So my Music Publishing teacher came into class after returning from SXSW raving about how his new favorite artist is this girl named Ingrid Michaelson. He proceeded to tell us that he attended a panel discussion in Austin during the music festival where Ingrid’s manager was a guest speaker. He then told us that Ingrid’s manager and lawyer were geniuses when it came to the deals they established in Ingrid’s music career. After breaking down her royalty collections from her CD sales and comparing that amount to what Ms. Michaelson would have received if signed to a major label, I was hooked. I had to know everything about this singer/songwriter who is now a millionaire from doing everything herself without the “help” of a major. So of course I jumped at the chance to interview her and ask her how she pulled it off. Read on to hear what Ingrid Michaelson has to say about the music industry and what it’s like to be the “girl who’s doing it all by herself.”
Growing up with a father who composes classical music, how much of a role did he play in your ability to write songs?
To my surprise and amazement, Ingrid says her father didn’t have much influence on her when it came to writing music. Even to this day, she says her father never assists with her songwriting. However, she does give her parents major props for being supportive throughout her childhood when it came to her passions. Whatever she wanted to do with her life, her parents supported her dreams and told her she could do what her heart desired. Though 28 years old, Ingrid still lives at home with her mom and dad. They continue to back her up with the support she needs to do what she wants to do with her life.
You started your own label and publishing company and you own your copyrights and master recordings. Is the possibility of signing with a major still open to you even if you know they will most likely want a percentage of ownership of all of those revenue streams?
“It’s a different era today,” Ingrid says. She would want a hand-made deal if going with a major, but right now this girl is perfectly happy where she is. What she has now is working out just fine for her, so why shake things up? Unlike many independent artists thirsting to make it in the music industry, Michaelson realizes that a major label is only good for one thing – money. Currently, she is funding everything herself. Yes people, that’s correct, Ms. Michaelson is using her own money, even money that she doesn’t have, to fund her career. But the main reason why Michaelson is hesitant to sign with a major and didn’t do it in the first place, is because she and her people (mainly her manager) are too scared, and rightfully so! “It’s a scary world out there,” she says, “one day A&R is there and the next day A&R is gone. People are laid off every day.”
Ingrid is signed with Original Signal, which is an artist development company that provides many of the services of a typical record label — marketing (both online and offline), A&R, publicity, creative design, etc. Original Signal has distribution through RED (SonyBMG’s independent distribution arm), and gets Ingrid’s records in stores. RED also handles her radio promotion. Neither Original Signal nor RED owns anything of Ingrid’s, though they do receive a percentage of her sales. But she still retains all of her rights and makes all the decisions when it comes to her career. More power to her!
Who or what influenced you to go in the independent direction with the business side of your career and how much did you know about the inside of the music industry before making deals and signing contracts?
“My father was the head of Copyright at Carl Fischer Music (a music publishing company) in New York. He is a classical composer and belonged to ASCAP. He first told me to join ASCAP. Then he said I needed to declare a publishing entity, so I did.” Michaelson chose the name of her publishing company, Cabin 24 Records, about four years ago and it has now turned into her own indie record label as well. Ingrid also gives much credit to her manager, Lynn Grossman, whom she calls her “mother bird” and who has been there with her since the very beginning. Grossman worked as a music supervisor for TV and film, licensing and placing music in shows like House. She discovered Michaelson on Myspace while at the same time representing about 50-75 artists as her clients for TV and film licensing. Once she found Ingrid, she brought her on as a TV/film client and got her music placed in shows such as The Real World: Denver, One Tree Hill, and of course Grey’s Anatomy. And don’t forget that Old Navy commercial from this past fall 2007. But then she realized Ingrid could be more than that and wanted to help her career grow. Grossman signed on as Michaelson’s manager and founded Secret Road Artist Management and Music Services in 2006. Still to this day, Ingrid remains the only client that she manages as well as licenses.
What college did you attend, what did you study, and in what field did you receive your degree?
“I went to school for theater and graduated from Binghamton University in upstate New York with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Theater.”
What made you decide to stay in school and graduate versus dropping out after a year or two to start your career as a musician?
