How to make it in the music biz.
Never Give Up On Your Dreams.
It is not easy to survive in the music industry today without the backing of a major record label, but folk rocker Melissa Ferrick has defied the odds. At 20, Ferrick was offered a deal with Atlantic Records, but when her first two records didn't make it big she was unceremoniously dropped from the label. After some soul-searching in the 1990s, Ferrick came back stronger than before, and started her own record label, Right on Records, in 2000.
Many young musicians coming up in the business today see Ferrick as a living inspiration--with a strong fan base, an intense touring schedule and a continuing passion for songwriting. Her latest self-produced release is the album Listen Hard. Her top five tips are included below:
No. 1: Always Have a Demo Tape
Being on the road, I probably meet a musician every day who wants to open for me. I can't tell you how many times that happens, and they don't have a demo with them. It's the simple things that young musicians overlook. ... When I first started, I was told to always have a tape on me and that came in handy when I opened for Morrissey. I only had one gig with him in 1991, and really it was a last-minute slot. I brought a tape with me, and little things, like putting your phone number on the actual tape, really work. ... I met him and then I handed him a tape. That started my career. He listened to the tape and then he called me and I got the rest of the tour. Strange things like that do happen to people. We listen to every single CD that we get because we're in a van, and honestly, we listen to all the same records all the time, so anytime someone gives us a new CD we'll listen to it in the van. And 99 percent of the time, we don't get through three songs ... but that 1 percent of the time ... I end up working with them and becoming friends. ... Always have your music on you, because you just never know who is going to walk down the street or who you are going to meet.
No. 2: Get on the Road
The touring thing is the most important, from my perspective, especially with the way the music industry is nowadays. Unless you're a 17-year-old girl who is willing not to write any of her own material, it seems pretty difficult to get signed. If you're in a band, and you love what you do, and you just love driving around with your friends and playing gigs anywhere, anytime--that's really what it's about. You have to be completely dedicated. You have to have it in your soul that that's what you're supposed to do, so you just keep doing it no matter what--if it pays 20 bucks or if it doesn't pay at all, or if you have drive 12 hours through the night to get to the show. I mean, we still do stuff like that.
For me, in the last six years it has been mostly about taking regions of the country. The Northeast is a great region and so is the Northwest, actually. There are so many markets to play just within a four-hour drive. We just concentrate on that and do the same loop every six to eight weeks. I did the United States for two years, and I did every major city every six weeks. I would come back through and come back through--I just kept wrapping around and around the country. I booked myself for years. It was just a matter of calling up and getting the gig.
No. 3: Be Yourself
It's really important to not be spoiled, and not be bitter, and not act like rock stars. ... I won't work with anybody who acts like an asshole. There's just not a bigger turnoff to me than somebody with an attitude. So I'd try to stay humble about it, be appreciative and just be you. I think it's hard for a lot of people to be themselves when the music industry in some ways is supposedly about being bigger than self, being mysterious, being untouchable, or being intangible. ... I think what people are really into, especially for songwriters, or from a songwriting perspective, is really the tangibility of it.
No. 4: Open Mikes Are Your Best Bet
Because I'm from Boston, I was clearly from a town with a great music scene. Lots of bars to play and lots of open mikes. Definitely open mikes are the way to start. ... It might take six months of doing the same open mike every Tuesday night before you get your first opening slot for a band that's coming through. And you're not going to get paid, but that's the only way to do it. So, that's exactly what happened to me. I played an open mike for about four months in Boston, and then I got an opening slot, and then I got another opening slot. It was just a process like that.
No. 5: When the Going Gets Tough ...
I'm convinced what helped me get through it was getting to a point where I hit bottom in all regards. I hit bottom with using [alcohol] and with music where I was alone and I had nothing and I lost all the outside stuff. But what really lifted me off my feet was when I lost a connection with myself. When I felt empty. I didn't have music I didn't have a label, I didn't have a manager, I didn't have any money, I broke up with my girlfriend, I was living in one room-it was terrible. And really sitting there on the floor by myself. I think everybody has moments like this. ... It was like, "I', lost and I don't know what to do," and the only answer that I had in my head was, "I'm a musician. I have to be a musician." And I don't think I knew that before that point, because I'd been taken care of. I was kind of picked up at 20-you know, playing Wembly in Madison Square Gardens, sleeping at the Four Seasons Hotel is not working as a musician.
Learn HOW TO GENERATE A Buzz
Ever wonder why some bands seem to get their names splashed around on every talk show and magazine, while others languish unknown? Some of this is due to sheer luck and talent, but getting the right publicity for an artist is most often the work of professionals like Vickie Starr and her straight-girl pal and business partner, Felice Ecker.
In 1994, the two women founded Girlie Action Media and Marketing, a New York-based company that now represents some of the top lesbian bands in the business, as well as an impressive roster of more mainstream DJs, rock groups and record labels.
Starr, a lesbian who turned 40 in May, is uniquely qualified to lead such a company. She's had her finger on the pulse of both the "womyn's" and mainstream music scenes for a good long time. In 1990, she was living in New York doing DJ gigs, producing "Motherlode," a women's rock show on public radio, and serving as music editor at the now-defunct but once-influential queer weekly Outweek. She also wrote one of the first biographies of performer k.d. lang, k.d. lang: All You Get Is Me, and co-founded Strong Women in Music, a nonprofit dedicating to promoting female musicians.
