Three members of the band Ella Riot (formerly My Dear Disco) came to my Introduction to Musicology / American Music course this morning and instead of my normal overview lecture on popular music we had a “fireside chat” about real life experiences in navigating the music industry. This was particularly exciting because Tyler Duncan (jazz studies), Bob Lester (Performing Art Technology), and Michelle Chamuel (Performing Art Technology / Voice) are graduates of the UMichigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance and had (in the case of Tyler and Michelle) taken this very course with me during their time on campus.(1) It’s certainly fantastic when alumni come back and share their success and even better when they remember their educational experiences as a positive force in their careers. (Ella Riot is in part named after Ella Fitzgerald who is one of Michelle’s inspirations and a jazz vocalist we discussed in class alongside Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan!)
What I want to discuss here and, indeed, what the class session was about is what has helped these musicians succeed. We hear a lot of bad news today about the career potential of music, and our guests affirmed that things are indeed “tough.” Yet Ella Riot is an example of musicians doing what they do for a growing audience while staying true to their artistic convictions. The three are by any measure a success and thus a model for all.
The key to Ella Riot’s success, at least from my vantage point, is passion. They love what they do, so much and so completely, that they worked for two years writing music and building a local audience through whatever gigs they could get. Since they were still in school at this point, they put every cent earned into a shared band account that reinvested in their future. They didn’t spend it on pizza and beer. They immediately saw themselves as a unified business, a band rather than a bunch of independent musicians.
Ella Riot love what they do so much that they worked ’round the clock upon graduation, not just writing and recording songs for their first full album, but learning about and writing a business plan. When their demo tapes arrived on the desk of potential agents it stood out. Sure the music was great, but a lot of bands have a solid demo. However, not many bands have a business plan, and that distinguished Ella Riot from their competitors. A business plan tells an agent that this group is going places and understands the game, that this band is worth an agent’s time and promotion budget, that these musicians will pay a return on investment. The same, of course, would be true for an aspiring conductor, composer, countertenor, or string quartet. Write a business plan.
Ella Riot loves what they do so much, that in the midst of an upcoming 3-week album release tour they’ll play a late show in Dayton, pack up, catch a few winks, drive nine hours, unpack, and put on another high energy show in Huntsville. Through all this, they’ll make great music, connect with fans, update their Twitter, Myspace, and Facebook accounts, etc., etc. Michelle will give dozens of interviews about the group’s name change, each time refining her presentation because making a personal connecting with fans is vital.(2) And if the audio technicians at the next venue tell they there’s no time for a soundcheck, as Bob puts it “We’ll kill ‘em with kindness. Smile so big that they can’t help but get excited about what we’re doing and help us succeed.” They’ll get a sound check. Their enthusiasm and commitment to what they do is infectious. And this makes their network of friends and supporters more powerful. Who you know is still vital, Tyler admits. They used connections to get jobs and their recent video was shot for about $3700, while the lighting equipment they borrowed should have cost them 10 grand alone. Yet a network is not just a lot of friends, but friends who act on your behalf. Ella Riot’s infectious energy and tenacity in making something really special happen inspires belief in others and, in turn, action.
Michelle, Bob, & Tyler offered lots of great advice (read the book Tour:Smart by Martin Atkins), make the music that you love and that find a way to bring out the qualities that make your voice special, if you try to do something commercial that’s false to your art, it’ll fail, do Twitter and Facebook updates yourself and in ways that really strive to communicate with your fans (if you do it’ll get interesting to both you and your fans).
It was fantastic to have Ella Riot visit Musicology 140; I’m proud to know them as my students. What about their efforts strikes you as special? What is key to their success?
(1) Ella Riot drummer Mike Shea (percussion performance) is also a U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance graduate.
(2) As the band brainstormed new names they initially settled on “Bella Riot” [Beautiful Riot] before choosing “Ella Riot.” Because the tale of their name change (confusion with the Australian band “My Disco” and continual explanations that they were not a disco cover band) gets too so very long when it includes all the alternatives they leave this part out — you heard it hear though!