I first saw Paula Boggs perform at a local singer-songwriter hangout, the Soulfood Coffeehouse in Redmond, WA. She seemed totally comfortable on stage, despite the fact that she didn’t look or sound much like any of the other performers that night. It didn’t take more than a single Google search on my iPhone to turn up the fact that she was the former Corporate Counsel for Starbucks, along with having served on the Iran-Contra task force during the Reagan administration. I was intrigued.
I’m always interested in what draws someone with many talents and choices from the corporate world into music. I’ve said several times that learning the music business is harder than getting an MBA – even for someone with an MBA. Those of us who executed “Plan B” first, who had successful careers in other fields, might be tempted to find easier ways to fulfillment, like yoga or volunteering for the PTA. Or to simply look at our music as a hobby. You have to be pretty driven to stick with the music thing.
Paula is on her second album release, coming this March, called “Carnival of Miracles”, so I guess she’s in it to stay.
Here is my interview with Paula Boggs. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Q1: Paula, you made a big transition in 2012 from the corporate world (Starbucks General Counsel) to the political world (Obama campaign) to now focusing on your music. You also have a military background. What do you think are the most relevant skills you have brought to bear from your prior life experiences to help move your music career forward?
PB: There are many life skills and experiences that shape my music career and propel it uniquely forward but I will focus on a couple key ones.
1. The ability to work hard, practice and focus. In my life, whether it was attempting to be a good student, athlete, officer, lawyer, businesswoman or musician, success in part depends on putting in the work. There are no short cuts to perfecting a craft. As a young federal prosecutor, my nickname was “The Laser.” Whatever you think of Kenny G’s music, the fact is, he practices 3 hours every day. I admire that.
2. Whether you’re leading a global organization or band, it helps to have strong people skills, a nose for talent, low tolerance for “drama,” group norms, a sense for when someone no longer “fits,” trust and good communication. Listening. Whether it’s an employee or band member, folks need to get paid on time and it’s important to know the person (and their significant other/family/non-band life) behind the musician. And, most music venues are small businesses trying to make a living. I get that. [Tweet “I’ve had enough failure to learn rainbows can be right around the corner if you’re open to them”]
3. Whether in the corporate world or music, relationships matter. Never burn a bridge, memories can be long, and you never know whose help you’ll need or can give. The lawyer who handles my artistic interests was my law school classmate.
4. Dealing with ambiguity, failure and the naysayers. I’m comfortable dealing with situations with no roadmap;; I’ve had enough failure to learn rainbows can be right around the corner if you’re open to them;; and I’m very good at shutting out and/or managing the negative noise of others or within.
Q2: I’m sure you had a lot of options offered to you to occupy your time and energy after retiring from Starbucks, including serving on a variety of corporate and non-profit boards full time. Why did you decide to pursue a career in music? Was there a specific defining moment for you in making that decision?
PB: I still serve on a corporate (School of Rock, LLC) and two non-profit (KEXP and Johns Hopkins University) boards and give speeches. In fact, I often give a speech before gigs in cities other than Seattle. I also serve on the President’s Committee for the Arts and the Humanities. The defining moment for me was the realization I wanted and could be the “CEO” of my life. Music is a big part of my current life chapter.
Q3: In addition to politics, you have also worked with social and environmental organizations. You also had an international upbringing. Can you talk about how these wider themes have had an impact on both your music and the messages in your music and lyrics?
PB: Two of the greatest gifts I got growing up Roman Catholic were a sense of social justice (“whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers [and sisters] that you do unto me”) and internalizing the music -- both traditional and folk. I sometimes force myself to use major chords (smile) and many songs I write are influenced by what I see and experience.
On our upcoming album “Carnival of Miracles,” two of the songs, deal with end of life, another was influenced by the Newtown tragedy and, though it was written before Ferguson, yet another reflects the voice of an urban African American male teen. Spending my teen years in Europe, where I was exposed to classical, opera, jazz and European rock, has certainly influenced the music I write and perform.
Q4: What is your personal mission at this point in your life and how does your music fit into that mission? If you look forward 5 years, what metrics would you use to define your personal as well as musical success?
PB: My personal goal is to continue being “CEO of my life” and to inspire others to identify the tools to achieve that goal for themselves: What does one need/want in life (as opposed to what others may want for or of you) and once identified, how do you best achieve it? After retiring from Starbucks my spouse and I began raising our niece, now 11. In 5 years she’ll be 16, and I hope our lives, including what I do with music over the next 5 years and beyond, will inspire her to work hard and dream big.
[Tweet “My personal goal is to continue being “CEO of my life” “]
The year 2015 is huge for Paula Boggs Band. We release a record and then tour nationally. Along the way, people will hear our music and me speak about finding one’s “true north” and the importance of music education -- critical in my own life story -- to our children and nation.
Personal 5 year metrics: A thriving 16 year old daughter/niece, a healthy marriage and body, engaged in music and education in ways that work for me and my family, continued growth as a student, parent, spouse, and human; and finding more creative ways to “give back.”
Music 5 year metrics: I would love for our band and music to “matter” and that we make another “soulgrass” record. Four of the six members of Paula Boggs Band have played together for over 7 years and I hope we can keep the magic. I hope we continue to be authentic and adventurous with our music. Like anyone I suppose, I hope critics like us, more people hear us and we’re producing music and a live show worthy of that.
Q5: I’m sure you had a big team working with you at Starbucks to help you accomplish your corporate goals. Do you have a team that helps your promote your music, create your website, do PR for you, run your Facebook and Twitter accounts, advertise your music, etc.?
PB: Yes I do. The LA-based firm 4 Entertainment oversees both www.paulaboggs.com and www.paulaboggsband.net, my speaking engagements, licensing of songs, radio strategy, marketing, our national tour and with lawyer Gary Watson, negotiations with studios, producers, distributors, etc. Gary handles all intellectual property and contracts. To date, I’ve handled most of our social media though as we gear up for the album release, I will have less time to do that myself.
Q6: Can you tell us a little about your social media strategy for promoting your music: Do you use an agency or do it all yourself? Can you tell us about growing your Twitter following to over 12K?
PB: My social media strategy comes from business and life experience, what I’ve read, what I’ve seen others do and honestly, trial and error. I’ve led and lead a life that translates into extensive Facebook and LinkedIn networks. My ReverbNation network is strong and global and we have a few thousand folks on the band’s email list. Let me add, Tor Dietrichson, our percussionist, has an independent but complementary fan base. All of this feeds into Twitter.
I have strong name recognition among organizations or institutions I’m associated or have been associated with -- military brats, veterans, lawyers, Starbucks, Dell Computer Corporation, UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University, KEXP, Obama Campaign, American Red Cross, etc. -- and they are all on Twitter!
I have almost as many band followers in California as Washington State and the biggest age category is 25-35 -- heavy Twitter users. On the flip side, I have relatively few -- less than 600 -- YouTube subscribers. For the band, I’d swap 5000 Twitter followers for 5000 more YouTube subscribers any day. I boost posts about shows and other topics I think followers will find interesting or might inspire new fans -- for example, a live recording of a song or new song. I try to stay relevant with posting without crossing the line into “spamming.” I don’t always get it right.
Q7: Can you talk a little about your NARAS membership and any other music-related organizations you belong to, why you chose to join and the benefits you see to your career in music?
PB: Veteran songwriter Sue Ennis encouraged me to apply for NARAS membership after the band released our first album “A Buddha State of Mind” in 2010, with mostly original music and modest commercial success. Sue was an instructor in UW’s 2005 Songwriters Certificate Program that I took and we kept in touch. I attended the Grammys in 2012 and lobbied Congress on behalf of NARAS in 2013. I have also voted in every Grammys since becoming a member in late 2010. In addition to NARAS, I’ve served on the KEXP advisory board or board for 7 years, sit on the President’s Committee for the Arts and the Humanities, on Peabody Conservatory’s National Advisory Board and School of Rock’s board.
