October 19, 2004 – Los Angeles: On December 4th, 2003, I listened to an unbelievable phone message from my good friend and PR agent Betty Hofer in Nashville. “Congratulations Frogman, you’re a Grammy nominee.” I wish everyone could have the feeling that I had at that moment. I have a new understanding of some of the ridiculous NFL end zone dances you see every Sunday. Luckily there were no witnesses for mine.
How can a person get so lucky, you ask? Betty Hofer says, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” And that pretty much sums it up. There is no easy or cut and dried way to get a Grammy nomination, but you don’t have to have a big record deal or a giant marketing budget to get one, either. I’m going to tell you the steps I took to make it happen and I hope it will help and inspire you.
Four years ago, at 29, I quit my “real job” and decided I was going to make my living as a children’s musician. I received lots of unsolicited feedback and advice from my friends and loved ones, and most of it was bad. Here’s an example: “What, are you nuts!?! You can’t quit a good job to be an entertainer! In hindsight, all of the bad advice I got had something in common: the word “can’t”. “Can’t” is the worst advice in the world, and I forced myself to ignore it. I decided to seek advice from positive thinkers who had already become successful entertainers. I watched what they did. I asked them questions. And I listened. Sadly, many artists look on others who have succeeded with scorn rather than respect. Instead of learning, they complain and have elaborate discussions with other starving artists.
I have performed an average of 200 shows a year for the past three years in schools, libraries, and theatres. Occasionally another artist will ask me, “How did you get so busy?” My response is always, “I sat on my rear end for eight hours a day and made phone calls.
Most of them look at me like I gave them the wrong answer. But that’s what it boils down to: you have to work very, very hard to achieve your goals, especially if they are lofty. You don’t have to be born lucky or a prodigy or a genius. You just have to decide what you want to accomplish and then refuse to stop until you accomplish your goal. If you do this, you will amaze yourself. Just look around you. Every day ordinary people are doing extraordinary things and they all use the same recipe. While my booking process is very time consuming, it is also very simple. One of the first things I did was make an attractive, full color 81/2″ by 11″ flyer. I made sure that it was colorful and eye catching and included strong quotes from venues and review publications. I had the flyer designed and printed professionally. If you shop around, you can get 1,000 flyers printed on a press for around $200. That’s 20 cents each. I’m amazed at how many artists ask an amateur friend to design their product to save money and then have it color copied at Kinko’s. When a presenter receives something that looks amateur in the mail, they are likely to pitch it. A layman can spot amateur work a mile away. You need to create the perception that you are professional and this is how you make your living. One thing you can ask yourself, both with your recording and your artwork, is whether a big record company would put their name on it. I try to make my material look and sound even better than what I see in record stores.
After I had the flyer, I came up with a basic phone script. Any professional telemarketer will tell you that you need to deliver a strong benefit statement in the first thirty seconds of the conversation. Here is mine: “Hi. My name is Zak Morgan and I am a children’s performer from Cincinnati, Ohio. I offer a very interactive music and storytelling program designed to exercise the imagination and encourage reading. Can I please speak to the person in charge of programs?”
Come up with a benefit statement that you feel completely confident and comfortable saying. Once you get the right person on the line, repeat your benefit statement. Then tell them when you will be in their area and ask permission to send information. I send a flyer, a brief cover letter reiterating my benefit statement, and three recent reference letters from other venues I have played. I do not send a CD unless they ask. Seven to ten days later I follow up with another phone call and try to close the deal. This is the most critical step in the process, because they will not call you back even if they are interested. If you don’t follow up, odds are you won’t get the gig. The other thing I do is showcase whenever possible. A showcase is essentially an opportunity to perform a ten-minute live commercial in front of a group of presenters. If they like you, they book you. It’s a great way to get work. Call your state arts council and ask them about showcase opportunities in your region. You can also look on the Internet. Try to get on every arts roster possible, as it will both lend you credibility and get you work. Some arts councils will even help the venue pay your fee.
I have made two CD’s in four years and both times I took the same approach: make the best CD possible, from the writing to the recording to the packaging. I spent $20,000 on my first recording and $30,000 on my second recording out of my own pocket. You’re probably thinking, “Well, I don’t have $20,000 or 30,000 to spend on a CD project. I just can’t afford it.” Well, neither could I. That’s why I decided to work hard. I set goals for myself. I wanted to do 200 shows a year and gross six figures. I wasn’t satisfied until I achieved those goals. When I did achieve them, the satisfaction was enormous. I poured every dollar I earned into my CD’s and my business. Each of my records took well over two years to make and required a lot of hard work and personal sacrifice. The hard work is paying off. My first CD has grossed more than $50,000 in four years and my second CD has grossed more than $15,000 in six months and is nominated for a Grammy. I have two records that I am extremely proud of, both artistically and from a work-ethic perspective. The way I look at it, I can’t afford not to make high quality products.
My first step in making a CD was to find a producer with a great track record and a similar vision. His name is Ric Hordinski (Phil Keaggy, David Wilcox) and he is not only a great producer but also an exceptional guitarist and songwriter. We both agreed that children are smart and they are not to be patronized. I told him that I wanted to approach my records with the same seriousness that one would approach a record for adults. I wanted to write sophisticated and fun lyrics in the vein of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss and I wanted the record to be as interesting for adults as it is for kids. I wanted to achieve this both musically and lyrically.
I hired the best musicians I could find. Bringing amateur friends into the recording studio is a terrible mistake. It’s the same as asking an amateur friend to design your flyer or CD artwork. I give this advice to many people and usually they don’t listen. Most of them are still struggling to put out their first good product.
Next, I decided I would ask C.F. Payne to illustrate the CD cover. His illustrations grace the cover of TIME magazine several times each year. He has also illustrated numerous children’s books, including John Lithgow’s The Remarkable Farkle McBride. “You can’t ask Payne to illustrate your CD. What are you nuts? You’re a nobody!” I called him up (his number was in the phone book) and persuaded him to come to the studio to hear a couple of songs. Payne has illustrated both of my CD’s, Bloom and When Bullfrogs Croak, and both CD’s include a full color 32-page illustrated booklet. “You can’t do a 32-page illustrated booklet, you dufas! It’ll cost a fortune and it probably won’t even fit in the jewel case!” Payne’s involvement and the elaborate CD booklets gave me credibility and helped earn a completely unknown independent artist very good reviews in national publications like Publishers Weekly and KLIATT.
C.F. Payne and I plan to write a children’s book together next year. With my new CD, When Bullfrogs Croak, I decided to ask some of my favorite musicians to participate. First on my list was a brilliant, ornery songwriter and performer named Robbie Fulks. “Give me a break. He’s recorded with Lucinda Williams and played The Grand Ole Opry. Don’t waste your time. I sent him a copy of Bloom and asked if he was game. “Sure I’ll sing on your CD. I’m flattered that you asked, in fact” Those were his exact words.
I’m still amazed at how generous many successful artists are. We recorded his tracks in a Hampton Inn in Chicago on an M-Box. It was a great experience that I’ll never forget and it came about because I ignored bad advice and was proactive. Then I asked Victoria Williams and David Wilcox. They both contributed incredible performances as well. Then Ric, my producer and guitarist, arranged for Richard Dodd (George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty) to master the CD in Nashville. Ric and I have the same opinion of the word “can’t,” needless to say. The involvement of Richard Dodd, C.F. Payne, Robbie Fulks, Victoria Williams, and David Wilcox helped separate my CD from other children’s recordings and helped create a buzz about my record. And it all came about from simply believing it could be done and then figuring out how to make it happen.
When my new CD was released I rented a popular 350-seat theater in Cincinnati on a Sunday afternoon. I think the owner, who is a very nice guy, felt sorry for me. “You can’t expect a big turnout on a Sunday afternoon. I’ll be amazed if you sell 100 seats.”
He rented me the theater for $500. We persuaded the local press to write articles about the CD and the people involved. The show sold out at $5 a head. It was a good omen. I did all of these things in an effort to make the best album possible. I wanted to make a record that deserved Grammy consideration. The final step in the process was pretty simple. I sent my CD to a voting member of the Recording Academy and asked him to consider submitting it for inclusion on the Grammy ballot if he deemed it worthy. He submitted the CD and it passed the initial screening process and made it onto the ballot. I then joined a chapter of the Recording Academy and played in their annual golf outing (I stink, but apparently that doesn’t matter). I met some voting members and gave anyone who seemed interested a copy of my CD. I gave extra copies to the small handful of the Grammy voters I know and asked them to share them with other voters. Friends told friends and word got around. When I sent CD’s though the mail, I tried to do it in a creative, memorable way. My packages included a suction pop-up toy frog.
Entering the Grammy process is a waste of time if your record isn’t truly worthy. But if you’ve put in the work, the time, and the money, you can be seriously considered for a Grammy, even if you are an independent artist. If an ordinary person sets goals and is willing to work hard and maintain a positive attitude, that person can achieve extraordinary things. I am living proof. So go out and realize your dreams and don’t be surprised if the harder you work, the luckier you get. If there is anything I can do to help you like so many have helped me, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me via my website, http://www.zakmorgan.com/. Good luck and God Bless.
Copyright © 2004 Zak Morgan