How to Build an Independent Music Career

We recently interviewed Rachael Sage, a talented singer, songwriter, poetess and all-around musician.

She’s living the dream: making music, playing gigs, and supporting herself 100% through her music. Her experience will inspire you to work harder, write better music, and take more risks. So pay attention! When you’re done reading her mind, check out her website, MySpace page, and buy her music.

How long have you been at this game of writing music and sharing it with people?

I’ve been writing music at the piano since I was in kindergarten…and I think I started sharing it with people “officially” at summer camp. I was nervous, but it was exciting and definitely a milestone! After that I began to play my own songs at the weekly talent show, which was a pretty big deal for me since I was not popular. It felt like I was finally discovering something about myself that other people might appreciate.

Before that I’d played mostly for myself, my family and occasionally before dance class for my fellow dance-students, before the teacher arrived. So I’ve been doing this a while!

What have been some of the milestones in your career in terms of growing professionally?

Lilith Fair was a huge learning experience, and I still draw on many of the elements I observed as both a performer as well as an audience member, attending the rest of the concert after my own set was over. I was an enormous fan of so many of the acts performing on the bill including The Pretenders, Suzanne Vega and Sarah McLachlan, so it was nourishing musically just to be able to watch and listen to them all at close-range. But beyond the sheer thrill of sharing a stage with my idols, I learned so much about about how I wanted to engage with younger, emerging artists myself, as I evolved in my own career. Everything about Lilith Fair and Sarah’s vision was inspiring, positive and classy on so many levels, yet it was also brilliant from a business perspective, and a successful venture economically. So I learned one of my favorite lessons, in essence: with the right combination of persistence and talent, it is possible to be compassionate and community-minded, and still be successful in the music business.  It might not be easy…but it is possible!

Another milestone for me was opening for Eric Burdon & The Animals in Europe. A friend of a friend ultimately hooked me up with that gig, and I was petrified to say “yes – I can open for a rock/blues legend in a foreign country for audiences that barely speak English, of up to 10,000 people!”  But I didn’t hesitate to accept when the opportunity arose, and it forced me to really get my act together as an artist, at the time. Musically it was very daunting to open for Eric, when I wasn’t sure if his audiences would like me at all; but once I stopped worrying about how I’d go over and committed 100% to the band and the songs themselves, the shows really gelled and the connections with each audience became stronger. I think I learned a great deal about what it feels like to play a show with beginning, middle and end, and not just a “set”. Just by doing it over and over every night for two months, I got a feel for how much to talk, how to transition between songs, how to project to the back of a large venue and ultimately, how to amplify my personality beyond the songs themselves. I guess I learned showman(woman)ship!

Do you support yourself entirely through music, or do you still have a “day job” like so many of us?

Yes, I do music full-time and have for a number of years. My last official day job was also music-related, I was a jingle writer at a music production company and worked crazy hours – sometimes all night – composing and recording 30 and 60 second spots for every conceivable product and service you could imagine. Since then, I’ve continued to do some freelance graphic design for peers and the occasional commercial music commission, but I’ve been touring full-time for about 6 years, and haven’t looked back.

Have you ever had your music licensed? If so, how did that come about?

Yes, I have had several songs featured in indie films as well as on television. I’ve banged my head against the wall over and over trying to get to the right supervisor or director, but in all honesty, anything significant I’ve ever placed has been through some type of personal connection, thus far. For instance, I knew a director of a Lifetime film who was already a fan of my work – so when she requested my material for a made-for-TV movie of course I was amenable and the negotiation was easy.

And as recently as last week, an engineer who worked at the mastering facility I used on my last album licensed a song from an older album of mine for a film he produced years ago that is finally about to be released.

This month my new album “Chandelier” was licensed by MTV, but we’re not 100% sure what songs they’re going to use where yet; supposedly it’ll be featured on “The Hills”, which I’ve never seen, but I understand is a very big show. I don’t even have cable – but plenty of my friends do so hopefully they can TIVO it if we determine my music will actually be used!

At what point did you start paying other people to market your music, and what were their roles?

Well, I pay everyone I work with in hand-made tchatchkes (barrettes, jewelry, nick-nacks), so let’s see…Just kidding! I did used to offer to paint people’s jeans for free in college though, if they’d promise to attend my next show at The Coffeehouse and help me flyer the Stanford Campus, so in a way I’m not that off! I got few street teamers on board in CA by painting their jeans…

I started paying my first freelance publicist after almost 6 years in the jimgle business, where I’d been composing short musical segments for products ranging from Optima Shampoo to Dairy Association to Crystal Light and Great Adventure Theme Parks. I had been performing on the NYC scene since 1994, and several years earlier if you count small acoustic gigs I did as a teenager at a place called The Cottonwood Café (no longer around) in the West Village. So I had a pretty firm sense of what type of “ceiling” I had reached in terms of getting my 50-100 closest friends and family down to gigs at The Cottonwood and later, The Bitter End and Sin-é.

The thing that prompted me to hire a publicist, finally, was being offered a slot on the Ani DiFranco tour in 1998. There were a variety of new markets outside New York City including Cleveland, Rochester, Louisville and Nashville and when I was telling my singing teacher all about the tour, a young woman’s name came up in the discussion. He mentioned she was looking to break into the business as a freelance publicist, and suggested we meet. So from there, I ended up hiring her and her role was essentially, “regional publicity”. She was able to garner a bunch of previews and listings and even some features about this unknown chick from NYC who somehow got the opening slot on Ani’s Fall 1998 Tour.

After that, I didn’t hire anyone to market my music for several more years, after I’d struggled on my own – and with a friend who was volunteering to gain industry experience basically – to get to the “next level”. I signed a national distribution deal with Big Daddy Music in 1998 but the next person I actually hired to help market my catalog and do a variety of other things including help with tour press and festival bookings was in 2001. Beyond that, things have been building steadily each new release and I’ve been outsourcing to various College and AAA Radio promoters in the years since. Usually I saw a peer or a larger artist using some particular company to help promote their music, I’d research it, contact them, submit a pitch and just make the leap if I got a positive energy and they had good references. I’ve only been burned outright once, by a PR Form (won’t mention any names!) who literally took my fee and did NOTHING. It was mind boggling…and a very big learning experience! I’ve been a bit of a control freak ever since and really try to stay on top of every detail of a campaign, from reviewing the labels where music is being sent, to stuffing envelopes to weekly phone-calls (and daily emails!) with anyone on the team.

How did you go from playing a few gigs as an unknown to playing 150+ gigs a year?

That is a very good question! It did not happen overnight, but there was a definite crossroads where I looked very hard at my efforts thus-far to make a name for myself and build a local following in NYC and I said, “This is not working. I want to be a touring artist, shed 100 or more dates a year, see the country – and the world – and build a grassroots fanbase…” and I knew I needed to leave home as much as possible to do that. It was a gradual ramp up.

One year – I think it was 1996 – I bugged everyone I knew who was still working at a University to help me try to get gigs at their colleges. My first gig outside NYC was at University of Pennsylvania, and a friend whom I’d met at a charity organization helped me book their student center basically. I remember piling into a car with my guitarist and my background singer and showing up there so excited; it was my first real, decent paying live gig besides my own college coffeehouse, because in NYC you’re basically playing for tips, for some small portion of the door, or for free.

Eventually I ramped up from doing gigs out of town on weekends, to doing so many so often that my local gig as a jingle-writer/singer was no longer viable, I was missing too many deadlines and they started to figure out where my focus was going. Lilith Fair in 1999 was a big break for me in terms of having one more “highlight” I could include in my pitches, and by 2000 I was touring more than 50 shows out of NYC. 2001 I think it came close to 100…But I wasn’t counting really, I just wanted to “go where the love is” as they say, and keep my dance-card full. That’s been a big part of my agenda, ever since! Touring Europe also came into play around then, which was a fantastic learning experience and fortunately I’ve been able to maintain many of the contacts I made on my early trips to Germany.

