Vienna: the artist, not the city

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The night Rounder Records came to hear Vienna Teng.

Every musician reading this should set aside some time to study the career of Vienna Teng. Research her on the Internet. She is a singer, a songwriter, and a pianist.

Her story is absolutely amazing, and should be taught to anyone hoping to have a career in music. Vienna was a student in the Bay Area at Stanford University studying computer science. About mid-way through her tenure, she decided she wanted to become a professional musician, but she knew this would require discipline and money.

So she put a plan in place and stuck to it. Her plan included working hard and finishing school, in hopes of landing a well-paying job upon graduation. Follow along here: The knee-jerk reaction most artists have when choosing music as their career is to give up everything. If they don’t give up on it physically, they most often at least give up on it mentally. Most musicians have their “I’m going to be a musician” moment and instantly quit school (or a job) and focus all their efforts on music. Not Vienna. She instead focused more on school, and more on graduating high in her class. Why would she do such a crazy thing, knowing she wanted a career in music?

Stanford had recording studios that students could use for free while enrolled. Slowly and quietly, while still putting her studies first, she recorded an album at the school’s studio. She finished her final two years of college, and graduated very high in her class. Upon graduating, she was offered a nice paying job in the field of computer science. She took it, still knowing music would be her career.

Again, this goes completely against what most musicians would think is the right move. Most, upon finally graduating would say, “Whew. I’m done. Finally. Now I can concentrate on music.”  They would likely get a job at some local restaurant or bar, offering them the freedom to pursue music. Not Vienna. She got her high-paying job and lived cheaply. She rented an apartment located nearby, so she wouldn’t need a car. She had several roommates to keep her living costs down. And while many from her graduating class were out buying new cars and houses with the money they were earning, she decided to save for her career in music.

While working her day job, Vienna released her first album, Waking Hour. She played gigs in her spare time and promoted that record the best she could. She had a two-year plan to work and save as much as possible before she would leave corporate America to pursue a career in music.

I went to a Christmas Party in 2002 for Redeye Distribution. Making small talk with the owner of Redeye over some eggnog, I asked, “Who’s doing well for you these days?  Who’s selling records?”

He thought for a while and said, “Well, there is this girl from San Francisco that’s doing pretty well. It’s mostly online sales, but in the past month she’s really started moving some product. I’m not completely sure what her whole story is, but her name is Vienna Teng.”

I got a copy of the album and it all made sense to me. No wonder she was starting to do well. The songs were, and still are, brilliant.

Right after Christmas I got on a plane headed to San Francisco to hear her perform.

She was playing at a Borders bookstore on a Saturday afternoon in the city. There were probably about 30 of us in the audience. The performance was incredible. She arrived, set up her own keyboard, and throughout the show spoke to the audience as if we were all friends. Then, at the end of the show, she very quietly said, “If anyone would like a copy of my album, I’ll be sitting over here selling them after this song.”

The entire audience of 30 people got in line to purchase the album after her performance. Seriously, not a single person walked out. I had never before seen a performance where 100% of the audience liked the music so much that they bought the album. Now keep in mind, these weren’t her friends. Her friends already owned the album, as it had been out for a while. No, these were strangers who just happened to be in Borders that day and stumbled across this talented young lady playing some songs. Or perhaps they had heard about her from friends and wanted to come hear her firsthand to see what all the hubbub was about.

Total strangers heard her perform once, and bought her album.

Just prior to that performance at Borders, she had sent a copy of her album to National Public Radio, and despite not having all the “big label” backing, someone took a listen and fell in love with it. David Letterman just happened to be driving home from work one day, listening to the radio, and heard this relatively unknown artist. He called his producer from his car and said something along the lines of, “I don’t know who this girl is, but I want her on the show.”

Within about 10 days of seeing her perform at Borders, I watched Vienna Teng become one of the very few ‘local’ artists to perform on The Late Show with David Letterman.

The very next day after performing on The Late Show she went Top Ten on Amazon.com — they were immediately backlogged with orders.

It wasn’t long until her two-year plan of working a day job started coming to an end; on her two-year anniversary, she quit. She had saved an incredible amount of money, enough to pay to record her second album all on her own and to live for a couple of years while she worked on music and built a career. She had no major label money and no financial support from friends or parents. There were no crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter back then. She worked for two years saving money, knowing that those two years fresh out of college would be her best opportunity to make the most money possible to support herself while she got her music career off the ground.

