Making Waves with ... RACHAEL SAGE - Oct 4, 2010
“Ever since the music business has shifted toward the DIY paradigm virtually all artists are advised to project themselves as little companies”
For the latest edition of Making Waves, our series focusing on artists forging success free of record company support, we speak to self-made singer-songwriting success Rachael Sage who proves it’s possible to make a living out of music while retaining artistic freedom and ambition.
The New York-based Independent Music Award winner reveals how such a feat is possible, and also talks about getting gigs beyond your local sphere, the reality of running your own label and how Internet tools such as Twitter can both add and take away from your art in equal measure.
When you set up MPress Records was total independence always the plan or did you start out seeking the support of a label?
When I first conceived MPress, total independence was absolutely the plan. But I was very young, naive and very much a product, emotionally and intellectually, of the neo-folk scene at Stanford University, from which I'd just graduated. I'd recently discovered Ani DiFranco, helped found a women's performance troupe that created very provocative, political theatre, and I suppose I was as idealistic and eager to empower myself as I've ever been. So in all honesty, the idea of seeking the support of another label was the furthest thing from my mind.
What guidance and inspiration did you have starting out?
I had seen a precedent for doing it the DIY way via Loreena McKennitt, Ani and some regional indie artists in San Francisco who seemed to be paying their rent by touring and putting out CDs. I thought, I'm creative, prolific and hard-working ... why shouldn't I be able to do that too?
Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to create a whole experience that reflected my musical and also my visual art sensibilities, and since I'd pursued a career in synth-pop in my teens and had plenty of ‘almost-discovered’ moments within the industry, I knew a major label wasn't apt to let a young, unproven artist such as myself self-produce, let alone create artwork for my own albums. I really hate confrontation so I guess the idea of having to fight to do things my own way was more daunting than starting my own company!
So what was actually involved in setting up MPress?
When I first started MPress it was sort of in name-only, and I was just manufacturing CDs in a quantity large enough to use to book gigs, sell at shows and be a calling card. Then gradually the need to pretend to be project a more professional persona gave way to actual insight.
For instance, after I serviced college radio for the first time - without a promoter, sending the CDs myself and pretending to be a fake manager so it wasn't my name signing the pitch letter - I received some inquiries from distribution companies, and I was a bit overwhelmed. Somewhere along the way, I recruited the help of a young lawyer named Lisa Cohen to help me navigate what seemed to be building into an actual operation.
She ultimately helped me decipher the contracts that were coming my way and eventually also helped me set up shop properly with the bare minimum of what I needed to get MPress off the ground - namely a fax machine, an accounting system, and, once I was touring with Ani DiFranco and then Lilith Fair, a freelance publicist.
A year or so after signing with Big Daddy Distribution, Lisa decided to go in a different direction career-wise, but I was already very involved, eager to grow and so I sought out my first label manager by putting the word out to an ever-widening circle of musicians and industry-peers.
Eventually Walter Parks was recommended to me by a cellist and mutual friend. I interviewed him, realised our goals completely aligned, and he ended up helping me run MPress for several years.
So what did yourself and Walter then set about doing to develop the label and you as an artist?
Walter and I created a business plan. We booked me and promoted my albums with as much energy as we possibly could short of burning out, and hired interns from NYU to help us pitch the burgeoning number of internet review sites, most of which have long petered out.
In those first few years, we submitted me to every conference, festival and conceivable performance opportunity, did our best to tie-in all of my performances with as much regional press and radio as possible, and generally adopted the philosophy that's guided me for the last decade at MPress, ‘go where the love is!’ Together, and via much trial and error, we slowly figured out where that might be.
By the time Walter left to pursue his own music a few years later, I had a couple interns, another full-time staff member and a bona-fide office, as well as the inklings of our emerging artist compilation series, ‘New Arrivals’.
Since then, I've had the help of innumerable mentors and inspirational peers along the way, from CDBaby founder Derek Sivers, to Messenger Records' Brandon Kessler. I'm continually learning how to better lead a team, and also how to navigate the European market now that I also do quite a bit of touring in the UK and Ireland.
Working with our new artist Seth Glier has also been a vastly educational experience, because a 21-year-old male artist is going to have different ambitions, needs and creative impulses from my own!
Over the years what advantages have you found to having your own label and what’s proven difficult?
The greatest advantage of running my own label is the ability to make creative decisions, period. There I times when it appears that's the only advantage, but usually I also feel like the ability to make one's own mistakes and learn from them is also a distinct advantage.
