The Flip Sides of Holly Henry’s Music*

The Orchard Cover Art, by Rit Suchat American singer/songwriter Holly Henry has recently released “The Orchard,” her second extended play (EP) in two years. Produced at Minneapolis’s The Library Recording Studio, this Alternative music album was funded by fans through an IndieGoGo campaign. The six tracks in the EP lyrically play to Holly’s diversely international audience of multi-generational fans. They are her catchiest songs yet, which may leave listeners with hooks and melodies hard to get out of their head.

Since Holly’s September 24, 2013 appearance on “The Voice” (US), she has experienced rapidly increasing popularity as a YouTube cover artist. Her hollymaezers YouTube channel increased from 1,500 subscribers before appearing on “The Voice”[1]  to 20,000 soon after her elimination from the show[2]. By mid-September 2015, she had over ten times the subscribers and video views. Thus, her YouTube popularity, coupled with having reached Alternative #6 album rank with her debut EP, “The Immigrant,” likely have contributed to her success more than from appearing on “The Voice.”

To better understand Holly’s choice of songs in “The Orchard” EP, it helps to explore the lyrics to a quintet of original, related songs: “The Ghost,” “Katie,” “Hide and Seek,” “Grow,” and “Better.” I asked Holly, “How would you describe that lyrical saga?” She responded:

“These songs were all written for different reasons at different periods of my life. But, I feel like these songs could be connected through a similar theme of feeling out of place or thinking maybe you aren’t being the best version of yourself. There is an underlying idea of inadequacy in these songs.”

We are imperfect/  what a lovely thing to be hints in “Katie” of the wisdom Holly gained from challenging her agoraphobia in her Knockout Round elimination on “The Voice.” Originally released concurrently with Holly’s “The Voice” Blind Audition, “Katie was re-released 15 months later as a YouTube-subsidized music video. YouTube’s commitment to her career development hints to the geographic expansion and growth of Holly’s fan base. I asked Holly to explain that change:

“My YouTube channel is how I view most of my international activity so it’s really the only source I have. So, from what I’ve seen, The Voice helped me gain a following [which following “The Voice”] plateaued for a few months but after a while my YouTube began to grow again and now I have a following of 200,000. Nearly 50% of those following me are from Russia. Many different countries follow and support me and I’m very grateful for it.”

Holly’s new fans maybe learning about her persona through her commitment to autobiographical songs.  Holly held back the single “Hide and Seek from her December 2013 release of “The Immigrant” EP, for more elaborate studio production in California by Christopher Tyng’s Grow Music Project team (see Holly Henry, Ready to Present a Different Voice).  Its timing and deep, revealing lyrics like hiding in the corner/ I swear that I adore ‘ya/ but I’m stuck in the corner,” depicted a debilitating anxiety sink in which powering through emotional blocks to recovery is a temporarily unattainable goal. I asked Holly “What it was like to be called perfect when you are in a long anxiety sink?” Holly responded:

“When people compliment, encourage, and look up to me it makes me want to be a better and stronger person. It makes me want to be what they believe me to be. And it is always very therapeutic to write about what you’re currently struggling with. Releasing it into the world is even more therapeutic because it’s almost like you come to complete terms with your issues and are willing to share your experience with others.”

To read fan comments posted since the August 21st release of “The Orchard” EP, is to confirm continuing, divergent lyrical preferences among Holly’s fans. Divergent preferences create marketing challenges. Can Holly sell entire EPs, versus only single tracks playing to specific fan preferences?

On the one hand are fans who desire romantic and upbeat lyrics. They commonly project her in their social media comments as being “perfect” or “a queen.” I asked Holly if that “was symbolized by the crown in her cover art?” She responded that “the artist, Rit Suchat, had drawn me previously before I had even commissioned his work for the EP. The picture he drew of me had a crown similar to the one on the EP cover so I’d say it’s more the artist’s creativity than mine.”

Will fans learn enough about Holly Henry to embrace a multi-dimensional persona beyond their projections of perfection or frailty? Holly challenged fan perceptions of perfection with lyrics in “Hide and Seek” like: My baby thinks that I’m weak/ An antique/My life’s hide and seek. Her candor and honesty has helped foster an empathetic fan base over the last two years. Those fans commonly post how Holly has been “lifesaving” to them. Perhaps this is symbolized by the hummingbird totem in the cover art – an animal totem representing resiliency and adaptability while keeping a playful and optimistic outlook?

I asked Holly if “the process of writing and singing songs, then getting such feedback, is equally therapeutic?” “It sometimes feels like a group therapy session (in a good way),” Holly responded. “And, my favorite thing in the world is hearing that people feel calmed and comforted by my music.”

Fans are used to her timely, innovative, and seemingly triumphant rebounds from career setbacks. But, financial considerations may ultimately limit how many more Holly can weather as a professional musician. By soliciting production assistance in producing “The Orchard” EP, her IndieGoGo campaign successfully staved off that day.

Might too few of her fans, used to free covers, be willing to pay for her original songs? For an artist who typically gets 1,500 to 3,000 likes per Instagram post, only about 325 unique donors funded her IndieGoGo campaign. The campaign generated about $15,000 (after IndieGoGo’s fees), requiring Holly to modify her stated goal. “We had to stay in Minneapolis to record the EP,” Holly explained. “But it turned out to be a wonderful decision because we had an incredible [time] recording it at The Library Studio. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Holly, Recording at The Library In the intervening months between EP releases, Holly has capitalized on numerous opportunities beyond Grow Music Project. She won a 2014 Upper Midwest Emmy in musical composition/arrangement for a television promotion of the Sochi Olympics.  She was also featured in numerous soundtracks to indie short films. Ultimately, she reappeared on stage for three live performances between February and April 2015. They were her first since November 2013.

I asked Holly what the highlight was of her most recent live performances:

“I loved playing at The Varsity this year. It was a really energetic atmosphere which I’m not used to because most of my gigs are really low key acoustic vibe kind of performances. For this particular show, I had band with me. The crowd was really attentive and involved. It was a cool night in general.”

