Derek Sivers InterviewOn January 28, I had the chance to chat with CD Baby founder Derek Sivers over Skype. His unique insights into the music industry will help you to push your career to the next level.

For those who don’t know already, you are the founder of CD Baby. Tell me a little bit about that. What were some of your responsibilities?

Back in 1997 I was selling my own CD. Just a musician selling my own CD on my band’s website. But you have to remember in 1997 the world was pretty different. There was no PayPal, the only online record stores were CDNOW and Music Boulevard, both of which went out of business. But I contacted both of them and asked if they would sell my CD on their website, and they said, “Well, who’s your distributor?” I said, “Well, I don&’t have a distributor. Can’t I just send you a box of CDs and you sell it and pay me?” And they said, “Look kid, it doesn’t work that way. Our website is just a front end to the major distributors. They pipe us a data feed of their catalogue and we feature it on our website, and when we get an order we ship it. So the only way you could be in our store is to be signed up with one of the major distributors.” And I thought, “Well, that’s lame. Can’t I just tell you I’m a distributor now?” And they said, “Come on kid, it doesn’t work that way.”

So I thought, “Okay, how hard can it be to get a credit card merchant account, build a shopping cart myself?” Turns out it was actually really hard, it cost like a $1,000 in set up fees to get a credit card merchant account, you know? Like I said, there was no PayPal back then. Building a shopping cart used to be really hard. I had to go down to the book store and buy a big book on CGI-bin, Perl programming to program a shopping cart from scratch, because there were none available. It was hard work. So after about 3 months of work I had a “Buy Now!” button on my website. And it was so much work that some of my friends at the time said, “Hey man, do you think you could sell my CD with that thing?” So I said, “Yeah, I guess, sure.” So it was really just my own band’s website had my CD and then some of my friend’s CDs for sale, and that just kept growing and became CD Baby.

“I’m not a very ambitious person. I just tend to follow whatever interests me.”

What are some of the things that have changed now that you no longer work at CD Baby? What are some of your goals and aspirations?

I don’t have any. *laughs* No, really, I’m not a very ambitious person. I just tend to follow whatever interests me. So CD Baby, for example, was never meant to be a business. Just a little hobby I was doing, you know? I was making my full-time living making music, and it was just a little hobby and accidentally took off. I’m already far beyond any aspirations I ever had. I really just don’t have any.

Helping musicians with their careers seems to be one of your passions. Talk about some of the ways in which you help musicians these days.

Right now I’m just doing some things that I think are needed. For example, on the educational side… I think a lot of musicians don’t understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of their music. Everything is very self-centered, meaning you spend all this time and energy making your music and then you put together a recording or something and you send it out to the world. Maybe you shot-gunned 200 copies to 200 places. And when those 200 people don’t get back to you, you think, “The bastards. They don’t appreciate true genius.”

You don’t really understand what it’s like to be the person, say, running a venue trying to keep it in business when the landlord keeps raising the rent, and all of their concerns on how they’re going to somehow stay in business. And only get acts coming through there that will double their attendance. Or what it’s like to be working in a radio station, in the dark dungeon basements of a radio station, where the DJs usually work and how they’re just concerned with bringing in advertising revenue, and music is really just kind of seen as something that keeps people listening so they can sell more ads and whatnot.

So I think it really helps musicians to understand the full picture of where their music is going to and understanding the people that are on the receiving end of it. So I’ve started doing a lot of interviews with these people that are on the receiving end of independent artist’s music, and sharing those videos through… Just putting them up for free. Things like that, just things that I think are helpful.

“When CD Baby started, I was resisting it. I didn’t want to start a business.”

What are some other ways you intend to help musicians?

Oh, there’s a few things. Setting up a new company called MuckWork, which doesn’t exist yet. It’s going to be a network of agents around the world who – when I say agents I mean just anybody who needs work – are willing to do the boring, uncreative dirty work necessary that musicians unfortunately spend a lot of time doing. Whether it’s updating a MySpace page, or whatever, you know?

If someone wanted to do what you are doing, how would you suggest they go about it?

How so? What part?

Well, you made a good living at CD Baby and now you’re shall we say – semi-retired – or do you have a day job or…?

