Solo pianist Michele McLaughlin

How one DIY musician found her audience through music streaming.

I remember as a kid, my mom had a bunch of records by legendary pianist George Winston in our family room’s vinyl bin. For some reason we also owned those exact same albums on CD. Oh the 80’s and 90’s — what a heyday for physical media.

Michele McLaughlin saw George Winston perform in concert during that same era, when she was eight years old. She was inspired to say the least, and got to work learning how to play and compose on the piano. By the time she was old enough to start “building her career,” the music industry was completely shifting. Phsyical gave way to downloads, and downloads gave way to streaming.

Today, as a full-time solo pianist, Michele is making a living from her streaming royalties. With all the changes in music technology and consumption habits, it might seem like a whole new world, but we’re still listening to music in the same way we always have: with our ears. Michele has used streaming, particularly Pandora and Spotify, to find those ears, turn casual listeners into fans, and drive repeated engagement with her songs on digital platforms.

I talked with Michele about the opportunities her music has found on streaming platforms.

An interview with Michele McLaughlin

CR: First, would you say a little bit about the music you create? I’m particularly interested in how you view storytelling within instrumental music? How does a solo piano piece with no lyrics convey something that can, at times, feel almost confessional?

MM: I like to refer to my music as “musical storytelling” because I’m telling a story with each piece that I create. It might be a story about flying in a seaplane over the Alaska mountains, or a story about losing my boyfriend and the heartache I felt from that, or a story about finding myself and learning who I am in a series of yoga sessions, or a story about losing my creative muse and the struggle I went through to get it back.

My music is truly a musical diary of my life, my experiences, my emotions, my struggles. For me, it is exposing myself in my rawest form, my heart on my sleeve so to speak, so when you listen to my music, you’re getting a very intimate glimpse into my soul.

Who is your audience, and what do you think they’ve connected with in and come to expect from your music?

I have listeners on the spectrum from very young, to very old and everything in-between. I have a lot of young piano players just learning to play, a lot of returning piano players who have come back to playing after many years, a lot of people who like to listen to instrumental music while they work, study, eat, etc. My music is very accessible in that sense.

Did you always have a clear sense of your audience? And what do you do in order to better understand your listeners?

I don’t think I really had a clear idea of my audience until I started touring and meeting my fans around the country. I like to meet them in person, and through connecting on social media, and then build those relationships.

One of the pivotal moments on your path to becoming a full-time musician was when David Nevue told you he couldn’t play your album on his show because it wasn’t recorded on a real piano. I’ll bet most musicians would’ve walked away from that exchange with a sense of rejection or indignation. You took it as a learning opportunity, right?

I appreciated David’s honesty with me and took it as an opportunity to grow. I’ve been a long time admirer of his from back in the days, and had read his book on how to sell and market your music online. So, when he told me he liked my music, but couldn’t add it to the Whisperings station because of the digital quality of my recordings, my only thought was to step it up a notch and find a studio I could record with. I am so grateful I did, because being with Whisperings and becoming a part of the solo piano community has improved my life in ways I couldn’t even imagine at that time.

To me, from a business perspective, there’s something very appealing and economical about recording solo piano music in the comforts of your own home studio, especially since the piano can accommodate so many moods, styles, and sounds. But do you ever have to resist the temptation to change your creative process or workflow because it’d mean more overhead?

Not for me, no, because I’m a solo piano composer. I don’t write music that includes orchestration or other instrumentation. The piano is all I need, and recording at home is ideal. It’s less stressful, less pressure, I’m extremely familiar with my instrument and how it responds and plays, and I can take my time and do it right without the financial clock ticking away at my project.

I mean, sure, there are prestigious studios I could record at, with big name producers and engineers I could attach to my album credits, but that’s not my end goal. My end goal is to record a quality solo piano album, on a piano that I love, and have music for my fans to enjoy, and I can do that at home.

Any music production or engineering advice for people who are making their own recordings at home?

