Crystal Lee is the CEO of Vandala Concepts, a very ambitious entertainment company offering just about every service you could imagine to independent artists, not to mention a magazine, and she has the industry knowledge to make it all effective. Crystal, Please tell us about Vandala Concepts, how you got started with it and what you offer independent artists.
I got started many years ago when I was 15 and by luck in the modeling/dance world. Some may disagree but it’s a form of entertainment. I learned contracts and the nasty ones at that. I stayed with modeling since it paid better, although I have always had my foot in music. I was classically trained on the flute and piccolo. Yes, make the American pie jokes all you want but the flute/piccolos are evil little beasts; they take a lot of technique, ear training and more. Being part of an honors wind ensemble band taught me so much such as listening, tuning, scales and theory, etc. Though, again, I am a rocker at heart.
I grew up with all types of music; country, metal, classic rock, 80’s music (sadly, my mother loved it). I love music and it has always been a huge part of my life – period. I write lyrics, poetry, and the occasional song. Again, not the right fit even with being published in over 200 poetry anthologies by the age of 19. I knew I would be a starving artist and it wasn’t my calling. Music was, but not as a singer.
By 19 I was working for a major label part time (University the other part) for a few years and became the devil, learned what I could and left the company since I was brought up with morals and ethics. Not only did the bands I worked with sell their soul – mine died a little. Also, I heard my grandmothers’ voice of morals in my head like Jiminy Cricket. I always continued with bookings and working with indie bands on the side but never could take the jump to run my own business fully. But I just wanted to make a difference in the indie scene and help bands achieve their dreams. Talent is talent and it should be seen.
For years I worked full time jobs and worked part time in the music industry because it was scary to give up that stable pay check and become self-employed. In 2006 I became a certified event and talent manager because it was paid for by the government since they believed in me and thought what I was doing on the side was great. Honestly I would never have gone back for any school unless I was paid to do so. While in School I was able to intern with Doc Robertson, Music Director and a full fold out card of other jobs at Sun FM Kelowna. I showed up and said I need to know more about radio since that was a weakness. He taught me so much and had faith in me personally, career wise and showed me the right side of the industry. I gained experience over many years in so many areas and did so many things but it was all for a reason. I needed to learn certain lessons in life and skills which I needed to be successful in the music industry. By 2009, my now husband said you are burning the candle stick at both ends and need to take the jump, get serious and work in the music industry. I did. I needed the right person to give me the push. He also said I could do more if I gave more time. He was right. Shhhh…don’t tell him that.
It all started with one marketing plan and ended up here today with a few 360’s. Adaptability keeps you in the industry. 2012 has been the explosion year though. Magazine, music services, 6 staff and little sleep. One thing still remains; Dedication, Trust, and Passion in the Industry. I may not be the number one person or magazine in the industry right now but I can guarantee you that I am dedicated to my clients, and artists I work with and that are in our magazine. I also take great pride that artists can trust Vandala and most of all that we see their passion. I am lit up by that and thus my passion and love for the independent scene makes me give 110%.
The magazine formed itself, really. Smaller bands do not always get the press and require some press so I created a newsletter and somewhere over the years it’s grown into a magazine all by itself. It is a publication that does not follow the rules and has the goal of bringing the best music to light and artists that you should hear. Most of all, we publish the positive; if negative, it’s in a way to bring light to a problem. If you want to hear the negative turn on the media. Some disagree but I believe not getting reviews, plays, hits and more is an obvious sign for a band that something is wrong. Also, contact people for help and opinions. We live in a world there are enough people out there willing to tell you where you need to improve, and maybe some too willing.
You had to go there! They make a lot of mistakes and do not realize it. Yes, there are the basics but I will give you a few that I see too often and should not see.
• Email basics and mass emails! Lately, that alone drives me nuts. Email Etiquette for one – pick up a cheap book on emailing. Next, no mass emails. So many do not even BCC it. It’s like the guy you see hitting on every girl at the bar. Not only does he look desperate, he looks like so many things I’d rather not say, though most likely that guy gets slapped but in email delete and block. If you cannot take the time why should I?
• Artists not realizing how many emails I get. I get so many. With a magazine and services it opens up many doors to be contacted.
• Not picking up the phone at all! Wait a minute this does not mean to call me like a crazy girlfriend. Pick up the phone, follow up and ask questions and so forth. Email first then call ideally. When someone calls me they become a real person and not another email. Again, it may be rude but its realty. It’s so much easier for me to get you where you want to go. It’s instant and personal. Also, with services I can do so much more over the phone, such as figure out what you really need, and what is a waste. Most of all I will remember you more because you are not just another email.
