TAKING THE RISK
Grammy-winning composer and artist Nancy Rumbel discusses the importance of risk-taking and why developing a mailing list is crucial for community growth
By Siena Oristaglio on May 17, 2017
Siena Oristaglio: Hi, Nancy! Please introduce yourself as an artist and tell us what your work and practice is about.
Nancy Rumbel: Well, I've been performing music for almost six decades. I mean, I really did start playing when I was five, and I turned sixty five this past December. My mom was a pianist, so I have had music in my life forever. I decided when I was in high school in Texas that I wanted to become a professional oboist. I thought I wanted to become a classical oboist but then when I went up to music school at Northwestern, I became very interested in ethnomusicology. I began to really listen to other types of music outside of the classical field. My instruments now are oboe, English horn, ocarina, various kinds of folk flutes and keyboards. These are primarily the instruments that I've been playing most of my life.
So anyway, I diverged from the classical route and became kind of a pioneer in oboe and English horn-playing in terms of taking those instruments out of that context. I play these instruments out of the familiar context that people generally hear them. Even though they love the sound of the instruments, most people don't know what these instruments are, but they do always love the sound.
SO: So you record music and you also perform. Has that mostly been in collaboration with other musicians?
NR: Yes. I would say either other musicians or dancers. I was a dance accompanist for a number of years. That's how I use to support myself really early on in my career, but because most of the instruments I play are melody instruments. I am usually looking for some other kind of accompaniment or support to bring in harmony lines. I realized over time that most people can listen to a solo melody instrument for a relatively short time and then they lose interest. A person talking can hold your attention for quite awhile due to the nature of words. Most of the time people enjoy having another element added to it — a harmony of some sort.
SO: That's very true. You opened this door earlier than I normally bring it up, but you talked about how you supported yourself earlier in your career by working as a dance accompanist. I'm curious about how you've seen the music industry change? What has your journey been with respect to how you have supported yourself over time?
NR: Well, I think initially that it has to do with a historical change in the music industry. At first, I thought of myself just as a performer. I thought of myself as always performing in a situation where people come in, sit down, get quiet, and listen. That's the classical format of a recital or concert, even to this day, but things really began to change when I worked with the Paul Winter Consort. When I worked with Paul (1978-1972), it was with an ensemble of people and we played for a variety of different kinds of audiences and in a huge variety of settings. That expanded in my own life this possibility of playing in different kinds of venues: inside, outside, parks, national parks, on boats, for environmental rallies, you know, any number of places that music can be performed. Then, I started recording, and so recording offered yet again another avenue. Even in that context Paul showed me that you can record live in any number of environments from the Grand Canyon to the heart of St. John the Divine in the middle of the night in New York City. I eventually moved out to the Pacific Northwest and I’ve had a primary musical collaborator for over thirty years now, Eric Tingstad, who is a wonderful guitar player, and we worked on a project together. He invited me to work on an album at that point entitled The Gift.
The success of that particular release was pretty overwhelming and we found great support from our fans, so we began to do more recordings and concerts. We would market ourselves through flyers, mailers, posters, print ads and radio. I was signed to a major record label Narada in 1987. Then, when the industry changed again, and I would say it was probably in the late 90s maybe early 2000, I shifted into having a home recording studio and learned how to operate the software. So then, not only was I performing and recording, but I began to do engineering at home for some of my tracks. I learned how to become a bit of a sound engineer and then was also marketing things, concerts and recordings. Narada essentially dissolved into larger companies and we embarked out on our own as independent artists.
Even though they love the sound of the instruments, most people don't know what these instruments are, but they do always love the sound.
SO: So, self-producing, in a way.
NR: Yeah, things really shifted. Initially just thinking of myself as a performer has now shifted into a variety of things. I engineer tracks as a session player and then upload them and send them out across the country, or I perform concerts or I do consults with people. Things have gotten extremely varied, and of course there's always teaching, too.
SO: Is teaching something you feel you have to do, or more something that you want to do to impart education, or both?
NR: Well, I've always done it. It just kind of came with the nature of these instruments that nobody knew what they were and they were interested to learn about them. People really love music and often when they're trying to learn a difficult instrument like the oboe, a lot of it is helping them get over the fear of improvising. With the ocarina, it's like the simplest instrument there is and all you have to do is breathe and you don't even have to breathe very hard. And so, I can accommodate people at a beginner level with an ocarina, or a very advanced focus level if you want to try to play the oboe.
SO: Totally. So you've just given a beautiful map of the ways in which you experience running the business side and how the music side has shifted over time. I'm curious how that relates to who was providing the revenue. There’s always an audience, right, that's either buying the records, or attending the shows? But over time, have you noticed a shift in the ways that audiences like to engage with the work or in the ways that you connect with them on a more transactional level?
NR: I think what happens for an artist that has longevity in their careers is that certain fans will stay with you the whole time and of course, one of the things that The Void Academy has emphasized is the importance of having a mailing list. Keeping a mailing list is so critical because there are people who are going to be your advocates for decades, hopefully. And sometimes they're not necessarily your friends. I mean, there’s this funny little quote, "you can have friends that don't even know what you still do." I have friends that still think I play the flute or they think I'm a singer. They've never been to a concert. But we're still friends. And then there are your fans. And the fans are the people that love your music, they know exactly what you play. They want to hear when the next release is coming out, they want to know when you're performing. They'll write to you and say "I wish you were coming to..." It shifts, but I think now, I'm noticing that there's this whole new generation of people who grew up listening to instrumental melodic music, which is pretty much what I play. And I had thought that I just had an older demographic. I had forgotten the fact that their parents played my music in the house while their kids were growing up. In a sense, I became part of their formative music listening routine. And with New Age music, there are now more and more people recording it. In addition, there's the whole ambient electronic movement that's kind of grown in the melodic instrumental direction as well. It's kind of fascinating to watch, and of course it makes total sense. I just hadn't really looked at it. So now, that's part of my challenge, to reach out and communicate with these younger audiences. How do I get my music to them in a way that they will enjoy, and I will enjoy as well?
SO: Yeah, that's the key and something that we talk about in our educational materials. It's interesting that you say that is what you're searching for now — that intersection of where you can meet this younger audience, but also have fun and make it exciting for you to do that.
NR: Yes. And I think sometimes you have to give yourself permission to take time, to step back every once in awhile.
So now, that's part of my challenge, to reach out and communicate with these younger audiences. How do I get my music to them in a way that they will enjoy, and I will enjoy as well?
NR: It can be overwhelming when I think about all these things about trying to learn how to be a social marketer, and learn how to do my website better, and learn how to this, this, this and this, and it really has nothing to do with practicing and making oboe and English horn reeds, which I really do have to do. It's a different practice. It's another skill set. And it's okay to give yourself permission once in awhile to just step back and say, "You know, I've got to either go outside for awhile, or I've got to do something completely different, to clear my head." Just like you were saying. To take really important breaks from it once in awhile, to renew your energy. So that then you can come back in you will be revitalized. And the other thing is to learn how to prioritize your work.
SO: If there was something in this arena that you wish that someone had told you when you were earlier in your career — like, so you could go back and say, "Young Nancy Rumbel, heed my advice now and you'll save yourself a lot of trouble" — what would it be?
NR: Well, I would definitely encourage artists to take risks. To jump into situations that they might not think would be the normal place that they would perform, or the usual way that they would put on a performance. Definitely take risks, because you don't really know sometimes what they’ll lead to. Sometimes that won’t even become clear for another 10 to 15 years.
The other thing is of course, one we were just talking about, was keeping in touch with your community of supporters. If you're very serious about a career, those are the people that will be behind you. Sometimes that support is not necessarily financial, sometimes it's giving you a room to stay when you show up somewhere and you don't have a place to sleep. Or sometimes it's getting a ride. Any number of wonderful things can happen. Even an opportunity to go to a place that you would never have thought would want to hear your kind of music. Because trust me, I have taken my oboe to more places than probably most oboe players ever will, in terms of small towns across the United States, and I'm so grateful for that. I've seen so much of this beautiful country.
