Welcome to Chicago Music Magazine's (CMM) coverage of the 2nd Annual CD Baby's DIY Musician Conference to be held in our City of Big Shoulders at the Congress Plaza Hotel, 520 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60605, on Friday, September 30th through Sunday, October 2nd, 2016. Don't miss CMM's in-depth interviews with Conference attendees and speakers, previews of sessions, products, and music, and reviews from each day's proceedings too. This is a definite must attend event for any aspiring musician or any professional in the entertainment industry looking to gain in-depth knowledge. Tickets for the Conference are available at the following link here.
In this opening interview with CD Baby's Vice President of Marketing, Kevin Breuner, hear what a true creatively talented professional has to say about the music business and the 2nd Annual CD Baby's DIY Musician Conference. Kevin's extensive background as a creative music talent, as well as an astute business talent, has given him an opportunity to pass along his storehouse of knowledge to those who have aspirations in the music industry, as well as professionals alike. He has a sincere love of his profession and a complete dedication to and passion for his craft...and it shows!
William Kelly Milionis: Kevin, I greatly appreciate this, it is indeed an honor and privilege chatting with you. Thank you for this interview opportunity. I know you have quite a lengthy outstanding career for what seems to be a relative youngster, if you will. [laughing]
Kevin Breuner: [hearty laughter] Well, if 42 years-old is young, then I'll take it.
Kelly: I've got a little bit more years on you. [more laughter] Congratulations on your extensive career and what you have done. I’d like to start at the beginning, with your musical background, did you come from a musical family?
Kevin: Yeah, my dad has always played and he's actually a very good accordion player. I grew up doing music in church, doing piano lessons, and I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 16, and then that’s when I decided that I wanted to go to college for music and to pursue music.
Kelly: Were you self-taught on the guitar?
Kevin: I took some lessons before I went to college and would probably characterize it as sort of unfocused; local guitar teacher lessons. I had taken piano for 8 years growing up so I already knew how to read music. When I started playing guitar, yeah, a lot of it was self-taught. When I went to college, I majored in guitar, which was a major butt kicking! [hearty laughter]
Kelly: Sure, and that's when you became involved in what would become the two-time GRAMMY Award-nominated and multi Dove Award-nominated contemporary Christian band, Smalltown Poets?
Kevin: Yes, yes. I was in college for 4 years and then one of my roommates in college was friends with those guys when they were in Atlanta. I went to Belmont University in Nashville, so I was in Nashville and they were in Atlanta. They had been guys that had been writing and recording music together ever since high school. And, after high school, they went to junior college in the Atlanta area and would spend their summers doing tours that they put together. So, they had just been out on the road, making it happen and had various versions of their band. Then, they were re-forming and looking for another guitar player and were starting Smalltown Poets. They were starting something new and that’s when I came onto the scene. They are all about 5 years older than me. They had been the road warriors making it happen, doing probably 100 shows a year while having jobs or going to school. They had been doing it full-time for a couple of years before I came into the picture. It was at that point when they re-formed the Smalltown Poets that they wanted to make a serious go of this, wanted to get the right chemistry, get the right people, change the band name, and start something new. That’s when it became Smalltown Poets. The first day I came for rehearsals, they were actually sending off a three song demo tape to record companies [laughing] so that dates me. [more laughing] So they were sending out demo tapes and there was some label interest just from some of the past things they had done. They had an indie label that had put out a previous album under a different band name. There were a few people who, it was on their watch list. We started playing bigger shows and by the end of that summer we were signed and that fall in the studio; at Ardent Recording Studios in Memphis with [GRAMMY Award-winning engineer and producer] John Hampton, who also produced the Gin Blossoms and a bunch of other great records [White Stripes, Replacements, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Travis Tritt]. I could probably go on for hours about what triggered our success, but it was just one of those things where a lot of things fell into the right place at the right time.
Kelly: You are the Vice President of Marketing at CD Baby. With your upcoming 2nd Annual CD Baby's DIY Musician Conference held in Chicago on September 30th through Sunday, October 2nd, at the Congress Plaza Hotel, you will be offering a Conference Session that will try to answer a question that poses a dilemma for many up-and-coming musicians, "Death to The Dayjob: Making the Transition From Hobbyist to Full-time Musician." Your career has played out just the opposite. At what point did you go from your full-time career in music to finding your way to CD Baby?
Kevin: [laughing] Yeah, it was interesting because we were definitely in the old school music business [model]. We had all the appearance of success in that we had album sales, GRAMMY Award nominations, Dove Award nominations, and all this kind of stuff, selling a lot records, but we were still broke because we were the last ones to get paid. So, it kind of became like a treadmill that was never going to end. So, we eventually went our own separate ways. We had families and things like that. At that time I kind of thought I was done with music and I moved up to the northwest because my wife is from up here. And, I just went through this period of reflection, "there has to be a better way for artists to do this than what's been happening." At the same time I was having those thoughts, I also went through this explosion of creativity. I had been on the road for three and a half years straight. I finally sat down in one place long enough and just started writing all this music I had never had before. I am not a lyric writer, I'm somebody that's always been a collaborator. I have some co-writes on the Smalltown Poets stuff, but I’ve always been a music collaborator...collaborating with other folks. At that time, I was reading articles and finding information about people just connecting directly with their fans and I also came across CD Baby, and it was like, “oh my gosh, this is amazing, every artist should use this." So I actually started using CD Baby as an artist before I worked here. I started working with other musicians here in town and had several different bands who were releasing music through CD Baby. In 2006, I thought, “ah, I might as well get a job there”. So, I got a job working here. What the Conference was birthed out of still goes back to my early days here at CD Baby because my job was to just answer the phone, help artists understand the music business, the distribution process. When I started working here in 2006, we had been delivering music to iTunes for two years; just having access to iTunes as an artist was mind blowing to people. I can really have my music in all these digital stores? So, I was talking to a lot of artists about how to promote themselves, basically just like an independent artist helpline is what it really was. So, I started a DIY Musician Podcast just because I wished I could have more conversations with people and just share some of the cool stories that I had heard, and interview folks and talk about how artists should go about pursuing their career in the new digital era. So, that podcast has been going since 2007. We still make episodes. So, the Conference was kind of an extension of that idea. We just want to get people together, let people hear success stories from other artists, their strategies, geared towards independent artists. A lot of the conferences out there are really not talking to artists. They will say they are, but they will get industry professionals who are bickering about royalty rates or talking about stuff that's in the weeds. It doesn't really help independent artists move their career forward. I am more than happy to listen to a head of SONY talk about the future of the music business, but at the end of the day that doesn't help me get 1000 more people on my email list, doesn't help me get better gigs, doesn't help me write better songs, or understand strategy to communicate who I am better. Those are the things that are important to independent artists that most conferences don't address. So, that's what we really want to focus in on with our Conference and make it something that is very actionable for the independent artist where they leave feeling like ‘I have lots of ideas and steps to take to go make better things happen.‘
Kelly: I have been a firm supporter of and have recommended CD Baby since it was founded by Derek Sivers in 1997. And, now you offer Disc Makers in the mix, and have the potential for great product to be released independently. So, that's huge. You put the independent artist into a situation where they can compete with the major labels and the bigger artists of the day. CD Baby has been a leader at the forefront of the industry since 1997. You have this 2nd Annual CD Baby's DIY Musician Conference coming up that actually began in Chicago last year. How did that go?
Kevin: Yes, last year was our first year in Chicago. And it went really well. It went far better than we ever could have imagined. You know, when you're launching a conference for the very first time you are unsure of what might happen. It ended up being an amazing event. I think the one thing that we all were talking about when it was over is just how much of a positive experience it was; a positive atmosphere; people were excited to meet one another; hang out with one another; it was just this weird wave of positivity. You never know what to expect when you put a bunch of people together. My biggest fear would be that everyone just cowers in the corner and doesn't communicate, doesn't enjoy themselves, doesn't get to know people, kind of like show up, listen and leave. But, it was this real community vibe and experience.
Kelly: We appreciate you bringing your 2nd Annual CD Baby's DIY Musician Conference back to Chicago. I know that you could take it anywhere else, but I know here in Chicago, we have quite a supportive infrastructure for music, and offer all different genres of music. Do you have success stories from last year's event that will be presented this year?
Kevin: Not in particular. We don't necessarily have a way to track those unless someone reaches out to us and says, “hey, I was at the conference and I learned this and now I am seeing this".
Kelly: Correct, somebody would reach out and say, "Thank you very much, I attended your Conference and this is what happened."
Kevin: I've heard a lot of stories of people saying, "I was there and it helped me immensely" and "I'm making things happen". I've seen that.
Kelly: What was the overall reason for choosing Chicago for your first CD Baby's DIY Musician Conference in 2015?
Kevin: Well, when we were looking at the map, trying to start a new Conference, we were trying to not interfere with some of the other conferences that are out there. We didn't want people to think we are just stomping on them because we support a lot of other conferences as well, sponsorship, attend and speak out, so we didn’t want to impose and just stomp on other peoples turf. We were looking at where is a place that doesn't have a lot of conferences, it's a big city that a lot of people can drive to and it's easy for people to get to. That's why Chicago came up as one of the places. It's been our goal from the beginning to take it on tour and travel it around. It won't be there forever, but it's were we've decided to start things off.
Kelly: I know there are many of us who appreciate you and what you do and your company and what it does and thank you for having your 2nd Annual CD Baby''s DIY Musician Conference in our City of Big Shoulders. You have quite a lineup of professional industry participants and timely panel sessions scheduled at your 2nd Annual CD Baby's DIY Musician Conference this year. The new music business model, or several of the new music business models, include sync licenses for Motion Picture and Television. You have the incomparable Music Supervisor Alexandra Patsavas who is a most incredibly fabulous get. Could you tell me a bit of your history with her and how she came about to be part of your Conference?
Kevin: We actually have no history with her, other than the fact of my interest in sync licensing. I actually used to pitch sync licensing for CD Baby way back in the day; pitching songs from our catalog. I just knew that she is pretty much THE top music supervisor in Hollywood. And, one of the goals with our Conference was to have diversity in topic, speaking to lots of diverse genres, and not just talking to pop artists, but also having better representation from women in the industry as well. So it’s been very important for us to have women leaders in the industry involved. Really, we just had this list of people we wanted to get, and she was on it, and just some random things came together. Turns out, she has family in Chicago and she was happy to come...so it worked out. Yeah, it was much easier than I expected it to be. And, yeah, I think it's going to be great.
Kelly: That's huge, sometimes all you have to do is ask. [chuckling]
Kevin: [chuckling] Yeah, yeah, it was like, yeah, I thought it was going to be this back and forth and really having to convince her and she’s like...oh yeah, I'll do it, I have family in Chicago. So she is going to use it as a trip to see her family. I'm hoping that artists understand the role of the music supervisor is somewhat hidden to a lot of people, unless you know the industry and how it works. They may not know how huge her role really is. I am hoping people understand what a big deal it is for them to come and listen to her speak to independent artists directly and hear from her. I don't know if she's going to have much time to hang out. I hope she does. I'm really excited about that. I am also super excited about Bob Boilen from NPR. Because, really the way we set the Conference up, and this is kind of a theme that came together, was sort of not consciously intentional, but sort of subconsciously came together, this year's conference we sort of pulled together things that we typically see driving artists’ big success. YouTube is one of them. So, we have some YouTube content. Sync licensing is another big thing that we see driving success. We have lots of sync licensing content, including Alexandra. Then, NPR is another one where we see an artist get featured on NPR and their sales go through roof. So, we just think that is cool how it ended up coming together. All these things we think are very impactful for independent artists are coming together. The conference is really oriented about getting artists thinking about those things.
Kelly: As you say, they are very impactful, especially for artists that may not know what to do next. Understanding how to use YouTube, understanding sync licensing, and working with NPR are all critical to an artist's success in the current music landscape. And, those are just a few of the industry segments featured during your Conference. Will the Conference offer artist performances?
Kevin: No, we are not. We are doing a live band makeover with Tom Jackson and there will be a live band for that. We're not. We did do a showcase last year, as part of the Conference, and it was sort of poorly attended and we had amazing artists playing. We looked at it and thought that we think part of the reason why was such a long day. By that time, people had been up since 8am and it's now closing out at midnight; that's a long day. So, we wanted to focus in on more of the content. We think that's what most people are interested in. However, looking at year #3, we are thinking about potentially creating more performance opportunities. We do have an open mic on Friday night at the Bottom Lounge. That was fantastic last year and I expect it to be just as fantastic this year.
Kelly: What would you want attendees to take away from this Conference this year?
Kevin: The one thing I always want them to take away is that there is so much opportunity in the current state of the music business. There are a lot of negative headlines out there, and you have to set them aside and look that we now live in a world where, if I write good songs, and I'm willing to hustle and put my music in front of the right people, I can build fans all on my own. I can build a career. I can make this music passion that I have into something that's bigger and exciting. It's all a matter of educating yourself and looking for opportunity and understanding what the opportunities are and taking advantage of it. There's plenty of music out there now. Nobody is thinking if only I had more music in my life. [laughing] There's plenty of music out there. I think the artists that continue to develop themselves as artists, and are in it for the long haul, and continue to push over time, that good things can happen because they have access to fans directly. It's understanding where those fans are. The strategy is to tap into those communities and find ways to think outside of the box that isn't represented by the mainstream media. Mainstream media is all about causing things to happen by sheer force of will and market force. By taking over the whole landscape and making people think that Adele is the only album that is available, or Beyonce, or somebody like that, where independent artists have the ability to slice and dice communities and get into the nooks and crannies where the mainstream media can't, it really builds die hard followings that want to support them. The idea that there is opportunity, in my mind, is something that I want people to walk away with in that they need to hustle and also, honestly that they need to be good musicians. It always frustrates me when I go to a conference and somebody talks about, "I'm not building any fans". Well, what's your twitter strategy. "I don’t have one." Well, if you don't have a Twitter strategy, you're not going to be anything. Well, I totally disagree with that. What I want artists to think is when they have compelling music and a compelling story about who they are, all those other things are just vehicles to get that message out. You can learn the ins and outs of how the vehicle of Twitter, or Facebook, or e-mail works, and be an expert at e-mail, but unless you have that artist story and music that is compelling, it's just wasted time.
Kelly: All it takes is one song to be successful!
Kevin: Yep, it's true! I've seen it happen! It's happened in my life! I've seen it happen in a lot of friends’ lives! I've seen some friends have one song that was such a hit that it has really propelled their career for years and years and years and never had another hit that big. So, it's one of those things that you know, that's the opportunity and the idea that it's not about how good you get at Twitter, it's about how good you are at writing music that is compelling, that draws people in, and to be able to communicate who you are as an artist that makes people want to follow along with what you are doing. That's the important thing.
Kelly: Any final thoughts before your 2nd Annual CD Baby's DIY Musician Conference 2016 opens on Friday, September 30th at Congress Plaza Hotel?
Kevin: The one thing right now is we are trying to get out the word in the local Chicago community. We haven't seen strong ticket sales from the local artists as we would hope going into year two. But, we've seen growth. Last year we had 12 countries represented, this year there's already 15. We had 44 states last year and we're at that same mark again this year. So, lots of people are coming from outside the US, outside Chicago. We're just trying to get the word out in Chicago that for the content, it’s going to be an amazing deal. The last thing I'll say about our Conference is that most conferences, and I speak at a lot of them, they have no direction or concern for what gets said. They are like, ok we’ve got these people, they'll talk about something. We've been very intentional with vetting the speakers, meeting with all of them, making sure that the content they deliver will be good and quality. That's something I am very proud of and so for a Chicago artist, the price is a steal. We are in this last final push, getting people there. Online tickets will end probably the week before the conference, but we will have ticket sales at the door.
For more information visit CD Baby's DIY Musician Conference online here and continue to check-in to Chicago Music Magazine for our continued coverage.
Kevin Breuner photo provided courtesy of CD Baby