong.

Let’s be honest – when you are succeeding at something, growing, “getting big,” or whatever you call it, ethical dilemmas crop up all the time.  When you are truly pushing yourself, your company, your team, and growing your business, that is when you are faced with the social impact of the work you do.

I remember the first time I negotiated a contract to work with an artist who was already established – she came up in the business when times were quite different from today, and I could tell in the course of our discussions that she had been taken advantage of by many different “music business creeps” in the course of her career.

Knowing this about her got me all caught up in my head trying to anticipate the ways in which her experiences may shape the way she navigates a business relationship with a “new era music manager.”  So after a litany of emails and phone calls to determine if we would be a fit to work together, she asked me one question.

“So, what you’re saying is you have principles?”

She followed it with a joke, something like, “What a rare thing.”

I knew that comment wasn’t coming from a place of negativity.  But I really couldn’t tell what the right answer was to the question.  And I could tell by her intonation that she did want me to respond.  Was she testing me?  Did she want me to admit that I have principles?  Or is she checking to see if I am going to say something like, “within reason, yes” or “when possible, yes” or “when no one’s looking, yes.”  I of course didn’t say any of those caveats.  I just said…

“Yes.”

After I said it, I thought how odd it is for someone to ask me that question and for me to even wonder if the right answer would be no.  What does that say about the music business?  And in that moment, it made me feel even more committed to being in this business.  Because in this major time of change in the music industry, we need principled leaders to drive that change.

The big gig checklist

Okay, after my last post, you might be saying – yeah but gimme something tangible! 

Gimme a list of things I should think about when I have a big gig coming up.  So, in that case, you can take these things with into consideration and you will be just fine when the big day comes…

BEFORE THE BIB GIG

  • Big gigs always have crazy timelines, unexpected needs, and random people will contact you daily asking you for stuff – always get them what they ask for same day, and always assume they didn’t get it if you don’t get a confirmation email – check in later if you don’t hear, just to be sure…  (but don’t write 8 emails a day, for goodness sake use your judgment!)
  • Get to the gig on time – and be prepared to have to walk a ways with your gear (so get there a half hour before they told you to load in)
  • Make sure they know in advance if you are going to have anyone accompanying you the day of the show, as big events have security, etc.
  • Gauge carefully if this is a gig you should do solo or with band.  Even if they won’t pay you more to play with band, remember that on large stages, especially when they are outdoors, band is better.
  • If you are opening for someone you’ve never opened for before, listen to their music, and listen to their most recent album – that way when they ask you if you’d like to sing with them, you can say “yes, i love that song ____ – are you going to play that one?”  (please don’t spend more than 2 hours on this tho – cuz more than 2 hours is overthinking it!)
  • Send a press release about getting the gig, a press release about playing the gig, and a press release after the gig about how great the gig was.
  • Think about what you will say in interviews before you get to them – I’m not saying be fake, but be sure you know what your soundbytes will be, and if you get nervous you can always fall back and direct the conversation to the spirit of that point.
  • Hire a photographer and/or videographer to follow you around that day – and if need be, make sure you get permission from the event to have your own “band photographer”
  • Promote the gig as if nobody else is promoting it – don’t sit back and collect whatever the gig is gonna do for you, work to bring people to the event – keep the mentality that any show with your name on it has to be a success and promote it like mad
  • Invite the people who have been good to you to be there to see it happen- even if they can’t make it, you’ve seized the opportunity to alert them to your great success milestone and as these pile up, they’ll feel the pulse of what you’re up to

AT THE GIG

  • Don’t hide.  You’re not small.  People just don’t know you yet.  Don’t let that make you feel small.  You’re only small if you let yourself be seen that way, and if you see yourself that way.  Remember.  You do this because you are good at it.  You belong there.  Roar like a lion!
  • Whenever you say your name, say it in the affirmative.  No question marks at the end.
  • For goodness sake play your BEST SONGS, the ones audiences have proven reaction to – don’t try out new material if you haven’t heard audience response to it yet, and play songs you are passionate about
  • Have a setlist – nobody thinks it’s cute when you pretend you’ve never done this before
  • Know how much time you have to play, and leave the stage before your time is up
  • Conduct your soundcheck efficiently and confidently – everyone there are people
  • Listen to the experts on the things to keep in mind (especially what to wear, if you are going to be on television)
  • Bring two options for wardrobe, think about hair and makeup – even the most natural looking people do their hair and wear makeup on large stages
  • Take full advantage of the press activity going on as part of the event – if there is a press conference or press tent BE THERE
  • When asked how it feels to be there, tell the truth.  Really.  It’s ok to say you are psyched.  It’s not uncool to be enthusiastic about something.  It’s actually uncool to act cool about it. 
  • Politely contact anyone and everyone involved, keep track of a list of people and what they do, and send them ALL thank you emails after the gig (you never know who will have a different job one day and remember this about you)
  • By all means, tweet and facebook in the greenroom and backstage – but DON’T BRING YOUR PHONE TO A PRESS CONFERENCE!  It’s too tempting.  Keep the tweeting away from the press.
  • Be prepared to be photographed anytime you are not backstage or in the bathroom.  That’s not to say smile like a fool the whole time.  But keep a generally photographable countenance, so you are not surprised when you see a face you weren’t expecting online later…
  • Go out to the merch table after your gig – this is one thing that IS as cool to do in a big venue as it is in a small venue (unless they explicitly ask you not to do this) – let people photograph you.
  • Have free giveaways and/or cards with your album imagery and your website URL on them, so people can take them from the merch table if they don’t buy a CD/merch right there

AFTER THE GIG

  • Don’t wait, put out another video, song or album right away – so anyone you captured in that timeframe knows you are alive and on the move
  • If you don’t have new material, re-imagine some of your previous material – remember, new music is what’s new to people who haven’t heard it before these days…

Success is a path not a destination

The rat race “emerging artists” run today can sometimes make them forget what they’re supposed to be doing – observing, writing, recording and performing great songs, and connecting with people in a meaningful way.  Voicing things that matter to other people, that change our lives and our world.

Every artist has “spotlight moments” – milestone opportunities when they are in front of a large audience with an opportunity to gather a mass of fans quickly.  And when I say “spotlight moments,” I don’t mean a spotlight one night on stage in one town.  I mean, in the rare instance that a larger stage opens to an artist for a window in time, and they find themselves in front of thousands or millions of people with a platform on which to speak.  What an artist (and their team) does in these moments can change the trajectory of the artist’s career and the reach of their music.  So, you see, it’s not just about getting to the spotlight, it’s about what you do with it that counts.  And it’s how you navigage, what compas guides you, and what you learn in the process of BEING an artist that prepares you for that moment.

The artists who deliver when the spotlight is on them are on a mission.  They have real material that supports the mission.  They have more than one song, more than one thing to say, and they have explored the mission from many angles already.  They are prepared to flex their muscles in all directions – live at the event, in promotion before and after the opportunity, online, through photography and video and social media.  Extending the fingers of what they already created through at the core by writing and playing really great songs.

Some of the most talented artists of our time never see that spotlight.  Sometimes the artists who see that spotlight are not prepared, and some even are ridiculed for not being worthy.  Sometimes it feels like a lottery.  Sometimes it feels like fate. 

The other day, Oprah asked Simon Cowell if he believed in luck.  He said yes, he believes in luck.  Oprah said you make your own luck.  I could totally understand why Simon Cowell believes in luck, and why Oprah would say you make your own.  Anyone who has been in music as long as Simon has to believe in talent, savvy and luck.  Because he’s seen enough to know that talent alone does not a pop star make.  Savvy alone does not one make.  Luck alone does not one make.  But surely to be embraced by a nation seems lucky (on the outside).

Let’s talk for a moment about what Oprah said though.  You make your own luck.

I suppose that’s what it feels like to be in music today – luck making.  We just keep trying to carve out our place in music, our fans, our team, our songs.  We trust the fact that the people we gravitate to networking with are the right people for us.  We hope the wisdom of our choices in where we go coupled with the intent and serendipity of who we meet might pave the way to reaching more and more people with our music.

In this post, I’m going to focus less on what it takes to get to that spotlight, and more on how you prepare now for that event should it happen to you, and what it means to seize that opportunity to build something meaningful and longterm.

Often the rat race is all we can see – the networking, the travel, the phoners and conferences, and the most important lessons we are learning in the process can be missed.

Several months ago, Bob Lefsetz wrote about the bands that were able to shine when this spotlight was turned on them, and the bands that crumpled under the pressure and attention.  The bands that could follow up their first big song that hit the airwaves, and the bands that were one hit wonders.  That entry from him has stuck with me – not because I agreed with everything he said, but because I’ve always felt at Market Monkeys we are investing in artists who are doing the work to become great at what they do first and foremost.  I was encouraged when moved to think about what will happen when the spotlight shines on our artists – because I know that any Market Monkeys artist can and will rise to that occasion.  In part because the spotlight moment itself is not their goal…

Market Monkeys artists are on a lifelong journey.  The songs and craft are at the center of that journey.  And the fans know it.

As a performing artist, you have to appreciate the work it takes you to get where you are going – you have to believe in your path as much as you believe in your potential and goals.  It is the work you are doing now that will prepare you for each milestone moment you have to shine.  I’m not saying you gotta love the driving and the crappy sound systems and the price of gas and the credit card dance.  But each time you step on a stage in front of an audience that is twice as big as any audience you’ve played in front of before, you must know that all the rough gigs and other things that happened last week are what prepared you for that moment.  If in that moment you can use what you learned in all those gigs, you will shine.

  • The tough soundchecks you’ve had will make you a pro when you soundcheck for the big gig – and the way you handle that is just as important as the way you perform when the audience is listening.
  • On that note, the sound emergencies you’ve had to deal with will make you be able to keep cool, calm and collected should anything happen while you are in the spotlight – and that speaks wonders.
  • The spotty merch accounting situations you’ve had will make settling up easy when you finally deal with a professional merchandise manager.
  • The tough interviewers you’ve had will make you able to interview yourself, and speak the question and the answer in your commentary when the big camera is on you.
  • The grass roots videos you’ve made will help you be able to turn around video quickly, and seize every possible media exposure impression.
  • The inexperienced promoters you sometimes run into now will instill in you a sense of responsibility for the success of your tours that leads the experienced promoters to respect you and want to work with you.
  • The conversations you have at the merch table with fans now, will stay with you as the voice of your core fanbase for your entire career.
  • SOME of the criticism you receive now will remain your charge to work on even as you grow.  (but some if it is rubbish – your experience will help you determine what to let in and what to slough off)
  • I think I’ll keep thinking of more of these and add them as they come to me…  If you have some to add, please do respond!  I’d love to hear what road learning has come in handy in moments like these.

Above all…  Remember you are a professional.  Because if you’ve been paying your dues, observing astutely, taking note, honing your craft – then you are in this for the right reasons.  Really, you are.

It’s your songs, and your ability to write them and present them that will trump everything.  And I mean EVERYTHING.

So just let go.  You were born to do this.  HAVE FUN.  AND in times when it’s not fun, RESOLVE TO LEARN.  You are not working for something nebulous tomorrow – you are living your career today.

songwriters sure could use a brill building

i’ve been spending some time with "the essential carole king" which was handed to me after a meeting in new york recently.  it has two discs.  the first is "the singer" the second is "the songwriter" and the text in the liner notes has me thinking all over the place today.

it strikes me – so much education happened at the brill building that we can’t even quantify the impact. 

(now, let me head you off at the pass.  i’m sure other things not so wonderful happened there, too.  i mean it wasn’t oz or anything.  but for the purpose of this post, let me be the optimist.  come with me – and let brill become something else for the sake of discussion…)

the stones talk about having gone to the brill building just to learn from listening to carole king’s demos of hit songs for other people.  they learned how to hear the things in a demo that inspire performers, producers, players and marketers to turn around and make something brilliant.  and they said they went to brill to learn how to understand america in order to reach the people in a meaningful way.

how do new acts learn these skills today?

and what are we doing to encourage cross-collaboration, exposing artists of one genre to another? 

i don’t just mean john mayer and kanye west being thrust in a studio together for a day.  or young pop stars having ghost hit writers who are not acknowledged come award time (and on wikipedia). 

i mean new, young artists really being exposed to the way other artists work. 

aside from opening for people, i just don’t see it that often.  and even then, the headliner and opener seldom realize the opportunity they have being in the same city on the same night.  most of the time, they just hide in their respective corners.  and when they do interact – it’s about the live show.  rarely to they get to songwriting or recording.

i suppose the only example i’ve heard of a songwriter getting that kind of education is taylor swift.  say what you will about her, but she’s certainly done her homework in the songwriting labs of many great Nashville writers.  i don’t know the back stories.  but it sounds kinda brill-esque to me…

anyway…

i’m obsessed with the process of recording lately.

what’s ritual.

what’s work.

what’s magic.

what wheels don’t need to be reinvented. 

what wheels need to be discarded for the new unknown.

what changes because of technology, and what has always been a constant in making music.

how we keep ourselves open to lessons others have already learned, so we don’t hold ourselves back or waste precious time.

how we accept the lessons we have to learn physically by doing, even though in our heads we know it to be true.

how we make music that is truly original AND accessible to a broader audience at the same time.

as music makers, we have to remind ourselves not to get sucked into the abyss of self-involvement.  the music isn’t about us.  it has to be about something else.  someone else.  something more. 

it strikes me that the muscle carole king conditioned at her career’s beginning is a muscle most young songwriters don’t even know they have, much less cultivate.  and when they do know they have it, they avoid it because they think it’s bad.  they think represents "selling out.” 

i’m not even sure what constitutes selling out anymore – it’s not that simple.  but i encourage you to resist the monster of worrying about that!  really.  and i assure you that great songs are written by making decisions that serve the song – not the writer.  certain considerations should be made for the singer, but only so much as to be sure the lyrics and range support the creation of the character narrating – not the vocalist singing.

a great songwriter writes songs.  and the songs are in charge.  not the ego. 

even when hit songs are written, the song’s in charge.

i’m especially obsessed with the second disc of this carole king set – "the songwriter" – fifteen hit songs she co-wrote in the 1960s during her Brill Building years (with one Billy Joel exception).  songs like "will you leave me tomorrow," "the loco-motion," "up on the roof," “one fine day,” “natural woman.”

so many characters, so many singers, one writer.  men, women, rock, r&b, soul, folk.  that’s something.

Music of the people

Joining the board of Folk Alliance International recently has really begged me to question “what is folk music” in a new way.  It’s easy in my day-to-day reality to become ethnocentric about what the artists I am surrounded by most are doing.  Easy to just assume Folk is the heritage from which they come because they think that is so.  Easy to get needlessly waylaid thinking about what makes them Folk and forget what makes Folk Folk.  But now the question is posed in my head almost daily.