No day job, no. So, “semi-retired”, sure. *laughs* You know the last time I had a day job was 1992. I quit my job at Warner Bros., and just dedicated myself to being a full-time musician. I was living in New York City at the time, and just said, “Alright, I’m going to do it. I’m going to quit my job, and I’m just going to do whatever it takes to make a living as a musician.”

So, I actually haven’t had a job since 1992. When CD Baby started, I was resisting it. I didn’t want to start a business. I didn’t mean to start a business. It was just this little hobby that took off, because I was making my full-time living making music. The last thing I wanted was something to get in the way of that. But it happened anyway, you know? Could make that metaphor of, there are a lot of babies in the world that were not necessarily intended, and happened anyway. There you go, roll with it.

I’d have to assume you’re in a pretty good position financially to be able to do that, so…?

Yeah, but… I think with anything, I’ve been in the same mind-set since 1992 when I was 22-years-old and quit my job. The most important thing I think is being able to live within your means. So at the time I was making $800 a month on average just gigging and whatnot. And I just found a way to live, no matter… Rent was $330 a month, and I could do my monthly groceries in about $150 a month, and left me just a little money left over for saving up and whatnot… I just didn’t spend any money, you know? 9 years living in New York City, I never once took a taxi; I would only take the subway. I would never go out to eat unless somebody else was treating. Just things like that, I think it’s about living within your means no matter what you’re earning.

So, even now, I refuse to buy anything I don’t need. I see all my friends get iPhones, but you know what? My existing phone works fine. Philosophically I’m against the idea, I resist the screaming of advertising trying to entice you to want things you don’t need, I just don’t fall for it. You can be semi-retired pretty easily if you’re able to control your means and just do only what you want to.

I was actually really inspired by my girlfriend’s parents when I was 22. Her parents were hippies, lived on a commune, she grew up without electricity, never did have a TV. Her mom would do various odd jobs around town, and her dad was a photographer, yet they put her through College because they just found ways to keep their means down. From my point of view, they were semi-retired at that point too. Anyway, I’m sorry it’s just kind of my rant… I think a lot of people think that life has to be expensive, that they need to have two cars and a four bedroom house and such and such and all these massive expenses and I object.

“You want to cut through the noise to call attention to yourself. You can’t cut through anything if you’re well-rounded. You have to be very sharp to cut.”

How important is it for a musician to find a specific niche or audience?

It’s important to remember that you can have multiple niches, meaning the album is a perfect thing to use as a niche. Meaning, if you look at the career of somebody like Paul Simon and David Bowie have been two extreme examples of this, where if you look at their careers throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s, every album they put out was a niche in a way. David Bowie would say, “OK, now my name is Ziggy Stardust and I’m from Mars. Now I am the Thin White Duke of Soul. Now I am Post-Modern Grunge dude”. Paul Simon would do a Gospel album, then a South African album, and then a Brazilian album. And with each one of those, he would sharply define this niche and say this album is this project.

And it’s a great way just to completely dive into a niche, be very sharply defined, which I think opens a lot of doors because you’re trying to call attention to your project and get publicity for it. It’s easier to talk about and write about something that’s sharply defined, instead of, you know, “Hi, my name is Mark Miller and here’s my new music”, you know what I mean? I think a lot of people are too well-rounded. Whereas if you think of the world’s attention metaphorically, like as if it’s a big cloud or a hunk of cheese or something, what you want to do is cut through. You want to cut through the noise to call attention to yourself. You can’t cut through anything if you’re well-rounded. You have to be very sharp to cut. I’m a big advocate for just being very sharply defined, just having the confidence to say “Okay, this project is this is sharp niche. My next one might be totally different, but this project is just a niche.” Got to do a niche instead of being well-rounded.

What are some other practical ways a musician could go about finding their niche?

I guess you just follow whatever excites you. Set yourself some limitations. I think it could be more inspiring to give yourself some limitations, to say, “OK, I’m going to make a new album but it’s going to be only… whatever, instrumental, only electric, or I’m going to use this synth-guitar for the whole thing, or I’m going to…” Whatever it may be, you know what I mean? You’ll set some limitations, and say, “This is my new project”. And then just stick within those limitations is almost a challenge or experiment to yourself.

“Success to me meant the freedom to do whatever I want, whenever, wherever.”

