Musicians Are Natural Entrepreneurs

Berkle article clip imageBerklee Today, the journal for alumni of Berklee College of Music, recently gave me the opportunity to explore the relationship between musical training and the skills of entrepreneurs. I interviewed several Berklee alumni who have gone on to create groundbreaking music technology companies serving independent artists.

Each of these companies provides tools that help musicians distribute music, raise funds and market themselves, but what struck me was the similarity between direct-to-fan and lean startup practices. Direct-to-fan platforms give artists a strong connection with their super-fans, providing valuable feedback and ongoing engagement. In particular, early-stage pre-release platforms like PledgeMusic show artists what their fans value and how they want to be engaged. By the time the funding cycle is complete the artist knows their customer and has had the opportunity to tweak their offerings. Each person I interviewed described their musical training as fundamental preparation for working in a startup environment.

You can read the full issue of Berklee Today here or download a pdf of the article. Please check out each of these inspiring entrepreneurs and their companies. You will be amazed!

Career Tracks: Chi McClean, Part 3

Photo by Andrew Keller

Chi McClean is an independent singer-songwriter currently touring in support of his 2009 release, Something Out There.
In Part 3 of our conversation Chi discusses music publishing, endorsements, branding, and his next release.
How are you handling your music publishing?
CM: I set up McClean Music Publishing. I received my first BMI check a few months ago and it (the importance of publishing) really hit home for me. The more I know, the less I know (about publishing). It’s a labyrinth. I went to a Music Row Magazine awards festival at BMI in Nashville. I also met with Stage Three Music Publishing. (Songwriting ) is huge business down there.
At a certain point whether it’s managers, booking agents, or publishing, it’s about bandwidth and how much you can realistically tackle in a meaningful way. You’re not doing yourself any good if you’re spread too thin. 
What’s the timeline on your new record?
CM: I hope to have it out by the holidays. I think it’s going to be more focused on the songs. We were talking earlier about what people react to. I think it will be a simple, honest record. I’ve found my voice a bit more. There are some good songs here. 
You have endorsements with Taylor Guitars and Elixir Strings. How did you put that together and how have the endorsements worked for you?
CM: Whether I had an endorsement or not, I love my Taylor. (I’ve been playing them) since 1999. I’ve been playing a lot of alternate tunings. On stage it’s a pain to retune in-between songs.  So, I put together a kit. You have to have a press kit, a calendar, an album out,  and show that you’ve got something going on and you’re serious. (Taylor) has been really helpful, not only with guitars but with career advice. Taylor is very well networked. They’ve got Dave Matthews, Taylor Swift, Jason Mraz, Leo Kotke, and Doyle Dykes Signature models. Through them (Taylor Guitars) I got an introduction to the Elixir Strings artist program.
Do you do clinics for them?
CM: I don’t. I’d be delighted to. They’ve been so supportive to me. I give them a shout out whenever I can. I don’t really have to do anything. At gigs people come up to me, “What kind of guitar are you playing? What are those strings?” “Well, it’s funny you should ask…” (laughs). It just sounds really good.
Whatever you’re doing, it comes back to being in the relationship business. I just think it’s really important to try and stay in touch. Simple things, wish somebody a Happy Birthday… I once saw a quote, something like, “They’re not going to remember your music. They’re not going to remember anything about you except how you made them feel.” 
What are your thoughts on the ‘1,000 true fans’ theory? Can you make a living off a dedicated segment of the Long Tail?
CM: I think you can do it but it’s hard. You have to control your expenses at home and be out on the road. If you build that network of places to stay you can make a go of it. 1,000 people is nothing to shake a stick at. If you have 1,000 people you can really communicate with, who will respond to your emails and come to your shows, that’s powerful. I think it’s manageable. You have to control your expenses carefully. I’ve been looking into crowdsourcing. As an independent musician you have to get really creative. 
How do think about your brand?
CM: It’s tricky. I come from a marketing background but my focus has been on the music and getting out there. Keyboardist/singer Dave Yaden has been telling me I need to dress like a rock star and walk like a rock star to the point where the first thing that goes through someone’s mind when they see you on the street is, “What band is that guy in?” If you’re a lawyer you wear a suit. If you’re a baseball player, you wear a uniform. There’s a certain look. If you’re a musician, that’s your job. That really stuck with me. Figure out who you are and go for it. Like my music, I just want to be honest and who I am, but in this day and age everything is so competitive, you have to develop a brand that goes beyond your music. It’s a whole marketing package.
I was fortunate enough to work with the Art Director from the last company who did all my packaging design and developed a logo for me. It’s important to think about what you’re saying with your CD cover, your posters, your emails.
What’s your long range plan?
CM: To keep this sustainable. Make records, keep playing. The plan is to develop a plan (laughs)…
You can find out more about Chi McClean and his music at: www.chimcclean.com

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.