For several months I have contemplated this question – some days more intensely than others.  Some days I net out still carrying my Folk card.  Some days I just don’t think I belong.  I’ve settled in a land of disappointment in the mere suggestion of the question.  I don’t know if I should run from the question, or to it.  I get frustrated that it’s even a debate.  Confused at how I got to this desert island where good people get stuck – in the circular debate in search of answers to unnecessary questions.

I love Folk music.  And when I say that, I mean so many things.  All of them relevant.  All of them real.

And that’s all that matters.

People don’t make Folk music.  People make music.  And the community that gathers to laugh, cry and sing along makes it Folk.

Today I got my new issue of SingOut! Magazine – their 60th anniversary issue.  In each issue of SingOut! they include lead sheets and a CD of songs of their choosing.  I put the CD in while I started to read.  Testimonials inside from various notable people in Folk music about what SingOut! has meant to them.  Including Pete Seeger, who was one of the grand instigators of the magazine at inception in the first place.  In Seeger’s note, he recalled the first introductory letter they printed in the early newsletter-esque predecessor to the magazine, “The people are on the march, and must have songs to sing…”

In reading those words, I realized something about the music I love so dearly.  Something I hadn’t thought about before in quite that way.

I’ve been marching around saying that Folk music is “of the people” and that it tells stories of people that are often not told for one reason or another.  That Folk is about honesty.  Good bad or ugly.  In fact, especially ugly.  But today, it strikes me as that is not enough.  Folk doesn’t just tell the story of the people, it gives the story back to the people so they can sing their own story.  And sometimes this is the gap and the thing we overlook in our current, contemporary folksinging scene.

I know I’ve thought this before, passingly.  That singalongs are a hallmark of Folk.  But what I realize now is it’s not the event of people singing a long in a room together – as romantic and inspiring as that might be.  People sing along to music in many ways, their own ways, everyday.  It’s the recognition of one’s self in the music they are singing along to that matters.

As a music manager, I frequently monitor social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to see what people are saying about Market Monkeys artists and friends.  Today when I did a Twitter search for songwriter and gifted lyricist Meg Hutchinson, I found several fans tweeting snippets of lyrics.  Words they found inspiring, reassuring, that they wanted to read back to the world in their own virtual voices.  A modern day singalong of sorts…

I sometimes hear songs in my head during moments in my life that I feel kindred.  My partner picked up a rental car with New Jersey plates and I had to quote John Gorka in response to her Facebook post, “I’m from New Jersey…  I don’t expect too much…” 

Songwriter and kickass guitar player Natalia Zukerman is always quoting other songwriters mid-sentence as we have conversations, especially our good friend Susan Werner – who has managed to put words to so many emotions we encounter in our day to day.  And you know, I know exactly what Natalia means…

Music is an interwoven part of our language and culture.  We don’t have to sing aloud to sing along.  The music becomes “of the people” when it moves us emotionally.  We remember it.  It stays with us.  And it changes us, in small ways at first.  And when we’re very lucky – in large ways, too.

Inspiration means it makes you think

I go to a lot of shows.  Some nights it’s a job hazard and some nights a pleasure.  It is especially delightful when a show inspires me. 

Because when you work in entertainment for a living, going to a show can be like eating at the restaurant you cook at.  You work with the ingredients so much that you can’t really taste the food anymore.  But on nights when it’s so good you can still taste the food anyway, it’s astounding.

Lately I’ve found that it’s not the shows that try hard that are inspiring me.  It’s the shows that are leaving space in the night for the audience to think and feel.  The shows that focus on perfection of execution but that don’t try too hard to keep me occupied the whole time I am experiencing.  The shows that give me a little credit for having a mind of my own, an imagination of my own.

Recently, Alvin Ailey’s show at the Wang (sorry I mean Citi Center), did just that.  In each of the three segments, I found myself thinking, feeling. 

Nothing was in a hurry. 

Nothing was trying to make me laugh or cry or jump around. 

The music became rhythm became movement became dancing became thoughts became dancing became movement became rhythm became music again.

And in between the movements, the thoughts that came in were surprising.

During the first segment, a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, I found myself thinking about culture.  About tribes.  About our individual desire to belong to something important and meaningful.  As the dance explored the humor and festive celebration of Harlem in that time, I couldn’t help thinking about other movements that have centralized on a neighborhood.  The Castro for Gay People.  The Village for Folksingers.  New Orleans for Jazz.  Hollywood for Film.  Detroit for Motown.  San Francisco for the Internet.  Places that represent movements and historic periods of time.  I came from a place like that, that meant something.  Lexington Massachusetts – a place of Revolution.  And I lived/worked in San Francisco during the Dotcom Boom/Bust.  I think both coincidences have very much informed my opinion on things.  Those thoughts led me to consider how important that is to me – to live in places and times that are memorable.  Places and times of change.  And it led me to consider what that next place should be.  And it made me want to go there, and start that new movement, right away.  A great performance can do that!

During the second segment, an exploration of the influences on modern dance in which the dancers showed how movement from African dance has migrated to current movements, I couldn’t help thinking about the beauty in collaboration.  I thought about one of my former bosses at an ad agency, who was an Alvin Ailey dancer before working in advertising, and how much that must have informed his sense of what it means to be a team.  How I had no idea that was what he was trying to do with my team.  And now I know why he inspired me so much when we worked together.  I thought about how rare it is to see true collaboration in the singer-songwriter world, and how important I think it is to find a way to fund and create safe space for that collaboration.  How cool it would be if a music company could be created like a theater company.  In which there certainly would be power dynamics and leads and choruses, but imagine if some of our country’s greatest songwriters were asked to work together in team collaboration for an extended period of time to create something instead of constantly duking it out one by one for individual “success.”  I thought about orchestras and choruses, theater companies and dance companies.  How hard it is for them to get funded and earn a living, but how transcendent the work is. 

I’ve been focused lately on how great shows can change our lives, make us see things in ourselves we did not see before.  A show is not just a sum of the songs and in between banter.  Too often artists think of the in between as extra stuff they say.  But the in between IS the show.  The pacing of a show can have so much to do with how inspired an audience feels.

Getting Big

When independent music started being a “trend,” fans loved this idea that they might “find” an artist “before they became big.”  And somehow, even though the world has changed, fans still have this concept in their head.  That they might know an artist and see them in a small venue today, and then two years later they might be playing a stadium.  And they can point to the artist and tell all their friends, “I knew them when…”

C’est d’hommage, my friends.  If anything, it’s the other way around now.  You might hear an artist in an amphitheater and then that builds enough of an audience to sustain them two years later playing in small theaters, clubs and listening rooms.

All the time, I hear fans say to an artist, to their face, usually after a show – “You’re amazing.  You ought to be bigger.”  They think it’s a compliment, but for most artists that’s just a crushing thought.  In their mind, they’re doing everything they know how to do to get known.  But today it’s up to the fans to make an artist bigger.

So as an artist, you have to ask yourself,

“What type of fans am I cultivating?

“Are the people who listen to my music the types who share their favorite music with others, or the types who hovel in a corner and hoard the the things they love?”

“What can I do to help them help me?”

And as a manager, I have to ask myself,

“How will the fan mindset change as it sinks in that people don’t ‘get big’ like that anymore?”

“How is fan behavior changing, now that they feel so overwhelmed with all the different and new music being pummeled at them on Facebook and Twitter today?”

“What is it that still makes a fan feel open to and excited about something new?”

Grammys and Oscars

I couldn’t stand the Grammys – that show made no sense.  It did not give any feel for what the real, feet on the street music industry is today.  It left America as confused as ever about what music is good and worth buying, much less shaping our culture.  I stopped watching after Pink’s performance cuz I figured that was probably as good as it would get.  And I couldn’t even tell you if she had a new album I was supposed to know about…

The Oscars, as Lefsetz aptly put in his blog about the Oscars, did a good job pointing out the movies I didn’t see and made me want to see them.  But I had mixed feelings about it – and it only made me think about all the things the film industry does to further the craft that the music industry does not do.

I watched the whole darn Oscars show because I was waiting to hear the great acceptance speech that never came.  Which might seem disappointing.  But interestingly enough, I believed the actors might have something inspiring, history making to say.  And that means something.  I’m not sure that even occurred to me when watching the Grammys.  I don’t really think many musicians being elevated today have that much that’s interesting to say.  Not sure they are encouraged to be that self-aware, much less craft aware.

I listened to the radio simultaneously on my iPhone during The Oscards, ‘cuz the interview they were doing on WXPN in Philly was more interesting than giving Oscar full attention. I’m not sure if that behavior is old fashioned – like my Dad listening to a ballgame on the radio while watching with the TV muted because the radio talk was always better.  Or if I’m newfangled – like the kids who are gaming, IMing, VOIPing, Facebooking and listening to music at the same time.

The one thing I will say for the Oscars that the Grammys does not do is present a sense that these people are career artists working on their craft.  In the Lefsetz blog he said "in music we expect you to get better and better" – but frankly, I think Lefsetz might feel that way, and I feel that way, and probably a few others agree, but I don’t think the Grammys suggest a music industry that believes that AT ALL.  If anything it minimizes the genres in which artists sustain careers long enough to get better and better over time.  And during Grammy-season, those genres are infiltrated by celebrities who pop in for a year just to get the prize and disappear.  The true heroes of these genres never get recognized on a national, publicized level.

The Grammys doesn’t really think about the music or musicians being celebrated.  The Grammys applauds artists not for doing well, taking risks, leaping new bounds, or creating daring/compelling new recordings.  They just present a front that music stars still exist in our culture, and they do it to feed a big fat irrelevant beast.  In hopes the public will buy it.  But the public is getting bored with all that.  And boredom is the first telltale sign of demise…

Music is stuck in a rut.  And has been for a long time.  We’ve been glorifying old acts that only sell volume because labels put money into them in the ’80s.  And we’ve been pushing over-polished, uninspired acts that have nothing in particular to say.  It used to be an artist "sold out" in order to get mass appeal.  Now with the thriving niche, and how lame it is to seem mainstream or inauthentic, I’m not sure "selling out" is even worth the trouble, stalkers, detox and mental breakdowns anymore.

So how do we find a way, in this new world of music, to actually reward the artists who are doing well? 

There is simply more music out there.  More musicians recording and touring than ever before.  And audiences have diverse taste.  They’re listening to 5 different genres in one afternoon.  They get excited about a new artist for a period of time, but since there are so many new artists everyday, it’s nearly impossible to retain mindshare.  Doing well means something totally different than it used to – and The Grammys are stuck in the old music world.

The film industry’s response to burgeoning independence has been promotion of independent film outlets/taste makers like IFC, Sundance, Cannes.  Festivals and networks that choose – and sanction which independent artists should get the most exposure.  Which makes it more viable to invest in independent films.  And look what, in a relatively short time, the support of those films has done to the major productions!  Do you see the influence of independent filmmaking on The Hurt Locker?

And speaking of the best film of the year…  The Oscars, at least, reward movies that represent heavy, thoughtful material, creative risk-taking and people with real talent.  I’ve been watching all those movies I missed – as kindly prescribed by The Oscars show programming.  And every film I’ve watched so far has been new, unique, compelling.  The best actors’ performances have been inspired and truly award-winning.  The collaborations happening in that scene elevate the craft.

In the Grammys, and the music industry at large, we haven’t had the guts to reward something intense, thoughtful and courageous in a very long time.  Which is why we haven’t had anything amazing happen in a very long time.

Can we do something to change that?

Reality Television Ate My Culture

In any job, there are days when you feel like the mountain is unmovable and days when you feel like you are in charge. 

Working in music, everyday is a negotiation between these feelings. 

In this regard, Music industry gurus will go on and on about power, and leverage, and networks, and conglomerates – the difference in response you get as a music manager/agent working with acts when they are yet-to-break or already known and in demand.  Or the difference in being part of a large agency or management network, as compared to flying solo.  And sure, we take all that in stride, believe in our clients, and trudge through.  Because every artist in demand was once an unknown.  Because artists who are already known have to reinvent themselves to reach more people.  Because we either like being part of a big machine, or being nimble and independent – it’s something we know about ourselves – and we are willing to pay our prices.  Keeping a balance in these things is good.

But lately I’ve been obsessed with a different kind of mountain.

Authenticity.  And the lack of it in our culture.

I had an email exchange with a friend of mine the other day about reality television.  What would a reality television show for Folk music look like?  And would it be compelling?

I remember the year American Idol came out – I found myself conflicted about whether or not the producers and judges really knew the meaning of the word “Idol” and what it meant to be and American Idol.  Now, seasons and international syndications later, the term “American Idol” has taken on its own meaning.  Three years ago, I would have said to be an “idol” you had to have staying power, creativity, uniqueness, and you had to have the guts to push American people to believe in something they didn’t know they believed in.  But now, I’ve learned that “idol” doesn’t mean that at all.  Three years ago, I would have said Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley were idols.  But now I don’t think that’s what “idol” means anymore.  Because of this show.  Wow.  The machine moved me.

Still, so what is Bob Dylan if not an idol?  Neil Young?  Meatloaf?  John Denver?  Paul Simon?  Ozzy Osbourne?  James Taylor?  Janis Joplin? 

You know, Janis might be a good person to start with…  She’s a great example of an artist who reached (and still reaches) mass audiences based on pure, authentic, raw Janis.  She was imperfect – her band was out of tune, she said whatever was on her mind whether or not it made good press (and that’s what often made the press), and she was a self-proclaimed ugly misfit.  But man did she mean something to people.  And she is considered one of the quintessential artists of the hippie era, so she will always have a voice.

I can’t help thinking today almost none of these people I’ve mentioned would get heard.  In the past, our idols weren’t pristine, pretty, singing nice songs, spending 3 hours in hair and makeup before the show.  They didn’t worry about what HDTV would do to their complexion.  They weren’t honing their performance to appease 3 of 4 judges – they weren’t even thinking about that.  In fact, some of them weren’t even thinking about the fans.  Most of the time they thought about doing their own thing, saying what they had to say, being what they had no choice but to be – because it was really (for the most part) them. 

I’m not going to say work and marketing didn’t go into creating the personas our idols were.  Certainly there were business machines a turnin’.  But those machines took risks, and there was pride in bringing something truly new to light.  Primetime wasn’t reserved for artists who already had legendary status alone – the Superbowl wasn’t about bringing back classic rock bands who already sell records.  Events like those were about breaking new talent.

The people who influenced our culture most in the ‘60s, ‘70’s, ‘80s, even ‘90s were sometimes ugly and raw.  They wrote songs that were tonally imperfect but culturally imperative to their moment on the airwaves.  They had things to say that we didn’t always want to hear.  We didn’t know why we loved them so much – we just knew we did.  They made us feel like the world kept changing.  Like some things would always remain.  And most of all, like we were alive.

As a manager, I meet so many fine artists.  All slogging it out in this newly fragmented media world, all cultivating their niche audiences like fiends, and doing everything they can to get their music heard.  I am inspired by these artists every day.  And I feel lucky to know them, to watch them grow, to celebrate their successes, and commiserate when times are rough.  But I just can’t help thinking – our culture is missing out right now.  In a time of great political debates and upheaval, war, environmental strife, natural disasters – we are not calling on our troubadours AT ALL. 

