An interview with me on Virgin Disruptors: why I released my earnings data and what else I want from streaming services.
Tune into a live debate on these topics with me, will.iam, Imogen Heap, Amanda Palmer, Scooter Braun, Songkick, Vevo and Spotify…on Oct 28th at 11am Pacific Time (1pm EST/7pm GST) at Virgin Disruptors.
I usually save my blog for music issues. This isn’t a music issue but everything is connected. That sense that the world is falling apart, that we can’t get our sh*t together…it affects me. So I’m going to self-indulgently vent…and then go write some angst-filled music.
Here’s the story.
On Oct 14, I got a letter from the USPS stating that our post office is again under study for permanent closure. I say “again” because the Camp Meeker post office was on a national closure list in 2011 but after a six month feasibility study and lots of public comment, the USPS spared us in 2012 and said it would remain open but with reduced hours.
My neighbors and I have been fighting closure of the post office because it has one feature that makes it very important to our lives: it is the only place you can get your mail.
Camp Meeker is an old town from the 1880‘s and it is dense, with 350 houses packed into less than a square mile. The USPS, for historical reasons unknown to me, won’t deliver mail to any of the houses. Instead, every resident is assigned a free PO Box and picks up mail in a dilapidated trailer. The trailer was installed as temporary structure 40 years ago, across the street from the semi-collapsed remains of the previous post office built in 1906.
There are no other businesses in town. There used to be hotels, a grocery store and even a bowling alley, but everything burned down or closed in the middle of the last century. So the dirty old postal shack is it.
It might be ugly, but it’s all we’ve got. It’s a place to run into your neighbors and there is a bulletin board to advertise free kittens and the local supper club. But mostly, it is where we get the mail. I wonder how many communities of the size and density of Camp Meeker not only have no post office but no mail delivery whatsoever?
I’m sure the the USPS thinks we don’t generate enough money to justify staying open. I’d argue (if they’d let me argue with them) that the primary purpose of our particular post office is that it is THE ONLY place to pickup mail, because they refuse to deliver it. But also, the USPS have only themselves to blame for their lack of revenue.
I run a small business. When I initially moved here I made a point of supporting the local post office. Every day I would mail all my CDs from the shack even though they had no digital system and clerks had to add up amounts on the back of an envelope, which meant there was no itemized receipt, mistakes were made and it took forever. I asked if maybe a digital system could be installed? No money for that, was the response.
Mailing things overnight is something I had to do pretty often, but because the pickup time here is late, you couldn’t actually use the USPS overnight service. The clerks wouldn’t even sell overnight delivery to me, because they knew the package wouldn’t actually get to it’s destination on time.
The post office never had any supplies to purchase like tape and was often out of priority mail boxes because the postmaster at the time had to use a computer to order them and he himself said he was afraid to use one. I’m not making this up. So, to buy tape, or a box or send something overnight I would drive 10 miles to the nearest UPS franchise.
Eventually I got fed up and outsourced all my mailing to my dear sister in Vermont. We still visited the post office every day though to pick up the mail.
I say “visited” because in June the post office closed without warning. We got home from Europe to find a handwritten note posted on the door.
"The post office is closed until further notice due to a sewage leak. This is a Haz Mak situation. All mail to be picked up at the Occidental post office until further notice"
(yes is it said “Haz Mak”)
In an attempt to find out what had happened, our neighbor and Camp Meeker Park and Recreation board member Tony Tominia called and spoke with various officials in several USPS departments.
Tony talked in early July to Ken Boyd, a USPS manager in San Diego. Mr Boyd said the Occidental postmaster reported that the creek had backed up into the septic tank and then overflowed onto the postal trailer floor. The postmaster told Mr Boyd that human feces were on the floor of the trailer. Hearing this, Mr Boyd made the decision to close the post office.
There is a wee flaw in this story: it’s summer in California and the creek is, literally, a trickle. Even in the wettest part of winter though, for the entire history of Camp Meeker, the creek has never come anywhere near the building. And, the postal shack doesn’t have a septic tank. It has a camp toilet.
Again, I’m not making this up.
The USPS hired an outside company to investigate the overflow, and also to test some mold on the outside of the trailer that the postmaster said was causing respiratory problems in everyone who worked there (like I said, this place is classy) . The forensics company determined that the liquid on the floor was water from a nearby sink and that the mold on the outside of the trailer was omnipresent in Camp Meeker and not harmful.
