How A Songwriter In His 60s Broke (Back) Into The Music Business
In this piece, Chris Robley examines how musician and songwriter Daniel Antopolsky fought his way back into the music industry and began building a career in his 60s and on into his 70s – no small feat in a business which is less than favorable to the older set.
Guest post by Chris Robley of DIY Musician
Independent musician Daniel Antopolsky started building a music career in his 60s.
I’ve written before about age in the music industry.
In many respects, age isn’t an asset: the big and little music machines are obsessed with youth and newness.
And yet regardless of your age, your genre, your location, there are more opportunities today, more tools, more connection points, meaning you’re never too old to find success — provided you have the right mix of talent, smarts, persistence, and luck.
A music manager named Jason Ressler reached out to me a while ago with a story about his client Daniel Antopolsky, a singer-songwriter who long ago missed his chance to “make it,” or more accurately, walked away from a business and life he couldn’t stomach, only to return to it many decades later with a catalog of hundreds of unreleased songs.
There’s a lot to explore in Daniel’s story…
In his twenties, he was affiliated with Townes Van Zandt, and he actually saved Townes’ life once.
He then lived most of his adult life farming, and keeping his songwriting passion to himself.
In his sixties he shifted gears, started recording, gigging, and building a fanbase.
And in the face of an industry that is biased against older musicians, Jason Ressler has been helping Daniel share that trove of songs and the story behind the music.
I interviewed Jason about all this stuff: the years, the obstacles, the insecurities, the PR tricks that helped get traction for Daniel’s music in the press, the ins-and-outs of managing an older independent artist, a few scandalous secrets from the music biz of yesteryear, and more. Jason gave honest, interesting, and thorough answers. Thanks to him for his time.
An interview with Jason Ressler — about how Daniel Antopolsky is building an audience in his 60s and 70s
Tell me about the unique challenges managing an older musician who was largely unknown?
Let me start with my motto: fuck everyone.
But I don’t mean this in the exact way it sounds. I mean it like the monk on the mountain who tells the world to fuck off and focuses on his little place that’s beautiful and important to him. I think everyone who’s coming from the outside of the center of this business, or anyone trying to do something new while in the center of it, has similar challenges. It’s all hard, even if you’re trying to be a new pop princess (and I’d like Daniel to be a new pop princess but he refuses to dress like one). So you have to focus on what’s important to you and try to ignore the noise. But that’s easy to say and hard to do, because you don’t always know whether or not the noise is important to your aspirations.
Almost everyone told me I was crazy to try and promote an unknown old guy’s music; but I didn’t care and kept going… Because for me Daniel’s as beautiful a songwriter and storyteller as there is, as great as playing with the English language in his own way as Eminem is in his. So I went for it and didn’t listen to the naysayers. I think it helped that I had no experience in music management and didn’t know how hard it would be, and I certainly know why every manager I practically begged in the beginning to take Daniel on said no. Yet now, as far as I can see, Daniel is the first American artist to ever be breaking out in his 70s and I wouldn’t give my job to anyone.
But that doesn’t mean it was or is an easy process or fun for me most of the time, though I try to make it so for Daniel. For if you go down the road of getting music out, you’ve got to decide what it’s worth to you – whether you are the musician or a representative – in terms of your effort and energy, but just as important as to how much ugliness you’re willing to deal with to get something beautiful into the world. And when we do something great, as has been happening more and more lately, it’s heaven.
I’ve known U2’s former manager, Paul McGuinness, for a while and still when he was managing the band. I love U2 and though we haven’t met, Bono always seems like a sweet angelic kind of guy to me. When I first met Paul it was because he had heard some of my ideas on the issue of music piracy and I showed up at our lunch meeting expecting him to be like Bono somehow. Instead, what I met with was a cold and charming shark, like one of those characters in a Disney movie that laughs with his pals before they try to eat you. At first I was surprised, but what should I have expected? The guy took a bunch of Irish teenagers to the top of the world and has had to fight with every bastard out there who didn’t believe in them – probably just because they were Irish at that time – and to get through it he hired similar hard asses (like lawyer Allen Grubman) to build them up and protect them. Bono and the rest of the band gets to behave like angels because they’ve got others making sure they’re not getting screwed. On reflection, I bet Mahatma Gandhi had some tough guys on staff. (Let me just add that I like Paul, though I’m pretty sure he doesn’t care about me one way or the other).
If Daniel knew about half the things I do to get him out there he’d cringe; I know this because he even cringes at the little I tell him and I only tell him the good stuff. Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War are good books for music managers and public relations teams who are trying to do the right thing: a key lesson is you can’t win a battle by fighting in a weaker way than those you are battling; but another key lesson that has taken me longer to learn is to avoid battles you can’t win immediately and plan strategically for the long term. The problem is that you can’t always tell whether you can win a battle, but the nice thing is that in this business no one’s actually going to kill you and we all get to fight another day after our ego bruising.
I fight age bias on a daily basis for Daniel and only rarely has his age been a positive thing. I can’t tell you how many people in the US industry have admitted to me that Daniel’s too old for them to take a shot on or do a piece on, from Billboard Magazine, to labels, etc., and those are the ones being nice to me, telling me the truth so I don’t waste my time. But it’s changing, partially because I’ve realized it’s a unique problem to the American industry and so instead of focusing on battling in the USA I focus on places where they don’t have the same biases in their industries. There’s also the knowledge that the US industry isn’t biased enough to ignore Daniel as he becomes more successful, and it just means he’s not going to get the breaks a 25-year old with even one album’s worth of great songs would get, let alone all the music Daniel has. But I didn’t know all of this when I started and it was hard to constantly fail because you don’t know if you’ll ever succeed.
So I feel like among the most important advice I can give to artist teams out there is to go with whatever strengths you have (which for me personally was a film background and a big mouth), make friends and allies, and get people to help with anything you’re weak on if you can, and be patient if you can’t. Low hanging fruit is what you should be looking for as it will give you the strength to climb the tree later for the more difficult fruit. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make great aspirational efforts often, but if you truly can’t solve a problem at a given moment after trying your best, forget it until your position has changed. As I told Daniel the other day: inside the music business the world is small, but from outside the world is big… You need to figure out where your inside is and how to get there, and it may not be the same as everyone else’s.
Why did Daniel leave the “music industry” in the 1970s?
Well, Daniel was never in the industry. He was a young songwriter hanging out with great young songwriters, the most prominent of which was his friend Townes Van Zandt. They both are described now as part of the “Outlaw Country” era, but that’s a historian’s view and historians like to generalize, so there are a lot of misconceptions about them. I didn’t know Townes, though I do know some of his friends and have read accounts of others, yet I know Daniel well. And what I see aren’t two guys who were trying to rebel against the system, but two people who couldn’t deal with the music industry in the depths of their souls and just wanted to write and perform great songs.
None of this means that Daniel and Townes didn’t want acceptance from the same music industry that rejected them or that they felt they had to reject. He and Townes desired an audience and, like everyone, would have liked industry support for their music, but they weren’t willing to compromise their music and maybe more importantly their way of being for that support. But trying to buck the industry and succeed in an artistically pure way is a hard gig. Those who seem to have done it were lucky enough to have inside support; or there are those like Willie Nelson, who was able to toe the line long enough to gain the experience and power he needed to reject the confines of Nashville and set himself up in an entirely different way in Austin.
Townes has a well-documented history of complexity in terms of the decisions he made in the music business, yet he stayed on the road, performing and recording, reaching his audience. He has gotten popular in recent years, but until fairly recently Townes was only admired by a small group of fans and prominent musicians like Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle and others, many of whom recorded his songs and got more famous off them than he did.