SO: That's wonderful. So you were talking about maintaining your community of supporters. And I want to ask another question about that. You said that your early album with Eric Tingstad was very successful, so your fan base grew. How did you connect with them in the pre-internet age? How did people find out about shows? And how has that shifted now?
NR: We used to make flyers. We had mailing lists, we printed out the labels and stuck the labels on, we put a stamp on, and off it went. Sometimes we would have coupons for people to snip it off and send back if they were purchasing something. We would do radio interviews, buy print ads in newspapers. It was a lot of nose-to-the-grindstone work. Now, the cost of postage is so prohibitive and it’s sad, because if I could, I would still be doing that. I think right now our email is getting flooded. If I could send bulk mail for a reasonable price to advertise shows, I'd do it in a heartbeat.
I would definitely encourage artists to take risks. To jump into situations that they might not think would be the normal place that they would perform, or the usual way that they would put on a performance.
SO: I'd love to see something like that, you know, in the snail mail, musicians sending flyers. But yeah, that rarely happens anymore.
NR: Well, it’s the printing cost, in addition to the stamp being 49 cents now. Things add up and you have to kind of prioritize and figure out "How much of my budget for a concert do I want to spend on that kind of promotion? What's the most effective promotion?" I would love to do a survey, I should probably do this again because I was doing it for several years at my concerts and it was really interesting. We were giving out cards and asking people "Where are you buying your music? Where are you listening to your music?" Just to kind of find out.
SO: Very cool.
NR: Yeah, unless you get the feedback, you don't really know.
SO: That's so true. That's another really great piece of advice, to ask your people the questions, so that you know how they like to enjoy your work. I think that's a good question — where are you listening to music? That must have also been something that shifted dramatically over time, because we went from from analogue into this digital realm. Do you know how much of your audience listens to your music digitally, versus how many people are still interested in the hardware-style of music listening?
NR: Well I think Pandora really created an easy way to listen to music. And because it would tell you "Oh, you liked this, you might like this." That really did open up a lot of people's minds to "Oh, this way of listening to music is pretty simple. I can do that." Financially, it's been financially very controversial for artists, but at the same time, if that's what your fan base is doing, you can kick and scream on one side about it, but on the other side, that's what they're listening to. The reality is they are using Spotify, they are doing this and that. I know at this point for me, every time Apple comes up with a new version of iTunes, I cringe because you never know how the changes are going to affect your livelihood. I'm not sure what's going to happen to my catalog now.
SO: You're not alone in that. It must be scary, to have this whole digital body of work, the curators of which are not really people that you can communicate with.
NR: I kind of wonder if maybe you've got information for me on this; what has happened to those platforms that I saw some artists using where they were trying to solicit their fans to help them put up posters or do things like that? I don't hear as much about those anymore. Did that just kind of fizzle?
SO: Are you talking about a site where artists build a street team?
SO: I think now it's mostly being done through the artist’s own websites, as opposed to a secondary platform. Artists are building their own websites, where they have a blog, or they have a way for their audience to interact with them and join a kind of street team or to help them put up posters. More and more, people are trying to create their own website as the hub for everything that they do. Anytime you outsource something to a secondary platform, you're no longer in control of the content and how your users connect with you. I think artists are trying to be more proprietary a little bit with that, so that they can really have the means to communicate in the way they choose with their audience. You know what I mean?
I think right now our email is getting flooded. If I could send bulk mail for a reasonable price to advertise shows, I'd do it in a heartbeat.
SO: So, here’s another question for you. Was it 2003 that you and Eric won a Grammy?
SO: I'm just curious about the impact that kind of recognition had on your audience. Did you find that you had an influx of new people listening to your music, or did you find that it strengthened your community of supporters?
NR: Well it was a fantastic thing to happen, first of all. I’ll never forget it. And what it did do, was in a sense bring a certain kind of validation to what we had been doing. It also opened up various presenters' eyes to the fact that even though this was an oboe and guitar duo, which sounds perhaps a little dry and strange, now that it had the support of a Grammy behind it now, they were more willing to take a risk. It was a great marketing tool for them to use. They felt there was a certain validation to what had been voted on by the peers in the field, so they thought "Okay, well we'll take a chance with this." Before, the presenters in a lot of these halls, they were taking risks with their audience. They knew they liked the music, but to sell it to people and to get them into the seats wasn’t always easy. So, in that sense the Grammy really did help kind of open up that access to new audience members.
