When Variety columnist and blogger Scott Kirsner published his book, “Fans, Friends, and Followers,” he sent a request to other writers to document additional tales of how creative artists are using innovative methods to develop a fan base and establish a sustainable career.
When I received Kirsner’s request, the first person who came to mind was Los Angeles based singer/songwriter Kat Parsons.
Parsons first came to my attention several years ago as a result of my following the career of Jill Knight, another independent singer/songwriter. In 2004, Knight was one of seven finalists in the Acoustic Live competition in Los Angeles. As the final round of the contest approached, I wanted to assess the other six performers against whom she was competing. After listening to the music of each of these contestants I concluded that Kat Parsons presented the biggest competitive challenge to Knight.
When the winners were announced, Parsons took first place, with Knight first runner-up. I remain a fan of both, and have since seen each perform many times. In 2006, I was pleased to attend the only concert the two women have performed together at the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles.
In addition to her wonderful voice, I was struck by the various ways Parsons connects with her audience — off stage as well as on. At every show Parsons passes around a sign-up sheet to garner email addresses from those in attendance. She later follows up with chatty emails and announcements of when she’s performing in your region of the country. As she tours, she posts pictures, songs, and videos on her web site, MySpace page, and YouTube. When she traveled to Australia in 2006, she posted “video postcards” on YouTube each day for 30 days with everything from live performances to amusing travel adventures.
Although not signed to a recording contract, Parsons has self-released two albums, “Framing Caroline” in 1999 and “No Will Power” in 2005. She now works full time performing her music.
I recently spoke with Parsons over Skype while she was performing in Japan, and followed up with additional questions through email. An edited version of those conversations follows.
KW: Fans partially funded your last album. Where did that idea come from?
Parsons: I heard about it through a fellow singer/songwriter named Jenny Bruce.
There were many ways in which people could contribute. The lowest level was $20 for a signed CD and it went upwards from that. People could [give] $100 and get tickets to the CD release party up to $1,000 where I take them out to lunch and fun things like singing on a track in the studio, coming to watch the recording for an hour, or getting a dedication at the CD release party.
KW: How much money did you generate?
Parsons: About $18,000.
KW: Was that all $20 contributions for the CD or did some people pay for the big-ticket $1,000 items?
Parsons: There were a lot of $20 [contributions] and a couple of people paid for the big one as well. It really spanned the whole offer.
KW: What percentage of the cost of the album did that cover?
Parsons: Most of the album. The album cost about $22,000.
It worked out wonderfully. It’s nerve-racking when you put yourself out there like that. You don’t know: Is anyone going to be interested? I didn’t know what to expect.
It ended up being this experience that was so wonderful. I knew I wanted to do a certain kind of album and I had no idea how I was going to pay for it. It was so exciting that it worked, and I could make the album I wanted to make.
I had so many supporters who were willing to contribute. — it wasn’t [just] my parents and family friends. I was very grateful that people wanted to hear my new music and my heart felt warmed that people wanted to be part of it.
KW: At your live performances you send around a sign-up sheet to get email addresses from everyone.
Parsons: Passing your email list around during a show is a good idea. Often people like what they hear, but they don’t sign up for the email list. Some people are shy, and if [the sign-up sheet] is near where you’re performing it’s embarrassing for [people] to walk close to the stage or draw attention to themselves.
KW: How long is your mailing list now?
Parsons: It’s around 8,000 or something.
KW: Do you have any tips for managing a list of that size?
Parsons: I use this great email program called CoolerEmail. I met them in San Diego earlier in my music career [when] they were just getting started. Their program is really helpful because you can see how many people read the email, [and how many] clicked on it. You can look up someone specifically or the statistics in general. It’s a nice way of knowing what’s happening with your email list.
KW: When you play at a club or a concert venue, how does the revenue break down? Does your money come just from CD sales or do you get part of the door?
Parsons: Different venues have different arrangements. Often it’s a percentage of the door [entrance fee]: after a certain dollar amount has been reached, you’ll get a percentage of the remainder.
It also depends on your status, frankly. If they really want you to come to the venue, they might offer you a guarantee [fixed fee]. Sometimes you get a guarantee plus a percentage of the door after a certain dollar amount has been reached.
Some venues are more generous than others, [and there are] some venues that will never offer a guarantee. That’s just the way their venue is set up. If it’s a $10 ticket, you get $5 of the $10 ticket, or whatever. So, at some venues you won’t get a guarantee no matter how many people you bring — you just get a percentage of the door.
KW: You’ve also toured overseas — Japan, where you are now, as well as Brunei and elsewhere. Is the opportunity to generate income greater overseas?
Parsons: Those are all different gigs. Right now I’m in Japan and I’m playing at a hotel. So it’s a regular gig — I actually have a salary. It’s wild! [Laughs.]
In Brunei it was more like the type of shows [I play in the U.S.].
So far, I have been able to make a lot more money in the overseas gigs because people fly me out to the various places. When I toured in Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia they flew me out, covered all my travel costs, and paid me a nice fee.
