(left to right) Bobby Borg, Gilli Moon, Aventurina King, and Mark Steiner (far right) all seem a little amused as Sydney Alston (2nd from right) makes a funny point during the Success Is Not An Accident Panel at the TAXI Road Rally.
Panelists: Bobby Borg, Gilli Moon, Aventurina King, Sydney Alston, Mark Steiner
Moderator: Michael Laskow
Bobby Borg is a former major label, independent, and DIY recording/touring artist with over 25 years experience working along side the most respected managers, producers, and A&R executives in the music industry. He served as the VP of Special Events for the Los Angeles chapter of the American Marketing Association, and as Chairman of Music Business at Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, California. A recipient of UCLA Extension’s Distinguished Instructor of the Year Award, Borg teaches DIY music marketing, music publishing, and general music business classes both online and on-campus and he speaks regularly at Berklee College of Music and other distinguished schools worldwide. Borg is the author of Music Marketing For The DIY Musician, Business Basics For Musicians, and over 1,000 magazine and blog articles for Billboard.com, Hypebot, SonicBids, Music Connection, Disc Makers, Band Zoogle, and more. He is the founder of Bobby Borg Consulting, where he assists rising music professionals globally. He lives in Los Angeles.
Gilli Moon is a singer, songwriter, artist, and producer. She has worked with highly respected artists such as Simple Minds, Placido Domingo, Eric Idle, and will.i.am, and is a songwriting award winner in the Netherlands, U.S., and Australia. Her songs have been featured in independent films and network U.S. television programs, and she has released six albums. She is the President of Songsalive! (a nonprofit songwriters organization), CEO of record label Warrior Girl Music, and a certified professional coach. She has three books out, the most recent of which are, Just Get Out There and The 360 Degree Songwriter.
Aventurina King is a singer/songwriter/producer working in both Los Angeles and China. Before moving to Los Angeles one year ago, she worked in China as an artist and TV personality, during which time she appeared on every single national TV platform and graced the pages of Cosmo Bride and the Chinese New York Times equivalent. Since her move to LA, she has written and sung two entire albums for Warner Brothers Production Music, and her songs have been synched in an upcoming Disney movie, as well as a videogame. She just got a cut with South Korea’s biggest girl’s band of the moment, Red Velvet, for their next album under S&M entertainment. Recently, she’s begun releasing her own songs as an artist, one of which was recently featured on Spotify’s “Fresh Finds” playlist.
Sydney Alston has 20-plus years of experience in all facets of the music business, which has made him an in-demand music resource for artists in Los Angeles and around the country. In 2001, he was hired by Disc Makers, the industry leader in CD and DVD Manufacturing, and quickly rose through the ranks and became the first executive in the Los Angeles branch of Disc Makers, representing all the AVL brands including cdbaby, and Merch.ly. Sydney started his career as a touring musician, and then opened a management company where he represents artists and producers. As a manager, Sydney has set up many Major Label and Publishing showcases with companies like Universal, Warner Brothers, Sony, etc. He has been responsible for getting multiple record label and publishing deals. As a direct result of his efforts, he was responsible for developing 16-year-old old Major Myjah, and getting him signed to a lucrative recording contract with Warner Brothers records in 2014. One of the producers he works with, Frederik Thaae, produced a song that won the Eurovision award for “best song” which propelled Frederik and Emily Deforester’s song, Only Tear Drops to Number One in 11 countries.
Mark Steiner is the CEO and co-founder of GigSalad, the most diverse booking platform nationwide. His career in the entertainment industry has spanned more than thirty years, including a decades-long stint booking talent for performing arts centers, festivals, and concerts through the agency he founded.
Bobby, everybody in the room has heard the word branding, but very few people that I know really understand what branding is. In the context of building a successful career as an artist, and in the broader sense of the word, can you tell us what branding really means?
Bobby: Branding is the process of creating an image in the minds of your target audience. And the way you would do that is by putting forth an identity, and the way that that identity is perceived is in an image—a brand image. So you have to be very careful about what you are putting out there. These messages can be both tangible or intangible. So, starting with maybe the more tangible thing—obviously the name that you have—is going to work at branding your company. For example, this morning I was explaining the importance of a brand to some people coming out of my class. It can be just in the name itself. You want to convey what it is about your company in the name if possible. I used the example that if you’re a songwriter and you’re very quick at turning around material, you probably don’t want to name your company “Slow Music,” or something of that nature.
