Interview Profile with .... CHRISTELLE AVOMO - May 18, 2009
HitQuarters artist Christelle Avomo is No.1 on Billboard!
Christelle Avomo's single ‘What You Gon' Do Wit It’ is top of the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Sales chart! After emigrating from Gabon, West Africa to Las Vegas, USA in 2006 without being able to speak a word of English, Christelle decided only two years later to embark on a music career and sent her songs to HitQuarters, where she became Artist of the Week. In February 2009, she released an EP that by May had broke the Billboard Top 40 R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
The 19-year-old singer is one of the music industry’s most extraordinary success stories. Not only did she move from Gabon to Las Vegas to No.1 within three years, but together with her business manager and main songwriter Don McGann, she achieved this without any record labels, without any contacts and without any knowledge of the music business whatsoever. As a dentist, Don hadn't even written any songs before meeting Christelle...
Both of them are being exclusively interviewed by HitQuarters. Don't miss reading this fascinating and inspiring fairytale!
Interview with Christelle Avomo
Congratulations Christelle! From Gabon to Las Vegas to No.1 in less than 3 years, what an achievement! How did it all start?
I came to United States in 2006 to study. I could not speak any English at all. I’m from Gabon where we mainly speak French. I went to an English school when I came to Las Vegas and I was watching American TV to learn English, especially the Disney Channel. In the beginning of 2008 I decided to become a singer and was encouraged by Don McGann. I started by listening to how other singers sang their songs. Then I went on looking for songwriters and music producers and Don, who is helping me with the business and financial things, also wrote many of my songs.
How did you meet him and what made you team up with him?
He is an old friend of our family. He always heard me singing and one day he asked me, "Do you like singing?" and I said, "Yeah, I really do." And he said, "I think we can really do something with it.” So we started talking about it. I saw Beyonce and I love what she does. She was a big inspiration and I thought, "That's what I want to do."
When you started working with Don, did either of you have any contacts in the music business?
We started up from scratch. We didn't know anything at all. It was really hard at first but now we're getting closer because we have been studying the music industry along the way. We started with looking for songwriters but we couldn't find anything in the beginning. So Don actually started writing for me, which is really amazing. He is a dentist and never wrote anything before. He is more into math and could not even write poems, but basically he started writing because no one wanted to write for me at the time. Eventually we found a producer, Neil Ebanks, who lives in Nashville. Don and him started collaborating and writing songs together. Then I came in and sang the songs and it came out really great. We started writing mostly pop songs but now we’re moving towards R&B.
So after you finished the first demos, what was the next step?
We finished an EP and started promoting it. The guy who is doing the promotion is Kermit Henderson. I don't know exactly how he does it but he puts out my CD.
Do you do live shows as well?
That's what we are working on right now. There is a big difference between singing in the studio and in front of people. In the studio, you're by yourself and the producer and people you know. I don't get stage fright but it's a bit harder to sing in front of people. I love to perform and I'm used to it so it's not a big deal.
How do you work on your performance?
I take singing lessons about four times a week. I have done 4-5 shows before, so I understand what I need to do. I watch other singers perform live and on DVD.
How did you get in contact with Dizzy D, the producer of ‘What You Gon’ Do Wit It’?
His manager introduced the song to me, asking for a collaboration. He is the producer and songwriter and had another girl on the song at first, I then recorded my vocals on the track at a studio here in Las Vegas.
When you look for a major record label, what do you expect from them?
I want to have my song promoted through the whole world so I can become an international artist. I want them to add money to the promotion, radio and tours, adding to what we are already doing. So far, we have spent a lot of money paying for productions and promotion and it is not over yet.
You are looking for a management as well, but isn't Don covering all of these areas?
Don is a business manager. I still need an artist manager.
What other artists would you like to work with?
I would love to do a duet with Chris Brown and a song with Lil' Wayne.
Interview with Don McGann, Christelle's business manager
It's very unusual to for a song to take pole position in the charts without any record company involvement. How did you start the project?
In the beginning, I knew we needed a great song, but I didn't know where to start looking for one. I didn't know anything about the industry and I couldn't buy a song. I knew Christelle could sing Beyonce songs just like Beyonce but you need to have your own originals, so that's how I got into songwriting.