Because there were music societies or private parties that were hosting me, no one was charged cover.
There’s very little original live music in Brunei. So it was this opportunity for all their colleagues to come and see some original live music. No one was charged cover. I was just paid a fee. And then, yes, I did sell a lot of CDs in that trip so I was able to supplement my income with CD sales.
Those shows were more lucrative than my U. S. shows.
KW: How do you find gigs like this where somebody’s paying for you to travel somewhere to play?
Parsons: All of those come from people who have seen me play somewhere else and said, “Hey, I’d love for you to come play at such-and-such.”
I was in Thailand and someone said, “I’d love to have you come play in Brunei.” I said, “Great, let’s do it.” I got the person’s email and followed up with them. It’s crazy because you think, “Oh, yeah. I’d love to play in such-and-such.” [Laughs.] But you have to be open to this stuff.
It’s all pretty organic in that way. In fact, everything that’s ever happened in my musical career has happened because of people who have liked my music. I’m very grateful for that.
KW: You also perform private “house concerts.”
Parsons: Private concerts are generally what I prefer. The fee structure is set up differently [from commercial venues]. At the private concerts, your job is only about delivering a fantastic show and taking a trip with everyone for an evening together. At a club sometimes, where you are expected to provide the audience and get a percentage [of the entrance fee], while your job is about the music, it is also about “bringing” people.
KW: How does the fee structure work at a house concert?
Parsons: It is between the artist and the host, so any arrangement can be made. I have done both a fixed fee — for people who do not want to charge an entrance fee — or [based on] the guests’ contribution, with a guaranteed minimum. Occasionally there are variations if we are doing something for a charity.
KW: In addition to selling CDs at your concerts you also sell them on your web site and places like CD Baby and Amazon.com. How successful is each of these?
Parsons: [In person] CD sales are definitely best for me. That’s where I sell the majority of my CDs. But those other avenues are nice to have. For example, in Japan I’ve sold out of my CDs and I still have a week and half left to play here. Those sites are nice because I can send people to them to buy the CD online or through iTunes.
It’s still better to carry [the boxes] to sell the CDs. People are more likely to buy something if you have it there than [they are] to remember to go to the web site, blah-de-blah.
KW: After “No Will Power” was released, it was carried by some of the major retailers like the Virgin Megastores. How do you get into those outlets?
Parsons: I had a distribution deal with Cleopatra Records. They did a great job and got it in a bunch of stores. They were even able to put a little advertising behind it — for which I was really grateful.
Generally speaking, I don’t think distribution makes sense for an independent artist unless there’s a lot of advertising behind it. Because if people don’t know your music, then they’re not going to buy your CD.
If you have advertising dollars behind it — on a listening station, an advertisement in paper, something like that — then it makes more sense. If you don’t have advertising dollars behind it, it’s probably just going to sit there in the bin, because no one knows who you are.
KW: How profitable is digital distribution through sites like iTunes?
Parsons: The worst is iTunes. You make very little on the digital sales. That’s worse than anything.
Parsons: Yeah, because you’re talking [a retail price of] 99 cents per track. You’re making, like, 63 cents or something.
If someone likes [your music] and then buys a 63 cent song it’s awesome — except you’d have to sell, like, 101 songs to get any money.
It’s just hard to survive on digital sales.
KW: You’re still an independent artist. Have you had any overtures from record labels?
Parsons: I haven’t talked to a record label in a while.
My purpose changes in life, but generally I really want to connect with people. I don’t really need a label. I enjoy connecting with people on a very personal level.
I appreciate the way in which labels help artists reach a wider audience. They can be really wonderful in certain situations. I am not for or against labels. But the business, in that sense, is not my focus. For me, what works best is what happens organically through fans.
KW: Do you now make enough to be an artist full time?
Parsons: Oh, yes. I’ve been doing this full time for several years.
KW: How long did it take you to get to that point when you didn’t need to have side jobs?
Parsons: I think that if you have no other job, you make it work.
When I started, I would temp for a little bit, then I would stop temping and just do music. And then I would temp again. [Laughs.]
When it becomes a necessity to make a living at it, you do that.
KW: Looking back, what’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in terms of your career? If there is one thing you could do differently, what would that be?
Parsons: I try not to think like that. Because we’re all just doing our best, right? A lot of the learning happens in doing.
So, ultimately, I probably wouldn’t change anything. I’ve [learned] so much about myself, this career, and the world.
Sometimes you get caught up in how to make your music go somewhere, and that ends up taking up a bigger role than the music. There have been times where I’ve felt overwhelmed working on getting my music to a larger audience, instead of on what I love to do, which is to sing and make people laugh sometimes. [Laughs.]
The Internet is great because there’s so much opportunity, but it’s hard to know which opportunity is worth pursuing. You can spend all your time pursuing every opportunity.
I guess what I would say, were I to meet my younger self — that’s so funny, it sounds like I’m really old — but were I to meet my younger self, I would encourage me to always be really connected to what it is I love doing, and connected to the music.