Don't Expect Other People to Make It Happen for You
DIY Panel — Part 2, TAXI Road Rally 2005

Edited by Michael Laskow


Lydia Hutchinson — Moderator, Publisher/Editor, Performing Songwriter Magazine

Fett — Indie Engineer/Producer

Derek Sivers — Founder/CEO, CD Baby

Gilli Moon — Indie Artist

Tony VanVeen — Executive Vice-President of Sales & Marketing, Disc Makers

Mike Farley — Publicist for Indie artists

Dear Readers,

I thought this would be a three-part series until I began to edit Part 2 and saw quite a bit of repetition. Now it's a two-part series, and even more insightful and powerful. Enjoy!


Lydia: Gilli, would you please give us some different ideas about pooling resources and pulling a community together in ways that can further your career?

Gilli: I want to preface that. Fett and Derek just said some amazing things. I think that to be DIY means, for me first and primarily, that you do not expect—expect, that's the key word here—other people to make it happen for you, that you are at least an autonomous individual, that you are a go-getter, that you will go out there and do whatever it takes to do whatever you want to do in your life.

There are three mottos that I live by: One is, it's a lifelong journey being an artist, and you are here for life to do it. If you're that passionate about it—you need to be passionate about it—you've got your life to do this.

Two, it is about being an artist and a business person, and what I'm going to talk about is the networking part of it and being community-driven, and it is about putting that business cap on.

And, three, define that success on your own terms. Because, first of all, if you don't know what you really want, it's not going to ever come to you.

So that being said, I'm always on the road, and I never used to be. I used to just be in L.A.

But the first thing I needed to do was get out of town to really expand my career—whatever that means. So the computer became my friend. I love the computer. It's like my boyfriend. That is why I'm single. I'm up in the middle of the night on the Internet. I cross links—other artists come and listen to me, I'll put links on my site and I'll go and link with them. I join all the discussion groups.

The independent music business is about relationships. Actually, business in general, life, in general, is about relationships. And so the people that you meet, even today, may be the most important person that you'll need in the future. And by that I say that you can also be offering something to them, because—you know what—in this town, in this business, and in this life, it's not about what they can do for you, it is certainly about what you can do for them first and foremost. And the minute you start thinking that way every time you meet someone, "Hmm, how can I help this person? What have I got that I can offer to them?" Or take an interest in what they do, and all of a sudden just by osmosis they'll become interested in you and you form a relationship.

So I started gig-swapping. I got on the Internet with discussion groups. "Hey, I'm coming to New York. Anyone got a show?" You know, a lot of artists these days are hosting their own little mini shows and showcases, and that's a really great way to perform because you don't have the headache of the venue bringing 50 people—just the business end of it. You can come and be part of someone else's thing, cross-collaborate with your fan base, meet so many more people, and then, of course, do the same for them when they come to L.A. Gig-swapping is really cool. Sharing gigs is great. If you've got a residency in a town and people are touring, be open to having them on your bill, and you can do the same with them.

So touring is cool. I always promote the idea of regional marketing. If you think too big and go, "I just want to blanket America," which is usually pretty impossible for an independent artist because you need big dollars. It's better to just start small and start a spiral effect. Start in one region and blanket that region, see if you can get some gigs. I've been able to meet people at local radio stations that I can keep going back to, because they are also normal lovers of music in those independent public broadcast, non-commercial kind of stations. They love music still, you know. So they are the relationships you need to build.

The industry is not out there, the industry is in here. Let's say we're in a room of 20 people. The industry would be right there where you are. You can find so many resources from each other without having to think that they, this unknown they, is going to come along.

Lydia: I wanted to ask Tony probably a rather difficult question, although for you it probably won't be. The fact that the independent world is not for everybody, how do you come to the point of accepting that, and what are your other options then if you know you don't want to be in charge of the business side of things, you want to create, and that's that? What are your options?

Tony: That is a difficult question. When you're an artist, when you're a creative type, if you think about the business side, usually the first thought that comes to your mind is, "This really sucks." Learning to do the business stuff is equally as hard as being a great songwriter or artist.

Somebody once gave me this advice: "The stuff that you don't want to do, that's the stuff that needs to be done the most. That's what's known as the hard work. And there's a difference between working hard and doing the hard work." The fact is you have to do both of those.

So, when do you decide whether the creative side is not for you, or the business side is not for you? I don't know that there is a real point that you decide that. I think it just kind of comes to you. We talk about networking. I mean I hate the word networking. To me networking conveys like, "Try to meet as many people as you can, suck them dry for whatever they can offer you, and move on to the next person. You know?"

So it is about relationships, it is about offering value. You have to have something of value to offer them and they have to have something of value to offer you. You don't have to have the upper hand every time or get more out of them than they get out of you. Build relationships, hang out, shoot the shit, just talk about regular stuff, and get to know folks, then just offer something of value in return. Make those phone calls. Do what you gotta do.

Fett: I'd like to re-emphasize a theme up here that hopefully didn't go right past you, but the most important question you can ask anyone that you need something from in the music industry is, "How can I help you?" One of the things we definitely notice in the media, and I understand it because we're all supposed to be out there promoting our artistry and our musical works, but a lot of times people will contact us at the magazine and it's all about them. "I have this gig. I have this CD coming out. I just did a DVD. I wrote a book. What can you guys do for me?" They never, ever say, "How can I help increase subscription for you guys in my city?" or "Do you need somebody to write an article on a particular topic that I might be able to help with?" or "If you guys are going to a conference like the TAXI Road Rally, do you need somebody to help distribute magazines?" When you're in that seat, just ask yourself every time you contact someone who can help you, how can I help them in return? It will solidify a relationship very quickly.

