Survival of the Artist Interview Extras

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In the September issue, Kylee Swenson Gordon talked to artists and industry executives about new ways to make a living in today’s business landscape. Here, we share more random thoughts from her interview outtakes.…

Tim Westergren: There are a hundred different ways in which it can go wrong, but if you play the chess game right, you will turn [music] into a career these days, which I think is more true now than before when the pipeline was so much more narrow, when there was no Internet radio and no democratic platform for artists and you were competing for 12 slots a year. So it’s fantastically good news.

Tim Westergren: Bands and artists are going to have to really take responsibility for fan relationships,” he says. “I think in this day and age, your goal is to really build a fanbase, so people literally feel responsibility to help your career along. And they can do that in numerous financial ways: buying your music, swag, concert tickets, and participating in crowd-sourced funding mechanisms you do.

Tim Westergren:What I hear people saying is that live performing is the cornerstone to their band relationships, and they give away a lot of material, and again it’s just part of developing patronage, so they find mediums online where they can give away pieces of themselves in return for some loyalty and support from fans. I think the whole crowd funding notion has legs, and bands ought to and can take advantage of that as they build up a critical mass of an audience. But I think it helps to consolidate your online efforts, so you know there’s Twitter and Facebook and your own Website, and I think that people are well-served to figure out, “Okay, what’s a real hub for us. Is it our own Web page, is it a Facebook page, what is it?” And make that a fulcrum. So be efficient and focused on where you’re driving people to, and be really smart about the product design for it the same way that you’d mix your record. You should be equally careful about how you present information online. What’s the experience of interacting with your online persona much the same way you’d think about, “What is my record going to sound like on a car stereo and a home stereo?” [consistent voice?] Absolutely, that’s one of the cornerstones of it. I think about simple product design when someone comes to your place, what do they see? What’s the message? It needs to be engaging. It needs to reflect your brand, all the thing that product marketers do for a living

Aaron Axelsen: I like when artists offer special incentives on their Facebook or Twitter or Instagram when they come to town, offering guest list privileges. “What songs do you want to hear tonight? What should we play? Where should we go after our show in your town?” Localize it. I think it’s important for artists to not really just be preachy or pontificate or use it as a promotional tool, but use it as a way to interact closely with your audience. A lot of times bands just post a flyer, here’s our event, we sent out our RSVP. I love it when there are ways where artists will offer tracks exclusively only if you like us. Like us or follow us, and you get sent exclusive music. You have to offer an incentive, too, and not just use it to narcissistically promote your stuff: Here we are, like us. I think it’s a way to really engage your listeners and have them become involved with the process.

Gianni Luminati: You can put videos up on YouTube but not show that you’re part of the community, and then there are ways of doing it where you are…creating call-to-action annotations to ask people to subscribe to your videos and fixing up your homepage so it looks good.

Gianni Luminati: It’s awesome to interact with the fans, get their ideas, and get them as involved as possible. Now all these people want to be involved, you know they’re fans of your band, and they want to feel like they have access to ask questions. Sarah and I will devote three or four hours a day on Facebook and Twitter writing back to fans. Sometimes it takes a lot of time to write somebody back, but that kind of thing locks your fans in for a long ride rather than just for a short-term thing. It’s something we get enjoyment out of anyways, so cool.

D.A. Wallach: Ok, any of this stuff is a funnel. So however you get people into the funnel, more power to you, I think. And then it’s about how do you take those people who are coming to the show because they like your cover song and turning them into a real fan that has a meaningful connection to you.

PJ Bloom: There’s certainly nothing innovative about covering a song that’s already beginning to get exposure, but whether it’s a true innovation for them will depend on how they capitalize on it over time, or maybe they already have because now they’re playing to big, sold-out rooms. So you can only look back and see if it worked. You can only look back and see if it was an innovation. Or if other people copy the idea. Or was that just a one-off thing and nobody ever did it again, then you know it’s kind of a fluke. I don’t mean fluke in a bad way. I wouldn’t mind being the person who had the fluke as long as it was possible. But I think the word “innovative” is really defined by time and defined by whether other people follow suit.

Amanda Palmer: [one doubter asked, “how many times can you go back to the well?”] As many as you f*ckin’ want? How many times will people walk into Best Buy and buy a CD. People want music. People love music. And one thing that cynics like that are overlooking is that people love supporting art, and good art creating just begets more good art creation. It isn’t over the minute someone is satisfied. It only creates more demand. So how many times can you go back to the well? It’s like, well, I don’t know…. How many times will a label pay for you to record an album?

