Sometimes you knew it quite early — what you want to do in life, what you want to become, what’s your calling, etc. Well, if you are one among those lucky ones, you will have more passion and focus in what you do in your life as you grow up.
Being a musician and able to make a living out of it is not an easy task and never easier than before. We talked to Gary Schmidt, originally from Canada but now reside in the US, who knew he wanted to become a pianist. We talked about his life, his music, and also the changing scenario of the music industry and how to remain on course as an independent artist.
Q1. What makes your music sell when it comes to reaching a wider number of the audience?
It seems to me that music has two main purposes. The first obvious one is to entertain. We need music at parties, music to dance to, and music to create memories with. And this is a very valid purpose no doubt. But I believe there is a second much deeper purpose to music and that is to document the human condition, to speak to the heart, to speak to the universe that dwells in us Sapiens. I won’t say this is necessarily higher ground but at least for my music that is more where I am coming from. You see it doesn’t really matter if we are a heavy metal fan or a worshipper of Bach there are some universal things we all need and seek. One of them is peace. So I would say that in sense music that is meditative and seeking to uplift has perhaps the widest potential audience. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people outside your genre. You may be surprised! Of course, you will probably not be selling out stadiums or having hit records. People as a general rule are quicker to seek entertainment than healing. And again, this has its place as life, of course, is also meant to be celebrated and lived.
Q2. How do you adapt to the technological changes that are happening in the music industry?
This is a tough one; especially for us more hmm…”mature musicians”. When I was a kid you took your twenty precious dollars to the record and browsed endlessly to pick out just the one special album worthy of what you had to spend. Now for maybe ten dollars a month you literally can listen to almost anything that has been and will be recorded. It used to be that an “album” was like a unified piece of art, including the album cover and liner notes. Now, we have things like shuffle play and I would imagine that is rare for an individual to sit down and listen to a whole album from start to finish in the order the songs were originally recorded. From my observation, a lot of people can’t even make it through a whole song without hitting the next button! So what to do?
I would say the first step is acceptance. There is no use bemoaning the changes or trying to fight against it. And after all having so much access is wonderful and I very much make use of it myself. With the simple words “Ok Google” I can tell my phone to immediately play just about any song I want. How fantastic is that? But it does pose its challenges on the more business end of things. If people’s music budgets have gone from having to pay 20 dollars for a single record to basically free how on earth we musicians and composers are supposed to make it? But I am trying to adapt the best I can. I think the biggest thing is patience. It is very much about the long road now. It takes times to develop a fan base via streaming, Spotify, Pandora, etc. but it seems if you are very patient and work hard on your social networking and playing by the new rules the potential is great, and certainly there is more potential for greater amount of people as the “gatekeepers” of the industry just don’t have the same power they once had. If you have a Facebook account you have the power to be heard. That simply didn’t exist 20 years ago.
Q3. Do you feel it is all about numbers or making good music still counts?
I don’t think the true artist motivation is ever fundamentally motivated by numbers, though we all like it if it happens! But artists create art because they have to. It is in their DNA. I think most artists could relate to Schubert who complained to himself that he had no choice but to compose. It was like his very breath and salvation. It flowed out like a river and it had to come out whether he wanted it to or not. There was no way he could be a banker!
Sometimes when I go to a symphony concert I think about how many hours of practicing went it to this performance. If you think that each musician has dedicated their whole life to music from a young age and no doubt practiced thousands of hours and then multiply it by the number of musicians on stage, you get the idea. And they are doing what they love and that is the richest reward of all. Sometimes I meet successful “business” people who of course have perhaps more means than I do but when I tell them I am a pianist and musician and do what I love I can see the look of jealousy in their eye. They always enviously say, “lucky you”. Who is more fortunate? The one making a lot of money and working in “tall buildings” or the one doing what they love to do?. And so a true artist is just as happy playing for an open mic for free in some coffee house as having perhaps a thousand people out there.
If you are talking about the quantity of music versus quality of music, that is a whole other issue. A lot of marketing involves appealing to the lowest common denominator and this can have quite a negative effect on the quality of music. Unfortunately is not always quality that sells. I think any songwriter out there would admit to the tension of trying to write something that will “please” a wide audience and being true to what they want to say. No matter which way you go though I think the most important thing is to try as much as possible to believe in yourself and your unique voice. Perhaps the greatest compliment a musician can get is, “that song sounds like you”.
Q4. What kind of strategies do you adopt for marketing your music?
Honestly, I am not very good at it. So, for me, it was important to get outside help and I really appreciate the efforts of my marketing manager, Sherry Finzer, and the team at HeartDance records. I am trying to do my part but it just not my talent or thing. So, I would advise aspiring musicians out there that you don’t have to, and actually can’t, do it all. You need a team. These days a team would consist of a video person, a social media person, a producer, a compatible recording engineer, a website designer, a savvy marketing person, etc. So perhaps the best strategy is to try and develop a really good team of people around you to support you and who believe in your vision and who can help make it happen. I will say that perhaps the thing you need to realize the most these days is that you need to cultivate personally one fan at a time. If some stranger comments on your Facebook page, reply in person. Treat everyone and every comment as important because they are!
Q5. What’s your motivation and also intention when you create new music?
The phrase on my business card says “enhancing life thru music” and that perhaps sums it up for me. I feel like those of us who have been blessed with a certain amount of creative ability need have a responsibility to give back to the world. The world needs every little of beauty and inspiration it can get. Music has the power to heal, to bring peace, and to inspire.
When I write music I try to be as minimalistic as possible. How much can I say with a few notes as possible? I prefer to keep it simple and direct. I try to write from a meditative place and listen from the heart as to whether what I am writing will speak to the heart or not. Anybody who has some music theory training and a measure of talent can sit down a write a half decent song at any time of the day. But to write something that is deeper, that can exist on a spiritual plane that touches the core of people is a different matter altogether. I strive for this but of course, I am not always successful. This is hard to explain but I think we all recognize it both as listeners and creators when it happens.
Q6. Any message for upcoming artists or our readers?
I would just reiterate something I said earlier. I believe the most important thing is to find your own voice, spend a lot of time thinking about what you want to say and how you are going to say it. Norah Jones is a vocal genius, but do we need another clone? If you think about it, all the greatest most successful artists you can think of were unique in a way. Stevie Wonder is Stevie Wonder. Jim Morrison was Jim Morrison. Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan, etc. You will be the happiest if you doing what you feel you are being called to do. If you don’t have this you will probably give up. There are no shortcuts so enjoy the slow, long, but very rewarding journey being grateful for what you do have.