In Daniel’s case, you’re dealing with an incredibly sweet person who has no cunning in him and shies away from conflict and darkness. Bill Hedgepeth, a journalist who’s an incredible archivist and last month helped release an album of 11 lost songs of Townes called “Sky Blue” is in the film we’re making on Daniel called The Sheriff of Mars.
In it, Bill describes how Daniel went to see producers in Nashville when he was paling around with Townes, but was too far out there for them with his crazy ways and wild music. Daniel told me that later in the 1980s and 1990s he continued to try and get recorded, sending out tapes of his music to labels and never hearing back.
After Daniel saved Townes’s life from an overdose in 1972, I think it was a final realization for Daniel that he couldn’t be a part of that world anymore and, as he says, he wanted to “find something more spiritual.” And so he went on this infamous road trip in the 1970s with his friend “Crazy” Albert Low throughout America, Asia, and Europe that lasted many years and inspired him to write a lot of great music that wasn’t recorded until we released the first album of it at the end of 2017. There’s a wonderful article in B-sides & Badlands that describes it and that time.
I think the amazing thing is that Daniel has never stopped writing songs. He just wrote them and put them away, hoping and dreaming one day somehow they’d be recorded and shared. It was a hope that must have slipped a lot by the time I first heard his music in 2012 on his Bordeaux farm when he was 64-years old, but he was still prolific, writing and playing his music mostly to himself late at night, occasionally to his family, and certainly to his pet chickens and cat named Bingo.
What’s changed — either about the industry, or in Daniel — that made it a healthy decision to try to get these songs out now?
As Daniel was never in the industry, had never recorded his music, the decision to finally get into it was based on his dreams and my foolish optimism (which I still hold to). And who was I? A broke fuck-up somehow travelling around the world with no experience in managing anything. Pretty much who I am now except I’ve learned a few things in music during the past few years.
But the key to why all this is working now is simple: modern technology.
Daniel was 64 and wasn’t famous when we started and therefore the industry’s response almost in its entire collective sigh was to tell us to fuck off; I’d like to say that’s okay, but I’m not trite: it sucks. But then you have to realize that it’s the case for almost everyone. Now the music industry – especially the American one – is as shallow and illusory as it gets, so they see Ariana Grande doing well and are looking for the next version of her. But then think of how many talented young girls similar to Ariana are out there struggling, because there’s only so much room available for the small group that controls the most powerful side of the industry. So Daniel’s not the only artist with challenges, though his have some unique aspects.
I’ll break a story here, not only because it’s illustrative, but also because it’s sensationalistic enough to get wider attention to this article, and therefore also illustrative of what I want to tell the reader in terms of being opportunistic: The Beatles success in America was financed by the mob. I’m not sure if even they know that. But all the facts I’ll put below are well-documented and can be found online; it’s just that no one has realized what they added up to.
I grew up as a kind of adopted son of legendary music promoter Sid Bernstein, who brought the Beatles to America along with the rest of the British invasion. His son was my best friend and I often lived in their apartments. I directed a documentary on him called Sid Bernstein Presents… which didn’t get released but did expose me to many of the top people in the music industry.
Sid was as kind a man as there ever was, a dreamer, irresponsible, a guy who loved to take long shots on talent and believed in people and was also grandiose and thought he could succeed where others failed. And he often did. My film has the last interview with James Brown who described how Sid was as important to race relations in America as Martin Luther King and the Kennedys… And there was plenty more. Sid never cared about money, and when he had some he’d blow it quickly, and certainly his family suffered from the poverty of many of his aspirations. But anyone who knew Sid, including some of those who’ve criticized his choices, ever thought Sid was anything but one of the kindest human beings they’d ever met.
And yet Sid’s best friend since childhood was Abe Margolies, who was part of the who’s who of New York, best known for being in the jewelry and restaurant businesses, but was quietly a feared mobster and top advisor to the most important mafia family in New York at the time, doing all the things you can imagine a guy in his position does. In that sense, he couldn’t have been more opposite from his friend Sid. But Abe was complex and generous and always helped Sid with anything he needed.
When Sid wanted to bring the Beatles over he was working at the talent agency GAC, who thought it was a crazy idea to bring a British band to the USA as they thought Americans wouldn’t like British accents. (Idiocy in this business is nothing new.) But Sid was stubborn and decided to do it anyway, yet he wasn’t allowed to officially promote the show as a working agent. So while you will see that his later posters all say “Sid Bernstein Presents” when he presented a concert, if you look at the Beatles at Carnegie Hall poster from their arrival in 1964 it is promoted by “Theater Three Productions” so Sid could remain anonymous. The “Three” were Sid, Abe (who gave Sid the money for the concert) and Billy Fields, who Sid also used as a frontman to bring the Rolling Stones to America a short time later.
Abe funded Sid for many of his concerts and plays as you can see online, and he never wanted the money back from his dreamer friend. And since the mob was all over the music business, Abe also saved Sid once when some mobsters tried to muscle in on one of his concerts (I believe at the Brooklyn Paramount). So what’s my point? Sid was the kindest man in the world, a pacifist, and I think he couldn’t even acknowledge to himself who his friend was. But Sid made his compromises to get things done. Would we have been better off without the racial revolution he helped create in music? Without the British invasion? Without so much more?
That story seems like an aberration, but the music business has always been controlled and always had corruption, whether from the mob or the corporations who still run so much of it now. When I was prepping for my documentary on Sid, my co-director Evan Strome and I went to meet a well-known music lawyer named Freddie Gershon, who was a friend of Sid’s and giving us some background on him. This was around 2000, when music piracy was a big new thing. Freddie told us that actually music piracy was nothing new and described how a gangster in the business named Morris Levy (on whom there’s plenty written about) used to make pirate copies of records and force the record stores to take them; Freddie said that he thought roughly 10% of all records sold were pirate copies and this was well before the digital era. I haven’t told this story until now as Freddie asked us to keep it to ourselves at the time, even though Levy had died almost a decade earlier, since many of those mob tied guys were still around and involved with things.
So while the mob world started dying and was less in the business by the 2000s, the corporations were able to keep the same leverage and systems in place while cleaning up their acts by staying just on the right side of the law, having the money to lobby politicians to write laws in their favor, or when they decide to violate the laws they can’t write (which still happens all the time) the fines they receive are already factored in as the cost of doing business.
But the new world of music and film distribution isn’t coming entirely from the corporate music world, but from the technology world that makes their money by giving individual artists platforms and freedom; so it’s a new world, though not as beautiful as it should be yet. But we can see the incredible improvement in the availability of music, and another example is the revolutionary improvement in television programming in many quarters.
Without these vast changes in the industry, from something as simple as email to file sharing, YouTube, Spotify, etc., Daniel’s music would have been forever lost. No label would ever take a crack at an unknown old guy’s music, and our ability to collaborate online and distribute our own music has been a Godsend as it has been for so many people, whether they are “succeeding” or not. We haven’t made money yet, but we will.
Yet I also think we’re revolutionizing the model for what older people can do, showing that you can still get out there and reinvent yourself at a late age. This is based on how younger independent musicians are doing it, but also on Daniel’s eclectic nature, where he really has little interest in leaving his farm in France too often. But no one in Daniel’s age group had done this before, in no small part because those in Daniel’s age group mostly don’t discover music the way younger people do. We’ve had a lot of trial and error to figure out what can work, and what has come to pass is that we have found that Daniel’s pretty much equally popular among young and old, but they find his music in different ways.