Amanda Palmer: There are a gazillion kinds of crowd-sourcing platforms, like Kickstarter and Indie Go-Go and Plausible and Pledge Music. It doesn’t matter what platform you use, it’s the concept that’s important. Ben Folds and I had an interesting exchange because he chose to use Pledge Music because he didn’t want fans to see a big running total of how much money he was earning. I deliberately wanted my fans and the public to see how much, so a lot of it just comes down to personal taste and how you want to be seen and how comfortable you are sharing your bank account with the world.

Bloom: I think that it’s always been a formula for success for bands to break by covering hit songs. That’s common. That happens all the time, but I think when people want to talk about success, they usually look to these one-off instances and say, “Oh, we should do that! Wouldn’t it be great if that happened.” In my business, when people talk about synchs, they still point to some of the classic ones that have blown up bands or made people a lot of money or changed the landscape of an artist playing from 5 people in a room to 50,000 people. But those aren’t common. Those just don’t happen enough to say, “I’m not going to focus on the other traditional ways of being a successful band or artist, and I’m going to just do this.” I think you should be doing everything at the same time.

Aaron Axelsen: I’m a firm believer that if the Internet was around in 1989, Nirvana and that grunge scene would not have happened because it would have been on Pitchfork and on Stereogum after the first demo circulated pre-Bleach, and it wouldn’t have had time to organically develop, and I still feel that it’s, even in today’s world, important as far as that whole process—to not be under a microscope after the first demo, having time to make an album and tour in the Northwest and play clubs and do all that grunt work that’s still part of it. So I still feel that record companies and independent labels are important into the process of breaking art even though said bands can make an album in their studio and put it up on iTunes, but there are a million of those. How’s that going to resonate? How’s that going to stand out just because you have the opportunity to do it?

Aaron Axelsen: That’s the biggest misconception is that people feel that because of the accessibility I can make an album in my room. I think technology, as amazing and important as it is to the evolution of the music business, I think it’s also downgraded the quality of music at some point. Why do I need to work with John Vanderslice, a good producer? Why do I need to go to Different Fur studios? Fc*k it, I’m going to go in my bedroom with Jimmy and my friend down the street and Pro Tools, and we’re going to make an album.

Axelsen: In the old days, if you were on tour, you’d go to the local mom and pop store and hang up posters. It’s a lost art form. Breaking a band is the perfect amalgamation between traditional outlets and embracing new media. That’s the perfect balance, and I think a lot of people forget the brick and mortar. The best of both worlds is embracing both.

Tim Westergren: I think you have to be prepared to play live a lot. I think it’s going to become ever more difficult to have a substantial career unless you can really perform live and you’re game to travel a fair bit.

Aaron Axelsen: There are a million outlets to get your music out there. But I still feel it’s not to the point where it’s in lieu of the traditional grind of getting your band on the road and connecting with an audience and touring and radio and promo and press. The fundamentals I still believe exist, the core of what it takes to break or develop and artist still exists. But it’s been enhanced now. Back in the day, you get signed to a record label and they would do all the marketing. Now you can do so much on your own. And that part is amazing as far as the progression of developing an artist.

Axelsen: Some people think, “It’s easy! I can get my video on YouTube, and I broke!” It’s such a transient world. It comes and goes so quickly. I still feel that the average audience connects with people if there really is a talent, if they really have something good to offer. The merit of the artist is still vitally important. Just because you have all these outlets to promote it doesn’t mean they’re going to like it. It’s just so saturated. I still get sent 300 CDs a week! You think the average listener or the average music consumer wants to listen to MP3s a week? F*ck, no. They go to their outlets they trust, whether it’s a Live 105, a KCRW, a Rolling Stone, Spin, Pitchfork, or Stereogum. They use things that they trust. They want that writer to go through 300 MP3s and pick the five best. And that’s the biggest misconception. Because of there’s Internet radio, because there’s Pandora and Spotify. They’re great outlets, but still, it’s not in lieu of perfecting your craft and really having something to offer.

PJ Bloom: I’m a strong believer in touring. I think that’s the best way to get out there in front of your fans, build a fan base, have them get excited about your music, hone your live show, hone your songwriter, and you get paid. If you have a song or a picture of yourself on the road somewhere that you want to Tweet and you want all of your Twitter followers to receive that with one keystroke, that’s amazing. But I don’t think it’s a replacement for touring, I don’t think it’s a replacement for merchandise or licensing your music or selling records. It’s just one component in the whole picture.

Palmer: I was actually expecting that it would be more of my independently wealthy fans who would say, “Oh, sure, I’d love for Amanda Palmer to play in my living room. Here’s five grand.” But instead, they surprised me. And they created all of these Facebook groups and all connected through different social media, and they banded together fervently and sort of did all the work for me unbidden because they love it.