At the next step, I got her into the studio and then set up some live performances around here locally. She was a natural singer and performer. I knew I was onto something big. That was around March 2008, two months after we started the project, when Christelle recorded her first four songs in the studio.
We have now recorded songs in several studios in Los Angeles, Nashville, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Las Vegas. She recorded about 30 songs. With each song experience, Christelle's skills improved, our songwriting improved, and producers were knocking at our door with even more songs to consider. She has a very unique sound to her voice which is unlike any other. Then I changed over to the business of music marketing and artist promotion in December 2008.
How did you learn about the music business side?
The most difficult part was to figure out what the job responsibilities are in the music business. There are a lot of different job responsibilities and titles. That made me feel very uncomfortable because I didn't know what people actually did. I started educating myself with books and magazines. I went to the Billboard conferences in New York and Las Vegas and to the CIC conference in Los Angeles. I signed up on several internet sites, one of which was HitQuarters. HitQuarters was recommended by Christelle's second vocal coach, Billie Cole. I read a lot of the articles and interviews there and submitted Christelle's songs in September 2008.
It's great to look through all the lists of managers and people that are on the HitQuarters website. Some artists may send out their music to them but that is not our approach. Our idea is, you do a really good job, you establish a business and then they will find you. The featured artist stories and diaries were really interesting for me, to find out what they were doing and how they got there. That's why I’m making time for this interview because maybe I can help someone else.
When you had the music ready how did you create a hype?
The internet is key for an independent artist to get their music out, but there is a lot of work in that and I cannot imagine artists doing it themselves. They are supposed to be doing their music. The record labels aren't developing artists anymore so you have to develop the artist on your own. It takes money, energy, and knowledge of the business, and artists just don't have that. They need people to get the product out there and that takes money. From what I can see, the artist nowadays needs an investor, a business team and a business manager. I'm not talking about an artist manager - I'm talking about a business manager, because you’re not making any money during that time.
Did you make a profit calculation?
I don't think there's anything in this industry these days that you can count on, so I have to say no. The general plan was that there had to be music before you can do any business. Once we came to a point where we knew we had a good product, we started doing photo shoots to add the visual element. I knew Christelle was someone people would like to look at and be interested in. Even in Gabon she has that star quality, not only in her special looks, but also in the way she carries herself on stage. In public, she may at times show a shyness, which is partly her culture and part her inner sweetness. This is an artist very different than any have seen before, which of course makes a great story.
When I started the business aspect of the project, I surrounded myself with people knowledgeable in the industry, since I didn't have the experience myself. Then I took on the role of the quarterback to direct these experts. I have quite a talented team set up now. We have a music attorney, a PR working mainly with the internet, a social site worker, and a general manager who subcontracts distribution, radio, and promotions. Then there are the music producers, and then there's me, the closest title might be business manager or executive producer. I wear many hats.
Was all the marketing you did for Christelle mainly internet-based?
Yes, because that’s the cheapest and the most widespread. The audience that we want to get to is a younger audience and these days they are mainly on the internet.
So you created all this content, but how did you get the people to find out about it?
That's where you need more people, more knowledgeable people working on the project. I started with her website during the song development time. That was changed three times as we learned what we needed and what kind of image we were trying to portray. I did not start a MySpace page until we had a product that we would be proud of, being careful not to open ourselves up to the public before the product was completed. I then hired two people and two companies to build the social sites, not only MySpace, but also Facebook and YouTube.
Every time they saw something interesting, they forwarded it to us, and Christelle answered. It is a bad idea for an artist to spend their time working on websites. The artist should focus on creating and performing the music, which is the product to be sold by the business. Business people should be the ones to distribute and promote. This idea that an artist has to work their websites, create and perform the music, work in the studio and create new songs... these are singers and musicians, not supermen and superwomen.
We started the marketing in January and released the EP in February - which is now at No.32 in the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart - and she had a single released in April that is now No.1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Sales. Right now we're starting on radio and internet radio. The single had over 600 spins on internet radio last week, almost twice the previous week, so that is a good sign of things to come.
What was the key in getting on the Billboard charts - was it airplay or actual sales?
