Seattle singer and songwriter Tae Phoenix ’05 long dreamed of pursuing a career in music. For years she hesitated, put off by the insidious attitudes of industry insiders. “A lot of people said, ‘God I love your voice; you’re such a great musician. Get your nose fixed and lose 20 pounds and we’ll talk.’”
It wasn’t until her late 20s that she decided to quit her corporate job and pursue music full time. Since the release last year of her debut “handcrafted acoustic pop” album, Rise, Phoenix has enjoyed a lengthy string of weekends booked with live performances. She’s happy doing things her own way. “In terms of being able to make the art you want to make—get it out there the way you want to—and really sell your product and sell yourself as opposed to what a label wants to turn you into, it’s fantastic, and I would not ever go back to the way things were,” says Phoenix, who was known as Teresa Valdez-Klein during her time at Pomona.
The old industry model saw artists pursue a contract with a record label. Now, the landscape includes more opportunities to find an audience. The catch? Few are lucrative. Artists can self-finance an album—what Phoenix dubbed a “musical calling card.” They can put their music on YouTube. They can build up a fan base with live gigs. They can sell music via websites and apps such as CDBaby and iTunes, often one 99-cent single at a time. One thing hasn’t changed: the lifestyle requires grit.
“There’s a lot of rejection, there’s a lot of people who take more than they give, there’s a lot of emotional struggle,” Phoenix says. “Carving your own path, no matter what it is that you’re doing—if you’re trying to establish a new industry, if you’re trying to start a new company, if you’re trying to do anything outside of the prescribed formula that we’re given for life—can be really brutal. You fail more, you hurt more, you bleed more, you get your heart broken more.”
Allison Tartalia ’96 hasn’t followed formula. A theatre major, she left Pomona believing she would pursue a career on the stage. It was work in musical theatre that led her to bridge two longtime interests. The New York singer and songwriter has never pursued a career outside the arts, instead innovating ways to make a living with what she termed a “freelance livelihood.”
She maintains a studio of piano students and licenses a curriculum to teach music classes to young children. She was nominated for a regional Emmy award in 2010 for her musical contribution to a PBS documentary and released Sweet and Vicious, a short album, the following year. She performs regularly, including as part of an ensemble in a Joni Mitchell tribute show.
“It used to be that what you hoped to get was a label deal,” says Tartalia. “Now to some degree it’s not as necessary because you have more direct access to audiences than you did 20 years ago. There’s not necessarily enough financial benefit to sacrificing what you have to sacrifice to justify signing with a label.”
Jason Mandell ’01 did sign an old-fashioned deal. He met with early success in his music career, while still on campus working toward a degree in English. His Claremont band, Think of England, included then-Dean of Campus Life Matt Taylor on the drums. The group first won the nationwide Pantene Pro-Voice contest and then gained national interest by opening for pop star Jewel and others. The attention Mandell garnered helped lead him and a later partner to ink a deal known as a publishing contract, which provided funds to support future songwriting. He had enough income to focus exclusively on creating music for a year.
It was a rare opportunity for any artist. “There was some really awesome stuff happening right out of the gate,” Mandell recalls. But then, the realities of a cutthroat business meant that his subsequent work couldn’t gain a lasting foothold. The company that signed him never recouped its expenses with sales of his work—and still holds the rights to any gains from that music. Mandell and his partner split. He drifted into work with new collaborators, and today performs with the Los Angeles country-folk band The Coals, which releases its album A Happy Animal this summer.
Mandell is uncertain that the industry’s metamorphosis has enriched its output. “I’m not sure that the alleged democratization of music is yielding superior product. I think the opposite,” he says. The audience has changed as well. “The attention span is certainly decreasing. I’m not sure that benefits anybody.”
Mandell laughs, noting that perhaps he sounds like a “curmudgeon” at this point in his career. He remembers a different era. “No one buys music,” he says. “When I grew up, there were two ways to listen to music. You happen to hear it on the radio or you buy it. That’s certainly not the case anymore.”
Mandell pointed to a goal for musicians today: licensing deals. Placing one’s work in film, television and other media can be a boon. His “I Wanted a Lover, I Needed a Friend” appears in the video game Silent Hill: Downpour. Tartalia’s “Ran” was used in the reality television show Dance Moms. Although these steps raise audience interest, income can still be elusive. Mandell’s tune is controlled by his old label. Tartalia receives a respectable 63 cents on the dollar for sales of her single on iTunes, but earns only fractions of a cent from websites like Spotify when fans stream her music from there.
After years of focus on his music career, Mandell decided to pursue what he calls “a proper day job” and now serves as director of public affairs for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. “Looking back, the truth is I’ve had a lot of experiences that I feel really fortunate to have had and maybe never really expected to have,” he says. “You know it’s fickle and you know it’s difficult. I enjoy it more now because I expect even less of it, financially speaking. It’s really freeing.”