Palmer: A huge part of the creation of this album and the tour that goes along with it is that we’re making everything crowd-source centric. So the name of the album is Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra: Theatre Is Evil. And that’s kind of a nod to the fact that we are literally going to be crowdsourcing musicians in every city in which we tour. So in every city we will have used the Internet as a tool to get string players, horn players, stage hands, and then we’re going to be putting our show together locally, uniquely in every single city.

Palmer: [I feel like I have underestimated people.] Yeah, I feel like the f*cking music industry and bands in general have been underestimating people for years. The music industry sort of approached the entire system of selling music as, “How much can we charge and how much can we get away with and how do we trick people out of their money” instead of keeping things reasonable. No wonder it imploded. It didn’t make any sense, and it wasn’t a facilitated collaboration between the artists and their audiences. It was more like highway robbery with the labels taking the largest cut.

Amanda Palmer:To be serious, the label system isn’t dead. And I think what is going to happen is the labels are going to morph into more of a marketing entity because I certainly couldn’t be doing this on my own. I clearly have a team of people working for me, who are in some sense functioning as a defacto record label. There’s just a record label that works for me instead of the other way around. They are more helping me run my own record label, and I’m calling the shots, and together, we’re making a plan. But someone still needs to be art department. Someone still needs to work on the mass mailings going out. Someone still needs to work on the mass mailings going out. Someone still needs to figure out a distribution [plan] for Japan. Someone still needs to do that crap. So I think what’s going to happen is that instead of bands working for labels, labels are going to work for bands. [Regarding innovation versus gimmicks,] by definition, the gimmick isn’t sustainable, so I see crowdfunding as a system as being absolutely sustainable. Artists have just been sitting around hoping and praying for the tools that we finally now have to go direct. So thinking that Kickstarter or crowd funding is a gimmick is about as ridiculous that the Internet was a gimmick. It’s a powerful tool. Like I said, the platform and the company may change, but the innovation is as significant as MySpace and Bandcamp and the moment in time when the tide turned and artists were able to upload their music to the Internet and share it with millions of people. That wasn’t a gimmick either. That changed the game. And the fact that artists are now able to use the platform and go directly to their audiences to easily solicit capital, that’s not going to change either. It’s not going to go away.

D.A. Wallach: As physical album sales have plummeted over the years and piracy ran rampant, it’s been tough for artists to scrape by without a desk job. Part of the challenge here is that we’re dealing with the changing landscape for artists in terms of how they’re able to monetize their content and generate a living for themselves. So I don’t blame people for using these things as a purely promotional outlet because the ones that predated it seemed to have disappeared in many cases. That being said, I do think that there’s a huge power to giving, and in particular, giving artwork. So the thing that by far gets the biggest impact is when we put out songs or when we put out videos. So it’s sort of incumbent upon artists to create more than they ever have, and that’s enabled by the fact that there’s been such a proliferation of home recording gear and you have this ability to make way more stuff at a much lower cost. So I think the smartest strategy for anyone looks something like the way Lil’ Wayne grew, which was basically, he put out nonstop music. Every four weeks there was a new 20-song album. Yeah, but it worked. The fact was that people felt like they were always getting something. And when he put out an album, effectively every 10 albums he’d put out one that was an “official” album, and a million people would buy. Yeah, there were mix CDs, but effectively, they were 45 minutes of new Lil’ Wayne music that you’d never heard before.

Westergren: I just think these days, one person can do an awful amount of damage with a good product. Knowing what I know now, I think I could take just about any band that is talented and I could give them a lifelong career. There are so many ways to magnify. I think the challenge for musicians most of all is, that a musician is first and foremost an artist, and it’s what they love, it’s what they’re good at. And they don’t tend to be marketing people or customer service people. They’re really about writing and performing music. If I was a young band who wanted to really get rolling, I’d find a college student or recent college band who loves our band and has chops, and I’d give them ownership of marketing for the band. And essentially, they find ways to amplify what the musicians do, take advantage of all these opportunities online, of all the ways to talk and communicate, promote, etc. And it may not be a full-time job, but it’s pretty damn close, and you give them a share of the band, the same that everybody else gets…. And then you have other things that the band needs to be successful, and those you should outsource, and by outsource I mean actually give to somebody who’s part of the band. And whatever that role is, however you define it, it’s “the rest,” it’s “You’ve got a record, what now?” You start building fans through live shows, and you cultivate those fans. You figure out a way how to help them help you, and that’s very doable if you do it well. You solicit it.

