How Aimee Mann makes indie music pay with stripped-down tours, Broadway dreams

Few indie rockers boast the formidable creativity and credibility of Aimee Mann -- yet Mann deserves high marks not only as a literate, whip-smart artist, but also as a businesswoman who's survived the music industry wreckage. Jerked around by major-label power brokers in the '90s, Mann cast out on her own, forming her own SuperEgo Records long before it became fashionable for musicians of her stature to run their own affairs. She also scored success, and accolades for her work on the film Magnolia and her 2005 album The Forgotten Arm -- which she's now fashioning into a musical, bound for New York's Public Theater.

In 2010, big record labels are reeling, while Mann's still at it. But that doesn't mean she's taken the easy path, especially in an age when countless artists compete for attention on MySpace and Facebook. Currently on the road for a string of acoustic dates, Mann spoke to WalletPop about the advantages and vagaries of making a living in the music biz in the 21st Century.

WalletPop: What do you think it would be like for you if you were just starting your career today? The playing field has really changed for artists trying to earn a buck.

Mann: I don't really know what it would be like for someone just starting out. People are now accustomed to getting their music for free; there's a ton of artists out there and what money that remains is being distributing among more and more people. I guess a band starting out is probably going to have a hard time keeping it going for more than a few years. I don't know how they'd keep it going.

WalletPop: So how have you kept it going?

Mann: At the point where I left Geffen Records, I was an artist who had a bit of an audience, so I wasn't starting from scratch. I think that makes a big difference. We got an independent distributor and a publicist. It's not rocket science. I don't think my manager, Michael Hausman, found it to be such hard work -- it's not hard to find the steps to get in the stores. Getting one song on the radio is a matter of paying an independent promoter.

But that said, there are no more record stores. People will pay for some downloading, but mostly everyone gets a free copy; people download it for their friends. You make a thing and try to sell it, but if nobody buys it -- then what? If you make it for your own ego or for fun, how do you make any money out of that?

WalletPop: What about the money that's to be made playing live?

Mann: Partly that's why I'm doing acoustic tours with more stripped-down personnel. Full-band tours were always a break even proposition, and I just can't afford to pay crew and personnel. It's just me and two other musicians, and I really like acoustic shows. But it really is sad to think, "Wow, I may not be able to take a drummer out again." Can anyone spend a month out on the road doing something for free? That's just crazy.

WalletPop: You've been an outspoken advocate for the rights of artists. Do you think it's possible we could ever have a system like that in Canada, where the government supports and subsidizes popular music?

Mann: That's the kind of progressive, enlightened sort of attitude that I can't imagine them having in this country. [Laughs.] The government has never been a huge supporter of arts, and it's getting to be less and less.

Does it ever frustrate you that it's so hard to make a living as an independent musician?

Mann: My approach is that I can't think about it. It will either just make me angry, fearful or upset. It is what it is, and the only thing you can say is, "What do I do next to make a living?" And I don't want to get into this railing against free downloading. So that's how I deal with it: You do the next available thing. There's a certain amount of licensing [music] for TV you can do, for example.

The only way I can operate is to do the next thing that comes along in creative form. Not to be altruistic or precious about it but if I think, "How can I make money?" it doesn't work out, or it doesn't feel right. But if I do something I like -- like write a musical -- it really gets my interest and is fun. And that's the road I'm going to go down. Good things just come up when I'm being open to opportunities. Deliberately trying to do something I'm not good at doesn't benefit anyone.

WalletPop: Your stage play adaptation of "The Forgotten Arm" -- a concept album about a drug-addicted boxer who falls in love, and on hard times -- sounds like a good example of what you're talking about.

Mann: I got approached by somebody else in the theater world who suggested it, and who was looking elsewhere for interesting ideas. And for a long time it did not seem like something that was possible. But then a series of accidents made me believe that maybe it was possible. And once I started writing with my producer Paul Bryan, it came together so quickly and so easily.

WalletPop: So how much thought have you given to this as a major career move? U2 and Green Day have had some success on Broadway recently.

I'm not thinking in terms of what might happen with it, but the work itself is really interesting and fun. We have a rough draft and I think we're going to take it back to the drawing board; we have about 17 songs, including the ones from the record that we'll use, and I'm sure we'll add a few more.

It's true [about U2 and Green Day], but that could also mean by that the time I'm ready to roll, the wave is over. That part is none of my business. I have no control over it. That's the future. Who knows? What I've got is what I'm working on, and that's a great thing. Maybe it doesn't work out in terms of money. But it works out in terms of satisfaction.
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