Career Tracks: Chi McClean, Part 2
In Part Two of my conversation with indie singer-songwriter Chi McClean we discuss the importance of building personal relationships with fans and industry partners and the challenges of doing it all yourself…
Chi is currently recording his second record. You can find out more about Chi on his website: www.chimcclean.com and pick up his music at CD Baby, Amazon.com, and the iTunes Store.
You are handling PR and marketing yourself. What’s working for you? How do you decide the best ways to invest your time?
CM: I pick my battles. If I’m going out on a tour, I’ll look at those markets, figure out what the weeklies are (and) target the music writers who have been writing stuff I genuinely like. You have to show that you are interested in them. For example, I got this great review in the San Francisco Chronicle. I liked this guy’s style of writing. I liked the artists that he covered. In my email to him I told him, “I really enjoyed (your) article about so and so, I heard him on KFOG, but this other guy (you) recommended I’d never heard of. I checked out his music and it’s awesome, a great find. What other artists could you recommend? Incidentally I just came out with a new CD (laughs). Do you ever write about independent musicians?” Within ten minutes I got an email back. I know that’s a total exception to the rule, because it’s so much about luck, but I think that stuff helps.
You never know what people are going to be interested in. You have to figure out what’s unique and original, and different about you. For me, when I’m going up and down the coast it can be surfing. There’s a guy who has a surfing blog and is also a music writer. We happened to connect through a booking agent. We start talking about surfing and next thing you know he’s doing a feature on me. That helped me promote the shows in the area. It’s challenged me to think about the other stuff I do that might be of interest to people. You have to figure out, what’s the story? Is there something deeper to tell?
Are you using Facebook and Twitter to stay in touch with fans?
CM: Facebook is the most productive for me. I use it for all of my show invites. Sending an email blindly, often times you just get nothing. With Facebook you have an opportunity to re-engage people. I use Twitter. I use Posterous. It’s free. You can set it up to feed Twitter, Facebook, your own blog, any number of social networking sites. I’ll take a photo with my phone of a set list or a marquee. It’s a really easy way to get stuff up there.
Are you blogging? Do you get a lot of comments?
CM: More often than not I’ll get comments on the blog posts on Facebook. I try to do it every day. Sometimes I run out of time, or the surf is really good! (laughs). It’s important to do it every day. You have to give people a reason to come back to your site.
Have you found it helpful to attend industry seminars?
CM: The first time I went to SXSW was really cool. So much of this business is common sense but it takes on a different tone when you hear it from somebody else. There were some demo listening panels that were helpful. The discussions on music publishing and licensing were interesting. I went again last year (and) felt that the panels didn’t change enough. The networking was helpful, not even talking about music. At the end of the conversation you exchange cards (and) both realize you can help each other in some way. I found out about the unofficial showcases. You just have to meet a couple of people then suddenly you’re showcasing SXSW. (It) means a lot when you can put that on your Sonicbids gig calendar.
West Coast Songwriters has been very helpful. They have monthly songwriting competitions. You get feedback from judges and get the temperature of the local songwriting scene. You can see who’s doing what, figure out if there are other people you might want to share the bill with.
How do you update your email list?
CM: I get fans on Facebook or ReverbNation, but mostly it’s going out and playing shows. One of the toughest things, especially if you’re traveling alone, is to pack up quickly and get out there and start working the crowd, selling CDs, giving away stickers, getting people on the email list. If people like you they want to know where you’re playing again. If you go out and talk to them you meet some pretty cool people. That’s the way to build a meaningful list of people that are going to stay your fans.
Are you selling more CDs or downloads?
CM: (Online) I’m selling more downloads than physical CDs. The CD Baby admin tool tells you who streamed (or) downloaded what song from what service, and your net earnings. Whenever I tour I see a spike in CD sales and downloads. I sell CDs on the road when I’m playing.
Are you giving away music or using freemium strategies?