Once she was free to become a professional musician, we started shopping her around to record labels.*

 * In the interest of keeping this story as short as possible, I have not mentioned Virt Records and do not want to take any credit away from them by failing to discuss their important role. This one-man-label from Seattle believed in Vienna from the beginning and released her first two albums. They distributed those albums through Redeye, which is how I heard about her at the Christmas party. Oddly enough, the founder of Virt works for Amazon now.

Rounder Records became interested almost immediately. Vienna booked some gigs around the Boston area, where Rounder is located, and invited the label out to a show. My co-worker (and still to this day, Vienna Teng’s manager), Amy Cox, and I flew to Boston for the gig. It was an unorthodox show at Harvard University in a ballroom. I say “unorthodox” because it wasn’t really a “concert” type event. There was a dinner and awards were being presented. Vienna’s performance was just part of that evening.

Amy and I sat with the executives from Rounder Records during the show. It was brilliant, and the Rounder folks seemed to think so as well. Vienna played to about 125 people that night. As the show came to a close, she mentioned to the audience that she would be at a table beside the stage selling her CD.

The show was almost over as Vienna was ringing out her last notes on the piano and the Rounder executives turned to Amy and me, saying something to the nature of, “That was a great show. We really liked it. Let’s talk more.”

I remember saying, “Wait. Don’t leave yet. You haven’t seen the most amazing part.”

“What?  Does she do an encore?” a label executive asked.

“Just wait and watch,” I said.

Vienna humbly stood up from her piano stool and walked over to her merchandise table and people immediately flocked over to purchase the CD. I don’t mean just a few people… it was a line of over 100 people forming along the side of the room (about 80% of the audience).

Great marketing doesn’t create that kind of reaction in music fans. Publicity or social media won’t cause 80% of a room to purchase a CD immediately following a performance. No, none of those “how-to” things we learn about the music business can cause 100 people to form a line to buy a CD from an artist they just heard. Only one thing can do that: undeniably brilliant music that has reached into the very soul of each individual who is listening.

Vienna Teng signed a record deal with Rounder within the month.

My cousin Rick told me about BOSTON because the music moved his soul. When I saw Vienna in Borders playing to 30 people, all 30 people were moved so intensely that they had to purchase the CD. The selling point to Rounder Records was witnessing first-hand the way Vienna Teng’s music touches people. In a room of 125 people, 100 of them lined up to purchase the CD. It wouldn’t surprise me if the other 25 already had the CD. This has happened all the time throughout Vienna’s career. Besides that performance on Letterman, she has never had a huge moment in the spotlight as far as the traditional music business is concerned.

Fortunately, she doesn’t need it because her fans are her advertising billboard. Once you hear Vienna Teng, you have to tell someone else about her. She’s just that good.

Not long ago she got the opening slot for Shawn Colvin, playing amphitheaters to thousands of people. On the first night of the tour, before her last song, she said, “I’ll be out in the pavilion selling my CD if you’d like one.”  

Shawn Colvin had to delay her set 45 minutes that night because such a HUGE amount of people went out to the pavilion to buy Vienna Teng CDs. For the remainder of that tour, and out of incredible respect for Shawn Colvin, Vienna waited until Shawn was done playing before going to the pavilion to sell her albums, even going so far as to let the audience know she would be waiting until after Shawn’s performance to start selling her CD.

This is the effect brilliant music has on people.

Don’t worry about understanding a publishing deal before you’ve made undeniably brilliant music. Don’t worry about getting email addresses for every industry executive in the world. Don’t worry about entertainment attorneys, managers, and booking agents – not until you’ve made music that can move people like Vienna Teng’s music moves people. Make brilliant music first. Music that moves people to go to endless extremes to get it, and to tell people about it — like my cousin Rick did. And like Vienna Teng fans do every day.

Managers, contracts, royalty points, publishing deals:  none of that matters!  Not yet. Don’t worry about that stuff until you are moving people to the very core of their soul.

Vienna Teng didn’t achieve success because she knew the right person to contact at that radio station in New York. In fact, she didn’t know anyone at that radio station. She just blindly sent them the album.

And that album touched them.

She didn’t get on Letterman because she knew the right people or because she had the secret phone number for the producer. She got on David Letterman’s show because after one listen, the music moved him.

She didn’t get a record deal with Rounder because she had all the right contacts or great relationships there. She got a record deal because her music moved them, or more importantly, it moved the people who were in the audience when Rounder was watching.

Make music that moves people, and things will take care of themselves.

Fast-forward, and Vienna Teng continues to sell out theaters and rooms worldwide. She is not a household name, but she doesn’t need to be. She has done what she set out to do. She has a great career in music, all because she had the discipline to stay the course, and during that course, she focused on making brilliant music. Music so amazing that your cousin Rick would just have to tell you about it at the next family reunion.

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