Mr Boyd told Tony that as soon as he received the paperwork to finalize the findings, which he expected in a few days, the Camp Meeker post office would be immediately reopened.
A couple days later, Tony met with the postmaster who had reported the sewage, Jeannie Ramirez. She said that her real reasons for instigating the closure of the post office was not sewage but because her employees were complaining of respiratory issues from the mold and refused to work in the trailer. In other words, she lied.
What is curious about this is that I talked to one of her former employees, who was actually laid off along with another employee. She said that neither she, nor anyone else complained about respiratory problems or mold. So did Ms Ramirez lie about that too?
You’d think if the postmaster was so concerned about her employees exposure to mold that she might try get rid of the mold? But rather than take 1hr to scrub the mold off the outside of the trailer, or hire someone to do it, she preferred to inconvenience an entire community by closing their post office for more than four months.
I couldn’t figure out anyone’s motives until I looked online at the USPS regulations. Closing a post office takes months of procedure and public input, unless there is a safety issue with the postal facility. If there is a safety issue the USPS can close a post office immediately. Interesting.
Anyway, the post office remained closed. Weeks later Tony wrote to postmaster Ramirez, USPS managers Tony Carvelli and Eddie Masangcay, and Diana Alverado of USPS property management requesting an updated plan and timeline, along with an update to the sign on the post office door so that the public wasnt misled.
No one responded to the questions although the “Haz Mak” sign on the door of the post office was taken down and he got a call from Tony Carvelli
“Tony Carvelli called me. He expressed his displeasure with me sending emails to his superiors stating he had no plan or timeline. I asked him what his plan was. He replied he could not form a plan till he figures out what is wrong with the trailer. I asked him his plan for determining what is wrong with the trailer. He said he was trying to figure that out as well. I told him based on that, I would continue to report that there is no plan and no timeline.”
A couple weeks later, on the suggestion of a local boy scout, Sebastopol’s Wolf Pack 128, Den 2 Cub Scouts retired the flag at Camp Meeker’s post office since it had remained flying outside all this time.
That was in August. Fast forward to 3 days ago when we got a letter from the postal service notifying us that another feasibility study is being conducted to see if permanent closure is possible. The letter stated that if residents wish to make comments they should attend a meeting next week on Oct 23 at the Occidental Post Office, at the rather inconvenient time of 5pm.
Jim Wigdel, s USPS public relations official, told our neighbor Tony that business had dropped off, so the status of the Camp Meeker post office is again up for review.
Um, yeah. It is hard to do any business when you’re CLOSED.
Since the post office closed, I’ve made sure to have all packages delivered directly to my house via UPS or FexEx. I’ve done this not just because I’m crazy and like to have mail delivered to my HOUSE, but because I don’t have the greatest confidence in the sorting abilities of the Occidental post office. Two packages addressed to me since the closure never arrived. They had tracking on them, and the USPS tracking says they arrived at the Occidental post office and were “delivered”. Delivered to whom? I’ve also received several letters in my mail pile that were addressed to someone else and had more than a few letters addressed to me returned to sender because they were addressed to my street address rather than PO Box.
I try to let everyone know about my PO Box, but occasionally a client will send something to my street address. In the past, clerks at the Camp Meeker office had a master list on the wall to match up names and street addresses with PO Boxes. If someone addressed a letter to my street I would still get it. However, now we get our mail in Occidental and postmaster Ramirez says that regulations require her to return such mail to sender. As a result I’ve tried to change all my bills and deposits to electronic. I can’t help but wonder how much of the drop off in business is due to other people doing the same? How much of the revenue drop is due to the USPS driving away their customers?
Apparently our expectations of anything Federal are so low that we no longer expect mail to be delivered, and the only employment opportunity in town - a single part-time job at $10 an hour with no benefits - is too extravagant an expense .
Off to make angst-filled music.
Last night I went to a World Economic Forum meeting in San Francisco. Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder and chairman, was soliciting topics for the annual meeting in Davos. He’s an inspiring and clearly beloved figure and listened with eagerness and curiosity to everything everyone had to say. Present were local Economic Forum members (academics and executives from the key companies in Silicon Valley), Young Global Leaders (that’s the under-40 group I’m in) and a younger group called the Global Shapers.
