Ingrid Michaelson On Songwriting, Her Manager, And Getting Stiffed By Sony, From The ASCAP Expo

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Thursday morning at the kick off to the 2015 ASCAP Music Expo, the overflowing ballroom of the Loews Hollywood hotel was buzzing with excitement. As Ingrid Michaelson songs played on the speakers and slideshows of Expo photo booth photos rotated on the big screens on each side of the stage, eager up-and-coming songwriters were anxiously awaiting the woman of the hour.

I settled into the front row early on and made friends with a couple songwriters from New York and Huntington Beach. Both had unique stories of their careers to date. Mid conversation, I had to interrupt and point out the woman poking her head out of the curtain signaling 5 minutes to the sound guy at the back of the room. This wasn’t the stage manager or some ASCAP intern. This was someone who has redefined what a pop music career can look like. This was someone who took a struggling singer/songwriter from Staten Island into a chart topping pop star – without a major label. This was someone who broke all the rules for how you build a successful music career and paved the way for countless more independent musicians to be able to do the same. The woman sticking her head out from behind the curtain was Ingrid Michaelson’s manager, Lynn Grossman.

Now, I’ve been closely following Ingrid’s career since the beginning. Fun story, we both released our first albums around the same time and happened to run a college radio marketing campaign with the same company in the same month in 2006. Checking out my competition of the other albums up against mine being promoted that month at college radio, I knew my chances were doomed when I first heard Ingrid Michaelson’s Girls and Boys album on Myspace. But I didn’t care all that much because I found my new favorite artist.

Ingrid Michaelson walked out on stage at the ASCAP Expo Thursday morning with her usual swagger of humbled excitement. I’ve seen her walk out on stages across the country over the years carrying the same energy wherever she goes. One part “I can’t believe everyone is here cheering for me” and two parts “but yeah, you’re damn right I’m here. Let’s do this!”

She sat down and was interviewed by Erik Philbrook, AVP of Marketing Communication at ASCAP, about her background, family life, career and, of course, songwriting process.

For the next hour, Ingrid captivated the room like she does so well during her concerts. She played 3 songs with her longtime collaborator Allie Moss (including a beautiful, chill-inducing new one she had just written), but her unguarded interview was the most enticing part of this “Master Class” for the songwriters and musicians who made up the majority of the audience. Ingrid is hilarious. And the stories she told almost felt like an hour long stand up special that was insightful, emotional and authentic. Her humorous stage banter has been a major part of her shows for the past 8 years and that banter transferred just as easily to this interview setting.

As goofy as she can get, she also opened up to the room of songwriting peers about many pivotal moments in her life and career. Ingrid revealed that the first song she ever wrote was while she was on tour with a children’s theater company in September of 2001. As a native New Yorker, being absent from her city when the towers collapsed, this first song was about a feeling of helplessness. She mentioned that she rarely tells this story because she doesn’t “like using tragedies as a catalyst, but I’m just going to say it because it’s the truth.”

She quickly changed tone, as she does, by cracking a half sung joke about how her piano skills aren’t as good as when she was 15, but “singing is my jam. My jaaaaaaaammmmm!” she belted out.

Philbrook brought up Myspace and asked her about the impact it had on her career. Ingrid explained that when Myspace started to grow, record labels had their interns scour the site to find the next big thing. She remembered she was called into a bunch of meetings. One of them was with Sony and she thought “this is my big break!” But she was brought into the office and was sat in the waiting room for 45 minutes “feeling less confident about this meeting as every minute ticked by.” Finally when she got in the room, they asked her “so what’s your fanbase?” And she said “Well my mom comes to my shows and she brings her friends.” They asked if she had a manager, and she said no. She remembered them saying “there are two types of managers. The big manager where you’re the smallest one on their roster and you might not get all the attention, but you’ll benefit from the trickle down situation. Or you’ll get the manager where you’re their only client, but they let you sleep on their couch and they’ll do everything for you.” Lynn Grossman is the 2nd kind.

“I thought I was doing stuff right for a long time and no one cared.”

Right around this time, after Ingrid realized the Sony meeting wasn’t anything but an informational session “sniffing me out,” she got hit up (again on Myspace) by someone at Lynn Grossman’s new licensing company. This was right around the time when music licensing started to become a thing. Lynn and her company Secret Road got Ingrid’s music on Grey’s Anatomy (multiple times) and her song “The Way I Am” in an Old Navy commercial which helped propel that song to break top 40 radio – without the support of a major label.

Ingrid discussed some of her idols, including Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Bing Crosby. She said she had a big crush on Bing Crosby. She wasn’t much like her peers growing up. “Everyone would be watching MTV and I’d go home and watch the Easter Parade.”

“I’m so rooted in melody and a lot of that comes from the old timey music that I liked”

Ingrid discussed her recent experiences with co-writing, “when you’re in a really good session, you don’t really know who did what.” But joked “I like to keep tabs – that was my lyric!” Whereas co-writing has become such a staple in pop music, Ingrid has written most of her songs up until her latest album all on her own “I wanted that control.” She said she now loves writing with other people.

“I’m having a renaissance and feeling creative again just being open to co-writing”

Her most recent hit single, “Girls Chase Boys” was co-written by Trent Dabbs and Barry Dean. She discussed the process of writing that song a bit “‘they said girls chase boys’ and I said “chase girls.” And the two said “and that’s why she is who she is.”

Ingrid discussed the importance of building “true fans.” And that once something starts to happen you still have to work very hard.

When asked what it takes to make it in the music business, Ingrid replied “There’s no real answer. You do it because you love it. You surround yourself with supportive, smart, innovative minds and you work really hard. If something gets handed to you then you’re really really lucky but that’s not the way it happens normally. When I got my placement on Grey’s Anatomy I didn’t sit back and say ‘now I’m famous’ because that’s not the way it works. This business is very fickle and very up and down and you have to build your fans. Your TRUE fans.

Ingrid Michaelson and Lynn Grossman are the epitome of a perfect artist/manager match. Lynn has helped guide Ingrid’s career and build a supportive team that has been with them from the beginning. Ingrid mentioned that she has never had to fire anyone and that most of her team has been with her for 8 years.

As someone who has admired both of them equally over the years, it was quite a treat to sit front row and hear these first hand accounts of how Ingrid has grown as a songwriter and artist with Lynn’s guidance and support. I look forward to many more albums, videos, tours and stories for years to come. And who knows, maybe someday we’ll tour together and reminisce about our failed college radio campaign back in 2006.

“If you get shot out of a cannon and you have a big top 40 hit and nothing underneath it people are going to come to that one tour and they’re never going to come back again. I’d rather have a slow growing career than one tour that was super awesome and then nobody care about me because I’ll never live up to that one song again.” – Ingrid Michaelson

Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles singer/songwriter and the creator of the music biz advice blog, Ari’s Take. New song “Ordinary Times.” Follow him on Twitter: @aristake

6 Responses

  1. Kat McDowell

    Hey thanks for such an awesome account of the interview.. A lot of the wisdom you quoted from her took me years to really grasp and finally understand. You’re such a great writer Ari! Thank you so much for all the hard work you put in to this blog!

    Reply

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