May , 2011
By Laura Hill
High Flying Music Grounded in Reality
Daphne Willis literally didn't know 'what to say' when she received a phone call at school from her father with some interesting news. A record company was sending an A&R rep to Chicago to see her perform. They were interested in signing the 19-year old to their label. Her jaw dropped in disbelief.
The college sophomore had been studying to become a teacher when her dad's announcement changed everything. Music had been more of a hobby to Willis, who often played on open mic nights in clubs, with friends, for the fun of it. The news that an established record company was interested adding her to their roster was quite perplexing. Willis had never sent her self-produced five-song EP to any label. Finally, the singer spoke with Vanguard Records president Kevin Welk. When he told her how he discovered her music, Daphne's jaw dropped again. The executive had heard one of the artist's songs, "No Difference", on the in-flight entertainment system of an American Airlines flight he was flying home on. Welk, the son of the infamous band leader Lawrence Welk, saw tremendous potential in the young performer and told her so.
It turns out that Willis, in an effort to promote her songs, had signed up with the website, Get U Played. The Internet site lets unsigned artists submit their music and get paid every time one of their songs is played. The company licenses music to various companies and chain restaurants around the country. The website allows music designers to go through the songs submitted to the site and look for matches to a brand playlist. If they find one, they will add the song, thus giving unsigned artists, such as Willis, an additional way to be discovered. In this particular instance, they had a deal to supply American Airlines with music for their onboard entertainment system. Welk just happened to plug in his ear phones and the rest, as they say, is history.
"I grew up in a generation," remarked Willis, "that's a little more A.D.D. with technology, not only to create music, but release it as well. When I recorded that EP, I just wanted to get as much of the music out that I could. To me it was a no brainer signing up on the Get U Played website. I had this recording I'd spent quite a bit of time on, and I wanted it to get out there.
"My thinking at the time was this. I wasn't worried about making money off the songs or selling CD's. I wanted to play live, and hopefully, this would help give my music some exposure. This website offered a unique way to get your music out to the public. If you want exposure, and a company is interested in taking your music and putting it out there, you'd be a fool not to jump at it. You aren't going to connect with anybody if you're not willing to make some kind of trade of, or concessions. The music business isn't all about making a few bucks off album sales. Today it's all about selling tickets based on people liking your music."
Willis is part of a generation of kids that grew up on the Internet thinking everything is free - from music to movies. She realized, while performing at open mic nights in high school and college, that music would eventually be given away, or at least cheaper to obtain, than it is today. Her peers could download music at their convenience, but they could not download the concert experience. That was something you physically had to be present to enjoy.
"Artists don't make any money on record contracts any more," said Willis bluntly. "They make their living performing live in front of an audience. Your physical presence before an audience is what drives this business today. Obviously you can't sell tickets if you don't have any content. In today's wired world, people want to see and hear you on line, before they commit themselves to seeing you in concert. I'm fine with that. With the Internet, people can really check you out. They can watch videos, read about you, see live performances, and really see what makes you tick, before they make the decision to put money down to see you in concert.
"The social media world is a constantly shifting platform because of the various ways it allows people to interact. It started with Napster and the controversy over downloading ten years ago. Then you had Apple with the iPod and iTunes. Then there was MySpace, then YouTube and now you have Facebook and Twitter. You can stream live shows and purchase any type of music you like over the Internet. Your fans will follow you no matter how you express yourself, because my generation is all cut from the same cloth. I like to interact with my fans on Facebook and do videos. They love it because we're all in the same head space. It makes it more like a community because we all like the same stuff."
The talented performer has benefitted greatly from growing up in a household surrounded by music. In fact, her father, Colin, is not only her manager, but is Vice President of the Next Big Sound, a principle player in the next generation of online technology geared specifically for the music business. Next Big Sound tracks hundreds of thousands of artists across all the major web sites (YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Last.fm etc.) It lets professionals in the music industry see social media data, traffic to an artist's dot com site, tracks traditional sales, radio numbers and P2P data all in one centralized dashboard.
"Both my parents were music majors," revealed Willis, "so it was always present in our home. My dad was with Sony for about 30 years on the sales and distribution side. He now works for a company that is the next step in online database management. Both of my parents went to the University of Texas, and my dad started out working with John Kunz, the founder of Waterloo Records. He then became a college sales rep at CBS; then was hired full time after school. He stayed with the company when Sony bought them, and through the merger with BMG. They let him go and now he's vice president of sales at N.B.S."