The conversations were about the world economy as a whole but I couldn’t help applying what was said directly to the music industry.
“If you don’t know what’s going on, you develop a negative attitude about it" said Professor Schwab, and an executive from Salesforce commented that when people don’t have faith in the future, they act on fear. I thought both statements rather neatly explained the stance of the RIAA over the last decade.
Later, Professor Schwab said “a business should not only be accountable to its shareholders, but also to its employees & society" and also when Mitchell Baker from Mozilla said that resilient economies need to keep risks and rewards tied (actually I can’t remember if she said economies, companies or systems…but they all work). These statements led me to thinking about flaws in the digital music economy.
In years past, records were costly to produce and the artistic risk of each artist was linked directly to the financial risk of their record label. For all the problems of that industry, both parties needed needed each other and with success reaped their respective rewards.
Today, marvelous as they are as a discovery platform, it’s true that there is no risk at all to digital music services if an artist’s music is not wildly popular. In the case of YouTube, they reap their reward by selling advertising against the art of thousands and thousands of artists. A niche artist’s inability to attract bizillions of eyeballs will not affect these companies one bit. Modest success reaps little financial reward for individuals in this ecosystem. Yet no individual artist has the leverage to negotiate for a higher percentage of advertising revenue or has a say in what kind of ads are slapped on their art. Google is not accountable to us. I’m doing fine, but I might be an anomaly because so many of my peers are not, and that bugs me. What can I do about it? What’s next?
Anyway, it was an interesting evening and I thrive on this stuff. I haven’t attended many WEF events but would like to go to more.
The first year I was nominated into the Young Global Leaders I was a new mom and funds were tight. Attending a meeting of YGLs in China with my nursing son seemed outrageous and totally out of the question. I don’t have to bring him with me anymore but meetings still happen in mostly far-flung (to me) locales like India. Of course, I do travel for tours all the time but I have concerts there to pay for it. And truthfully, as interested and engaged as I like to be regarding world events… it’s not clear most of the time what the heck my role as an artist is at the WEF.
I’m used to being a fish out of water, and reveling in it, but I’ve yet to figure out how to be myself in the context of the WEF. That bugs me too.
Yes, there are music economy issues that I would love to discuss with the incredible braintrust of larger minds in the WEF community. But at the same time, I’m an artist first and minor thinker and commentator second. Artists are inherent outsiders. My value to a group like the WEF is to hold on to that otherness, and not to try too hard to fit in.
(Idea: The “World Artists Forum”, an annual meeting of artists where we invite business leaders to play music, dance and paint with us.)
I always go when the meetings are local, like last night. No one has ever asked me to perform, but I’ve offered. Playing music is my most effective way to contribute. I’ve performed at enough brainy ideas gatherings to see how necessary a musical “break” is. We need time to allow our brains to digest what we’ve heard and give ourselves some space to come up with new ideas. A musical break is perfect for this (Andrew Zolli nails this every year in his curation of the Pop!Tech conference, well worth attending). There is nothing like the lightening bolt of art to make you think outside the box, and boy could the world use some out of the box thinking.
A polar explorer, who’s name I didn’t catch, made a comment I took to heart, “Leadership is a mindset. How can we get every person to think like a leader?”. Although people often look to me to be a leader, I’m not a natural one and I certainly don’t think like one. I’m a maverick maybe, but not a leader. So I challenge myself to lead my way out of this conundrum before my 5 year term as a YGL is up.
Now I’m home and struck again by the juxtapositions in my life. Last night in a 5 star hotel banquet room I dined on sushi with venture capitalists, executives and academics. Back home, my “town” isn’t officially a town but is an unincorporated cluster of 300 houses packed into a single square mile in the woods. The only business is a post office, in a delapidated trailer installed to be temporary in the 1970’s and that has been closed for 6 months because of a leaking toilet. My husband just loaded all our monthly garbage into the car to take it to the dump and tonight there is a town meeting about how on earth to rustle up the 20k needed to build the only playground for miles around. We are better off than most of the world but it certainly doesn’t feel like the bubble of privilege people kept referencing last night.
