Edited by Michael Laskow
Tony VanVeen, Executive Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Disc Makers
Gilli Moon, Indie artist
Derek Sivers, Founder/CEO, CD Baby
Lydia Hutchinson, Moderator, Publisher/Editor, Performing Songwriter Magazine
Mike Farley, Publicist for Indie artists
Fett, Indie Engineer/Producer
As I began to edit this panel transcript, I quickly realized the answers were long, but filled with gems every step of the way. I've intentionally left the answers unedited, and have chosen to run this interview as a three-part series. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.
Lydia: I want to start out with Fett, who I've known for over 12 years. Basically, Fett has gone from one completely different career to this, to live his life in music. I would like for you to tell us what that process of deciding to live your life this way and how different it looks now than it did when you were dreamin' of it.
Fett: Well, one of the first things I learned that was a fallacy or a myth was that my day job was my enemy. I started as a software architect for General Electric back in 1981, which doesn't seem to have a whole lot to do with the music business. But one thing that having a day job really taught me that I didn't realize until after the fact, was that it taught me structure—it taught me how to run a business, it taught me discipline, it taught me a lot of things about personal skills. And the bigger the corporation, the more you're going to get those kinds of things, and a lot of the training was for free.
But I got this strange idea in my head back in the 1980s that I wanted to have a fulltime career in music someday, and I started thinking long-term. I thought, "I've got this day job that provides me a salary and some security and things like that, but it's definitely not what I want to do with my life. So, how can I make it work for me?" And I found out that my division of GE had an office in Nashville, so I requested a transfer, and they said, "OK. Would you mind if we pay for it?" So they settled on both of the houses and all that kind of stuff and moved me to Nashville. I spent the next eight years—I'd already been with GE for 12 years at that point—basically working myself out of my day job. Initially I got a deal where I got to work my 40 hours in four days instead of five, which meant I could start devoting time to building my studio business one day a week. After a couple of years of that I managed to prove that it could be done, and I was still a worthy employee, so I said, "Why don't we go to three days? But I still want to be a full employee. I'll just cut my salary 25% and I'll do 30 hours, but in three days." And they said, "OK." I managed to do that for another five years.
The point is that I thought creatively about my day job. Your day job can pay for your gear, give you contacts, give you travel opportunities that you might not have—when you get to wherever it is for your day job, and do some music networking while you're there. So that was a big lesson for me. GE basically, over a period of 20 years, put me in a position where I am financially secure for later in life, but they also financed everything along the way—all my gear, my studio, all my everything. So think about your day job as your biggest friend.
Another thing I learned was to be an independent in the music industry—whether you're a studio owner or an artist or a publicist or anything like that—you have to diversify and specialize at the same time. And this is a tricky balance, but you've got to wear a lot of hats. You're running the whole show now, so you have to make sure that you have enough products and services—if you want to call it that—in your business to support a market out there. But at the same time, you need to make sure that you don't spread yourself too thin.
Once you've got your products and services identified—for most of us that means our music CDs and our merchandise and things like that—then you have to find something that makes you different or unique or that you're really good at. That includes things like coming up with some kind of name or angle or an identity that's all your own. My wife describes her music as "mutt music" because she got tired of people always asking her what she does. So she came up with a unique term, mutt music, which means a conglomeration of all sorts of things. And she became "Miss Mutt Music."
Yesterday a guy came up to me—his name is Brian—and said, "Can I give you some of my music to listen to?" I said, "Sure," and he handed me a Creative Nomad MP3 Player, and he said, "There's my demo." So he gave me not only the music but the player, and it was this big. That's creative, that's getting an identity. I will always remember this guy as the guy who had a really cool way of promoting his music. He didn't waste the thing. He asked me first and knew I actually wanted to hear the music, and the really great thing was he had the chops to back it up. His stuff is great. But it's thinking creatively and coming up with a specialized way of doing things that identifies you uniquely while you're diversifying your work.
I also mentioned thinking long-term. Thinking long-term means the difference between saying, "I'll do whatever it takes to make it," versus, "I'll work however hard and long it takes to make it." There's a big difference, and the biggest one is... My wife and I both decided—she's also in the music industry—really, really early on that we wanted to make friends in the music business, not just contacts, and that means it takes longer. So, we didn't run up to people and say, "Hey, here's my music," or get all over them and try to get them to do things for us when they really had no reason to because they didn't know us. Some people it took us five, 10 years to get to know well. But those people we know well now are really truly our friends. They're not just our acquaintances or our contacts in the music business, and it's really made the difference for our own longevity.
One other thing I'll add here—then feel free to pipe in here Derek—is that the way I view working as an independent now under today's new model is 15 years ago you had about 1% control over your success or failure. You had 1% control over your destiny as an artist, as whatever you happen to be, and the other 99% went to the publisher or the label or the manager or whoever else was in charge of your life, and now it's exactly the opposite. If you take advantage of the opportunities that are out there—and there are literally thousands of them available just on the Internet today—you suddenly have 99% control of your success or your failure. Your biggest competition out there is not all the other millions of artists or the big labels or anything else. Your biggest competition is you and the lack of action you might take, because it's hard to get up every morning and decide, "Oh gee, I have to be accounting and payroll and public relations and shipping and everything else." But that's what it takes to do it, and if you take the action, it's pretty much guaranteed in today's world that you're going to be completely successful. And the great thing is you own it all when you are.