Today’s Bob Dylan is accepting friend requests on Facebook and hoping he can afford to fly to Chicago instead of driving. 

Today’s Joni Mitchell hasn’t had a free moment to herself because she’s been redesigning her web site and can’t figure out how to create a decent photo gallery without making a million little thumbnails and resizes. 

Today’s Meatloaf is working an office job and hasn’t played a gig since ‘99 because his name was just too much to overcome.  And forget the loss to music… What will Broadway do without him?

Today’s Tracy Chapman plays music when she can, but being shy just isn’t possible in this business anymore. 

Today’s Bob Marley has a loyal cult fan following, and does really well in 3 or 4 cities, but can’t seem to get his music out beyond that niche audience.  Radio won’t return his calls.

Today’s Elton John sounds great and everybody tells him so, but he can’t seem to get out of the cabaret rooms. 

Today’s Janis Ian had a video on YouTube that got 300,000 views, but there was no promoter standing in the wings saying he’d support her no matter what the audience thinks, so she’s on her own.

Today’s Sting had some instrumental from one of his songs put in a snowboarding video game, and he’s thinking maybe he should write more songs like that, and maybe find someone who knows how to develop on open source so he can release a Hero game to his fans.

Today’s Woodstock happened and the lineup was killer but nobody got in their hybrid vehicles to drive there.  (Really, it happened in Maine two summers ago.  Were you there?  I didn’t think so…)  Anyway, none of the artists got paid, even though they played their hearts out.  It’s just not kosher for an artist to require getting paid in advance since marijuana can no longer be blamed for “flaking out.”

So, what’s my point?

I dunno.  Maybe we need an American Troubadour reality television show to remind America how our stories get told.

Another reality television show I watched recently was RuPaul’s Drag Race on MTV/Logo.  In that show, drag queens compete for the title of the next super-drag queen.  And RuPaul’s criteria are Beauty, Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent.

Hmm…  What would be the criteria for the American Troubadour show?  And who would be its Tyra Banks?

Labels and managers and agents don’t do the work for you

I read an article the other day about a new, up and coming musician.  I read a lot of articles like this, I suppose.  Like it’s my job.  Wait, it is my job.  Anyway, I read this one start to finish.  Which I don’t usually do.  But I had heard this artist, knew some of his music, but really didn’t know that much about him and I wanted to.  So I read it. 

All was going swimmingly in the article – he grew up in the middle of nowhere, traveled the country picking up stories and songs in his travels.  He never thought he’d get paid to make music, but he needed the money and he finally found a way to make a living that he loved.  But then something terrible happened.  He got a manager and an agent and a label to do the work for him, so now he can be an Artist.

What??

All of a sudden my bullshit radar kicked in and I couldn’t read on. 

I mean, if you are a musician who has partnered up with a label and management and an agent in this day and age, no offense but – you’re either naive or on crack if you think that’s the way you get to be left alone by people to be the artist you want to be. 

You’ve just invited the fox, the bear and the elephant into your kitchen.  Ahh, isn’t it lovely and quiet in this kitchen?  Wait, the fox is digging through your cupboards and the bear is pooping everywhere and the elephant keeps breaking things and can’t forget the good old days.

Now, that might be an overstatement.  But my point is, my friend, if you hire others to work with you in the expansion of your music business venture, you will not suddenly have all the business taken care of for you so you can be an Artist.  You are just as responsible as you were before, if not more. 

You will have MORE work to do.  Any artist in this position can attest. 

Suddenly you have three people to answer to.  You have to keep them all up to date, keep them on board, and keep them inspired.  Sell them on what you are doing.  You have to guide them and manage them on what you want them to do for you, and on which of their ideas you like most.  You have to give them something to go on – all the time.  You have to respond.  Dear god, respond.  To more emails than you can possibly handle.  To more emails than will fit on your iPhone or crackberry.  Sometimes you need to redirect their attention to what you REALLY want them to be doing, so they don’t run amuck with your career.  So they are spending their time on the things you think will have the most impact.  You have to negotiate with them, bother them, sometimes even have conflict and argue with them.

Now I’m not saying these relationships are bad things to have.  But please know – when you expand your operation, you are still the CEO.  You are in charge.  The buck stops with you.

On saying thank you…

Could it be the time of gratitude has passed?

At lunch the other day, I found out a friend’s company (major global corporation) actually instructs people in new employee training sessions NOT to reply in email to thank people. In an effort to reduce the size of people’s inboxes, the company has across the board eliminated thanks. Talk about SCROOGE.

As a bold move of quiet rebellion, my friend simply added “œthank you” in her signature.  Maybe she’s the ghost of gratitude past…  But now she thanks everyone!

Have we become so inundated with content in our culture that we find gratitude to be unnecessary and superfluous?  An annoying task that should be omitted to save time?  Sometimes the occasional thank you is my favorite email to receive. It makes all the other emails worthwhile. Gives a feeling of closure. Completeness. Meaning in life.

As in… “Yes, we did it.  And I couldn’t have done it without you.  THANK YOU.”

*sigh* A momentary memory of what business used to be.  What our culture used to be.  Now we just expect people to watch our Facebook newsfeed to see if we appreciated them. And if they don’t notice us when we Twittered about how cool lunch was, then screw them.  It’s their fault they don’t know we care.

We must strike back, folks! We must stop this madness of not thanking people before it spreads further. We must fight for the right to thank people for their hard work, dedication, patience, and good humor. Thanking people is an integral part of the œpursuit of happiness afterall. Right?  Don’t you think??

So I say screw the rules. Don’™t listen to scrooges. Go forth and appreciate!

By the way, thanks for lunch………..

mc

Ten pointers for performers

1.  EYE CONTACT
Looking up is ALWAYS good.  No matter how funky or mysterious a vibe you are trying to create – eyes closed, looking down/away, low brim hats, sunglasses, hoods, hair in your face – all of these things create distance between you and your audience.  Distance that is never positive, and for 999 out of 1000 performers, cannot be overcome with any amount of cool.

I know I sound like your mother on the first day of school, but pay attention anyway.  REMOVE all barriers between you and your audience, not matter if there are 50 people in the room or 50,000 people in the room.  Practice like hell so you don’t have to look at your instrument while you are playing.  Open your eyes.  Stop looking at the back wall.  Even on a jumbotron, the audience likes to think they might see your eyes.

If you are still in the camp that thinks appearing evasive on stage is cool…  Trust me.  When a creepy/eery/mysterious artist looks up at the audience, it’s piercingly the most direct and intense way to portray that vibe you are trying to create.

2.  OVERSHARING IS A BUZZ KILL
While there are artists who have built a following because of their tendency to confess things that are considered taboo, unless you want that to be the very basis of your business/persona, keep your recent experiences on the toilet, picking your various body parts, or discussions in bed with your significant other to yourself.  Really, most audiences will not become more endeared to you and your music if they know it was written on the toilet.  Or worse yet, that it was dropped in the toilet and recovered.

Stick to the stories that can be universally understood and appreciated – those that are entertaining. And those that you know will add to the experience of your music.  We’re not in 2nd grade anymore.  Farts no longer need to be a huge part of our repertoire.

Now, if you decide to make oversharing your connection strategy, then keep in mind…  Artists who succeed at this usually do so because they speak for people who have not otherwise had a voice.  They say and sing about things marginalized groups of people experience but never talk about – usually out of intimidation or fear to do so.

I once heard a label A&R exec say, “People like to hear an artist describe something they have felt or thought but they have never heard it said aloud before.  Or at least not put quite that way…”

Just remember, if you are approaching performance in a way that includes a lot of personal detail commonly considered mundane, there needs to be a sense that what you are sharing is universal within the niche you are addressing.  Something that commonly occurs within that particular community – that outsiders might not understand – but because your fans are on the inside with you, they do.  That’s what makes the story special, and that approach succeed.

3.  DON’T BE BORING
On the other end of the overshare spectrum is stage banter that makes audiences beg to be put out of their misery.  Don’t feel like you have to talk. Similar to what your momma used to say, “if you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all.”  But for performance, “if you don’t have something interesting to say, just fucking PLAY.”

4.  EXPLAIN WHAT NEEDS EXPLAINING
Don’t feel like you have to explain what the song you are about to sing means.  I’ve heard performing songwriter Susan Werner say in performance workshops that if you have to explain the song in order for the audience to understand it when they hear it, then you better go back and rework the song, cuz it’s not written well enough.  You know, I tend to agree.  As an audience member I don’t really want to hear what you think the song means to you – I want to be able to suspend the disbelief of what it means to me.  And if you’ve already painted four of the colors on my canvas with your introduction of the song, then I don’t really have that liberty anymore, do I?  I might be interested to know what inspired you to write the song – but ONLY if the inspiration is in itself interesting and adds, not detracts, from the song’s integrity.  Remember, many audience members will think about the things you said on stage every time they listen to you in the car.  If your story about the song is going to undermine that experience, well, proceed with caution.

5.  CRAFT THE AUDIENCE JOURNEY
The songs you sing should be presented in context with the overall experience you are trying to craft throughout the night.  And in context with what may be happening in the world or in the lives of the audience that make these songs most timely and meaningful to them in that moment.  Consider that journey as you think thru your possible commentary for the evening.

No need to script things, but do consider the general ebb and flow of the evening.  Too often I have seen artists just think about when to play fast or slow songs.  Or when to play the totally depressing number so they can recover with something chipper.  Or when it’s easiest to tune to that key.  Or when it’s easiest to get the drummer back up on stage.  (Gee, this is sounding like it might make for a whole other blog posting of it’s own…)

Think about the emotional and sonic journey combined with any barriers the location or time of show might present to you achieving that journey.  And craft your commentary to support that entire journey, not just each song by song.

6.  IT’S ALL NEW TO THE AUDIENCE
This is one of the hardest things to remember, especially if you perform 80-150 dates/year, and especially if you are a truly inspired and talented musician.  Because with creativity comes a necessary restlessness.  You will simply need to find a way to channel that drive to create more new now into on stage spontaneity on stage and writing off stage.

Do NOT feel like you have to vary your set list and song order every night to keep things fresh.  Do NOT feel like you’ve failed if you tell the same story one night after the next.  Do NOT feel like you have to play a different guitar solo every night.

Craft and refine your set list over time – only making changes because something didn’t work the night before or because you think something might work better.  If a story you told in San Antonio went over well with the audience, by all means tell it again in Austin.  Like they say, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it…  If you play an instrumental section long enough to finally get good at it, for god’s sake don’t change it just because you think that makes you some sort of guitar hero.  Famous guitar riffs become that by being repeated night after night after night after night to audience applause.

Just remember, while it may not be new to you, whatever it is, it IS new to the audience TONIGHT.

Many artists only think about their set, their show, their band.  You be the artist who acknowledges that the audience is new every night.  THEY are to be your source of spontaneity.  Let the newness come from the other people in the room with you – experience what is unique about them in real time and you will really be onto what makes live performance so thrilling.

7.  COUNT YOUR PITCHES
While I do encourage you to repeat things you’ve said or played night to night when they work and the audience responds well…  I will also say if you are going to do this well, there are a few things you should keep in a notebook about each gig to make sure it all remains new to the audience.  (You DO keep notes, right?)

In baseball, pitchers and catchers mentally keep track of what each opposing batter does each time they are at the plate.  That is why with each new at bat it becomes increasingly more difficult for batters to hit well.  The catcher knows before a batter even comes up to bat if they pull the ball, if they are fast enough to bunt for a base hit – essentially what worked on the batter.  And they also consider where the batter is in the lineup (1, 3, 5 or 7) to anticipate how their manager thinks they are best capable of contributing.  But pitchers also know that if they throw the same sucker pitch every at bat, the batter gets wise.  (and bored)

Performing is no different.  For all of the shows you play, mentally, in your iPhone notes or on paper, keep track of…

  • who else was on the bill with you
  • who you brought for accompaniment
  • what your setlist was
  • which major stories you told
  • what press/radio/media attended

That way you can always look back at what you did, how the audience responded to it, etc, to help you avoid any repeat performances.  Groupies who follow you in their car from DC to Philly to NYC won’t mind hearing the same stories in all three shows.  But if they hear them again six months later, they’re gonna start thinking you don’t have enough material to keep the show fresh.

8.  INTRODUCE YOUR BAND
Pretty simple.  Don’t forget to tell people who those talented instrumentalists and backup vocalists are.  And try not to wait until the end of the night to do this.  All of the people on stage with you are an integral part of your presentation.  Especially in small rooms.  If the audience feels connected to the players at your sides and to you, they will have that much more of a meaningful experience.  So you figure out how you want to do it.  Some people play one song with the whole band and introduce them right up front as a sort of – “here’s who’s up here with us tonight…”  This is usually done if the side players also have vocal mics and are likely to talk.  (It’s always awkward when someone talks on stage who has not been introduced yet.)  Some people introduce one at a time after they have a solo on different songs – the jazz way of doing it.  You will find what works best for you and your band.

9.  THANK PEOPLE
Before your last song, if you haven’t done so already, thank the audience, the venue/presenter, any media or press who supported the show, and don’t forget the volunteers, wait staff and engineer/sound person.  This is a business in which many people work very hard for very little pay.  And they do it for music – and for you.  And if you want to come back to the room, and continue to build in that market, these are people you need on your side for years to come.  You’d be surprised – this type of goodwill goes a long way.

10.  OH GOD THE ENCORE
Don’t assume you are going to have an encore.
Don’t play two or three songs in an encore.
And for god’s sake get the hell off the stage and fully out of sight.

Wait for the audience to express a desire for you to play an encore before going back out there.  I don’t care how small the club is or how long it will take you to get off stage and back on again, or if there is no back stage and you have to go outside on the street to make your departure.  If you don’t leave the room, it’s not an encore.  It’s just another song you tacked on because you felt like it.

There’s nothing worse than an artist playing an encore when all you want to do is get on the train or in your car and go home.  I know everybody does it, but don’t be that way, too.  It’s ungrateful, it’s self-absorbed, it looks bad, and it is evidence that you do not care what your audience is thinking, or even know what an encore is.

An encore is when you play an additional number because the audience demands it. Please do not take that lightly.

An encore is one song.  The word encore means “again” not “again and again.”  If your audience calls you back 3 times, I’m fine with that – play three songs.  But make them call you back.  Don’t just get up there and play three more songs.  Nobody asked you to do that.

At the risk of sounding like Col. Tom Parker, who never let Elvis do encores because he wanted the audience to always leave wanting more, I do not think every show should have an encore.  In fact, I think very few shows should have an encore.  Encores should be special things – given as gifts to special audiences – after a particularly special night.  They should only happen when the audience has been so moved that they are either brought to their feet or rendered immobile in their seats and refuse to leave.