Read Part One of our conversation here

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.

Musician Profile: Putter and VR Smith

Thelonious Monk, James Bond, and a life of music…


Jazz bassist Putter Smith and his wife, singer VR Smith, have devoted their lives to music and the arts. The music room in their South Pasadena home is filled with instruments, original artwork, and oriental rugs; a welcoming refuge from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles.

Putter is a Southern California jazz legend who has worked with an astonishing array of great musicians including: Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Diane Schuur, Lee Konitz, Bruce Forman, Jackie and Roy, Carmen McRae, Gary Foster, Art Farmer, Blue Mitchell, Erroll Garner, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Mason Williams, Percy Faith, Burt Bacharach, Ray Charles, The Manhattan Transfer, and Johnny Mathis, to name but a few. He worked steadily in the Los Angeles rock and roll recording scene, playing on classic records by Sonny and Cher, The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers and many more. Putter had a brief acting career, playing the villainous, “Mr. Kidd” in the James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. He is highly sought as a performer and teacher and is currently on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

Originally from the now infamous Bell, CA, Putter began playing bass at a young age. “My brother Carson Smith was a famous bass player.” he told me in a recent conversation. “He had gone to New York when I was eight and had left a little half size bass I used to fool around with. By the time I was eleven I was playing along with his records.” Putter’s first paying gig was at the Compton Community Center playing a bass with only three strings. “I think I made three dollars and I was stoked. Making money as a musician!”

VR Smith began singing in the Los Angeles area over ten years ago and has recorded two CDs of jazz standards, 2004’s VR & The Cafe Beaujolais Band, Lost and Found and her 2009 recording, Beautiful Love, both available at CD Baby. VR acted in improvisational theatre for many years before beginning her singing career. “We did workshops in colleges.” VR says. “Robin Williams came out of one of those. He had so much information he could just incorporate into his “in-the-moment” spiel. (We) always felt like we had really done something there.” VR began singing regularly in a band with Putter and guitarist Dave Koonse at The Cafe Beaujolais In Eagle Rock. “We worked there for six and a half years and brought a lot of people in.” VR says. “The food was great and we were in the newspaper every week.” In those days the LA Times reported on jazz in the weekly Calendar section but has since dropped local coverage.

VR’s vocal style is intentional and introspective. “The words have to mean something to me.” she says. “Having acted I learned that you have different choices on how you say a thing. I try to let the tune be the focus and let the words fall into that.”

Putter and VR met when invited by friends to witness the first performance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. “Neither of us had ever heard of The Beatles.” says Putter. “We were into Charlie Parker!” VR adds.

Putter played bass on many famous rock and roll records recorded in the 1960s, including The Beach Boys’, Good Vibrations. “They did something like 25 different dates.” said Putter. Seeking greater musical challenges he turned his focus back to jazz.  “I decided I didn’t want to do that any more. That isn’t why I played music.” he recalls. “When you’re a musician it’s because you want to play music. There are so many better ways to make money. (At times) I regretted it because we really scuffled. Then when I was in my early forties it turned around.”



Putter’s time spent with iconic jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk has been a cornerstone in his career. “I heard him live years before I played with him and I thought it sounded like (Hungarian composer, Béla) Bártok.” Putter says, “Very modern and at the same time having that old New Orleans background to it. Monk had five-tuplets together. That kind of infuses his time feel. People say he plays these triplets that are dragging, but they’re perfect fives. He was a real intellectual guy. That’s what people miss.”

“I was a young, white jazz musician in the 60s when Black Power was prevalent.” Putter continues. “We had this great history in jazz of what they used to call, ‘integration’, long before anybody else. I’ve always tried to go into any gig with someone who has a rep, with a clean brain. All of the media on Monk made him out to be a mysterious, strange person. But I knew from my own experience that whatever they say in the media is almost always wrong. (Thelonious) was a beautiful person. He was like a fountain of sweetness.”

“I got the call because I had done quite a bit of transcription of his (music). I had about two weeks (to prepare) and borrowed every record I could and went through everything. I flew up there. No book, no rehearsal. I go into the dressing room, twenty minutes before the gig. There’s Thelonious, smoking a cigarette and doing his dervish thing, spinning around, and saying cryptic things. Finally he stops and looks at me and says, ‘Are you the new bass player?’ He had this rough, Hell’s Kitchen voice. I said, ‘Yeah’, and he says, ‘White is right.’ (laughs). I knew at that moment that everything was cool.”

“We got on the stand and the first tune he plays is one he never recorded, a beautiful tune called Ugly Beauty. By the end of the second chorus I had it down because I knew the ‘Monkisms’. I knew his vocabulary. He gave me a few more little tests. By the third night I was in. I wish I could have spent twenty years with him.”

While Putter was working with Thelonious Monk at the famous LA jazz club, Shelly’s Mann-Hole, he caught the eye of the director of the James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. “I got a call about three months later and went down, thinking they wanted a bass sideline.” recalls Putter. “They handed me a script and next thing you know I’m in a James Bond movie. I could not believe it!”

Putter’s bass playing is rich and expressive. He is intently focused when he plays, finding the center of each note and listening deeply to the musicians around him. “Being a musician is something that takes focus, disciple, and regular, unrelenting practice and study.” he told me. “If you want to be an improviser you need to improvise almost every day. To me a performance is 90 minutes of full out playing with someone. It doesn’t matter where or for who. It’s always your full effort.”

“I equate jazz to poetry.” Putter says. “I feel like this music is going to live forever like Bach. It’s a great thing to have in your life, you know, a reason to live.”

Video: Putter Smith, VR Smith and pianist Jim Szilagyi perform George and Ira Gershwin’s, ‘Love Walked In’




Career Tracks: Chi McClean, Part 1

Photo by Andrew Keller

This is Part 1 of an interview with indie artist, Chi McClean, the latest installment in the occasional Career Tracks series of interviews. You can read Part Two of our conversation here.
Chi McClean is a singer-songwriter with an intimate, down-home style and classic California good looks. Originally from New York, Chi moved to California to sample the surf and take a shot at the music business. With the release of his 2009 debut recording, Something Out There, (co-produced by Chi and Boone Spooner) he dove full-time into the indie DIY life, touring extensively across the United States. Chi has performed live on national television (The Early Show) and earned several songwriting and performance awards. He is sponsored by Taylor Guitars and Elixir Strings, is touring continually, and in pre-production for his next record. On a recent stop in Los Angeles we had a chance to talk about music, the importance of building relationships, marketing yourself, and the power of the national media. 
You can find out more about Chi on his website: www.chimcclean.com and pick up his music at Amazon.com, CD Baby, and the iTunes Store.
Your songs have been described in the media as “Southern Rock” or “Classic Rock”. What do you think is unique about your music and the way it connects with people?
CM: People say that the recordings and the live performances, particularly when it’s just me and a percussionist…it’s an honest and true performance. People like the fact that you can hear the squeak in the guitar strings and some flubbed notes. They identify with that and like that it’s not over-produced.
There’s a directness and an honesty. That’s what I get…
CM: There’s a lot of introspective stuff in there. I think people grab onto that as well.
You have been touring in different parts of the country to support this record. Where have you gotten the best response? How would you describe your audience?
CM: The release at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco was awesome. I find that on the Central Coast of California, the beach towns, people seem to really latch onto the music. Most of the time I’m touring solo. I sell a bunch of CDs. I get radio play.
Are you selling merchandise as well?
CM: Mostly CDs. I have some glasses and stickers. I have yet to design a t-shirt!
You’re a surfer. Do people know that about you?
CM: I think so..long blond hair, flip flops, sunburned (laughs)!  On my website (www.chimcclean.com) there’s some talk about surfing. Generally when I go up and down the California coast I’ve got my boards with me. On the blog there’s always a picture of ‘break of the day’ or whatever it is. 
Has your ability to do solo gigs given you a better opportunity to build an audience?
CM: Honestly, for me, it’s the only way to really do it. I would love to have a band that was really well rehearsed and play out with them all the time, but it’s just too expensive to do. Logistically it’s really hard. A lot of (industry) people have told me, “If you write something, make sure you can play it solo.” It makes sense now that I’m out there.
You’ve got to be able to stand on the song too…
CM: Exactly.
You worked with independent artists and record labels at Liquid Audio in the early days of Internet music distribution…really the first wave of Internet-driven DIY. You also have a background in sales and marketing. What have you been able to apply to your music career from those experiences? 
CM: There are all these one-stop shops. For example, I printed my stuff through Oasis. You print 1,000 CDs, they have a hook-up with CD Baby, within a month you’re up in iTunes, eMusic, Rhapsody, Walmart. It’s just so easy to get your music in as many place as possible so people can easily find it. 
I’ve got a background in sales, marketing and business development but the most important thing is just being a nice guy on the phone, being persistent but friendly, doing what you say you’re going to do, sending things on time, showing up on time, being honest with people. If you are trying to play somewhere you’ve never played before and they ask you what your draw is, don’t tell them you can bring 100 people and have 5 people show up. That’s going to be catastrophic for you and it’s not going to do the venue any good. Like any business, it’s all about relationships. 
Put yourself in their shoes. They deal with maybe a thousand people in a week, just blasting them with music. How do you make your email stand out, and if you’re lucky enough to get the gig, how do you make sure they remember you? Maybe they won’t remember your music but they might remember if you did something nice for them, if you offered to coil some cables at the end of the show, asked how they were, or just said ‘thank you’. Even if the mix wasn’t any good, you say it was good (laughs)! Send a ‘thank you’ note after the gig. I think people remember that. Many of the people who book (venues) are also musicians. Maybe you can offer to book a show where you’re from, or turn them onto some musicians that are hot. Share contacts in a way that builds relationships. 
At the most fundamental level you need to have music that people are going to like, but, it really is a relationship business. If you get the call for a local support act when a big name comes through town, they might be thinking, ”The last band was great but they were complaining about the mix the whole time. This guy is really nice. He showed up on time and did what he said he was going to do. He promoted the pants off of the gig and the mix engineer thought he was a nice guy. He was really easy to work with.” They want the easiest possible thing. Have everything lined up so they can just email you once.
How did you build your website?
CM: My friend Boone Spooner is also a web designer. He was really instrumental in getting everything online. He arranged the site so I can add, edit, and create content. Everything is set to go. He was a huge help.
You recently appeared on national television on The Early Show. How did you hook that up and what did the exposure do for you?
CM: A good friend in that business liked my music enough to make some introductions and get my CD into the hands of the right people. It was a really amazing experience. I think I sold, in a day or two, over a thousand downloads, and a bunch of CDs, a big spike for me. It was also a great resume builder. I can say when I’m trying to book a show, “I just recently played on national television, CBS, The Early Show.” That’s a huge help. People start to pay attention. I may have an invitation to come back when this new record comes out which is fantastic.

Career Tracks: Killola

Photo by Thaddeus Bridwell

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the excellent folks in Killola, a four piece “Hardpop Altcore” band formed in 2003 and based in Los Angeles. Consisting of Lisa Rieffel (lead vocals), Mike Ball, (guitar), Dan Grody (drums) and Johnny Dunn (bass), the band’s indie work ethic and unique blend of garage rock, punk, and pop/electronica has created a devoted international audience. The band tours regularly in the US and UK and has a strong Internet presence.

Killola were early Myspace adopters; they had songs posted on the site in late 2003. They have been consistently on the front edge of digital distribution and marketing, successfully deploying many innovative strategies including free tracks, USB flash-drive bracelets and Dog Tags, and a diverse, synergistic media presence. Lisa Rieffel is also an actress appearing in the upcoming feature film/rock-musical “Girltrash: All Night Long” (all the film’s music by Killola) and an original cast member of The King of Queens. In 2007 Lisa and Johnny began hosting a weekly radio show (on Dave Navarro’s personal Internet Radio Network ‘Spread Radio Live’) featuring a mix of music, interviews, fan interaction, and general mayhem.

The band’s first 4-song EP was released for free on stencil-screened CD-Rs packaged in hand painted sleeves. Their first formal record, “Louder, Louder!” was released in January 2006. It was recorded frugally and sold well on both and 7” vinyl, particularly in the UK. They released a live DVD/CD, “Live in Hollywood” in October 2006 and self-booked a UK tour in the summer of 2007. Their second album, “I Am The Messer” was released in April 2008 on CD and USB flash-drive wristbands which also included extra songs, photos, videos, and hidden ‘easter eggs’. The album was made available for free download in August of that year through sponsorships with DW Drums and Skullcandy. The band has self-funded their own videos and has a killer iPhone app. Their website, blog and mobile presence are all seamlessly connected, keeping the engagement with fans strong. Their new album, “Let’s Get Associated” was announced in March 2010 and is available on USB flash-drive Dog Tags which include their entire CD back catalog.

Thanks to Wikipedia for parts of this history. You can read the full entry here.
Oh… did I mention that their website kills?
———————————————-

Tell me a little about your musical background.
All 4 of us are all self-taught from a young age.  And Dan (drummer) attended the LA Music Academy. We learned songwriting by trial and error, gauging what works through incessant home-demoing – and re-demoing, and rehearsing.  We like a brisk pace… for us, Songwriting Faster > Songwriting Slower.  Less time to question things.

Can you describe what makes Killola’s music and vibe so engaging?
That’s probably better answered by fans/listeners…I suppose we try to be personally accessible, and ‘real’…. A lot of bands really try to shine themselves up, in their bios for example, to be angelic or plastic, and that truly comes off holier-than-thou. We tend to reveal ourselves in more realistic light, and show people that we’re just regular folks who just happen to have this outlet for making music in a band.  I think that lends to the accessibility.

How would you describe your fans?
Our fans are unique. Snarky and sharp, and dependable. We do a weekly radio show (Monday nights, www.killola.com/radio), and while the weekly listeners flux and grow… we can always depend on the core-group of listeners to be there, hanging in the chat room, reliably for years now.
You’ve been doing innovative DIY marketing since 2003. Your first EP was delivered in hand painted sleeves and you gave away copies. How did that work to for you?
I mean, it was rough guerilla distro of a realllly-rough DIY demo… there was no way to precisely track anything. We’d leave stacks of these cool-looking, hand-painted CD packs in various places around LA… we’d often get curious, and come back later that day and the stack would be down to 1 or 2… sometimes gone completely. And the boring-looking CDRs that were there next to our stack would still be there, untouched.  That was at least indicative that ours were standing-out from others. And when we had an upcoming show in town, we’d tuck a flyer inside… and sometimes we’d meet a few people at the next show who mentioned the demo they’d picked up that week at Amoeba, or somewhere else.

Are giveaways driving fans to your shows and triggering sales?
Absolutely. We gave away our last album (digitally) to more than ten thousand people. Within 6 months, our CD inventory was totally depleted from online sales. We toured to cities that we had never played before… and people were there, singing along. I have to assume that’s at least partially due to all the freeleased music.


Is the business picture different in England and Europe?
Totally different. People buy singles there, physical/tangible singles, in anticipation of an album… and those purchases vault bands into the mainstream. Also, rock music still dominates a large portion of the industry…. and the radio plays a lot of rock music there.  Also, newspapers/magazines still trump blogs… and on and on. Its a highly media(magazine/newspaper)-driven industry there. Plus, touring an album through the UK is a piece of cake, compared to the US.  The entire UK is about the size of Oregon, so you can loop the entire UK, many many times, in a few weeks. One US tour takes one month, minimum… and that’s a long, hard drive.

How often are you touring?
We do a west coast/Southwest tour every couple months… a full US tour every 12-18 months. We’ve only done the UK once, however we are needing to get back there again, badly, soon….


I love the USB flash drives. How do your fans like them? Are they making you money?
We decided to ‘pre’-release our new/latest album via USB Dog Tags. So, this currently is the only way to get the new record. Obviously, the biggest fans are going to jump on this, in order to get the new music right away.  However, I’m certain that CDs are still preferred, because of car stereos, and the nostalgic vibe of the new-CD-process (open, listen while reading liner notes, a defined listening track-order, etc). So, there’s a lot of people asking for the new album on CD.  Are the USBs making us money? Oh yes.

How important are mobile apps?
I don’t know how important they are… but they’re awesome, that’s for sure.  The internet is a wide open click-a-thon.. stream of consciousness, and unconfined, distractions abound.  Good apps are internet-based, but they keep you ‘focused’ on a task. I love that. Want to browse for pets? Open the PetFinder app. You’re going to see the same pets that you would see on their website… but that’s it. The URL bar isn’t lurking there, temping you to read The Onion…  I like having that focus as an option sometimes.

How many people do you typically get at shows?
Depends on the city, and what day of the week… LA is packed. NY is packed. In-between is a toss-up. Tuesday night in Lincoln, Nebraska… hm… not sure.


How big is your mailing list these days?
Above 7,000. The only reason I know that is because we recently had to upgrade our mailing-list provider to the next tier in monthly mails-allowed… it costs us more now to send-out one newsletter. Yay?

How have you funded the band as you have grown?
Basically, if its gonna cost us… we need to learn how to do it.  That outlook saved us 90% of the costs that most bands just swallow.  Learning exactly what outsourced-services DO gives us more insight into the cogs of this machine… and also makes us keen to what price we WOULD pay, if we were to outsource.  We have lots of music in TV and movies… and that’s a fantastic way to raise money for the stuff we wanna do.

Your web presence is really strong. How much of your biz is coming from web sales and how much from live gigs?
Our online store is pretty deep, so its a steady well. There’s enough variety on there to pretty much please anyone, so I’d say that’s the lion’s share of income… unless we are out on tour. On the road, the gigs pay, and the merch sells at the gigs, so its a self-fueling machine.


How much music and merchandise do you typically sell at your shows?
I have no idea. We have a dedicated merch guy, and a credit-card machine, and he has a computer there to track it all, so I imagine all that stuff is called-for…. I just try to mention the merch-table from stage one time per show, and we try to hang out there for a while, post-gig. There’s usually a group of people picking stuff out throughout the night… and I know we’re constantly re-ordering new merch, because I design the artwork. So I guess it moves steadily.

How have you learned the business side of music? Did you take classes, read books, talk to people in the biz?
There’s no better way to learn it than getting out there and doing it.  We manage ourselves (something that we are more and more eager to offset), so we’ve dealt with 7 years of business/issues first-hand. We’ve skinned our knees on contracts, and fended for ourselves in negotiations… and we all fairly headstrong in both business, and common sense. If something smells strange, 99% of the time its because it IS strange… don’t be afraid to ask the difficult questions and usually the source of the odor is revealed.  We also picked a lot of people’s brains over years of coffee.


Who are your partners? Mob Agency handles your bookings… How about personal and business management, attorneys and music publishing? Are you handling the Internet marketing drive yourselves?
We work heavily with Aderra (a digital/music technology company), on both strategies and tour-support. And MOB Agency is a fantastic company for booking those tours. We will soon be putting out feelers for a good manager, because we have a full movie coming out next year (a musical, in which Lisa is the lead-role, and Killola wrote all the songs… Lisa and I co-produced). And so far, we are self-published. All marketing has been from within, however we did work with a PR company (Reybee) on this last tour they were great. We will be sticking with them for future press campaigns.

How did you vet your partners? How did you know what questions to ask?
If you’re friendly to people, they’ll introduce you to their friends, and so on… for years. In 2008, we played the ‘wrap-party’ for a big movie (hint: Nakatomi Plaza part 4)… a guy we met in 2006 (who worked on our video for “I Don’t Know Who”) did special-FX for this movie, and he asked us to play. People from MOB Agency were there, and a few weeks later MOB contacted us for a few shows… we hit it off with them as people, and have worked together since. We didn’t have a TON of questions for MOB, because their work ethic and track-record spoke volumes.  Similarly, we met Aderra through a friend of the band, and Killola ended up as the first band Aderra ever recorded live. Aderra now tours with some of the biggest bands in the world, recording live shows.  We’ve worked with them since that first show.  We want to work with people who 1) we get-along-with as human beings, AND 2) they do good work in the music business….  This industry is saturated with people who are only good with one or the other.

How much of the web and app development do you do yourselves? It all feels really well integrated and personal.
I’m a web designer by profession, so everything you see out there is all from within the band.  The Killola iPhone app was built by an app team, but we designed the graphics/skin so that it rightly matched our existing look.