Derek: Those are really four brilliant points. That was some of the best stuff I've heard in a long time. The part where you said about finding your niche, there was a book written once called Positioning. The authors' last names are Ries and Trout. They had a brilliant, succinct point about finding your niche, which was the example of Nyquil. Nyquil apparently made some cold medicine that worked, and that nighttime aspect wasn't in there from the beginning. It was just this cold medicine that they thought was pretty damn good, but the grocery store shelves were filled with so many cold medicines that they said that they needed a niche, an angle. Then when they came up with the nighttime angle, and all of a sudden... It's almost like when you create an angle so strongly like that it almost puts everybody else... It's like imagine a typical pie chart, and imagine there are 30 different cold medicines in there, each with a little tiny slice of the pie, and if you all of a sudden say, "Yeah, all those guys, they're for the daytime, we're for the nighttime." Then all of a sudden you've pushed everybody else into half of the pie and you've got this whole pie to yourself. An example would be like if you're running a recording studio in Chicago, and there are like 50 recording studios in Chicago, and you say, "All those other guys, those are for everything else; we're for drums. We're the specialists at drums. That's what we do. We're the best at it. Go anywhere else when you're looking for anything but drums. But if you want drums, you come to the expert." This really applies to an artist's career too, so write down Nyquil and riff on that later.
Lydia: I'm gonna keep on with you, Derek, and ask you a specific question about the struggle of actually being a business person when you're a creative person because that's just a reality. For the most part, it is not what we creative people love to do. Sometimes we're good at it; sometimes we can learn to love it. But how do we start being the business person after we've had our creation, and at what point can we start getting other people to do that work so we can get back to the creative part.
Derek: Let me use a reverse example first. Picture the typical kind of person who's been an accountant for 30 years and decides they want to start making music. Sorry to kind of stereotype, but imagine the kind of music that you'd expect that person to make. It's kind of like playing all the correct chords, singing the C, G, E, and they're doing everything by the book. As a musician—especially if you've been a musician making music for 20 years—you kind of feel bad for the person. They must be just starting out because they're so stiff, just doing everything by the rules.
But I think that's how a lot of musicians look when trying to become business people. Your business needs to be as creative as your music. I mean, business is just as creative as anything, except that a lot of musicians are creative when they're in the studio, when they're in their notebook, when they're at their instrument. A flurry of ideas, and then all of a sudden they kind of clam up and they go, "OK, I've got to do business now. The Billboard Guide to Touring and Promotion says that I should be doing everything just like this." And it's like all of a sudden you're actually kind of setting yourself up for failure, because you're doing everything by the rules, like the person who thinks they can only write a song with the regular ways of doing things.
Instead, you've got to learn how to loosen up and be creative and be improvisational in business, and learn how to kind of riff on things. Experiment and take chances and do what you're not supposed to do. Do the things that lots of people tell you not to do. Do things a different way. Everybody else is doing it this way, you're the one who's going to rebel against it and do it that way. So, you've got to learn how to become comfortable enough with business to riff on it, and really come into your own and be creative with it.
As far as delegating, I read this great interview with Moby like 10 years ago where somebody was asking him why he got so much more successful than his peers in the New York electronic music scene. There were a lot of people just like Moby—just as good as Moby—that are nowhere near as famous as Moby. I loved the way that he understood the question, and he defined it like this, "While the rest of my friends were busy trying to do everything themselves, hanging up flyers on telephone poles, booking all their own gigs, trying to be their own record label, trying to be their own publisher, trying to be their own whatever... while everybody was doing that, I spent the same amount of energy they were spending trying to do everything themselves, reaching other people who were the best at what they do. I spent months of hard work finding a great publisher; I spent months of hard, dedicated work finding a great publicist and a great record label and a great assistant and a great Web master or whatever. And a year later while all my friends were still hanging up flyers on telephone poles, I, after a year of hard work, had this great team of people behind me—each one the best at what they do—so that I could go back to being the best at what I do, which is being in my studio with the headphones on and making music."
While I totally agree with the kind of "you're the one driving the bus," you gotta understand that you can still be in control, but learn how to find other people to do the things that they're best at, because you just can't do it all yourself, you know. The "do it yourself" model also means hiring people to do the things that they're best at.
Fett: I'd like to make one quick comment here. The absolute #1 best source of free labor to help you do all sorts of things, to subcontract out, is your own fan base. People love to help the artist, and most likely you have lots of fans who are accountants and lawyers and doctors and teachers and people who do the types of jobs that you need, like publicity and what have you, just not in the music industry. You'd be amazed if you just ask how many people will step up to the bar and say, "I would love to help you with your newsletter. I would love to help with your marketing. I'd be absolutely honored to put your CD labels on for you," whatever the case may be. So don't forget your fan base.
Lydia: That's absolutely right. And the other thing too in addition to your fan base is this wonderful group is a community. There's a music community and then there's the independent artist or another community. Nobody's in this alone, and that's the beauty of it.