When you run a company, it's your baby, so you're going to put as much time and energy into it as you possibly can short of insanity. I think that has proven difficult because it's nearly impossible to ever take a break from it and just be an artist in the old-fashioned sense. But then the definition of an artist has become so complex. Ever since the music business at large has shifted toward the DIY paradigm virtually all artists are advised to project themselves as ‘little companies’, even if they're not expressly trying to run record labels.
In the end, I think every artist wants to be able to say they did their best work, and there are times when I've felt absolutely enabled to do that by virtue of running my own label, and other times when it's been more of a drain.
You’ve been described as “one of the hardest working women in music” ...
I highly doubt that that is true, even though I admittedly work very hard. I always think I could be doing a lot more to be a better artist, so thankfully, that awareness is what continues to drive me!
But do you really need to go all out in order to balance the books?
Definitely. And if I don't, I'm not sure how to not need to. It's sort of cyclical; the better gigs you get, the more you reinvest in your business to create better opportunities to reach new fans, such as signing new artists and creating new albums. If you stop too long or get lazy, it tends to fall apart because, like Joan Rivers says in her new movie ‘A Piece Of Work’, "when you're hot you're hot!"
Unless you have a huge hit in a film/TV show or on the radio and then you can take a long hiatus and not have it make such an impact on your career momentum. But I haven't had one of those yet, so ...
Do you have an annual plan of, I need to do this many shows, sell this many records etc.?
Yes, definitely, but having an annual plan and actually adhering to it 100% can be two very different realities. Sometimes decisions need to be made spontaneously because unanticipated opportunities arise, or ongoing ones become derailed. You have to have a plan but it’s crucial to also be flexible and unafraid of taking fairly significant risks.
For instance, last year I’d hoped we'd sign a new artist but had no idea I'd walk into a room one day see an incredible artist like Seth Glier and instantly have a very clear vision of how we could get behind his music and help him reach a wider audience for his prodigious songwriting abilities.
How long did it take you to get to a point where you could support yourself with your music?
I always supported myself with music one way or another because I was in the jingle business since I first moved to NYC. I didn't invest in starting MPress Records until I had the leeway to do so from my former musical day job.
I did hundreds of jobs on spec in my early 20s and was on staff at several music houses until I got my first gig as the ‘Crystal Light Girl’, which paid for my first album and enabled me to send it to radio and eventually hire a band to play live in NYC. Eventually that led me to the realisation that playing showcases was a dead end. To move forward as an indie artist and label I had to get the heck out of NYC and start touring the country to find my audience.
Artists are often advised to build up a local following first of all but how do you then venture out into the unknown and start touring the country?
Honestly, while I’ve often heard that advice regarding ‘building concentric circles’ and starting locally, I sort of came at my touring career very much the opposite way. I’d felt like I was spinning my wheels in NYC - it's a tough place for an indie artist to live as their hub, especially because there are so many thousands of artists here.
So although I certainly had a decent following in NY within a year or so of playing club gigs, my breakthrough moment was nonetheless when I played a college gig at University of Pennsylvania that a friend of mine, Rishon Blumberg - who now runs Brick Wall Management - booked for me as a favour.
It was just a minor college gig in a dining hall but that was the first time I experienced the dynamic of perfect strangers connecting very strongly with my work. Until then it'd been more of a game of "how can I beg, bribe and seduce enough of my personal friends and family to pack The Bitter End once a month so they keep having me back so the right lawyer/manager/agent might come to the show and 'discover me'?"
That first college gig, combined with my experience opening for Ani and later, Lilith, inspired me to cast as wide a net as possible thereafter, study books like The Musician's Atlas and the Billboard Guide To Touring and Promotion, and just get on the horn! Generally speaking, once I’d made that lifestyle decision to get out of NYC and "go where the love was" - wherever I was invited/embraced in effect - things started really shifting for me.
So how do you get gigs new territories where you might not be so well known?
It just boils down to good communicating. I work on my pitches obsessively. I always try to think of them from the other person's viewpoint, i.e. how busy they are, what info might grab them immediately, peer artists I could mention who may have played the venue or event to which I'm submitting, and my radio/press history in the region - if applicable.
Even when I work with an agent or, as is now the case in the UK, a manager, I always try to provide as detailed and compelling a spiel as possible that can help me cut through the myriad of other artists/managers/agents pitching for the same gigs. I think in today’s music business being able to describe what you do and why it should appeal to the party on the other end is as important as having a great record, for better or worse.