How much time do you spend using social networking web media to interact with your fans?

Too much! At least a couple hours a day. On Jewish Holidays I stay off the computer. Otherwise, I’m usually up until 4 or even 5am working on various label (MPress) projects, which often include spreading the word about my own shows, MPress Records showcases, and of course, just communicating directly with fans as well as peers – which is such an important part of being active within the indie music community. I don’t get a lot of sleep!

What social networking sites have been the most useful to you?

By far, MySpace has been the most beneficial career-wise as well as just a way for us to keep an eye and ear out for emerging artists we want to invite to submit to our “New Arrivals” Charity Compilation Series. Aside from MySpace – which has also been a great way to reach overseas venues and connect with artists on co-bills before I actually meet them – Facebook, iLike, Garageband, Famecast, Reverbnation, indie911, Imeem and MTV Soundtrack are also cool sites where we’re making interesting connections all the time.

How did you get your music circulating in Japan and Europe?

Europe has been a long, circuitous path, with several different tours in different countries.  Initially I toured Germany (we did two grassroots tours of small venues there, in 2000 and 2001) and then I was offered an opening slot with Eric Burdon & The Animals that exposed my music to a much wider audience and a few new places such as Netherlands, Czech Republic and Austria.

More recently we’ve been able to line up UK distribution for my whole catalog, so now I’m touring over there twice a year and doing all the same things promotionally that we’ve been doing in the US for many years: sending the new releases to Press, Radio, Retail and also trying to have me appear as much as possible live on the radio or regional television. Those are the areas that are the most tenuous though, so it always comes back to the live touring element. Playing shows and connecting with new listeners is the key, I’ve found, to generating the most buzz and creating lasting relationships with folks who are eager to see you every time you come through, whether or not you even have a new album.

I don’t have distribution yet in Japan, but I have toured there once (last year) and it was fascinating! I was actually approached by an agent over there, we did our homework, got references and took the plunge. Parts of that trip were very intimidating – especially the language-barrier – but it was one of the most incredible, humbling experiences I’ve ever had as an artist. And the audiences were very respectful and supportive, for the most part.

How do you book shows in cities where you might not have much of a fanbase yet?

MySpace! We often research artists’ itineraries for leads, ideas for opening slots for me if I don’t have enough draw yet to fill a room, and just generally “socializing”/gig-swapping. I share bills all the time with artists who have much more of a fanbase in a particular region, and then we’ll reciprocate by offering to have them share a bill or open for me in places where my base is much stronger. Everything is about relationships – and if it’s really a situation where I’m showing up and have never played somewhere before, we’ll also do everything we possibly can to “advance” the show and build buzz, as early as possible, about the event. I’m going to Boise, Idaho soon – and we’ve been busy lining up radio as well as retail appearances and getting those folks involved in helping to promote the main show; we send signed cd’s for the stations to give away and try to arrange phone or in-person interviews whenever possible. Everything helps – and I don’t have much of a street team yet in Boise, so we can’t be lazy!

What’s your favorite venue to play in NYC?

Joe’s Pub. I was attending the Shakespeare Lab at The Public Theater years ago when they were just starting to do construction on it (I auditioned in the space for the program, when it was just one big rehearsal space!), and I’ve seen it evolve into one of the most consistently vibrant rooms in NYC. I’ve never seen a bad show there, and I love the theatricality of the space. My other favorites smaller room is Rockwood Music Hall. Ken Rockwood is the hardest-working venue-owner I’ve ever observed, and the booking there is phenomenal. Very high quality and often extremely innovative talent performs there, and it really feels like a “scene” is happening there on a nightly basis, with regulars as well as the artists’ individual followings contributing to an exciting energy. Plus I really like the intimacy of the room and there is no attitude there; it’s a true listening environment.


Thanks Rachael!

Now that you’ve benefited from her generosity, go buy her music!