I once witnessed Ani Difranco remain off stage for 15 minutes before returning for an encore.  In that time, the audience went wild.  They quite simply did not want the night to be over.  They clapped, they yelled, they banged on the floor and their chairs.  As a member of the audience, you got the sense that Ani came back out so as to stop the people in the far aisles who had started hitting their hands on the newly and expensively renovated walls of the old Somerville Theater for fear it might actually fall to pieces.  But let me tell you, that is an encore I REMEMBER.  And I thought that night, yeah that’s the way it should be done.

Now that said, I know this will change your set list…

Many people save their fans’ favorite song(s) for the encore.  So you have a decision to make.  You are either okay if you don’t get to play it or not.  If you are not, then it means you use something else for your encore.  But another thing to remember is, if you get a reputation for not always doing encores, and you also give audiences an idea of the song you play in your encore and they know they didn’t hear it – it may be another way you can court your audience to engage and become a more vocal, responsive part of the show.

When an audience performs

The good, bad, ugly, and amazing things audiences do…

I have been managing musicians for ~ten years. Not long in the management world, but long enough to go to probably eight hundred shows. And when you are the manager at a show, you are watching the audience as much as the artist. Who’s smiling. Who’s laughing. Who’s bored. The heads that are nodding. The toes that are tapping. The two or three people who’s reactions can influence the other concert goers. And sometimes, the eery silence and still of awe.

On very special nights, the audience performs just as much as the people on stage. The best performers invite this engagement and know how to shape it into magical nights of memory.

As a musician, it can be scary when the audience invites itself into your show, and really it is all in how you handle them that makes the difference. So first we’ll talk about some of the ways musicians have handled poorly behaving audiences, but if you read on long enough, we’ll also get to stories of a few of the shows painted by a magic that only engaged and interacting audiences could have created.

BUSKING
While listening to a busking musician once, I watched a child walk up between songs and drag his sticky fingers across the strings of her guitar. Astonished, I watched as the child proceeded to strum strum strum and the mother did nothing to stop this intrusion on the subway performer’s personal space and property. As if the act of performing converted her to public property. The imaginary bubble around the performer was not only severed, but the instrument of the songwriter’s great work was being handled so carelessly. It seemed like a great assault to me. But the initial alarm passed from the performer’s eyes when she realized it was a child doing this, and she immediately distracted the child by playing a song – at which the child resumed his seat on the bench beside her – and just like that the problem was solved. The show went on. As a manager, I learned that an artist can handle just about any situation, provided they prepare themselves for inevitable things that will occur because people will be people – and provided they keep their cool.

AHA LEARNING: The best reactions to audience assault come from artists keeping their cool. Even if the artist still determines to admonish or complain – if they do so thoughtfully, it can have desired effect.

TALKING PEOPLE
In the movies, invariably you will see the scene of the opener desperately struggling with the rowdy people in the bar. Screaming and laughing and fighting and doing everything but listen to the artist. They came to this bar to see the band, for sure – but they came to see the band because they always have a good time when they do. And sometimes the good time gets loud.

While most of the things in movies aren’t exactly as they really occur in life, it is true that there is no shortage in the world of rowdy bars with stages in the back. As a hard-working touring musician, sometimes you will know you are walking into one of these gigs, and sometimes they will take you by surprise. Either way, you will have nights you can stand it and nights you can’t. Nights when you feel the audience is creating a unique, fun flowing, rowdy vibe that you are totally in the mood for, and nights when it just feels like one hour-long battle with the din of laughter, 75 people pretending to whisper, the poorly timed whoosh of the espresso maker, and even the clinking glasses start to irk you.

I have seen musicians handle this many ways. Some focus their attention on the people who are listening – who drove an hour or two to be at the show – who are equally annoyed by the rowdy folks – and who are most impressed by the grace and composure the artist maintains. Other artists completely lose it, and tell people off – a tactic I have seen have variable results. I find it particularly interesting that I have seen the same tactic backfire for one artist and work wonders for another – which I will share in brief…

In 1994, Natalie Merchant performed a mostly seated concert at Tufts University. While most of the students were quiet, there was a gaggle of latecomers in the back of the room who were talking. The noise annoyed Merchant, and she also read the room anticipating that it was annoying the audience members who were enjoying the show as well. Unfortunately, she misread the room. She was surprisingly abrupt and shouted at the students to “shut the f!@# up” – an action which backfired in the end. Not only did she disrupt the positive vibe she had created at the concert, but also for several years the campus was a buzz about how she couldn’t handle a few hecklers. Her outburst did not seem cool, but rather disappointing to previously loyal fans. Also unfortunate for acoustic music lovers on campus, the incident led the concert board at the university to withold from booking similar shows for several years.

It’s just not cool to tell off your audience outright like that. There are ways to do it, but “shut the f!@# up” is rarely effective.

Interestingly enough, in 2008 I was amused to witness another musician employ nearly the same tactic in a bar not two miles from where the Merchant played, to completely the opposite response. The bar was packed with people who came down to see this artist perform, but as described earlier, sometimes fun gets loud in small venues, and people started to chat. This time, the artist had invited guests to join her on stage. So before one of her guests started to play a song, she told the audience to “Oh please shut up. I don’t care if you talk thru my set, but I really want to hear her – and if I can’t hear, neither can you.”

Somehow the audience seemed actually relieved to be scolded. Was it something to do with this artists’ personality? This artist is edgier than Merchant in character. The age of the fans? The second audience was college age and older. The fact that it was a request on someone else’s behalf and not her own? Expectations? She’s not on a major record label. Changing times? Almost 15 years in social/cultural change have passed.

Any of these things could explain why one audience would be hurt and pissed off by an artist taking this approach, while another became more endeared than ever before.

AHA LEARNING: There is no right answer to the situation you are in. Only your answer. The one that is true to who you are. In that space. In that time. With that audience. Every night is different. You are the best judge of the room. The more you train yourself to pick up on signs of the group psychology of the particular room you are in, the easier you will find it to maintain casual control over the “vibe” and hence experience your audience is having at your show.

PHYSICAL NEEDS -or- NEEDING TO BARF
If you tour heavily to support your career and build audience in many regions, inevitably you are going to get sick. One of the most difficult decisions a musician must make in these times is whether to tough it out and play the show or cancel. In general, cancelling dates is frowned upon – there really is a “show must go on” in the entertainment business. But it’s up to you to know your boundaries and what you are capable of doing. The one thing I would say, is that you probably are capable of doing more than you think. The body and adrenaline is a powerful thing. Just keep yourself in check and make sure you are doing what’s right for you.
As you build experience on the road, you will get a lot better at telling when you are well enough to still perform or when you really shouldn’t go out there. Namely, whether you are going to still be able to give a good show – or whether you will risk all the good people who bought tickets coming out again to see you in the future. You will also get better at telling whether you should keep your maladie to yourself or let others know.

Some of the coolest venues have no green room, no bathroom, nothing but old beams, a sound system, a grateful and eager audience, and plenty of cookies and character.

On one such evening, a songwriter I know was waiting in the wings to take the stage. While the presenter made announcements and began to introduce her, the songwriter faced the unfortunate reality that the food allergy she was experiencing was not going to give her an hour and fifteen minutes of peace to perform. She surveyed the scene around her. This venue was situated on a hill, and had no green room or restroom nearby – so she would literally have to get in her car and drive down to the house below if she needed to “have a moment” to compose herself. She had a decision to make: take the stage and quite possibly barf right there in front of the audience; or excuse herself and make the trek back down the mountain to “base camp” where she could visit a restroom. After her name was announced, as the audience sat anticipating her appearance, they all heard her van start up and drive off down the road. Five minutes later, she appeared, explained the situation with humor, and endeavored to play a brilliant show – which endeared the audience even more.

I witnessed a related moment at a Beck acoustic show one night at Sanders Theater in Cambridge MA. The pre-show meal had not arrived on time, and Beck had to proceed on stage hungry. He performed his first few songs without a mention, and then just gave up on discretion and let us all know that he was really hungry. Would we mind if he had some dinner? Well it was absolutely hilarious. At first. He ran down to the green room (which I knew was not very near the stage) as the audience sat and waited. He returned with a full plate of some sort of noodle dish, spaghetti or something kindred. He ate the entire noodle dish right there on stage while we all watched.

My only critical thought about this move, is to keep things like this short and sweet. There is a point at which the surprise and delight of something unusual like this happening turns into taking advantage of the performer/audience relationship. And audiences don’t like that. In other words, the first half of the plate was funny, unusual and entertaining – but there came a point where this went on so long that we all wondered why we paid good money to watch Beck eat. The good news (for him) was that half of his audience had the munchies too, so they understood and went along. I’m pretty sure I was an outlier. The fella sitting in front of me just laid down across the seats and took a nap, waiting for the show to resume. Wouldn’t work for everyone, but it seemed to work for Beck that night…

AHA LEARNING: Have courage that your fans are there because they really DO want to like the show, and because they like you. If you tell the audience what is going on, where you want them to go, they will follow you lead in the journey you are taking them on. They are there with you, not against you – your job is to keep them with you. Sometimes the things that seem unspeakable to you are what actually make the audience feel like the night is special. Remember – people do not come to a live show to hear you play like your record. They come because they want more insight, the live experience, and because live is unique, spontaneous and never repeated again. The best shows make the audience feel like they have participated in a one-time event.

THE UNEXPECTED PLAYER
There are some things as a performer that you will do on the spot, but you would never say you would do it if someone asked you before the show. One of the most transcendant moments I have personally witnessed during a show was so cool that some folks at the merch table and on message boards after the show speculated that an audience member may have been planted.

Susan Werner did a tour to support a new release called “Classics” in which she rearranged pop songs from the 1960s and 70s for strings, and incorporated well-known classical pieces within the songs. During these shows, there was usually a segment of the night where she would open up a discussion about classical music. The classical cellist she hired for the tour, Julia Biber, would pull a microphone over and Werner and Biber would discuss classical music, culture, fans and instrumentalists. And in a tongue in cheek sort of way, teach the audience a few things they may or may not know about the classical genre.

For people who don’t listen to classical music much, it was fun and made classical music approachable for folks who don’t always listen to it. During these sections of the show, Werner was always watching for Classical music fans in the audience, on the lookout for reactions. One audience member in Cambridge MA must have appeared particularly pained, because after this section of the show, Werner called out to her asking if they’d totally tramped all over the Classical genre.

“Are you a classical musician?” And the woman replied shyly that indeed she was.

“Are you a cellist?” Nooo.

“Strings?” Nooo.

“Ohhhh…. You are a pianist…” The inflection in Werner’s voice, herself a pianist, in a moment of friendly competition, was palpable.

Werner went for it.

After much prodding, Werner enticed the audience member to come up on stage and play something. The audience hushed, afraid of what might happen. What if this person was awful? What if she couldn’t play at all?

But she wasn’t awful, of course. She was brilliant. And we were all treated to 3 minutes of classical in one of the oldest and most legendary folk listening rooms in the country. Because Werner had the guts and confidence to let this audience member run away with the show for a moment, we all had the feeling we had seen something that nobody else could see – we participated in a special moment of time. A moment to tell other people about.

And Susan accomplished her goal – of making Classical music palatable and enjoyable to people who don’t usually listen to it. And presenting the notion that more people play Classical music than most people realize. Even in our own hometown. Everywhere we go, people know how to play instruments – some very very well.

AHA LEARNING: Take risks. Believe in your audience. They will surprise you as much as you surprise them.

Things to think about when opening a show

One of the many things a new, unknown artist does to get in front of audiences is open shows for already established acts. While opening’s effectiveness at building your draw is debatable, and often varies from city to city and venue to venue, it is invariably something you will do not just at the beginning of your career but throughout. So it’s worthwhile to think thru how you approach opening shows, and evaluate how you are doing at it.

Openers are sometimes called “support” or “guest” in terms of how you are billed at any given venue, and sometimes the terminology differs based on how advanced or well known you are – or frankly, arbitrarily. Whatever you call it, generally it translates to be a 25-30 minute or 4 or 5 song set at the beginning of someone else’s show. After the audience has seated (for the most part) and is quiet (hopefully).

You might come to open a show because the venue took a shine to you and asked for the headliner’s approval for you to support. Or maybe the headliner took a shine to you and asked for the venue’s approval. An agent booking a tour may have asked the artist and venue to approve. Heck, some opening spots are even won by participating in song competitions. Knowing how you got there is kinda important – as it informs WHO YOU SHOULD REMEMBER TO THANK. It also informs the likelihood of your ability to secure other dates on the same tour if you ask for them.

However you got there, once you get the gig, you’ve got to stop thinking about how cool you are for having gotten the gig and start thinking about how to do it well – and what you want to gain from the experience.

Many inexperienced artists think opening is all about seizing your 25 minutes of fame, and that’s it. These artists are absorbed in their own desires to move up the ladder, and to be able to say they opened for so-and-so, or played at such-and-such venue. They confine the extent of thinking about the gig to which songs to sing and where to celebrate after with their friends who come see them shine.

Here’s the thing – opening is an important part of your job. It’s as close to apprenticeship as you can come. And there aren’t many professions out there that still have apprenticeships. So take advantage! Watch that headliner, learn. Ask questions (without being annoying).

