Julie Coulter, Insurance Broker and Consultant Gets Real about where musicians should direct their attention

JCoulter_Company_Logo Julie Coulter, Founder and Owner of J. Coulter & Company, Inc., fell into working with an important part of the music industry – insurance brokerage and consulting for artists. Although she set her sights on becoming an actress during her days at Emerson College in Massachusetts, Julie read Rolling Stone Magazine fervently. One article inspired her to fall in love with the music industry.

“I was stimulated by the fact that there was a man doing this [insurance brokerage for musicians], named Walter Howell. Walter took care of the Jacksons on their tour, right around the time that Michael’s hair caught fire during the shoot of the Pepsi commercial. I remember reading an article about him in Rolling Stone Magazine and thinking MY GOD! Rolling Stone is writing about this guy? Are they going to make this a regular – write about the insurance people to the stars or what?” recounted Julie. “I thought, that the next time I saw something like that again in Rolling Stone, I wanted it to be about me.”

Julie’s father had an insurance business for musicians and was a pioneer in the field for what was then the emerging music business. He insured The Rolling Stones, he acted as the broker on the policy during the time The Who stampede happened in 1979, and also had Peter Frampton as a client. In 1985, Julie started working for her father. From there, she would get licensed for insurance, create a base of clients including Willie Nelson, Patti LaBelle, and continue with Peter Frampton. Throughout her career, Julie would also join several robust agencies, and help several artists along the way. Now, Julie has a portfolio of experience and a goldmine of information that Music Historian readers, especially performing artists, can find helpful. Keep reading, hear and listen to what Julie has to say in my question-and-answer interview.

Music Historian: Tell me a bit about your professional background.

Julie Coulter: I’ve gone from being in the big insurance brokerage realms to being the chief cook and bottle-washer of J. Coulter and Company. I started working for my father in 1985. I was living in Boston and after attending Emerson, took a class at Northeastern University, a Continuing Education class, for insurance and got my primary insurance certification. Then, I came home to New York to attend the Hill school of insurance and got my license. In the old days, I was licensed in all 50 states, but now I am licensed in 23.

I continued working for my Dad’s agency, Coulter and Groner, which merged with another firm called York International around 1987, the time he also passed away. After a few years with York, still servicing my father’s entertainment book of business. Then in the spring of 1989, I started my agency with a woman named Debra Kozee-Sands. Together we formed Coulter and Sands. When I left my father’s business, most of my entertainment clients came with me.

In 1996, I sold my ½ of the business to my partner, and went to work for a business in Chicago called Near North Insurance Brokerage, a nationwide firm that used to be the second largest entertainment insurance brokerage in the country. Here, I ran the music touring division, but I was the only one in that department in their NY office. I again bought my clients along to Near North, and took Near North associates from Chicago & LA offices to music touring conferences, where I introduced them to all of the concert promoters. Slowly, but surely, Near North started insuring these promoters during the formation of SFX Entertainment.

At the beginning of 2003, I left Near North and went to work for MusicPro, which was a different kind of agency. MusicPro was half-owned by a Long Island firm called Sterling & Sterling, now called Sterling Risk, and half owned by ASCAP. I brought most of my business from Near North into there, and I grew to love working with ASCAP, and getting involved with the musicians. That’s where I started to advocate more the little guy. I also started forming a different perspective. I worked with the Performance Rights Organizations and the individual bands and learned about their needs and how to address their needs. I wanted to make them think consciously. For example, on LinkedIn the other day, the lawyer, Wallace Collins posted the following:

“Musician: A person who puts $5K worth of instruments into a cheap broken-down car to drive 500 miles to a $50 gig.”

MH: Those things need to be insured just in case something happens…

Julie: Right. For a musician, that is one of the last things they think about. Unless it is put in their face and say “Oh, man. They’re right! I have $30K worth of equipment here, and if it gets stolen, what will I do?”

One of the reasons I went to MusicPro is because that agency has a musical equipment floater that cannot be beat.

MH: What is a floater?

Julie: A floater is an inland marine insurance policy that covers a specific item(s) that are not connected to one location.

MH: Just to make sure I have the right idea, is a floater specifically for transporting items across state borders?

Julie: Yes, pretty much. We tailored that floater to the musician, whether they played classical instruments, carried high valued instruments, played in a garage rock band, or whether one player slept in the car with their guitar and traveled from place to place.

Working at MusicPro helped me develop a new appreciation for this. Now, I say, I deal with everyone from the wannabe, to the has-been, to everyone in between.

I remember working from 9 to 5 for my father’s agency doing claims, and getting on the phone with Peter Frampton because he just hit a deer. That’s how exciting it got. I also worked with Patti LaBelle, who was a client until probably about five years ago. I had Willie Nelson for 20 years, who was my first big client.

MH: So, musicians don’t ask questions or get involved?

Julie: They get involved on a grassroots level. They’re going to play a local catering hall, and the venue says to them, “We’d love for you to play, but you need to have your insurance.” Normally, it is the business management, accountant, lawyers, or the manager – whoever is really looking after the band – or a booking agent who might have a new band out on the road traveling to play mostly colleges, performance arts centers, and catering halls, who are asked to provide certificates. We live in a very litigious society; it has become so common now to make everybody get insurance.

MH: What kind of worries do musicians usually have regarding insurance?

Julie: They have skepticism. They say, “I don’t want to spend my cash there…” Unless it is personal insurance for them, or their homes they do not get overly involved. Musicians very rarely get involved with their insurance, but they should have concerns.

I also handle promoter. There are [for example] restrictions on bad weather coverage. You must provide at least a ten days notice, or they [the insurance companies] won’t even bother insuring you. Theft, obviously, damage to a venue, any of those kinds of peril, is usually excluded because the general liability policy itself usually excludes properties that are in your custody or control. For a promoter that would be a venue, and they’d have to buy a policy that does address those restrictions.

MH: How has the insurance business within the music industry changed over the years?

Julie: The tech industry took us all. Compared to where technology is for other businesses, for insurance, they are still coming to grips with switching from instantaneous emails and attachments to completing website forms. My bookkeeper and I just discussed this… I call it “other people’s websites”. I went from being on the phone with “Person A,” and I would say “Person B” has done 22 tours to date. I will send Person A the itinerary. Here is the information. I hang up the phone and immediately tend to what I need to get done.

Now, I’ve got to go to Person A’s website, answer all of the questions, or I cannot get any further. It [technology] went from making everybody’s life easier to not. That is technology in general.

The wording started to change as events unfolded. For example, musicians at first worried about being an additional insured. Many thought “Oh if I am additionally insured on their policy, I am okay.” That was not true.

Insurance is also very event-oriented. The rate on insurance depends very much on the band’s genre. Someone getting up on stage with a guitar and an amplifier will not have as high a rate as a rapper, especially a gangster rapper.

MH: How come?

Julie: I said this to somebody the other day, “Rap gets a bad rap.” Nothing happens in the stadium where these musicians perform but, two blocks away from there, someone is getting hurt, and the police or the victim blame the concert. They might say, “Oh, a civilian was shot right by the rap concert.” There are stigmas that can affect the rates in the industry.

Moshing was another problem; people started getting hurt [by the masses at concerts]. If you see your friend from 30 feet away, you start smashing into another person’s body to get to them. Somebody is getting hurt, and the minute that happens, of course, the lawsuits start. Moshing, therefore, became excluded from policies.

The week I started at MusicPro, in 2003, the Station Fire in Warwick, Rhode Island, happened. The heavy metal band, Great White played at a club, where they included pyrotechnics. The guy who pulled the plugs on the fireworks, before they went off that night, worked for a client of mine. I used to tell him constantly; fireworks are not covered.