Obviously success looks a little different for every musician. Do you think that there are many different paths to finding that success, or only a few select paths that lead to success?

It’s more about what your definition of success is. To me, it was all about freedom. Success to me meant the freedom to do whatever I want, whenever, wherever. And so, to me, a major record label contract would have been the opposite of success, because it would have interfered with my freedom. Like I don’t know how many people have, you know… If you’ve met people who have had the misfortune of signing a major record label deal, but once you do, you no longer own your music and you now have a boss. The person at the record label is practically your employer that is able to tell you what you need to be doing with your music, where you need to be appearing, what you have to do, what songs are not going to be allowed on the record, and ordering you to go back and write something more commercial, etc.

You know, I worked at Warner Bros. for two and a half years, and that’s the world, you know? When you sign a deal, you now have a boss, you have a job, you no longer own your music, it belongs to them. That’s why they paid you the advance is that they bought your music, it’s no longer yours. They own the rights to it, they can do what they want with it, etc. So to me, my definition was freedom and somebody else’s definition might be to be the headliner at their local venue that they always grew up going to, somebody else’s definition might be to hear their music on a TV commercial.

So I think it’s important to know what your definition of success is, and forget everybody else’s definition, but go for what you know would make you happy personally. It took a lot of soul-searching for me to realize that freedom was my real answer, and that’s why I didn’t want to be a part of that high pressure world of signing a record deal. I saw how that worked, and it made me noxious seeing it, and it took me a while to figure out why, and it was because I realized my ultimate goal was freedom. So for me it was doing random gigs and playing the College market and let’s just say the fact that I haven’t had a job since 1992. That to me is success.

So you toured the College market for 10 years was it?

No, no, sorry. CD Baby was 10 years. I did the College market for four.

I remember reading that, I just didn’t remember the exact number.

About 1995 through 99 maybe, 94 through 98, something like that. It was practically my full-time living, you know?<

“For the most part, people work with people they like and it’s essential to get out there and just meet lots of people.”

How important is networking for a musician?

You might have seen a story I put on my blog, about advice for a 19 year old session guitarist, or 19 year old guitarist who wants to be a session musician. So my advice to him was that first, stay in the shed. Just be an anti-social bastard, lock yourself in your room, 8 hours a day. Learn everything, practice everything, get to the point where you can just play circles around anything and anyone in any style, you know?

But then at a certain point, when you’re ready to go make a living doing it, it’s really a completely different almost opposite thing. It’s crucial to stay in the shed up until a point, and then it’s crucial to go out and “network”; as you put it, but it’s really just a matter of meeting people, being a cool person, being an interesting person, being interested in others, not just self-promoting. All those basic rules of human communication, you know? Why people like certain people, apply. In general, people work with people they like. If they’re wondering who to hire for that certain gig, they call the person that they enjoy talking with, that they enjoy being around.

I think there are some bad role models out there, where we’ve heard of the few of the success stories of people who were a total ass all their way to the top. But I think those people are the exceptions. I think their stories are told more widely because we are shocked at how a horrible person could have gotten so far. Or sometimes they succeeded despite their personality flaws. But for the most part, people work with people they like and it’s essential to get out there and just meet lots of people.

I mean you could challenge yourself to meet three new people every week I think is a great goal. Not just other burnt-out musicians or whatever, but just say, “Okay, I’m going to go meet thre people a week, whether it’s writers, DJs, club owners, editors, publicists… Meet three people every week and as long as you use some basic human empathy, consideration, thinking of things from the other person’s point of view, at the end of the year you’ll have 150 people that you’ve met that year, that you can keep in touch with – at least half of them – every now and then, and that will be way more beneficial to your career than clicking around and adding friends to MySpace.

That’s a really good point, and also in some ways I find that to be a challenge because there was a period in my life where I probably did nothing but play guitar, and then found my world all of a sudden shrink, all of a sudden having trouble connecting with people, but…

But it’s essential. Every great musician always starts with a real kind of anti-social period. You have to. You’re never going to get good if you’re only social.

What are some specific things a musician could do to make the most out of connecting with other people?