• Know who you are dealing with. If Vandala magazine is interviewing, you go read it, and see what writer you’re dealing with. Also, before you contact me, go to my site and see what we do. I get emails from people asking me to play their music on my radio station???? We are not one. You just look bad when you do things like that. Go to all sites and find out as much as you can, such as what they do, genres they accept etc. Also, again, it’s a respect thing.
• Not following the rules/requirements – if there are guidelines, follow them. If they say digital downloads, no large files, or fill out the form, they mean it. You get deleted when you do not follow the requirements generally. Great talent still needs to read and follow the requirements. In 2 days I had over 800 emails in one email account and guess what the guys who did not follow the guidelines got deleted to get the email amount down. If you think about it, isn’t it disrespectful to not take the time?
• We give you an amazing review you and you delete yourself off our mailing list, ouch. Join and ditch does not make a nice impression. In a way it’s a shallow move and you won’t get another review. I hate to say but I have a list of bands that really mess up, and this includes other professionals as well. Don’t burn your bridges since it’s a small industry and it’s viral.
• Social Media – Use it and use it properly. Gong shows online are still gong shows. Keep the personal drama off the web, never talk sh*t since again, you could burn bridges. Also Twitter, Facebook and all the other social media…be on it and be interesting. I also note that Facebook and Twitter are different so use them the right way. Most of all, blog. Bands who are interesting keep a fan base while making albums. If you’re touring then tweet, post pictures, etc. People in the Facebook age even post their lunch. Sad but its true so use it to your advantage.
• Contact Info – Always have that easy to find. If I cannot contact you how can I do anything for you.
• Have a Proper website. Myspace and Facebook are not band websites. They are social media. There is WordPress, too, if you’re on a budget. Look serious or I won’t take you serious.
What are some of the qualities you look for in an artist?
Constantly Active, Passion, Seriousness, Professionalism, Respect, Trust. They must have DIY abilities and no drama. Also, they must have the “it” factor. Yes, a cliché but its real. Some guys come off cocky, arrogant and fake while the real talent comes off passionate, dedicated and just a true talent. This is the guy you can’t help but watch even if he has lower skills, and thus he is someone you can work with. Most of all, be a long term talent. You can always give someone lessons to improve their skills but you can’t make the “it” factor.
What are the characteristics of a great press/news release?
This might be a controversial one here for me, but I am blunt and tell it how it is for me.
• First of all use a legible font. I need to be able to read it. That goes for tour posters, event posters, band logos etc. If I can’t read it I delete it.
• Have all the links there, your bands site, social media, etc where I can hear your music. I hate it when the only link I see is the publicists. Who cares about the publicist (I am one and I am not important – the artist is). It’s our job to promote the band. Also, make it easy for me. I have limited amount of time. I do not want to jump through hoops to get what I need. Again delete is so easy these days.
• Edit, large indie labels have sent me stuff that has needed drastic editing. Read and re-read. It sucks but it has to be done.
• This might be a controversial one here for me since I have been breaking the rules on Press releases but for us it’s about being interesting and showing the talent. Vandala has its own style that is not boring and uses it to stand out at times. Yes you have the APA style that has all the information. This is great to some but when I see hundreds you do need to stand out some. That also goes for anything you send anyone. Again when people see hundreds of something everything starts to look the same an even blurry. Be it a photo, great start up line or Title. Think about it from my end, hundreds of emails the same thing what would you do?
You offer radio promotion. Are there any public misconceptions about what this entails?
I think all the services are sometimes misconceived mainly on how much work we put in on the business side. I have talked to many people in the industry and the common comments are the amount of time we put in into a campaign is not realized be it in publicity, radio tracking and more. Which lead to so many assuming we over charge. Look at our hourly rate then make the comments. It all takes time and effort. With radio tracking we do tracking for campus and indie radio in Canada. This entails calling every radio station, making a kick ass package, strong relationships and constant follow up. We call and email for weeks and it takes hours of work. This also goes for your publicity, contract/agreement writing, and all our services.
Some of your services involve documentation preparation and review. I think many bands miss out on opportunities simply because they’re afraid of contracts of any kind. What has your experience been and can you please tell us more about what this service entails?
This means any paper work or more often digital paper work such as Press Kits, EPK’s, Media packages, Digital Creations, Portfolios, copywriting and more. Also we review things like contracts, agreements, licensing deals, grant applications and whatever else comes your way in the industry. One thing we do is review contracts from the industry bands receive. I may not be a lawyer but I am way cheaper. Also if you need a lawyer I will tell you. I used to be on the other end but now I am fighting for bands to get the best deals and every penny counts.