The station fire was a big game changer for many things in the business. I was being driven to the MusicPro office by my Boss’ driver. He asked, “Is that [the station fire] going to affect what they [MusicPro] do?” I answered, “Absolutely.”

One hundred people died in this club; the entire place burned down, and nobody had proper insurance. The case went so far to get Anheuser-Busch involved. [People] looked to sue who had money, and they had the deep pockets. Sure enough, pyrotechnics (except flashpots) were excluded from their policy. As a result of that incident, trying to get Great White insurance today is not easy.

Now, there has not been a major change in how things get done. What has happened more now, is the insurance industry is making changes within their coverage and policies based on world events instead of something local. I’ve seen companies go crazy in not knowing where to go with ratings or risks. If something happens, and you paid $1,000 for a policy last year, but this year, that same policy is $3,500. This happens, even to someone who has many claims, cancellation and non-appearance insurance.

Michael Jackson was incredibly difficult to insure. He had concerts he would just cancel, and the claim was Hell. When he passed away just about as he was going on tour, his insurers paid a pretty penny to get him cancellation and non-appearance insurance. Then, there was that whole problem about who had that money. Concert promoters lost some money and those dates.

Then, there was the question, “Did Michael Jackson commit suicide?” before ruling out any of the benefits from the policy. Yes, Dr. Murray went to jail for giving him the drugs, but was self-inflicted? Was this the result of negligence? Will your policy pay if it excludes these sorts of things? There is insurance that picks up these problems.

There are many levels to which you are insuring a show, for a musician or an event. I have found that many bands will play all of the festivals instead of [solely] touring. They tour the festivals, and if they play five during the summer because they are headlining, then that too changes the nature of the industry.

MH: Is there a difference between touring and playing at festivals? When you perform at festivals, do you fall under the festival’s insurance?

Julie: Yes/No. In the old days, the band would be covered by the festivals or promoter’s coverage. Not so anymore. Now they do a hold harmless where everyone carries their own insurance and you are responsible your actions, and then the festival picks up the rest of it.

These days since festivals are much more prevalent, a lot of musicians “tour” the festivals as opposed to doing an outright tour on their own.

MH: I’ve noticed that too with many musicians. Why do they only tour festivals?

Julie: That’s where they can headline, get a better dollar. For the ones who have been in the business for several years, they can make as much playing ten dates for ten festivals, as opposed to trucking their stuff around the country for three months. It is attractive. Most festivals offer second stages so that the younger emerging artists can get looked at or get new fans they might not get when they tour around on their own. Exposure is big, and these are places where you can become known.

MH: Returning to the topic that insurance is very event-oriented, would you say that like the music industry, it is volatile?

Julie: The players change, the names change, but the song remains the same. As intriguing as it is to insure different clients, the truth of the matter is, at the end of the day, it is still insurance. I’ve been blessed with good clientele whom I have had for twenty some odd years. The industry itself gets funky, and that’s when I have issues. My clients bring up rate increases and stuff like that. It is the same as any other insurance business except it is ten times more important that you get it done now.

I often hear, “The guys are picking up a van, but we don’t have van insurance for them…” Then I say, “Oh, I see. The guys are picking up the van tomorrow. You didn’t tell me they are on tour yet! Would you like to send me an itinerary, maybe we will cover this one?” It’s always a lot of laughs.

I [also] find a whole other ball game. The event people a week before the show call me and say “Oh, I didn’t realize I needed insurance for this!” Or, they might say, “Oh, I need $10M to cover this,” and then I respond, “You need this much? The band that is playing is only getting $100!” If the insurance is going to be more than the gig, they will not buy it like that.

MH: Do you work with negotiating?

Julie: Yes. I am a licensed consultant as well for insurance in New York. I am always amazed at what people sign before they realize what liability and responsibility they take on. I will often get back to my client and say “You should look at this and that, and why are they asking you for this? What are you really doing there? They want you to have $10M in insurance for a one hour gig involving you and a guitar.”

Many of my clients now, when they get a contract, send it to me for insurance purposes to make sure they have everything they need. Then, I might go back and say, “You don’t have those limits. Here is what it will cost you to get that.” After they hear this, they will go back to their party and talk it over.

MH: Aside from going to get certification for an Insurance License; what else would someone need to do to get involved in your line of work?

Julie: One of the other things I did which helped, I used to go to music conferences, like the one held by Pollstar Magazine. When I started at MusicPro, I went to Folk Alliance because musicians there had a lot of instruments, and we had a program for that. I became a member of Women in Music in the mid 90’s so that I could learn more about the music industry and understand what I needed to insure.

I took another Continuing Education class about the Music Business at Baruch College, to learn about all of the other facets of the industry. The professor who taught this class started SoundScan. It was a very multifaceted class; he brought in different managers. Between that and the professional women in WIM, which had peaked my interest.

MH: I also graduated from Baruch this past December. I got my Masters in Marketing at the Zicklin School of Business.

Julie: Oh, funny! They were one of the only schools – this was before you could get degrees in music industry – who taught classes specific to the industry. I also worked on the New Music Seminar, which was a whole different animal, and one of the bigger conferences. Places like that had an industry gathering.

MH: Do you hear myths that people often bring to the table when they first talk about why they want to get involved in the music industry?

Julie: I find that many come to this with a lot of naivety. I have been to conferences where people say, “Here is so-and-so, and he will be the next, whatever…” I also find that musicians as a general category – not to stereotype any single kind of musician – like anyone else, must research what they are doing, and take an interest in their tools and instruments.

About J. Coulter & Company Inc.

J. Coulter & Co. Inc., a “boutique” insurance agency with a niche in entertainment risks, specializes in coverage for the music and special event industries. This company’s mission is to provide accessible, affordable and understandable insurance coverage and consulting services for our clientele. These services include the following:

Consulting – Review contractual obligations and needs for insurance purposes. Oversee all policies, brokerage activities, claims, and any other insurance needs. Act as management liaison for all insurances.

Brokerage – Through a network of top agents and carriers, help clients find the proper coverage for the best pricing. Coverage involves:

– Insurance offerings for the entertainment industry with niche in Music Industry, Touring and Musicians
– Special Events
– Personal Lines Coverage
– Studios
– Errors & Omissions (all types entertainment related)
– Cyber-Liability & Cyber Security

Insurance Specialty Programs:

– Musical Instruments & Equipment
– Special Events (one offs; festivals, private and public events)
– Individual & Group Trip Travel Accidental plans

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The Best Artist Interviews of 2014!

You are right; I wrapped up the departing year yesterday with looking at what listeners found most interesting in New Music for 2014 regarding major music events in New York City. Now, I want to welcome the New Year with a look at which interviews Music Historian readers from everywhere, 88 countries including the U.S. (leading the pack), then Brazil, and Germany not far behind, found most exciting. Let’s start the countdown!

No. 5: Juicebox

Soul, a foundation that can’t go wrong: An interview with Juicebox members, Lisa, Nick, Isaac & Jamie

Juicebox Perform at the New Yorker Hotel (l-r): Isaac Jaffe, Lisa Ramey, Nicholas Myers, Aaron Rockers From the moment, they walk up on stage; people in the audience are ready to have a moment with Juicebox’s performance. In an industry full of maybes, one thing that will always be definite for this band – they will always give their listeners an unforgettable show and music that will move them.

