Thursday, November 8, 2012

Cheap Seats 9: Anna Coogan Interview

The Cheap Seats train rolls on--this time we've got an interview with Anna Coogan, a talented songwriter and artist working roughly in the Americana vein.  A seasoned independent musician since her days with north19, Anna now has three solo albums and numerous tours of the US and Europe under her belt, as well as a continuing portfolio of good press.  I'm excited to interview Anna as her career has seen her begin as a regionally-successful artist and grow from national to international touring, not to mention the great leap she's taken from musician-with-a-day-job to full-time musician.  Take it from Anna's experience--if you want to progress in the independent music world, you'll need to cultivate some perseverance.   

Photo: Marcel Houweling, taken at Roepaen Podium in Ottersum, NL.

As a musician who's been doing this for a number of years, how have things changed across your career, both in terms of how you make and release your music, and in how you've attempted to promote and advance it?  What are some of the most valuable lessons/tricks you've picked up?

A lot of things have changed so much, and a lot of things have stayed the same over the past ten years.  I started playing at the most turbulent, exciting, and vulnerable time in the music industry--right around 2002--and so much has changed since then for everybody.  Sometimes I kick myself for not getting into it a few years earlier, but things work out the way they work.

Mostly I have learned how to treat it like a business, with a balance sheet and a realistic view.  What is going in (financially, emotionally, and time-wise) and what is coming out?  Are these things balancing out?  How many years of investment are you willing to make before you want to see some returns?  What kind of returns are you looking for?

The thing that seems to be most important is to hire a good team to help promote you – and that can take years to find.  But I think if you are good, and you are relentless, and you tour your brains out and make records and videos and send a lot of emails and show up on time and are polite and friendly to people, eventually you will build a good group of people who care about you and are willing to help you out, and that makes all the difference.

What's been the most difficult challenge to overcome?

Tough question. I’m on the road right now for six weeks touring Europe and the UK, so there are an awful lot of logistical challenges--airline tickets, guitars flying in the hold, rental cars, etc.  But those things usually sort themselves out eventually.

I think the hardest thing to overcome in general is your own head--music can be a real mind f**k if you let it.  The best days are when I don’t worry about the future or the past, I don’t compare myself to others, and I can find the clear headspace to write and practice or perform in peace.  It’s essential to remember why you got into it in the first place, and why you stay with it through all the turmoil and chaos.

As a musician you've spent some time in a number of different locations, eventually moving from Seattle back east, and touring regularly in the UK and Europe.  What motivated your decision to relocate and focus on touring those areas?

I tour where there is work: right now there is a lot of work overseas, so that’s where I go.  I actually am doing some nice work in Seattle as well right now--got a Triple Door show coming up in January— and do some regular touring on the East Coast.  I moved East because of my husband's job, but I am a New Englander so it’s a homecoming for me.  I think most musicians have to tour if they want to make any income at all, so the home base often doesn’t matter, as long as it is near an airport!

How has booking changed for you, moving from a regional act to a touring act?  At this point, would you say you're still most successful in specific places, or online/globally?

I have been involved in all levels of booking in my career to date, and am indeed involved in all levels now.  In the UK, I have the great joy to work with an excellent agent, Bob Paterson.  In Holland and Germany I have a wonderful team of people, and I’m on my own in the US.  I’d say I do best in Northern Europe and the UK.  The US is a tough nut to crack as far as making a financially viable career, but I do have regional work in the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, and New England, and I plan to continue touring as long as I can make it work.

Your touring ensemble has ranged from a full band down to solo shows--what sorts of challenges have motivated your road setup, and how have you settled on your current line-up (just you and Daniele, right?)?

Certain things are driven by need and certain things are driven by want.  My duo with Daniele Fiaschi is a sort of once-in-a-lifetime combination where things are just perfect sonically as a duo, and we really enjoy each other off stage as well.  It makes it a lot easier, because once you get past a duo the logistics and cost increase exponentially.  In the US, I generally tour solo, but am hoping to put together a small ensemble in the next year.  Touring solo is a hard, lonely road, but I think it does make you a better musician in the long run.  I’m ready for a band, though, whatever the cost.