That demonstrates how everything you do can leave an impression in the minds of your target audience. You can do that through a name; you can do it through a logo; you can do it through a slogan; some people go as far as having mascots. And then of course, we get into more of the intangible things. For example, the experience you leave with your target audience with. And that could be whether or not after the show you take time to talk to them, to shake their hands, to speak with them. All of these things are going to leave an impression in the minds of your audience, so you want to make sure that everything you do is aligned with your values and what you stand for. It’s very, very important. So literally, everything you do is going to be a reflection of your brand.
Great advice. I’ve got to say my own context, TAXI; the company is called TAXI because it’s gets to where you are to where you want to go. But the bigger reason I named the company TAXIwas that everybody knows the word. It’s one of only nine universal words on the planet earth, which I didn’t know at the time. I just knew it was pretty ubiquitous, and I figured everybody could pronounce it. But then again, you get Spotify, which was a made-up word, but it stuck. Twitter, kind of made-up, and it stuck.
So an interesting thing about branding—you and I have spoken about this before—is that eventually if you do a good job in the front end of branding, the consumers will grab hold of your brand and they define it further. We’ve noticed that with TAXI. We used to think it was just about access—getting your music to the right people—but it has become TAXI is a great education, because of the Road Rally and TAXI TV. Can that also be applied from a branding perspective to an artist, where they think they’re a singer/songwriter, but they become a pop artist because the audience tends to think they are?
Bobby: Well, I think ultimately, you’re putting forth an experience; you are putting forth this identity to your audience. And then your audience almost creates sort of a “family.” I mean, this [pointing to the audience] is like a TAXI community; this is part of a family now. You’ve kind of created this TAXI Family, just like The Grateful Dead created the Deadheads. We could go on with examples like that. It starts to take on a life of its own. So essentially you might brand yourself initially as one thing, and then the artist starts to grow from that, and build from that, and you start to expand, and you start to grow your brand, so to speak.
Of course, another factor to consider too is that once you do find a brand, you have to consider whether or not you need to build and keep on growing from that brand. The danger is you keep on working the same thing that worked for a period of four or five years, and then things start to change in the world and you keep on trying to hold on to that one thing that you were successful with, and that can be dangerous. So Madonna was a great example of someone that keeps on trying to reinvent herself over time. Lady Gaga, she made some incredible changes recently when we saw her come out with Tony Bennett. So that’s another thing that you have to be very careful about, while at the same time not losing your core audience as well, which is very challenging. This is not easy, but it definitely demonstrates how you always have to be aware of everything you are putting forth, because all of that is going to leave an image in the mind of the customers.
"Everything you do is going to be a reflection of your brand." Bobby Borg
Gilli, most artists who want to pursue the indie artist path have a huge obstacle in their path, and that obstacle is that they need to earn enough income to survive. How can they transition from that part-time indie artist to a full-time indie artist that can walk away from his or her day job?
Gilli: Great question. First of all, the music business has so many opportunities to make money, and each and every one of you, and every one of us can make money in this business. So having that belief system is the very first primary thing you need to have to know that you are worthy of that, and that you can go and get that money. Now, where do you get it?
So the next piece is really getting clear with your brand, getting clear with who you are, and getting clear with what you want. Because the money—or being able to transition from day job to music world—you’ve really got to be particular. You’ve got to figure out where is it that your niche is going to be to get that money—whether you’re going to be the songwriter, as we’ve talked about so much this weekend, and earning money there; whether it’s the artist and you’re going to go on the road or sell albums, or get into the Spotify playlist world. It starts with multitasking a little bit. So that’s the short answer. You might be in a day job, but you’re starting to think, to focus on wanting to do this fulltime.
Believe me, I was there and I did this. I started doing little things in different areas, and I was like that Chinese circus plate-spinner. Spinning a plate, and all of a sudden you get a plate going, and then you get another plate going, and then another plate. All of a sudden there would be all these plates going. But what’s amazing is that when you have these plates all spinning, at some point you can step back and start to get passive income from these. And all of a sudden these income streams start coming in. You’ve got money coming in on your PayPal; you’ve got a sync in a movie; you’ve been booked at a gig; you’re getting charts maybe or not; you’re getting paid to do something; maybe you’re recording for someone; maybe you’re toplining someone.
I’m just giving examples of like a multidimensional artist or songwriters doing various things. And it’s so weird, because at some point you go, “Oh, maybe I don’t need a full-time job; maybe I’ll get a part-time job, and then I’m doing a little more of that. Then all of a sudden, you’re now a full-time artist.
Thanks. So Aventurina, I’ve been in the industry for 43 years, and I’ve got to say you are the winner of the “Michael Laskow’s Really Impressed With How You’ve Become Successful Award.” Did you just wake up one day and say to yourself, “I want to be a star, but I can see the typical options have lots of problems. So I’m going to learn Chinese and become a star there, because I’ll be the only tall, pretty blonde lady in the marketplace”?