 

 

 

No. 4: YUZIMA

A World of Wonderful Machines: The philosophy behind Yuzima’s new LP Yuzima poses for photo shoot, for his insta-album, BASH, to be released digitally on October 7th

YUZIMA wants to express the nature of machines – systems that leave little room to reinvent the wheel but at the same time require changes, usually brought about by the continuation of time, in order to survive.

 

 

No. 3: The Blackfoot Gypsies

The Blackfoot Gypsies: Modern Southern Rock That Helps You Release Internalized Feelings

 This Nashville-based group has the perfect American music that will help you temporarily lose yourself, feel the good and bad, beautiful and ugly, positive and negative emotions all at once. The energy from The Blackfoot Gypsies’ music vibrates in both their recordings and live performances.

 

 

 

 

No. 2: Kim Logan

Plugging into Modern Southern Rock: My Interview with Kim Logan 

Kim Logan has found her voice within the Southern and Classic Rock genre, and she flexes it freely. Whether listeners are attracted to her country songs, driving rock ‘n’ roll riffs, or blues-infused choruses, they are bound to hear the voice of a woman who delivers clever lyrics, thoughtfully written compositions, and warmly recorded sounds.

 

 

 

 

No. 1: Imagine Dragons

Imagine_Dragons Yes. This article is from two years ago. It still seems to attract new readers. Plus, why not celebrate this article a second time? 2014 was a big year for these guys too – they performed at the Grammys.

Opening Doors: Imagine Dragons’ Bassist, Ben McKee, talks about the band’s exciting journey

Ben McKee talks about the career-changing moments that have brought Imagine Dragons to this moment in time – recording a national album with producer, Alex Da Kid

Readers, thank you for a great year. Juicebox, YUZIMA, Kim, and Gypsies, thank you for the conversations and shows. Alyson Greenfield, Pam Lipshitz, and Pamela Workman thank you for the amazing experience at NMS. To everyone, Happy New Year!!!

Wrapping Up 2014: What People said about music, and what I wish to see in music reporting

In 2014, Music Historian experienced its most decorated year. The New Music Seminar opened opportunities to listen to industry experts. Through this event, I also spoke to musicians who currently modernize classic rock and Americana, (Kim Logan and the Blackfoot Gypsies), revitalize the sounds of 1970’s funk and soul (Juicebox), and pay homage to some rock genres critics have often thought of as outdated or even obsolete, including grunge (Desert Sharks). The Governors Ball Music Festival presented a chance to apply the market research, strategy and consumer studies I had gathered at Business School in real life, and an interview with The Naked and Famous. Finally, during CMJ, my business colleagues introduced me to musicians who stood up for specific causes. Janna Pelle, for example, raised awareness for pre-Leukemia. Then, YUZIMA addressed the pettiness of homophobia with his artistic flair.

Looking back on a fantastic year, I am curious people say in the final weeks of 2014 about The Governors Ball Music Festival, New Music Seminar, and CMJ. I look at what people Tweeted over past three weeks and created a word cloud analysis to understand what was trending in regards to these events. Here is what I learned.

Governors Ball Music Festival

GovBall2014_Word_Cloud

“Tbt” appears in this word cloud as one of the largest after GovBall2014. Those of you Twitter fans know it stands for “Throw Back Thursday.” Naturally, one can assume that many remember the 2014 Governors Ball Music Weekend in the final weeks of December. As for musical acts that appear in the cloud, it appears that the Strokes and Vampire Weekend show up on most these Tweeters’ minds as December comes to a close. Out of all the musical acts that the Governors’ Ball brought New Yorkers; these were the two bands which came out on top.

In terms of consumers’ behavior at the festival, aside from the obvious subject, music; the words “festival,”  “photos” and “selfies” might indicate that this event was also a time for many celebrating together to make memories. Based on the activity I saw of people interacting with one another, I can say this is definitely the case.

New Music Seminar

NMS_Word_Cloud In the case you notice this word cloud is more compact than the last, that is for one reason only – I wanted to make sure I gathered at least 100 Tweets for each cloud. In the case of the New Music Seminar, those Tweets extended all the way to June 11th, the day after the event concluded. Meanwhile, GovBall2014 and CMJ, included 100 Tweets that were posted between early December and now.

So what do I see for this word cloud? Aside from New Music Seminar, I see “marketing,” “insights”, “streaming,” “industry,” “underground,” “marketers,” “Tips,” “Tune,” and “Battle.” This last word most likely refers to the battle of the top three bands at the 2014 NMS looking to win prize money. These bands included VanLadyLove, Kiah Victoria and June Divided.

VanLadyLove seems to be the only band which has appeared in the cloud. This is no surprise since they won the battle of the bands at this year’s NMS. Just like the word cloud for GovBall2014, you will see TBT. So what did Tweeters throw back on Thursdays where the NMS is concerned? Pics and articles of artists from the NMS in the late 80’s and early 90’s who quickly became famous, including Nirvana and Madonna. These Tweets that go to show readers that no one can ever expect who from the NMS will make it to the mainstream in the music industry a few years.

CMJ

CMJ_Word_CloudIn the CMJ cloud, the words which stood out to me include “new,” “songs,” “Jazz,” “Videos,” “news,” “one,” “unbreakable,” “interview,” “best,” “premiere,” “Murad,” and “Lucie.” How relevant are these words to what people have tweeted about CMJ in the last few weeks? Here is what I observed:

Jazz refers to “The Jazz Junes” from Philly, which have been popular in many Tweets. An interview with CJAM 99.1FM (Windsor, Detriot, MI) Music Director, Murad Ezrincioglu by CMJ received plenty of attention. Then, the English-born, New Zealand-raised, Nashville newbie, Lucie Silva premiered her song “Unbreakable Us” at this event too.

Social Listening in Popular Music Research

Although only 7-10 tweets included any interest in Murad or Lucie, these are the only news sources that showed up consistently throughout all the content from the 100 posts I gathered. I have also noticed in the Tweets for the Governors Ball Music Festival and the New Music Seminar that some subjects will receive more popularity than others. Now I ask, what matters more when reporting about Twitter trends regarding an important music event, quality or quantity? Here is what I think:

The number of Tweets leads to a clear distinction of what is popular by quantity, enough that it can be considered a trend. Further, the more people tweet about a subject, the greater the variation of the audience. On the other hand, the quality of the content of what people tweet provides insights to the concepts people consistently associate with CMJ, something known as brand mapping. In addition, the strongest content will include a specific emotion, strong mood or preferential word within the Tweet and include a link to a specific web page. Such messages include content like:

@LucieSilvas, I think I love you. This is beautiful. http://www.cmj.com/news/track-premiere-lucie-silvas-unbreakable-us

Check out this Q&A by @CMJ featuring one of our favorites Murad Erzinclioglu of @CJAMFM! http://www.cmj.com/column/on-air/qa-murad-erzinclioglu-music-director-cjam/

The smart chart I have made below shows that looking at both quantifiable and qualitative information within the content is important.

Quantity vs Quality

 

For whom does this information matter? A marketing consultant or public relations consultant working with a musician, or a music journalist? I would say for both. At least this is what I learned as a marketing student at Baruch College, as I completed a course in web analytics and intelligence. In this class, my final project involved working with Brandwatch, a social media listening tool and using it for the Music Historian.

While I did not know it then, I would soon learn that tools like Brandwatch looked very closely at trends on Twitter regarding specific news stories and examined both the quantity and quality of Tweets. When I did some research about the music consumer at the Governors Ball Music Festival back in June, I used this tool to see which Twitter users would be most interested in attending the event. Please read more here. Further, those who expressed interest by Tweeting about bands they looked forward to watching at the festival, made part of a specific demographic I would have never discovered otherwise.

