Happy Music Business Monday! This year’s CMN keynote speaker Ken Whiteley is a Canadian roots music legend. Ken has been performing since 1965 and making music with children for over 25 years. Accomplished on over a dozen instruments, his musical styles range through folk, blues, gospel, jazz, Caribbean, country, original songs and much more. He has appeared on over a hundred recordings and produced work by children’s musical icons Raffi, Cathy Fink, Tom Paxton, Fred Penner, Al Simmons, and Sharon, Lois & Bram. He has produced more than 100 albums, with sales in excess of 8 million copies, many garnered with Parent’s Choice and Children’s Music Web awards. Recordings produced by Ken have received a whopping total of 20 Juno nominations, 2 Juno winners and 2 Grammy nominations. In this October edition of Music Business Monday, let’s get to know our keynote speaker on a more personal level before meeting him at the conference. I’m sure you will appreciate his very candid and honest reflections.
Culture Queen: If you were on a deserted island and you could only take 3 albums with you, which would you choose and why?
Ken Whiteley: 1) Nat “King” Cole Trio – “Vocal Classics”. These songs were recorded with 2 versions of his original trio. It was a road-tested ensemble of 3 great musicians including Nat “King” Cole playing his own piano parts and the incredible guitar playing of Oscar Moore. It combines the simple and complex. You’d think that Nat is just singing the melody until you try and sing along with him and begin to realize how he back phrases and delivers each line. His vocal pitch and tone are SO good. It is both energetic and relaxing at the same time.
2) Golden Gate Quartet – “Sing Spirituals” – Again this is fabulous vocals, this time in an ensemble setting. Again they are so tight singing with each other, the breathing is an integral part of the rhythm and they swing like mad. Also, this kind of gospel music makes me feel alright. It’s actually spirituals which mostly predate 20th-century gospel music, but it combines genuine, bluesy feeling and at the same time a certain sophistication.
3) I don’t know if this fair, but for my 3rd album I would have to have some kind of “mixtape” because there is just too much great music not to. It would contain tracks by Hawaiian slack key guitarist Sonny Chillingworth, maybe some Pablo Casals or Glen Gould playing Bach, some Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, maybe a little Doc Watson and the Watson family, a Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder track or two, a little Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley bluegrass and………
If I was really on a deserted island, I doubt that I’d actually have the chance to pick and choose what I brought with me. If anything, I’d probably just have my iPod that has 4,000 songs on it and I’d listen to that until the batteries ran out.
Culture Queen: (Laughing) What a clever way to make sure you could take all of your favorite music with you! I love that you chose Nat King Cole as I love him too. His music is so elegant. Actually, all of your choices would make an awesome playlist! Now that we have your amazing playlist, describe what your dream performance would look like.
Ken Whiteley: Lots of times I have performance situations in my dreams and sometimes they are great, often not so much. In actual fact, wherever I’m performing and whomever I’m performing for is the ideal situation for that moment. Having said that, I always like playing for a “full house” whether that be a major concert hall or a house concert in someone’s living room.
Culture Queen: That’s a great way of putting it. A great way to stay humble as well. Growing up, which musicians, shows or other artists inspired you to be a children’s music artist?
Ken Whiteley: Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger, Bessie Jones, Michael Cooney and Estelle Klein.
Culture Queen: Hooray! I’ve got my music listening homework cut out for me! This is one of my favorite parts of the interview! ……(An hour later) Thanks for the recommendations! I especially like Bessie Jones. Reminds me a bit of Vera Hall. Now, on to your show experiences. Do you have any pre-show or post-show rituals that you practice?
Ken Whiteley: I have a Chinese herbal tea that I always drink when I’m performing. If it is a concert (as opposed to a school show), I don’t get into my stage clothes until just before going on stage. Having particular clothes that I wear for performing it helps me to create a certain, positive mindset. Post-show, ideally I always like to have some time to interact, one on one, with any audience members that want to. That’s not always possible, however. Then comes the ritual that is one of my least favorite parts of performing – packing up all my instruments and gear.
Culture Queen: Oh, the agony of packing! It’s my least favorite part of performing as well. I can’t wait until that is a task that I can delegate to someone else. (Smiles) Also, I truly agree that it’s important to have a costume or “stage clothes” as you say that you don’t wear anywhere else. What’s been your most rewarding experience performing for children?
Ken Whiteley: One of the particularly rewarding experiences that I have had is being in a music store or at a festival and some younger musician will tell me that I inspired them through a school show of mine they saw, or through my recordings for children that they listened to as kids.
Culture Queen: That’s always an affirming experience. Have you ever had a challenging experience either performing? How did you recover from it; and what lessons did you learn from it?
Ken Whiteley: When performing for young audiences, one of the things that I have often done is to get kids to come up on stage and play simple instruments with me. One time a young cowbell player started peeing his pants on stage and that was certainly challenging to know how to deal with. I’m in mid-song, so it’s kind of hard to stop the concert; I didn’t want to embarrass him any more than he already was by drawing attention to it. All I could do was as privately as possible, apologize to his mother when at the end of the song when she went to pick him up and also try to make sure the urine didn’t get on any of the other instruments. Not sure what the lesson is except that “stuff happens”.
Culture Queen: Oh wow! You know, I’m starting to think that a child wetting their pants is a children’s musician’s rites of passage. Thank heavens for baby wipes and the dry cleaners! (Smiles) What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you pertaining to music business management and why?
Ken Whiteley: One piece of advice that I received in my early twenties, about 3 in the morning of a New Year’s Eve party from a slightly older musician was “Save your receipts”. At that time I didn’t make anywhere near enough money to actually owe any income tax, but I did start saving receipts. They came in very handy years later when I was touring all over playing with Raffi and actually owed something. In a similar line, after that experience, I had an accountant who helped me to create a system to actually keep good records as I went. This became much easier when computer accounting programs such as QuickBooks came along. Then the trick is to make sure that:
- Everything goes through the books;
- You keep the entries up to date;
- And that you save your receipts.
This came in very handy for me when the Canadian Revenue Agency (Canada’s IRS equivalent) audited me for 2 years worth of income and expenses. Although it was a lot of work to get things organized for them, I had it all; and at the end of the day, didn’t owe them any more money.
Culture Queen: Thank you for that transparent solid financial advice! It’s so very important. Being audited sounds like a nightmare. I’m so glad that you took heed to that great piece of advice that you were given; and that you reaped the rewards for staying organized! In your opinion, what are some tools that you feel every professional children’s music artist should have to make life easier?
Ken Whiteley: I would suggest that it’s more about skill sets than objects.
- Get experience actually singing with children. Some people want to make a recording for children but they really don’t know what kids are truly like. Be true to yourself and don’t make music for children (or anybody else) that you don’t genuinely enjoy.
- You need a way for children to feel personally involved in what is happening on stage. You need to be able to be genuinely involved yourself. Over time, and especially live, kids have pretty good bull(crap) detectors.
- It never hurts to have a good performance trick or two up your sleeve, so to speak, that you can pull out if it seems like you might be loosing kids attention. One of the best ones I know is when kids are getting a bit loud, to get very quiet and almost invariably they quiet right down to find out what is going on.
- Finally, save your receipts or at least keep some kind of accurate financial records.
Culture Queen: I especially agree about making sure that the children feel personally involved with what’s happening on stage. That is a key component to performing for today’s young audiences. Thank you, Ken for sharing your music business wisdom. We look forward to hearing more from you at the CMN conference taking place this week! Now, let’s watch Ken in action!