“The Orchard” EP represents what Holly can accomplish given sufficient money for production. Before her IndieGoGo campaign, I asked Holly, If you had $25,000 to spend on only your music, what would your priorities be for spending it?”[3] Holly prophetically responded:

I definitely wouldn’t change my style. But I think I would use the money to enhance my style. Make it more what I hear in my head than what I have the money to give you. So, it would probably sound like me, but a little bit more in depth

It is evident in “The Orchard” EP that her IndieGoGo campaign allowed her to enhance her style and to more fully record what she mentally composes and arranges.

To help listeners interpret the lyrics in the EP, I asked Holly to provide a two-word description to each song, as follows.  She described her 46 second prelude, “Arbor,” as “dreamy entrance.” It sets a sophisticated air to the EP and reassures us of the fine artistry which can arise from successful collaborations among musicians. In “Hotel” (“detached crush”), Holly sings her own harmonies, as in her “Sweet Dreams” cover, with nearly 1.8 million views on YouTube. She also repeats the hand-clapping style so successful in “The Immigrant” EP. “Hotel” reaffirms her desire to contribute to music soundtracks, TV and commercials. It is the top selling track and was promoted by Holly and some fans as a song for “American Horror Show.” “The Orchard” (“safe place”) is joyful, dream-like poetry, offering a reassuring message of transition from midnight fears to creative dreams. “Skin” (“soul bearing”) especially appeals to fans desirous of an original duet between her and Josh Dobson. Show me your skin, skin, skin/ show me what’s within lyrically reveals a delicate caress arising from Holly’s romantic persona.  Like her duet with Jamison Murphy in his song “Remember When (released April 2015), “Skin” is far more intimate as a duet than as a solo. “Foolish Heart” (“sarcastic infatuation”) is Holly’s most upbeat offering, representing a lyrical continuation of the youthfulness of “The Immigrant” EP. Its bridge shows off a delightful instrumental collaboration with Josh and producer Matt Patrick.

Holly describes “Better,” the closing track on “The Orchard” EP, as “euphoric recovery.” It builds like her popular, full-length acoustical rendition of “Creep.” With lyrics like I was overwhelmed/ but I’m getting better, it is a thematic sequel to her quintet of songs depicting inadequacy. The strength of an empathetic fan base shows by “Better” being her third best-selling track off the EP.

Holly ends this “The Orchard” EP with the lyrics, Did you miss me when I was lost? I asked Holly, “How do you wish fans would answer your concluding lyrics?” “I feel like those lyrics can mean something different to everyone,” she said. “For me, the meaning is, when I’m going through a rough time I hope you don’t forget who I really am underneath all the craziness.”

Will Holly’s hummingbird totem guide her through her goal of at least three more years of professionally creating music? Fans post their appreciation of Holly’s honesty and accessibility on social media, but fans I know also want to see her perform live. As a Minneapolis-based musician, Holly would benefit from broadcasted or recorded performances. She needs, at the least, to utilize StageIt performances over the Internet to reach distant fans, helping to retain them over the long haul. Additionally, she should schedule gigs while on her periodic trips to Florida, where her musician fiancé Josh Dobson regularly performs solo and in the band “East Harbor.” Josh, Holly, and Matt

“The Orchard” EP successfully plays to audiences attracted to Holly’s angelic voice and allegorical lyrics. The EP represents a sophisticated evolution of Holly’s musical talent, combined with a remarkable collaborative achievement by producer and backup instrumentalist Matt Patrick. Josh Dobson provided lead instrumentation, plus duet vocals and collaborative songwriting in “Skin.” The EP was released by Garden Ghost Records and is available on Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon. Holly Henry’s official website can be found at hollyhenrymusic.com.

*This entry was written by a guest blogger. Author Gary Reese, known online as pcacala, contributes postings, photos, videos, and interviews about musicians, including those who have appeared on “The Voice.” He is an Original Poster on Idolforums (IDF) and The Voice Forums (TVF). The “Holly Henry Fan Thread” (on IDF) and the “Holly Henry Fan Page” (on TVF) have combined page views of over 151,000, making Holly has the third most viewed fan discussions of any contestant who has competed on “The Voice.”

Works cited

[1] Holly Henry. (2013). “Hollyhenrymusic” [blog post]. Retrieved from

http://hollyhenrymusic.tumblr.com/

[2] Boneyarddog. (2013, November). “Holly Henry Fan Thread.” Retrieved from

http://idolforums.com/index.php?s=&showtopic=706360&view=findpost&p=26015851

[3] Holly Henry. (2014, October 5). “Very Exciting Questions & Answers Video” . Retrieved from

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypcD4CRo_Ow

 

 

 

Step Outside of What You Know: A Review of Avi Wisnia’s New Single, “Sky Blue Sky”

Avi Wisnia, photographed onJune 19, 2014 by Chris M. Junior My summer of 2015 included plenty of interesting work and many exciting changes. I helped Avi Wisnia; the Bossa-Nova inspired pop musician who has graced Music Historian as a featured artist and an entry in Event Diary, announce his new song “Sky Blue Sky.” I feel humbled to have contributed some of my time to this project. I have seen a lot of positive reception from radio stations in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and even Chicago.

One music director from a Pennsylvania station said “Sky Blue Sky” reminded him of Stan Getz’s instrumental song “So Danco Samba.” Avi’s new track, however, includes vocals and lyrics. The verses in “Sky Blue Sky” tell a story of the musician’s vivid memories of playing music on the Brazilian Ipanema beach, hiking along the Italian Amalfi coast, sailing in the San Francisco Bay, lounging on the rooftops of Philadelphia, and more. One day, as he laid on the beach in Cape May, New Jersey – at the time, he was also experiencing “songwriter’s block” – these memories floated back to Avi[1]. On the subject of Cape May, I spoke to the music director of a radio station in this town who remembers Avi from when he visited. This director played “Sky Blue Sky” for Cape May listeners earlier this month.

Avi recorded “Sky Blue Sky” this year with bassist and producer from Rio de Janeiro, Bruno Migliari, who has recorded with top-tier Brazilian musicians, Milton Nascimento, Ana Carolina, and Marcos Valle. Although these two met in 2011, Avi found that returning to Brazil for a collaboration with Bruno proved challenging. Both musicians decided to record via satellite and defied logistical restrictions. Avi and Bruno assembled a band renowned Brazilian musicians in Rio, including Marco Lobo on drums, Bernardo Bosisio on guitar, while Bruno recorded his parts in Brazil, and Avi recorded his in Philadelphia.

The song opens with a dissonant melody of five notes on the melodica before getting cut-off by an upbeat and major harmony on the guitar. At the same time, a walking bass enters, along with a breezy rattling rhythm on the drums. The melodica returns in the middle of the song, and scatters those that dissonant melody within a major melody filled with chromatic steps and a dance-like tempo. The way this melodica is placed into the song reminds me of the way David Bowie places the saxophone in his most well-known songs, “Changes.” The saxophone is part of a brass section at the beginning of the song that crescendos in the intro just moments before Bowie sings with a piano and guitar in the verses. Listeners do not hear the sax again until the conclusion of the song.

Music writers have criticized that Bowie’s lyrics in “Changes” focused on the compulsive nature of artistic reinvention[2]. The only parallel I can make from this criticism with my own of Avi’s “Sky Blue Sky” is that the indie singer-songwriter might lead his fan base to believe he is undergoing some reinvention. However; since Avi has only released a single thus far, it will take an album in the future to decide whether he is trying to bridge his older sound with a new genre and style of songwriting.

“Sky Blue Sky” guides listeners down a jazzy path, rather than one of the blues like his previous song on Something New, “Rabbit Hole.” While the title track of his 2010 debut album, along with “Back of Your Hand” and “Nao E Coisa” display some hints of his love for Bossa Nova, these tracks did not showcase how far Avi could trek outside of his comfort zone of American music.

Avi takes a strong step forward in musical expansion with “Sky Blue Sky.” What would be important for the Philly-based singer-songwriter is he does not forget the sound that gained him his following in the first place. “Sky Blue Sky” helps listeners step out of what familiarized them with Avi’s sound and taking a vacation to a new musical landscape is terrific; but having that home, that first place, reminds us of why we love getting away. Print

On the subject of vacations, if you took an exciting one this summer of 2015, “Sky Blue Sky” provides the perfect soundtrack to that memory. If you did not take one, let this song remind you that this perfect trip away from home is just around the corner. Like Avi says, “Whether you are on vacation or dream to get away, this new single captures the promise of possibility as clear as a blue summer sky[3].”

“Sky Blue Sky” will be released everywhere music is digitally downloaded and sold on September 1st. Visit Avi’s Bandcamp to purchase your copy of the single.

Finally, to my Music Historian readers, two things. 1) How was your summer? Please write me a comment below this post! 2) You might have noticed that I had not posted in over two months and have wondered whether there is a reason. If you have, I must say, there is a reason. I was in the middle of job interviews, trying to land a job in marketing. I am happy to say I have finally landed that position.

Since with new opportunities comes new responsibilities, I must announce Music Historian will undergo some changes. I am not sure what these changes are yet, but I promise they are on the way. In the meantime, I have a few new posts in the next few months on the way too. One will be a post by my first guest blogger in September. The second post will be of an interview with the alternative-country artist from Australia, Ruby Boots. Please standby, happy reading, and happy listening! Enjoy the rest of the summer.

[1] A. Wisnia (August 28, 2015). “Sky Blue Sky.” Retrieved from https://aviwisnia.bandcamp.com/track/sky-blue-sky

[2] “Changes (David Bowie Song). (August 24, 2015) In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Changes_(David_Bowie_song)

[3] A. Wisnia. (August 28, 2015). “Sky Blue Sky.” Retrieved from https://aviwisnia.bandcamp.com/track/sky-blue-sky

Works Cited

“Changes (David Bowie Song).” (2015). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Changes_(David_Bowie_song)

Wisnia, A. (2015). “Sky Blue Sky.” Retrieved from https://aviwisnia.bandcamp.com/track/sky-blue-sky

Today’s Afrobeat: Founded by father, Fela, and continued by son, Femi Kuti takes this genre into a changing world

Femi KutiFemi Kuti, Head Shot, Press Photo carries his father’s – Fela Kuti – legacy of Afrobeat graciously and humbly. Developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Afrobeat blends elements of Yoruba music, jazz and funk rhythms with an instrumentation that emphasizes African percussion and vocal styles (New World Encyclopedia 2015). American musicians have come to appreciate the sounds of Afrobeat pioneered by Fela and expanded by Femi.

Throughout his 26-year career, Femi has toured with large rock and roll acts in the U.S., including Jane’s Addiction and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and collaborated with Mos Def, Common and Jaguar Wright on a song for the video game “Grand Theft Auto IV (Ridgefield Press 2015).” As I interviewed Femi for the Music Historian in the lounge above the Brooklyn Bowl stage, minutes before his rehearsal, I asked him what it is about Afrobeat that artists from other genres admire.

“Understand,” Femi begins, “that it has always been there. In fact, in 1970s, when my father was making all of his hits, I think diplomats from Nigeria were taking records [of Fela’s music] to America. People like Miles Davis, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder were listening to him. So many great musicians were inspired, but his name was never mentioned. What probably happened was that someone had been listening to his record, and they said, “Wow, this is great. Who is this?” Someone else would respond, “It is this cat from Nigeria,” and they would say “Wow! Great music.”

“In 1977, when Nigeria hosted the Festac Festival, I know Americans came to the shrine and played with him [Fela], jammed with him, and loved his music. I would [also] say 50-60% of Hip Hop came from the Afrobeat. So, it would not be surprising to hear people say my father inspired them. Then there was a musical about him on Broadway. I think this is a just a manifestation, but he was never mainstream. He was always on the ground and inspired American arts, culture, and music.”

In Nigeria, Fela had a very strong fan base. Femi got his start in music by playing saxophone in his father’s band at the age of 15 (femiakuti.com 2015). The fan base often asked Femi when he was going to play music and be like his father. When Femi decided to leave his father’s band, this was a taboo.

“In Africa, you never fight your father, especially if he was Fela Kuti,” explained Femi. Further, the musician admits he had a stressful period of trying to convince people his music was his own, and not his father’s.

“People misinterpreted everything I did,” he said. “My father told so many journalists that he would never write a song for his kids, but they still thought that was not true. When I had my first hit in Nigeria, “Wonder Wonder,” I was not given credit; people thought my father wrote the song for me. Then I had my big hit, which became international, “Beng Beng Beng” and people said “No, no. It is [a hit] just because you are Fela’s son. When I got my first GRAMMY nomination, it was, “Oh it is because you are Fela’s son.