These activities collectively bring me great personal and professional satisfaction. Through NARAS, I’ve met music people I would not otherwise have known and there’s no greater joy than playing a small role in helping a giant talent like Esperanza Spalding get named “Best New Artist” over artists better known. In addition to being board secretary, as co-chair of KEXP’s NEW HOME Campaign, I’m raising funds and helping make the case KEXP is more than a radio station -- it’s one of the best cultural ambassadors for our city, state and region. On the President’s Committee I get to help shape the national conversation in support of music in our public schools.
Q8: What has the most satisfying aspect of your music career been so far and what has been the most frustrating? What musical event or milestone do you feel has been most significant in the past two years?
PB: Satisfying: Working with and getting to know the band members and other professionals who’ve played a critical role in shaping what Paula Boggs Band is today and will be. When we’re really connecting with an audience like when we played Spokane’s Big Dipper last November and the crowd danced the last third of our set. Writing a song the band loves because it just clicks or a fan tells me it moved them.
Frustrating: People assuming we’re not serious or good because I used to be a corporate executive, I and several members of our band are boomers or I/we had a bad night. It’s also frustrating when you don’t hear from venues you’ve reached out to religiously or a band member fails to show up at a rehearsal without letting the rest of us know.
Most significant: Getting to work with Grammy-winning producer/engineer Trina Shoemaker and recording “Carnival of Miracles” at Bear Creek Studios.
Q9: What are your thoughts on the music field today for an artist entering later in life? What advice would you give others thinking of making a similar big change in their life to move from the corporate world to a life immersed in the arts?
PB: It’s easier today for artists, including boomers, to make music and have it heard by someone. The barriers to entry are low. Even so, most boomer artists are heritage artists like Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow or Fleetwood Mac. There are not many of us who are both boomers and emerging artists. It costs a lot of money to make and market an album like “Carnival of Miracles” and most aspiring musicians can’t do it without financial help.
Someone making the switch from corporate life to music will presumably do that either by not relying on music to support them or understanding the inherent risks in making a living from music. Even though the streaming economic model is not working well for many musicians, the subscription model does make album consumption more economically viable -- sort of like “all you can eat” cafeteria-style. And I think it’s great if that causes more people to listen to albums. Consumers will have even more ways to access music and human-curated non-commercial stations like KEXP will become more rare, important and influential in the future.
[Tweet “Human-curated non-commercial stations like KEXP will become more rare”]
Q10: Do you have a musical mentor you rely on to help you?
PB: Fellow band members -- past and present -- teach me all the time and I’ve come to know many musicians and music industry folks at Starbucks, KEXP, School of Rock, Peabody, on the President’s Committee and elsewhere who’ve helped me. My spouse is my biggest fan and constructive critic, has a keen music sense and is a professional artist/graphics designer.
Q11: One thing I have encountered in moving from a more conventional career myself into the world of music is some skepticism from my family. I know your mother was a big influence on you. What does she think of you pursuing music?
My mom loves my music, has been to a couple of the band’s shows and been supportive of my songwriting and guitar-playing since I started at age 10. She’s a retired school principal and has wanted each of her four children to get a college education, find love, work hard and give back. For the most part, she hasn’t cared much how we accomplished that.
Thanks for sharing your perspective, Paula. Where can readers connect with you online, hear more of your music and see you perform?
Readers can always visit www.paulaboggs.com to learn about everything I’m up to or www.paulaboggsband.net to connect with the band, our music and see our gig schedule. Our Facebook Page is Emerging Artist Paula Boggs. You can also follow us on Twitter, and YouTube.
More about Paula: