An Interview with Jonah Smith – HuffPost 8.20.09

Singer-songwriter Jonah Smith has many extremely loyal fans. Make that “friends” who went out of their way to contribute hard earned cash to fund Jonah’s newly released album,Lights On. This may not seem all that unusual given the need to improvise because of the shape of today’s withering music business. But while most of his contemporaries have the fantasy of signing the bottom line of a label contract, Jonah, instead, has rejected a record company’s offer, and has taken on many of that machine’s responsibilities himself. Actually, a better way of putting that would be he’s tinkering with the self-promotion process enthusiastically, as he also is helping to establish a community of musicians and technicians–especially through his YouTube channel–to foster a spirit of cooperation that can breed success for all involved.

Mike Ragogna: Given the experience you’ve had so far, would you advise other artists to try fan-funding their next projects?

Jonah Smith: I think that this is becoming a very viable model for acts that are not quite baby acts, but those that are somewhat or totally developed and free, like Radiohead who can do whatever they want.

MR: In Los Angeles, the late Ricky Nelson’s son Sam has a band called H Is Orange. He turned to fans to fund the group’s live disc that was pressed up and sent to contributors for free while the remainder was sold online and at concerts. Kristin Hersh from Throwing Muses has her fans pay for a “membership” that funds singles and giveaways, and Ellis Paul also fan-funded his recent release. Can you think of any others who might be taking this route?

JS: I’ve heard of a few artists that have done this in the past, most notably, Jill Sobule, which is where I got the idea from. Josh Freese is a pretty well-known drummer who’s doing the same thing. Erin McKeown also is fan-funding by hosting a streaming internet TV show from her cabin in the woods where she invites musical friends to join her on performances. It’s subscription based, and she invited me to perform with her in her first episode.

MR: Speaking of artists, who are some of your favorites and who influenced your music?

JS: I grew up really loving Little Feat, Lowell George, and Bonnie Raitt. I also have a real deep love of old soul music and souls singers like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, all the old Stax stuff, Ann Peebles, Rufus Thomas, Irma Thomas…these are the people I grew up loving. I feel like somehow, hopefully, the worlds of a John Prine, Malcolm Holcombe, or John Hiatt, and the worlds of Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, and Marvin Gaye are meshed into my music.

MR: Though it seems it’s the lyrics that drive Lights On.

JS: I’m really focused on lyrics, whereas soul music isn’t always focused on that, it’s more about feel. But as a singer, I relate more to soul music and I enjoy singing it a lot.

MR: Your previous label made an offer for you to make a follow-up record to Jonah Smith, but you passed. What made you decide to go independent instead of releasing another album with Relix?

JS: We were in meetings, and I was making demos and playing them for Relix. They loved them, but they were kind of fearful of where the music business was heading, and they really wanted to re-structure our contract and put all these things in it. Basically, what it came down to was I told them, “I’m ready to make a record right now,” and they were saying how they weren’t quite ready. I said to myself, “Why am I waiting around? I know what I want to do…it’s time to make a record.” I had some money saved up from the touring and private shows I’d done, and decided I’d do it myself. So I told them, “Look, I’m going to go out on my own.”

MR: And then came the reality check of actually having to put it all together. What were the mechanics behind funding the record?

JS: My webmaster Dave Beatie built a website specifically for what we called The Lights On Fund which laid out various incentives for my fans to donate, and it explained my cause. They were able to donate through PayPal, and some people paid by sending me checks, or a lot of people just donated services and goods. One person donated her legal expertise and fees, I had a road case made up for my piano by a fan in Ohio who has a company named LM Cases, and graphics, web and merchandise designs also were donated.

MR: How quickly did you get enough money for the project?

JS: In under two months, I raised over fifteen thousand, and that was just cash, not including the other stuff.

MR: So now you have to make that record and you hired your producer. How did that come together?

