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Interview with Natalie Gelman, Singer/Songwriter

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The Rock Star Life Lessons Blog Interview with Natalie Gelman, Singer/Songwriter by Carla Lynne Hall

Natalie Gelman

In November 2008, the lovely and talented Natalie Gelman granted me a generous interview, and I am happy to share it with you.

Rock Star Life Lessons: How often do you perform?

Natalie Gelman: It depends how you define it. I try to street perform on the subway in NYC three or four times a week but that often ends up being less because I go out to shows or get caught up in the business stuff. As far as official shows, I try to play every other month or so in the same region. I think that works out well so people (including me) don’t get burnt out. It helps you to keep people interested. But, there are times like this past week when I have a bunch of scheduled performances in the same week. This past week I had three shows in NYC, they were all showcases so it was a bit different and its important to take the opportunities that come so I promoted them all.

That said, I think as you build your audience its vital to not overstep their boundaries. If you over saturate them and are constantly telling them you’re playing at the same club they will lose interest in you really quickly, and not even, just won’t come to your shows, but might not even open your emails anymore. It’s better to be giving them a bit too little and have them wanting more.

RSLL: What’s your traveling/touring schedule like?

NG: I haven’t done too much touring in the past two years. When I first became a singer/songwriter I did one small tour and a huge tour up the East coast on rollerblades. I was really burnt out from that tour and all of the self-promoting after that. It takes a lot to do a tour right and get the shows booked, get media and press coverage and get people there. The small tour was marginally profitable but I realized over the course of the second tour that touring venues and coffee shops was not going to support me as a full time musician. I am starting to build tours now around higher paying gigs at colleges and see touring as an investment. To really make it work I think you need to re-visit the city every six months or at least every year to keep the interest of your new fans.

I read once that you should start in your hometown and build out in 100 mile increments. Starting in NYC you would branch out to Philly, Boston, Fairfield/Hartford in CT and then once you are reaching success in those markets try markets within 200 miles. Another touring idea I liked and use is to see where similar artists are playing and if they have returned to play there. It also helps give you an idea of routing.

It is getting harder to get people out to shows which is another reason I street perform and bring the show to them (more on that in a minute). I think the internet and live web streaming have filled that gap a bit in an interesting way. If you have a video camera and internet connection you can stream a performance on the web any time of day and people all over the world can start watching. It is interesting because there are usually chat rooms on the websites that host live web streaming so there is this interaction going on during the show between you the viewers and amongst themselves. It is really casual as if you were performing in a living room for a few friends in that sense. No mater how many people are there everyone has the same experience -they are watching you sing or play up close and depending on your equipment and internet connection (and theirs) they may be getting an even better show than they would if you were playing in a coffee bar with an espresso machine steaming milk in the middle of your most delicate and impressive song (of course, that’s just something that could happen). Its also a great forum to try out new material and get immediate feedback.
For web streaming sites check out www.Justin.TV and www.UStream.TV

RSLL: What is busking, and how did you get started?

NG: Busking is a term for street performing. I got started by accident when I was 17. I was showing a friend around times square after a show when someone asked me to sing for them. I took out my guitar and played a song while a crowd gathered. Next thing I know they are trying to give me money asking to sign up for my mailing list and asking me who I was.

The people who had asked me to sing were street vendors, The owner asked me to come back and perform next to his vendors every day for two hours. This went on for a week, it was great but the cops kept asking me to find a new spot. After a lot of hassle I did… underground.

I had this spot on the uptown 1,2,3 and 9 (back when there still was a 9) subway line at 42nd Street. I used to play there 5 nights a week when I was younger during rush hour because I was too young to go to bars for their open mics. I was really thankful that my friend was staying with me those first two weeks she stood next to me and would ask people to sign up for my mailing list which was great. I kept doing it every time I was back in NYC for break from college.

It’s a really amazing experience. People won’t listen unless you are committed to what you are performing but when you are the connections you can make down there are amazing. You are really making a difference in some peoples lives, bringing the arts to them. I have made friends with other performers and have has fans come out to shows five years later that had kept my small home made fliers and looked me up to see where I was and tell me how much they love the music and are happy I have a CD out now.

It’s always an adventure and it has made it possible for me to become a full time musician. I have street performed all over the country and there is a lot of work that goes into it. Researching where to play, what permits you might need etc.

If you want to get started in it, I suggest Google searching if the place you want to perform requires a permit. Some places like NYC have suggested permits. Also, if you are just going out don’t steal someone’s spot – its just rude. You can look around when you are in the area at where the good places to play are and pick a place a time of day that works for you and your target audience.

In a lot of popular street performing hot spots they are also big tourist spots so they usually have people who keep the street or subway clean. Those people are some of the kindest people in the world and they are your new best friends. Don’t feel awkward introducing yourself and asking them where people usually set up to perform if you don’t know the area. That has really helped me out when touring and in keeping up my morale in the subway when I’m having an off night.

RSLL: You’re really busy on the NACA college gig circuit. How did you get started, and what are those gigs like?

NG: I found out about NACA through a songwriter I met and performed with at Podcamp Boston, Rebecca Loebe. I had been playing a few college gigs regularly but didn’t realize what opportunity was there.

