A Conversation With Zoe Keating: EXCLUSIVE Excerpt From Emily White’s “How to Build a Sustainable Music Career and Collect All Revenue Streams”
Emily White has made a career out of helping independent creators as a manager, label owner and much more. She’s in the trenches with them every day.
Fortunately, we are in a time when d.i.y., independent and major label artists have more diverse opportunities than ever to build a career. But that career is only sustainable if – and it’s a big, sometimes complex IF – they understand the many revenue streams available and how to collect them.
That’s the premise and the promise of Emily White‘s important new book “How to Build a Sustainable Music Career and Collect All Revenue Streams.”
The book begins with a conversation with Zoe Keating, who has built an enviable and sustainable career as an instrumental musician without a manager, a record label or ever shooting a music video.
FOREWORD: A CONVERSATION BETWEEN ZOË KEATING AND EMILY WHITE
Zoë Keating is the only artist I’ve ever known who does not need to read this book. She is primarily an instrumental musician who has never made a music video, does not have a manager, and has built a sustainable career for the long term.
In early 2006, I was working at a management company that also had a travel agency for artists and fans. One day, the travel agent came by my desk and told me that Imogen Heap’s tour manager had a family emergency and needed to leave the tour immediately. She wanted to know if I could fill in for a few dates. Luckily I had a boss (Mike Luba) who said, “I think that would be a great experience for you!” and off I went to Boston to join Imogen’s tour. I’ve been privileged to tour the globe with artists more times than I can count. Yet this tour was one of the most memorable and life-changing for me. It was three women, including myself, and a sound person on a giant tour bus. Imogen was touring and playing with an incredible musician named Zoë Keating.
I have a vivid memory of Zoë selling out of CD’s at the merchandise table early in the tour. She was stressed since so many new fans were discovering her at these shows and frustrated by the great problem of selling more music than usual. I calmly asked where the CD’s were stored. They were at her home where Zoë’s husband Jeff fulfilled mail orders for her music. I suggested that we essentially set up a merch table “pre-order,” letting fans purchase the CD, taking down their name, address, and contact details for Jeff. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing her career and family intimately ever since.
Zoë Keating is the definition of a modern artist. She has built a sustainable career, which will be discussed in this foreword, and she has all of her revenue streams flowing directly to her. Although Zoë knows that she has built a genuine and deep connection with her audience that defines a sustainable music career, we cannot control the changes that occur around us – both in life and career. Zoë is now a single mother, losing her husband to cancer in 2015. Zoë is a testament to both strength and humanity. She has been publicly navigating new waters with the loss of her partner and shedding light on what it means to be a single parent with a full time music career.
I’ve looked up to Zoë since I’ve known her, and I feel it’s important to share her career and music with you. She may be new to you, although she has upwards of one million Twitter followers. At the time of this interview, Zoë is writing two film scores during the day and tending to her son after school and at night, all before taking off for London this week. As time is a precious commodity, Zoë and I had a conversation in lieu of a traditional foreword. After her son went to bed, I interviewed her on the tenets of this book and how she does everything I have to say on this subject – on her own.
Zoë and I are both involved in the modern music industry, and we are often placed on the same panels at industry conferences. We tried new music platforms as they became available and figured out how to build sustainable music careers as we went along. Zoë can also code, and feels that it’s the developer in her that led to figuring out her music career. Says Zoë, “I have that programmer’s mentally of ‘here’s a bug, how do I fix it? What’s behind this?’ Or I look at the system; it’s just in my nature. I approach it like I was designing a map or debugging a piece of code.” I don’t know how to code, but I am an entrepreneur, so I’m all about things that make sense. In music, to me, that means always putting the artist first while taking care of the fans as a very close second. Adds Zoë, “I think there is one thread in all of this for me – whatever is happening in your life and career right now will probably not be happening tomorrow. So it’s really good to stay nimble and not be too dogmatic. Things will shift over time.” As Zoë has also learned and stated, “No one is going to go out of their way to send you a royalty check.”
Zoë has spent the last few years recalibrating around how to now be a single parent and a full time working musician. As such, she is expected to compose and record a score for a television show overnight and through weekends to hit a deadline, while also caring for her son. As Zoë says, “There are 80 or so working composers in Hollywood and a very small percentage are women. There’s a reason for that.” Or hearing that a film producer wanted to offer her a composing position yet said, “But she’s widowed now; she probably won’t do it.” Even before losing Jeff, there was a shift while becoming a mother as a full time musician when Zoë was asked by a legendary artist to perform at a major annual event a week before her son was due. Six months later, Zoë reached out to the same artist letting him know that she could do it this year and was told, “I didn’t think you were doing that any more now that you’re a mom;” and that they already had a “female cellist.”