In terms of breaking the mold, Daniel’s first album Sweet Lovin’ Music was produced by Grammy veterans Gary Gold and John Capek in Nashville and it wasn’t easy for Daniel, being away from what inspires him in nature and animals, having to commit to structure and time frames. He’s not a guy who can fit in a box in any way, and that’s not easy on his producers either, as the metronome doesn’t exist for him. So we’re talking about someone you just have to follow. There are some wonderful songs on that album, but some of it didn’t come out how Daniel would have liked, largely because of his own discomfort, and much of which had to do with his lack of conventionality.
Gary and I picked up on that and after Daniel played SXSW in 2016, Gary decided to come out to Daniel’s farm in France to produce Daniel’s Acoustic Outlaw albums where he just let Daniel play the way he wanted to, recording it all in Daniel’s dining room. In a way, we were just trying to get as many songs as we could recorded as we were afraid to lose them and Gary was under a lot of pressure. But it worked for Daniel and we’ve done it that way since then. Daniel gets to relax and check his chickens or go farm, all around his recording, and then he can just flow. Sometimes one of those damned roosters will come to the window and start singing and you’d think it would ruin the take but Daniel wants to leave it in the background of the song – he’s so crazy and funny, it makes me laugh just writing this! Everyone should be able to come to a recording session with Daniel.
Anyway, we’ve tried to do as much as we can that way so he can be happy and creative and now we record songs, film Daniel’s music videos, and try to have most of his interviews on his farm. Then the rest of the team handles whatever they have to from wherever we are. Here’s his crazy first ever music video “Fish Bait Blues.”
It was his idea and his wife, Sylvia, and I are in it. But his wife is one of the top gynecologists in Bordeaux… Thank God she’s got a fetish for odd American singers! And importantly to prove the technology part: I shot that video on an iPhone 6 and Daniel’s daughter Hannah did some of the filming and French filmmaker Herve Morin (who also directs longer pieces on Daniel) edited it at home and it was up on YouTube finding an audience as quickly as we could… We never could have afforded even one video for Daniel 15 years ago and no one would have funded or distributed it either.
What was it like, emotionally, for Daniel to have been so productive for so long as a songwriter, but without a public outlet for those songs?
I can only speak to my observations, and Daniel may disagree with me in part, but from everything I saw it was terrible for him, despite being happy in the rest of his life. The author Maya Angelou once said “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” and that played out in Daniel.
When you make documentaries you start to see patterns in different ways, and as we went on I noticed that every single friend that he had lost touch with had something to do with his music days. I think he was carrying a great shame of being someone who didn’t live up to his potential in what he saw as his life’s purpose, and that came out in his relationships and even the way he played his music most of the time: quietly, alone at night in a little room away from everyone as they slept. I’m sure this feeling wasn’t helped by the fact that his wife is the main breadwinner, despite the enormous amount of work he puts in on his farm. When you’re ashamed of things it poisons the greater well. Notably, in the only performances he gave once a year at the July 4th celebrations at the US Consulate in Bordeaux, France, he only played covers of other musicians’ popular songs, not his own.
When we first went to Nashville for a kind of tryout in 2012 with his future album producers, he was naturally excited but nervous: his whole dream about to be put on the line. I’d like to say I had to drag him kicking and screaming, but that’s not the case: Daniel is sweet, but he isn’t a person you can tell what to do if he doesn’t want to.
So we went, but when we got there, picked up by our two Grammy-nominated producers driving us to the house where the studio was, Daniel and I were in the backseat and he looked at me and said in all seriousness “I don’t belong here” and I think he would have gone home then if it seemed at all reasonable. But then he played, did great, and we came back to make his first album in early 2013. During that process he realized he was really making an album and looked at me with tears in his eyes and said “you’ve really done a mitzvah.” “Mitzvah” is a Jewish word for good deed, but it has more weight than that. Hearing that has been one of my proudest moments in all of this.
So it’s funny to see him now – great of course – because he has become a professional in every way without realizing it and without compromising, proud of his achievements even if they haven’t monetized yet, great on film and radio and in concert and the studio. Each of these things took time. Fortunately, I have the documentary where we can see him before, nervous, ashamed, but more fortunately that’s all behind him and maybe the best part of all this is that all of his old music friends are back in his life after a 30-40 year absence. And Daniel’s still as modest as he’s always been.
Has there been a grand strategy here, or are you just figuring it out step-by-step?
There was a grand strategy and none of it worked!
Really, I started this as a new family friend to the Antopolskys with the simplest idea of getting one album recorded for Daniel’s family to have, and just wanted to get a song on the local Charleston radio where the family has a nearby summer home in order to make his daughters proud. I never had the idea that this would be anything bigger than some CDs on his shelf for his future grandkids, and I certainly never had any intention of becoming a music manager.
Then about a month before we’re going to make that first album in Nashville, we were at his farmhouse and he comes in the kitchen, looks at me, and says with no prompting “I can’t just make one album, I gotta make SEVEN!”
I looked at him like “What the fuck? I mean you’ve never made one album so what the hell are you talking about?” But I understood. He’s sitting on hundreds of songs he’s poured his soul into and he doesn’t see this album the way I saw it. He sees it at 64-years old as his elusive life’s dream to share his music coming true. He couldn’t choose between his songs and he wanted people to hear them all.
I told Gary Gold, the producer of his first album, what Daniel said and Gary understood too. Gary told me if we want to get his music out into the world, I would have to make a film on Daniel, as no one would care about an old guy unless we had a vehicle to show people why his music was worth it. Searching for Sugarman had just come out and Gary explained that it was getting Rodriguez’ music an audience. I hadn’t made a film in years, hadn’t seen “Sugarman,” but I said fuck it, I’ll see what I can do… Yet we’re weeks away and I’m broke.
So I called my old friend, Matthew Woolf, a British cameraman living in New York who was the only person I knew as crazy and impulsive as me (or at least that wasn’t in jail) and he agreed to jump on a plane on a few days’ notice and shoot the film, dragging along his producer wife, Kylie, to do sound. I believe neither of us got to watch “Sugarman” until the first part of the shoot was over, and I took Daniel’s family to see it in Bordeaux so they’d understand what we were aspiring to.
And I knew this whole thing was going to be much bigger.
But man was I wrong about how! I thought it was so logical, thought Daniel’s story and incredible music and place as a lost historical figure would be welcomed throughout the industry, the doors would open so wide they’d fly off the hinges, his songs would be all over, and all the rest you can imagine, none of which happened… I get as arrogant as they come, but enough humiliation quickly leads to humility!
So I spent a lot of time figuring it out – thinking I wasn’t figuring it out – miserable, failing, disappointed in myself and clearly disappointing others, including Daniel’s family. And I’ve been reacting to my own misestimations constantly, yet the worst part of all of this is that you’re not necessarily wrong just because you fail in this business at a given time. Anything can have caused that failure, even if your strategy is totally sound, as people and business constantly change. So you have to have multiple strategies, and just keep pushing along until you figure out how to make some things work. And be opportunistic.
The best example I can give for this is how embraced Daniel has become in the UK. I’d have imagined that the USA was our natural audience, the American South for sure, and instead we’ve barely made a dent there. Why? Country music has become more like pop with a Southern twang, and radio is almost entirely controlled by the major labels who put that music out. So even some major artists don’t have an outlet. But that doesn’t mean the American South isn’t our major audience, it’s just that I don’t have an easy way to get in front of them without support.
Last year I noticed that almost every milestone in Daniel’s new career has been reached in the UK, from his first major press, first radio plays, first paid concert, and coming up his first paid major music festival at the Black Deer Festival this June. So I started focusing more there… Come to think of it, it was even a young British guy who compared Daniel to Mississippi John Hurt which seems apt, but maybe Josephine Baker is a good comparison too.
