Sometime in the summer of 2013, I decided to join The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), AKA The Academy®. I had heard it was a great way to network with other local musicians – including Seattle’s own Grammy®-winning writers, producers and artists like Sir Mix-A-Lot, Eric Tingstad and Sue Ennis.
Then, in the fall, on a lark, I decided to see what it was like to submit my music for the 56th (as they call it) Grammys. Just for fun, mind you, and to learn. I have no delusions of grandeur left about the music industry. Well, maybe a few.
The Grammys are the biggest honor in music you can get. I thought it would be interesting to participate in the process and see how it really works first hand, for an indie and from the inside. No PR machine, no label, no manager.
First, I did some research on indie artists who have gotten nominated. There’s been a lot of controversy in recent years, with EDM artist Al Walser and Americana artist Linda Chorney top of mind. This post is not about the controversy of the voting process, however. Believe it or not, this post isn’t even going to cite Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, although Seattle’s own hometown indie artists were nominated for seven (seven!) Grammys, in case you’ve been living under a rock this year.
What is most interesting to me are two things I discovered.
One is a shift, at least for the indie artists, away from the private Grammy365 website to social media sites like Facebook to promote their nominations. Social media is having an effect even on crusty and fairly closed organizations in the music industry like NARAS.
Second is the sheer explosion in both the number of Academy members and number of submissions for nomination, as more and more amateur recording artists and producers have begun creating and marketing their music. This has created not only technical issues for the Academy and its members’-only website, Grammy365.com, but it has also made the annual listening and promotional process within the voting members much more challenging.
For the second half of this two part series, I interviewed Robin Fairbanks, A&R at Seattle’s Setlist Music Solutions. Robin is an amazing music industry resource who has developed, managed and promoted many bands and solo artists across the country.
She has also done just about everything there else is to do professionally in the music industry, including being an on-air radio personality and doing radio sales, online radio programming, original music sales, full-service advertising and PR, booking, and event promotion. In this interview, Robin gives indie artists her perspective and advice on how to be successful in the music industry.
Robin is so engaging, we spent two full hours together talking together, so this is a long interview, but I think it’s chock full of important information.
You may also be interesting in reading Part I in this series, an interview with Robin’s colleague at Setlist Music, Elizabeth O’Keefe.
I recently interviewed two of my favorite, no-nonsense women in the Seattle music scene, Robin Fairbanks (A&R) and Elizabeth O’Keefe (Operations). They are both part of a music consulting company called Setlist Music Solutions, headed up by Sean Hensley, which specializes in artist development and management. Part I of this series offers Elizabeth’s perspective, and Part II will showcase Robin’s point of view. Both of these women have a lot of hands-on experience helping indie artists succeed.
It’s no secret that the options for self-promotion are greater than ever before for musicians. As a DIY independent artist myself, I often find it overwhelming just to understand all the different business and marketing things I need to do on a daily basis in order to be successful – to say nothing of actually getting them all done – and I have an MBA (and experience in marketing!) Like many artists, I fantasize about a record label riding in like a white knight, begging to sign me and to do all the work to promote my career as a musician. While this still happens for some artists, for most of us, it’s important to move forward with the reigns of our careers still firmly grasped in our own sweaty, trembling hands.
So what’s a girl to do when she realizes there is no way she can do it all herself?
The idea of a boutique recording or music label has been around for a while, and has been written about in articles like this in-depth Baltimore City Paper article published in 2010 or in this article about the Arizona-based Cosmica Artists label. While the terms indie label and boutique label often seem to be used interchangeably, a boutique label generally focuses on a small artist roster, or even a single emerging artist. It may even be started and owned by a producer, or the artists themselves. It could be a non-profit artist collective.
The signed artist(s) may do none, or some of their own marketing. The boutique label may or may not act like a traditional label, providing (and funding) most or all of the services an artist needs, from recording to promotion, booking and tour management. Artists may have to pay for some, or all, services provided, but they get to say they are “signed” to a label. Boutique labels will not sign just anyone, but they might take a chance on a relatively unknown artist. The artist and label’s brands are associated with each other. The boutique label generally chooses the artist, not the other way around.
