Sage Advice From a Successful Indie Pop Artist

© 2010 Lena Potapova

Lena Potapova is a classically trained piano player who performed her own compositions at the Moscow Conservatory at the age of thirteen. She has been compared to a female David Bowie, Nick Cave, Jim Morrison, Portishead, Nina Simone and Tom Waits. She is currently working with Ian McDonald (King Crimson, Foreigner). She starred in an independent film in Lhasa, Tibet that was directed by Rob Schwartz, the son of Morrie of “Tuesdays With Morrie” (a New York Times best seller by Mitch Albom.)[private_freebie]

Lena once spent a month in jail as an alleged Russian spy (the charges were dropped three years later). While traveling in Asia, she was lucky to successfully get away from a violent criminal who attempted to sell her to a Chinese brothel. If that wasn’t enough, she also started the “Thank You For Your Sex” brand of clothing.

Now Lena is an independent pop/smooth punk/mop pop artist based in NY City. At the time of this writing, her song ‘Perfect Day’ was in the top 10 of the Reverb Nation NY charts.

Here are some words of wisdom from her:

  • Get a clear idea about what you want. Not just a general idea (“I want to be rich and famous”) but what specifically you want to achieve:
    • “I want to be on this and that label” (Why? What are they going to do for you? Why would they pick you?);
    • “I want to place my song into this TV show”, or “I want to have 50,000 myspace fans by next month” (Again, why? What would it do for you?)
    • “I want to hear my music in a commercial for this and that brand”
  • Break it down by steps, until the set of tasks feels manageable. This is something that I am reminding myself to do as well, all the time. For example, if you want to play a specific venue, find out who books it, and where you can meet the person in charge. Maybe you know other bands that have played that venue in the past. Maybe you have Facebook friends in common. Maybe your barber’s rottweiler is friends with that-poodle belonging to the former guitarist of the band that played the venue last year. You get the idea.
  • If the task that you are trying to accomplish looks big and blurry, keep breaking it down into steps until you start getting an idea about what you can do today to end up where you want to six months or a year from now. If you can’t get an idea no matter how you look at it, may be it’s best to “sleep on it”. If this is something that you really want, don’t just give it up altogether because you have no idea about how to achieve it now.
  • Have a plan but be flexible, life is full of surprises. One of my friends placed his music in a “Burger King” commercial only because he randomly hung out with the person who at the moment was in charge of the project.
  • Take all “universal” advice you get from other people with a grain of salt (even this one). There are a lot of techniques – but no technique in the world that can guarantee success. Beware. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either a scam-artist or a music industry person who is building his or her resume through online publications and panel presentations. Many professionals build their brand by “positioning themselves as an expert.” Whether the advice actually helps, is of secondary importance to the brand as long as enough people repeat it with a clever face. Just use your brain and common sense. Really. This world is designed for intelligent people to lead, and gullible people to follow. Check the facts.
  • Love your music. Not just your dream of being famous, but your music, your muse, the process. At times when nobody cares and nobody believes in you, this is the only thing that will carry you through.
  • Once you are sure that you want to do it seriously, even when nobody cares, even when you have to do other things to support yourself temporarily, study the music industry (licensing, copyright, TV placement, touring, etc) and study business in general.
  • Here’s the thing – the skill set required to give birth to amazing songs is not the same skill set that is required to sell them. There is absolutely no fault in having one without the other but there is a difference in results. I personally believe in luck but I think that without a clear understanding of the business and knowledge, luck will not get you very far for very long. Either somebody will rip you off, or the label will drop you, or you will release a platinum album and then will have to move back in with your parents because you didn’t get paid squat. All the ‘successful’ (in the worldly sense of it) musicians who I know are ‘sharks’ in business. And by being sharks in business I don’t mean spamming your Facebook friends by “Check out my new album”.
  • Read a bunch of bios of musicians who made it. Doing so will help you accept the fact that there are no shortcuts. But there are lucky occasions. Try to meet as many people in the industry as possible and take genuine interest in them. They are people just like you and I. If you can do something for them, do it. Try to attend industry events – like SXSW, CMJ and so on. Be alert, meet people and make friends.
  • Subscribe to industry publications. There are a ton of them. You can get email updates for free. One of my favorite ones is MusicDish ( Keep up to date with the industry, but don’t hope that familiarity with the latest buzzwords will guarantee your success. Try to go after the essence, the common sense.
  • Really, really believe in yourself. Be ready to persist and to try different things. All this talk is great but ultimately, it is your job to succeed.

And finally, here are some of my favorite sites and resources. These are the first ones that come to mind, but there are many more. I don’t get any referral fees for that, brownie points may be, but I am only quoting them because I know these people.

o Touring: ‘Tour Smart’ (book) by Martin Atkins
o Online publicity and social media: Ariel Hiatt.
o An excellent site for musicians that I use (and love, really): They have awesome press kits and a mailing list system – some services are free, some paid, but imho it is very well worth it).
o Derek Sivers, the original founder of CDBaby, has a great blog with lots of valuable advice: