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.

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.