Sunday, September 27, 2009

Deep thoughts on my music career

I went down to San Jose last week to do an interview and performance on the NBC Bay Area show Press:Here. The host, Scott McGrew was awesome for making the whole thing happen. The piece aired on TV this morning (its also available on the web here) and one of the interviewers also wrote about it for TechCrunch.

The interview went by so fast, and there was such much I wanted to say that I didn't get in because I was so flustered. Thankfully, that's what blogs are for: a chance to elaborate. Here are some of the questions I was asked, and how I would have liked to answer them if I had had my wits about me and an hour instead of a few minutes.

Thank you Scott McGrew and everyone at Press: Here TV and thank you Sarah Lacy for the follow up story. These things really help, they really do.

Do you feel like you've sold out in licensing your music?

Nope. Basically I think "selling out" is when you compromise your creative ideals in exchange for money. I have never done that, so I don't think I'm selling out.

I've been lucky that the companies who've wanted to use my music are selling things that I approve of, like Apple, Specialized Bikes, and Herman Miller. Second, in every single case, I didn't solicit them. The people making the commercials found me and asked if they could use my already existing music, or if I could tweak something to fit. Thankfully I haven't had a situation yet where I've had moral problems with the company (i.e. Exxon).

The film work I've done has been custom in that I've had to write to the movie. But I don't feel like I'm selling out there either. Directors ask me to write for their films because they want a certain style that I presumably have. I would never compose anything out of character. Its all MY music and I think its recognizable as such. If someone approached me wanting me to write a score of salsa music, well, I'd turn them down...because I don't write salsa music.

How did you get 1 million followers on Twitter?

I've been very upfront about this. I've written about it, the SF Chronicle and Billboard magazine have written about it: I am on the Twitter Suggested User List! I don't know how I got there, or how (or if) I deserve it...but of course its incredible and I'm grateful and I should probably give Twitter a cut of my income if it makes me a lot more money than normal (I don't know yet if that is the case).

I will say however that I don't think this all this is a big deal. I honestly don't believe that 1 million people are listening to everything I say. I use Twitter to talk to whatever subset of that million is my friends, fans and potential fans.

What is great about Twitter is that, like I said in the interview, it allows me to be myself to as many people as possible. Me and my music are the same thing and I've always had this stubborn, egotistical belief that if I just had a chance to get the real me across....people would be interested. The belief that what I'm doing is worthwhile, even if no one hears it, has sustained me through a lot of rejections and hard times.

I doubt my current career would be possible without the internet. Thanks to social networks I can have what feels like a direct relationship with an increasingly vast audience. There is no middleman.

If a label approached you with a huge record contract, would you take it?

No. There are so many reasons....

I can't help noticing that most of the signed musicians I've known are broke or struggling. Those on small labels keep their day jobs. Mid-level bands, they run through their advance quickly and then they make a living by touring constantly so that they can sell t-shirts. It will be several millennia before the amount they owe the record label is recouped out of the band's royalty, and they don't own the recordings. New music/modern classical artists seem to sustain themselves with teaching and maybe performing as they get more well known.

Then there are the bands I know who've been dropped as soon as their sales dip. I know bands who've been majorly screwed by this: they recorded followup albums that never saw the light of day, or had nervous breakdowns. A basic financial decision to a company can feel like a matter of life or death to an artist.

So I've just watched all this and since I'm realistic that my brand of instrumental cello music is never going to go platinum anyway, I might as well save myself some suffering, release it myself and keep all the money.

I didn't always think this way. I used to feel like landing a recording contract was like a "stamp of approval" and I wanted that approval. Back when I was starting out my solo career, Myspace didn't exist yet. The standard wisdom was that the way to success was to build a local following and strive to get the attention of a record label. I spent some time and energy sending my music unsolicited to record labels, agents and managers that I thought would be a good fit for me. Of course I didn't hear back from most of them. I did hear back from two labels that were kind enough to reply. They both said that I didn't fit with the other artists on their roster.

Since then, I've had industry executives tell me very respectfully the following things: my music is interesting but not marketable; my music can't be sold because it doesn't have words & it lacks a single, simple melody for people to latch onto; and I am not young/not sexy enough/too nerdy. I've had classical industry people tell me that my music is too pop. I've had pop industry people tell me my music is too classical. And by the way, what category am I in and can I name any similar artists? The music industry seems entirely focused on releasing albums that are similar to albums that have sold before.

Very quickly, it became clear that I would never fit on any label without serious I stopped trying. I didn't bother to hire someone to craft a "story" that would fit me into a neat little bucket. I just focused on playing music and selling my CDs at shows and on my website, and on Amazon, CDBaby, iTunes, Rhapsody, etc.

I'm not trashing record labels. They perform a useful service for many artists. But I don't think the model works for me. I think of recording contracts as very, very expensive bank loans. In the future, if I need extra money to make an album, I'm more likely to try and raise it by appealing to my fans.

Because there aren't very many mouths to feed, I don't feel any pressure to continually be selling more, more, more. I have never done an ounce of official marketing or publicity. I make enough to pay the mortgage, the bills, go out to dinner and a movie every now and then, go on vacation and save money for the future. I'm not rich, my car is old, but I have enough to live well and not be continually worried about money. That's really all I want. I want to exist and keep making more music. I'm in this for the long haul. Slow and steady is fine by me.

How do you make a living?

I realized that I should probably know the exact percentage breakdown of my finances before I answer questions on television. I just went and looked up all my tax returns, looking from Dec 2005 when I released my Natoma album until today. Averaged over that almost 4 year period, roughly speaking, digital sales have totaled 40% my income. Of the remaining 60%, maybe a quarter of that is physical sales and the other 3/4 is licensing, commissions, performance fees, grants, and royalties. That's all 4 years together. This year physical sales and performance fees are much less because I've spent most of the year in the studio and not performing (that's the deal... if you're out there performing, you sell music, but then you can't write music). But digital sales and licensing has been much higher and made up for it. This year has been my best year ever, I'm guessing because of my internet presence.

I'm optimistic about the future. However, the entire situation is constantly changing and I know I can't keep all my eggs in one basket. So if by this time next year everyone has migrated to subscription music services, I'd better find a substitute for the digital chunk of my income. I don't want to start selling T-shirts, which I've resisted to date. I do know it helps when people know that by purchasing my music they are supporting me directly, that each CD sold is a vote for me to continue as an artist.

Phew! That's it!

I'd love to hear your comments about all of the above!