As I thought about why, it became clear to me that the UK just doesn’t have the same age and physical biases that are inherent in the American music industry (though not Americans themselves, fortunately); they care more about the music and the industry puts its money where its mouth is there. For example, I truly believe there’s no way Adele could have come out of the USA, for the simple reason that she doesn’t fit the stereotypical body-type of a pop star, though once she was popular in the UK, the US industry jumped onboard. I also think it’s no accident that Searching for Sugarman was a film largely funded in the UK. I can give countless examples of this and can only find few exceptions in the USA.
My point here is that you need to look elsewhere if things aren’t working. The world is a big place with a lot of differing attitudes and we’re lucky to be able to find an audience directly these days, even if that isn’t as easy as people make it sound sometimes. I was spending too much of my time being pissed off at the US industry and instead I’ve understood that I must find my spots and build up from there and eventually the US industry will pay attention.
And as it turns out I still haven’t gotten Daniel on the radio in the US, and I still haven’t gotten distribution on the film yet, but everything is going incredibly well and he’s out there on his own!
How have you managed PR for the recent independent release?
The press has been a strong part of our success to date, and I hope this is where I can advise musicians and managers most as it’s the area I understand best.
I’ve been lucky because I’ve been friends for a long time with one of the top people in American public relations, a woman named Lisa Dallos who heads High 10 Media and she always generously helps and advises me on my projects (and also kindly pays for most of our meals when we meet!). So I had some public relations knowledge going into this, and had some limited work doing PR in the past. Lisa’s the one who really taught me how to think of things reasonably, understand the interests of who I’m pitching, that reporters and editors are people who are busy, and that you have to build up things brick by brick. We sometimes disagree, because she’s dealing with the biggest people in the world and I’m dealing with guerilla PR for Daniel and I also have a horrible combination of liking the underdog and being grandiose at the same time. Plus, I have a temper. A sort of typical conversation between me and Lisa is, me: “Hey Lisa, I found this old new singer named Daniel who has great songs and it’s such a great story… he should be on the cover of Vanity Fair, how do I get him on there?” Lisa, shocked at what an idiot I am: “Uh, dude…” (not that Lisa would ever say “dude”) “he doesn’t even have a Facebook page and you haven’t even recorded one song and Vanity Fair would never cover this kind of story let alone put anyone but a young pop star on the cover…”. Me only hearing the “no” and being angry: “those corporate bastards!”.
But later when I actually calm down and listen to the logic, it’s a lesson on how to get things done. You need to analyze and build and deal with personalities. Press is a sales job and it’s always easiest to sell when you’re giving someone something they actually want, like having a local reporter cover your local concert. That doesn’t mean I’m not occasionally pulling off something Lisa didn’t think I could, yet I also often fail where Lisa and I agree I should succeed.
But the first thing I’d say is you need to know who you are. Now that sounds simple, but it’s not. It is usually reasonably simple to figure out what kind of artist you want to be regardless of your sound, even if you are happy to compromise that sound for commercial success. With Daniel it’s easy: I have this incredible musical story teller who’s as optimistic and pure-hearted in his songs as it gets. Daniel has never wanted to compromise or play the game, and all these things are the reasons I wanted to get his music into the world.
But while the question of who you are (or represent) as an artist may be solved, the question of “who you are” from a public relations and marketing perspective is a whole different ballgame. You need to think that through in tiny pieces and be both logical, thorough and often shameless in your approach (like I did with this interview, Chris, emailing you that I wanted you to interview me for CD Baby because I had something to share with people, but also because I’m promoting to our crowd here). Perseverance is also key, but that’s a word that’s bandied around a lot and makes you more depressed when you’re failing and so you have to deal with it in a realistic way.
You have to know that many things may not work, even if they’ve worked in the past, and you need to figure out why they’re not working and what lines you’re willing to cross to do better. Because marketing an artist is often a thoroughly degrading, disgusting, and compromised business (even more so for someone like me who comes from an artistic background and wasn’t used to it). You’re broke and desperate and need a quick… anything? Too bad; no one cares except maybe some of your friends and family, and they can’t really help you.
So you also need to learn to take care of yourself, make a plan to see if it works but also know when to stop working. I don’t always take my own advice, but these days I try to treat marketing and PR like I would a gym workout: I plan, do my sets and then I stop; as doing more just exhausts you and will ruin your next days just like overtraining would ruin your workout the next day. This is a long game. because anything you do will take at least weeks and more likely longer to come to fruition, and that’s with a lot of follow up. Nothing is worse than the exhaustion that comes from failure. And you will fail all day long.
But I’ve learned the hard way, and now Daniel has press all over the world.
Public relations and marketing require one of two things: (a) existing relationships and leverage if you need something fast or (b) a slow, kind seduction if you don’t have those things (and no matter where you start, you will never have leverage in all the areas you’ll need to cover, so you need to learn (b) regardless). And always you have to be calculating, but calculating isn’t a bad word, in PR the best scenario is where everyone gets what they want, which often happens when something happens because the equation is simple: a journalist wants to write an article on you and you want one written.
It’s getting to that point that’s the problem.
I’ve used any hook I could to get press for Daniel: whether it’s Daniel’s album being produced by “Grammy nominees”, the film The Sheriff of Mars being shot, Daniel’s association with the Outlaw Country era and Townes Van Zandt, the fact that Daniel is likely the inspiration for “Lefty” in Townes’ song “Pancho & Lefty,” his age, location or past locations, whatever I can think of that will interest a reporter…
Our first media coverage came during our Kickstarter campaign for Daniel’s documentary “The Sheriff of Mars” in 2014. I knew it was a great opportunity to build up press while we raised money and I made a plan to do so on launch, both to help the campaign and have a base for later. It’s a great lesson in logic and the failure of logic. And it’s important to note that I am coming from outside the music PR world and didn’t have relationships with most reporters. It’s also key to realize that I sent at least 1000 emails out in those 30 days and probably spent 100 hours on research and finding reporters’ emails before I did.
To start, I looked at it all the pieces I thought I had to target media and came up with a rough list that made sense to me:
- Country Music (a huge and obvious market for us)
- Indie Music
- Film/Indie Film
- Nashville (as Daniel is part of the local music history)
- France (as that’s where Daniel lives)
- Georgia (as Daniel is from Augusta, Georgia)
- South Carolina (as Daniel’s American base is near Charleston)
- Jewish (as Daniel is a Jewish guy, which is a rarity in Country Music)
- Texas (as Daniel has a noted history there with Townes)
- AARP (for older people)
I won’t break down everything we did here, but let me just say that after five years of consistent media, to my shock I’ve never had one article on Daniel in any mainstream Country Music outlet or out of Nashville or Texas. My guess as to why is that these are popular markets for Country Music where reporters are getting pitched a lot and they will either cover a more commercial sound, someone popular, or you need to be on a label or hire a music PR company that has the relationships to break through to them. Believe me, I wish we could have afforded to hire a pro.
It also turned out that “Indie” for musicians means nothing; there are many magazines with different niches I had to learn, so that came later, and most of them naturally skew young. With film, one Indie film blog picked up the story though I hadn’t pitched them – but great. In Georgia’s press, we made some headway, including at Daniel’s college newspaper, but I was so mad that that Daniel’s hometown paper, the Augusta Chronicle, wasn’t answering me that I copied the whole upper journalistic/editor staff to complain; the legendary writer there, Don Rhodes, wrote back calmly saying they don’t cover Kickstarters and he’d cover down the road. Which he later did and is a friend now. We also ended up with a big article that was put on the front page in the main Charleston paper, The Post & Courier; both the editor and the journalist were into our vibe. Yet the small Charleston papers have still never covered Daniel, and others from Georgia haven’t either, no matter how many times I’ve pitched. The lessons here were all great, some writers were interested, others weren’t, and to get an answer you had to keep asking.
But in the Jewish focused media, we were covered all over the world because it’s a very focused niche and the Jewish Community has many small newspapers, so there are many opportunities (though we still got turned down plenty). Daniel was a rare Jewish Country musician and a great story for them.
Also, to show you about relationships, one of the best pieces we’ve ever had came out then in the Jewish magazine Tablet. Although I hadn’t seen the writer, Danny Krieger, since high school, I was able to call him and talk to him as the old friends we were, so my “inside” relationship gave me the leverage to be listened to and have him meet Daniel. Having said that, there is no way Krieger would have done the piece if it hadn’t interested him, because I had no business leverage over him (and to explain what I mean simply, if a PR company represents major artists everyone wants to interview, then the journalists know they often must interview that company’s smaller artists when asked if they want the bigger interviews. Though it’s a bit more complex and layered than my simple description).
As for French press, I didn’t speak French well so it was a hard pitch to make and I got off it fairly quickly, though a friend got us a short article through a friend of his. And as I’ve learned about AARP, they were a hard get as they aren’t the niche media I’d thought, but major media that controls a permanently supplied niche as people keep getting old – including Bob Dylan and the Beatles – so we needed to be a bigger story, not an unknown Kickstarter project.
Overall it was a successful first round and I had some things to build off of.
But now let me fast forward 4 years to 2018 to give you an example of my attempts at press before Daniel’s first ever UK concert at London’s Bush Hall last year, which happened after a year of international press that included major papers around the world like the BBC and Rolling Stone and many others. Despite months of attempts in reaching out to UK media, I couldn’t get the “easiest” press I could think of – the UK Jewish press – to answer me. I’d pitched them early, but was getting no response. I found a connection to one paper, sent emails and left phone messages numerous times for the cultural editor of the paper, as well as had a colleague of the editor email on my behalf, but nothing. In the meantime, the top music columnist from the huge international paper The Guardian had agreed to write a major piece, so I tried that as leverage with the Jewish paper. Still nothing. And how many Jewish Country musicians come to London?! After giving up on the Jewish paper a week before the concert, I got so angry thinking about it that I called the cultural editor one last time. By luck, she picked up and I held my temper and calmly told her who I was and she asked me about the story for two sentences, said it sounded amazing and had a reporter write an article within a few days. It was clear that she’d known nothing about it, had likely never read the emails or realized what my messages were about.
I cannot tell you how many times this has happened or how many reporters have told me they can sometimes get 1000 emails a day. I will tell everyone: do not think you are being turned down until you actually are turned down. Keep calling unless you feel like you’ve exhausted your efforts. Nevertheless, manage your expectations, your own emotions, give reporters plenty of lead time, and find those who are writing about subjects similar to your artist.
This also goes to some great advice about deal-making I got once from Barbra Streisand’s manager, Marty Erlichman. He told me always be glad for a “no” rather than a “definite maybe.” I was too stupid to understand that at the time, but it’s the best advice out there. Get your NOs, because nothing fucks your head up more than hoping something will happen because someone says they’ll get back to you and you’re afraid of tipping the cart. Tip it, see what happens, and move on.
And you must know that even after you do everything right, even if you actually score your artist a major interview, it still may not work out. After Daniel’s SXSW appearance in 2016, CBS Sunday Morning had a reporter come and film a piece on Daniel which would have been a major coup for us, getting us in front of an audience of 6 million, attention from other media, all when we really needed it… It never aired. After two years of waiting I tried reaching the Executive Producer, Rand Morrison, to find out what was going on and he’s never answered. Maybe it will air down the road. But it’s not the only time it’s happened.
It’s incredibly disappointing, but you must realize it has nothing to do with you and it doesn’t make anyone a bad person, they just have their interests. It’s not only media; for instance no one at the Americana Music Association, a body theoretically set up for musicians like Daniel, has ever responded to an email or call in six years until their PR guy answered a question for me a month ago when no one else there would respond (this is again the opposite of a similar body in the UK called the AMAUK who have been super helpful). While I easily start hating people controlling organizations who don’t answer or help me, I always have to check myself and realize that doesn’t make them enemies; they’re potential allies who haven’t paid attention or just don’t think we’re important enough yet.
But very importantly, if you keep at it you will discover some incredible allies out there who help you beyond your imagination. There’s an online Country Music blog called “Saving Country Music” run by Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos, who loves what Daniel is doing and has written great pieces on him. Kyle is writing against a lot of the mainstream country industry and interested in authentic voices and sounds. I had no idea Daniel wasn’t mainstream Country Music when we started, as I was more apt to listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers or the Smiths or Hole or the Killers than any Country music except for Johnny Cash. But I learned and now I know there’s a whole world of Country Music out there that I like and also a lot I don’t. Another great ally has been a guy named Jeremy “Tep” Tepper, who heads 3 stations over at SiriusXM, including Willie Nelson’s. Tep has been one of the leaders in revitalizing Outlaw Country and gave Daniel his first national radio interview and helps us all the time behind the scenes. Agent Richard Arlook advises me, film editors Wataru Kitano and Herve Morin constantly work for free, and even prominent artist Romeo Alaeff has helped build and maintain Daniel’s website (he’s an old friend but undoubtedly has better things to do)… We’re lucky to say there are many others.
Finally, you need to respect the press and realize they are just people with all kinds of distractions and problems. Many PR people have cynically told me that press is lazy and will just print your release; but it’s never happened to me – well once, but it was a small journal, who told us they would do that as they wanted to help us but didn’t have time to write something up – so it was a kind gesture, not a lazy one. But every journalist I’ve gotten to cover us has been interested, thorough, clever… They occasionally get some facts wrong, but if you’ve ever heard Daniel talk, he’s nearly impossible to follow. Yet whenever I’ve called with a fact change, they’ve always done so happily.
To conclude, logic is nice, but experience is key as it will help you control your emotions when logic fails you and even causes you failure if you follow your best plans for too long. I think the most important lesson I can tell anyone is this: you have to understand what the needs of the people who are inclined to support you are and make it easy for them to help you in the ways they can and not the ways you think you need. And your positioning matters too. In a terrible metaphor: your cat can catch mice, but not type your emails; ask a music reporter for an article, not funding for your album.
Clearly Daniel’s backstory and connection to Townes is a huge advantage for press, but what are the dangers in too closely associating with that backstory?
This is a good follow up to what I was just describing, as I think the most important thing for anybody trying to make anything happen in this business is to take advantage of any advantage you can because you never know what’s going to stick or for how long. I think we’re led to believe there’s a kind of standard, because we read an interview or article causally, they often say similar things, and we really don’t look at it from the perspective of the journalist or magazine when we’re not experienced in the business.
So I don’t really care what I have to do for press, as long as I don’t blatantly violate any of Daniel’s morals with the result. I told Daniel the other day I wish that someone would discover that Taylor Swift is Daniel’s love child as that would be major press! He looked at me like I was an idiot…
But there are two perspectives here: Daniel’s as an authentic artist and a pure soul and me as someone promoting him and knowing to get his music out requires dealing with many people, companies, and systems who often have far less pure souls than Daniel does. That’s not a criticism in itself though, because marketing requires engaging with diverse business interests that need to be catered to in different ways, for as hard a time I have in getting the attention of reporters or music executives, they have an even harder time competing against each other to get the attention of their audiences.