Social listening is certainly one way to gather information about music consumers who would show interest in the musical talents at a specific event. Most importantly, social listening might also provide marketers, public relations experts and journalists information on how audiences perceive a musical event without having to reach these consumers personally.

What I would like to see in Music Journalism

While social listening is one way journalists can improve their research in regards to what people say about new bands and music; I also would like to see more actual music journalism. Just like I discussed with Janna Pelle last month, former musicians have their reasons for discontinuing music. Nevertheless, they still have an ear for music that they had developed when they played an instrument and spent more time performing.

I would like to see journalists who have played instruments once upon a time, to incorporate their musical skills into reporting on new music from rising talent. Although I understand entertaining content reaches audiences easier, readers are seldom challenged. Perhaps this is due to my bias that there is an art of asking quality questions. What are quality questions? Let me explain:

Avoid ‘yes’ or ‘no’ Answers 

These types of inquiries should only be asked if they are essential to the context of the conversation.

If your research can already answer the question, DON’T ASK!

If a publicist provides you with a press release about an artist who announces they are working on a new project, study that release. Doing so will help prevent redundancy and focus on what you really want to know about the artist. Further, the artist you are interviewing is also a business person with plenty to do. I guarantee the artist will feel like you are respectful of their time by asking questions they have not already answered through any press materials, including their social media profiles.

Stick to the music

Like many, I agree that you don’t need to get too technical with an artist about their songs. You are trying to understand what motivated a musician in their songwriting by listening to their answers to your questions. On this note, don’t ask loaded or uncomfortable questions about a performer’s personal life, finances, or families. If the musician specifies that personal values like religion, social issues or inspire their songs, then you are welcome to ask these questions. Remember to ask in a context that will not diverge from the topic you are most interested in – their music.

“When others say “no”, find a way to “yes”: Tina Shafer of the Songwriter’s Circle and her advice for today’s musicians

TIna at Young Performers Night 2014, at The Bitter End night club Many artists we have come to know experienced their first big break at the right place and the right time. This is especially true for Billy Porter, a former pupil of songwriter/ vocal teacher and founder of The New York Songwriter’s Circle, Tina Shafer.

“When I worked with Billy Porter – who won a Tony 2013 for his performance in the hit Broadway Musical “Kinky Boots” – he was an unknown singer with one of the most amazing voices I had ever heard. In the late 90’s he got a record deal with my help on the A&M label.   He later went on to perform “Love is On the Way” a song I co-wrote for him that became the Center piece song in Bette Midler’s film “The First Wives Club”.   Later that year, Celine Dion cut “Love is on the Way” and it ended up on her album “Let’s Talk About Love”.  The Album sold over 33 million copies worldwide because it also contained the song “My Heart Will Go On” from the blockbuster movie “Titanic.”

The songstress, who I had the pleasure of meeting in-person at a performance at the New York Songwriter’s Circle held at Bitter End last month, also talked about another former vocal student named Lana Del Ray.  Those who follow Lana know her break was very different from Billy Porter’s.

“Lana, when she was studying with me,” recounts Tina, “wrote the song “Video Games” and most of the attention she first received was through online bullying.   She is very beautiful and an easy “hate Target”. As people started listening to her they then started actually liking her music.  There was a whole backlash of people that starting standing up for her.  It became a viral phenomenon.

But then, where do you go from there? How do you keep your fan base and the customer in mind?”

Music Historian has welcomed advice on how to make it in the music industry from current and former record producers, music publishers, A&R representatives. Now, I welcome advice from Tina Shafer, who is a vocal teacher, singer-songwriter and the founder of the New York Songwriter’s Circle that helps provide a welcoming community to those who work in the beautiful, yet sometimes, lonely and cutthroat world of songwriting. I welcome Tina Shafer to my blog.

Before I get into what Tina advises to current and aspiring musicians and songwriting professionals, I want to share her story about how she became involved in songwriter and began with The New York Songwriter’s Circle.  Music served as the background to Tina’s life. Her mother was a composer, and she brought Tina up in a house where there was always music. At the age of 4, Tina started to learn music in an experimental class for young children at a conservatory in Cleveland. Tina explains:

“They [the teachers] were trying to prove they could teach difficult theory and composition to young kids.  This is similar to the way they teach languages now to young kids.

“The first time I really decided to become a songwriter was when I listened to my first Joni Mitchell record. I was in the 10th grade. From there on, I decided to pursue music and songwriting.”

Just as she finished high school, Tina made the move to New York City, by herself, where she did not know anybody. She performed in clubs, including the Bitter End, and picked up any gig she could do. After 10 years in the city, she obtained her first publishing deal as a songwriter with Warner Chappell and started working with some big names. In addition to Billy Porter, she has written for Celine Dion, Donna Summer, Phoebe Snow, and performed with John Oates (Hall Of Fame), Suzanne Vega, Marc Cohn, The Hooters, The Spin Doctors, Gavin DeGraw, to name a few.

The New York Songwriter’s Circle officially started in 1991 held the first Monday of every month at the Historical Bitter End located in New York City’s West Village.   Tina originally took over the circle as a temp for the original founder. The woman who was initially in charge left to Nashville for a trip and decided to not return. In 2016, The Circle will celebrate 25 years of facilitating rising talent. I then wondered how the business model worked. 

“The New York Songwriter’s Circle is a platform for great talent and up and coming writer/performers but her own company “Tina Shafer Inc.,” I work as an executive producer, developing talent, and putting together  the best creative package to represent that talent.  This often includes, putting together all the musicians, writers, and producers, making an LP and finding the proper promotion.  This is known as “Content packaging”.”

The last component of her business model; marketing, is perhaps most crucial. According to Professor Ana Valenzuela, a faculty member at Baruch College, 75% of a plan for any type of business involves marketing. The other 25% are finances. Marketing enables entrepreneurs to understand who they are as a business, which customers they serve, and what makes the customers return to use the product or service.

Based on what I learned at the New Music Seminar earlier this summer, the same holds true for musicians. They must make music for their audiences. On the same token however, the music industry has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, making artists perhaps more vulnerable.

“When Vanessa Carlton – another Grammy nominated artist and student of Tina’s appeared at The New York  Songwriter’s Circle before making it big – (in 2002), some of these new artists received $400,000 advances  on their first record,” said Tina. She adds that in those days, record labels fostered artists’ development, now, labels do not want to pay for this. On the other hand though, Tina, just like Daylle Deanna Schwartz, asserts an artist does not need a record deal. She explains:

“All you [the artist] need is a great booking agent and advisor. Then you tour, make money from that, and create a record on your own. In a way, this is good, but it costs money to have a booker, a website, you have to pay for so much.

“Now, you have to be self-propelled. Ed Sheeran, for example, was couch surfing and writing with everyone and anyone he could when he started out, then got some air time. Then, he started touring with Taylor Swift.”

While so much has changed in the music industry, Tina reassures songwriters that even when record labels stopped paying for artistic development, Napster started satisfying customers who could get content for FREE, and self-recording and digitization has become more prominent; the only thing that has not changed is the need for great content. In other words, excellent records, songs, playing and performances. We are slowly catching up to the ways of the internet and trying to find avenues to get payment for content.

However, like everybody working in music, I heard a lot of ‘no.’ Even while I was in college, many of my colleagues who were vocalists were told they would have the hardest times finding work after graduation. Now, I find myself talking with a Tina Shafer, who is a conservatory-trained vocalist and guitarist who managed to make her dreams of being a singer-songwriter come true. Naturally, I wanted to know whether she had any advice for someone who is currently in college or in the music industry and receives a lot of discouragement.