How Important Is Your Live Show To Your Career?
Tom Jackson believes that the most successful artists are those who are amazing live performers. A few weeks ago, Stevie and I attended a two day bootcamp with live music producer Jackson and his team to see how we could improve our own performance. I was not disappointed.
In his many years of experience working with everyone from big name artists like Taylor Swift, The Band Perry, or Jars of Clay to up-and-coming indie artists like the Canadian country duo The Reklaws, Jackson has learned that fans don’t just come to a live show to listen to music. They come to feel emotion. What they crave is to connect with an artist, and to have their lives changed.
As for merchandise, most fans don’t buy a CD because they want to listen to the studio version of the song they heard live. Merchandise, Jackson says, is a prop that help fans relive the emotional moments of a live performance. The merchandise is a memento, and the emotional moments in a show are what it’s all about.
The Steven Spielberg of Live Music Performance
Tom Jackson teaches musicians how to make their live stage show remarkable. He helps artists deliberately create emotional “moments”. Jackson is the Steven Spielberg of live music production. This is the science of stagecraft and performance art. He teaches musicians how to use moments to create true fans, because it’s those moments that bring people back again and again to see your live show. It’s those moments that create the word-of-mouth buzz that propels an artist forward.
Occasionally, I like to interview other musicians who strike me as having an unusual thing going on – whether it is their look, their music, or their marketing. I’m always learning, and it’s great to have role models. When I came across musician Elyas Khan and watched his music video, I thought, huh, here’s a guy who has these elements very together in an unusual way that appeals to me aesthetically.
I think there is a lot of marketing to learn from this actor, dancer, musician, singer and performance artist. He has been Amanda Palmer’s backup band, and Neil Gaiman and Sxip Shirey played bicycle bells on one of his newest songs (read more on that below). Now based in Berlin, Khan is touring Europe in support of his newest release, Brawl in Paradise, produced by Matt Booker. I interviewed Khan via email because I was curious to know more about him and his music. Check out his music video Bells, too, it’s uber cool in so many ways.
S: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Elyas. I was really intrigued when I stumbled across your latest music video, Bells, on Twitter. I couldn’t look away, actually. Then, when I delved deeper into your background, I was further flummoxed. The biography on your website is fairly brief. Can you give us a little history and background on you as a musician? I see from your bio that you were in the Brooklyn-based band, Nervous Cabaret, for many years, and you have a very international background. Can you give us a little more about how long you’ve been making music? Do you have another career (as many musicians do) in another profession, or have you been a fulltime musician your whole life?
E: Now music and composition are my fulltime job. My history as a musician is truly only 10 years old though…Out of high school I only had fantasies about the whole thing and fooled around with a punk band called “The Sarcastic Brats” but the guitar was sold early on, school was abandoned and I worked various jobs just living for the weekend. Buying records, new threads, getting to gigs, watching other guys chase women around and jotting it all down in massive leather-bound journals was what I was up to…I dabbled seriously in film school for a while and did well with my profs.
As with many things in my life at the time I just could not complete the program. 16mm film, processing costs and the time it took was just overwhelming to me. I was already doing a late night shift for UPS and washing dishes at a local bistro to keep my head above…
I forged many friendships with kids that were going to art school and got to pour over their books constantly and then someone approached me at the bistro. That place, The Loring Cafe in Minneapolis, was run by many Guthrie Theater and Children Theater alumni. They were about to adapt Siddhartha by Hermen Hesse for their new theatre venture. I was young and probably the only person they knew with Indian parents so they asked me to audition. I did, along with several hundred people and got the job. That started a long chain of events including dancing for a Ballet company, setting up my own company in Minneapolis called Famine Chorus, moving to New York and studying at Playwrights Horizon and then establishing a very active performance company called The Dean Street Field Of Operation (F.O.O.) and creating tape based, cut up scores with found sound and badly played instrumentals for our shows. The whole time I worked as a delivery boy of various goods (don’t ask) and as a mover (don’t ask). I got my SAG card and if you watch some old episodes of OZ and a number of shit films from the 90′s you just might spot me. The entire time I was intent on getting my head around finessing story telling techniques, theatrically, with film and scoring.