The DIY Musician’s methods

The DIY Musician’s methods

Cameron Mizell is a professional musician, former record company employee and runs the website Musician Wages.

Musician Coaching:

Tell me about how you came to New York and put have been able to become a full time musician.

CM:

I came to New York a little over five years ago, and right before coming here I’d been playing in Bloomington, Indiana and it was kind of a big fish/small pond situation, where’d I’d been playing a lot of gigs and was kind of one of the guys people would call if they wanted to get a gig. And I thought, “This is great, but I need to move on.” That was what prompted the decision to move to New York. My wife – then she was my fiancée – and I moved up here and had no jobs, no leads. We just decided it was time and decided to move. That – coming up here with nothing – makes it really hard to do music. So I had to find some kind of job to make ends meet, and I went through a couple sales jobs that I was terrible at, and then ended up at Verve Records as a temp and then eventually I was hired on full time.

I worked in the production department, and when the label was downsized in 2006 I was promoted by default. The downsizing made the label much smaller, so the lines between every department were blurred. I worked closely with the creative department and also learned what the marketing department did, what the sales department did, and I even learned from the label’s lawyer.

Thanks to all this, I started to get a better idea of who owns what and how deals work and what labels look for in an artist, and by doing that I figured out what an artist should look for in a label. That gave me a pretty strong background [in the music industry]. Then when I felt it was time for me to quit, I left that and started doing my own music full time.

Musician Coaching:

Was there anything that precipitated you saying, “Now is the time, and now I can go do this, even if I don’t know if I’m going to make it?” Was it something in your label gig?

CM:

Well, yeah. I had been essentially doing all the production responsibilities for Verve, but my official title was Assistant Manager. I was very busy and working long hours, and it was a very stressful job. I felt like I could probably make this much money on my own doing what I love to do. Frankly, I didn’t even really have that much time to do my own music outside of work because I was working late and thinking about it all weekend. It was too much, and I decided I had to go. They weren’t going to be able to pay me what I felt I deserved to be paid.  When it really came down to it, the money wasn’t important; I just wanted to be a musician.

Musician Coaching:

Tell me about how you found enough money to survive when you were starting out?

CM:

My main source of music income, especially when I left Verve, was selling downloads, mostly on iTunes.  I was able to create a decent amount of income by 1) having several albums available so there was more to sell and 2) I picked up some (sort of) tricks for promoting my music online. The thing that worked the best at the time was doing iMixes on iTunes. I wrote a whole article about that on Musician Wages. Essentially what you do is create mixes, or playlists, in the store. When people go to iTunes they’re usually there to buy music, so the best place to try to help people find your music is going to be in the store itself. As an independent artist you don’t get any page placement, so what you do is find similar artists and albums that are very similar to yours and make playlists of your music with those artists, so that over time people start to connect your music – like my jazz trio with John Scofield or Soulive or Medeski, Martin and Wood – similar types of music. So it helps establish these “listeners also bought” trends. Once that started to happen, I noticed more people were listening to my music through websites like LastFM, and could also see what else they were listening to.

Musician Coaching:

And it gets you more feedback for creating mixes with other artists.

CM:

Exactly. Because sometimes the music that I thought my music was similar to actually wasn’t what other people thought. Other people thought it was similar to some other artist I’d never even heard of, so it helps me discover new music and new artists I can use in playlists. So it’s a self-perpetuating thing.

Musician Coaching:

So does this method still work in iTunes 9?

CM:

iMixes were introduced in 2004 or 2005, so that’s been several years. In internet years that’s generations. I think it’s a lower priority, or the feature is further down the importance ladder at iTunes. I don’t think it’s as effective as it used to be. First, because it doesn’t get as much attention, but also because over time – and I don’t know if this is my fault or if people were bound to figure this out – people were doing this, and it was like blatant spamming, making iMixes that only use the top-selling artists, even if it had nothing to do with their music. The playlists were not really designed to be good playlists. They were just designed to put your track in front of as many people as possible. I feel like that kind of deteriorated the cleverness of this whole thing. It became really obvious when people were making iMixes to promote their music. I still make iMixes that are essentially like if I were going to make a playlist for myself or a mix CD for my car. I can turn all those things into iMixes. And they’re good mixes, because if I want to listen to it, maybe someone else will want to listen to it.

Musician Coaching:

I remember you telling me you had some success with Christmas music as well.

CM:

In 2007, when I was still working at Verve, I really became aware of how much Christmas music sells, so I started to wonder if I could turn that into a revenue stream for myself.

People just buy Christmas music. In some ways it cheapens the whole idea of a Christmas album, because it’s blatantly commercial. My wife loves Christmas music , and she was always asking me, “When are you going to make your Christmas album?” And I said, “It’s way too early in my career to make a Cameron Mizell Christmas album.” There was no way I was going to do that. But then I started noticing other independent artists having a lot of success with their own holiday albums. One night I was sitting around with a couple musician friends and we thought, “What kind of Christmas album could we make? It needs to be very, very specific – the niche, the genre. It needs to be something that’s not very common. How about bossa nova? What would a Stan Getz circa 1964 Christmas album sound like?” So we went and arranged a bunch of public domain Christmas hymns as bossa novas – Girl from Ipanema meets O Little Town of Bethlehem, that kind of thing. We recorded it all at home so there was no overhead. We put it up on iTunes and the first year it did really well. iTunes included a track in one of their iTunes Essential playlists and put the album in a feature on the jazz page. We ended up making about $2500 bucks in a month from that album. We kind of realized, “Okay, that worked, what else can we do?” The next year we made an Americana Christmas album — the same guys with a totally different sound. These are all instrumental albums, so this is great background music for the holidays.