PJ Bloom: Let’s say they have 100 bands or 1,000 bands on their label. So I can make one phone call or send one email and have a brief conversation about my needs, and they’re going to go ahead and research…. There are a 1,000 bands on their label that they’ve already pre-vetted on my behalf. Now, the problem with an individual or a band trying to make those inroads is, if it’s an emerging act that has one brand-new album and they reach out to me or I even take the time to reach out to them, I gotta hope that this one band out of the 12 songs that they have on this one record, something’s going to fit my needs. And that’s just not the best use of my time. In my world, not having the business behind your music together when you’re trying to license your music to me. People in my field move very quickly. We have deadlines. We have people that we work for and we serve, so everything happens very quickly, and these opportunities as you acknowledge are really rare. When you get an opportunity to be in a television show or be in a movie or be in a video game, it just doesn’t happen very often.

PJ Bloom: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been the guy who’s reached out to the artist or reached out to the band and said, “Hey, I have your music. I found a spot for you,” and they just don’t have the business part of it ready to go, meaning they don’t have songwriter agreements together. There was a guy in the band who wrote 25% of the songs who’s not in the band anymore. They don’t know who he is. Or I can’t reach the band at the time that it needs to happen, or they don’t really understand pricing structure. Or they’re way out of range on the fee. Or there’s a sample on the song that they didn’t clear. There’s a variety of different business issues come up all the time, and we gotta move on. I think a lot of bands and a lot of artists are so image conscious, they’re focusing so much on how they look or how they’re perceived by people instead of actually getting out there in front of people.

PJ Bloom: [Synchronization is] still a great source of exposure and promotion. It can be a great source of income. I don’t necessarily think it’s something that a band or an artist themselves can manage. So it behooves an artist or a songwriter to have a synchronization partner. Maybe it’s a publisher, maybe it’s record label, maybe it’s a placement house of some kind. But to infiltrate that market, it needs to go through somebody who has those relationships and has those connections. That way the whole idea of being successful in synchronization can be more targeted and focused.

Wallach: Once we reach that break even, all the listening they do beyond that is additional, incremental additive revenue for me as an artist. So I’m actually very hopeful about the future of monetizing recordings and monetizing publishing as an artist because I think we’re moving back into a world where not only do most people start paying for music again, and you gotta remember, most people don’t pay anything for music. So not only are people going to be paying for music in much greater numbers, but they’re going to be paying for it in a much fairer, more rational way, which is when they listen to it.

Wallach: I think any artist who isn’t embracing streaming is making a mistake because anyone who uses a service like Spotify, or our competitors even, realizes that it’s an incredible, convenient, and magical way to access the world’s music, and I think the mistake that the industry had made in the past 15 years vis-à-vis Napster and other services like that was to try and punish consumers for getting the music the way they liked it. And obviously, I don’t think it’s a good thing for people to explicitly be stealing artwork from artists. But on the flipside, right now what we’re now seeing is this new medium for the distribution of music, and millions of consumers are embracing it and love it and are finally paying for music because they actually believe that this is so convenient and so portable and so exciting that it’s worth paying for. And there have been a couple notable artists like Coldplay or Adele who have chosen to withhold their music from the streaming services for a period of time, and I think that’s a big mistake. I’m dealing with hundreds of artists at Spotify and the folks who are embracing it and are trying to figure out cool things to do with it as sort of a new canvas I think are the artists who understand the internet and understand how technology changes art. The premise of these folks’ argument is basically this hypothetical consumer who is on Spotify or on Rdio or one of these things and they go and they search for the new Coldplay record, so they run to the store and buy it. And we don’t see any evidence that this person really exists. I don’t doubt that the biggest fan of an artist doesn’t do that, but I think what happens much more typically is… my girlfriend was a huge Coldplay fan. She went to the last tour for the last album, and now she’s a habitual Spotify user, and when the album came out, she searched for it, it wasn’t there, and she just said, “Okay, I’m going to listen to something else.” And she didn’t go to this Coldplay concert because she hasn’t listened to the album. She as a fan of music has 16 million songs at her fingertips. So it’s a great thing for an artist to be able to capture her attention, but when she doesn’t find something, she’s not going to go on a wild goose chase to go and find it. So as an artist, however my fans want to get my music, with the exception of illegal downloading, which I don’t really embrace, I want to get it to them in that place. And anyone who is out there buying my physical CD at this point is doing it as collector’s item or a gesture of support. It’s not that they need to. This is the conversation we’re having with all sorts of people right now, and it’s the conversation that iTunes had to have 10 years ago. They were viewed, by the way, as debundling the album. So you saw the average purchase price of music from $18 to 99 cents. iTunes basically marshaled in the biggest evaporation of financial value that the industry’s ever seen. And again, I don’t think it was a bad thing for consumers, but when they launched, I think they had two million songs only because so many people were opposed to the model and thought it was the end.

