Most anyone who gets tons of music submissions and press releases — journalists, managers, music supervisors, etc. — will tell you that not much of it seeps through. We know you're all working hard out there. We're sorry.
But Century City-based singer/songwriter Cathy Heller has figured out a way to break through. Though she's not a household name, she's made a shit ton of money. Her system is pretty simple — it doesn't even require a time machine to take her back to the music business glory days around the millennium.
“Home to Me” as heard on Switched at Birth
A lifelong artist and music fan, Heller simply identifies television shows that are using music she loves or music similar to what she does. Her plucky indie jams are pleasant and light. Industry professionals have called them “accessible,” in the sense that they're not ultra specific to particular people or scenarios, which also makes them good placement candidates for varied projects. Heller also performs around town at venues including Hotel Cafe. Her debut album Breaking Free will be released April 30.
In 2012, fully 28 of Heller's songs showed up in commercials and TV shows including Pretty Little Liars, Drop Dead Divas, One Tree Hill, Body of Proof, Switched at Birth and The Real World. Heller works two days a week and spends the rest of her time with her husband and one year old daughter. She makes a great living — she prefers not to say publicly how much, but she told us and, trust us, it's not shabby.
Here's her hustle: After identifying a music supervisor whose work and tastes she admires, Heller researches that person through IMDB, Twitter, any mutual friends and events — like panel discussions. Through their tweets and whatnot (“I discovered that one guy was a big fan of Z Cavaricci jeans”) she gets a sense of who they are, what they care about. Then if it's a fit, she reaches out.
Rather than sending out mass emails, she writes a thoughtful, genuine message tailored to the person. (Her email to us began with, “what is playing in your car's CD changer right now?”). Everyone likes to feel special. Her emails get noticed. People write her back. She gets work. She also makes friends.
“A lot of people think sales is about numbers, like you just have to contact so many people and the odds are that somebody will respond,” she says. “I don't look at it that way at all. Sales in any business is about people. When you connect with somebody, you need to think, 'I want to genuinely have a connection with you,' rather than 'you're a person I'm going to contact to see what you can do for me.'”
Although often stigmatized, licensing songs for commercials, film and television is one of the few ways that artists can still support themselves within the current sad face economic realities of the music industry. While licensing houses broker most of these deals by acting as middlemen between supervisors and artists, Heller does all of the work on her own. (Although she was formerly represented by someone who did this for her, the working relationship ended when he went to another agency).
“When I first moved to L.A. ten years ago,” she says, “I went to this panel on 'how to make it in the industry.' Everyone else was really longwinded, but this one guy simply said, 'polite persistence' That's really all it comes down to.”
“You Make Me Happy” as Heard in Pretty Little Liars
What cannot be underestimated here is Heller's ability to genuinely engage with people. She thanks you for calling, asks you where you're from, compliments you on having a job that seems to suit you. She makes you laugh by talking about the greatness of the finale scene in Dirty Dancing. At the end of the interview, she asks you out for a drink so she can hear more about you. (This has never ever happened before). It seems like she mean it. It's easy to see how she has accomplished what she has.
“People need to trust themselves that they have the right to be successful and can send someone an email because they believe in their work,” she says. “The best work gets done when it's done with confidence.”
It's also more about long-range vision than instant results. “It might take me two years to get a response from one person, and it might take me three days with someone else,” she says. “I'm not looking for what I'm going to get from it and starting with an outcome in mind. I'm willing to put in the time to make the relationship.”
Being able to match ambition and a quality product with top notch people skills is perhaps the answer to how artists can actually make a living in this brave new world of the music industry. “It's all there,” Heller says. “Open your laptop. Boom.”
We're going out for a drink next week.