CM: I haven’t yet and I’m trying to figure out if I want to for this next one. I’m thinking it may be an added value; if you buy the CD, you also get something that wouldn’t be on the record like a solo acoustic performance. I want to get something in return if I’m giving something. I gave away pint glasses at shows if you signed up on the email list. That’s relatively cheap for a good email contact. People want to support you but you have to give them choices.
Are you getting terrestrial and/or Internet radio play? How’s that driving traffic to your gigs?
CM: I’m getting a little college radio through places that I’ve played. There are Chi McCLean stations on Pandora and Last.fm.
Showcase gigs are sometimes 40 minutes or less. You plan something for the day, playing in a bookstore or a radio interview to promote the show that night. Also, rallying the people who are on your email list. It’s about giving people a reason to come back and see you again. It can be hard to find time to really meet (fans) and hang out. When people come out to see your show it means a lot, especially in a town like LA.
Where are you seeing the most revenue, live shows, CD sales, downloads?
CM: It’s gigs. That’s where I connect with people and sell CDs. You drive people to the online stuff when you’re not touring in their area.
Are you pursuing a traditional record deal? What are your thoughts on the pros and cons for your career today and in the future?
CM: It would be really helpful in some ways; a marketing machine to help build a brand identity, (getting) bookings as a supporting act for a more established artist…there is stuff to be gained but you give up a lot in terms of ownership. I’d like to do that but it would all depend on the contract. At the level I’m at right now there is no reason I can’t build my own team. You need to have an established business before they (labels and managers) are going to consider you.
Have you been using online marketing platforms like Topspin or Nimbit?
CM: At the level I’m at ReverbNation is (a good fit). Topspin is really interesting. I’m on all these online sites but I don’t know anything about the person who is streaming or buying downloads. For the physical sales CD Baby gives me an address and an email. That’s great. I can send thank you notes and collect that data. It’s weird not being able to correspond with your customers. With Topspin I think you can. One of the things I’m looking at for this next record is crowd-sourcing.
One of the biggest challenges for me is time management. Where should you be spending your time? I think the answer is, on everything! You can’t afford to not do anything. You need to keep writing music and practicing. You need to book shows with a minimum two to three month lead time. You need to send out posters, make phone calls to confirm, reach out to the press. You need to keep reaching out to your fans and remind the venue that you’re coming and make sure everything’s good. You have to figure out a place to stay and how you’re making money to pay for all this stuff (laughs). None of it is hard in and of itself, but it’s an exercise in time management, discipline, and follow up. It is easy to feel like you’re getting nowhere then when it rains it pours. Somebody you have been contacting for a year suddenly has a slot. You go down, play a gig and establish a (long-term) relationship. The sales pipeline is so unpredictable. One guy said he had 100 MySpace messages a day. Even if you write the best email and your music is awesome, what’s the likelihood that he will even see your email?
What are your priorities in building a team? What questions would you ask to vet potential partners?
CM: Before you do anything with PR you have to have something to talk about. You need a record, then you book shows. The first thing for me would be a booking agent and a PR team to send out posters and contact local press. Booking shows that are pairing me up with people on that next level, bigger venues, getting me more exposure. I’m doing OK on my own but I’d much rather be playing every night.
I’m a lot further along (than a year ago). Exposure will ultimately be the most valuable thing to me in the long term.
Are you going after synch licenses, or writing for other people as revenue streams?How are you managing your publishing catalog?
CM: I went aggressively after music supervisors. “We’ll keep it on file.” (laughs). Who knows? I wish I had bounced instrumental takes of everything from the first record. A lot of places want background music.
I have a song preloaded on a Phillips MP3 player. I retained the relationships I made at Liquid Audio. People get word that you’re trying to do this for a living and they want to help if they can, if they like your music. One friend of mine in that space has been a great supporter of my music. God bless him! You never know. Suddenly you get a phone call, it’s a free thing but there are 50,000 players out there or something. It’s really amazing what some people will do.