By Erin Lee Kelly
I met Joanie Leeds a few years ago at my apartment. I was hosting a party for members of the New York City Performers Group that had formed at Kindiefest. Everyone had to bring a gig (info for a children’s music venue and booker) a potluck dish, and a story about a show that went horribly wrong. I remember that Joanie brought a prime lead for a well-paying venue, a ridiculous story about a gig gone awry, and best of all, a really good pasta dish. I immediately liked her.
It became apparent that evening that Joanie was a very sensible businesswoman as well as a respected artist. She had just finished recording basic tracks for two CDs at once, for I’m a Rock Star and What a Zoo! with plans to release them a year apart. You could see that she was putting together a plan, and had very specific ideas about where she wanted to be, what she needed to have in place in order to be successful, and how to monetize her music.
“Putting out two CDs a year apart, one in 2010 and one in 2011, was a really good thing for me,” she said. “I didn’t realize that I’m a Rock Star would be as successful as it was, and so people were interested to see what I would do next – and thankfully I had something ready. I wish now I had the next one ready to go and have something else in the bag … but … I got engaged!” So life is nicely balanced out.
Besides getting engaged to (and marrying!) drummer Dan Barman, in those two years since we first talked, Joanie has managed to put together and implement a business plan, and assemble a team of people that allow her to focus on being an artist. “I definitely had goals, like ‘I want to play these venues’ and some of that came true, and some I’m still trying to reach,” she said.
When Liz Buchanan approached me about finding some fellow kindie-rockers in New York City to talk CMN/kindie with I immediately thought of Joanie, because I was intrigued and inspired by her ability to balance creativity and business. I wanted to hear her thoughts on the industry, even if this time she didn’t bring a pasta dish.
Erin Lee: Let’s start with “what is kindie?” I think your music is a great example of the genre – but a lot of people have difficulty describing exactly what kindie is. How would you define kindie and how do you think this trend in children’s music came about?
Joanie: Kindie is the general term to describe indie music for kids. Just like the indie-rock music genre of the past decade or two, which is mostly made up of young DIYers (do it yourself types), the music tends to be on another level of hip, cool and a little more eccentric than the music of past generations. I think many of the kid artists coming out of the kindie genre today have a deep respect for artists that paved the way like Raffi, Pete Seeger, etc. At the same time, we wanted the kids’ music of today to reflect what we listen to … bands like Belle and Sebastian, New Pornographers, Stars, Andrew Bird, Band of Horses, Beach House, The Decemberists …
Erin Lee: The kindie scene is filled with bands – that’s one of the trends we’re seeing. You frequently perform with your back-up band The Nightlights, but you are essentially a solo artist. Is that challenging?
Joanie: It’s challenging when you’re a solo artist with a backup band because you are doing everything yourself. If you’re a band like Recess Monkey or The Not-Its there are people to split both the creative and management workload. That’s the upside. But the downside is, you’re also splitting the revenue, so it’s harder to make money at what you’re doing.
Erin Lee: What could we all be doing better as musicians?
Joanie: As a musician it’s always important to stay in the know. Not only with what kids are into these days for musical content but also with music technology, sound quality, honing our craft and resources for outreach and marketability. I’ve always been one to ask a lot of questions and try to reach beyond what I think is possible. My last two albums I recorded in Nashville, because I found some amazing producers down there that really knew their stuff. They didn’t produce kids’ albums, which to me was a good thing! They challenged me on many things and vice versa; it was a great relationship. I spend every dime on a publicist and wouldn’t rest until I found an amazing booking agent, too. With a good team, a great product and the energy and talent to back it up, it’s made my job fun and easy to do.
Erin Lee: It seems that in a short amount of time, you’ve successfully assembled a team that allows you to focus on your music, and you’ve implemented a business plan.
Joanie: Along with the plan was a lot of luck. If the publicist didn’t agree to work with me or the booking manager hadn’t found me, I wouldn’t be in the boat I am in. I knew what I wanted and I tried to acquire a booking agent and publicist. And to have really good ones too – ones that focused on the children’s music industry.
Coming Next Week – Part 2.
Erin Lee Kelly is a family music songwriter, performer and early childhood music specialist based in NYC. She is currently fronting Erin Lee and the Up Past Bedtime Band and is an artist-in-residence at inner city schools teaching songwriting and storytelling. This interview is part of CMN’s report on the kindie music scene, which will be featured in our upcoming Winter/Spring issue of our children’s music journal, Pass It On!