Dream Small, Act Big: How To Make It In The Music Industry

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HARMONY JAMES (Harmony)

Can you give us a brief summary of how your career has progressed since the day you decided to start making music professionally?

I guess it starts way back when I was a kid and I really loved singing, just loved the sound of my own voice [laughs].

I joined the church choir because it was a good way to learn a few very basic technical aspects, and show that I had the propensity to sing. People would eventually ask me to sing for a given opportunity, sometimes a solo piece at the church, at a family BBQ or whatever. So that was the vague murmurings of getting up in front of people and doing it.

After I’d left home, I was playing in a small town band and we did a school fete, and someone there invited me to play at a pub, and that was the first time someone approached me and said “I want to pay you to do this”. I was as green as anything, very naive, I showed up with my acoustic guitar and sang as loud as I could over the noise of the pub. After a while, I realised I had to actually start investing.

Meanwhile, I’d been quietly learning every song I loved and writing songs privately. I didn’t consider myself a songwriter, but they were just coming out of me. I had a little book full of them. Over the years I always thought it’d be nice to have a record, but I always thought I didn’t want to do that unless I could do it well. I didn’t want a little backyard homemade job, I wanted a fancy one!

So years and years in, I decided to test my songs and get them judged by experts, shall we say – and I got some nice feedback, which emboldened me a little. I went and got a loan and recorded an EP in a recording studio in Sydney, made it look really nice and put it out there as a sort of test, a pilot project, and got really good feedback.

So that got me hooked!

What was your dream in pursuing music as a career – where did you ultimately envision yourself? How realistic do you think that dream was, looking back now?

To be honest, as a kid, I remember the moment where I was like, “I would love to be a singer”, but it wasn’t “I’m GOING to be a singer”, it was sort of like “lucky people get to do that, wouldn’t it be nice”.

I never really planned TO do it, I just loved doing it, and I followed music so much that I just kind of looked up one day and went, “Oh, I guess that’s what I am doing!” But yeah, definitely when I was young I never ever thought I’d find myself being given fantastic opportunities to have other people record my songs or anything. That was like a daydream. 

I do theorise that not being terribly starry-eyed was good. I’m a pretty pragmatic, realist sort of person. I’m actually surprised I’ve taken this sort of road, because it’s such an outrageous thing to tackle for such a realist. But I feel like maybe being such a realist has been good, because when something bad happens, or when I’m disappointed, or something takes twenty times as long as I expected, part of me knew that all along.

Part of me is like, “Well, I knew it was going to be hard, and it’s actually really hard.” 

What do you feel was the lowest point in your career? When did you feel the closest to giving up?

You sort of go through patches where it’s very hard and very frustrating.

When you’re not getting a whole lot of positive feedback, and there’s not much happening and you have some disappointments, you kind of think, “Am I crazy? Am I delusional? Is this ridiculous?”

I think there was a time when I felt a bit betrayed by people I should’ve been able to trust, and that was a huge low point and very hard to recover from.

Another time, I felt completely unsupported in a major project at a crucial time, and that really really crashed me.

So there’s definitely been big moments that have been really hard to cop, and I think you just have to rally and look at the bonuses, if you’re tough enough to hang in there.

How did you cope with this? How did you move past that feeling?

I think with the first one, I was new enough at the time that it really, really rocked me. There were tears and a whole lot of struggling to deal with it.

I guess a part of me had invested so much of myself – not only financially and time-wise – but this was something I’d been building to for so many years, you don’t really wanna walk away from that just because [things get tough].

You want to kind of rock back on your heels and shake your head and find a way to tackle it.

And the next thing I was saying, when I felt unsupported for a project that should’ve been, now I think my mindset is: “That’s not all the songs I have, there will be more songs, and next time I’m ready to launch a batch of songs it won’t be the same situation – there will be another situation and it won’t be this one.”

So kind of putting a pin in the calendar way into the future and going “this one will be good!” That’s a coping mechanism in my life in general, sometimes if I’m going through a really rough patch I put a visual pin into my calendar and go, “Next week I won’t be in this situation”.

What’s the journey to reach that point where your income is sustaining you like for you?