Aventurina: No, I did not. And still—at this moment—I think I’m like everybody here. We’re all just trying to find the path that’s right for us, and we do it by stumbling.
Most of us have not been on Cosmo. I’ve seen you on Chinese TV. I mean, most of us have not had these experiences.
A: I was honestly very lucky. I had this passion for China, and then I just decided after college to move over there. And then I just sort of fell into it, because up until recently, China has been a pretty difficult country to get into, and there wasn’t really anybody else like me. I was totally unqualified for everything I was doing there. In college I studied Chinese and journalism, so I wasn’t really qualified to be an artist; I wasn’t really qualified to be a TV host. But because I was the only person there like that, everybody was like, “OK, can you do this?” and I was like, “OK.” So then that sort of became the career.
But now after my priorities in life shifted and I realized that I want to come back home, I don’t want to be an expatriate all my life. [laughing] You want to come back, because China’s eastern culture is very different. So starting at 28, realizing, OK, I want to come back. And then being like, OK, I’m in L.A. and I’m 30 and I’m coming into the music industry, and that has its challenges. That’s the path that I’ve been on.
"The music business has so many opportunities to make money, and each and every one of you, and every one of us can make money in this business." Gilli Moon
Interesting, though. Who was it that said, “When everybody else zigs, you need to zag”? It’s so true, because you’re getting gigs in production-music libraries because you can sing in Chinese, you can write in Chinese. That’s not the only reason, but you bring something to the table that other people can’t. So that’s a really cool thing, because that market is obviously going to explode.
A: Yes, it has been very interesting. Coming back here to Los Angeles, honestly, I never imagined that Chinese would be something that would be useful to me. I wasn’t thinking that I would start over from scratch, but because there is so much money coming in from the Chinese market to Hollywood, that was why at that point a lot of movies needed—and still need—songs in Chinese. But that was kind of like my first gig, coming in here writing all those songs. And from then people are like, “Oh, well, you can do that, but what about in English?” So that’s how I started getting work in English also, and progressively moving to again to less of a niche market.
Matt Hirt, who is definitely one of our top five most successful TAXI members, and he has probably been our most long-term successful member. Matt’s brilliance is that he went after things like Italian songs or Chinese songs. And he would find himself—and still finds himself—Chinese singers, singers that can actually help write the lyric and sing the song. So if you have not met him yet, I need to introduce you to him.
Aventurina: Thank you, TAXI. [laughter]
Matt are you in here? Stand up and meet Aventurina.
A: Hello, I can speak Chinese. I speak Italian, just so you know. [laughter]
All right. Sydney, so many people turn their noses up at major record label deals. It’s like, “Ew, record labels. I wouldn’t sign with a major record label.” But I don’t think I’ve ever truly met an artist who, if they had a major label contract shoved in front of them, wouldn’t sign it. It used to be as simple as do they have three songs? Do they have a front person who really stands out? And do they have a great live show? If they have those things, I’m interested in signing them. Is it still like that, or is it now much more based on social media, YouTube, that sort of thing?
Sydney: Well, it depends on a lot of different things. I think that if you’re 16 years old and you have a hit song, you don’t need a million followers on Instagram or YouTube. But that’s a very small portion of people who are good enough to actually get a record deal. For everybody else, you have to work hard. You have to build an audience. They are looking for people now who have an audience on their own audience, and great songs. So just because you have a big audience, but you don’t have a great song or… What the record labels are looking for are songs that they can play on the radio, songs that can cross over into different playlists on Spotify and Google Play and that kind of stuff. If you don’t have one of those songs, you can always work with producers who can produce that, who will work with you if you do have a big enough following. If you have toured, if you have over ten thousand or more subscribers on YouTube, you have the song, a great video and have a great visual, and you have a body of work.
I heard a story recently about an artist that they picked up on. YouTube only had one song, got signed to Warner Bros. for a one-song deal, and that’s all they got. After that song kind of fizzled out, so did their deal. So they didn’t make a lot of money. As a matter of fact, they would have been better off on their own. Warner Bros. got all the money for the song, and they don’t have anything else. I’m not going to mention the name of the artist, but they’re brand is based on that single song, which was kind of quirky and nothing like any of their other songs.
So to get a record deal today I think you’ve got to have great songs, just like you did a long time ago—hit songs, if you can pull that off—have a great look, and you also want to have some type of a fan base.
Read Part Two in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!