It was at SWIM that Starr met Ecker, whose one-woman music publicity business (founded in her living room in 1994) was quickly expanding. Ecker asked Starr to come aboard as partner, and the rest is herstory!
With Ecker as what Starr calls "the face of the company" and herself as the "back end," focusing on the company's structure and administration, the duo has successfully grown into a nationally known company of artist representation. Currently looking for larger offices after outgrowing their present Manhattan digs, Girlie Action now employs 17 people, both men and women, gay and straight. "Our name is misleading," says Starr, who points out that the name is a play on a line from a Rolling Stones song, and not a missive about their clientele.
Girlie Action's client roster has recently included popular bands such as They Might Be Giants and No Doubt, as well as women's bands and singers like Peaches, Chicks on Speed, Beth Orton, the Butchies and Le Tigre. They also represent popular DJs like Felix da Housecat and do promotion for music labels such as Kitty Yo Records.
The services of a company like Girlie Action do not come cheaply. Starr says for a "full-scale national campaign," their services cost between $2,500 and $3,000 a month, with a three-month minimum. A small band could therefore expect to spend upwards of $7,500, not including expenses such as promotional CDs, phone calls, and mailings. "This would be overkill for anyone who's not already going to have a record out getting national distribution," Starr says.
Starr recommends that before musicians even think of hiring a company such as hers, they must already be in a place to benefit from such services. Most importantly, she says, the group must already have a recent CD out. "What's the point in getting press if there's no product to sell?" she asks. Bands should also already have a record distributor, a growing fan base, a national tour under their belts, and a few press clips to prove that they're getting noticed. Without these basic factors in place, a band would be better off representing themselves. Of her company's efforts and publicity in general, says Starr, "Timing is everything."
Girlie Action has made its mark in a field that has typically been dominated by men. No doubt part of that is due to the tireless energy of Starr, a vivacious woman who co-parents two young children with her former partner, writer Linda Villarosa, in addition to having a busy professional and social life. And despite harder overall economic times, her company continues to grow, turning away a good amount of business. In fact, out of every 10 artists who approach Girlie Action for representation, the company usually selects only one to work with. Besides being at the right place for representation, the band's music, says Starr, "has to really resonate for us." And if, in fact, it does, you can bet you'll be hearing that music soon!
Don't Be Afraid To Do It Yourself
With a goal of making "punk rock more feminist and academic feminism more punk rock; Allison Wolfe and her friends Molly Neuman and Erin Smith set out to form the riot grrrl band Bratmobile back in 1991. The band became an overnight sensation as mainstream media sources tried to define this new wave of feminist activity, but increasing pressure caused the band to break up onstage in 1994. In 1998, however, after numerous conversations about their disappointment with the sexist state of music (i.e., Limp Bizkit), the girls reunited.
Two years later, missing the collective power that the riot grrrl movement originally brought to the forefront, Wolfe started the wheels in motion to put on the first Ladyfest music event in Washington, D.C. "We can be the talent, we can be the organizers, we can be the security, we can pull this whole thing off together," thought Wolfe. Since then, Ladyfest has taken off in several other cities, each one organized with the same do-it-yourself spirit that infused that first event.
Wolfe is currently on tour with Bratmobile through the summer, with definite stops at Ladyfests in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The group is currently promoting their new album, Girls Get Busy, the band's second release on Lookout Records.
Q: What's your advice to women who are thinking of organizing a music festival in their hometown?
First of all, I think it's really important for people to get together and just have an initial meeting, and talk about what your goals are and try to come to some conclusions. What are you really trying to achieve? Figure out what's possible, and be realistic about that. And also take some initiative, do some outreach and try to figure out who you can incorporate in this and how you can all work together. ... This is really hard work and a lot of times, it's really thankless work. You have to kind of be prepared for that. ... You need to be able to give each other the benefit of the doubt, cut each other some slack and not be too controlling or too harsh with each other. Which I think is often what happens, because especially as women, we're often taught not to trust each other. We have not, especially in this society, been taught to work together very easily. We haven't been taught those skills. We're taught that there is not enough room for all of us, which I think all oppressed people are taught.
Q: What do you think has changed in the riot grrrl/punk scene since you started?
It's hard to say. I don't want to invalidate riot grrrl. In a lot of ways, it's sort of synonymous with feminism, and I don't want to say that feminism ever goes out of date or is just a fad or something. ...There is just so much going on with punk-rock feminists and queer feminists. I think that's really like the new wave. I think there is a lot more strength in that right now. ... That's where all the excitement is and it has been for the past several years.
Q: What is your advice to aspiring female musicians out there who want to start their own band?
When we started, it seemed like the whole independent music scene was so much more D.I.Y. And it was so much more acceptable to do things that way. You just kind of created these networks through friendships, meeting people, making phone calls, writing letters and fanzines and stuff.... I think now a lot more bands need to have booking agents, people with sort of bargaining power. ... I wish that more marginalized people in general, in every sense of the word, could feel encouraged to get together to organize, create and put things out that speak to what their experiences are. I think it's most important to just stay true to that, but also try to get some business sense about it. I don't know exactly what that sense always is, but you learn after a while. And I think you can do a lot with self-promotion and self-publicizing -- making fliers. Maybe you work somewhere with a Xerox machine -- very D.I.Y.