Welk was traveling 30,000 feet above ground when he made the decision to send Vanguard's Nashville-based A&R rep, Gary Pacsoza, to Chicago. He wanted to know if the Dahpne could deliver the music he was hearing through his headphones in a live situation. to
"Gary saw me with a band," replied Willis, "perform at a club in Chicago called Alive One. From there, I was flown out to Los Angeles, where I played for the staff in there Santa Monica offices by myself. That was probably one of the most nerve wracking experiences I ever had. But you know, everyone loved what they heard, and were excited to work with me. It's turned out to be a great relationship. They are amazing and have opened many doors for me on a creative level. I've gotten to work with some great people through my association with them.
"An under the radar artist like myself would get lost on a big label, intentionally or not. Where I'm at now, as an artist, this is a perfect marriage. Vanguard isn't overloaded and swamped with a gazillion artists. They function very closely as a unit where every department knows what the other one is doing when it comes to a specific artist. They all communicate on a healthy level with one another. You don't see that kind of cooperation with bigger companies nowadays. That's why some really good bands get lost in the mix. My parents are involved with my career on the business side, so it truly feels like a family affair. I couldn't be happier."
Vanguard Records introduced their latest find in January 2010 with the release of What to Say. Critics were immediately taken by the singer / songwriter's soulful, thought-provoking lyrics and distinctive point of view. Willis, who had composed all but one of the 12 tunes on her debut, did an about face when it came time to create the music on her follow-up, Because I Can. The first order of business was moving to Nashville from Chicago. The second part of her transformation was a willingness to sit down and write music with other people.
"As an artist starting out in this business," said Willis, "it's nice to know there are several avenues you can turn when you write a song. Let's face it, as a songwriter you want as many options available to you as possible, especially when it comes to composing music. For instance, writing lyrics based entirely around a song title seemed a weird concept for me, but it was an approach I never thought of before. Watching the styles of other people pushed me to not only think in a different lyrical style, but also reconsider the structure, tempo, melody line and mood of a song.
"Another person's thoughts on different subjects fascinates me. It's especially interesting to hear their take on areas that concern me. Obviously a song is a very emotional exercise a writer takes, because the subject they're writing about usually has something to do with them. Whether or not I write the song, when I'm in that moment, it doesn't matter who co-author's the song with me. To be able to write a song with someone, and see the different colors it projects, is actually pretty cool."
Tim Lauer handled the production duties on Because I Can. The new record also became the central focus of a new strategy Vanguard's marketing department came up with to promote the new disc by Willis. Over the course of a four-month campaign, a series of three 2-track digital 45s were released a month apart starting Jan. 11, 2011. The full-length album was then made available to the general public April 19th. Another twist to the album - Lauer's wife Angela received songwriting credit on three of the songs that made the final cut.
"Angela and I," added Willis, "co-wrote three tunes, "Do What You Want", "The Song Song" and "I Want To". That last song is a perfect example of what's so cool about writing with another person. Initially, Angela and I started with the idea of creating a song around things you always wanted to do in your life, but never got around to it. Then the subject matter of the lyrics veered off into this relationship song. Tim's wife is kind of quirky like me, so our styles mesh in a different kind of way. He suggested we add horns to give the music a Chicago vibe, and it turned out to be one of my favorite tracks on the record."
Initially, some 50 songs were presented for consideration on the album before the list was trimmed down. Willis and Lauer cut about 20 of them off the top before the real work began. They came up with a simple, yet complex plan, to whittle the music down to twelve songs.
"Tim and I decided to take a group collaboration approach," added Willis, "to find the right 'cut worthy' songs. We sat down with my mom, dad and Gary. Everyone listened to the remaining tunes and wrote down the music they liked. From there, we took the songs that appeared the most from the lists and divided them into categories.
"I wanted the record to have a lot of depth, continuity and dynamics, so we then divided the remaining songs into groups like tempo, key and subject matter. From there we took the top songs from each category and those cuts made the album. In the end, we had a little bit of everything, and that's exactly how I wanted to flavor the record."
For someone who minored in Japanese studies at DePaul University, and eschewrf music theory for secondary education classes, Willis taught herself a very difficult language not many can understand. The accomplishment is not lost on Willis.
"Let's face it," she said proudly, "the only way you learn is by doing. No classroom can teach you about the music business. If you don't know the rules going into the profession, you can easily break them, and that's what I did. The chord progressions on my songs would probably make some professional musicians cringe. I know it's a little bit off, but I think the sound I come up with gives the music a bit of an edge. As long as I'm comfortable being who I am, that's all that really matters."