Townes has gotten much more popular in the last few years, but the truth is seven years ago I didn’t even know who Townes was when I started down the road with Daniel’s music, and none of my friends in New York did either. But fortunately my producer friend in Nashville was wowed by it and it didn’t take me too long to realize what a great musician Townes was and what an asset it could be because everyone down South knows Townes. It was also incredibly interesting that every young British person I met did too, which further cements why a lot of the people who have helped us have been from the UK. So having that backstory has been a key for me getting Daniel out into the world and I’m not sure how I would have done so without it (though I would have found a way).
It was also necessary because Daniel’s personal music history is tied up with Townes, and it’s impossible to explain Daniel’s story without talking about the famous photo at Guy & Susanna Clark’s house, their infamous road trip, the hotel near Dallas where Daniel wrote “Sweet Lovin’ Music” and Townes wrote “Pancho & Lefty” during the same afternoon, and certainly Daniel saving Townes’ life because that last event led Daniel to flee even the small part of the music industry he was enjoying.
So I was incredibly happy to have had Daniel’s relationship to Townes as a hook to get attention to Daniel’s music for the first years, but I’m also incredibly happy that Daniel doesn’t read his own press because he has a pure love for Townes and wouldn’t want me exploiting him (not that I’ve ever misrepresented their relationship in any way). Nevertheless, last year someone wrote about Daniel and described the story of Daniel saving Townes’ life as an “oft-cited story,” and I was proud because no one knew that story when we started, just like no one knew it was Daniel in that iconic photo and he was always nameless in it, referred to as “unknown friend” or something similar, and now Daniel is named every time that picture is shown.
Yet I’m also very happy that we are now getting past the media hook with Townes, and with Daniel’s 5thalbum about to be released he’s getting press on his own merits. A couple of weeks back we had an article in a blog called SupaJam that I was pleased with for many reasons: it catered to the younger music crowd, only mentioned Townes in passing, referred to Daniel as a growing legend, and focused on his music and upcoming festival appearance. It’s short, perfect, and about Daniel.
But I didn’t show the article to Daniel; he’s simply too modest to know how to read about himself without being embarrassed.
You mentioned to me that you figured out a way to get around “how the music industry really works.” What’s the secret?
The industry is a bunch of liars, snakes, and cheats, who will crush you with their complacency and the worst part is that most of them are nice and decent people!
We are at as low a point in terms of art in the mainstream of the American music industry as there has been in 20 years… because the majority of the music and media industries are as corrupt, biased, and formulaic bunch of fucks as there gets. While these things go in cycles, and while modern technology has allowed artists more opportunity to find audiences, you still have to realize that major parts of the industry are entirely closed off to you unless you can partner with the major labels or figure out a way around them. And you need to do one or the other or both, because they control most of the money that at the very least will allow you to continue to create and promote your music for the long term.
So while this is the best time in history to be an independent musician in terms of the ability to create, distribute, and promote music, and keep your rights to it, this doesn’t mean that you have a fair chance and that we’re past the era of corporate music control. It just means you have some alternatives to grow and take a better shot. I think many people get disappointed in how hard it still is – and I’ll put myself at the top of that list – because we think all of these tools should lead aspiring musicians to success, and what musicians need to realize is that they’re fighting a guerilla war against a complacent, corruptible, and sheepish music and media industry, but they’ve just been given some better weapons to do battle now.
I thought that breaking Daniel out would be easy because of his talent; but man was I wrong. You have to deal with power issues, bullshit, laziness, indifference, corruption and creeps, even in places you think should be your natural allies. And this isn’t the only problem, because you also have to deal with the fact that there are a lot of great people, companies, outlets, etc., that must adhere to their economic interests and standards and yet are overwhelmed, so you need to not only get their attention, but also get them to believe in you despite incredible callouses and biases that even the best have. I’ve had to come up with every angle I can to break Daniel through and I’m always looking for more.
So It’s important to know who your friends and enemies are (your enemies in this case don’t hate you, they just don’t care about you at all). And that your “enemies” in this business are not necessarily bad people, but they’re like bankers who dress cooler (sometimes). When those bankers are ripping you off for fees on your overdraft and are telling you “Sir, there’s nothing we can do” you want to fucking murder them with their formal smiles and manners, but when they tell you your loan is approved you’d be happy to buy them a beer. The big guys at the bank look at their numbers, the workers need their jobs: the music is incidental for most of those working in big radio and at the labels, even if they enjoy the music and the lifestyle.
Plus, the fix is in.
You only need to look at American radio which is still unofficially controlled by the music labels to see the problems.
Before he died, I used to be very friendly with Sy Kravitz, singer Lenny Kravitz’s dad, as I interviewed them for my documentary on Sid. Sy told me once about how for one of Lenny’s album releases, he didn’t go out to do all the free radio marketing junkets around the country and in response they didn’t play his album and sales tanked. It’s that simple and concentrated. And, by the way, I don’t blame them, because everyone has to make a living and be treated respectfully, if you can do so, and the radio stations and DJs and local press need the support. Where it bothers me is that with the consolidation that’s taken place there is little outlet for the up and coming musician in the local radio markets, and they don’t have the opportunities Lenny and others do with the big labels behind them. This wasn’t always the case, as there were plenty of smaller stations when I grew up that locals had access to; for example without WRKS (aka 98.7 Kiss FM in New York), Hip-Hop may not have become what it did.
You’d think this wouldn’t matter with all the tools we now have to compete and all the outlets playing music, but money is still the most important tool and the labels have most of it. Radio still has huge audiences, physical distribution is becoming important again and so you need investment and distribution dollars, PR and marketing to distinguish yourself, access to those who decide on playlists for the streaming services, and so on. So basically most of the industry is still an inside system, with the caveat that now new technological tools allow you to build yourself from the outside enough to appeal to that system.
I’ve tried to get Daniel on American radio and it’s been an impossible task to date because the labels control radio through (mostly) legalized bribery and we’re not on a major label and we don’t have the money to play the same game. Now it used to be direct bribery to the DJs and the stations until they got caught, and though that still happens occasionally, bribes largely take place through advertising, marketing events, sponsorships, paid “business” trips, outside consultants, etc., and it’s all out there for you to see. When radio gets caught going too far they pay the fine, as the fine is factored in and low enough to be considered as a cost of doing business.
I tried to start a public fight last year with a particular radio conglomerate (they’re all the same though) for issues that included what I saw as a de facto institutional bias given Daniel’s age. I wrote an email that was filled with all the drama I thought it would require to get some attention (I’m a promoter here after all! But I was telling the truth…). But no one cared about the issue easily and I’m not going to intimidate the lawyers at major corporations without digging into the wider public politics. Once I understood what it would take to make an issue of it, I knew it would be a distraction to our goals so I let it go. You have to pick your fights. And let me say, the lawyer who I was mostly trying to do battle with was an absolutely lovely guy who I’ll send this article to to tell him he won (though he knows that) and that I still want to buy him a drink when he visits Bordeaux.
But some of the worst part of this is that the biases at the top, which are theoretically based solely on profits, are almost entirely built on false pretenses and fly in the face of the very statistics the industry collects. You need only to look at the money the films Wonder Woman and Black Panther made last year to know that the industry is consistently biased, unless you believe that suddenly in 2018 people had an awakening for the first time and were willing to watch superhero films with female and black lead characters, and the industry in all its benevolence realized this in 2017 by analyzing statistics just before they shot those films.
The same is true towards older people; the industry won’t consider them in the ways they should. Statistically, older people are listening to radio more than younger ones and are also purchasing more music. And yet if you ask industry execs why they’re not being catered to except by playing and rereleasing the same old music, they say older people don’t like new music… And if you think about it, it’s like wait, what?