Yet Zoë is able to persist professionally and continue to thrive in her career because, as she says, “I have my audience.” How did she do that? In this foreword, I will take Zoë through the chapters you’re about to read to reveal how she did it.
GET YOUR ART TOGETHER
Emily: How do you know when you’re “ripe” and ready to record?
Zoë: You have to have something to say and you have to be able to execute it. What I notice with artists who are starting out is that often there’s a huge gap in what they want to achieve, what they want to do in the stu- dio, and what they can do right now. I had my little time. A bit like when The Beatles went to Germany and were learning their craft. I had my time in the warehouse where I could perform every weekend to an adoring living room audience. And I could make mistakes and learn how to talk to the audience. I wasn’t ready to perform. But at some point there was a time when I was ready to go out there and do it. You don’t want to go out there until you’re ready. That said, I do know some people that hash it out as they go along. But there’s also that thing when a band wants to record an album and they’re not ready. It’s just going to be a waste of money and time.
I can’t speak for other artists, but for me, I had a long time of working in private on something. And then I worked really hard on my EP that I was doing. I did it by myself, in a room, and worked on it for quite some time until it was ready. I knew I had made something different that I felt proud of and felt like it represented me as a person. That is when I knew it was something. It wasn’t something that I thought was cool or that I liked the sound of. It really felt like this is a musical version of myself. That’s when I knew that I was ready to get out there.
However, what happened next had to do with my enthusiasm. I started sending my music out to people I knew in the industry and then I started getting rejections. That’s a really difficult point because you have your soul encapsulated in musical form and people are telling you it’s not interesting or it doesn’t have any marketability. Or maybe you should add vocals to that. Or ‘why don’t you come into my office and I’ll get a picture of you lying across the fur rug and put that on the cover,’ which actually happened to me. That’s really crushing. So what do you do next?
More likely than not, you’re going to be crushed. You’re going to think that somebody should hear this musical soul and they’re not going to hear what you hear. Because if it’s good – maybe it hasn’t been done before. And people in the business only want to hear things that they know someone else has done, right? Nearly all the artists I love started doing something that nobody in the industry had heard before and therefore, they weren’t ready to hear it yet. So what do you do next? Do you go back to your room and are you going to be crushed? Or are you going to do it yourself? For me, I did it myself. Now that doesn’t have to be a linear path. You can do it yourself for awhile and maybe then get a record deal, if that’s what you want, or get a publishing deal. Or have some parts of it managed by others. But how do you know when you’re ready? Get your art together. Once you start getting your art out there, you’re going to get nine no’s for every one yes.
PRE-RECORDING MARKETING FOUNDATION: EMAIL LIST, TEXT MESSAGE CLUB, AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Zoë: Email is crucial and it’s still amazing at this point when people don’t use it. It’s just got to be all about the email list and it’s worth the money. I pay for the email list every month and I’m happy to pay for it. When I say email list, I also mean text. I don’t even put an email list out at shows any more. I put a number out from the stage and place posters with the number in the lobby by the merch table. I’m famous for putting out my email list and losing it. For a while, I was using TaskRabbit for my shows’ email list sheets to get the information into my email list’s database. Lately I’ve just been using a text platform, which is great. And way more people are signing up that way.
With social media, you might build your audience somewhere and then they’re not going to hear from you due to algorithms, because you’ve giv- en all of your assets over to another company. And who knows if they’re going to let that keep working for you. I just did a test with Facebook to pay for a post to have everyone see it. It would cost at least a thousand dollars to get to half of my audience there. That’s not feasible.
GET YOUR BUSINESS AFFAIRS TOGETHER BEFORE YOU HIT THE STUDIO AND FAIR COMPENSATION
Zoë: It’s very important to discuss what the financial deal is between all of you.
Emily: Zoë then shared with me a story about a bandmate (not much of a mate in my opinion!) receiving a significant recording advance and not telling Zoë.