“For a life full of learning, be like a child. Be curious. Always let new things pique your interest. ” - Klaus Schwab
Shout out to Drue Kataoka, a visual artist and fellow YGL. She spoke about Silicon Valley’s strength coming from intersection of arts and technology, the unacknowledged role arts education has played in many careers and the need to add arts back into STEM (turn STEM into STEAM, she said). Yes. That. She was an inspiration to talk to and I felt more at home being there because she was there too. Thank you Drue.
By the way, last week I played cello with Thomas Dolby, Dan Hicks, Narada Walton and Don Was. It was a blast. Go see Mr Dolby’s live scored performance of his film The Invisible Lighthouse this next month if you can.
If you’ve been following me for a while you know my “studio” isn’t really a studio. It’s a spare bedroom in the house. This room is somewhat less than ideal at about 11ft by 10ft, with a 7ft ceiling and a beam at 6’6” that I keep whacking things on (like the scroll of my cello). Low frequency buildup anyone?
Our house is an upside-down house, perched on stilts on the slope of a hill, with the kitchen, bathroom and living room upstairs and the bedrooms downstairs. Built 100 years ago as a summer cabin, the house was uninsulated with all the rooms covered in thick redwood paneling: floors, ceiling and walls. Until last year, when we insulated the downstairs walls and finished them in sheetrock, my studio would be cold and damp. I had an electric panel heater on 24/7, not to make it warm but to keep the humidity below 100%. WIthout the heat, paper would curl and my cello bridge would warp.
It’s my own space and it’s in MY house, which I still find amazing, but it has been more than a little challenging to record music in. It got even harder when my son was born and now that his play area is over my head.
Meanwhile, I’ve been saving up to build a freestanding studio. I knew I’d get there, just like I saved to buy my lovely new cello in 2007. Every new commercial licensing project gets me several steps closer. The downstairs insulation job was paid for thanks to a Jeep ad, a pair of IBM spots paid for the new roof and my new studio will be constructed thanks to Chrysler SRT.
I don’t solicit these things, they seem to fall out of the sky, and I don’t know if ad agency music supervisors have any idea what a difference they make in my life. Thank you! Thank you for making the house warm and for making the construction of a recording studio a reality rather than a pipe dream.
I’ve found someone to build it and now I’m reading everything I can about acoustics and gathering input from people who know about these things. So if you know anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area who might have good advice on how best to construct a room to record cello in, will you send them my way? Thank you!!
I have a private gig in Cincinnati in late October. Rather than fly straight home, I would like to play a few concerts. So…where should I go? Since you’re the ones I want to play for, I’m going to ask you!
Here is a list of cities in the region that I’ve either never or rarely visited. Some of them are North-ish and some of them are South-ish. If you would really come to see me perform in any of these cities, vote and then we’ll crowdsource a week long October tour.
This is still a work-in-progress so thank you for doing this experiment with me. I hope to play near you sooner rather than later.
P.S. If you have a reasonable suggestion for a city not on this list, please enter it. By reasonable, I mean a place no more than 500 miles from Cincinnati ;-) We’ll do something like this again for the rest of North America.
P.P.S. If you haven’t already, you might want to make sure you’re on my mailing list so that you’ll know when I have a concert in your ‘hood.
I contributed some advice to this article put together by Ariel Hyatt: “52 Female Music Entrepreneurs Share Their Best Advice (part 1)”
I meant to just post the link but, as usual, there are always more things to say.
I think I was 8 when I first realized that girls are often treated differently than boys. We had just moved to England and at my new school I wasn’t allowed to play soccer, I had to wear a skirt and on Friday afternoons had to learn embroidery with the other girls. Minor stuff in comparison to what girls in the developing world have to endure but it was a bitter pill for a tomboy and I raged against it.
I’ve experienced my share of harassment: flashed by disgusting old men and groped on crowded buses. I always found the most effective way to protect myself was to laugh loudly at them and walk away. Now I’m older and no longer as interesting to lecherous old geezers but I find I still have to come up with creative solutions to overcome the entrenched attitudes and biases of sexism in my professional life.
In college we had classes on self-defence and how to carry ourselves in the streets of New York, but nothing prepared me for the daily negotiation of being a woman in a man’s world. Do you protest and illuminate every slight? Do you let things go? What’s the best way to both change the status quo and enable your own personal success?