Just keeping in touch. Think of things from the other person’s point of view. Don’t be always self-promoting, or otherwise you’re going to be like that greasy uncle that at family events is trying to sell insurance to relatives, or a cars salesman, people who never stop self-promoting kind of come across like that guy. Don’t forget that sometimes the best thing you can do for your career is just to be interested in others. Be a good conversationalist.

What are some other things a musician could do to stimulate the growth of their career?

Go to my website, sivers.org and click on the home page it says, music marketing advice. There’s a free e-book that I wrote up, it’s a book that I spent months writing, it was really all of my advice. Took months to write, put it into an e-book PDF format, and I just put it out there for free. It’s totally free, no string attached, I didn’t care to sell it, I just wanted it to be out there because it was really the answer to every question I had heard from musicians for years. All the questions about how can I call attention to my music, how can I find a great booking agent, how can I make more money per gig, like all those kinds of things, I address it all in there. I could read it to you over the phone, but probably more efficient to go get it.

“Shutting off the Internet, shutting off distractions, shutting off the TV, waking up an hour earlier, doing the work that you know you need to do, and doing it first thing in the morning before anything can distract you.”

It can be difficult for a musician to prioritize their time. How can they best balance their practice time, promotion efforts, and daily responsibilities?

That’s the big challenge. I think the biggest challenge for anybody trying to do this, is focus and discipline. I think there are so many musicians who are trying to, for example, blame their lack of massive success and fame on somebody else, some booking agent somewhere who didn’t fully appreciate them or something like that. When in reality the best thing they could be doing for their career is, waking up an hour earlier, or getting rid of their TV, disconnecting from the Internet, no longer surfing. Like there’s really no point in surfing, there’s nothing you can gain from it. Shutting off the Internet, shutting off distractions, shutting off the TV, waking up an hour earlier, doing the work that you know you need to do, and doing it first thing in the morning before anything can distract you.

Most musicians know what they should be doing. It’s just a matter of will-power and discipline and focus to do it. I seriously think it’s 1 in 100 that actually do what they know they should be doing, and those are the people that are going to be successful. And those who surf the web, watch TV, sleep in, go out drinking instead of having the motivation to stay home and practice, just aren’t going to make it no matter what. You can try to blame it on anybody else or anything else but it’s you and your actions.

How important is it for a musician to have a website? How could they make the most of it?

Well, everybody has to have a website. See, I love when history repeating itself. I thought it was funny back in the late 90s, every musician had an mp3.com page. People would even spend money, whether it’s buying billboards or designing the graphic art on their CD cover, so they’d say, “I don’t need a website anymore, man. You can just find us at mp3.com/crunchyfrogs” or whatever, you know? “See that’s our website, and that’s where everybody is, mp3.com. So why would we have our own website when we can just use that one for free? Because that’s where all the people are.”

And one day, mp3.com got sued, sold, whatever, shut down. And all of a sudden I think it was something like a quarter of a million websites, were just shut down one day with no warning. They just shut down the whole site. Goodbye. And all those musicians who had printed up materials, and told all their fans, that mp3.com/crunchyfrogs “That’s our website, go there” all of a sudden they were gone. All the fans that they had on their bulletin board, or whatever, gone.

And you know the same thing could happen with MySpace. I’m amazed to see so many musicians not learn the lesson of only a few years ago and they’re just like, “Oh yeah man, our real page is MySpace. myspace.com/crunchyfrogs”, you know? You don’t own that. That’s theirs. That belongs to Rupert Murdoch from Fox News. That’s his site, not yours, and it’s amazing to me to see so many musicians basically just telling all their fans to go over to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News owned website, and Fox News then owns the list of all your fans and keeps that database. And they could just pull the plug and shut it down at any moment, and some day they will.

So it is crucial, the only site that you should ever send your fans to is one that you own. It has to be your domain name. If that also links people to your MySpace, or even if it redirects or whatever. Maybe. Make sure you also keep a backup copy of your fan list, because again, MySpace’s servers could burp at any moment, and all of a sudden if you say that you’ve got a million friends or a million fans, if their server were to burp and accidentally delete them, do you have a backup? Because if not, their not really your fans or friends. So I think it’s absolutely crucial for a musician to have their own website. Especially these days, it costs, what? A few bucks a month? 5 bucks a month? It’s crucial.

