Ihor Gowda was at Austin’s Hole in the Wall, taking in one of his favorite newfound acts: a sultry singer/songwriter named Suzanna Choffel, whose jazz-infused soul pop was bringing early comparisons to vocal greats ranging from Feist and Nelly Furtado to Norah Jones and Erykah Badu. Unfortunately, there were only a handful people at the gig.
“It was ridiculous,” says Gowda.
What happened next, he says, was born of indignation. Gowda was a lifelong music lover, with no direct music management credentials. But that didn’t stop him from making the pitch. He offered to help manage the group—and they accepted. “I think the single thing that made them comfortable with me was that I was a fan who honestly understood their music,” he says. “And I was willing to help them out.”
Now he needed to learn the business—fast.
Gowda made his way to the Austin indie bookstore, Bookpeople, where he came upon Dave Kusek’s book, The Future of Music and the Music Business. He was hooked. “I devoured it in two read-throughs,” he says. “I thought, man this book is fantastic.”
Kusek’s bio led Gowda to Berkleemusic, where he signed on for Music Marketing: Press, Promotion, Distribution, and Retail, a 12-week online course with soon-to-be mentor and course author, Mike King. “I figured, if this course material is as good as the book, and it surely was, then I’ve really got something great,” he said.
Fast forward to June 2008, and Gowda is singing the praises of his experience in King’s class. “I’m a walking commercial for Mike,” he says.
“I really liked that the class was a great mixture of high concept stuff mixed in with really concrete practical suggestions—and I’ve used both,” he says. “For example, we talked about how to charge for merchandise and who some of the big national booking agencies are. On a higher level, Mike talked about partnerships, and looking at instrument makers to work with. I hadn’t thought of that, so we went down to Gibson, impressed them, and they signed on with product for Suzanna to use. It turned out to be the start of a beautiful relationship with Gibson.”
“Applying the marketing in this specific context was really new for me,” he says. “We worked really hard at trying to understand in detail who the target audience was for Suzanna's music and the importance of defining her image, her ‘brand’ if you will.”
Gowda started with Suzanna’s Sonicbids press kit. “She had a basic version up, and we put an awful lot of effort into polishing it,” he says. “We needed to define what she sounded like, her genre, get the ‘similar artist’ part right, and put some really good photos in the kit,” he says. “It’s all pretty fundamental, but I’d venture to guess a lot of indie musicians don’t pay enough attention to that.”
As Gowda worked, press accolades for the singer continued to roll in. In April, she won the $10,000 Grand Prize in FameCast’s nationwide Pop competition. That same month, the band’s video for “Hey Mister” won a first-place slot in Music Video at OurStage. In October, Suzanna even became a Top 10 finalist in Cosmopolitan’s Fun Fearless Female Rockstar contest.
Thanks to Ihor, Suzanna is now touring nationally, with over 450 thousand views of her new single on YouTube.
Berkleemusic asked Ihor a few questions to find out what he learned, what’s worked, and what’s next.
BM: Nowadays, online is everything, and it seems like you’re covering a lot of bases. Did Music Marketing: Press, Promotion, Distribution, and Retail help with your online strategy?
IG: Online was only one element of Mike’s class, but he stressed how critically important it all is. You have to stay on top of it, use any and use all of it. It’s free to do most of it, and it’s a perfect way to get discovered.
We started out by shooting a YouTube video with a $100 Flip Video camera, and have since had high-quality videos professionally produced in studio—all to help with booking. The initial focus helped build her email list, both online and at live shows, and on her Website and MySpace sites.
We’ve done FameCast, OurStage, and other social network sites that are music focused. During the class, Mike pointed me to the submission process for Pandora. He sent us the link and I submitted our music, and now she’s up there. We’re also on Last.fm, iLike, and Amie St. The bottom line is if it helps you gets discovered, it’s all good.
It must be pretty amazing to watch someone you truly admire beginning to really break through.
It is. There’s still a long way to go, but I’ve seen her develop musically. I’ve seen her grow as a performer and a writer. She’s a great musician to work with from an artist manager’s standpoint. She’s real dedicated and enthusiastic about what we’re trying to do.