Sales resulting from distribution. If you sell your songs through your web sites, these sales are not scanned, so they do not count for the official sales. Billboard only counts sales recorded by SoundScan, so you must find distribution from official sources. This could be retail outlets and some digital distributors. The distributor not only gets your CD into the store, but encourages the store to include your song on listening stands, hanging your posters, etc. I don't actually know how they do it. When someone wants to buy an album there's probably another album sitting right next to it that looks more interesting and has a cute girl on it to create a sale.
Is it physical records sales or iTunes sales?
Well, she just got on iTunes last week. iTunes was almost a three-month process from the time you submit your music ‘til it's on there - so iTunes had nothing to do with this.
How does the distribution work?
In this country there are distributors of all kinds. There is major distribution, there is internet distribution and many other different levels of distribution. It's just like in any other business - if you’re starting up a business you better have some salesmen out there and some advertising to get some clients. You have to recruit well. Of course, you're not going to get the right one the first time. In this industry you need someone who believes in your product and who can put your name out there and promote it. We owe much of our distribution success to Don Huggins, DehTyme Entertainment.
If I were a distributor myself, I wouldn't take on products that you know are not going to sell, because that just gets everybody angry. You need to find products that you believe in and that will sell. If you find those products, somebody has to pay you so that you can do your work because you have to make a living too.
You could have invested the money in trying to make a good music video instead of distributing a physical CD, so what made you choose that particular path?
I’d already invested in a video. I think it needs more editing, although it has all the basics. I don't recommend anyone to put their money there. Save the money for the distribution and get your music marketed right.
Get your music first, and then you better get some money. And if you don't, you need to get an investor. You need someone who knows business. It doesn't matter if he is a dentist like me...[laughs]. Businessmen have a different mindset than artists.
How did you know that you had a saleable product?
Well of course you have to like your music yourself. If you don't like your music it's like a mother not liking her own kid, especially if you wrote the music yourself. Unfortunately you have to go to the studio and get things put together before you can really show it to other people, because if you show them just a little scratch that is half-done in your garage, then they presume it represents you. That person will compare it to other songs they have heard. They don't take into account that you have only been doing it for one year or that you didn't even speak English three years ago. They just care about “does it sound as good as the artist that has been in the business for 30 years and spent $30 million on their production?”
Before you show someone your art it has to be pretty much finished. Excuses like "this isn't quite finished yet,” and “this isn't this,” and “this isn't that,” and “we want to re-record that” don't mean anything for the public. Recording your songs, mixing to a final mix, and even mastering is costly, but a necessary financial risk that must be taken before you know if your music is good or bad.
This business is risky, and always has been. It was the record labels that took the risk in the past. I think they are not given enough credit for developing artists. Now that artists feel the pain of development and promotion, then maybe they will give the record labels the credit they deserve.You have to take a big step forward before you can get anything back. That is true in most businesses, not just music. I think people expect to make one or two demo songs and then someone will come along on a white horse with a big bag of money. Those days are in the past. The record labels had to reduce their risks after facing losses resulting from changes in music delivery, mainly the CD album to the internet single and the free shared internet single or album. I feel sorry for artists nowadays - even if you are really talented, it’s very hard, and now each artist must come up with their own funding and business before a label will even look at them. I wish them all the luck.
Do you now want a record company to buy your business, or a manager to step in?
We are now on the crest of making money with our product but we are interested in a partnership with a record label. A record label brings a lot of things to the table that I myself don't have access to. The label must be interested in the project, and interested in promoting it the way that it should be. The label must believe they will get their money back plus a nice profit or why should they invest?
A manager usually steps in when you're making money - not until then - because they are getting a percentage of the earnings. We’ve already had artist managers calling us. The smart ones are saying, “When you really think you're ready then call me.” Yes, I am very interested in adding an artist manager. They have connections in the industry that can take your business to another level. To put the business in the highest gear, I envision the team I have assembled, a record label, and artist management working together to make an amazing business model.
As an investor, I'm expecting to get all my money back. I wrote songs throughout 2008. Song ideas were falling out of my head almost one per day. Once I switched to the business phase in January 2009 I have not been able to write. That's how different the business is to the artist doing music. From my personal experience, I don't believe you can do both.
What do you want the record label to do - do you want them to take over the whole thing?