How much time do you spend each day communicating with fans and updating your social media network?
We’re mobile as crap.  So our iPhone keeps us socially synced throughout the day.  All the sites are tied-in together, allowing one single update to propagate throughout our network.  But sometimes we just turn everything off for a day or two.  That helps with sanity.  We stream live video from our phone, to the web, from rehearsal, from the van, from parties… anywhere. It keeps us connected to fans, and keeps it fun.

How do you balance practicing/writing/recording, etc. with the business stuff?
Usually (when not on tour) we get together once or twice every week or two, just to hang out, and we often do that at our practice space.  Music often ensues.  Things were super hectic earlier this year, as we shot a full-length feature movie for nearly 3 months.  This took us out of our ‘normal’ band mode, and sort of inserted 40 new band members into our life…  there was no balance, just two gears: Learning, and Go.

How would you chart your growth? In other words, when did things kick in and what was the sequence; gigs, Myspace, YouTube, CDs, website, giveaways?
I’d say we were adolescent at the exact time Myspace hit adolescence, in late 2007… our numbers and fanbase popcorned in parallel with that site, and we sort of rode the Myspace mechanism into 2008 with our first full US Tour.  Once that site starting losing efficacy, we had already rendezvoused with our fanbase at more intelligent websites, we had tours in place, and were able to convert the web-presence into real-life encounters on tour.

demo>Myspace>giveaways>CDs>website>tours>other_sites      That formula lacks the underlying “extremely hard work” ingredient, but that’s to be assumed.  🙂

In what order did you add partners, and why?
MOB (booking) was our first partnership.  Good booking is the only situation that is almost entirely shut-off to independent bands.  Clever and hard-working independent bands can do ‘almost’ anything that labels can do… however booking agents are still absolutely powerful and necessary.  Aderra offered an outlet to technology that no other company offered; we wanted to work with them because it’s a fresh, new medium (live recording distro) and the people behind Aderra are fantastic people and smart cookies.

How involved are you in music publishing? Are you making money with synch licenses, and performance royalties?
For non-radio-bands, and independent acts, music publishing and synch licenses are the quickest way to BIG checks in this business. Placing one song in a movie or commercial can totally change your entire year/decade.  And the pretense factor in music licensing is surprisingly low. Record great songs… movies don’t seem to care what band you’re in, what label you’re on, or what blogs are saying… they tend to buy music that works. Which is refreshing.

What are your thoughts on making a living in music?
All the successful musicians I know are a highly skilled jugglers, in the professional sense.  If you want it bad enough, you can make art/music work without a ‘day job’. I wouldn’t recommend trying it outside of a major metropolitan area… but if you’re smart, and flexible… and humble…  it works because there’s always a need for determined artists.

Are you interested in moving to an indie or major label? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of working with a record label?
Certainly.  We’ve only gotten to where we are by listening to reason.  If a label provides something desirable, then there might be reason to work together.  A record label has the built-in power of a catalog.  If Label X has a successful back-catalog of great releases…. that label’s ‘newest’ artist is almost immediately granted ‘credit’ based on the past-successes of that label’s catalog.  Labels can mean great exposure in the proper scenario.

Thanks for sharing all of this great stuff!

Part 6: SLGQ Interview – Ken explains ‘Parallels’ and demos wild and crazy Ebow techniques…

OK, Ebow fans…this is the clip you’ve been waiting for. At about 1:10 Ken demonstrates the prepared guitar techniques involved in Rob Wannamaker’s piece, ‘Parallels’…slides, Ebow, hair scrunchies, and BBQ skewers…I love it!

Heading into the clip I had asked Ken about the meter and tempo of the piece. To the listener it appears to have no time; a floating continuous ensemble chord; the inner voices gradually shifting the tonality. Check this one out…

Part 5: Shadow Language Guitar Quartet interview

In Part 5 of our conversation Ken Rosser describes each of the pieces from the Shadow Language Guitar Quartet debut performance…

Follow Me by Paul Lansky
American Thighs by Betsey Biggs
Time Enough by Mick Goodrick
Parallels by Rob Wannamaker
and finally…
Motormouth by Fred Frith
Ken describes the musical character of each composition and the unique challenges presented by the performance techniques.