Derek: I think some of that comes from being a musician where you are so used to kind of being on stage and it always being about you and shouting your personal feelings into a public address system. When you're songwriting you're diving deep into your self to kind of like discover how you feel about something and try to express it. And you spend so many of your waking hours like that, it's hard to turn that off and not be an entertainer for once. Every time I come to L.A. ... there's a certain type here. It's kind of like this actor/musician type that really doesn't know how to talk about anything but themselves anymore because they've been performing for so long. You've got to learn how to turn that off, and instead of being like, "me, me, me," just ask people questions.

Lydia: I want to ask Mike to tell us a success story of one or two of the bands that you've worked with. After this, I'm gonna take some questions from you all for our panel.

Mike: I want to talk about two artists that I'm currently working with. One of the themes yesterday when I was mentoring was... People were asking me, "Am I too old to be doing this?" Let me tell you, don't let any industry person tell you that you're too old to do anything in this business.

I have a band that I'm working with called Red Wanting Blue. They're from Columbus, Ohio, and they have been together for about 10 years now. They formed when they were in college, and they're now in their early 30s. These guys are just now getting to the point where they're starting to get major labels' attention, and they're starting to do showcases and that kind of thing. They have released five albums on their own; they sell a shit-load of them on the road; they just work really hard at what they do; and they put on an amazing live show. But the key is these guys are all like bartenders, waiters, and they do what they have to survive and to continue to make music they way that they want to. The theme of this is charting your own course, and these guys have definitely charted their own course. And they're in their 30s, and nobody's telling them they're too old.

Another one that I'm working with is a singer/songwriter from the San Francisco area. Her name is Megan Slankard. She's also a TAXI member. I want to talk about ways that you can think outside of the box and build a buzz on your own. One of Megan's band members submitted her to the TV show What Not to Wear to get a makeover, because she's this little hippie chick wearing her little Elmo T-shirts and Converse All-Stars. So Megan got a makeover and went on national TV. The show has since re-aired, and they've had follow-up shows. Well, every time that show airs Megan gets like 60,000 Web hits, and her CD sales have topped 20,000, and she's an independent artist, not on a label. Megan was in the top three on Amazon.com, and I think was probably a top seller on Derek's site for awhile. She's really talented—I mean, that's part of it—but somebody in her band thought outside the box...

Derek: You don't get extraordinary results without extraordinary actions.

Lydia: Thanks. I love those stories. We've got five or six minutes to take a few questions.

I'm Tom from Ventura, California. I have a general question that probably Tony and Derek will be interested in, but maybe the rest of the panel, too. In marketing, if you're not a touring artist, if you're like the home kitchen-style electronic musician, what would you say about the comparison between CD Baby, The Orchard, and Amazon.com? How would you compare these as far as getting a professionally made CD and getting it advertised—assuming people haven't heard your CD yet? Could you tell us a little about it and what the experience has been?

Derek: The things you mentioned are just the super-basics. I don't mean this as insulting in any way, but those are like no-brainers. You press up your CD; you put it up for sale. Duh. Creation and distribution are the no-brainer parts. Where it gets interesting is how you're going to reach the world. You have to know that it can be done, though. I know that lots of times you hear, "You have to be touring to really reach your fan base." But anytime somebody is telling you that it has to be a certain way, there are always so many things to prove them wrong. There are so many examples of artists who have gotten huge without ever touring. I think one of the best-selling albums on CD Baby ever is an artist from Estonia, the little country between Finland and Russia. He's never left Estonia, he couldn't afford to. But he put together an album with a really good niche to it. I think when you're not going to be touring like that, it's not about being face-to-face with people and creating this great direct connection, then your album itself has to be so remarkable, but also has to be very sharply niched.

I use the metaphor that if you think of the fog of people's attention out there in the world and you want to find a way to kind of cut through the fog and get people's attention, it's hard to cut through something when you're well-rounded. If you want to cut through, you need to create a very sharply defined project.

Find a way to put together sharply niched projects and use the power of publicity. Reach out to the media, and check out the book called Guerrilla P.R. by Michael Levine. It talks about getting into the mindset of the media and having something sharply defined that will make it easy for you to get publicity. I think if you're not touring, publicity is going to be your greatest weapon.

Fett: One of the biggest misconceptions among artists, particularly if you're a performing artist, is, "If I could just get distribution, my product will sell." And nothing could be further from the truth. You can get your product distributed, you can get it into stores, but the distributor in the stores—whether it's CD Baby or brick-and-mortar stores—they're merely a channel to fill the demand that you create, and that's the hard work that you have to do.

Gilli: I don't even put a CD in a store unless I know there's going to be a demand because, you know, the artist pays the shipping returns. So why pay that return? It's better to be in the system and then create a buzz in that area, then once the demand is there, create the CDs for them.

Fett: I'd like to add one very specific thing you can do here. The whole theme that we're talking about here is being able to distinguish yourself from everybody else. That's classic marketing 101. But one way you can do it, especially if you're not a touring artist... First of all, you have to have a Web site, but having a Web site is not the key. It's getting the Web site out there in a way that you're not going to be washed in with everybody else. So instead of putting your Web site up under your name, you come up with an interesting nomenclature to describe what you do, then really, really learn about search engines, and what keywords to put in your Web page and where, because there are two different areas in your Web page you can put them. Come up with a term like "Mr. Zantastic," something that no one's every heard of before, because if people are looking for your name, there could be thousands of people like you. But if you can just get the word out there about who you are, and you get it to the top of all the search engines, you'll immediately have your community coming to you instead of you having to go out and tour to get to that.

Lydia: We are out of time. There's so much to say on this. I hope you all will leave here realizing all the possibilities that are in front of you. It's a hopeful, hopeful time to be independent. Make it great. Thank you all so much.

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