Here are some quick dos and donts when opening:

  1. THANK PEOPLE
    DO express your appreciation for being offered the opportunity to open – and if you are a fan of the artist you are opening for, don’t be too proud to say so. The people you are singing to in the audience are coming there as fans, too, so they will understand the feeling and it may endear you to them. But if you don’t know the headliner’s music, don’t lie. Thank the person who got you the gig, whether or not they are in the room. Chances are your appreciation will get back to them.
  2. KNOW THE TIME, DON’T ASK PEOPLE TO TELL YOU HOW MUCH TIME YOU HAVE, AND DON’T YOU DARE GO OVER
    DO bring some sort of time measuring implement – either affix a watch to the mic stand or your tuner or know where there’s a clock in the room that you can see, preferably without the audience being able to detect that you are peeking. I have seen some musicians wear watches backwards on their wrist, so they can see the time when they look down at their guitar frets. Know precisely how long it usually takes you to play your songs, and whenever possible actually take LESS time than you are offered. If the headliner is gracious enough to give you 45 minutes take 35; if they give you 30 minutes take 25; if they give you 25 you probably do need that full time. But if you get to ~17 minutes and are picking between one or two more songs, just play one. In fact, whenever in doubt about time, just play one more song not two. Headliners will never fault you for going short. They will think you’re a pro if you get on and off the stage quickly, and if you They will be more likely to ask you to open for them again if you don’t eat into their set or make their show go late. It’s very important that you get good at this.
  3. ONE INSTRUMENT, TWO TUNINGS TOPS
    (unless your whole schtick is multiple instruments)
    I’ve known many songwriters who use non-standard tunings in many songs – and when they headline they often do need to use multiple instruments to cut down the amount of time they spend tuning on stage. Unless you are opening on a major tour in which there are stage hands to help, and it is clearly acceptable for you to travel with more than one instrument, don’t. You should have 5 songs in similar enough tuning that you can avoid instrument changes and excessive tuning that takes up your already short time with the audience. Keep as much of your focus on the audience as you can, and they will stay focused on you. If you start tuning up and tuning down, they’ll start tuning out. Think thru tunings when you are figuring out your set list with this in mind. And in general, stay out of the way of the headliner’s setup – don’t move your things after soundcheck.
  4. KNOW WHAT SONGS YOU ARE GOING TO PLAY
    For god’s sake. Make a set list and stick to it. When you make your set list, think about how long the songs are, what tuning they are in, and especially choose songs that you think represent any kinship you might have to the headliner that would entice their fans to also like you.
  5. START WITH A SONG THAT LET’S YOU WARM UP
    This actually goes for your own full length shows, too. Your first song, whenever possible, should be one that has a hook and “sounds like you” – but also consider your vocal range, and how much you need to warm up before singing it. Some musicians like to start with a song that crosses their vocal range because they warm up best that way. Some like to start with a song that they could nail in their sleep, without any warm up (tho you SHOULD warm up). As it gives them a chance to get a sense of the room and relax into the set.
  6. TALK BUT DON’T TALK TOO MUCH
    People want to hear your songs. Mostly. Definitely let your personality come across, but make sure you do not lose a precious song by talking too long. You don’t have to tell them everything about yourself on the first date. If you leave them wanting more, they will have plenty of time to get to know you.
  7. BE THERE FOR THE HEADLINER’S SOUNDCHECK IF THEY ALLOW YOU
    Some headliners like privacy during soundcheck. So you don’t have to ask permission (unless it seems natural to do so – as in you’re talking with the headliner before they go check), but if they ask you to leave don’t feel rejected or offended. It’s just one of those things. Some people like everyone to be out of the hall when they soundcheck. But definitely try to slink off in a corner and watch not only how the artist describes what they want in terms of sound, but also the tricks the sound engineers implement to handle different things, and train your ears to hear what happens when the engineer responds to the requests of the artist and/or their road manager. You’ll learn quickly what frequencies are, what low end, high end, mids and reverb is. You’ll learn that some people like a lot of themselves in the monitor, a lot of instrument or vocal – and hearing these preferences will help you understand what you like. You’ll also learn what rooms have engineers that are amazing pros, and what venues have engineers who are still learning themselves. You’ll see what type of direction engineers like and don’t like. And you may even build rapport with engineers by asking questions about how things they did work, after the soundcheck is over. (Don’t get in the way! That’s a sure way to get asked to leave.)
  8. STAY FOR THE HEADLINER’S SET
    Drinking with your buddies or hanging out in the green room or having a long drive ahead of you are not good excuses to leave the show before it is over. Not only does it make the headliner think you are not serious, but it also makes the club manager settle up specially for you (which means you’re high maintenance) and it just makes it obvious that you don’t know what it means or why a person opens shows. Watching various headliner’s shows is the way you learn to create your own show. You can watch what the audience reacts to, what they don’t react to – and most importantly the difference between a quiet audience that is enthralled and a quiet audience that is bored. You can see what tricks of the trade headliners have picked up over the years, and decide which of these might be helpful to you – and which don’t feel authentic to you. Like in grammar and most things, it’s always best to know the rules in order to break them.
  9. BE GRACEFUL WHEN YOU’RE GIVEN ADVICE, EVEN IF YOU ALREADY KNOW IT’S WRONG
    Sometimes the advice you get when you are opening will feel wrong. You’ll know it in your gut. It’s offered with your best interest in mind. But it just doesn’t feel like something right for you. No matter. Right when that defensive voice rises in you, just remember it’s a small world and it’s ok to beg to differ but best to just say thank you you’ll consider that and move on. Could be that advice will never come in handy. Or could be that advice just isn’t right for you right in that moment. Sometimes advice that doesn’t apply to you now will become useful to you 5, 10, 20 or even 30 years later.
  10. OBSERVE GREEN ROOM ETIQUETTE
    Okay, here’s the deal. You have to be very perceptive, and be confident but courteous. At some venues, you will have your own green room or dressing room area. But most venues has only one green room, so you will be sharing with the headliner. Do not mouse around like you don’t belong there, or feel like you have to kiss ass. You are performing that night, so it is totally reasonable for you to expect that you can be in the green room and that the provisions of the green room will be made available to you. However, the way you carry yourself and level of professionalism you profess will go a long way. Oftentimes it can be the thing that a headliner remembers about you. And what you remember about the headliner. SO, don’t be afraid to eat the fruit, but if there’s opportunity, definitely ask permission or make sure there’s no reason you shouldn’t. If the artist and/or their band are drinking alcohol, then that is an indicator that it is ok to do the same. But if you really want to be a professional, you will do so very subtly. You should by NO means use recreational drugs or other substances that produce scents or evidence in the green room unless the headliner literally hands you the joint. And I really don’t think they will. If they DO offer you a smoke, and you don’t smoke, you should feel totally comfortable saying NO. Really. Just be yourself. In general, it’s always best to have your beer after your set. Focus on your performance. If the headliner is running through songs with their band, and everyone stops when you come in, just casually ask “ok to be in here, or do y’all need alone time?” Most headliners generally hang from soundcheck to showtime – might take a nap – and if they’ve been doing this a long time and they want you out, they will not hesitate to tell you so. In general, follow the way of the indigenous people to that green room. 🙂

Things to consider when trying to book/secure opening slots…

EVENING WITH
Important terminology for you to know, when trolling calendars looking for gigs you might open on venue calendars, is if you see “Evening with” before the headliner’s name, it generally means that the show was intentionally booked with no opener. So it’s probably not worth inquiring about those ones. Just annoys the venue if you ask about gigs that are clearly marked to not have support.

HEADLINER’S PERSPECTIVE
Headliners like to support artists they know. So it’s important that you not take it personally if a headliner doesn’t approve you right away, especially if they haven’t heard of you or your music before. Give them time to let them get to know you and your music (and hear about you through the rumor mill about who rocks). You have to remember – the headliner is giving you 30 minutes with their hard earned audience. For your purposes, imagine they are giving you 30 minutes with their mother. Don’t be offended if they say no – but be honored if they say yes. And be especially honored if they talk about you during their set – that’s the type of endorsement you really want. Sometimes that can go just as far as you up there playing when it comes to folks visiting the merch table at intermission or after the show.

Most importantly, HAVE FUN and BE INSPIRED!!

On being who you are…

“Stage presence” doesn’t mean be someone else for 60 minutes….

Or does it?

If you are a touring musician, you will find no shortage of advice for how to perform. Out there on the road, there are people who will try to tell you how to be. Fans, presenters, your mom…

Some of the advice you receive you should listen to as openly as you can muster, and some you should hear but politely disregard. Sometimes, they’ll tell their priceless advice to your road manager or agent or manager, and that person will hopefully practice good judgment to determine if the information will be vital/helpful, or a distraction from what really matters in getting you on your way.

If you’re out there toughing it on your own, try to be open to what people have to say – but also remember that criticism is subjective. While everyone’s a critic, only you will be able to ascertain when criticism should be considered and acted upon. When something is worth internalizing as something to grow on, and when it is coming of that person’s own issues and concerns and may not be universal.

Remember the audience.

I tend to find one of the best guides to hold criticism up to is Joe The Audience member. (Joe The Plumber joke intended) But seriously, take what a person said to you and try to imagine three other audience members saying it to you or to one of their friends. If the advice still sounds realistic coming out of their mouths, in your imagination, then it is probably worth thinking about more. If the advice is so subjective that you can’t imagine it coming from another audience member in that or any other room, then take it with a grain of salt and stay your course.

Self-awareness, experience and confidence are a huge part of your development path…

As a performer, and as a person, you live somewhere on a Kinsey-like scale of your own confidence level in what you do on stage, not to mention your confidence level in who you are – on and off the stage. Over time, as you grow, the way you feel about this will change. It’s different for everybody, but above all, don’t feel like you have to have a fixed opinion and stick with it. Your relationship with yourself as a performer WILL inevitably change the more you learn.

Chances are, right now, you can either handle talking about your “show” directly, or to you thinking and talking about how you behave on stage intimidates you. You might feel it undermines “the magic” for you and discussing it only makes it harder for you to navigate. Because of your character, or because of where you happen to be in your own development of self-awareness as a performer and a person, just have patience with yourself.

All of these things take time, openness and practice.

It doesn’t matter what type of person you are, or where you are in this development process. But it does matter that you recognize and accept the way you are – at any given point in time. Where you are in development may greatly change the type of people you should look to work with, what communication styles will work best with you, and what you expect and what you need from them in way of support. How direct or nuanced they should be when they communicate with you about these topics. Whether they should push you or let you be.

Who are you on stage?

Or the real question first is… Who are you?

There’s an ongoing debate I’ve had with various musicians I have worked with over the years. And there may or may not be a right answer – but it is a fruitful debate and one you should consider for yourself. It is the debate over whether or not the person on the stage and at the merch table at shows is the same person who gets into bed at night back at home.

Is the person who performs and peddles the music the same person who lives the daily life of the musician? And if those people are separate, then who writes the music?

Some musicians claim they protect themselves a little when they perform, by placing an intangible layer of distance between the character they play at shows and the unedited person they are at home. They do develop a character that is based on who they really are – they just play up the elements of their personality they figure the fans most admire, the elements that make them feel best able to perform, and they keep some of the other, more vulnerable, complex, or even objectionable parts of who they are for home and personal use only. For people inclined to work this way, having that differentiation helps them plan and play their shows, helps them know how to “be” in interviews, helps them know what personality to channel and portray when fatigue and road wear make them really just want to be on a couch watching TV somewhere. Musicians in this school of thought claim doing it this way not only creates a buffer so they feel like they still have retained part of themselves that is private, but they also say it helps them maintain the energy level that is required for a life on the road.

Now on the other hand…

Other musicians find the creation of a “stage persona” to be exhausting – like keeping up a series of fibs and not being sure how to remember all the things they’ve said in order to keep up a lie. They prefer to be entirely themselves on stage – and contend that their fans really want that person anyway. Otherwise, why would they come out to shows? This approach to celebrity is certainly in part in response to the 24 hour news cycle and the way social media and other forms of instantly updates sources have created a new era in fandom – the papparazzi-like masses. In a world with instant media, it can be hard to keep up any sort of persona. And so, artists in this camp tend to believe the best thing they can do is be their authentic selves – and hope that is good enough to be adored. That in any flaws or misunderstood moments will be an element of truth that the fans will trust in a way that they can’t trust the constant performer.

On face value, if asked, most people would say truth is best. It is considered better to be honest than to lie. It is considered better to be the real thing than to be a fake.

Right?

We all want to think that who we really are is good enough for people to love. And in our private space, that is absolutely true. But what about when we turn our personality out to the public?

Welcome to the mixed message that is consumer response!

I once heard an agent say:
“The audience wants you to be real, but not TOO real.”

What the hell is THAT supposed to mean?

When you’re just being you, trying to do your thing, how do you know if you’re being real or too real? People don’t work that way… A musician can’t be constantly analyzing how they are being. Then nothing will be real. And everyone will get all caught up inside their heads, unable to create, perform or drive to the next gig.

A manager once pulled me aside at SXSW and asked my opinion of his artist’s showcase performance, “Do you think she’s being too cutesy? Like, not grown up enough?”

He seemed almost scared – as if cute was the kiss of death. Tho I’m not sure if he was scared she was not grown up or scared she was pretending to not be grown up or scared people wouldn’t like cute. I tried not to BARF at the sexist inclination of his observation and focus on the question he was asking for my comment on. To me, it just seemed like she was behaving as the creative, theatrical performer she is – which in my opinion is what is so special about her – to fans and industry folks alike. I told him so, but have no idea what he did or didn’t say to the artist. Ugh… What did he say to the artist? (Yet another future entry topic – how business people navigate communication with creative people.)

Every artist navigates the extent their public persona matches their “at home” persona in their own time, in their own way.

You will find your balance point of accessibility with the audience while still enjoying some level of personal comfort zone. If you are an indeed an artist who thrives in live performance, and keeps your show fresh and new for the audience over time, you will likely revisit your boundaries on this front many times over the years in different cities and environments.

Wall Street versus Art Street

One of the most challenging things about a life in music is the inevitable and perpetual need to navigate the delicate balance between business and personal. Between music being your job and music being your love. The need to pay the rent versus the need to do what you love and believe in. The desire to have long term financial and life plans versus the ongoing challenges of paying for gas, paying the band, feeding the band, airplane tickets, the fee for a one way drop rental car, and that unexpected speeding ticket just trying to get home from the gig.

All of the noise and clutter the daily debate creates can make it hard to see the tree for the forest. And when you finally get a moment with your friends, who love you, all you want to do is be safe from all the decisions and worry. But then you are faced with the question of whether and how to tour with them. Because as much as you try to avoid it, inevitably y’all get to talking shop…

Music is a life that breeds collaboration, in fact, screams for it and needs it. People in a room making sounds that move us, inspire us. cheer us, worry us, and ultimately bring us together. In your fellow musicians and songwriters you find inspiration, and you inspire. All of the greatest periods of creativity in human history were also times, coincidentally or not, when the greatest artisans of the time collaborated and competed in ways that compelled them even further in their craft.

Communities of songwriters thrive in cities from Seattle to Atlanta, Austin to Boston – and that’s just the USA. Here in Massachusetts, we have a wealth of songwriters who know and admire one another, and often work together here or on the road. Some come here chasing the heritage of Cambridge, because of the world-changing folksongs that were bred here. They tirelessly labor after a new sound, a new Cambridge – retaining the truth and courage they find in being in the town where Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and others collaborated. Some are after the community that has been nurtured here. Because you really can go into a handful of small joints in Cambridge on any given weeknight and find some of the nation’s best players, songwriters and collaborators playing together. It’s like a Harlem renaissance of honest music. I’m pretty sure it’s what people think they will find if they go visit Nashville, but little do they know they would find it if they just wandered the streets of Porter or Harvard or Inman Squares on the average Thursday night.

So, with all this community comes Collaboration.

And of course it’s fun cousin Competition.

As you grow and build, you may silently feel disappointed in yourself to find that you start to think… Your friends are competitors. And your competitors are friends. And you hate that – about the business of making music, and the fact that you even think about it. But it’s true nevertheless.

As you realize this, you determine you are part of a finite ecosystem. And the choices you make about where you tour, who you tour with, how you promote, who you align with – all seem to impact your path and plight in the ecosystem. And you then begin to navigate for yourself the things you value most, and the balance you keep between driving your music career forward and remaining true to your community of fellow artisans – who are all also making their own choices of priority.

So when the beast of business rears its head in the middle of your song circle, what should you do?

Should you feel guilty and ashamed when someone you personally love and admire asks you to play shows with them and you don’t know what to say? Should you pray at the altar of Woody Guthrie and the gods of hootenannies that you won’t be punished for immediately thinking about the fact that your friend is unlikely to sell tickets?