Have they tried to support new artists that have a similar sound to what the older market supposedly likes rather than EDM? You’re putting 90% of your marketing and promotional dollars towards a young pop sound even though that music is actually catered towards a likely more active but less financially sound audience and you’re surprised that music purchases are skewed? And is there any evidence that younger people don’t like older musicians? There are over 13 million spins on Spotify right now for the Rolling Stones; do they think that’s because of the grandmothers of America? If they do, then the industry should cater to them with new artists and if they don’t they should realize that they have a large young audience that doesn’t care about the age of the musicians they listen to. The reaction to Sixto Rodriguez in terms of sales and continued airplay after the release of Searching for Sugarman should be evidence enough, but the industry looks for every reason to treat it as an aberration because it doesn’t fit the narrative they’ve been taught, and musicians of all ages and stripes are suffering for it.
Also, by the way, the numbers of stats/views/spins are manipulated and faked far more often than people realize, and the industry knows it, participates in it and games it, because everyone is making money off it.
I have a friend, an old legend in the film and television business, whose office I went into a few years back and he said to me “There’s no way that Duck Dynasty is the #1 show on television…” when it was rated #1 at the time. He then explains to me how the Nielsen numbers are skewed and corrupted. He told me about 20 years earlier, Nielsen had been rating something of his that he knew had to be incorrect and so he had them investigated and found out the details, which I won’t get into here, and he also told me if you paid for their services they would skew their numbers in your favor.
But do you think he sued them? No… Instead he threatened to expose them and so they agreed on a multi-million dollar settlement: for free Nielsen services for many years in exchange for signing an NDA to keep quiet about all he knew! Why did he want that when he knew the numbers were lies? Because Nielsen stats were so important to his business and no one cares about the truth. With positive Nielsen numbers he was able to secure advertising dollars for his shows and without them he couldn’t… pure and simple and no way around it. But don’t the advertisers care? No, because the advertising firms are the ones placing ads and they’re charging companies based on the sale of the ad and a percentage of its cost, so what do they care if the stats are accurate, as long as it let’s them get paid. The companies paying for the ads have no other outlets and no true way to detect whether their ads are working, and anyway their ad executives’ jobs are based on the system staying in place, so the people who know best are certainly not going to protest. (And it’s best if the Nielsen team just ignores this interview or gives some form of “no comment” if asked about it, because if they challenge what I say here I’ll release the details of who/what/when.)
I tell the above story because it is exactly what you’re dealing with today as a musician in terms of YouTube and Facebook and other views/spins. If you don’t have numbers, you will have a hard time getting press, festivals, labels, etc., take you seriously. But the fix is in there too, for everyone knows the numbers are easily corrupted and no one cares because they have no other way of judging the game. The actual online platforms themselves are so safe in their corruption that they sell you it directly: you want more views on YouTube/Facebook? Pay for advertising. And guess what happens when you do get more views/spins that you’ve paid for? The algorithms take over, push your video even more to users, and your numbers get even better. Sound familiar? The record companies don’t mind paying the dollars to market into this system regardless of whether it’s true, because every spin makes them money, because the advertisers pay for advertising, those selling ads to their clients make money on the placing of ads, etc….
But let’s not forget going beyond paying the platforms and actually faking these numbers directly through automated services, which the major labels have been caught at and which almost no one really cares about for all the same reasons as above. Though this does screw some of the tech companies a bit, as certainly Spotify and similar companies don’t want to pay musicians/labels for fake spins, they can’t protest too much because their business relies on music licensing from the major music companies, so they combat it in the technical ways they can, but are certainly not going to go after the big dogs too loudly. Also, they are making money from the ads too…
[Editor’s note: Streaming services like Spotify have been known to remove music from their platforms if they detect fake streams from click farms.]
I’m in France often these days and I have a close friend who is very involved inside the French Hip-Hop scene, which is great and which I’d like to make a film about. There’s a long history there and many excellent rappers from MC Solaar to Booba, Lacrim, Sofiane, Aya Nakamura, OrelSan, etc. But if you look at some of the top singers/rappers they have numbers at the level of Beyonce, which of course is impossible despite having an audience in all French-speaking countries including those in Africa where they are very popular.
He’s told me how they fix the numbers all the time, from the street rapper to the major labels. Before it was paying cash to services in China where they had 10,000 phones set up on a wall, now it’s likely seamless online. I remember a couple of years ago he had a conversation with a popular rapper named Maître Gims about it, and Gims went online that night, speaking out against the practice. But even if Gims isn’t gaming the system himself, many are and actually need to just to compete.
I think you get the idea. And, despite all my ranting, I’d happily sign Daniel with a label if they shared our vision though I’ll happily not sign if they don’t. For no matter what I say, labels do get music to their audiences and most of the people there are trying to do their best and can’t do much against the system.
The game is the game.
Since Daniel now has experience in two very different music eras, what does he miss about “the old days?” Or what frustrates him the most about NOW?
I don’t think he misses the old days in the music industry as he experienced them. Daniel’s never fit in, was never embraced, and all his success has taken place in the last few years. He’s got a bunch of musicians in his life suddenly, some older but mostly young, and he’s having a grand ol’ time. While Daniel may not listen to a lot of new music except with his daughters and wife in the car, and he probably doesn’t know who Katy Perry is even though he’d recognize her hits, he’s not waxing nostalgic about the past either, except when introducing me to music I’ve never heard of. He loves many musicians I already appreciated like Mozart and Otis Redding and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but then he’ll lead me to groups like Goose Creek Symphony or songs like “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean or “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back” by Billy Edd Wheeler… So many funny storytellers!
One of Daniel’s most important songs (to him) is “Sweet Lovin’ Music” which is about how there should be no competition in music. If he thought about it, I think he’d appreciate the fact that you don’t have to compete in the same way as the old days to get your music out. We had a poignant moment when we uploaded his first ever song and I told him people from Japan and Australia could listen to it immediately. How can the old days compete with that?
Of course like everyone he wishes he was younger and he certainly wishes he’d done some of this earlier. And though he did write a song against cell phones, he looks at his phone all day long…
What’s had the most impact for Daniel? A particular press piece, concert appearance, or song?
That’s a complex question, because this has been a process and has been built in pieces by so many people who have helped openly and even anonymously (like whoever chose Daniel to play at SXSW in 2016) and everything great led to the next great thing.
There are so many tricks – mostly tricks I didn’t mean to be tricks – that have helped. For instance, the film being made was a key to getting much of our press in the beginning as it added weight to the idea of who Daniel was by simply putting forth the idea that Daniel deserved a film on him. But it wasn’t a trick, because I thought the movie would be distributed years ago! (At least I get to update it).
Yet if I had to pick anything I’d say it was Daniel getting minor heart surgery during the summer of 2017 (a milder form of what Mick Jagger will have this month). It was such a low point: here I am loving this guy and his family and his music and I thought he could die and I would have failed him. It brought up so many issues for me, as I knew I had all the pieces to succeed despite Daniel’s age, because whenever people heard his music, story, or talked to him personally, they were almost always into him no matter what age they were. So it was clear to me that it was my failure; a failure that was part of a clear pattern of failures of mine and I was just angry – at myself and certainly at those in the media, film and music worlds.
So I made a decision: No one gets to ignore me anymore. You can say no to me, but I will fucking harass you bastards until you answer. And that’s what I did immediately; Daniel in the hospital and me not knowing if he’ll make it and hoping for another shot to make it all work. I had been surfing consistently for the first time in my life that year, enjoying it on the Atlantic Coast near Bordeaux. But since I started in on my new mission I unfortunately haven’t been back.