JS: Talking with friends of mine–Carrie Rodriquez and Sonya Kitchell–they both just finished working with Malcolm Burn and they recommended him. My old manager sent him my records, so he was aware of me and interested in our working together. We started talking on the phone and he seemed really understanding of the independent musician’s plight. Most of the time, he works with major label artists, but he seemed really sympathetic to what I was trying to do. He gave me what I thought was a really great deal, and he enabled me to make this record on a professional level for an independent budget.

MR: How did folks react when they heard the completed project?

JS: When it was finished, the first record people I played the album for said it sounded like a hundred thousand dollar record.

MR: Sometimes people think, because you’re using Pro Tools, it costs almost nothing to record an album.

JS: Yeah, well, I had a producer on board plus strings and horns and a lot of musicians, like three different drummers. That’s a lot of people to pay. And there’s mixing and mastering…it adds up, that’s for sure.

MR: How much did it actually cost?

JS: Thirty thousand dollars, which is expensive, but it’s all relative. I like to think it sounds even more expensive!

MR: Obviously, because you’ve chosen an independent route, the business and promotion side of things can get tricky. Is anyone advising you or is it just you calling the shots?

JS: I would say that I do the bulk of everything myself and my manager helps me out a lot. We just started working together, so at this point, he’s just focusing on the details of getting the record out, getting it distributed and helping to plan things with my agent for shows. We’re trying to book national tours, all that stuff. When you’re putting out a record, there’s a lot that comes across your desk that has to be dealt with in a professional and timely manor.

MR: Jack Hardy used to mentor artists like Suzanne Vega and Bob Hillman that resulted in a small circle of acts that supported everyone in the group’s projects. What about employing cooperative activities, like creating a synergy with other independent artists in your position?

JS: Yeah, actually, I am. About three or four months ago, I had this idea to start a YouTube channel, and I call it The Cumberland Loft Sessions. Basically, I pick a couple songwriters that I like and invite them over to my place and we learn each other’s tunes. We tape it, putting on a concert with each other’s tunes, the idea behind it being to help foster a community of local musicians. As a musician, I spend a lot of time on my own just writing the songs, working on music, practicing… A lot of time’s (spent) on the road away from family and friends, and so, sometimes, you feel like you’re really not part of a community. When I’m home, I try to do this to foster a community, but also, I want to expose my fans to other songwriters who I think are really great. Hopefully, it’s also vice-versa, with their fans getting exposed to me, and that should help widen all of our fan bases.

MR: How many Cumberland concerts have you taped?

JS: I’ve done three of those, they’re on YouTube, and they look and sound really great. For this recent one, the “Season Finale,” I stepped it up a little bit by inviting more guests. I added an extra camera, multi-tracked the entire session, and then I expanded the group of people working on the project to include several mix engineers. In addition to bringing together a community of musicians, I also wanted to include a community of technicians to be a part of the experience and help bring the project to life.

MR: You’re also funding this yourself, so doesn’t it get expensive to make a Cumberland Loft session?

JS: Well, I have a lot of the equipment here. I provide all of the musical equipment, amps, PA system, and I have a professional videographer who volunteers his time, equipment and energy, and I have another volunteer that’s a professional video editor. We usually do a three-camera shoot, then take the footage and edit it into one. I also have a professional mixer who does the audio for me, and it’s amazing how people in the community will come together for the sake of something cool. Honestly, if I had to pay everyone for all of these things, I would never be able to do it.

MR: How will you judge your success with this record?

JS: My intentions with music from the very beginning were never to be a gigantic star and make billions of dollars. I don’t have very much interest in fame, although I know fame goes part and parcel with trying to get music out to as many people as possible. But I’d be perfectly happy if my music was more famous than me. Everyone wants to have money and security, but I’ve never really cared about being rich, I’m treating this all like a small business, like a mom and pop operation. If I can keep building it and keep the fans that I have and turn them into hardcore fans, add to that base and continue to grow, I’m going to feel really good about what I’ve been able to achieve.

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