We like to pin business on the big labels, the old ways, and the bad guys. We assign business the archetypes of evil things – money, greed, ambition, maneuvering, distrust. And we assign craft the archetypes of good – virtue, honesty, purity, meaning, worth, sacrifice, giving. It may seem a clear black-and-white ethical debate, but real life is so much grayer.

Well let’s see, what do you do?

You can get a manager, agent or other business partner, and assign them the task of being “the heavy.” They look out for your best interests and by nature of their job description. They keep you on a business path while you keep you fight for artistic integrity. Ahh the lovely friction.

You can piss off all your friends, tell them they aren’t as cool as you, and travel thousands of miles with strangers for five years, only to find out that your friends are the people who are still in the business ten years later and you really wish you’d done more with them when you started out in the first place.

Or, you can take these things as they come to you. Make these decisions and navigate on a case by case basis. Stumble sometimes, apologize sometimes, and be relieved you did. You just gotta find your own way to be honest with your friends about your goals, and honest with yourself about what you may need to do (or not do as the case may be) in order to achieve them.

The best thing you can do for yourself is get a plan. If you have a plan, then making decisions like these becomes a lot easier. Even if the plan changes. And changes often. Get a plan.

Oh, that means I’m gonna have to write an entry about how to get a plan, doesn’t it? Hmm… Okay…

Gig swap rules of the road

Don’t just swap. Swap smart.

THE DOs and DON’Ts of GIG SWAPPING…

  1. Don’t swap with someone whose music you don’t like. It’s not a very nice thing to do to your audience.
  2. Don’t swap gigs with people who have the same fans you do. As in IDENTICALLY the same people who came to their gig last night came to your gig last week. Or even 50% crossover fans. It defeats the purpose. Mix it up a bit. Swap with people who are kindred but not the same.
  3. Swap gigs with people who are strong in markets you actively WANT to pursue (as in, don’t just go there because it’s a gig and you didn’t have to book it yourself). Think carefully about what markets/venues you want to build in 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 2 years. And be realistic about what you think you can achieve, so you select the right gigs to get there.
  4. If someone offers you their hometown, try to give them your hometown or a market where you can draw what is the equivalent of what they are offering you – it’s only fair. Especially if their hometown is difficult to gain audience in.
  5. If you take a gig with someone now with the promise of a future gig with you later down the road, don’t forget and let the gig never happen. That’s rude. Even if it never seems to work out, at least follow up for a while to make sure you’ve tried to make good on the deal. People don’t like jerks.
  6. Seriously, I meant what I said in rule #1. I don’t care how polite you are, how much you like the artist personally, or how desperately you need a gig in that market. Don’t do it. Afterall, chances are their fans won’t be people you’re gonna want to return to in 6 months anyway. And you’ll be kicking yourself when you drive 5 hours to get to the gig and play miserably because your ears hurt.

I’m sure there are others, and I will add as they come to me…

What is a manager?

The business school answer:
It depends.

The Monkey’s answer:
It’s not what everyone makes it out to be, but that’s not such a bad thing…

I read it in a book somewhere…
Donald Passman does a decent job describing the official textbook role in his music biz book called “All You Need To Know About The Music Business.” He suggests a young musician look for someone who’s connected as a Business Manager and someone who’s organized as a Personal Manager. He threw in something about trustworthy, won’t steal from you, and ruthless negotiator for good measure. But even so, the whole thing still confuses the hell out of me, especially with how quickly the business of music has been turned upside down…

I mean, what does it mean to be connected in this day and age anyway?

It’s not what everyone makes it out to be, but that’s not such a bad thing…
The music manager of the future is not the proverbial rainmaker, as “Hit Men” manager lore and music industry magazines will have you think. It’s not a buncha back slapping, hand shaking, and napkin back deal making anymore. Not that I’ve seen, anyway. The managers of tomorrow are professional, tech-savvy, entrepreneurial marketers. They generally know more about music and creativity than they let on. And the network of people they bring to the table is very different from managers of days gone by. The people they need to know are often unexpected.

There used to be unsurmountable barriers between indie musicians and mass marketing channels. Managers were in place to help artist scale those barriers and capitalize on the prizes on the other side of the wall.

It used to be an artist had to…
– sign their soul (and creativity) away to a deep-pocketed label,
– deal and squeaky wheel with a clunky distributor,
– nose their way onto a big booking agency roster,
– insert a catheter for a payola-pushing radio promoter,
– beg and plead for a percentage from their vaguely (i mean vastly) networked publisher,
– play anywhere for anything just to get people to hear the music.

The artist rarely had a say about expenses, but was expected to recoup nevertheless. Reports were generated monthly (sometimes) by the label, distributor or manager. Figures sprayed across dot stipple-printed spreadsheets as if they actually came from real data sources, and yet somehow nobody ever audited the labels or distributors. Only the artists were audited. Cassette tapes grew on trees, but no matter how many albums sold somehow most were still returned to the distributor and/or destroyed.

Return? Destroy?

Young managers and artists think that is some kind of joke. Like, “I used to walk 5 miles to school uphill in the snow…” Really, it happened. Return. Destroy.

What about the future? No more returns. No more stocking fees. No more shelf position. No more wasted inventory. Essentially, no more mass market blanketed PUSH.

“Push” marketing is much easier than “pull” marketing because it’s just basically throwing money and reach/frequency at artist development. New forms of pull marketing – digital and social media, and other of the most measurable forms of direct marketing – they all can get complicated. And that is why managers of the future must be marketers.

I find myself with every new client that comes to Market Monkeys pausing to ask, “What’s my job again?” The answer always comes back in some form of why I got into this business in the first place…

My job is to get songs into ears and artists into lives of people who will love them. Every listener and every listen matters.

In order to understand what a new music industry manager does, it is important to understand what’s changed so much to make new managers necessary. See the new manager in his/her natural habitat, if you will.

Okay, here’s the part where I pontificate on the future of music. So if you’re sick of that stuff, I highly recommend skipping to the manager’s list of survival skills below…

The future of music is a smorgasbord of all things good and evil in the history of our great(ly troubled) industry. Mainstream music’s Managers, Agents, Labels and Publishers will continue opportunistic ventures that stifle a great majority of our nation’s talent, and elevate a small minority of artists/albums in initiatives that stimulate the top (but not the bottom) line. It is important to understand the economics of these ventures.

The music industry has historically been about cash flow, short-term gains, and revenue (top line)… NOT net income/profit (bottom line). The Internet boom in America did more than just rapidly develop a new technology to facilitate digital music distribution. New technology is created every day.

The dotcom boom of the late nineties did much more than just invent digital downloads for musicians, though most people don’t recognize it. The Internet boom rattled personal, public, corporate, and governmental awareness of the importance of bottom line financial results in business. Somehow we had gotten fat and happy for a spell there, and we were dazzled by the big figures at the top of our Income Statements. It created a shiny diversion, keeping us distracted from the part of business that has something to do with profit. The dotcom boom and bust taught venture capitalists a lot about qualified investments and dissemination of capital risk. The growing national deficit and real estate rush that seems to be following in its dotcom sister’s footsteps is fixing to teach us this lesson even more so in the next 3-5 years, so pay attention. It affects you!

Why is this important?
Because the time has come for the music industry to learn these lessons, too! And what better time than when it’s terribly hip in the business and financial world to do so? Record label execs are nothing if not fashionably dressed, party-going and gift-receiving venture capitalists. They have to start thinking, investing, and behaving like it. You can be sure as the likelihood of an American football stadium name changing in 1998 that the VCs are watching SG&A (Sales General and Administrative expenses) nowadays. Labels should, too. As should artists.

(What did she just say? Artists should look at SG&A?)

Musicians are the CEOs of their entrepreneurial ventures. Some are small, sustainable ventures. Some are large, risky, and ambitious. Some are combinations of these and other elements. Music careers are like snowflakes. Whatever the goals and scope of a musician’s business venture, the path is difficult and MUST have a determined and committed artist CEO at the helm.

Musicians are no longer hired by the labels. They are hiring the labels – letting the labels in on the deal, and partnering with labels to assemble the best possible team to promote their music and their brands. Musicians hold the assets, and if they can manage to leverage themselves enough to take on the bulk of the risk, they will reap the bulk of reward. But to do this, it must be a conscious decision to take on risk. And don’t forget that the words “manage to leverage themselves” includes the word “manage” – while it’s more lucrative than the old way, it takes a lot of work. And for some musicians, this means learning skills they never knew they would need, just to keep owning their songs.

The musician must assemble a team that supports his/her business goals. He/she must have a mission, brand, product, packaging, pricing strategy, event planning, promotion, distribution, marketing, and if possible they must advertise. The team members a musician hires to help their venture soar must be chosen carefully for their relevant intellectual property, experience, relationships, goodwill, and most importantly for their strategic plans and ability to execute.

You heard me right. Musicians are CEOs.

So, just as labels will no longer hire musicians, managers will no longer push musicians and other industry players around. Really. Managers shouldn’t even try. It’s embarrassing…

The music manager can’t get by just being good at wearing black, hanging out with lawyers, A/R people, DJs, and promoters, and throwing weight around anymore. They can’t make a business pulling the wool over people’s eyes with promises of grandeur followed by an intimate walk down an unlit back alley. Managers can’t strongarm, snub, sweettalk, or charm their way to success. They can no longer make a living out of writing contracts that artists sign out of need for the cap feather manager. The artists write the contracts now. And the manager signs. (Well, maybe it’s not that severe. But certainly, the artist and manager define the relationship together and at the end of the day it is in the manager’s best interest to manage the artists’ expectations along the way.)

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying Managers are obsolete or no longer necessary. I am just saying Managers are being held to new standards of performance. Managers, Labels and Musicians still have places in one another’s lives – but as equal business partners with shared goals… To make and evangelize great music.

New managers have to be superheros in strength, stamina, passion, confidence, intuition, and intellect. The modern day manager’s gotta hussle and maintain momentum.

Here are just the first twenty survival skills of new music managers that come to mind…

  1. Representing the artist with pride, professionalism, and integrity at all times.
  2. Understanding what the artist is trying to achieve, and sharing the same goals.
  3. Being open about what they are personally/professionally trying to achieve – and aware of any conflicts of interest – a manager’s interests can impact the recommendations they make to musicians.
  4. Boiling down brand strategy and messaging, so it’s easy for everyone on the team to know what to say about the artist, the album, the tour, the article, the interview, the what-have-you…
  5. Understanding the artist’s target market and fanbase – both in demographics and in common personality traits/behavioral characteristics.
  6. Project management and interpersonal skills to mobilize a full team of people (both hired and volunteer) with diverse expertise to execute a fully integrated marketing program – usually on a small budget, with severe time limits, and with people who are not accustomed to being “briefed” or “managed”
  7. Over-communicating, over-planning, over-analyzing, and over-reporting (meaning reporting often and completely, not to be confused with over-stating figures)
  8. Utilizing ALL forms of communication, having a sense of, sensitivity to, and respect for the forms different people in the business prefer to utilize (i.e. Snail Mail, Phone, Fax, Email, Blackberry, iPhone, IM, Text Messaging, Facebook, etc.)
  9. Constantly innovating – always being willing to try new tactics, trespass unchartered territories with confidence and patience, and encouraging the CEO to do the same.
  10. Dynamically weighing the pros, cons, and priority level of every new initiative and adjusting strategy to remain current.
  11. Not only prioritizing what projects are most important, but also constantly auditing the best use of his/her own time to be sure every effort has anticipated return (in long term fanbase growth, customer lifetime value, or quality of relationship-building, if not in short term gains)
  12. Valuing past learning. Just because the industry has changed does NOT mean that all learning from the “old guard” is obsolete. I can’t imagine anything further from the truth. Afterall, the first vinyl record sales happened similar to the way Hear Music has sold CDs in recent years… Through unique in-store product placement and creative distribution tactics.
  13. Honestly accepting responsibility for mistakes and/or failures – and actively seeking to learn from these events. Sometimes accepting responsibility for the artists’ mistakes and/or failures – but only when it has been clearly and mutually decided that the manager will do so.
  14. Reading people. Understanding their interests/intentions. Knowing when it’s the right time to fight a battle, and how is the most advantageous way of approaching such a situation.
  15. Ability to talk to the artist about anything, bring up subjects others are afraid to approach, and do so with tact and the interest of the music/artist in mind (just as a chief operating officer would with their CEO).
  16. Respecting the expertise of other team members, especially hired experts. (Basically, the manager shouldn’t BS when there’s someone in the room who actually knows what the heck they’re talking about.)
  17. Listening, leading, learning, deligating, motivating, executing, and continuously planning.
  18. Running the artist’s web site like a B2C retail ecommerce sales engine – with prioritized profit channels, sales goals, acquisition cost targets, customer lifetime value knowlege, regular analytics reporting, and ongoing optimization to enhance user experience and conversion rate.
  19. Insisting on measuring anything and everything measurable all the time everywhere, and unabashedly throwing tantrums whenever a musician balks at record-keeping tasks.
  20. … And when necessary, recognizing the human need to stop pushing for a moment, leading the team in a collective deep breath, and reminding the artist why they took this all on in the first place.

Happy Managing,
mc

P.S. An afterthought posted a couple days after the initial publication of this blog entry… I realize that I have usually provided outside reading suggestions in my previous entries. There’s plenty of more reading on the subject of managers, past, present and future. Recently, a column written by Janis Ian for Performing Songwriter was brought to my attention – it’s called “Managers and Messengers” and it’s on her web site (www.janisian.com/reading/managers.php). While the column is 10 years old, it’s still relevant. It is a great study in mutual gains negotiations/relationships between musicians and managers. There are always things to take and leave, as with any article. Let’s hope this trend continues, for the good of us all and the music!

P.P.S.  [Added October 2010]  Another great blog post about music management worth reading… Josh Ritter just did a great little Q&A with his career-long manager Darius Zelkha, that illustrates well the diversity of tasks that happen in a given day in the life of a contemporary music manager – What The Hell A Manager Does >>

Ringtones. No, I’m not kidding. Ringtones.

Major labels are not ALWAYS idiotic, you know…

I’ve noticed in the last few years that people seem to think marketing/sales channels are either for major labels or for indies. Like, if the majors do it, then it’s not cool for indies to do it. And if the indies do it, then it’s small time.


I will agree that the majors tend to try to make revenue streams out of things that should be free. And that there are many folks who have worked in the major label structure for so long that their judgment about what is promotion and what is commerce is quite clouded. But just because majors choose to charge for things doesn’t mean that indies should completely disregard them and exclude them from the marketing suite.

Ringtones are a great example. Yes of course Hip Hop and Country music from major labels have dominated the ringtones offered by AT&T and Verizon. Yes of course indie companies like GroupieTunes have made it possible for independent musicians to distribute their music via ringtones. Yes Apple iTunes has made it possible to buy ringtones on their site and push them to your iPhone. But WHY DO THAT? I mean, why not just edit your MP3 yourself and make a ringtone if you want wan from the band you love that bad?

