In June of 2001, Vienna Teng printed 1000 copies of her first CD and dutifully trudged off to sell it to audiences in San Francisco Bay-area coffeehouses and open mics. By the following summer, she had signed with a small record label, recorded with a well-known Nashville producer, and quit a lucrative day job. Less than six months later, her songs were on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” and she played Letterman. She signed with Rounder Records this year.
Tell me how you got where you are.
I put out my first CD, “Waking Hour” in June of ’01. The release party was in my old college dorm, and I think there were like twenty people there. I made the rounds of coffeehouses and open mics, and put the CD up on CDBaby and signed it up for Amazon’s Advantage program. Then I sent it to some of the sites that will review unsolicited music.
In April of 2002, I was contacted by Michael Tarlowe at Virt Records. He wanted to meet with me and talk about working together.
Uh, you mean Michael just approached you cold?
Yeah. He was actively recruiting new artists at the time. He found me on CD Baby and he’d seen positive reviews of my CD online. We met in San Francisco and talked it through, then he offered me a contract. I went back and forth for a while before I signed.
I decided that if “Waking Hour” was going to be re-released, I wanted to re-track three of the songs for AAA radio, including “The Tower.” Michael put me in touch with a few producers, and I ended up working with David Henry in Nashville. The re-release of the album meant that I would have to tour to support it. Michael asked me how much time I’d be able to take off work, but I’d already burned my vacation time on the Nashville trips. I gave notice at Cisco and left that August.
The time between August and the November re-release was mildly terrifying. I was working full time on music with no idea how to go about it – doing all of those things that an artist without a manager has to do. I had to figure out how to book myself, how to make and distribute a press kit, how to work with the label.
What happened next?
Virt landed me a spot on the front page of the entertainment section of the San Jose Mercury News. Their angle was that a successful computer programmer was leaving a great job in order to do music full time. That article generated interest from NPR, and they aired a Morning Edition segment on me in January. Somebody at Letterman heard the spot and called Virt – I played Letterman a week later.
What’s most important for an indie musician who wants a go at the big time?
Michael was attracted to my work because he saw a strong response from people. I was playing coffeehouses and selling five to fifteen CDs nightly. People liked what they heard, and he reckoned that with a bigger audience one could expect the same result. The indication that an artist is willing to work hard and work smart is also positive.
In many ways, I went about it backwards because I recorded an album before I played shows. But recordings are important. If you make a good recording that people want to have, and they can download mp3s, it’s a good thing. Making a good recording is worth investing in.
Our career paths all look different, but what do they have in common?
Everybody starts differently. You might earn fans through relentless touring, or radio promotion, or people sending your mp3s around on the Internet, but eventually you’re going to have to plug into the conventional system and work with a booker and publicist.
Anything unusual is a plus. I play the piano, and that’s a little rarer than the guitar. The press needs a hook, too – not just good music.
How should a beginner start out?
Before anything else, you should decide what you really want, why you want it, and what you’re willing to do to get there. Your definition of success has a lot to do with your day to day.
Tell me about that.
Well, it influences what kind of opportunities you pursue. I’d decided I’d be happy if I could just make a living and tour a bit in medium-sized theaters. I started playing coffeehouses and open mics – small audiences of ten people that grew to twenty. If you were intending your songs to be played in house music clubs or if you fronted a punk band, you’d have a different approach.
Work on your music, make a recording, start playing live, become as good a musician and songwriter as you can. Making a recording is crucial because of the exposure that the Internet can get you. Home recordings can sound very cool – you don’t have to spend a lot of money. But definitely make a recording that is representative of what you do. Then put it out there – MySpace, download sites, and even if it’s minimalist, create your own website. That’s your business card.