And what I discovered is that while there are certainly many bastards out there, there are so many people who want to help.
Yet the other night (March 27th, 2019) in Bordeaux was another huge turning point for us, where Daniel played his first ever French concert of his original music. It was an “underground” concert – outlaw if you will – at the apartment of young concert promoters Pierrick Falmon and Clementine Moncla and it was incredible. Mark Daumail and Paul Magne of the famous French band Cocoon joined Daniel, as did French troubadour Baptiste W. Hamon, as did Emilie Moutet, the lead singer of Willows. Go figure that Daniel’s first ever band was an all-star team of young French musicians. So many people showed up that they were stuck outside, on the stairs, in the rafters. Two things Daniel had always told me: young people won’t like his music and neither will French people. I’ve been seeing the opposite for years, as I’m younger than Daniel and have a lot of French friends who are younger than me and they always love Daniel’s music. He and his family were so happy to see and feel the reaction, and our Instagram – which I always neglect – was messaged with all kinds of wonderful videos people took, while so many people have reached out to me with praise and opportunities.
Fortunately, we filmed the concert and will also release a live album from it, because it was damned cool.
What’s next? What are you building towards?
That depends on if you ask me or Daniel. Daniel just wants to quietly write his music and play some smaller venues; I want my 71-year old friend to have world domination, action figures, portraits and golden statues in every city and town, all radio stations required to play his songs every 12 minutes, a float in the Macy’s Day Parade of his drawing of “The Sheriff of Mars”…
Okay, being serious (though that float of “The Sheriff of Mars” would be nice) there’s still so much to be done; we’re still not profitable and so we have to keep digging in and making choices. Daniel has 500 incredible songs and keeps writing more and I want it all out there, produced and recorded richly, widely distributed and supported by professionals so that people can conveniently listen, buy, and hear about Daniel’s new work. And that professionalization is important to me, as I miss so much, from radio distribution to simple stuff like getting Daniel’s lyrics up on lyric sites. Aside from this, I’d like to see “The Sheriff of Mars” doc and concert films we’ve shot released. Daniel certainly needs to tour more, and wants to play The Grand Ol’ Opry and Carnegie Hall (he says he’s joking about Carnegie, but I don’t think he is. Let’s see where we are when his film comes out and if he’s as popular as I think he will be).
But things are so going great right now, it’s hard for me to believe last week happened at all…
For I just heard an almost finished version of Daniel’s upcoming album that Paul Magne produced, “Ballad of the Stable Boy,” which will be something extraordinary for us; the name comes from a song about a heroic stable boy who makes a moral decision to save a girl and lose a race. It’s a concept album that will be musically rich as it follows the stable boy throughout his life using eleven of Daniel’s songs; all stories that clearly are parallels of Daniel’s life though he would deny this if I asked him. One of the most amazing songs on the album will be “Old Friend, Charlie,” which is Daniel’s English-language, Americana Music song that is a metaphor for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in 2015 (Daniel’s daughter was in Paris for the later ones in November 2015, so it’s personal). I had no idea he’d even written “Old Friend, Charlie” until we started going over his pile of music.
I also want Daniel to work with other great artists of all ages, though that’s beginning to happen already. When we started this, no one I knew had heard of Outlaw Country music, and it certainly wasn’t getting any mainstream attention. Now you see all these great musicians like Jason Isbell, Nikki Lane, Whitey Morgan, Colter Wall, Kacey Musgraves, and others take things in different directions (not all of them are Outlaw musicians exactly, but neither is Daniel despite being a product of that era). I heard a folk singer last week named Michaela Anne who seems to share Daniel’s optimism and I’d enjoy getting on her radar. A young musician in France turned me onto Shakey Graves a few weeks back and he and Daniel would play great together. Charlie Paxton, The Rolling Stones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Adele… There are so many amazing people out there and I hope they find us. And of course I’d love to see all those great folks like Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris who gave “Pancho & Lefty” fame, sing its sister song “Sweet Lovin’ Music.”
Daniel has never been on television, but now French TV has scheduled three appearances including a 14-minute piece on the making of his new album; plus two top young French artists told me they separately wish to record songs of Daniel’s. But too few in the USA know about Daniel right now, though I’m sure talk shows like Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Steven Colbert, and Jimmy Fallon will all love him if they hear about him, as he is not only a talented musician but all personality. Or I should say many Americans will love Daniel if they get to see him, just like the Brits do. In the UK, I hope Daniel gets on the Jools Holland and Graham Norton shows soon.
It’s shocking to me we don’t get invited to any American music festivals or gigs and I hope that changes. But fortunately there’s Daniel’s first European festival appearance at the Black Deer Festival this summer with great musicians ranging from The Staves to Roxanne de Bastion to Kris Kristofferson to Justin Townes Earle to Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton and so many more.
And I’d really like to have Daniel tour Australia and New Zealand as he’s written a song about Australia and had press down under and I know he’d be a hit in both countries.
Separately, Daniel should make a children’s album as his songs about animals are ripe for an amazing one and we have enough for three albums already. Not too far down the road I’d like to develop both a theatrical musical based on his songs, and a feature film on his life. There has also been some interest in a written biography on Daniel, which I would like to have happen as there is so much there beyond what I was able to capture in my documentary on him.
I’m ambitious obviously, but not too much about the money by itself.
But people’s help is the most important. Those who are reading this article may think they can’t help, but a follow on Spotify, a Tweet – really anything positive small or large – deeply matters, because it also helps us to know we’ve touched someone. It’s why the Instagram photos and videos that people posted of last week’s concert meant so much to me. While it’s hard now to get Daniel on playlists and get television appearances in the USA, along with all the rest I’ve already mentioned, it just takes someone noticing or hearing or having a friend who works at Deezer or Spotify or Netflix that this gets passed to. Just like all our press was impossibly hard and then sometimes easy.
For some final advice, I think the most important inspiration since we started was when Daniel was nervous, about to play for the first time with his producers before he recorded his first album in 2013, and producer Gary Gold just looked at Daniel and said “don’t worry, it’s just music.” I’ve kept that in mind when I find myself taking things too seriously… Which doesn’t mean sometimes when it’s going bad I don’t want to shoot everyone, especially myself.
And a few weeks ago, before things got so great, Daniel was being a bit cynical about our prospects. He loves this Rabbi called Rebbe Nachman who wrote this book full of optimism Daniel likes to read called The Empty Chair and I joked with him that he should go read it. But the truth was I was feeling the same about everything too. A couple of hours later he felt better and texted me this about baseball player Roberto Clemente and Rebbe Nachman:
“…Pittsburg Pirates were out of contention; but the great Roberto Clemente made a crashing leap into the wall going after a deep drive. He couldn’t quite make the catch but came down all bruised. They asked him why he tried so hard, since they were out of contention anyway. He said he was not paid to win the pennant; but to catch the ball—that’s why he had tried so hard. Nachman Baseball.”
I thought that was about the greatest thing I could read and recovered immediately. My job – and yours too if you’re reading this – is to catch the ball. You have to be optimistic and cynical at the same time, but drive forward no matter what and try to get things out even if you fail 100 times a day to succeed once a month. Daniel has come out of nowhere and continues to grow from a small farm in France that he barely leaves.
But big trees come from small seeds. I think anyway, as I’m from New York and really know so little about agriculture and must go ask Daniel…
Keep up with Daniel Antopolsky at his website.
Chris Robley is the Editor of CD Baby's DIY Musician Blog. I write Beatlesque indie-pop songsthat've been praised by No Depression, KCRW, The LA Times, & others. My poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Prairie Schooner, The Poetry Review, & more. I live in Maine and like peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, a little too much.