Suzanna’s a pro on the music front—her whole life is music. But she has also wholeheartedly responded to the big picture. She knows what it takes to become successful, as opposed to a musician who just wants to play their songs and not worry about the rest of the stuff.
I could do Berklee classes all day and be a genius, but if she didn’t have great talent, I’d be going nowhere.
So what’s up next?
A lot. She’s in the middle of recording a new album, her second. This is the one we’re going to put the big push on. Thank God I took Mike’s class! The songs on this album are really strong and the band she has right now is superb. In late June she’s doing a swing through the Northeast, including New York City, Philly, and we’re looking in Boston. She might get an opening spot at the Birchmere, a really cool club in Alexandria, VA, holds about 1500 people—might open for Lizz Wright—she’s really good. Then we’ll probably plan a big tour starting in the September/October timeframe.
How about labels? Are you looking?
We may shop the new album around to a small label or two to see if there’s interest or what kind of deal might be offered. But as a result of the class, we may not—because now I’m confident that I either know how to perform, or farm out, all the important functions that a label would otherwise perform for us. I have a handle on all the pieces.
Speaking of help, is there anyone else on your team?
Not yet. So far I’ve been able to do the publicity, and I’ve put out a couple releases for things like winning FameCast. But pretty soon I’ll be talking to potential publicists about helping out with the upcoming record.
So are you getting good feedback on your work?
Well, Suzanna just told me she is getting positive feedback from club owners, booking agents and press people… saying she had gotten herself a really professional manager. It’s really great, because that’s what I was aiming for. To get people thinking about her and her band positively because of their interaction with me.
Would you say that Berkleemusic helped you with your business plan?
The thing that was great was that Music Marketing: Press, Promotion, Distribution, and Retail really was a broad-spectrum class that focused on all the marketing elements. It’s a kind of “everything you need to know” class. So, yes, the idea is to help you write a business/marketing plan. You construct the pieces of it week by week, until you’ve created the whole integrated plan. Then every week you can talk things through with the class and with Mike in the weekly chats. And at the end, your final assignment really is just tying the bow around it.
Some Berkleemusic students develop a rapport with their Berklee teachers and keep in touch after classes end. You and Mike met in person, right?
Yeah, he came down to Austin for SXSW and I thought it was really cool that he came to check out Suzanna’s band. I had really liked Mike’s class, but how cool is it that your instructor is willing to come out during SXSW when they could be doing another 1000 things – but they still made the time to come see your band? It meant a lot to me, and to the band. They thought it was great—especially the drummer, because he’s a Berklee grad himself.
What current music is on your playlist these days?
I’m a huge fan of Chuck Prophet and his latest work, Soap and Water. I like Carbon Silicon with ex-Clash guitarist Mick Jones. Here in Austin, I actually listen to the radio a good bit. There’s really good local radio, KUT, and their DJs are so extraordinary it’s worth listening to their shows everyday. I just saw Feist, and she was fantastic.
How about Suzanna? Does she have any favorite new artists?
As far as relatively undiscovered talent, she’s listening to Sarah Jaffe, Dri, Belaire, and Dawn Landes. She’s also listening to Feist, Andrew Bird, Broken Social Scene, M. Ward, Vampire Weekend, Dri, Rilo Kiley, The Bird & The Bee, Hope Sandoval, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Erykah Badu, Jim White, Ceu, The Sea and the Cake, and Wilco.
If you could give some advice to someone considering a career in music management, what would you say?
Well, in my experience to date I think you want to be as smart as possible. You want to learn as much as possible about the potential avenues for creating success for your artist, and you want stay on top of it because the music field is changing so quickly. You need to get your knowledge base down and stay on top of everything new, and decide if its something you want to take advantage of. The big picture thing is work hard at it. A lot of people are attracted to the music biz because they think it’s this cool lifestyle. But it’s a business like any other. What counts is what you know, how hard you work, how seriously you apply yourself. You can really differentiate yourself by being super professional about how you do things.
Any more Berkleemusic classes in your future?
I’m not in a class this term, because we’re really busy doing Suzanna stuff. It’s more my time to put into practice everything I learned in the class. I think the following term I may take the artist management class.