I’m working at that, but a lot of the revenue streams are decreasing, not increasing.

So I’m finding that I’m getting more airplay and more radio and TV support, but getting less income from that. People say that you’ve gotta tour and shift merch and things like that.

I go through short-term projects where I’m very busy and I’m doing quite a lot of that, so short-term you are making money and keeping your head above water. But then I step back and find other ways to generate income.

I tell people my pipe dream is to make a modest living just doing music.

I look at careers of people who aren’t hugely famous, they’re just credible, and they keep working, for example I’m a big fan of Emmylou Harris’s career. She’s kept working and kept touring, I particularly admire people like her because they’re older and haven’t rocked around in a bikini or anything else, it’s all about the music. I’m trying to hang onto that as a template for me [laughs].

[Music] is sort of a compulsion, isn’t it? You’re drawn to it. I would love it if it did pay, but I love it anyway.

Do you feel you’ve been on an upward swing, or are there days where you feel a little down on the music industry?

I got very lucky with my first record and it made me feel pretty optimistic.

My second record couldn’t quite match that hype.

I think having the unknown edge of surprise was a really good thing, and by my second record people knew who I was and expected it to be really good, so they were harder to impress.

I feel like, three records in now, I have the advantage of being known as an established artist in some respect. But I do feel like, now, I’ve been here so long that I don’t have any “new kid” edge, so I need to find a new great album, or a great sound, or something that’s gonna keep me current. 

I know, myself, I’ve been a fan of certain acts and I’ve bought every album they’ve ever put out, and at some point I’ve gone “You know what? I can’t buy these any more, they all sound like the same thing”. And it might be six or seven or eight albums in before I get to that point, but there is a point where you’re like “Maybe I’ve just grown out of this”.

So I don’t put a lot of mental effort into the reinvention thing, but I am aware that I’m gonna have to have a stroke of luck, or an amazing song, or something that’s gonna lift me up another step.

If you could go back and give your younger self some advice about expectations, goal-setting and how to approach your career in general, what would you say?

One’s just a silly thing, but I really mean it – I would actually choose a stage name.

Because I feel like it’s a really nice idea to have professional you be a complete other person than personal you.

I would go back and say, “Have a stage name, and she can be her and you can be you.”

But getting back onto more career stuff – probably something I wish I’d done is keep really good notes and really good records because you travel so much, meet so many people, it’s hard to remember which town responded really well to you and which person would’ve been a great support. I haven’t necessarily followed up those things as well as I should’ve.

Even if you just kept one very neat physical paper-and-pen diary that you could go back and go, “Oh, this town was awesome,” I think that would be really helpful.

Do you feel that you’re happy with where you are now in your career? Is there anything more you want to set out to achieve?

I still firmly believe I’ve been very lucky – blessed is the word people feel more comfortable using nowadays!

I kind of have a pros and cons list in my head, and when I look at the good things, the people I’ve met and the opportunities and experiences I’ve had, I think, “Wow, I really am blessed, this is fantastic. It might’ve been hard and I might be frustrated, but look at all these things that I could not have imagined would happen.”

There’s definitely other things – I should be a better guitarist by now, I should be able to sell out shows in more towns, so I do want to achieve a lot more.

I’m at a point where I want to be a bit experimental, maybe try a different producer, work with other people more – I started off working on my own a lot. Even though I was never totally starry-eyed, I think I’m even more of a realist now, and I can go, “You know what? I’m going to take a risk.”

In today’s climate, what do you think would be a realistic goal for a new artist following a path like yours to achieve by the end of one year actively pursuing a career in music like yours?

One year’s actually not a lot of time in my experience.

I guess if you’re talking about recording a project, probably by about a year from now they might be maybe ready to launch it. Because in my experience, setting that timeline, everything blew out. The recording took longer, the artwork took longer, everything delayed – and you wanna get it right.

So rather than rushing it, you say “Okay, it’s not July, it’s August”, then “No, it’s September”.

And I think you would’ve been doing a lot of background work over a year.

Everything you have to do takes a bit longer than you expect – when you’re working with other people, they have other priorities as well and you have to just roll with it.

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