Contracts and agreements can be scary. If you have ever signed a loan it’s a serious commitment and it’s terrifying but agreements are part of our everyday lives. If nothing else there is terms and services you agree to even on Facebook. So yes, bands are at times afraid but it comes down to having the right people and team to help you. An agreement puts it on paper of what each party is going to do and lays out the terms such as pay, length, what happens if the agreement is broken etc. Bookings, producer contracts, to label agreements I would never do anything serious without an agreement because as “House says everyone lies” sadly it happens in this industry too much and in the rest of the world. Think about it does a bank give you a credit card without an agreement?
Also, when it’s a large contract like a label one I tell bands that each member should look at it and anyone else they can get to look at it, even your grandmother. I have also taken all the highlighted copies and put them together with the issues, questions and concerns. Make a list of questions and then go see a lawyer if possible. Entertainment lawyers are extremely expensive and why waste money if you do not have to with extra hours sitting with them. Be prepared when you go see a lawyer and remember hundreds of dollars an hour is what you are going pay though think about what a bad deal will cost you in the long run.
The other aspect is we negotiate agreements for artists as well. Sometimes when I come in, things work a little faster and better. Not all artists know the business world and that’s okay, we all have our strengths. Never be afraid to ask for help on agreements and contracts. We also even have standard ones I can draw up for a band within the hour.
In my experience, most independent artists seem to do things one after the other without a sense of timing or urgency. They release an album, start promoting it 2 weeks later, then plan a video, contact some radio shows and maybe book a few live dates. Can you share your perspective on the ideal overall structure of an album promotion campaign and the importance of its timing?
Again, if it’s not urgent to you it won’t be urgent to me. Album promotion campaigns do not happen overnight nor do any campaign. Each company is different and for us we require a minimum of 4-6 weeks before the album is released. If you want more such as reviews, tour and promo, then we may need more time. We are only human. Promotion is an art and has to be done right as it’s a competitive market. The early bird gets the worm literally. Doing both promotions and having a magazine has showed me so much. The magazine is a month or 2 ahead in some areas so showing up last minute won’t be successful at our magazine.
Also, artists have to have a full plan. Release, tour dates, videos and so forth have to be done in the right time frame and right way. Think of a campaign as waves. You have to keep it going and know where, how and when you’re going to get there – otherwise you’re dead on the beach. Also, if you have a plan you can save money by doing some things all at once such as radio tracking and album release at the same time. Most of all you will have greater success with a plan. You band is a business! Treat it as such. It’s a known fact businesses without marketing plans are more likely to fail. That goes for your band as well. It’s obvious the bands who work and the bands without a plan because you see the reviews, sales, hits and attention. Serious bands plan and take the time to do it right.
There seem to be a lot of independent artists with major grievances out there, and one thing I notice is that they end up sharing their complaints on forums and blogs while other artists tour and work hard. What’s the perspective of the successful artist as opposed to the bitter one?
Once on the net it’s there forever and remember that everyone is watching for drama. We live in a world of reality TV; this drama has taken over and it becomes a virus. Before talking negatively think about these things:
- Is this a hurt ego or legit? What will I gain? What will I lose? Do I look stupid? Is it worth it?
- What connections do they have? Who is watching? – If I am I will delete you along with the drama!
There are professional ways to deal with things and publicly and on the net is not the way. If you do leave the names out and be editorial about it. Make a point about what the problem is in a professional way. Also ask and try to work it out especially with the emailing and texting, real meanings get lost fast and assumptions happen too often.
As for bitterness, yes we all have it and no one is alone. Have a support system. I won’t lie. I have it some days but I get over it. Working hard and being successful is the best way to deal with it. Also, never ask why. You may think this is out there but this concept changed my life and literally saved it. You only ask why about a scientific process. Otherwise you don’t really want the answer to the question why. I.e. girlfriend calls you up and asks why didn’t you do this? Why, why, why? The reality is that she wants a fight and not an answer. If she calls up and say “What happened?” you will respond in a positive way and not a defensive way. So, in the industry you ask what went wrong, when did this happen and how do I fix this? Where do I go from here and so forth. Why can be a form of self-destruction and holds you back.
Work hard, treat your band as a business, dust, yourself off and grow a thick skin. Life is hard and this industry is no different. Remember though, there are good people out there to help. Vandala is here. Most of all, play for the love not the money because when you are old and grey that guitar maybe your best friend.
Also, the biggest teacher and inspiration now is my daughter. She likes what she likes, does what she does to be happy. Carefree, confident and she keeps it simple. As we grow older we lose those things. She likes what music she likes with no care for anyone else’s opinion or push. Even if you did push any song she will cry to what she does not like. With the media pushing things on us, a 6 month year old child is the one doing it right – being who she really is.