As a writer, I had a weird conceit about musicians for a while. I tended to think of the music industry as I would the class system in a dystopian novel: There’s an incredibly rich, out-of-touch ruling elite presiding over sub-minimum wage plebeians. What middle class does exist is comprised solely of ever-scheming social climbers.
That’s not the most sympathetic perspective, but two years of writing for MTV.com and six years of watching open mics for musicians in Brooklyn had warped my view. As I hung around musicians, I kept dismissing their art and their struggles as petty and hopeless—especially when compared to the writer’s experience.
In June, however, I covered What The Festival, a Burning Man-lite music and arts fest outside of Portland, Ore., and after talking to musicians like Natasha Kmeto, a Portland-based singer and producer, I was embarrassed to learn there’s not too much of a difference between working musicians and working writers.
Kmeto has become a fixture on the second stage of festivals across North America, and across her career, she’s steadily gaining notoriety among fans. She has a manager, a booker, and she’s recently been signed to a label. Although, she still has to pick up an occasional bartending shift to make rent. Many freelance artists out there can relate to that feeling of seeing their names in bright lights one day and sweating through a service industry gig the next.
Adaptation versus quality
A major factor in Kmeto’s success comes from her ability to make her sound feel new while playing to her more classically-oriented strengths. Her genre-bending style, which she describes as “Electro R&B,” and her brassy voice give her production credibility. No matter the festival lineup, she stands out.
This sounds like an obvious point, but for musicians and writers alike, there are forces at work, like the free-market maxim of “adapt or die” that pressure us to innovate for innovation’s sake rather than to find our natural voice. In the world of electronic dance music (EDM), it seems like the worst insult that could be leveled at an artist is to be described with an adjective that was hip a year ago. Oh, you spin trap? I’m post-trap. What’s unfortunate about this obsession with innovation is that it doesn’t necessarily lead to better art. Instead, it creates more esoteric distinctions among genres.
While EDM artists and critics quibble over a producer’s choice of the number of beats per minute on a given track, Kmeto sets herself apart by doing something as simple as not conforming to EDM’s standard slot for female vocalists. “When an EDM artist includes female vocals on a song, they’re always super high-pitched, airy, and they definitely aren’t allowed to overshadow the beats,” she explained. “When people see me perform, they’re surprised at, among other things, just how well they can hear my vocals.”
That whole gender thing
It goes without saying that in 2014, both female writers and musicians still have to deal with sexism, which is only more acute in the male-dominated field of electronic music. The night before I interviewed Kmeto, a female journalist complained to me about her first interview of the festival going infuriatingly wrong.
“I’m a sound geek. I was interviewing the head sound engineer for the festival, asking him specific technical questions, and he couldn’t just answer me … he had to comment about how girls usually aren’t interested in audio tech,” the journalist said. “I asked him why, and he explained how girls are predisposed to not be interested in science. He saw my face and realized how stupid what he had just said was, but it was too late. It was kind of impossible to conduct a quality interview after that.”
In an opinion piece Kmeto wrote for No Fear of Pop, she discussed how she anticipated and averted similar bias: “In brainstorming my live show initially, I knew I couldn’t have a man on stage with me else the majority of people think he produced and wrote my music.”
This dynamic, along with her decision not to make her lyrics overtly feminist, are deliberate. Kmeto eagerly awaits the day she’s viewed as a musician rather than as a female musician: “Those of us with ‘androgyny’ in our vocational desires within the ‘normal’ social confines must fight the good fight and change things up by merely existing, owning it, and trying to be really fucking good at what we do.”
Dominating a digital demand
All creatives talk about marketing a personal brand, but according to Kmeto, “an internet presence” means you should attempt to grace as many corners of the online world as possible with your content, or at least with easy, direct links back to your content. “I can’t tell you how many seemingly random ways I’ve been contacted with opportunities,” she added. “I’m not crazily active on Twitter, but I’m on there, and that’s where Dave Sitek first contacted me, via DM [direct message]. Now we’re close friends, and I’m signed to his label.”
Freelancers can use different parts of the internet to express different parts of their voices when corralling fans. Consider Kmeto’s article for No Fear of Pop. While it was sincere, it served as a safe platform for her to vent about serious qualms with the music industry instead of writing a highly-politicized song that would completely clash with the voice she’s cultivated. Instead, she crafted an argument that was best expressed in written form, which exposed her to an audience that would be more interested in what she’d have to say. Or sing.
Additionally, Kmeto makes her content freely available on all the decidedly un-lucrative sites like Spotify and Soundcloud. And she does so without bitterness or resignation. She knows that if she wants to make money, she has to tour. If she wants to tour, she needs to have fans everywhere, and if those fans would rather spend $400 on festival admission, camping, and parking than 99 cents on one of her tracks, so be it.
“One of my goals would be to get into licensing,” she said, referring to licensing her music to commercials, film, or other musicians looking for samples. It can be quite lucrative, and post-Napster, it’s become a mark of success in the industry. It’s nice to sell your single on iTunes; it’s really nice to sell Apple the rights to use your single in an iPhone ad. “That’s definitely one way to avoid being on the road year-round.”
Though it’s helping her reach a wider audience, Kmeto doesn’t have romantic notions about the road. It involves more travel and less partying than people expect, and it definitely puts a strain on a relationship.
In fact, the night before our interview, Kmeto performed at the festival on two hours of sleep, having flown in from another festival in Calgary earlier that morning. “I wouldn’t put myself through this shit unless I loved it,” she said. When Kmeto told me she sold her car so she could afford a better microphone, I had to agree this was first and foremost a freelance labor of love.