“Anyone who goes into the arts will almost always hear that they are not going to make it,” says Tina. “You have to find a way to say, “that is not going to be me”. You have to recognize your strengths.  You may be an ensemble player, you may be a soloist, there are many avenues of music to explore”. “When people said “no”, it gave me [the chance] to find a way to say ‘yes.’”

Tina carries these encouraging words to her sons. Her oldest, Ari Zizzo who is 18 and becoming a well-known teen songwriter.  He has so far, opened up for artists like Mumford and Sons and this summer will open for Emblem3 and Demi Lavato at the Pop Tarts Concerts in Chicago.

Thomas, her youngest who is 16, is a sophisticated writer who hopes to become a film critic. The boys’ father is also a music producer. (Peter Zizzo)

Tina Shafer at the Songwriters Circle on July 7, 2014, The Bitter End In addition, Tina applies this lesson to The New York Songwriter’s Circle. While her company also works to help artists create content, Tina confirms that musicians must push themselves to connect with their own fan base, communicate with their customers directly, and get out into the performance spaces. In addition, good music will not change, and a great song has a way of rising to the top.

One might bump into a cynic who discourages them from continuing with the music industry, but remember this – while music is an undervalued industry, music consumption will double within ten years. Thanks to digital technology, the artist, who I believe can now become more personally involved in the marketing and distribution, has the chance to ultimately get closer to the consumer via social media. Therefore, the consumer can have a better relationship with the product. This gives way to great branding opportunities exist for today’s musicians. Also, musicians trying to fund a record through KickStarter.com help create business while increasing communication with their supporters and customers. Finally, digital vehicles like iTunes and Spotify can immediately deliver music to buyers. Fantastic customer service, right?

If you are a musician and worry about making money, your best option is to focus on the customer. A returning customer, whether it is a loyalist who will come to your shows or always buy a new record, will bring you the most financial return. Lastly, I can attest, that customers return for the good music. So don’t stop doing what you’re doing. Tina didn’t stop. If you happen to be a singer-songwriter looking for some help, check out The New York Songwriter’s Circle www.songwriters-circle.com

You can also check out Tina Shafer directly Tinashafer.net.

The Desert Sharks’ Hook-Drenched Rock ‘n’ Roll Tunes: My Interview with Stephanie Gunther

Desert-Sharks_CakeShop When I touched base with Stephanie Gunther, the vocalist and bassist from the Garage Rock Band, Desert Sharks, I felt excited to talk with a rock ‘n’ roll band that puts so much vulnerability into their songs. “Tequila Shark” was the track that attracted me to this Brooklyn-based all-women group, with a grimy bass line, and tinny sounding guitar which seems to echo, creating a space within the music for Stephanie’s beautiful alto voice. In the second verse, she sings the lyrics, I had a dream/ we had just met/ you showed me through your hallways/ and asked me would I stay. Fast forward to the chorus she sings It’s all mine/ your love’s in my mind, and then these lyrics repeats one more time.

When I asked her about the lyrics, Stephanie said, “I was exploring how we can go to such depths of dreaming up scenarios in our mind about someone we pine over. You can have all these fantasies of what it would be like to be together, how every detail would go down, where you would go, how you would interact, how much in love you would be.

“You can literally picture it and sometimes start to feel the emotions as if it were real, like you are having this secret mental affair with someone and they have no clue. I wrote, “Tequila Shark” about two dreams I had about two separate people, and that went along with those ideas.”

The most attractive aspect about the lyrics involved the vulnerability and honesty of the storyteller. In addition, there is very little mystery and interpretation of the meaning. Desert Sharks will remind rock enthusiasts that female bands continue to push past the gender stereotypes, and can do so with grace, and create opportunities for themselves independently in hopes to get recognized by a label. All of these are reasons for players in the music industry to pay attention to this group who were also in the Artists on the Verge class of 2014 at the New Music Seminar. It is my pleasure to feature Desert Sharks on Music Historian.

Stephanie says that when the band first started, people immediately doubted Desert Sharks.

“We’d get comments from people who first saw us on stage that they didn’t expect us to be any good, due to being female. Then, they’d say we blew them away. Now, it’s less about gender and more about our set, who we reminded them of and how they felt during our show. We’ve met some really awesome and supportive people at our shows. That’s one of the best parts about playing,” says Stephanie.

While some stereotypes are easy to disprove, including the one that says women can’t play instruments, women still have to work perhaps twice as hard as a man to make it in the business. Luckily, Desert Sharks don’t let challenges slow them down. Instead, they look to create opportunities to help them get closer to their ultimate goals – making a living with music.

“We’d love to work with someone on a full-length. The biggest task is getting heard. Our focus is on writing, playing shows, recording and touring,” explains Stephanie.

At the moment, Desert Sharks have an EP and vinyl they released in early 2013 which was recorded at Converse Rubber Tracks Studio, post-produced by Adam Reich, and pressed through Double Dare Ya Records, titled Sister Cousins. Just a few weeks ago, they released their 2014 EP on Manimal Records, Template Hair – an occasion that was marked with a show at Shea Stadium in late June. The promotion for their latest record will continue with a tour in August. Sister Cousins vinyl and Template Hair cassettes are available for purchase on Desert Sharks’ bandcamp.

In the short time they have been together (since 2011), Desert Sharks have played with bands they look up to, recorded and worked with a few labels, and toured. This four-piece group continuously set their sights on greater projects like working on a full-length with somebody in the future, touring out to the Midwest, where Stephanie is from, and getting signed. In order to reach these benchmarks, the group continues to dedicate their time to as Stephanie would say “making our music better and better.”

“We’re constantly writing new material and are anxious to get it recorded and out there for people to hear,” Stephanie adds. Desert Sharks Press Photo

Like I learned at the New Music Seminar in the panel The A&R Movement: Where is Music Headed? good music rises and makes its way to several listeners and to A&R representatives. I also learned that there is an opportunity for guitar-driven genres to make a comeback as well, which presents an opportunity for Desert Sharks. Songs like “Tequila Shark” can act like one of the Desert Sharks’ strong songs.

Aside from the fact that garage rock – according to Stephanie – can be “sexy, heavy, sweet or dancy,” “Tequila Shark” has an impressive compositional structure of A, B, A, B, C, as opposed to A, A,’ B or A, B. In my opinion, the more varied the sections within the song, the more interesting and exciting the track is to the listener. In addition, the lyrical content, which is straightforward and honest, lingers somewhere between vulnerable and impermeable. I asked Stephanie whether the realistic scenarios behind these lyrics focused on past romantic relationships, friendships, struggles or anything else.

“I’d say yes to all of those things,” begins Stephanie. “A lot of it is from my own life experiences, some of it, like our newest single “crazycrazy” is from someone else’s point of view put into my own words.

“When we start writing a song, I’m never quite sure what I’m going to write. I write at home a lot and put notes in my phone of phrases that pop into my head. Once we put together a song musically, I start to actually feel out the vibe. [I ask] ‘Does this song sound happy to me, does it sound sad?’ The hardest step for me usually is deciding the subject matter. Once I know what I want to write about, I can shape the words to fit the melody.”

While Stephanie loves Garage Rock, and agrees that this style influences Desert Sharks’ music, she admits that describing the group’s style of music is never easy.