I just got started this year and decided to jump in full force and make some things happen in that market. It was really tough at my first conference because I was still getting comfortable with the lingo and pitching myself to dozens of student activities board bookers and their advisors. For me the shows I have played have been anywhere from fine to great. There are times when I have played in the student cafeteria to students who were interested, but on their cell phones and laptops a few feet from me, just too busy to really care. But there has also been times when the “new PA” system you are promised is one (bad) monitor so I unplugged and had a really personal experience playing my heart out to students that were so appreciative and picked up records and have kept in touch.

Now that I am in the college market professionally I realize that a lot of people look down on the artists that go to the conferences and push for college shows. I have heard it called “driving for dollars,” and lots of people seem to consider it selling out but if it enables you to get to tour and reach more people I don’t think it should have that type of stigma. The majority of artists don’t make their money back the first year they go to NACA. The best thing to do if you want to get started is to share a membership to NACA and/or booth at a conference to save money. If you don’t get chosen for a showcase you are going to have a tougher time but if you are (for lack of a better word) a hustler you can network and make it worth your time and money.

It’s definitely worth trying out, there were also many independent artists I met who are making over six figures a year just from playing the college market. They have built relationships up with advisors (who aren’t as likely to leave after a few years) and many have college booking agents as well who take care of most of their business.

Read Derek Sivers’ blog about the College Market:

Try out APCA. If you buy a booth you are basically guaranteed a showcase which is what most students want to see to book an artist.

RSLL: How has having online videos available helped you career?

NG: Having videos available online is great. Currently, I just use it to keep my international fans and folks from across the globe who found me playing on the subway while they were tourists in NYC happy giving them a taste of the best from live shows and home recordings.

I really like it because of the idea that so much of what I do as an indie singer/songwriter I have to physically be there to make new fans and be effective. It brings in the possibility of making money while I am sleeping because someone across the globe can find a video I put up on Youtube and buy a track on itunes.

I think videos can capture a lot of the performance experience and after the show you just release it into the online world and it has infinite possibilities of attracting new folks to your music. Its giving to your fans to share with their friends and return to on their own time. In general the cover songs I release get a lot more hits then my own songs but having people listen to anything and get your name out there works.

RSLL: What other music-related ventures are you doing these days?

NG: I write for an online magazine called iProng. I get to interview indie and mainstream artists about their careers which is a lot of fun and report on music conferences. I also sing backup vocals occasionally for different groups in NYC.

RSLL: How has your marketing yourself and your career changed in the last 5 years?

NG: I have really only been actively marketing my music for the past three years – although it feel like a lot longer than that. When I first started playing my own music six years ago I was still in college and just going at it for fun. I did collect email addresses at shows and while street performing but I wasn’t actively marketing.

Over time I have tried putting incentives in for my audience to reach my marketing and sales goals. Anything from free downloads to get someone to sign up for my email list to recording a personalized jingle for a podcaster or blogger who buys my CD. That definitely works and I think its great to look at what different types of companies from supermarkets to the local transit system do to sell their product.

Bob Baker of is a great recourse for thinking outside of the box and getting into the business mindset as an indie musician. Some things I have thought about recently that he has written about are offering a student or senior citizen discount, a bundle of 10 or 20 CD’s as a very reduced price for people to give out around the office or as stocking stuffers, a discount coupon when I ship an order out for a return customer or even a money back guarantee on my products.

When I first started out I was really concerned with getting radio play and getting my music heard that way. It quickly became an old model and while its great to have college or mainstream radio playing my music it means more personally and in terms of CD and download sales to have a podcaster who fills a niche market pick a song they love and rave about it on their show to listeners who listen because they have the same tastes.

RSLL: What is one action a musician can take to build their music business?

NG: That really depends on the person. There are so many things I can recommend but I think the most important thing is that you do something you love and you will keep doing because it is the journey that is most important. I can suggest for someone to get started micro-blogging, performing live online, adding behind the scenes videos to their website and Youtube among dozens of other things but if they don’t love it and wont keep doing it then I don’t want them to.

Its hard not to want to do all of those things but you will get burnt out if you try and hate it. The one thing I think is absolutely vital for the business is an email list. If you have nothing else you have to be collecting emails at your shows and building that database of fans and people who support your music. Have someone walking around the audience at your shows or walk around yourself… you may find the head of your street team signing up for your email list that night.

RSLL: If you were starting all over today as a musician, what would you focus on?

NG: It’s hard to say. It’s cliché, but I think its necessary for an artist’s growth to make some mistakes starting out and to try different things. What works one week or year may not work the next. You learn to adapt and be flexible as you age in the business.

If I had to focus on one thing I would have to say the fans. If you are doing that I think everything else will line itself up. When you are taking care of them you are practicing, making the best music you can and giving them the content, information and merchandise they need. They will appreciate your respect and support you more in return.


Singer / songwriter Natalie Gelman is quickly gaining acclaim and recognition for her music. Her passionate songs and voice have brought comparisons to Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos and Jewel. Upon releasing her debut album Natalie rollerbladed 1500 miles up the East coast from Miami, FL to NYC raising money for charity in concerts along the way. Currently the NYC native is touring the country in support of her album as well as performing in the NYC subway. As a street performer she has been featured on the front page of the NY Times and in numerous papers, magazines and TV shows across the globe.
Natalie Gelman on Twitter
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Natalie Gelman on MySpace
Natalie Gelman on YouTube

One Response to “Interview with Natalie Gelman, Singer/Songwriter”

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