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Interview with Heather McDonald, Music Careers

Posted in A Day in the Life, Future Legends, Interviews | No Comments »

If you enjoy the music biz blog posts on my site, then you’ll love Heather McDonald’s Music Careers page. Since meeting Heather this year via Twitter, I have had the pleasure of getting to know another passionate indie music fan, who shares a wealth of knowledge, and I’m excited to share her with you.

Heather McDonald,

The Rock Star Life Lessons Interview with Heather McDonald, Music Careers
by Carla Lynne Hall

Rock Star Life Lessons: What are your favorite parts of music promotion?
Heather McDonald: Talking about music! I love music, and when I’m working on something I really believe in, it’s a great feeling to turn other people on to it. Sometimes, music promotion can be quite formulaic and frustrating, but it all becomes worthwhile when someone else gets excited about some music that you’ve introduced to them. I also love talking to other people who love music, so when you call someone to talk about a new release and you end up just shooting the musical breeze with them – that hardly feels like work.

Also, hearing a song you’ve worked on getting some radio play or seeing a review or interview that you helped arrange is a good feeling.

RSLL: I learned recently that you spent 7 years in Scotland working for Shoeshine Records, an indie label. How does music promotion differ from Europe to the US? Or does it?
HMc: You know, it is different. Speaking about the UK specifically, one of the biggest differences is simple size. The UK is a lot smaller than the US, and that matters. There’s so much less ground to cover, and it’s a lot easier to get national exposure. Doing a “national” tour in the UK can mean hitting five or six cities – if you get regional press coverage at each stop, you’re well on your way to having a decent buzz going about your music. Do that a few times, and chances are that a lot of music fans will know your name.

Another huge difference to me is radio. I’m not saying it’s a walk in the park to get your music played on the radio in the UK, but it is significantly more accessible than it is in the US. I think perhaps the death of the great John Peel has changed things a little bit, but there is a lot more support for independent music on UK radio than there is in the US. My music friends in the UK bemoan the plight of the indies on radio, and I’m not saying it couldn’t be better. But compared to American radio? Big difference.

Of course, you also have to consider the fact that a play on say, Radio 2, reaches a national audience, unlike regional US radio.

I actually find the music industry in UK to be quite different overall to the music industry in the US and could probably go on for days about it!

RSLL: What is one action a musician can take to build their music business?
HMc: I’m a little old school, but my answer has to be: book a show! Heck, book a tour! Get out there and play. I know that the overriding theme for musicians these days is that the answers to building their profile lie on the internet, and I’m not discounting the importance that all of the new opportunities that the internet has created for the music industry. However, I’m a big believer that building an ardent live following, even if it’s just in your town for now, is ultimately more cash in the bank for your music career than adding friends/followers/what have yous to your social networking profiles all day long. Those things are important and useful, but the translation of social networking friends to bums on seats at your shows isn’t a forgone conclusion. The trick is finding the balance.

When you play live, you build a following that is more invested in you than following you back or accepting your friend request, you perfect your craft, you make connections – these basics still matter. In other words, don’t sit around on the internet all day debating, say, whether or not the future of monetizing music is selling merch at shows. Get out, play a show, sell some merch and make up your mind that way! Learn by doing. It will be eminently more useful to your music career.

RSLL: If you were starting all over today as a musician, what would you focus on?
HMc: I think that these are both exciting times and exceedingly confusing times to be a musician. I’m lucky that my job lets me interact with a lot of musicians who are just getting their start in the industry now, and a lot of them email me because they feel like they’re just spinning their wheels. There are just so many paths to go down these days that it’s easy to go a little way down all of them, only to find out you’re not really ever reaching any of your big goals.

What I always tell them – and what I think all musicians should make a point of doing these days – is to just focus on the basics and go for it. You should make a point of educating yourself about how the industry works and pay attention to the internal industry debates and dialogues, of course, but I think it’s a tremendous mistake to think that recording a good song, promoting it and playing it live aren’t still the bottom line. And yes, really, focus on the music before you focus on anything else. If your music takes a backseat to developing this plan or that plan, you’re building a house of cards.

This point may sound kind of obvious, but I encounter a lot of musicians who are extremely concerned about whether this site or that site is better for promotion or if the CD is dead or vinyl has been resurrected or any number of industry issues, but who have never played a show or even written enough songs to fill up a demo. Again, I do believe that now more than ever it is important for musicians to understand the industry as a whole, but be careful to avoid the temptation to put the cart before the horse.

When you build a strong foundation, opportunities tend to guide your next steps, but once I had something to promote, I would cherry pick a few homes on the internet to network with my fans. I think it’s better to be a vocal member of a few communities than getting lost in the shuffle joining every single networking site out there. I would also get my own website. Social networking sites are not enough.

Last but not least, I’ve spent the past several weeks interviewing lots and lots of teenagers about their music habits, and while plenty of interesting things popped up, one thing every single one of them said was that YouTube is one of the first places they go when they want to search out new music. I’d make getting a presence there a priority.


Heather McDonald has worked in the music industry since her teen years. She started out sitting behind a record store counter, first as an employee and then as the manager of a small, independent record store. During her time at the record store, Heather worked closely with both major and indie labels on new release promotion and worked on in-store performances from artists across all genres.

Heather left the record store to move to Glasgow, Scotland, where she worked at indie label Shoeshine Records. There, Heather got to do a little of everything: dealing with manufacturing and distribution, securing international licensing agreements, artist management, tour booking, show promotion and album promotion.

Heather now works as a freelance writer, covering music for many print and web outlets. She also works in PR for various bands and record labels. She is currently involved in the set up of a label designed to give Caribbean based musicians opportunities in the US and Europe.

Heather’s Music Career page

Heather’s Blog

Follow Heather on Twitter

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