Another anecdote: I spent my 18th summer, between freshman and sophomore year, working at the car parts factory in my hometown. On my first day the hiring manager was extremely surprised to discover I was female. I’d come recommended by a friend who worked there but the manager had misread my name on the application as “Joe”.
I got the distinct impression the first week that they were trying to make me quit but I was damned if I was going to show any weakness. They put me in charge of 2 massive lathe machines. I had to hoist a heavy, rough-cut Ford Mustang steel wheel spindle into the lathe, lock it in place, heave the door shut and press the start button. There was no time to rest because in the minute it took for the lathe to grind down the spindle, I had to get another one into the identical machine on the other side of me. I did this for 8 hours a day, from 3pm until 11pm. As a non-union worker I couldn’t refuse overtime and often would have to work until 1 or 2 am if there was an extra pallet of spindles to work through, which there usually was.
There were 7 women in the entire factory of several hundred and as far as I could tell, I was the only one with a physically demanding job. The rest stood at a conveyor, wearing lead aprons and looking for cracks in the steel parts on xray machines, which in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t have to do. Men would come by my work station and stand there staring at and making comments about my derriere as I bent over to pick up spindles off the pallet. After a few days on the job the foreman came over and presented me with a baggy worksuit to put on because they claimed my jeans were too distracting to the other workers. In the break room I learned there was a betting pool on how long I would last.
I didn’t mind the job though. I preferred it to waitressing, the pay was good and I somewhat enjoyed the mindless physical repetition, knowing that it would be only three months before I could return to my collegiate paradise outside NYC. I took great pride in finishing my work, in pretending not to notice when the men whistled and in being the nicest, coolest college student anyone had ever met. Eventually people started treating me normally, or at least normal for a factory environment….they treated me like one of the guys.
Going forward, this became my modus operandi for being female in the tech and music industries: to be one of the guys. To do this and be considered equal, I have to work twice as hard, I have to be thorough, I have to carefully craft my position on issues to be unassailable, I have to be cool enough to drink beer with. In short, I have to be perfect.
I had a conversation once with a major label radio marketing guy once that really stuck with me. He was frustrated that he couldn’t get a particular female artist on the radio because, he said, there was already another female artist with a new album out. He claimed radio stations didn’t want to have more than 2 female singers in a 20 minute period because young men might change the channel. He then went on to say that this artist needed to get a radio hit before her 30th birthday, or it would be nigh impossible to break her. Was he making that up? Is all that…crap…really true? I don’t know, but the fact that he even thought so was shocking to me.
I didn’t want to be any part of an industry that forces women to use sex to sell their music, pits them against each other and then throws them away after their 30th birthday. But even when you’re DIY these attitudes can seem unavoidable. Over the last few years, during the time I’ve been considered “successful” I’ve had a publicist, a booking agent and a management firm all, separately, decline to work with me because they claimed they already worked with a solo female cellist or violinist and couldn’t possibly have more than one.
Also I have to say, the recent insistence that musicians focus on making a living touring rather than selling music has, to me, a tiny whiff of sexism. I can’t speak to what touring is like for young men, but whether I leave the family at home or bring them with me, touring as a mother is very, very hard. I choose to focus on making and selling music, thank you very much. Choice.
I’ve used little strategies to get around the tiny biases. For example, I can get more favorable licensing terms by having a client negotiate via email with my pseudonymous male manager “Marc”. Or, on the occasion I’ve been made to sound like a viola onstage, I smile and subtly demonstrate that I understand acoustics by cheerfully mentioning to the soundman how quirky the cello is, that its lowest note is 65hz and that the notch for my resonant frequency should be very narrow because rolling off everything below 160hz will make a cello sound like a viola. Or, prevented by drinking laws from bringing my still-nursing 6 month old into my dressing room (where I needed to nurse him to sleep before going onstage), I just snuck him into the venue under my coat.
But in the end, I don’t tend to dwell on sexism in the music industry. Yes, it exists. It sucks. But things don’t change overnight and I think we’re getting there. Attitudes about what women can and can’t do improve because women are here, doing their thing alongside the men. Lately my husband has experienced the flip-side of sexism as a stay-at-home-dad and has nutty stories to match mine. I’ll wager that as more men experience this, things will change even faster ;-) So yeah, occasionally I will rage and fume against a perceived injustice but in the end I just smile, carry on and find another way around. We’ll get there.
to shape it.