“I think the good thing about it is it never troubled me. We loved my father very much. I don’t think critics or anybody could destabilize my thoughts.”

Femi has released a total of eight albums in his career. His 1998 album Shoki Shoki broke many boundaries in Afrobeat music. The artist used technology and machines to drive the force of the music. His last three records, Day by Day (2010), Africa for Africa (2011), and No Place for My Dreams (2013), have been released by Label Maison Records. I wondered whether Femi, when making a new album always searched for a new experience or focused more on the process of making music rather than an end goal. He says:

“I feel the experience of the time is what contributes most to the making of the album. For instance, in Africa for Africa, I wanted people to experience what it was like to record a band like mine both live and in the studio in Nigeria. [For example] they were recording and the electricity goes off. Hopefully, they would feel the frustrations I felt trying to get the record done.

No Place for My Dreams, the last one, reflects more of my childhood. I was trying to bring sounds from my father that touched me. Bringing that power – ‘I would love to play music, what kind of music do I want to play?’

“The next album I am working on is trying to go back to Shoki Shoki, which tried to use technology to enhance the creativity of Afrobeat. Most people [at the time] thought it was not very possible [to do] with the Afrobeat.”

Africa for Africa is one album that personally stood out to me the most. Femi, in a 2011 interview with NPR, said that one of the themes from this album reflects an ongoing concern among many African citizens, the lack of a unified central news network to inform people about what is going on in multiple regions across their content (NPR 2011). I asked Femi to tell me more about this theme. He elaborates:

“We have to wait for the BBC to tell us there is a war in the Congo; we have to wait for CNN to tell us what is going on in Ghana. Where is the African central network system to tell us our story, and then to tell all? It would be so powerful, that the BBC and CNN would have to get new [about Africa] from this network, not vice versa.

“Let’s take for example the crisis of Boko Haram. The BBC reports any crisis before any Nigerian network. The BBC or CNN will send journalists into this area to investigate. How come no Nigerian network sends a journalist to this war zone? Are they too scared? Not even videos or live footage. With the war in Iraq, you see BBC journalists will go there – this is journalism; there is no room to compromise nor argue with this. You have to appreciate the bravery of the journalist.

“There is so much. Don’t African nations see what is going on? Where is that kind of courage, where is that kind of attitude in journalism? If you were to focus really on Africa, Africa would probably not have time to listen to other news. There is too much going on there to deal with that. If we did have a serious network like the BBC – that was not corrupt, of course, not managed by interference or governments manipulating the system – then can you imagine how fantastic that network would be? For an individual journalist to be curious and go to find the truth of that news at any length because it is important? That’s what I would have loved for Africa.”

Femi Kuti Powerful Force Rehearsal (2) Like his father, Femi also addressed corruption within his music, corruption that each African citizen faces daily. One song from No Place for My Dreams, “No Work, No Job, No Money,” includes a lyrical message that within a country filled with plenty of oil and other natural resources, there is no work for people to help them make money and feed themselves nor their families. Based on personal curiosity, I wondered how have people’s reaction to this same type of corruption changed from the 1970’s to present day.

“I think what has changed is that now people are most outspoken. In my father’s time, it was just his voice and his voice alone. Now, on social media, you will see young boys and girls express their discontent with anything they see; this was not happening in my father’s time.

“The young people communicate way too fast for the leaders. I don’t think world leaders can deal with this, especially when they [the government] is being dishonest. More people today complain, so the government is very uncomfortable. The government is being forced to be honest for the first time, but, I think they will try to be smarter, more sophisticated; they will try to hide.

“You see what is happening in Greece, Spain, and France? I now realize that Greece is facing the kind of problems Africa faces – they have no jobs, they can’t put food on the table. You see what is going on in Ukraine? The government is losing its invisible force. Europeans and Americans don’t fear government like Africa fears government. Africa too is changing very fast and African governments are losing that invisibility where they think they are untouchable,” says Femi.

Issues of joblessness, poverty and hunger exist in all countries. Femi also makes a valid point when he says U.S. or EU citizens don’t fear their governments as much as Africans fear theirs. While the musician mentions that young people in Africa speaking on social media regarding what is happening around them; neither he nor his father wanted to encourage the international community to get involved.

“Understand,” begins Femi, “African leaders want people to believe they are honest. If I can show the true picture, then you have a different view. You become intrigued; you want to find out more.” A listener might ask, ’Is Femi speaking the truth, or will I go to Africa?’ Femi continues with this figurative scenario, “You will say ‘Oh, there is no electricity.’ How come Nigeria, a big oil-producing country cannot provide healthcare? How come the education system in Nigeria does not even exist? You have all of these universities and no matter what degree you come out with; it is meaningless. [You then ask] ‘Is Femi telling the truth, or are the leaders telling the truth?’ Then you have to question – How come your leaders are negotiating or doing business with corrupt people? Are they part of this corruption?

“I feel, that the world, whether we like it or not, in a few years, the political arena will change drastically, for the positive I hope.”

Looking towards the future, I wondered what Femi expected from himself and his band, The Positive Force. Before I directly posed this within a question, I wondered whether his last album No Place for My Dreams had produced the results he wanted. Femi says:

“I think it has already done its full lap. We have toured already now for over a year and a half, promoting the album. People love it very much, and now, [they] go into the future, and talk about it later on. The later generation might pick it up one day like they picked up my father’s [albums]. I think what is important for me is to know how to look into the future. Always try to bring new sounds into our music – new conversations.”

Wherever these new conversations lead listeners, Femi will continue that passion for a genre that helps define Africa. Also to combining funk, jazz, and soul, Femi also defines Afrobeat as a genre filled with African culture and tradition, “the true roots.”

“Don’t forget,” he explains, “Africa had its melody before the west came, or before jazz. My father was lucky to grow up in a village that still kept its tradition and folk songs from ancestral times. I think my father was gifted enough to say, “Everybody is doing this in Africa, this what I have… and if we take it and just make it rich.” That just caught everybody’s attention. His grandfather was a musician and composer, and his father was a musician and a composer. His grandfather was the first composer from West Africa to record for the BBC. They composed a lot of hymns, many of them are still relevant in churches, or in traditional culture in Nigeria.

“My father grew up with all of this rich music. As he studied classical music, fell in love with jazz, tried to find his feet, he probably then remembered, “Wow. This is what my grandfather was doing.” This is what I was listening to in the streets… where I was born. [He said] “Oh, I can… put all of this richness together and bring about my kind of music.” Then everybody said “Whoa! What is he doing?” Everybody was moved by it.”

In July, between the 10th and the 18th Femi Kuti & The Positive Force will travel to Paris and the UK to perform on a short tour. Then, it is back to Nigeria to focus on the new album, which will revisit the stylistic creativity established within his previous work, Shoki Shoki.

“I think with my experience, age, and maturity, and if my calculation is right, in my mind, it should be ten times greater than the Shoki Shoki album,” explains the musician. “If I can arrive at that, then I can say that I have reached another milestone in my musical career.”

Works Cited

Afrobeat. (2012, August 29). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Afrobeat

Femi Kuti Official Website. (2013). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.femiakuti.com/#!about/c2414/

Femi Kuti & The Positive Force Bringing Afrobeat To Ridgefield | The Ridgefield Daily Voice. (2015, May 29). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://ridgefield.dailyvoice.com/events/femi-kuti-positive-force-bringing-afrobeat-ridgefield

Nigerian Star Femi Kuti Talks Politics And Music. (2011, April 27). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/2011/04/27/135770537/nigerian-artist-femi-kuti-talks-politics-and-music

 

All photos were published with permission

Embrace the Chaos, wherever you may wind up: Gypsy George discusses biculturalism, entrepreneurship and how music has brought him to Brooklyn

Gypsy George Press Shot. Published with Permission from the Artist.Like many bilingual professionals, Gypsy George, a Brooklyn-based musician whose real name is George Mihalopoulos, has learned to manage two lifestyles simultaneously. You might have guessed that his family is from Greece. Though he was born in the U.S., George says he is “firmly rooted in Greek culture.” He describes to me his every day.

“My day to day is quite active and busy. Recently, I’ve added importing olive oil from Greece with my Dad to the mix of things I do. A few years ago, he and I were trying to find ways to bring money back to Greece, due to the financial crisis. My grandfather used to press this fantastic olive oil in our hometown of Nafpaktos, and later, we discovered that everyone in the area just pressed their own oil and never sold it. We met with a local miller there, developed a relationship, and now we exclusively bottle our single varietal (Athinoelia) Premium ‘Agouraleio’ Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Nafpaktos under the brand name 10δεκα.

“So, that has been taking up most of my weekday mornings. After I finish with Olive Oil stuff, I usually move onto music-related matters – responding to emails, organizing shows and working in the studio. It varies from week to week but generally, my daily life has been ‘Olive Oil & Music.’”

Aside from participating in a business partnership with his father, George also founded a publishing company in 2003, Always Already.

“I started this company mainly so I could start receiving royalties on a movie I contributed music to, ‘The Maldonado Miracle’ produced and directed by Salma Hayek. From there, I started to build it around music licensing and composing. Today, I have expanded it to include a record label. It is a boutique music company that pretty much offers all music related services – recording, producing, publishing, licensing, composing, and more.”

He adds, “I run the company very grass roots, family-style, encouraging all the artists I’m producing to be as involved with their projects as possible. I do try to teach them about the business end of things, so they are better armed to tackle the ever-changing universe of music.”

Speaking of an “ever-changing universe,” an entrepreneur and musician who runs multiple businesses might describe the road to their success as unpredictable and messy. At least, that’s how I would describe it as I reflect on countless interviews with musicians, informal interviews with NYC student entrepreneurs, and my professional development.

Like many entrepreneurs, George has learned to ‘embrace the chaos.’ He also incorporates this motto into his definition of a gypsy: “One who lets life happen – the good and the bad – and welcomes it; who can adapt to their surroundings with ease and pleasure; who is unafraid to take risks, be self-critical and make changes.”

While I certainly find this definition of a gypsy inspiring in a creative and artistic sense, I know that in an ethnic and practical definition, it needs more refining. For George, Gypsy is his stage name, one he more or less picked up while being on the road, spontaneously traveling America’s mid-west for his musical inspiration and his identity. Further, George’s affinity to the open road also influenced the name of his band, Gypsy George and the Open Road Love Affair. The band creates what one might describe as Americana music with spurts of Greek flair. The band’s repertoire of music has opened doors to new projects and possibilities. Gypsy George shares his story right here on Music Historian.

Gypsy George Press Photo. Published with permission. Gypsy George received his name from his insatiable desire to randomly hop in a car – without a map – and travel the depths of America. The artist had mentioned that during this time, he was trying to figure out whether he was Greek or American (National Herald 2011). I asked him exactly what fueled this desire.

“A few things contributed to my desire for exploration and travel,” explained George. “Firstly, I moved around a lot when I was younger, eight times in the first six years of my life. So, that clearly laid the foundation. Secondly, it was my family origin. My sister, my cousins, and I are the first generation born in the states. The rest of my family was born in Greece, including my parents. I was raised bi-culturally. I frequently travel to Greece, and I am fluent in the language and culture.

“Initially, my drive to explore America was to experience all the regions that Blues artists had lived in or traveled. I wanted to find the places where Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Willie Dixon, and Leadbelly had been before me. I wanted to see and feel what inspired them, and this led me up and down the Mississippi River for many years. Since I lived mostly in big cities and urban environments, it was mind blowing to see these places up close and play guitar on the banks of the mighty river. I fell in love with the countryside; it opened my eyes to the true beauty and freedom of this great experiment known as the United States.”

After some time, Gypsy George decided he was 50/50 Greek-American (National Herald 2011). Then, came my next question – where in his music does George’s Greek heritage shine most?

“My music is filled with my Greek heritage,” he begins. “I’ve always felt that my music truly is a culmination of American Blues and Greek music sprinkled with the Lennon’s and Dylan’s of the world. Some specific examples are the songs “Door County Nights”, a blues structure over a 9/8 Zeibekiko time signature; the ‘bouzouki’ style mandolin on “Everyday”; the solo section of “Maude On The Run”; and the list goes on.”

Door Country Nights” is the title track to Gypsy George’s 2003 debut. This album conveyed the artist’s stylistic versatility incorporating Americana, country, honky-tonk, and some funk. At the time this album was recorded (in Los Angeles), George worked as a music supervisor and composer at a music company that had recording studios. The owner encouraged the employees to use the studios and learn how to record during off hours.

