You Must Go and Win: Life in the indie rock trenches
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Kai Ryssdal: You wanna make it in the music business? Figure it out yourself. ‘Cause the old rules are long gone. Most recent case in point — singer/songwriter Alina Simone. She was discovered by a book editor, of all things. He’d heard some of her songs online, became a fan, and to her surprise, offered her a book deal. To his surprise, the essays she wrote are funny. Actually funny. They’re collected in a new book called You Must Go and Win, all about building a career in the trenches of indie rock. Good to have you with us.
Alina Simone: Nice to be here.
Ryssdal: So this is not your typical musician biography. You know, I mean Keith Richards is out there, Patti Smith is out there and they tell all kinds of tells. This is stories of flea-bit mattresses and skeevy Craigslist ads and producers who are more interested in the second house in the Hamptons than they are in your music career. Why’d you stick with it? I mean, there comes a point when even the most determined person — whether they wanted to do it when they were five or not — says I can’t do this any more.
Simone: It’s because I was absolutely compelled to do it. And I think that’s the answer any artist would give you if you asked them. You know, you wanted to be a writer and your book got rejected 28,000 times and no one wanted to be your agent, and 17 years passed before you finally broke through. Why do people do that? It’s because they have to. It’s the expression of who you are. And if you look back at your life and you didn’t even try to do what you dreamed to do, then that’s really tragic. That’s tragic and it’s not funny. It’s just tragic.
Ryssdal: So speaking of tragedy, your most recent album before this one that’s out was all in Russian about an ill-fated Russian poet. Do I have that right?
Simone: Yeah, punk poet. She’s a singer and a poet.
Ryssdal: Right. You’re not playing to a fanbase here, you’re doing your thing.
Simone: That is very accurate. I wouldn’t say there was a loud clamor out there that I was answering for covers of deceased Soviet punk singers. I fell in love with her music. I became totally obsessed with it. I felt that it deserved to be reinterpreted.
Ryssdal: You have in your book, it’s a roadmap of sorts. It’s a graphic or a chart that says, listen if you’re an artist, here’s what you have to do. And you lay out a bunch of things: You have to go see a publicist and lawyers and press and all kinds of things. And then you have one where you have to connect with your fans. And I want you to read the little bit right there about connecting with your fans.
Simone: Howard Wolfson is going to kill me.
“In the summer of 2008, I got an order for an album I sell for leased and was selling through MySpace from one Howard Wolfson. At the time, I knew a man with the same name was helping run Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, but I figured this must be a different guy — especially since Hillary was in the midst of battling Obama in the primaries. The best way to check whether it was that Howard Wolfson, I decided, was a Google search to see if he was Jewish. Because one key to growing your fanbase is knowing your demographic and my fanbase was comprised entirely of depressed Jews. The search came up aces. But later on, I wrote just to make sure: ‘I hope you don’t mind asking,’ I wrote, ‘but are you that Howard Wolfson?’ A few hours later I had my answer: ‘I am. Hope you’re a Hillary fan.’ I never did ask what he was doing on my MySpace page during the primaries, but I wasn’t totally surprised when Hillary lost.”
Ryssdal: Yeah, so that is a good question what he was doing on your MySpace page. But the moral of the story is you gotta do what it takes, right, to get out to your fans.
Simone: You do have to do what it takes to get out to your fans. I think being an artist is about following your own voice and some people are really lucky in that what they want to do really intersects exactly with the market. There are just two lines on a grid and they meet. You’ve got JK Rowling and she really wants to tell the story of Harry Potter, and then lucky for her there are 3 billion people that really want to hear that story. Whereas in my case, there are 600 people that really want to hear those songs. But it doesn’t matter to me because I can’t be any other way. I can’t flip a switch and become Lady Gaga. There are people that say to me, why don’t you write some dance music, you’ve got a great voice? You could do this and that. But the truth is I can’t. I can’t do anything but what I do, which is why I do it.
Ryssdal: Alina Simone. Her album is called “Make Your Own Danger.” Her book is called You Must Go and Win.
Simone: Thank you.