“Garage and surf [rock] definitely influence our music, but I’d say we’re also heavily influenced by metal, punk, goth, pop, and more. Describing your style of music is the worst thing ever, especially when every band is a mishmash of influences. You end up [saying something] like, ‘Oh, we’re like The Ramones meets Dolly Parton meets Sabbath meets the Spice Girls.’ People get hung up on trying to label it and it gets hard to navigate. You want to say ‘just listen and see for yourself.’ Choose your own adventure and draw your own conclusions. It’s all rock ‘n’ roll in the end.”

An additional challenge to being in a rock band is making decisions with a group. The ladies within Desert Sharks “all share strong opinions,” says Stephanie.

“It usually takes a long time to come to a decision. Figuring out a [band] name was no easy task. We wrote “Tequila Shark,” and afterwards, some of us said ‘that’s a cool name, should we just call the band that?’ Desert had been a word on a list of words we dug, so we stuck desert and sharks together. It was the first name we came up with that we all didn’t hate.”

Since 2011, this band has built an excellent resume. The greatest strength they have developed as a group is their willingness to be flexible while they maintain strong attitudes. Their talent for writing a lot, and having a wide selection of songs is also beneficial for any A&R representative looking to sign a female Garage Rock group. From starting off with a Craigslist ad and arriving at Shea Stadium, Desert Sharks have made a healthy journey.

“We met through Craigslist,” recalled Stephanie. “The stars were aligned for that one. Rebecca [Rose, the drummer], Sunny [Veniero, the guitarist] and I met up initially with another girl and wrote a song together. We were sort of just jamming and playing around with ideas.

“The other girl had prior commitments to another band, so she left. We put out an ad, and Stefania [Rovera, the additional guitarist] answered. It was the missing puzzle piece. Once she joined we started writing a ton and felt like we wanted to start playing shows.”

Desert Sharks Bkyln Vegan There are plenty of rock ‘n’ roll listeners out there who want to hear this type of music and Desert Sharks might be at the right place in time to get recognized. People still line up to see independent Garage Rock bands in the United States. As for guitar-driven music, based on what I listened to at the New Music Seminar and what I saw at the Governors Ball Music Festival, there still exists an audience for The Strokes and Jack White.

Regarding my final question for Stephanie, I wanted to know what she thought of the motto “Rock is Dead.” She explained in two words “rock ‘n’ roll reincarnation.” Based on my interpretation, this means rock ‘n’ roll is alive and well, just in another form.

Female bands continue to make a comeback in rock ‘n’ roll, and like the Desert Sharks, they dedicate their time to writing songs, making records and performing in both small and large venues. These sharks are coming up to the surface with their hook-drenched tunes and ready to enter new territory – the wild music industry. The greatest strength of this group is their ability to carry listeners within the strong currents of their 2-3 minute tracks, a talent which – based on my listening experience – has been difficult to replicate on today’s music scene.

The Blackfoot Gypsies: Modern Southern Rock That Helps You Release Internalized Feelings

 When I listened to the song by the Nashville-based band, The Blackfoot Gypsies called “Don’t know about you,” I immediately felt the timbre within the singer’s voice resembled that of Bob Dylan from the ‘60’s. In addition, I felt splashes of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, Garage Rock, and Americana. As far as the rest of the song is concerned, I heard very little country. I initially found this curious because I thought Nashville was the capital of country music. Thankfully, the band told me this is not the case.

“I think it is more of a touristy thing that Nashville is only for country music,” explains the bass player in the band, Dylan Whitlow. “Where we live in Nashville, there are mostly rock ‘n’ roll bands.”

The group’s harmonica player, Ollie Dogg adds, “It used to be that way, but I always played the blues.” As I talked with this group at the dimmed Delancey lounge on the Lower East Side, I soon learned that only two members of the Blackfoot Gypsies are Nashville-natives.

The group began as a duo in 2010 with drummer Zack Murphy and Guitarist and vocalist Matthew Paige. Zack had just moved back to Nashville after spending six years in Knoxville, and Matt had recently moved from his hometown around Portland, Oregon. Both young men were new to the music scene and somehow, they found each other and started playing. Then, in 2012, Dylan, who relocated from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania met with Matt after seeing the duo at a show. The final addition to the band is Ollie Dogg, who was introduced to the group by his cousin at a Marathon Party. Now, all members live together in the same house.

Research this band’s Facebook page, and you will see a charming photo of the band right outside of their beautiful home. Dig deeper onto the “about” section of their page and you will find something that if it doesn’t grab your attention, it certainly grabbed mine – Band Interest: “Spreading the terrifying joys of realism.” I asked Matt to talk to me a little more about this.

“Being a real band is almost a challenge,” he begins. “Being a real person and entertainer is very difficult. Touring as a real band and seeing how terrifying it really is, it makes people say “oh man these guys are real; [they’re] people playing music because they like it.””

Zack chimes in, “to make money without compromising ourselves or our art.”

“To be able to earn money, be silly and entertain, and somehow keep a leveled head about yourself,” concludes Matt.

Just a few minutes into my chat with this band, I have already learned that something besides country music is happening in Nashville, and the realism this group speaks of might actually go beyond the lyrical content within their songs. For the remainder of my conversation with this group, I wanted to learn more about the band that described themselves as “The amplifier for your heart and soul, your love and your hate, your on and off, your push and pull… there is no room for thinking… Only feeling (Blackfoot Gypsies, Facebook, 2014).” It’s my pleasure to welcome the Blackfoot Gypsies to Music Historian.

When the group says “there is no room for thinking… Only feeling,” within their music, they emphasize the need for listeners to lose themselves in a song – a human aspect that is left out of today’s modern music. Further, the feelings Zack and Matt wish to evoke through their music are visceral. Matt elaborates:

“They are the ones you can’t control, and the ones that you want to hate, but you can’t. We’re not necessarily trying to prove anybody wrong [about themselves] but mostly trying to tear down the walls of the preconceived notions people usually create about who they are and what they like.

“When they come to the show, [for example], I’ve watched guys try to be straight, square and cool in front of girls, and then they turn into these ape monkeys because something happened [inside of them]. It is in the music, it is in the energy, and sometimes, it gets so fast and perpetual that you lose yourself.

“We lose ourselves all the time, that’s our job and getting other people welcomed into that. This is the type of feeling we try to harvest in people. That is the human aspect so often left out of music nowadays. That’s real.”

I could tell this band wanted to convey something to the listener within the first song on their 2012 LP On the Loose, titled “Don’t Know About You.” In the opening verse, only the guitar accompanied the voice. The lyrics are – I wandered out last night/ looking out for your home/ knowing you like to roam/ without your telephone/ But you don’t know because/ I never said a thing. Then when the chorus came, later in the song, the one element that grabbed my attention was how the down beat in the drums, the harmonic rhythm in the guitar, and the voice came in synch, emphasizing the lyrics I don’t know about you, but I feel like makin’ love.

These compositional elements attract the listeners’ attention and make for a memorable melody. Then, there are other songs on the record that have sadder lyrical content, like “Stone Throwin’ Angels.” One of the verses in the song is You’ve got three kids in the yard/ and watch you come and warm your bed/ and a fugitive conscious that goes unsaid… I asked the band members about the meaning behind these lyrics.

“That one is mainly about a friend of mine who was once a musician and could have followed the dream, but then he had kids and a wife, and I watched it not happen,” explains Matt.

While this song is based on a true story, Matt claims that if it holds any relevance at all, the fun part is making up the rest, in a way, that applies to the songwriter.