“I figured, ‘if I’m going to learn how to record, I might as well record an album of my stuff.’ It was a learning experience, to say the least,” admits George. “It is always interesting when you record your first album; expectations are so high, yet your ability is in its infant stages. Additionally, I worked with an engineer who was even newer to recording than I was. That combination of hope mixed with a lack of experience can be an exciting, frightful adventure. We had a blast though, and I think we pulled it off – at least for our first effort.”

Another song on this debut, a honky-tonk, and a country-influenced number is titled “Open Road Love Affair.” I wondered whether this song inspired the name of Gypsy George’s group. I just happened to be right.

“The band name did, in fact, come from the song title. When I was trying to come up with a band name, I spent months bouncing around ideas. I wanted a name that would convey the ideology of the ‘Plastic Ono Band’[i] with the controlled chaos of a road trip. Also, I did not want it to sound forced. One day, I was barbecuing with some friends, and I complained about how hard it was to come up with a band name. Finally, my friend Stacy blurted, ‘why don’t you call it Open Road Love Affair?’ Everyone, instantaneously, had that moment of ‘uh, why didn’t I think of that?’ And that, folks, is how the band name came about.”

The song “Everyday” comes from his 2011 release The Loneliest Man in New York. In this track, Gypsy’s inner-Greek comes out on a mandolin that plays hints of tremolos. He says that when it comes to arrangements, he pushes the envelope. George explains “I like to take chances and treat instruments differently from their basic intended purpose. Sometimes, this fails. However, I’d rather go for broke than be conventional. With a song like “Everyday,” I was very influenced by Pet Sounds (an album by The Beach Boys); particularly the songs “That’s Not Me” and “I’m Waiting for the Day.” The drum part,” which exaggerates the downbeats within the measures, “was me trying to be Brian Wilson.”

Gypsy George Press Shot published with Permission Lyrically, George is influenced by Lennon, Dylan, Beat poetry and Kazantzakis. Occasionally, he writes in an obscure referential way or inside jokes. “Sometimes, “I like to use words to create a feeling or imagery. Sometimes, I just like the way words fit together regardless of meaning. It depends on the moment, the mood.” One such song like this is “Couplet Gun” a song about love which starts with a very distinct verse – I find a little Marxist red war paint/ And, I don’t want to pray it/ I don’t want to say it/ I just want to step in right next to you. The second chorus includes this rhyme I shoot the stars with asphalt bars/ I creep along a familiar song/ I find a way to stick my nose in the dirt…

“‘A little Marxist red war paint’ was a strange way of me referring the lady of the song, who is a redhead. The second set of lyrics was written to convey the heavy, deep pain and loneliest I felt at the time, hence, trying to shoot starts with asphalt bars, sticking my nose in the dirt. I attempted to convey my truest, deepest thoughts and emotions at that very juncture in my life.”

The Loneliest Man in New York included a band of six musicians, including Jamey ‘Brother’ Hamm on vocals, who also appeared on the 2014 album 30 Songs in 30 Days. Between these two albums, George experienced a professional and personal development that was initially brought on by an impulsive decision. When he started recording Loneliest Man, George had just moved to NYC without knowing a single person.

“I wound up in NYC by accident: I was fed up with L.A. and left town. I just started driving due East to get as far away from the West Coast as possible. I lived in various spots throughout the country; toyed with the idea of going back to Chicago (where he lived throughout most of his life). Eventually, I came to Brooklyn and figured I’d try it out.

“My girlfriend at the time abruptly ended things, and I thought she was THE ONE – at least at the time. Dealing with a deep heartache – combined with living in NYC without any friends – led me to the only therapist I knew – music. I spent a month and a half in my apartment – which at the time, had no furniture or music equipment and hefty bags filled with clothes – and just wrote songs after songs.

“When it was all said and done, I had written around 100 tunes. From there, I began tracking the album. As I went through this process, I met a bunch of musicians at Roots Café in South Slope on an open mic night. After that, I just immersed myself in music and met more talented folks. Eventually, I asked a few of these insanely gifted people to play on the record. What started as my ‘breakup album’ turned into this colossal musical effort.”

“I had a very ambitious plan with 30 Songs in 30 Days,” continues George. “Having accumulated a wealth of songs I had written, I finally decided to release a double album. I also wanted to tap into all the different styles of music that have influenced me over the course of my career. Initially, my plan was to recreate the Beatles’ White Album. Rather than interpret the album song by song, I wanted to capture the general feel and weirdness of the album. As I developed the concept, it turned into the one thing I detest in art – pretentiousness. I felt I was forcing songs on this sort of strict creative platform. What I then decided to do was release 30 songs in 30 days. For the month of October in 2014, I released a song a day for 30 days. It was a maddening, yet rewarding experience.

“A lot of the material I recorded [involved] mixing and mastering on the fly. It was a very curious project that lent to quick, creative decision making as opposed to past albums where I had all the time in the world to figure out whether I liked this, that or the other. It was a fun release and one I am proud of accomplishing. Although I did play the majority of the instruments on the album, I did have some outside vocalists and musicians.”

Aside from Jamey ‘Brother’ Hamm, the musicians who played with George on 30 Songs in 30 Days included Emily Trask and Justin ‘That Moon’ Kilburn. George says that while it is always difficult to gauge what people fundamentally think about his work, he was happy with the ‘all-over-the-map’ reaction from listeners.

“I like to add humor and silliness to my songs. At the end of the day, I just try to have fun and enjoy life. Obviously, there are serious moments, but I’d much rather poke fun at myself and not take it too seriously. I think that silly and loose atmosphere of my music is what people grab onto at first.”

“Charlton Heston” and “Maude On The Run” are some of the songs on 30 Songs in 30 Days that stood out the most to me. According to George, the political themes within these tracks were overlooked in the States but resonated more in Europe. Whether or not a listener can pick up on the political themes naturally is purely left up to opinion. I was curious as to how George incorporate politics into this song. A perfect example is his 2007 record, Joe’s Beginning, which he recorded while living in Los Angeles. George also recorded this album while in an interesting place in his life.

“I had ended a relationship, felt upset with the administration [at the time], and faced a crossroads with my career. I got my feelings out in music. I locked myself in the studio for six months recording the album, and it was the first record where I did everything, including the engineering.

“Thematically, I based the record on [the story of] “Romeo and Juliet.” I interpreted the couple’s fight for love as obstructed by socio-political circumstances as opposed to warring families. I chose [the title] ‘Joe’s Beginning’ as homage to the ‘Average Joe.’ I wanted to make a political statement without being pedantic. Whether I pulled that off with the album is a different story.”

My conversation with Gypsy George so far has helped me notice that emotional events like a heartache, an abrupt move, and the challenges of being your boss – which for this artist, involves getting songs out on schedule – drives him to create music. Also, he has managed to put his talent out in a robust artistic city. Although he has become known for getting up and moving from place to place, Gypsy George has lived in Brooklyn for seven years now. As far as I know, he has no leaving plans.

Gypsy George Press Photo published with permission “I love living in Brooklyn. I have lived in South Slope, and it has been a true home for me, a first for me in my adult life. Brooklyn and NYC have a great energy and a wonderful mix of gifted and talented artists. It is a city that lays the foundation for a creative atmosphere.

“Out in L.A., I felt that it was all about who you know or how you look, but the quality of the music did not matter [so much]. In NY, you have to be pretty good to survive in the music scene. Chicago has a great art and music scene, but it remains a bit more underground.”

This year will mark the second time Gypsy George has been invited to perform at the Northside Festival. He will perform as part of a lineup hosted by Whatever Blog at The Gutter in Williamsburg. Afterward George will return to producing his second record with Justin ‘That Moon’ Kilburn, with the hopes of releasing it in July. Also, George is in the process of remixing and re-mastering 30 Songs in 30 Days and officially release it as Politics, Ex-Girlfriends & the Ayn Rand Shuffle. He hopes to have this record out in the Fall. Finally, he is also the Music Director and Composer for South Brooklyn Shakespeare, a theater company founded by Paul and Dee-Byrd Molnar. This year, the company will perform “Much Ado About Nothing” on July 25th, August 1st, and August 15th.

Whether or not George chooses to stay in this city or relocate wherever his passion for the open road takes him, he will embrace the change, whatever it maybe, and channel it into his music. Whatever life throws his way, especially if it brings him into a rougher moment in his career, George will center his focus on the fact that he has felt blessed enough to continue doing music.

“My Dad told me a long time ago, that wherever you are, whatever you wind up doing in life, no one can ever take away your ability to create and play music. To me, every moment is a proud moment. I always view myself as an artist first and that everything I do is part of a larger dialog beyond myself.

“The music industry has turned a blind eye to creativity and has focused on profit. I mean [the need] has always been there, but I don’t believe a band like The Beatles could ever make it in today’s music business structure. This is why Independent Artists are more vital than ever. While I might sound critical, I am very hopeful for the future of music and where it will wind up.”

[i] Gypsy George says he “sort of stole a page from John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s concept for the ‘Plastic Ono Band.’ They had a philosophy that ‘anyone’ can be a member of the band, and were adamant that there was no ‘set’ lineup (G. Mihalopoulos, personal communications, June 9, 2015).”

Works Cited

“In the Spotlight: Gypsy George – Musician” (2011). National Herald. Retrieved from http://www.gypsygeorge.com/uploads/9/0/3/2/9032999/national_herald.pdf

 

Pop Musician & Classical Music Fan Campaigns for Key Change on PledgeMusic

Last Fall, alternative indie pop artist, Janna Pelle, introduced herself and her concept album, Key Change to Music Historian readers and the independent music scene in New York City. For the month of May, my interview with Janna has gotten into the top ranks of the blog’s most read articles. One reason for this might be the result of her fundraising efforts to make Key Change the album every classical and pop music enthusiast and history nerd wants to hear.

The evolution of the keyboard, which was largely inspired by the different performance spaces in which the piano was placed throughout history, inspires the concept in Key Change[i]. In her album, Janna infuses instruments that inspired the modern physical structure of the piano, like the harp and the forte piano, with pop-inspired tunes. While she is known for her natural inclination to promote herself without any hesitation; Janna’s campaign on PledgeMusic – which is filled with personality and elegance – will make fellow musicians, bloggers of independent music, artists, entrepreneurs with a music-focused business, and fans of the piano fall for enthusiasm and talent. Watch her campaign video right here:

Aside from bringing together additional talent within the independent art scene of New York City, Key Change represents the beginning of a new chapter in Janna’s life which followed many life-changing events. Music Historian has spoken to Janna about the themes in her first two albums. Shameless Self-Promotion (2012) reflect the moment she stepped out on her own as a musician. Janna wrote The Show Must Go On (2014) while she was grieving her father’s passing[ii]. While she is known for her natural inclination to promote herself without any hesitation; Janna’s campaign on PledgeMusic will attract fellow musicians, bloggers, artists, entrepreneurs with a music-focused business, and fans of the piano to her enthusiasm and talent.

Music-wise, Janna describes herself as the love child of Fiona Apple and Lady Gaga, with the alter-ego of David Byrne[iii]. If you want lyrics that describe city life, coping with difficulties, romantic relationships and sex, music that quotes theme songs from popular television series, and rhythms that can make you dance like you would at a club or a fashion show, then Janna Pelle brings it all. Pre-order her album Key Change today at PledgeMusic. As stated on the page which the previous link will take you to, donors can expect the album for a release date in November of this year.

[i] Janna Pelle: Key Change Campaign Video. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/keychange

[ii] P Trutescu. (2014, Nov. 18). Janna Pelle: The Shameless Advertiser & Musician Brings Us “Key Change.” [Web log]. Retrieved from https://musichistorian.net/2014/11/18/janna-pelle-the-shameless-advertiser-musician-brings-us-key-change/

[iii] Pelle, J. (2014). Janna Pelle: The Band, The Brand. Retrieved from http://jannapelle.com/bio.html

The 2015 SESAC Pop Music Awards Celebrate Publishers and Songwriters behind Today’s Hits

SESAC 2015 Pop Awards Icon Thanks again to Pam Lipshitz, Thomas Mulgrew, and the rest of Workman Group PR, I attended another red carpet event, one with more star-studded celebrities – The SESAC 2015 Pop Music Awards. The ceremony included a riveting red carpet reception followed by dinner, award presentations, and performances. This event brought together many successful publishers and songwriters behind hits that were recognized by the GRAMMY Awards, received many placements, and got a lot of air time.