If you were to take over a business, do you want all the employees and the physical plant to fold? No! They were making a certain income when you bought them and you don't want that to be dismantled. The business continues - it just gets hyped up with the addition of a record label. That's how I look at it. We already had some people nosing around from labels, but I'm pretty critical of who I want to go into business with. It has to look good for both sides otherwise there's no point.
How far do you want to put in money before you get a return?
When I started out on the project it was a hobby. I said, "Wouldn't it be fun to do something in the music industry?” I always enjoyed music but I was never very good at it. With a hobby you must pay. The problem is that the artist I’m dealing with is really, really talented and became better and better every month. We had to re-record songs over and over up to four times in the studio. Why? Because she just kept getting better. As the poker game continues, the stakes get higher. It gets to a point where you are competing with what a record label would normally be doing and that's not small amounts of money. You're not going to abandon that unless something drastic happens, so you step up and put money where it needs to go.
After 30 years in dentistry, being very successful - I accomplished about everything you can do in that field - I needed a change, I needed something exciting. I couldn't do it myself, I cannot sing. I have an artist that has the look - she has a great story and now hit music… I think we are really close to where this is going to get real fun! Starting a new business is never fun in the first few months, at least in my experience. The systems you envisioned might not work, and no one has fun losing money. As a business becomes profitable, the fun begins. I don't know why everyone thinks the music biz is different than any other business. It's not.
How big have your expenses been so far?
I would say that the song development, with producers, travel, studio costs, vocal lessons etc, comes close to $500,000, which is not considered a lot of money in this business. By the time you include marketing phase, I would expect another $500,000. If you’re going for the big leagues, you have to spend what the big leagues normally would spend. It's not very different to what a major record label would spend for developing an artist. I try not to concern myself too much with that. There's money in the bank to be spent tomorrow.
Where was it important to spend money and where did you waste money?
There were some disappointments where people didn't deliver - that seems to happen a lot in the music industry. One downside to the industry is that there are no educational requirements. I wasted money with trial and error, since I did not have the connections and team setup from years of experience. This makes it almost impossible to predict or budget. If you go for the cheapest studio sometimes you get the cheapest product and then you have to redo it. If you look at any of the major artists, they don't just do five songs to get five songs. They may record 40 songs to come up with an album of 10 and everyone has at some point said, “Yes” to the other 30 songs, but they did not make the cut. The cost of those 10 songs is the total cost of the 40 songs you produced to get your best product. Not a waste of money, just inefficiency.
Is Las Vegas a good place to start a music career?
No, not necessarily for the genre that we are in. Vegas has casinos that are trying to attract the older people. They are not trying to attract the younger people who don't gamble, but instead spend their time at the pool. Vegas does have vocal coaches and good recording studios.
Vegas has good support for you to learn about your career. But you have to travel if you want to do something in the genre we are in. If you are a cover band then this is a great place.
Where do you see Christelle in the future?
I think our product will be quite mature by the end of the year. We'll have more releases and live performances. We already have dancers and choreographers and we hope that the radio will kick in big time. I see us teaming up with a major label and artist management. Through that I can see an agent and through an agent, promoters for tours. I can see the show not only in the US but also in Europe, Africa and Asia. Christelle is a true international artist.
Most people thought what we did was impossible. I have accomplished similar impossible dreams in my dental profession. If I had believed the sceptics, I would never have become a dentist. How many people told me I couldn't do that? People told me I was crazy but I did it anyway. If someone says I cannot do it, I'm more interested in doing it! It gives me a bigger feeling of accomplishment.
I am already getting a great feeling of accomplishment from my involvement with the Christelle project. Ultimately the success really belongs to Christelle since, as I said before, I cannot sing. But to reach the top, you need more than a great looking artist with star qualities. You need a complete team to make this business go well. Don't let the artist answer the phone and do the photocopying. Let the artist develop the music product and others do jobs suited to their skills, education, and experience.
Unfortunately today because of the economics and buying patterns of the consumer, the independent artist must create the business to a high level before the record label and artist manager can join the team. I hope this discussion has helped other artists define a formula for success. I thank HitQuarters for caring enough to search out the Christelle story so others can learn from it. See you all at the top!
Official web site: Christ-elle.com
Christelle on Wikipedia
Interview by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Interview with Phil Ek, the indie producer with the midas touch
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