Zoë: I learned a lot of things by making mistakes. It doesn’t have to be fraught. People have difficulty talking about money. It’s a cultural problem. The only way to do it is just to get through the discomfort and bring it up. Someone has to bring it up. It’s going to be awkward until some- body makes the first move. It’s always going to be better for you if that’s you. It’s really, really valuable to know the legal ins and outs in advance of arranging versus writing versus re-mixing, and what those are considered in the world of songwriting splits. It’s very important to educate yourself about it, so when you’re working you can be thinking, ‘Oh, I’m writing; I’m not just arranging.’ I certainly didn’t know that when I started out, and I think a lot of people still don’t. I had a few situations in the film scoring business where I was hired by different well-known composers to do what one of them called “celloifcation.” I’d come down with my looping rig and I’d improvise a scene. They would record it and it would make it into the movie. That was composing. But I was only being paid as a session player. Once I realized that, I started saying that I need to be credited. I didn’t know the difference at the time; I thought I was just being a session cellist. But actually I was going in there and writing material. And you’re right, you can’t go and do it afterwards. You can’t go later and say to the producer, ‘You know that movie I did a session for a year ago? I actually wrote that thing. Can you go back and add my name to the credits? And while we’re at it, can I get backend royalty too?’ I do have something related I ask for now. Whenever I do something major, I have ‘featuring Zoë Keating’ in the song title. The former information architect in me finds that very alarming datawise, because you’re mixing different kinds of data in the title. But unfortunately, the way that music metadata works, that is the only way that you can often be searched.
MUSIC PUBLISHING ISN’T SCARY OR CONFUSING + HOW TO LAND A SYNCH PLACEMENT
Zoë: It really is valuable for you as a musician to think about the kind of music you make. Go look at other musicians that are similar to you and see what PRO (Performing Rights Organization) they’re signed up with. Because each one has different specialties. Like the TV people are with ASCAP (laughs). Because it’s still opaque. They can find you more money, and you want to be with the group who is going to find you more money.
I would say that a lot of the synch placements I’ve landed have been from playing the cello at all of those tech conferences. So I played at Oracle World for 10,000 people. Somebody saw me there who was putting it on and said ‘that music was great,’ and they worked for an ad agency. And when they were doing an ad, they said, ‘What about that cellist?’ So it’s been word of mouth. I’ve never submitted my music to an agency. All of my synchs, which I still continue to get, come from what I call ‘manna from heaven,’ because it comes out of the sky that way. I think there was a period of time when I was omnipresent in a tech circle and that’s when I had my peak licensing. So I did a Chrysler Jeep ad that was for a com- mercial series called ‘Halftime in America’ during the Super Bowl and it was directed by Clint Eastwood I believe? And then I did a series of ads for IBM and for Intel. Intel sponsored me for a year; that was great. There were so many other ones like that. Then there are countless films and documentaries. They’ve been slow and steady. Sometimes more, sometimes less. And I started doing actual scoring in 2008, which is when I did my first full picture. I got a TV show in 2014, which came about in a really funny way. The editors had used my music heavily for the temporary score in the show. They approached a guy, who is now my scoring agent, and said, ‘We love the music. Do you have anyone on your roster who is like this?’ He said, ‘Why don’t you just hire her?’ And then he went and tracked me down. That’s why I’m pretty loyal to him (laughs), because he did that. So that was my first gig and all of the other things I’ve done thus far is where somebody has used my music and then wanted me to write more for the project. So then I’m working as a composer and also placing a synch.
SETTING UP YOUR RELEASE AND DISTRIBUTION PLAN
Emily: What does this mean to you?
Zoë: I think that will change with every release because the technology is changing again. When I released a little EP last year, I was really at a loss. Like, ‘Gosh, how do you release music now?’ I still feel like we’re kind of between formats. Is it really all streaming now? Or should I release the music embedded in a lampshade? Should I sell t-shirts with music in them? It felt like an anachronism, but I ended up doing an informal survey on social media and my email list saying, ‘Hey, I have a new thing; what format do you want it in?’ I just asked them. Surprisingly people wanted CD’s, which I was absolutely not going to make. But that is the one that had the highest percentage of votes. And I sell them; which blows my mind. And I release it on all of the platforms I care about. [Editor’s note: Zoë’s full catalog is available via Bandcamp and Apple Music.]
But what to do. Am I going to do a pre-order? And then am I going to release it everywhere? There’s some nuance in there. You don’t have to put it on every platform all at once. There’s a lot of pressure from the industry that you have to release everything all at once on every single platform.
Maybe a major artist has to do that if they want to chart, but that’s not what we’re doing here. If you’re a smaller artist, it matters where you re- lease your music first because you might need the money.
Emily then pointed out that one of her company’s artists, Julia Nunes, recently made the Billboard charts with her own label and owning all of her rights. Zoë then recalled Nielsen contacting her to verify Zoë’s informa- tion, asking what record label she was on. She explained it was her own imprint, 020202 Music. Zoë asked what this was for and they said, “You’re #5 on the Billboard classical charts.”