“I wanted to go to college. College was just what you did. You went to school for four years and got a degree.” Michaelson says she was so serious about her training as an actress while studying theater at Binghamton University, she was even thinking of going to grad school. Unlike many young artists eager to make it big as soon as they can, Michaelson understood the importance of getting an education and finishing school before embarking on a career path. It was quite refreshing to hear a musician say this, seeing as how the college I attend is notorious for having famous artists as drop-outs because they want the career more than the education.
Which courses did you get the most out of in college? Is there anything you wish you could have learned while in still in school?
Not many people know this, but Michaelson started out her first semester away at college as a Music major, and not Theater. It was the music theory classes that made her ultimately change her mind and go into acting instead of music. She says that her theory courses were hard because she just doesn’t get the mechanical side of music. For those readers who don’t know, we’re talking about such technicalities as key and time signatures, the circle of 5ths, etc. Though she says her “ear is incredible”, Michaelson still to this day, cannot read or write (sheet) music. And to my surprise, Ingrid says she can’t sight-read piano music, but has no problem sight-reading for voice. I, on the other hand, cannot sight-read vocal music to save my life, but have been well trained in piano sight-reading. Even though she took piano and voice lessons for ten years growing up, she says she didn’t retain any of the theory she was taught. It just did not click in her brain. Michaelson plays and writes everything by ear.
Without taking private lessons, how do you improve your skills on guitar and piano while out on the road and holed up in recording studios?
In all honesty, Michaelson says she isn’t getting any better at playing the above instruments. She admits that she is actually losing the higher range of her voice from singing so much now. But not to worry, this may be for the best. Her voice is now more “gruffy” and she likes that. Ingrid also says she feels solid on the guitar and quite confident with her singing ability. She does wish to get better at playing the ukulele though…
If you could choose any teacher to study under, who would it be and why? And also, who would you love to tour with or collaborate with in the future?
“Ben Gibbards,” says Michaelson, “I love his writing. And definitely Death Cab For Cutie when it comes to whom I would want to tour and write with.” Speaking of Ben Gibbards, there is a Q&A interview with the man himself in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine…
As an independent artist with your own record label, what are your thoughts towards the ‘360 deal’ business model that the majors are now imposing on new talent that they find?
I couldn’t agree more with Ingrid Michaelson when she says the ‘360 deal’ business model is “horrible and unfair.” We both believe that the labels shouldn’t be able to have a piece of every revenue stream available to an artist. For those that don’t know, if an artist signs a ‘360 deal’ with a major label, that label gets a percentage of the artist’s publishing, licensing, touring, record sales, and merchandising income. Ridiculous, I know!
Being a songwriter associated with ASCAP, what is your opinion on the recent U.S. District Court decision that $100 million in license fees is to be paid to ASCAP by AOL, RealNetworks (Rhapsody) and Yahoo! for their online performance of musical works?
While discussing this court decision, Michaelson tells me that it shouldn’t be a big surprise and that the music business should have seen this coming. “People don’t get it,” she says, “if a lawyer worked on a contract for hours and hours and didn’t get paid for what they did, that wouldn’t be right.” She’s right you know. I mean, why should the music industry be any different than any other business where people work to earn money? Michaelson cited Limewire, a music file sharing/trading site where millions of people illegally download every day, as an example of a website that doesn’t compensate artists for their work. She points out that online performances of musical works may be good for marketing, but is ultimately bad for the artist because there is no money coming in for them. Well, now there will be $100 million worth of backed-up performance royalties coming in from AOL, RealNetworks, and Yahoo! to writers associated with ASCAP. Finally!
What are your thoughts on having your recorded live performances downloaded for free by your fans?
“I don’t know how I feel about that,” Michaelson candidly admits, and I can truly tell she is really thinking hard about this topic. Elaborating on her mixed feelings, she goes on to explain how it would depend on the circumstances. For example, if the recording was for a campaign and contained actual content that she was planning on selling for the market, such as making a live DVD of concert footage, she would not want it to be downloadable for free. On the other hand, Michaelson says she wouldn’t care if fans downloaded recordings of hers for free if she made them herself just for fun. Michaelson says that it’s out of her hands if a fan takes a video at one of her concerts, but if she is selling a live performance, she would expect fans to buy it if they want it.
As far as commercial music licensing goes, what television shows would you enjoy having your music placed and featured in that it has not already been a part of?