The awards – which took place last night between 7:30 and 11:00 pm – would be centered at one of the Big Apple’s many important cultural landmarks, The New York Public Library. The press anticipated the arrivals of Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams, but she turned into a no-show. Luckily, legendary hip-hop artist and Public Enemy founder Chuck D, walked the red carpet next to honoree – Jon Platt, President, North America for Warner/Chappell, who received SESAC’s Visionary Award.

Jon has long been recognized as one of the most revered executives in the music industry. He played an instrumental (no pun intended) role in attracting a wide range of talent to Warner/Chappell like Jay-Z, Beyonce, Roc Nation’s publishing roster, Mike WiLL Made It, and Aloe Blacc. Meanwhile, he continued to build relationships with songwriters like Katy Perry, Nate Ruess, Michael Buble, Barry Gibb and George Michael. Jon also worked at EMI where he signed Drake, Kanye West, Young Jeezy, Mary Mary and Snoop Dogg, and many others at the onset of their careers.

Additional songwriters who enjoyed an incredible night include James Napier and William Phillips (TOURIST), the team that wrote the GRAMMY Award-winning Song of the Year recorded by Sam Smith – “Stay With Me.” This hit was published by Salli Isaak Music Publishing (PRS), Method Paperwork LTD (PRS), and Universal Tunes. Napier also scored additional hits with Sam including “I’m Not The Only One,” and two songs featuring Sam – “Latch” by Disclosure and “La La” by Naughty Boy. For this accomplishment, James and William took home SESAC’s coveted Songwriter of the Year award.

Prior to accepting the awards, on the red carpet, I overheard James talking to a reporter about how he met Sam Smith. Although I will not divulge all the details of that conversation, I will say the success of the songwriting duo and the soulful male vocalist did not happen overnight. It happened over a few years. Napier and William Phillips (tourist) accepting award

Returning to the red carpet experience, I think about all who walked down for photo and interview opportunities following Napier. Angela Hunte, a Soca enthusiast, and the singer-songwriter who wrote “Empire State of Mind” for Alicia Keys and Jay-Z, also graciously posed for the press. Dressed in a daffodil neck to toe gown by BCBG Max Azaria, she smiled and humbly shared her experience with another journalist next to me about her current projects and future goals. Later that night, Angela would perform “Empire State of Mind” in honor of Jon Platt.

DJ Marley Waters, who had hit songs this year with electro-R&B song “2 On,” recorded by Tinashe, featuring Schoolboy Q, and also performed on the same stage alongside popular DJs including Avicii, would also receive an award. SESAC’s Mario Prins accepted the award on DJ Marley Waters’ behalf. On the red carpet, the songwriter posed for photos with Trevor Gale, Writer/Publishers relations at SESAC, and one of the night’s many glamor queens dressed to the nines, Jillisa Lynn.

Mike Free Accepting Award Mike Free, a contributor to the hit recorded by Trey Songz, “Na Na,” walked the red carpet mostly solo. Although he, like many quickly grew tired of smiling for all of the press; Mike would later receive an award for his success with “Na Na.” Award recipients who did not seem to grow tired on the red carpet included London On Da Track, a record producer, songwriter, and rapper, who collaborated on the hits recorded by Rich Gang featuring Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug, “Lifestyle,” and one recorded by T.I. featuring Young Thug, “About the Money.”

Like previously mentioned, not all award recipients appeared that night. Charli XCX, the songwriter and performer of “Boom Clap” and a contributor to other songs like “I Love It” recorded by Icona Pop, and “Fancy” recorded by Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX, also received an award, but did not attend the event. American Authors received the most memorable award that night; SESAC’s first ever, SYNC Award, which counts the number of air plays an SESAC artist receives. While this group was not present to accept either, they did prepare a video thank you message to SESAC for their major accomplishment. Their hit, “Best Day of My Life” received 150 placements in television and film.

Singer-songwriters were not the only guests of the red carpet reception that night. Other celebrities invited to the event like famous model Rain Dove and actress from Orange Is the New Black, Farrah Krenek made appearances. New singer-songwriters also graced the reception including: East-Texas native, Laura Lee Bishop Green, who followed just behind DJ Marley Waters on the carpet; the Brooklyn-based vocalist of Chairlift, Caroline Polachek; singer-songwriter Lisenny Rodriguez; and many more. My slide show of red carpet snapshots will show more. Additional SESAC players also pose with guests including Pat Collins, SESAC President; Trevor Gale, Senior VP, Writer/Publisher Relations; Linda Lorence Critelli, VP, Writer/Publisher Relations; Jamie Dominguez, Senior Director, Writer/Publisher Relations; and Greggory Smith, Associate Director, Writer/Publisher Relations.

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The red carpet event finished at about 8:30 pm and the awards ceremony started at 8:45 pm. During this time, Pat Collins made the opening speech. Linda Lorence Critelli introduced the sponsors of the awards, Delta Airlines, City National Bank, and The London NYC, an exclusive hotel partner. Linda and Trevor Gale shared the responsibility of announcing the awards.

By 9:15 pm, the audience was given a break to eat dinner. I would take off in the middle of dinner service to catch a train back home. During the remaining 30 minutes, I chatted with a few members of the press who were able to come into the Celeste Bartos Forum, the room where the ceremony was held, and drew conclusions about what I have learned from attending the event. Celeste Bartos Forum 542015

The 2015 SESAC Pop Music Awards ceremony celebrated the songwriters and publishers that helped recognized artists become household names through hit songs. While 2014 – 2015 has proven to be a year in which SESAC writers have had tremendous success, these achievements are meant only to be enjoyed in a moment. Like I have heard from many industry experts, it is difficult to predict which songs will capture the attention of the masses.

The most important lesson I remembered last night is that no artist is an island. Publishers and Songwriters play a vital role in helping recording artists rise on the popular music scene. While guarantees do not exist, artists who benefit from a collaboration with songwriters and producers, the way Sam Smith, Tinashe, and Trey Songz did, can only hope that their hits from the past year will and open the doors to more profitable opportunities in the near future.

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

For more information, please call (914) 305-2393.