HOW TO MARKET WITH OR WITHOUT A BUDGET
Emily: Do you think about marketing?
Zoë: No, I don’t. I really don’t. Maybe that’s a problem, but I don’t. I’m not saying that’s the way forward for everyone.
Emily: When you put out a release, what do you do after it’s out?
Zoë: I guess I am marketing in a way. My time is marketing, right? I talk about it. And I still feel like my concerts are the best marketing there is. Getting out and performing is the best advertising for me. I still don’t sell CD’s at shows. I put them out there with a donation box, because what really works for me is when people take a CD and give it to a friend. I make more money with the donation box than I would have if I sold the CD’s. And it makes people feel good. Let’s see, what else do I do? I’ve been tweeting.
I’m also the only artist that hasn’t made a video, so I don’t use YouTube. I think that’s just quirky to me. I know that I don’t watch videos myself. And if someone sends me their music in video form I’ll never listen to it as I can’t handle video. I think I’m a highly sensitive person and video is difficult for me. So making a video never occured to me. For a while people would ask me for one. And then I just didn’t need it. I’m not opposed to the idea. But it’s one of those things where I just haven’t used it. In a way I kind of like it because I’ve entered people’s musical consciousness purely with music, which is what I wanted to do from day one. I just wanted to be a musician; I didn’t want to make t-shirts. I didn’t want to sell any merchandise at all; I just wanted to be all about the music.
There’s another thing I’m not talking about, which is being physically shy as a younger person. There was a point in my twenties where I was trying to downplay my femininity on stage because I didn’t like the kind of attention I was getting. It made me feel really uncomfortable and I had a few awkward situations. I think I wanted to do everything possible to not be a female in the spotlight. I wanted to de-sexualize myself, or desexualize the music. And there’s no way to do that in music, unless you do not have music videos done. It wasn’t really conscious, but I realize that it’s definitely an undercurrent for my music. Then I did have an experience in those early days when I sent my music out. There was a producer who was kind of well known, and I was really excited that he listened to my music. He brought me into his office and he stood there at his desk with his crotch right at my face; it was classic. He had this whole vision on how he was going to package his work just like these other artists he’d produced, who were women. They were all in various states of undress on the cover and all kind of sexy, and I didn’t want sex to sell my music. And I felt like I had to do that; like I had to choose. Like women have to choose – what woman are you going to be? Are you going to be the sexy woman? Are you going to be the quirky woman? I decided I’m going to be none of them; I’m just going to be my own weird self. In a way, I feel like me not having a video has become a thing, which is me having control over my own image or lack thereof.
Emily: That is beautiful, but also ironic. As you consistently receive synch and film / TV / content scoring requests, your music clearly works incredibly well with picture.
Zoë: Synch and scoring is more than half of my income. Who knows? Maybe because I don’t have any videos people are able to think of it. It’s almost a joke how many emails I get where people say, ‘Your music is so perfect for my project.’ And the projects are completely different from one another. Yet it speaks to them in some way that they just have to license it. So maybe I feel in some way that the music is my soul in musical form. But it’s also a blank slate to put their own image on.
Talking about sustainability – I’m in this for the long game. I want my career to last my entire life. Whatever is happening right now, this second, I just don’t care about it. Unless it interests me artistically. I might make a video if for some reason I’m artistically motivated to do it. And then I’m going to make a video the way I make my music, and it would be another representation of what I do. But otherwise I probably won’t bother.
YOUR LIVE STRATEGY AND EFFICIENT TOURING
Emily: What has your experience been like touring as a professional musician and a single parent?
Zoë: The school won’t let me take my son out of school. Then what do I do? I can’t leave him here with a paid caregiver. Which is why I’m at a tran- sition point and figuring out what I’m going to do. In the early days, you bring them with you. On the Imogen Heap tour, I hired sitters in each city, which was $200/night. So if I was doing my own shows it’s feasible. But if I’m coming as a session player it isn’t. When you’re young, get out there and do it. Because as you get on with adult life, it can be difficult to tour.
Emily: What is your relationship with merch like?
Zoë: I’m a hardcore environmentalist and always have been. Early on in my career, in the 90’s, I decided I didn’t want to sell merchandise because I didn’t want people to buy more stuff. I was delighted when MP3’s came along, because I could just make music and didn’t have to make a thing. That’s the place, [merchandise], where I leave a lot of money on the table. But kind of on purpose, I guess. I don’t make much merchandise. I did sell a t-shirt once, because so many people asked. I designed it myself, and did the artwork. I printed them on 100% organic material and found the most expensive, sustainable t-shirt you could find at the time, made in America. It was the most expensive t-shirt on earth (laughs). And lugging those things around was expensive as well, so I decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore. I did make a poster, but I had issues with the toxic ink. My newest CD is 100% post-consumer material, even the CD itself. As far as I know, it’s impossible to make CD’s without the plastic shrinkwrap. Perhaps there is, but I haven’t found an option yet for replacing it.