Just like me, this girl does not watch a lot of television. I, personally, just don’t have time and would rather read a book or listen to music instead. “I don’t follow TV, but I would love to have my music in LOST, even though that would never happen because they don’t put songs on that show,” Michaelson says, with just a hint of disappointment.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you have learned from mistakes you have made in your career in the music business so far?
“Read everything before you sign anything. Most everybody wants what’s best for themselves and not what’s best for you. Don’t change your artistic vision.” There you go people, three VERY valuable lessons straight from Ingrid Michaelson. Another lesson she stresses to artists is “don’t change the words of your song for somebody, unless you are specifically writing for someone or something else.” This last piece of advice hits very close to home to Michaelson and she continues to tell me how something like this happened to her. She was asked to change the words of a song she had written (a work-for-hire type situation) and she complied. But at the end of the day, she didn’t like the changes she was told to make. In the end, she took her song back, put her original lyrics back in, and kept it the way she had intended it to be. “At the end of the day you just have this gross feeling. You feel like a prostitute. At least that’s how I felt.”
What are some of the lifelong lessons you have learned from your former college instructors or music teachers?
“I don’t really have anything for you,” she tells me, “I haven’t had any sort of life-changing epiphany.”
What are some of the important lessons you have learned from other music professionals that you have toured with or collaborated with who have more experience in the biz?
Ingrid asks me if I’ve heard of Matt Nathanson. Ha! Have I ever! I just so happen to be a huge Matt Nathanson fan. Michaelson has toured with Nathanson and is now pretty much best friends with the singer/songwriter/guitarist. She considers him her mentor. The best piece of advice she has received from him is this: “Don’t put other people’s expectations on you.” He’s also told her to always try and think in the now and just relax, which she is trying to do one day at a time.
Why was your song Keep Breathing released as a single instead of making it onto your album Girls and Boys?
Unbeknownst to me, Michaelson wrote the song after her sophomore album was already out. The story goes like this…She wrote a song called Keep Breathing some time after releasing her album, Girls and Boys. She sent the song to the music supervisors for Grey’s Anatomy. The people over at Grey’s wanted to put the song on their Season 3 soundtrack since the song was featured in the last six minutes of the Season 3 finale episode. Ingrid gave them permission to add it to the soundtrack. Later on, she decided she wanted to release it as her own single on iTunes. In the end, the song was a hit and Michaelson just got the rights to it this past January. Ah, how I love happy endings…
What do you believe will help you branch out from Grey’s Anatomy and give you the exposure you need to establish yourself as more than just “the girl behind the TV songs” and not be forever associated with that Old Navy commercial?
“People need a hook. They need something to latch on to. First I was the ‘Grey’s Anatomy girl’ and then I was the ‘Old Navy girl’ and now I am the ‘Girl who is doing it all by herself.’ I don’t mind it at all. I know I’m more than that.” Michaelson says that some people hear her songs on TV and end up buying the album, going to her shows, and becoming a fan. Others just like the songs and don’t research the voice behind them. But either way, her music is reaching the public, and that is all that matters.
What does your songwriting process involve?
Ingrid says sometimes she comes up with lyrics first, just words in her head, and then puts them to a melody she creates. Other times she finds a melody first and the words come later, and most often, don’t make sense. She begins to give me an example of a brief writing session that occurred just days before I spoke with her. “I had this melody in my head [cue Ingrid Michaelson’s voice singing into my ear via my cell phone] and the first words that came to me were ‘blueberry boy’ and so I had to think to myself, ‘Why did those two words pop into my head while humming this melody?’ Well, let’s see, I had blueberry bushes in my backyard growing up…” She continues to tell me of her childhood memories with her backyard blueberry bushes. It’s quite endearing to hear, let me tell you. Michaelson’s challenge with her lyrics is figuring out where the words in her head came from. “It’s like trying to decipher a code in my brain.”
Do you ever get stage fright while performing?
“I get really nervous before TV performances because to me, that is completely unnatural.” Luckily for Michaelson, getting up in front of a crowd of people at a show and performing her songs “is the most natural thing in the world to me. I love it.” Well, that’s good to know!
Check out Ingrid Michaelson on her headlining summer tour next month when she comes through Chicago on Thursday, June 5th, performing at Park West. Tickets are available through JAM Productions and Ticketmaster. Or you can always purchase them at the venue box office.