SO: That's wonderful. That's what I would imagine. I'm really curious about that balance in the arts of external validation, and how it impacts an artist’s trajectory. We talk with artists who apply for a lot of grants. And one thing that artists often say to us is "Yes, we want to do the crowdfunding thing, but the advantage that grants have is that they can come with this external validation that the community doesn't necessarily have.” I'm always asking artists about what that external validation means to them.
NR: A big thing from way back in my career, I must have been in my mid 20’s, was that I for a National Endowment for the Arts grant to study jazz oboe. I applied to study with Paul McCandless, who was the former oboist in the Paul Winter Consort, and then in the wonderful group Oregon. He happened to live in New York City, and I was living outside of New York at the time, and I sent him my application, and I got the grant. Then Paul McCandless recommended me to Paul Winter, and I was able to audition for Paul Winter. I became a member of the Paul Winter Consort and that launched my career into a whole new incredible direction. So the grant opened up this whole other world, and I'm so grateful to both the NEA and Paul McCandless for that opportunity.
SO: This is kind of what you were saying at the beginning, when I asked you about advice you would give young artists. You don't necessarily know what the opportunities you're offered will turn into. I think the one caution that I always give there is, make sure the opportunities don't feel exploitative. Because I think a lot of times artists are offered opportunities and not paid, or they're told that it will be really good exposure, but it's not, it’s actually an exploitative situation. I think there's this real balance in how to recognize a red flag situation, an opportunity that's not an opportunity and is actually just making someone else money. Versus an opportunity that does respect your artistic work. Those kinds of opportunities that feel good on a gut level I think are the ones that tend to spiral into something incredible or take you in a direction you didn't necessarily expect. Would you agree with that?
NR: Oh, I would definitely say that's true. Another thing that came to my mind while you were talking about this is that you also need to be very careful about when you're going to burn a bridge. Because sometimes those people will come back in the field, 20 or 30 years later. You might show up at a gig somewhere and the sound is horrible, or maybe any number of things. Maybe they didn't publicize it like they should have. And you could have all kinds of complaints and gripes that all of this should have been blah, blah, blah, blah. And maybe you've had a long day on the road getting there, and you're really tired, and you blow up at the sound person. And in hindsight, kind of step back when you start feeling these kinds of things, because that person may very well end up running the sound at Carnegie Hall or somewhere else down the road. You don't know.
SO: Sure. That's another thing that's really important.
NR: We often see radio personalities or presenters who will start out at smaller venues and eventually work their way up to larger stations or venues. And just as you are doing the same, all of a sudden your circles will intersect again years later. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.
SO: I think we've all heard horror stories about artists who get very entitled, or forget to thank the little people and forget to be respectful to everyone that they're working with. I think negative actions can really spiral in the same way as positive risk-taking. I think also, how to say no to an opportunity that doesn't feel right to you, without being disrespectful, is an important skill to learn. I was just talking to a friend of mine who is a filmmaker, who got asked to do this enormous film project for a tiny, tiny wage. And they said "Well, but it will be such good exposure for you." He said "This just feels so wrong to me. Because this isn't my rate. I told them what my rate was." I said "You know what? This is a time where you can respectfully and kindly say no. It's not a good opportunity. Don't burn the bridge necessarily but let them know you won’t come down from your rate. In the future if they have a project that could be at that rate, then they might return." You know what I mean?
NR: Right, or they may even take it as an opportunity to go out and find somebody to get additional funding from. You know, often they want to put it on the artist to get the funding, and you as an artist can say no to that. You can say, “If you really would like us to be a part of this and you can't afford our fee, see if you can get some sponsorship from somebody in your community, or get three or four businesses to put in a bit of money to help balance this out.”