People – make your ringtones free. And while you’re at it, don’t freaking put your whole song or even your voice in your ringtones. How vain! Think about the sounds on your album – the elements that would be cool if someone’s phone was ringing in your house. Was there lapsteel or slide guitar? A drum roll that was catchy? Piano solo?

Think about why people might want to use your ringtone – what it says about THEM not you.

People set ringtones as an expression of their identity to the immediate world around them. This is vital to understand when you go about making and offering ringtones. And also vital to understand why ringtones are actually perfect for indies, not as perfect for major labels.

People change their ringtones because they want to express something different about themselves and their preferences. I love Folk music. So when I change my ringtone to be part of a song by John Gorka, I’m not just trying to say I love John Gorka’s music. I want people to know that the vibe he creates in his music is one I feel inside. I am trying to express that the way I feel is acoustic in nature, and it kinda feels like a warm sunny room with the windows open and a slight breeze, a thoughful and approachable and articulate kinda feeling – it feels human. Or when I change my ringtone to be Bonnie Raitt’s slide guitar, I’m not doing that because I’m such a huge fan of Bonnie Raitt. I’m doing that because I want people to know that I feel that lazy, twangy, bluesy thing – it’s part of me. And especially, that’s how I feel that day, or that week, or that month, and that’s how my ringtone sounds.

If the big labels/artists only knew…
  • On some days, I feel electric and eager, rowdy like I want to party. And on those days I might change my ringtone to be Dave Matthews Band or Wilco or Ani Difranco.
  • On other days, I feel tormented, dark and intense. And on those days I might change my ringtone to be Tori Amos or Dolores O’Riorden or Evanescence or Lucinda Williams.
  • On other days, I feel lazy, slow and dazed. And on those days I might change my ringtone to be Norah Jones or Lyle Lovett or Feist.
  • On some days, I feel retro. I mean I don’t know, either I’m reminescing about a time when I was alive or I’m thinking about where the music I love derrived from. And on those days I might change my ringtone to be Woody Guthrie or Johnny Cash or Paul Simon or Carole King.
But the point is, they don’t know. Or they do know but haven’t caught on.

So that means YOU can know. You can be the artist who gets ringtones and why people use them. You can be the artist who creates ringtones people actually like and are not annoyed by. Really. You can.

When you make a ringtone, think about who you are to your fans, what about their own personalities you might represent. Is it your connection to the environment and the earth? Is it your kickass instrumental skills? Is it your dark and creepy voice? Is it your dry wit and humor? Is it your rock out vibe?

Take that thing and make that your ringtone. Even if it’s not music.
  • Make it available on your web site for free.
  • Host it on a page/location that is easy to type into a mobile browser, and easy to remember so people can tell others verbally and IM and email around easily.
  • Make the file size small so people can download it right from their phone if they need to. (some phones have max filesizes for downloads)
By all means, continue to let iTunes sell your ringtones. If people want to pay, they will. No need to stop them. But remember, when a fan uses your music as an expression of who they are – you should take that as a compliment not a an act of commerce. And you should encourage that behavior, because ringtones are conversation starters. And conversations about you are helpful to your cause. And most of all, if they compliment you by using your music as their ringtone… welll… It means you’re doing your job well!

Is saying your name on stage like advertising?

Incorporating big company advertising procedures into how we promote independent art…

The other day, I was reading a listserv used by a bunch of folk music people like me. The debate of the day (among other topics) was should a musician say their name 15 times on stage because that’s what advertisers do to get people to remember them. (Okay, the real debate was about whether or not performance coaches are helpful, but I don’t really feel qualified to blog about that and my personal opinion ain’t worth much to you either, so I’m going to latch onto the part about advertising and self-promotion here…)

Here are a few snippits from the healthy debate so you get an idea of the diverse perspectives on the topic, as well as my thoughts on the issue to follow:

Question: Should a musician say their name 15 times on stage?

DEBRA (performer’s coach):
Think of the hyperbole as telling someone to do something 10 times, maybe they’ll do it once. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen openers who never say their names — not once. Maybe the announcer says it at the beginning — just as often, not. There are ways to do this, where it’s not obnoxious. And I think that for most performers, the issue is a complete lack of self-promotion because of stark terror that they might be perceived as self-promoting. In the advertising world, it is an accepted fact — 15 times — that’s the magic number. Someone has to see/hear something 15 times on average before it sinks in and becomes real in their minds. 15 times.

MIKE (audience member):
I find that an excess of self promotion from the stage to be very distasteful as an audience member. I find it a big turnoff when a performer prefaces every song with “And here’s another song from my CD…” or the like. It’s OK to plug it, but not to excess. If you’re worth remembering, I’ll remember you. […] Yep. After I hear the name 15 times, I REALLY know whom to avoid. Again, a personal perspective, but holding up the advertising world as a model to follow is absolutely the wrong tactic to take with me. There are brands that I’d sooner be in a dragon’s colon than buy because of their obnoxious ads.

ANNIE (musician):
i have to admit this is one of the most difficult things for me. i just find it awkward. i don’t know why. guilt? catholic school? i know i just wish i could just give them away to people as gifts & watch them smile. that’s the truth. i’m told time after time that i don’t tell my audiences enough that i have cd’s for sale. i know many other artists struggle with this as well. i’m told “annie, aren’t you proud of your music? don’t you stand behind it? aren’t there people & reviewers who tell you they love it too?… then just tell your audiences you’re proud & excited to have cd available… or at least just tell them you HAVE cd’s!”

MATT (audience member & house concert presenter):
I find such conduct from a performer a real turn-off. It’s important to say your name, of course. But if the music is good and speaks to me, I’ll make it a point to find out who the performer is. If the music doesn’t make an impression, then saying one’s name or mentioning one’s CD over and over won’t change that — it just annoys, and may leave the impression that the performer doesn’t have much faith in value of their music.

SCOTT (show promotor/presenter):
If the presenter/MC is doing his or her job, the performer won’t be put in the awkward spot of pushing her name and her product. I make sure to reinforce the opener’s name while the applause is still ringing (“Remember that name……I’ll bet you’ll be hearing it again”) and to say something like “And for your convenience, he’s put his name on every one of the CDs he has for sale in the lobby.”

VIC (audience member):
Perform good songs with energy, skill and conviction and entertain your audience. If you do that you have already done all the on-stage self promotion you need.

What Market Monkeys Had to Say…

Well, I gotta bite on this one. Anybody who knows me would know that I can’t let the advertising discussion go by without saying something. And I hope I don’t come off as the devil here…

(Note – I’ve found that generally artists don’t trust advertisers so I had to lead off this way. Who can blame ’em? For decades advertisers have exploited creative talent for their own purposes, and they flood the market with useless chatter about products we don’t want. But it’s important to learn something from society’s failures. It’s important to learn from advertising, and harness certain parts of the profession to further independent music and the arts. Otherwise we would have all endured the neverending heavy-up of 30 second spots and teaser/reveals for no reason at all.)

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
There are good things and bad things to learn from the world of advertising. I’m a lifelong student of advertising, and I’m not ashamed. It’s how I built my career, and it informs the way I help the musicians I manage and promote navigate the tough decisions they make in development of their careers. But I tend to rely more on the tertiary things I learned from my career in advertising and online marketing. Because those are the things that actually work.

It’s true that in advertising you build awareness by putting as many impressions as you can afford into a given space, targeted at a certain market segment. Likelihood of brand recall and intent to purchase increase the more you saturate the market with your impressions. Sure, I know this. When Lori McKenna does it I’m happy for her – when Walmart does it I cringe. But either way, it’s true.

Advertising Combines Reach, Frequency & Integrated Channels
Thing is — it’s not just about the frequency with which you say your name when you’re performing that’s going to make an audience remember you. In advertising principle, it’s a combination of “reach” and “frequency” that matters. Also, advertisers are beginning to recognize that it is an integrated approach that not only builds true customer loyalty, but also satisfaction and evangelization. It’s not how many times you hear a name in one mode – it’s how many times combined with the different modes and the quality of channels in which you hear it.


How does this translate in music?

We’re actually all culprits of this type of marketing. How many times have you heard a new artists’ name, and then a buddy of yours at another venue, or another radio station, or another manager mentions that same person to you? Then you go back to the CD they sent you 2 months ago to hear what everyone’s talking about. It’s not just about repitition – it’s about multiple modes and channels of impressions, and the credibility you assign the “brand advocates” – in this case, your colleagues.


Scott has a good point – when the promoter announces the artist it’s a third party endorsement. It goes a long way, and the artist can choose whether or not to say it again. But it really does help when it’s not just the artist saying the name – it’s also someone else saying their name.

Sometimes when you are playing a gig, it becomes uncomfortably obvious that the presenter doesn’t know, or isn’t around, but it is clear that nobody is intending on introducing you to the stage.

What do you do?

Say Your Name Like You Mean It
A good study in this is Johnny Cash’s signature move — comes on stage and says who he is. “Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.” Now that’s something. Because everyone knows who he is, and it’s a moment that takes the crowd by surprise. In some way, he also says, “Sure I’m just an everyday guy.”

I generally say, if an artist is opening — say your name at the beginning and the end of your set (especially if the presenter doesn’t help you out). The headliner might say your name too, and that’s gravy. If you’re a headliner, well, you know… People already paid to come see you, so I hope they know your name. You can say it if you like. Some folks might have just wandered in off the street. The tickets at the venue might not have your name on em yet. Be like Johnny Cash tho. Say it in an impactful way, at an impactful moment. Maybe you say it after the song you think is the strongest in your set. Work it in naturally when you introduce your band. You’ll know the right way to do it. It will be authentic.

The moral of this blog:
Advertising is as much about integrating efforts as it is about reach and frequency of impressions.

You probably don’t have to say your name 15 times. Rather, try saying it 15 ways…

1 – once on the press release you sent to local writers 5 weeks in advance of the show,
2 – once on the posters you hung around town to promote the show,
3 – once in the newspaper, radio, and other local calendar listings,
4 – once in your email newsletter that went out at least 2 weeks in advance,
5 – once on the club’s web site calendar,
6 – once on the club’s print calendar at the venue,
7 – once on the poster in the bathroom that you sent to the club the month prior,
8 – once on a local or online radio show the week leading up to the show,
9 – once on the top of your email list at the merch table,
10 – once on your CD cover art (also on the merch table),
11 – once on the postcards you have for non-buyers to take,
12 – once by the person selling your merch (maybe that’s you!)
13 – once by the show presenter,
14 – once by the headliner,
15 – once at the beginning or end of your set.

Okay – there are my 15 cents. Whether or not you asked for it… 🙂

Happy Advertising,
Michelle

Search Engine Marketing 101 for Musicians

10 Cents on Search

Search Marketing is one of the most exciting new forms consumer advertisers are using to reach potential customers – mainly because it’s cost efficient, highly measurable, and it reaches nearly the entire population of Internet users. Do you Yahoo?

So, there are two main companies that currently drive the majority of search listings on the Internet – Google and Yahoo! Search (formerly Overture). AOL is also an important provider, mainly because of its installed base of users through their ISP and IM services. Google syndicates its search results to AOL, so it means if you’re on Google then you’re on AOL, too. Yahoo used to syndicate to MSN, but MSN is expected to come out with a Paid Search offering in September 2005, which may make them a major player you should consider as well. There are many other smaller companies — often referred to as “Second Tier Search Engines.” Results can often be fed to these second tiers through the search networks managed by Google and Yahoo, or through network aggregators like the Search Advertising Network.

The list of players goes on and on. See, search is still a very new and budding technology. It is still being figured out. But if you’re just getting started in this stuff, the two main players you have to worry about are Google and Yahoo…

What does this mean to you?

It means that there are prospective fans out there searching on terms like “new independent musician” every day, and you could put your name and album in front of them. For example on Google, “music” gets 21,000 clicks/day, “new music” gets 240 clicks/day, “buy CDs” gets 86 clicks/day, “buy music online” gets 80 clicks/day, “folk music” gets 67 clicks/day, and “independent music” gets 14 clicks/day. Now that doesn’t mean you should necessarily go buy those terms, but it does give you an idea of how many people are searching on music-related terms.

It also means that you have an additional way to measure your market reach – so you can not only tell those Record Label A&R folks how many units you sold last year, but you can also tell him the % increase of searches online on your Brand Name. You can also learn a lot more about your fans by the terms they search to find you.

Okay, now that this all appears to be a little more relevant, I’m gonna get a little more technical…

Google and Yahoo! Search both have Paid and Natural components to their search results pages. That means some of the listings you see when you do a search are Sponsored (paid for), and some of the listings you see are Natural (found by engine spiders/webcrawlers, without payola). Understanding where the search listings come from, and how you can impact them is the first step toward determining what role Search Marketing will play in your overall business strategy.

Forms of Search Marketing & Industry Lingo

Currently, there are three types of Search Marketing recognized by folks who do it most. (People like me, I guess.) There’s Site-Side Optimization (also called SEO), Paid Inclusion, and Paid Placement (also called PPC or Paid Search). There are some other advanced forms of search-related marketing beginning to appear – like contextual, behavioral, and psychographic profiling. But let’s get started with the basic scales first — then we can more onto barre chords…

SEO is when you look at the structure of your web site on its “back end” and how you have named your site, it’s directories (folders), and pages (those files that usually end with .htm, .html, .asp, or .php depending on what type of server you are using and the functionality of your site). You go through your page header tags and create things called Meta-tag Keywords and Descriptions, as well as indexing commands, so search engines know what to do when they get to your site. Generally, SEO works to help you with your Natural Search performance – that’s the stuff where the search engines send out spiders or crawlers to find contents relevant to certain keywords and/or subject matter. There’s a lot you can do to help your performance – particularly if you have a lot of content or run a Blog through your site. If you’re the bloggy type, Blogspot is actually owned by Google, and as a result they are able to crawl the blogs quickly, with ease, and frequently.

PAID INCLUSION is kind of a way of cheating on Natural Search. Basically, through certain sites you can submit feeds of your site contents with tailored page descriptions so the engines are guaranteed to index you. Mind you, they do not guarantee high ranking. But basically, you pay them so you can send them whatever creative descriptions you want to – and in return they don’t have to send their spider to crawl your site. Kinda fishy, eh? Yeah, they have to do less work, and you pay them. What’s up with that? But, for some folks who have sites that pose problems for the search engines – like if the site’s in frames or it has a significant number of dynamically generated pages (where page contents comes from a database and not a hard-coded HTML page), or if it is primarily in Flash – this is a good solution.

PAID PLACEMENT is not natural at all. You pay money to Google and Overture (Yahoo! and other syndicated search sites), and they put you up under the Sponsored Listings section of their engines. On Google, the price you pay per click is based on a combination of your Bid on a term and your Click Rate (CTR%). On Overture, it is based just on your Bid (what you are willing to pay for one click). Generally for you, I would recommend that you participate in PPC if you have eCommerce on your site and are directly selling something, but just to drive traffic it can become somewhat costly.