“We are just doing real life, even if it’s just something stupid,” he continues. “We were just jamming on a song called “I’m on Fire.” It was really hot in our room one night, all of the amps were turned on, and I thought to myself, ‘what am I going to sing?’ “I’m on fire!” There it is, a song, and it’s real.”

I decided then and there that I would share a story about when I took a trip to West Virginia for the Appalachia Service Project. “I was 15 years old, and I went to Logan County as a volunteer with a church to fix homes for those in need,” I said to the Blackfoot Gypsies. “One day in July, I was doing roof work and I thought to myself, it was scorching up there.”

Then Zack asked me where I was from and somehow, I mentioned that I grew up in a Romanian-speaking household. I promise, I’m not babbling. This information will become helpful as the article continues.

At the moment, The Blackfoot Gypsies currently self-distribute their LP and it is available for download and 12” vinyl. Zack describes the process of being your own musician and entrepreneur as rewarding.

“It’s nice to have help in getting everything done, but when you all of the work yourself, you get all the rewards for yourself. Do you really want to pay someone else money that will not be used for you? Would you rather have that money yourself? You don’t have to pay anybody back. It feels good.”

This made me wonder – since the Blackfoot Gypsies are currently unsigned – whether the group is currently on the hunt for a record deal. According to Zack, the band is looking for the “Right record deal.” Matt adds, “It’s not really like we’re hunting, it is more like they’re hunting.”

“It’s so much like dating someone – ridiculous. It’s through a friend of a friend that saw you at a show… and now they’re bringing their friend’s lawyer to check you out. Then, there is a meeting and contract, and ‘Oh my God,’” he continues.

While this method of networking with labels proves to be more efficient, the group should be ready to ask a handful of questions. I asked the members whether they had been careful when speaking with lawyers. Zack reassures, “We usually consult our friend who is a lawyer. We ask him questions in order to decipher what we should ask [the label representatives].”

As the group keeps experts within the music legal field close, they simultaneously stay atop of their long-term goal for the future, which Zack claims is “being the next big thing.”

Matt_and_Zack_BFG “Anyone who says they don’t want to be famous for what they are doing are probably lying,” he expresses. “So, why are you doing it? You want to be unsuccessful with it, do you want nobody to hear your music?”

I agreed with Zack. I then asked Matt to share his thoughts, and he expressed something similar, but with a little more hint of sass. (Remember that information I shared with the members regarding my ethnic heritage? It will be useful now.)

“One of the greatest bands that ever lived. We’ll be 90 years old and still doing it, God willing none of these guys gets hit by a bus, or overdoses or falls in love and runs to Romania. That could be bad!”

“It’s only bad if you don’t have a plan,” I politely and diplomatically replied. “But, if you know someone who can help you get established…”

“Romania is fine, I’ve got nothing against it,” said Matt jokingly.

Regarding the Blackfoot Gypsies’ immediate future, the group is currently focusing on a few projects. The first, a new LP titled Handle It, which they plan to release at the beginning of August. The second, a Gypsy Camp Tour set to start in July, which Zack claims will be amazing. Matt, Dylan and Zack say the band is coming to do a show in New York City on July 11th, at the Bowery Electric, as part of a two-week camping excursion, romping around the middle of America.

Basically, The Blackfoot Gypsies will perform at venues everybody recognizes. Instead of heading to a motel after the show though, the group will set up a tent somewhere. Given the lack of camping grounds in cities like this one and Chicago, the band already established they will sleep under a roof for these particular shows.

“It is part of the adventure,” explains Matt. “We are shooting for the gypsy concept but sometimes that does not always work out. We will sleep under a roof when we come to New York City or Chicago.

“We also encourage artists to come out and sell their jewelry, pictures and art. You can buy things, and you can trade. Why restrict it to just us? Have other people come out.”

The group sees the Gypsy Camp Tour as more of a recreational pursuit than an entrepreneurial endeavor. They did it for the first time last year, and it was “a blur of great memories.”

While the band definitely does find time for fun, they expect to get paid for the performances they put on. After all, performing is still work. The camping is their downtime. In addition, while performing and touring presents its benefits, including the constant changing of scenery, meeting new people, and keeping oneself busy; there are also challenges, even for musicians who don’t mind “roughing it.”

“All of the driving in all of the conditions possible, and making a dollar stretch longer than it should, the show we perform determines whether it is worth it or not. It happened to be worth it almost every time,” says Matt. “The challenge is, you can’t predict when you lose. Sometimes you lose, but when you win, you really win.”

I saw a performance by the Blackfoot Gypsies at Spike Hill in Brooklyn. The energy that filled the audience, the amazing and full-bodied harmonica playing by Ollie Dogg that drew in the attention of the whole crowd, and the well-rehearsed set from the rest of the band assured me this group is really searching for winning moments. These moments don’t only come from performances, they will also come from the right record deal that will benefit both The Blackfoot Gypsies and the label helping distribute and promote the band’s music to audiences in all corners of the U.S.

Lovers of Americana looking for the perfect music that will help them temporarily lose themselves and feel both the good and bad, beautiful and ugly, positive and negative emotions all at once need to check out this band. They can download their album through their Bandcamp website, or go to a live show, which can have its perks. The Blackfoot Gypsies like to bring a close-knit line-up with them, enabling listeners to get a taste of other Nashville-based independent musicians who have a similar sound.

Meanwhile, label representatives should continue pursuing this group, especially since, as Nashville-based artist Kim Logan would say, “Americana has taken hold, and as vinyl makes a comeback,” more artists will be performing rock ‘n’ roll (as cited in “Plugging into Modern Southern Rock,” 2014, para. 33).

As I conclude this interview article, I want briefly to share the inspiration behind the band name.

“I had another band before this one,” said Matt, “and we all sat around trying to think of a name that was cool and close to home, like the Blackfoot Indian tribe. And gypsies are cool, I like them. They wander around nomadic style, you know, like Romanians.”

“Not all Romanians are gypsies,” I explained.

“Yes they are,” he responds.

Perhaps The Blackfoot Gypsies don’t play themselves up as a mysterious rock band, but who needs mystery all the time? Let the music take over every now and then, and help you release some of the feelings you have internalized for a while. Try it. You might actually find it enjoyable.

Works Cited

Blackfoot Gypsies (n.d.). In Facebook [Fan page]. Retrieved June 9, 2014, from https://www.facebook.com/blackfootgypsies/info

P Trutescu. (2014, June 18). Plugging into Modern Southern Rock: My Interview with Kim Logan. [Blog].

The Dirty Gems Make Great Music for a Growing Audience

The Dirty Gems_Press Pic Better Whether it is to laugh, cry, or dance, the New York City-based pop-rock-soul band, The Dirty Gems want to make you feel something. One of the keyboardists in the band, Mills claims “Often times, people have a hard time placing us into a specific genre because of how diverse our influences are, but as we continue making music, we have no doubt our own unique style will find its audience.”

The Dirty Gems began as a trio in 2007 with singer Raycee, bassist Ulises, and keyboardist Cam. They were members of a small jazz combo during their attendance at Hofstra University. Later, drummer Jack joined the group and they transitioned into a cover band called Pump Yo Brakes. They began to write original songs after graduating in 2010. The four-piece group  furthered their music endeavor, and this led to the addition of songwriter Mills, and guitarist Gary. They returned to Hofstra for a Battle of the Bands in the Fall of 2011, which also happened to be the band’s first public performance.

“The incredible response we got at the Battle of the Bands was definitely a turning point where we thought, “Hey, maybe we have something here!” explained Mills.

The group won the Battle of the Bands, a moment which quickly led The Dirty Gems to open for artists such as Big Boi, rapper from the Hip-Hop duo Outkast, indie rock band from Seattle, Minus the Bear and New York City rock band, London Souls.