Wallach: And as more and more users come into a streaming model… I mean, right now, something like Spotify, we’re only talking about 10 million people in the whole world who are using. And when we project out user growth, if we get to the scale of a service like iTunes, or even if we get as big as Netflix in terms of paying subscribers, we’ll be generating for a typical artist as much as iTunes currently does. And I think that’s an achievable goal.

Wallach: It’s something that we’re trying to spin into a product that anyone can access. But at the moment, we’ve built this team that I lead called Artists Services. And the idea there is that we’ve got a public email address,, and anyone can write to us. We don’t care if they’re a garage band that has their music on the service or if they’re Britney Spears. And we try to help them by giving them some of that data. So right now it’s a very human, manual process, but we’re trying to product-ize it.

Westergren: We’ve experimented putting on small shows where we invite people geographically proximate who thumbed up the music playing there that night or even thumbed up a piece of music like it. And we bring people out of the woodwork. And in theory, that can be done on an ongoing basis for a lot of people. So I think that that’s where my head is in terms of what’s in the future. It’s data. It’s how do you musicalogically target and geographically target, how to you bring that to bear on the challenges for everyday artists, like bringing people to shows.

Axelsen: A sense of entitlement a lot of times plagues bands, too. Bands get frustrated or angry: “Why are you playing my record, Aaron?” You can’t get frustrated over it, too. You have to understand the audience and that they have a life. Most people don’t sit around and listen to music all day. Music is a core part of their life, but it’s not all-encompassing. They have kids or they go to work. You have to find ways to enhance their lives or integrate music into their lives. That’s kind of what I do in programming a radio station is understanding that. Not everyone is sitting around looking at Stereogum for 10 hours a day, not everyone is sitting around on Pandora building all the coolest indie playlists. The average person, they like music, but it needs to complement what they’re doing. They need us to do the heavy lifting. They need the good writers, the good producers, the good radio DJs, those are the tastemakers.

Coyne: I would say to any artist or musician, “Do what you must do and let the rest take care of itself because you can’t control what people like and don’t like.” There are plenty of great artists out there I know who are never going to make any money at what they do. And there are plenty of what I consider half-assed artists that make tons of money. So it’s not designed to be fair. But I’m not really doing it for those reasons.

Wallach: There are a number of people who are really good at making YouTube videos covering other people’s songs, and some of those people have promise or mature talent as songwriters themselves, but a lot of them don’t. But I do think it’s challenging for some of these folks to create these massive followings doing cover songs and then to transition that into their own work because the brand they’ve built at that point is basically a cover song brand.”

Bloom: “It’s an expensive endeavor, but I can’t think of any better way than touring to achieve that connection between the band and the fanbase that has the ability to provide that income stream.

Westergren: There’s a wealth of ways now that you can talk to your fans, and I think the challenge for musicians most of all is, that a musician is first and foremost an artist, and it’s what they love, it’s what they’re good at. And they don’t tend to be marketing people or customer service people. They’re really about writing and performing music. I think that they need to invest in someone to do that for them if they don’t want to do it, someone to help them. I think of it as a digital fifth Beatle, where the Beatles had George Martin. You need someone who essentially takes responsibility for that part of your life. If I was a young band who wanted to really get rolling, I’d find a college student or recent college band who loves our band and has chops, and I’d give them ownership of marketing for the band. And essentially, they don’t play an instrument, but what they do do is they find ways to amplify what the musicians do, take advantage of all these opportunities online, of all the ways to talk and communicate, promote, etc. And it may not be a full-time job, but it’s pretty damn close, and you give them a share of the band, the same that everybody else gets. That what I would do now. I do think that one of the traps today is that just because you can do so many things doesn’t mean you should do them as an artist. You can wind up spending way too much time on the administrative part of your career, and you kind of lose the inspiration artistically. You know, the well dries up and you don’t marinate in your creativity enough, and the web is a trap in that regard for sure.

Coyne: A lot of people say, “I want to do this now, but what do you think will happen?’ It’s like, ‘F*ck, I don’t know. You have to be in the moment if you’re doing art, or your art becomes a bunch of safe bullshit.” There have been plenty of times when I’ve been around my friends and family and I wanted to kill them. I’m glad I didn’t. But in my music, I would kill them! You have to live the truth as it’s happening to you. Don’t play it cautiously.