Well, while recording at home is definitely my preferred choice, I do it because I have quality gear, equipment, and instruments. Not all pianos record alike. Not all mics, and pre-amps, and audio interfaces are alike either. I’ve spent a lot of time under the mentorship and tutelage of my studio engineer, Joe Bongiorno at Piano Haven Studio, learning how to record my specific piano. And, when I record, I fly him out to my house to record with me, so that I can be sure I’m getting the best recording possible for my setup.

I have a Fazioli F212 grand piano, which has a lot of beautiful overtones and harmonics that can record funky if you don’t have it set up properly. Before that, I owned a Yamaha C7 grand piano, which was a completely different sounding piano. The mics I used to record my Yamaha didn’t work well on my Fazioli. We tested many different mics and placements to find the perfect setup for my specific piano. So, if you’re looking to record at home, on your own instrument, make sure you have the right gear to match your instrument, your room, your specific setup, and spend time testing multiple placements to make sure you have the right sound. It’s not as easy as just setting up some mics and hitting record.

Your radio resume is pretty impressive. Can you talk about where your music is played, how you promoted your music to those outlets, and how you built your presence in those places?

I have used a couple of radio promoters over the last decade of album releases. Kevin Wood with New Vision Promotion did the promotion for five of my albums, and Ed Bonk with Lazz Promotions has done the promotion on my latest two albums.

My music is played on New Age and Easy Listening stations all over the world, including Sirius/XM, MusicChoice Soundscapes, Echoes, Phase Radio, etc. Working with a radio promoter has been such a great way to get my music out to stations that play my particular genre, which isn’t considered mainstream and not as easy to just send music to on your own. In addition, I’ve had a strong presence on Pandora Radio for the last decade, and I’m currently working on building my Spotify presence.

There are a lot of music “platforms” competing for our attention and dollars. Do certain platforms work better than others for particular genres?

I think that Pandora and Spotify are the two top dogs in the streaming platforms, and they’re both fantastic. Pandora has been the best in terms of exposure and fan growth, but Spotify is quickly growing. I like Pandora because of its music discovery algorithm. I can choose a station, and discover a bunch of artists with similar song attributes. Spotify is nice if I want to just listen to a specific artist, or collection of songs. And Spotify’s music discovery platform is impressive. I’ve discovered a lot of really great music using their “Discover Weekly” playlists. With streaming becoming more and more prevalent, I welcome people listening to my music on all available streaming platforms. It’s great exposure for me, and I get paid for every listen, unlike a one-time sale from iTunes.

Pretty much ALL of the digital music services have gotten mud slung at them by rights holders, mostly complaining about pay. Is some of that criticism unfounded?

I think it’s important to remember that there are different types of royalty payments for these services.

You have performance royalties (ASCAP & BMI), digital performance royalties (SoundExchange and CD Baby or whoever your aggregator is), and mechanical royalties (Harry Fox, CD Baby Pro, etc). Then, within each royalty, there are portions that get paid to different entities. The songwriter or artist gets paid a share, and if you’ve got multiple songwriters, then that share gets split among all contributors. And you have the sound recording rights owner, and that share usually goes to the record label if you’re not independent.

So, when you see artists complaining about their royalties from streaming being small or non-existent, you have to wonder which royalty they’re complaining about, whether they’re with a label, and how many other contributors those payments are getting shared with. I am a solely independent musician, so I receive 100% of my royalty payments for each type of royalty. I don’t have other artists or songwriters to split with, and I don’t have a record label taking my publishing royalties.

I think the unfortunate thing is that the ongoing conversation is leading the discussion in a negative light and making it look like streaming is bad. Could royalty rates be better for streaming services? Sure, and I know there are advocates out there working on the artist’s behalf to make sure we’re paid fairly, which I’m sure we all appreciate very much. But, the current platform, and the current payments, have been good for a lot of artists and I am happy to stand on the supportive side.

What did you do to leverage your Pandora presence? 

I submitted my music to Pandora back in 2008, and they’ve been great for me. They have shared my A Celtic Dream and Out of the Darkness albums, and my Christmas albums as well with a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise listen to solo piano. The exposure has been phenomenal and the spins I get through Pandora have been career altering for me. My fan base has grown, my income has grown, and my exposure on iTunes, YouTube, and social media has grown because of it as well.