What's the best way to convert a new fan?  How do you measure your progress--record sales, live show attendance, Facebook "likes," etc.?  Do fans respond differently in the different places you've toured?

If you will believe this, I am doing my best to forget about trying to convert people.  You can drive yourself crazy checking up on Facebook “likes” or how many people are signing up on your email list or whatnot.  It’s so constantly changing that it seems hard to put your finger on what matters.  For a while, all that mattered was myspace “plays” and now no one even knows what that means.  I think things will change with Facebook, too, especially since they started charging to “promote” band pages and make it impossible for fans to post pictures, etc.  Same with record sales, as they do seem to be universally going down for everyone.

It may be obvious but I am trying to focus on the things I can change: practice, giving the best damn show I can, keeping my voice in good shape, and writing.  After that, there is not much I can do and I don’t want to go crazy.

As far as fan response, touring Europe can be a crazy example of how different cultures play into audience response.  The Germans tend to get rowdy and start clapping during songs, the Dutch sit quietly and listen intently and clap politely,  etc.  I have also driven myself crazy trying to understand audience response.  Again: focus on the music.  Not much else you can do.  You can’t force them to love you.  Sometimes things just click and you convert an entire room in one go, other times it takes a lot more effort!

In your experience, what does it take to break beyond a fanbase of friends and family to one populated by people solely interested in the music?

Well, for one, I think it takes a ton of work and dedication and basically hard headedness and “last man standing” mentalitiy.  Other than that, radio play seems to be the most important thing.  My first band had a lot of KEXP backing, and I’ve never seen things grow so fast.  Once the initial blast of attention wears off, man, you are back to the drawing board and back to the busting of balls.

What does it take to sell an album?  What sells most for you, physical media or downloads?  For you, are recording sales the goal, or are recordings more a piece of the overall puzzle in terms of promoting the music?  Have you reached a point where the recordings pay for themselves, or are they a necessity you're willing to support yourself?  Are people actually willing to pay for the music, or do they expect it to be free?  I recall a while back you were doing a "pay what you can" thing; was that an effective strategy?

I sell more physical records, and I sell most of them while touring.  I don’t think I’d say that the “goal” is selling records, but then again, it’s really the only thing that pays the bills and gets your name out there, so maybe it is.  In a perfect world, I’d just make a million different recordings and not worry about anything else, but recording is extremely expensive no matter how you cut it, and it is a business, after all.

I think most of my records do eventually pay for themselves, but it doesn’t happen quickly!  The Nowhere, Rome Sessions, our new release, was made pretty affordably, so I’m hoping we can pay it off in a year so, but usually it takes longer than that.

I stopped doing “pay what you can” a few years ago--I guess I just decided that my work needed to have a value attached to it.  It’s my life, I put thousands of hours a year into it, and I need to be compensated.  Occasionally I will run a “pay what you can sale”--just to move some product or celebrate an event.  And I am always happy to give someone a discount when it’s clear that they are in hard times, especially if they’ve taken the time to come to a show or email me.

As far as peoples expectations for free music: I’m not really sure, because I don’t offer a lot of it right now.  I think it’s a generational thing too--the older generation is much more willing (and able) to buy records.  But I do believe that music as we know it won’t last if people aren’t willing to pay something for it.  Good, talented, hard working people are leaving the business in droves because they simply can’t pay the bills, and sadly, you can’t eat art.

How important are production values when it comes to your recordings?  Do you think it's important to fans to have a polished, professional recording, or are they willing to sacrifice production values for quality content? Do professional production values manifest themselves in the finished product in a way that justifies their cost?