You’ve said that two big breaks for you were appearing on the Lilith Fair tour and supporting Eric Burdon and The Animals in Europe. Firstly how the Lilith appearance come about?
I submitted to the NY Lilith Fair Talent Search. I was chosen as a finalist and, after competing with the other finalists and performing live at The Westbeth Theater in NYC, I won. It was incredibly exciting, especially since the year prior, I'd been unaware of the contest. I’d gone to watch the finals and resolved to be part of it the next time around.
And how about with Eric Burdon?
One day his German promoter sent us an email completely out of the blue asking if we'd be interested in doing the tour. I'd already toured Germany a few times in more of a grassroots way, playing teeny clubs in big cities and obscure towns, and my name had started to circulate there, because I'd gotten a decent amount of regional press from being the "quirky American indie pop chick", so-to-speak.
So when Eric Burdon's promoter was looking for a young, female, alternative artist to open the tour, my name came up. I still remember getting that email and thinking, "is this a joke?! The Eric Burdon?" Because my music is so completely different from his and he's so seminal in the blues/rock world, it just wasn't an obvious musical choice to me at all. But the minute I ran it by Walter Parks, he said "Rachael you have to do this!"
I was nervous because they were very big venues, and also because they wanted me to have a full band - so I had to audition and rehearse a drummer and a bassist in a week for five weeks of solid touring. But it was an amazing experience, and thankfully he had me back the next year to do it again.
Besides touring and selling your music what other ways are you able to support yourself through your art?
I also do graphic design for other artists and, of course, we sell a variety of merch beyond just CDs. More recently, we've been able to secure some film and TV placements that have been very helpful.
Who else do you employ for the marketing of your music and shows?
I have a full-time label manager at MPress Records, JoJo Gentry, who's been with me several years now. In addition, I work with a tour manager, Meredith Tarr, who goes far above and beyond just tour managing, and also really helps in terms of devising the best routing and suggesting new gig opportunities to my booking agent, Silverleaf Booking. We also have a radio/licensing, new media and in-house PR person.
We're really a full-on record label and all work together every day toward the same primary goals: to spread the word about our releases and shows, to continue to fan-build as well as nurture our existing fans, and to cast wish list leads constantly - i.e. Film/TV opportunities, larger festivals, etc.
How much promotion do you do yourself?
I am generally up until the wee hours virtually every day of the week self-promoting in one way or another; I always feel I could be doing more, but the minute I start feeling a new song coming on is usually the minute I stop, on any given evening.
How useful has Sonicbids been to you so far?
Sonicbids has been really useful in terms of streamlining our process, submitting to festivals, contests and, occasionally, licensing opportunities. I don't think it can replace personal relationships, however - we still garner the best performance and music placement opportunities for me by constantly networking, reaching out directly and via the social networks to our peers and approaching talent buyers from multiple angles.
I used to try to blanket opportunities more via Sonicbids - and I had a significant amount of success with it especially in terms of contests - but at this point in my career I'm trying to create more lasting, personal relationships with venues and promoters.
I use it for things like CMJ, SXSW, and a handful of festivals though. I have enormous respect for Panos Panay and think he revolutionised the conference submission process, and the way artists send around their EPKs, in a way that has made a huge impact on the industry at large.
What other internet tools have been particularly beneficial?
I would say that Facebook has really proved impactful for me. MySpace used to be more relevant - and I've booked many gigs directly through it including a tour of Japan and several gigs in the UK - but that's really shifted to Facebook now, since it's just so easy to reach people on it. Many people who have my email and know me well still opt to reach me on Facebook, so it's replaced a certain portion of my email inbox, actually. It has helped shrink the industry to a degree, and the independent music community as a whole.
Your art is no doubt best conveyed through your songs and live performance but have you found tools such as Twitter and YouTube to offer new ways to express yourself and also engage with your fans on a different level?
I am active on the social networks but the reality is, it can be draining. Inevitably, there are moments when as an artist you feel you should be putting some kind of update or info out there on Twitter and Facebook but you just don't feel like sharing the less artistic aspects of your day. I think it's a balance.
All of these tools can still be used thoughtfully and artfully, and it's important for artists to realise that every time you tweet or post something online, you are adding another layer on the canvas that is your persona, your art.
I don't have much interest in pretending that music is like doing laundry. It's transcendent at its best and that's always what I'm striving for, so I think it's just like anything else - doing interviews, writing your bio, even writing your thank yous in an album - it's about communicating exactly what you want to, to your audience.
But these are amazing ways to engage with listeners in terms of activating them to help promote shows, participate more in the creative process, creative decision-making, genuinely taking polls and so forth.
Traditionally singer-songwriters tend to be more open and enjoy connecting with fans at shows rather than performing at them, so do you think these internet tools are well suited to you in a way that they might not be to a rock band who wants to be enigmatic and let the music do the talking?
I'm more interested in being performative and theatrical than being the girl-next-door. Many of my greatest inspirations, aesthetically and musically, are people like Kate Bush, David Bowie and Elton John. So while I do consider myself to be down-to-earth and warm in a "hamish" sort of way, and want to create a sense of community via my work as a whole, I also like to have a sense of mystery and magic about the process. Therefore, I do think carefully about what I share and conversely, keep to myself.
So I guess the short answer to your question would be "not necessarily". An enigmatic rock band could still post enigmatic spiel on their Twitter or have a rep give away tickets on a street corner in NYC and still cause quite a stir, while a singer-songwriter could be chatting constantly about their daily endeavours and not really ‘connecting’ much beyond a certain point.
I think Amanda Palmer and Imogen Heap have shown a particular acumen in terms of using the social networks to inspire and keep fans engaged while still appearing dignified, and enigmatic and unpredictable as musicians. They take risks and are innovative in every area of their careers, including the way they engage with fans online.
How do you record your albums – do you hire a studio or do you have your own recording facilities?
I self-produce my albums, and I tend to cut basic tracks - usually drums, bass and piano - at a studio - often The Carriage House in CT - and then do vocals and other overdubs in local ‘project studios’, which are cheaper obviously. I know quite a few friends/peers with gear that's decent enough to complete projects ongoing at reasonable rates, and I do also have the ability to record and edit, myself, on a no-frills system of my own. But I don't have a lot of gear, so I mostly use my rig for editing, pre-mixing and recording background vocals.
When I first started making records and running a label, I had one foot firmly in the jingle business, and worked for several years as a jingle-writer, voiceover artist and singer, which helped me fund my first several projects and made it possible for me to launch the label. I haven't pursued that kind of work actively for several years, but it did help me get my bearings. I learned a lot about recording, layering vocals and overall music production by working in that end of the biz.
How much involvement do you have with your artwork, photography and website design?
I am very involved. I've designed almost all my own album covers and I also graphic-design my website. I don't know the first thing about html programming though so I collaborate on that end of things with a very talented techie named Micah Freedman. But I'm a Photoshop and Quark freak.
I have enormous respect for photographers, it's such a fascinating, magical medium, and I love helping set-up concepts and art directing photoshoots. I think I have a good eye but I don't actually shoot, so I'm grateful that over the years I've met some pretty amazing photographers and we've continued to do good work together.
Tom Moore, for instance, was one of the first people I met when was first trying to break into the NY scene as an actress, and he's shot several of my album covers, as well as Seth Glier's latest.
Your artwork and designs combined with your music, shows and even your tweets helps project a distinctive unified image and personality. When we spoke to Panos Panay of Sonicbids recently he said that having a distinct identity and narrative are vital in terms of developing a meaningful relationship with a fan base. You must therefore be conscious of the Rachael Sage’‘brand’ and the power it has in promoting yourself as an artist?
I must, huh? [laughs]. When you put it like that it seems logical, though I have a much better sense of when I feel inspired and like I'm connecting genuinely with my fanbase. I feel inspired when what I'm creating is honest, thoughtful and when I've done my very best - which encompasses a whole litany of expectations, for me personally i.e. preparation, meditation, meticulousness, etc.
In terms of identity I think the thing I want to come through most is that I care, that I'm aiming to use whatever gifts I've been given to create something beautiful, funny, poignant, colourful - whatever it is I'm trying to do with any given song, production or project. I care so much it borders on obsessiveness.
I wouldn't call it power really but I suppose there is a certain power inherent in any attempt to connect, however humbly, with other like-minded/hearted people. I used to be in the jingle business though, so when I think of ‘power’ and ‘branding’, I think of something very different from indie music!
Interviewed by Barry Wheels
Photo by Amy Chace
Next week: How do you get your music featured on TV shows? We get the lowdown from music supervisor Greg Debonne
Read On ...
* Rock band Sore Eyes on how they built their huge underground following
* Hotly tipped hip-hop artist Skewby on how he became star of The Source and the blogs
* Sonicbids creator Panos Panay on taking advantage of the Internet's power to connect