Any advice on how to grow a presence on Pandora?

One thing that has worked well for me is the marketing I’ve done to promote my Pandora stations. I actively encourage my fans and listeners through social media, my website, and newsletters to listen and follow my station and albums on Pandora. I drive traffic there through advertising and marketing campaigns, and I work hard to keep people listening. If you ask my fan base where they heard my music for the first time, the majority of them will say “Pandora.”

Have you used their AMP tools?

Yes, the AMP tools have been a fantastic resource for promoting shows, growing exposure for specific songs, and tracking my overall listeners, spins, stations, etc. I use them all the time and I’m a firm believer that an artist needs to actively work to grow their streaming following.

Did you have everything in place from the get-go to collect all your royalties? 

I’ve been signed up with ASCAP and SoundExchange from the very beginning, and recently signed up with a publishing rights administrator for my mechanical royalties collection last year when Pandora started their new interactive streaming services. Before that I was with Harry Fox.

What are the important administrative steps that need to be taken care of if you want to make the most money from your music?

It was easy to set up accounts with all of them. I have artists ask me all the time which services they need to be with, and I tell them they need to sign up with all of them. ASCAP or BMI for your performance royalties. SoundExchange for your non-interactive digital performance royalties. CD Baby for your interactive performance royalties. And a publishing rights administrator (like CD Baby Pro) for your mechanical royalties. Make sure each company has your entire repertoire spreadsheets. And check your accounts to make sure they’ve got your catalog listed correctly, and paying you correctly for that catalog. It sounds overwhelming, but it’s actually really easy to stay on top of.

Do you have a “team?”

I’m independent and do most of the work myself. I do have a fantastic marketing and web development team though: 12 South Marketing. I’ve been with them for a couple of years and they do so much to help me market and advertise and increase my exposure. They’re an incredible group of people who work hard for artists. I do all of my own tour booking and promotion, all of my own social media, but 12SM does my social media advertising, etc.

I use Ed Bonk for Radio Promotion, and I have a team of people I work with on album releases (Joe Bongiorno at Piano Haven Studio for mastering, recording and engineering, Matt Strieby for my design work, Rebecca Oswald for my transcriptions, Kathy Parsons for transcription proofing, Disc Makers for manufacturing, Shelton Turnbull for songbook printing, etc.). You find people you like and work well with and they become your family of sorts.

How would you break up your average day, time-wise?

I love to go straight to my piano when I’m up and ready for the day. It’s my favorite time to play. I’ll play through a concert set list to practice for upcoming concerts, and then work on new music, and spend time improvising.

I typically start the day with 45-60 minutes at the piano before I go to my office. I then work on emails, office projects, bookkeeping, social media, and other things I need to do at my computer for several hours. I will often go back to the piano a couple more times in a day to play and work on new music and practice. I’ve been trying to balance time working with time relaxing lately as well. I’m always working on new projects… new albums, new music, marketing and promotion ideas, videos, things to post on social media to keep the conversation going and stay engaged with my fans and followers. I stay pretty busy all the time.

What do you see happening with your music career in the next five years, and where does streaming fit in that picture?

I think streaming is going to continue to be a driving force in music, for all of us. People want instant gratification and convenience. Streaming is the epitome of instant and convenient. You can go to Pandora or Spotify or Apple Music and listen to whatever you want, when you want. I think we, as artists, need to embrace it and work hard to promote it so that we maximize our exposure and grow our followers there. There will always be new services, and new ways of consuming music, and instead of being afraid of it, we need to welcome it and utilize it. Staying in the forefront is key to being successful with the constantly changing landscape of the music business.

In five years, I’d like to still be making music and sharing it with the world. I’d like to still be doing shows, and releasing videos, and albums, and just enjoying having my dream job. Being a musician and having people who enjoy my music is something wonderful, and I’d like to see that continue to grow.

Michele’s story points to the importance of making your music available everywhere, and being ready to collect royalties as soon as your songs start gaining traction. To distribute your music worldwide, with global publishing royalty collection included, check out CD Baby Pro.

Check out Michele’s music on her website, on Pandora, or CD Baby.