So what your website should do is engage in conversation, it should entice people to get into a two-way conversation. It should definitely not be a brochure that just says, “Here I am, here’s my music, check it out, OK bye.” It needs to be something that says, “Enter your name and email here in order to get the new free single, or in order to hear updates, or in order to keep in touch.” And then you’ve got to engage in conversation, and every few weeks or a month or something, have something interesting to offer the people that care about your music. Let them in on some new stuff you’re working on, ask their opinions, get into a two-way conversation and actually reply to them.

These things are crucial, that’s why a lot of normal people are so much more interested in the Internet now than they were 8 years ago, because it’s much more of a two-way conversation now. It’s not just brochures out there for them to click on, look at, and go away.

“You don’t have to spend a dime to do marketing and promotion.”

From your perspective, how has the music industry changed over the last 10 years? How is it changing now?

A lot of things are changing. The physical distribution is becoming almost moot. Radio is definitely moot. All these old things that a lot of people used to think of were the music industry, like getting played on FM radio, I don’t think there are hardly any real music fans who are depending on their local FM radio station to turn them on to new music. I mean, there are a couple of exceptions, there are a couple of great stations, like KEXP in Seattle or KCRW in L.A. or whatever, that are kind of tastemakers that some music lovers actually tune to. But for the most part, for most people in the world, their only options are a couple Classic Rock and hit radio stations, and I think that too many people are focused on still aiming for the goal that they had when they were a teenager. They were 16 and they said, “I’m going to be all over the radio”; or “I’m going to have my CD in every store in America.”

But you know what? You got to admit that times have changed. Record stores are going out of business left and right. Distributors are scrambling, kind of Titanic half underwater, trying to figure out what to do. They can’t take any chances. A distributor can’t take on anything that’s not going to be a sure-fire hit and make a ton of money really fast. And if it’s not going to, they just can’t waste their time with it because there’s so few stores left. And I think because record stores are so few and far between, for example, it’s going even accelerate the trend, meaning fewer and fewer people are going to be counting on their local record store as the place to buy music. There won’t be a local record store, you’ll have to drive 20 miles to get to one.

So the idea of getting into physical stores, or getting onto FM radio, a lot of these old things are moot. So I think you’ve got to look at the way things really are right now with fresh eyes, and make sure you’re not clouded by what you used to want when you were a teenager.

How is the industry growing?

It’s now cheaper and easier for people to discover new music.

Do you see any areas that are in high demand? Do you feel that there are jobs and roles that have yet to be filled, but could benefit others in a big way?

I think that promotion and marketing are crucial now. It’s like the recording of music got so cheap and easy 20 years ago that what used to be really expensive, to go into a big fancy studio, the Neve console and all tube, etc. became unnecessary. I think Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill was just done on a ADAT home studio or something like that. So the recording of music is cheap and easy now.

Starting around 10 years ago with CD Baby and some others, the distribution of music became cheap and easy and basically a no-brainer. Distribution used to be hard, but now there are dozens of companies that are willing to give you worldwide distribution for free, which is amazing. So what’s left is the marketing and promotion. That’s a crucial skill for people to learn and understand. A lot of it is just pop psychology, it’s just understanding people and why does a person go out on a Thursday night at 11 PM even though they have to be at work the next morning? Is it to hear your complicated chord progressions and introspective lyrics, or is it to forget their life for a couple hours? When a person buys a record, is it so that they can pore over the list of thank-you notes, and admire the perfect reverb and tuning on the snare, or is it because they want something sexy to put on in the background as they’re having a candlelight dinner?

A lot of marketing and promotion is nothing more than psychology. You don’t have to spend a dime to do marketing and promotion. It’s amazing to me when I hear a lot of people say something like, “Couldn’t afford to do any marketing.” As if marketing is advertising, which it is so not. There are some good reasons why advertising is practically moot as well. So I think just understanding marketing and promotion is still a really valuable skill to have right now. And if you’re going to be throwing yourself into some kind of new business or going to be doing something to help other musicians, I think marketing and promotion is the way to go.

Thanks for your time.

Cool. Thanks, David.

Author: David Andrew Wiebe

David Andrew Wiebe has built an extensive career in songwriting, live performance, recording, session playing, production work, investing, and music instruction. In addition to helping musicians unlock their full potential, he also continues to maintain a touring schedule with multiple bands.

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