REVENUE STREAM CHECKLIST
Zoë: One thing that I’ve been meaning to do is tally up all of the income from my most recent recording and see how it has done compared to everything. And it’s on my agenda to do this; it has just taken a while. I’ve been curious – Is it direct to fan via Bandcamp? Is it iTunes? What is the most volume? What is the most money? I know what it is across the board, but I want to know that for my most recent release.
Emily: Which is exactly why I’ve created a revenue stream spreadsheet in this book! I want artists to be able to project their monthly and annual incomes realistically, so it can feel like a job – in a good way.
REPEAT & GROW!
Zoë: You can’t expect just because you sold something to someone before, that you can sell something to them again. It’s not a given. We all know that with the attention span we have now, people need to have a reason to connect with you. You have to give them a reason. Hopefully you have a relationship with your fans where they need to connect with you. That is definitely a plant that needs to be nurtured.
WHEN DO I NEED AN ATTORNEY, BUSINESS MANAGER, AND/ OR A MANAGER? DEFINING AN ARTIST’S TRADITIONAL “TEAM.”
Emily: I think you understand why this chapter is last, with regard to building one’s career sustainably and going from there. Do you have these roles in place, and if so or if not, why?
Zoë: I would say that for an artist, when you start putting things off and that becomes a chronic problem, that means you need help. It’s really useful to think about what you’re not good at and what you don’t like doing and pass those things off to someone else. I don’t like negotiat- ing money; I really don’t. I can justify my scoring and synch agent’s cost because he guaranteed me that he would get me double from what I was getting before. And if he doesn’t, we can renegotiate. And it’s true, he does. And he loves doing it! My booking agent is the same way. I can’t tell you how happy I am. I think it’s probably hard to get a recording contact, but it’s even harder to get a live booking agent. I feel like live booking agents are actually more valuable. When I got my booking agent, it was such a relief because I was spending so much time researching venues, contacting them, trying to find a way in, creating a fake manager for my- self to contact them – the mysterious Mark who doesn’t exist. Mark was really good at negotiating money sometimes (laughs). I loved it when I would get licensing gigs. Someone would say, ‘We’d like to license your music, how about this much money?’ I would just say yes. I didn’t know what else to do. It was really hard for me to switch into business mode. So those are two people that I have, an agent for synch and film scoring, and an agent for live performance bookings. I also would not do my own legal services and am very happy to pay my attorney. When I used to find out about, say a major ballet company using my music without licensing, I used to get really depressed. Now I feel good about it. Oh and I don’t do my own accounting. Though all of the money comes in here, and I organize and code expenses, my accountant handles my taxes for me. I used to do all of those things, all of the pieces. But in general, as soon as you start pushing things off because you can’t deal, make an honest list of what you don’t like doing and what you’re not good at. And see if you can give that to someone else [who is reputable] to work on.
Emily: But you essentially are your own manager. You’re the C.E.O. of all of it.
Zoë: I think so. I don’t always like being my own manager. But I think that I know what motivates me more than anyone. Only I can look at something and know if it makes my heart sing and that I want to get involved. Or only I can look at something and know that I’m not going to be able to do it. That’s not to say that I make all of the decisions by myself. I do ask people for advice. I have a group of friends, and when something comes up, we talk through an opportunity and I see what they think about it. I use to be really down on myself for not being able to do long term strategic planning. And I’ve let that go in a major way. I’ve come to believe and understand that you can have structures in your life to help keep things going. But things are going to fall apart. And there’s often not anything you can do about it. And you’re just going to be beating yourself up about it. I think there’s this illusion of control that we have and I realize that part of going through what I’ve been through is that we don’t have a lot of control. What you can control is how you feel about something. So for strategic planning for my career, I can have in my mind that I want to do something next year, but then it might come up that the school superintendent might not let me take my son on tour. So what do I do with that? I’ve stopped doing that to some degree. I’m not planning tours and work so far in advance. I have another person in the world that I have to care for. And it’s not always good for him to plan something that’s a year away. I’m back to being a little more ad hoc than I used to be.
Thank you Zoë, from the bottom of my heart. For your time, and for all that you do for your family, all of us, and countless people around the world.
So much love, Emily xoxo