There are studios and session bands that do this sort of thing, which you might see on an end-cap in someplace like Target, so it’s not a new idea. Our approach is just less slick, more organic.

Musician Coaching:

So it is music with a specific purpose. This project is Christmas music made for a certain type of consumer.

CM:

Exactly. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s gotten to a point where if we do one of these every year – as long as we can make it good, because it’s not going to sell if it’s not really good – we get paid a good chunk of change after the Christmas season. It covers part of my rent for a year.

Musician Coaching:

How did you find success being a session musician? I know you’re producing other artists, playing on other artists’ music, doing a lot of musical directing. How did you wind up going from someone who knew no one a few years ago to someone that is having that side of your career?  A label gig is not always the best place to meet touring musicians,

CM:

Well, actually it’s kind of funny. Lauren Zettler, one of the people I work with most now used to work at Universal Music Group. So, in some ways because of working that record label gig I met the person who I now work with most. So she was doing her own thing, and after I quit Verve she gave me a call and wanted me to play guitar on a couple gigs, and that sort of turned into recording a new song she’d written. We did all this at my apartment in my little make-shift studio. Things clicked and that one song ended up turning into an EP, and we started to tour. With Lauren, it was really that she needed a sideman, and it turned into becoming more of a band endeavor where we both do a lot of work. We both know a lot about the music industry, so we are able to share responsibilities. That helps. All my other connections came from school. I went to University of North Texas, which has a great jazz program, and then I transferred to Indiana University, which also has an excellent music program. I know a lot of people from both those schools that are here in New York now. Once I quit Verve I had all this free time, and I could start getting together with people and playing a lot more. Really it’s all about going out to see people at their gigs, and they come out to see you at yours. Eventually if somebody needs a guitar player, they give you a call. It’s pretty straight-forward. If you’re good and people see you enough, they start to remember you.

Musician Coaching:

Tell me about MusicianWages as a platform. Why did you build that, and does it feed into your career as a session player?

CM:

MusicianWages.com was an idea that Dave Hahn and I had going back several years before we actually started it. Dave is a great writer, and he had been blogging about his experience on a cruise ship – he had a cruise ship gig as a piano player. That blog got tons of traffic. It was the only place where people could find out any information about playing music on a cruise ship, because the agencies weren’t very forthcoming about what to expect. What kind of clothes do you pack? What’s the room going to look like? So he wrote about a lot of that. What we ended up doing was taking that cruise ship blog – Chronicles of a Cruise Ship Musician – and making it one section of MusicianWages. We figured a lot of people do the cruise ship and come off the boat and are looking for work and a scene somewhere. Dave had that experience, and then after the cruise ship he started doing tours, musical theater, and things like that. I had been doing the independent musician/freelance guitar player type of thing, and had experience organizing and leading a band and trying to do something with my original music. So we just started writing about all this. We thought, “There are very few resources out there that give you practical advice as a musician.” And frankly, we couldn’t really find anything that was very significant written by musicians. Because there are a lot of people that talk to you like, “I’m a marketing expert, and here’s how you should market your music;” but they’re not actually doing it themselves because they’re not musicians. That was the whole idea:  “It has to be based on experience and it has to be practical advice; it can’t be an advertisement for whatever you’re doing, it has to be advice for someone that wants to do what you’re doing.” We asked friends that are all professional musicians to write as well. And then we had people that aren’t necessarily working musicians but work with musicians very closely – such as yourself, or Heather at Music Careers at About.com or David Rose at KnowtheMusicBiz.com, all those types of people started to contribute. We’ve built a pretty solid amount of content on the topic. Our goal is, if you search “musician,” we want to come up on the top page in Google. We’re there yet, but that’s our goal. If you go to Musician Wages, you’ll notice one of the things we try to stress is that our site is about the musician business, not the music business.

Musician Coaching:

How is putting yourself out there in that manner and other blogs enhanced your career?  Would you recommend somebody putting their experiences out there to help their career or their business?

CM:

Yeah. It’s definitely had a positive influence on my career as a musician, because every article has a link to me, and if people want to find out more about me, they just have to click on my name and it goes to my website. It’s hard to say how many sales that results in, but I definitely get e-mail on a regular basis from people through my website that are asking me more questions, or telling me they found my music and really like it. A lot of times those people come from MusicianWages. I know for Dave, for example, he’s definitely had some positive results from writing this. Dave belongs to the Musician’s Union. He wrote an article about creating a resume for musicians, and had a picture of his resume in the article. The Union paper, which goes out to tens of thousands of union members, has his resume printed in it because they re-printed his article

Musician Coaching:

Do you have any closing advice or things you see a lot of people doing wrong that could be avoided?

CM:

The only other thing I wanted to add is that there are all these sites you could be on, and I think a lot of people find this overwhelming. I see a lot of really great musicians that don’t do anything online. I think if you don’t think about it as a bunch of separate things, but think about it as one organism that is all contributing to your internet presence and make it a habit to do a little bit here and a little bit there, it grows over time. If you Google your name – which every musician should do from time to time – you want to be the top result, and you want people to know you have music available and are playing shows. The only way to do that is to repeatedly be putting your name and your music on the internet so other people can pick it up.  If that means blogging every day or blogging once a week or just posting your favorite music on some website somewhere, all of that contributes. That’s what I’ve been doing for years, and it works really well.

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