How to Impact Search Performance

Okay, so now to my thoughts on how search can be implemented to help a musician attain specific goals…

A Few Good Goals:
Find More Listeners
Drive Frequent Visits
Get Listed On Engines
Get PR Through Content

Find More Listeners:
When it comes to the Internet, the more you write, the more readers will be likely to find you. Really. Believe it or not, this is a space in which “If you build it, they will come,” is actually true. However, it’s not just because of karma. The more you write, the more contents you will have that is indexed by the natural search engines spiders. Just remember — relevency is king. You can write until you’re blue in the face, but if it isn’t relevant then you’ll come up on the wrong types of searches.

Once you think you’ve got the structure, meta tags and descriptions in pretty good shape, you can actively submit your pages to the engines for indexing – some engines allow you to do this for free, others have Paid Inclusion programs.

Then, the next step is to go and seek out sites and blogs with similar or kindred content – and then invite them to link to your site or blog. Part of natural search Page Rank performance is based on how many other sites link to yours, and to how many well-searched pages you link to. It’s part of Google’s philosophy that relevant content should always rise to the top in their search engine results.

Drive Frequent Visits:
Newsletter newsletter newsletter. Capture reader’s email addresses and send them the newest story – or a teaser message about it – whenever you put up a new posting. To do this, I use a tool from Topica – and can tell you more about why Topica is a good idea. Or if you want to read my POV and best practices about email newsletters, you can check out my recent blog on avoiding email SPAM filters – tips on email newsletter marketing for budding musicians.

Get Listed:
If you publish a web site, add meta-tags and descriptions in your web page header tags. If you publish a blog, add a description to the top of the page on your Blog in your Blogspot settings – be sure to include important and frequently searched keywords in that description. Take a look at other blogs you’ve found on search engines, and see how they use descriptions to match your searches. Second, ALWAYS name your domain names, page names, and/or blogs with headlines that include keywords people will use to search for your content. This is the fun part for a creative person such as yourself – to find something that is pithy and creative but also practical for a headline. So, you might want to review your previous posting headlines with your search hat on and determine where you might be able to include search terms.

Currently, your meta-tag keywords and descriptions are probably blank, or maybe you or your webmaster have thrown a few generic terms in there — using the same ones on every page of your site. To take your natural search to the next level, you should start by creating a spreadsheet that has a line for every page of your site. In this spreadsheet you should make columns for Page Name, Page URL, Page Header Title, Page Meta Description, Page Meta Keywords, Page Index Type. Then, go to the next step of coming up with compelling titles, keywords and descriptions for each page. This way, your meta-tags differ by content, and people who search will actually be sent to relevant information.

A couple pages you should check out for more info:
– www.searchenginewatch.com
– www.google.com/adsense

Get PR Through Content:
Online PR has started to buzz. At search marketing conferences, booths about Search PR firms have started to pop up all over – and you can now purchase service through the PR Newswire and other similar tools to enhance your PR through search. I haven’t researched this stuff nearly as much as I ought, but can dig up some best practices for you if this is something you’d like to work on for your site. Likely, this is the subject for a whole other blog — so stay tuned.

Likely Online Search PR optimizations would include adding Press Releases about your blog to your blog or web site, given that many PR engines still prefer the standard Press Release format. So, when you are writing your press releases for shows, be sure to incorporate keyword terms and phrases people would search for in both consumer-oriented search engines, and also in press-oriented online PR database search engines.

Just The Beginning
Okay, the most important thing to remember in online marketing is that there is no expert. Online marketing is always changing. A form of online marketing like search enging marketing has been present since the engines launched, and has increased in its importance as engines have become more important to the way people navigate the web. People have tried to “beat the engines” time and time again — but the engines change their algorithms, and in fact even their business models, all the time.

So, what that means is anyone can be an expert. No one and anyone. Because search marketing is primarily about relevance, you’re doing okay if you just stay relevant. Simple enough. So above all other advice, don’t try to trick or beat the engines. They are in place to help people find you. Just understand their rules, and work to achieve the highest results possible.

That’s the general 101 on search marketing. In a separate installment, we will cover how copywriting and keyword selection alter search, newsletter, and other online marketing response rate — specifically for music.

Happy Googling!

MM

The Email Newsletter Monster

SPAM filters can sink your battleship. Don’t let ’em.

Okay, here’s the deal. I’ve seen it countless times. Musicians sending out their newsletters by creating Groups in their Hotmail or Yahoo web-based email clients, and sending out to each of the groups separately. The thing they don’t tell you is that while Hotmail will let you send to a number of people, your emails are likely to be filtered out (by folks like Hotmail) for doing so and never actually get to your recipient.

Here’s my advice… Pay the monthly fee with a vendor like Topica, YesMail, DoubleClick DARTmail, or some other email marketing provider. It is not only worth it because of the convenience of publishing, but they also provide tools like the ability to segment your list by market/region/interest, the capability for list members to update their information and sub/unsub themselves, tracking of user sub/unsub, metrics for reporting performance of email campaigns. Not to mention they will keep you updated on an ongoing basis about something I’m about to explain – the CAN-SPAM Act.

CAN-SPAM and how it applies to the singer-songwriter.

Okay, first of all we’re talking about an Act signed by George Bush in 2003, so you can just imagine how confusingly simple it is. The Act itself was intended to stop all those nasties sending penis enlargement email to sweet, young, impressionable children. But instead what it’s done is keep legitimate people like you from emailing your list about your gigs. You should certainly consult your lawyer about CAN-SPAM if you have one, but if you don’t, I’ll give you a few pointers to keep your nose clean and keep your fans from becoming lifelong enemies.

The basic gist of CAN-SPAM is don’t hide. Be completely open about who you are, how the people on your list got there, and what they have to do to be taken off the list. That may sound simple, but if you’re not a real tech geek (like I admit to be) then you might hide without meaning to. Don’t think too much about what I just wrote – I know – it would seem that you would know if you were hiding. But when it comes to cybespace, well, anything’s possible in the virtual world.


Ten Tips for Better Email Newsletter Publishing:

1. ALWAYS send your emails from the same email address. No buts. Just do it.

2. Encourage your list members to add that email address to their “Safe List” (good idea to do this in the confirmation email they get from you that says they have been added). This way SPAM filters on the ESP side won’t even think about you.

3. In your email program, set the From Name to be your name, or your newsletter’s name, and always use that name in the From Name field. People like to get email from people they know. But they get nasty when they think you’re someone they don’t know. It’s a good thing this doesn’t apply at dinner parties when someone doesn’t recognize you, otherwise you would never go to dinner parties.

4. Send your newsletters on a regular schedule if you can (like every 2nd Monday of the month). I know it’s hard because sometimes your finger is hovering over the send button because you gotta get more people to buy tickets to your show next Friday. But people really appreciate it if your are respectful of their Inboxes. Plus, you gotta use the Cry Wolf Rule. If you ping them every couple weeks with something else, they’re not going to pay attention when you really do have to send them an emergency email about a show cancellation or last minute appearance on Jay Leno.

5. If you’re going to venture into HTML email, use a template so it’s always the same for each issue. And, always do a TEXT version of the email too, because some people opt out of HTML to avoid downloading unwanted images and clogging up their server bandwidth.

6. Test test test. I know you’re an artist, and you’re an incredible writer, and everyone always congratulated you on what a great speller you are, but you MUST proofread your email. You MUST send your email to a short test list of people you trust before publication, at least until you get good at this thing. Then you can just send it to one or two people you trust.

7. You should register for email addresses at places like Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail, Excite, and Lycos and put those addresses on your Test List so you can see if you get filtered out into the SPAM folders on those servers. (Nifty trick, eh? Even the pros do this just to see, so they don’t embarrass themselves in front of their boss when she doesn’t receive the company announcement at her home AOL account.)

8. Put all your contact info at the bottom of your email, including a mailing address. Now, I know this can get hard. Musicians tend to move around. So get yourself a PO box that never changes – it’s pretty cheap to do, and saves you a lot of trouble. The MOST IMPORTANT thing about the CAN-SPAM ACT says you gotta put your snail mail address at the bottom of every email announcement. I know, get with the times, GW. But that’s the law. For now, anyway. You should also put the opt-out or unsubscribe instructions in that area of the email.

9. Stay on top of Email Marketing research. Right now, studies have shown that emails sent on Mondays and Fridays are getting the best traction (opens, clicks, conversions, etc). Statistics have varied on this subject. Try to schedule your emails for distribution on days market research is showing to be best for your target market, too. If you want to read more, I’ve put some resources up on my web site at: www.marketmonkeys.com/library/email_marketing

10. Content is king. Keep it short and sweet, but don’t be shy. People opted in to receive your email because they want to know more about you, your music, they want to buy your CDs, and they want to go see you play. Can you think of a more friendly audience with which to correspond? Include listings for your upcoming shows, so they don’t have to go to your web site to see that you’re playing down the street from them that night and wouldn’t it be great to bring some folks from work. Most important of all, MAKE IT YOUR OWN.


To read more on CAN-SPAM:
www.marketmonkeys.com/library/emailmarketing

www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/buspubs/canspam.htm
www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=CAN+SPAM&btnG=Google+Search


AN ABRIDGED GLOSSARY OF EMAIL TERMS:

BANDWIDTH – Techie term for musclepower and room to move around.

BLACK LIST – ESPs keep a black list of domains (DNS entries) that are known SPAM offenders. Kind of like McCarthy’s list, but for emailers. You don’t want to be on it.

CAN-SPAM – Act put in place in 2003 that says people can sue you if you send them mail and can’t prove they asked for it.

CRM – A form of direct marketing that puts you in touch with your customer through a series of direct interaction. CRM stands for either Customer Retention Marketing or Customer Relationship Management, depending on who you ask.


ESP – The people who host your mail. Be nice to them, even if they happen to also be your nasty cable company.

EMAIL CLIENT – Software you use to check email (like Outlook, Eudora, or Webmail)

EMAIL SERVER – Where email messages are stored and downloaded from ISP – The guys who host your web site. Like your bedroom floor, there is a finite amount of space on people’s servers, and nobody likes to be inundated with gym socks.

OPT-IN – When someone asks you to add them. (A nice smile from across the room doesn’t count.) If they haven’t done this, don’t do it. And even when someone you know asks you to do it for them, suggest they go to your web site. If they do it themselves, they won’t forget they did and get mad at you later.

WHITE LIST – The good list. ESPs also keep lists of domains they know are less likely to be sending SPAM. If you know someone at MSN or Yahoo, you’ll want to call in that favor now. You can also just send them an email, telling them who you are, and asking to be put on the white list. Sometimes straightforwardness works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Postering Like A Street Monkey

On the subject of guerilla marketing…

The first thing you have to do to be a monkey is throw away everyone else’s way of doing things when you set out to accomplish a task. Start from scratch, all the time. That doesn’t mean ignore the learning of generations – but it does mean think for yourself. There are a finite number of tools accessible to you, but an infinite way to use them.

A lot of times people forget where the concept of guerilla marketing came from. It’s not about baking cakes – it’s about waging marketing warfare. You aren’t all lining up in neatly packed rows, and squaring off. You’ve got to pick off new customers one at a time – hand-to-hand. Sometimes when they’re looking for you, and sometimes when they don’t even know you exist.

So that’s why my very first blog is about flyering and postering before shows. As humbling as it is, it is also an important part of marketing yourself as a musician. Just like all of the other parts of your marketing efforts, guerilla marketing gets you in touch with all you are striving for in developing your career. I don’t care what anyone else tells you. The most important thing about building your audience is getting in touch with the market. There is no better way to get to know your market than walking the streets and meeting the people.

Just as you have to know which newspapers to send press releases to, and which radio stations to have playing your record, and which venue you want to play in six months – you’ve got to get to know the streets. Get in the head of the people who listen to your music, and walk in their shoes. That’s what flyering is all about. See with their eyes, instead of your own.

You’ll find that you’ll start seeing the neigborhoods in which you play in a whole new light. Electricity gauge boxes, newspaper stands, light poles, public telephones – they all take on a new meaning. You won’t be able to pass a wall without seeing a great spot for a poster. You know you’re really getting good when you start to get down the schedule on which posters are cleaned from public boards. You can start to tell which corners have most traffic, but least amount of time up.

10 Tips for Postering

1. Get in the mind of your audience. Where do they eat? What paper do they read? What’s their favorite bookstore? Do they ride the subway or bus? Don’t just go out there willy-nilly. Take a minute to think about your target market and plan before hitting the street.

2. Isolate neighborhoods that are most likely to expose your posters to your target market. Find coffeeshops and “the usual places” in those areas. They generally have boards to post on. It’s the most respectable work you’re gonna do in flyering. The rest is all pretty gritty.

3. Check the weather. If it’s gonna rain today, but not tomorrow, wait. I know you need them up for as long as possible, but it’s no good if they get all soggy. The day after rain can sometimes be the best cuz nobody’s posted and the other posters have been washed away, leaving less competition for people’s attention. If you really want to get posters up and it’s raining or snowing, put them up in indoor locations like coffeeshops, bookstores, and public transit shelters.

4. Use good tape. Nothing sucks more than going out postering, exhausting yourself, and having them fall down without even being touched by the “cleaners”…

5. Don’t spend a lot of money on the printing of your posters. Better to have lots of them, than have them in pretty colors. Just come up with a simple design. If you’re hell-bent on spending money, get a designer to create a nice black-and-white template for your posters that you can photocopy onto colored paper. 8 1/2 x 11 is just fine for the job and easy to tote around town with you.

6. Use the same images on your posters so people get used to seeing them, and knowing it’s you. Then, they’ll be more likely to stop. If you have an image you use on your web site and in the press, use it for your flyers, too. Just like in mainstream marketing, repeating an image in multiple sources makes people trust is as a familiar image. They are more likely to retain information associated with it.

7. Think like a monkey. Spread out your posters – some in places you know a lot of people walk but will be taken down. Some in places that not as many people walk, but they’re likely to stay up longer.

8. Don’t poster over someone else, especially if they have a gig on the same day as you. It’s totally wrong, and spreads bad kharma. Think of your fellow guerilla marketers as comrades at arms whenever you can. One day, they might put a piece of tape on your falling-down flyer and save your ass. If you have the tape to spare, help them out, too. If their poster falls down and the local govt gets pissed because of littering, they might take the board down and then where will you be? On the other hand, they might poster over you. Well, shit, that’s life. Do what you want. We all navigate our own ships.

9. Put your posters at eye-level (not too high, not too low). Don’t make your audience work to read your info.

10. Read the other announcements you are postering near. It’s not bad to poster near someone who does something similar to you if your gigs are on different nights. Someone might stop to read theirs and see yours.

That’s it for now. Happy monkeying…

MC