Listen to your gut reaction about what you can do for free, and what you feel is crossing the line for you, where you're just like "God, I just can't do this!", I mean there are a bazillion good things going on out there, and so you really do kind of have to go inward and say yes, I can do this, or no, I've done this other performances this year for free, and I can't stretch it anymore. Don’t allow yourself to be a victim. Being honest with people about those kinds of things is really where it's at. Because it helps educate them as well.
SO: Yes. That's very true.
NR: Often people don't understand. As soon as you get a Grammy, they think that you have a lot of money.
SO: I'm sure.
NR: It's not true. [laughing]
SO: Yeah. Did you see that in how people interacted with you? When you're saying people think you have a lot of money, were they asking you for money, or were they assuming that you would work for free, or what?
NR: They just assume that you're doing really well, because you won a Grammy. You must be doing really well, you played Carnegie Hall, right? You're at the top of your game. The reality of being an artist, is you can have this external validation, and it doesn't necessarily translate into your finances and revenue. There needs to be so much more education and outreach to the public about what's really going on within the music and arts industries as far as bottom line income. I have yet to find a good article in The New Yorker about it, which is kind of confusing, because it's one of those types of publications that you think would kind of delve into some of these issues, to get viewpoints from people across the industry about what's going on right now and help educate the public about it.
I just wish there was information available to the public about the dilemma many artists are in, presented in a way that was palatable, interesting and, as we always say compelling. It has to be presented in a way that really bridges this information gap.
The reality of being an artist, is you can have this external validation, and it doesn't necessarily translate into your finances and revenue.
SO: I agree. I want the public to want to know, and want to help, too.
NR: This topic has been a huge one ever since "pirating" became possible. For a while I think I personally went through kind of a depression about it all. It was like a death. I went through these stages of grieving and then kind of came out the other side. I think in general, we're still in a place where we're still trying to figure out how we can find adequate support for the arts. I think that is the beauty of The Void Academy. It’s nice to see that there's this support team of people who really are trying to bridge this understanding of what's going on in the arts, and what's going on in the public, what's going on in business, and how do we make this new form of art in our culture go forward and sustain itself, and become better.
SO: Let me ask you one final question then. If there was a course that you could take right now, like a crash course, that would give you some really useful skills in a specific area of arts business, what would that be called?
NR: I’d love to take a course about how to prioritize the time in my day, how much I need to allocate for this or that. In a sense, like a personal trainer. I’ve had to go through physical therapy for a couple of injuries, and I cannot tell you how much I love to have somebody like that to help me. You go to them and you know they're going to help you. They're also keeping an eye on you so you don't stray. I'm a person who is so easily distracted — I can get excited about anything in the room and just be gone. Then I have to kind of come back and go, “Wait a second, you didn't do anything on your web site for five years.” So for me, having that kind of discipline, to come to somebody as a teacher in a sense, and as a coach, would be really critical.
SO: Got it.
NR: I say that when I teach private lessons, too. Yes, some of it is definitely teaching music and skills. A lot of it is therapy — helping people get over their anxiety about something, learning how to relax. Fears like, “if I do this it's going to look stupid. Or it's going to sound bad, nobody's going to like it, etc.” You know, those kinds of things. Or I cannot tell you how many times I have been stuck with a technical issue on my computer or software that takes hours of time to figure out. I don’t have an IT department – I am the IT department.
SO: Absolutely. Sometimes I think artists just need someone looking over their shoulder saying "Hey, it's going to be okay." Whether that's a mentor, whether that's a personal trainer kind of figure, as you say. I think that secondary person, who helps to ease the anxiety and helps to prioritize, is somehow going to be incorporated into what we are trying to provide to our community. You're definitely not the only person who said this. It's a real need.
NR: Yes. It’s another thing I say to younger artists, too — really find people who are supportive of what you're doing. It may not be your family. It may not be your friends. It may be a whole other group of people but this is so important to nurture. Sometimes you literally have to physically leave where you are, and go to a whole new place to find this, but it’s worth it. It all goes back to taking risks.
SO: I think that's a wonderful way to end. Thank you.
For more information please visit nancyrumbel.com.
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