While this start-up band had tremendous success, the kind that might prompt an artist to pursue a record deal aggressively, The Dirty Gems choose to stay atop of their first priority – making great music for a growing audience. I am happy to welcome Mills from The Dirty Gems to a full-length feature interview right here on Music Historian.

Although one can argue that a band like The Dirty Gems should first focus on getting signed, Mills emphasizes that a successful group focuses both on their art and entrepreneurship.

“The music industry has changed so much that now, being signed to a label may not necessarily be the end-goal for a band like us, at least at first,” says Mills. “We look to continue growing our audience and making great music, and if that involves being signed to a label, then so be it. The distribution model [though] has changed so much due to the internet. If you have a Bandcamp page, good marketing strategy, and great music, you are already your own record label.”

As I recall a panel I listened to at the New Music Seminar called The A&R Movement: Where is Music Headed? A&R representatives at the panel assert that now, more than ever, musicians need to create a marketing plan and build themselves a fan base. Record labels want to see that the artist has pulled themselves up a lot. In regards to the music, A&R reps will positively affirm that good music rises to the top, and somehow, the labels will find that artist.

That is one “check” from the industry representatives. However, the same industry players who offered the advice above will also have their opinions and criticisms for The Dirty Gems. For example, at another panel I attended, which included some of the same A&R reps from the panel I mentioned above (please reference my review of the New Music Seminar for more information) called Music XRAY Presents: A&R Live – Music Critique and Sound Selector Sessions, one of the panelists commented on the band’s newest track “Insomniac.” The person giving the critique said:

“While the vocals were good and I liked the guitar in the forefront, I don’t see a lot of hit potential. Strengthen the verse a little bit.”

I wondered how Mills handled criticism like this from industry players and his response has been humble.

“The panels have been incredibly insightful and informative,” he says. “We already have meetings set up from the connections we’ve made at the New Music Seminar, which has provided us an excellent experience. We are honored to be one of the Top 100 Artists on the Verge with several artists and we know and respect from the community of up-and-coming musicians around us.”

Additional experiences this band has favored includes representing Queens in the WNYC/WQXR Battle of the Boroughs at The Green Space; the KahBang Music & Arts Festival in Bangor, Maine; The Mountain Jam in Hunter, New York; and opening for Wynonna & The Big Noise at Alive @ Five in Stamford, Connecticut. The best experiences for The Dirty Gems though is really any show where they have been able to move someone with their music.

 There must be something great in The Dirty Gems’ music for the fans who travel from their office on a hot night last Tuesday, June 10th to see this band perform in the darkened lounge called The Delancey located on the Lower East Side. It’s incredibly comforting see how people come together as couples or in groups, and they have an age range from 25-44, and 45+ and all of them crowd in a space in front of the stage, a space that is small and tight, and provides room only for standing.

In short, there was a great turn out for The Dirty Gems that night, and even the performance organizer for The Delancey, who was also part of the New Music Seminar staff, James Birkenholz, mentioned a handful of customers quickly filled up the performance space for their show.

On The Dirty Gems’ Twitter page, fans have Tweeted “Watching The Dirty Gems kill it at the Delancey for the New Music Seminar showcase, great job.” A few days later, the President of Imagine Music LLC Tweeted, “The Dirty Gems is the best new band I have seen for some time. Look and listen here” and concluded his message with a link to their Bandcamp website.

So, what is it about this band’s music that makes their fans Tweet and comment about their performances and more? Simply put, their music has a personality. Mills explains:

“We call it [our music] pop-rock-soul. Our influences are diverse and we, as individuals, listen to all different kinds of music. We have just 2 EP’s out, our self-titled debut from 2011 and Vuja De released in 2013. With our most recent EP, that sound has started to coalesce into something uniquely our own.”

The popular single from Vuja De “Easy on Me” includes a very lucid and consistent vocal melody, with a slow tempo, sung by Raycee – a melody that is in a major key, and includes accidentals, almost making it sound like she is singing in both major and minor. In addition, the lyrics are simple and beautiful – I would fight all the mighty seas/ just to have you next to me/ cause you make it easy/ I would run across all the most dangerous miles/ Just to feel you smile/ because you make it easy.

Although the above lyrics are just to the verse, this enables Raycee to add many bends and trills in her singing, a style of singing that is very closely associated with the soul genre. The rock in this music is heard within the few tin-like and rough notes by the guitar. The pop lies within the driving rhythm of the drums.

In addition, the modulations and the entire composition of “Easy on Me” suggest the group created the music before the lyrics. I asked Mills about his thoughts, and he said:

“The basis of a great song is always an excellent melody. “Easy on Me” began with the chorus, and the verse melody, with the rest of the song, came from there. The modulations you’re referring to in the bridge came after the rest of the song was written. The constant beat that goes through the song has a lulling effect and we wanted to have an element that was surprising enough to make you really listen to the lyrics.”

In my opinion, The Dirty Gems accomplished this successfully with their Vuja De single. As for the single they presented to the Music Xray panel at the New Music Seminar, “Insomniac,” I felt a minor melody within the song, and the guitar, while still having the tin-like sounds, were now a little cleaner and crisper, and it played like an additional voice in a call-and-response manner with Raycee. Have a listen to the live version of the song here:

http://soundcloud.com/thedirtygems/insomniac

In addition the amalgam of musical influences that make their sound too diverse to fit one category; part of The Dirty Gems’ musical personality comes from Raycee’s voice, which right now, I cannot match to that of any singer I have previously heard.

Like many independent artists today, The Dirty Gems play music that is on the fringe of multiple genres. In addition, the band has incorporated their quirky sense of humor into their music videos, enabling them to create a funny and warm brand personality. See the videos for “Easy on Me” and “Your Name Here.”

Music videos, self-distributing music online and performing in the Battle of the Bands, opening for bigger artists and playing live as part of festivals and conferences, help The Dirty Gems spread their music to potential new fans and returning fans. The band just released “Insomniac” as their new single. They also plan to spend the summer in the studio writing and recording their next project – a third EP which will include “Insomniac” as a single. Afterwards, the group hopes to play in CMJ 2014 this fall at then SXSW in 2015.

The Dirty Gems_NMS_Press Photo As I stated in the beginning, The Dirty Gems act as their own entrepreneurs and artists. In today’s music industry, that is very expected. However, being your own artist and manager has its complications, because these are two separate roles played simultaneously by a single person or group. Thankfully, the musicians within this group don’t get lost in the hustle of all the business. Instead, they make it a priority to focus the most on those who matter the most to their business, their listeners.

“Out in the “real world,” your triumphs and failures are on stage for paying customers,” explains Mills. “College was an opportunity to play in the “sandbox” and learn from peers in a closed environment. At this point, we’ve been out of college for long enough to feel more like the “real world” is the sandbox, but that only motivates us more.”

Mills might be expressing that the real world of the music business is more experimental and less-structured than we are lead to believe. School offers a lot of structure and direction. In the business world though, whether it is in music or any other field, only you can give yourself the right type of structure that will work for you and all you must accomplish.

The Dirty Gems have found and secured a structure of doing business that works for them, a roadmap for their own songwriting, and the support of fans who positively receive their music. Whether or not this will provide sufficient reason for their right producer to connect with The Dirty Gems is tough to tell. Nevertheless, the group has an excellent foundation, and great discipline and practices. Like every band looking to make money with their music, these gems might just need a little refining. Aside from that, all the essential pieces for a successful business are in place.