I think it depends.  I always, always want my recordings to be professional--I’ve never liked releasing things that feel sub-par sound wise.  That being said, I’ve worked at a lot of levels, price-wise, to make my records.  My 2010 release, The Nocturnal Among Us, was a huge endevour that may never quite pay for itself--we had an amazing producer involved, two weeks at a studio, and mixed it at Jackpot Studios in Portland, and I think the production quality is incredible. This year, Daniele and I made a record in 2 days, almost all live tracked, and it’s gotten more attention that any of my other records.  So you never really know.  I think it’s nice to have a variety of recordings out there--big, full band ones and smaller, live recordings, to give people the full spectrum of what you do. 

When it comes to promoting an album, what avenues seem the most successful in getting the music heard?  Do you do everything yourself, or do you get help from anywhere?

From what I can tell, YouTube is extremely important, and I am a luddite and thus extremely far behind on the music-video scene.  But otherwise, I think finding the market for your music is the most important, and starting there.  That might mean really spending a lot for your first record to see where it sticks, then focusing future releases in that area.

Most people I know start with a European/UK release, and I would recommend hiring a publicist based in that area, and then release in the US depending on how successful the overseas release was.  Radio play on certain stations can be extremely helpful, and of course it’s nice to get reviews, but it seems like you really need everything--radio, video, press, touring--to fall together in the right place and at the same time to make any impact in our over-saturated internet crazy world.

When do you decide it's time to head back into the studio? When you've got all the songs written...when it feels right creatively...when you've got ideas but not necessarily songs?

I am a business person, so I often make my recording descicions based on my business needs.  When I first signed with my agent, it was in January, and he planned on booking me for October of that same year.  He told me I needed to have something to release, so I flew home, locked myself in a room for a month, and wrote The Wasted Ocean, which is my favorite writing to date.  We made The Nowhere, Rome Sessions because demand on tour was so high for a duo recording.  I’m not sure what will motivate the next record--I really want to spend some time writing this winter, and figuring out sonically what I want the next step to be.  I’ve got a little less pressure because now I have three solo records (The Nocturnal Among Us [2010], The Wasted Ocean [2011] and The Nowhere, Rome Sessions [2012]) to sell for a while.

What keeps you going in the tough row-to-hoe that is the independent music world?  Where's your inspiration coming from right now?

That’s a really good question.  A lot of times, I’m not sure what keeps me going except for manic energy.  I guess right now, I’ve got such an excellent team of people involved and I don’t want to let anyone down and that keeps me focused.  I also try to remember how far I’ve come in the past 10 years, and how lucky I am to get the opportunity to tour and play music for a living.  Who knows how long it will last, so I’ve got to enjoy it while it’s here.  And playing with someone like Daniele is always inspiring, so I want to keep on writing so we can keep growing as an act.

Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?

My advice my be outdated, but I think getting off social networks and woodshedding the shit out of your instrument is really the only way to make it in the long term.  Also keeping creatively fresh- making records, videos, anything to keep the ball rolling--and that means spending a lot of money. So, start saving now.  And keep the day job as long as humanly possible, then jump on in.

What have you been listening to this week?  How do you seek out new music?

I haven’t been listening to much this week as it has been non-stop travel--literally trains, boats, and planes--although I have heard a fair amount of Euro-pop on the radio.  Normally I find music through the usual channels: friends, NPR, and lots and lots of people that I meet on the road.

What's on the horizon for you musically?

The next three weeks I am focused on getting this tour taken care of, and that’s about as far as my horizon goes…but when I get back, I’ll be turning my attention to a January West Coast tour--(Triple Door on Saturday, January 12!) and a bunch of other tour dates.  I want to spend this year doing a lot of practicing and writing, and see about releasing an album in a year or two.  Plus I’m building a teaching practice in Ithaca, which is a total joy and actually has the potential to pay the bills. 

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music 
Cheap Seats Part 3: A Day in the Studio 
Cheap Seats Part 4: The (Un)Happy Accident 
Cheap Seats Part 5: Mix Mix, Stir Stir 
Cheap Seats Part 6: Kickstarter Campaign
Cheap Seats Part 7: Alicia Dara Interview

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