Interview – Vicky Emerson and Sarah Morris – The Secrets To Their Success

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By Rebecca Marx

I wanted their secrets, just how had these two musicians from Minnesota mounted such a successful Americana radio campaign all on their own? Without a record label, or PR team, Vicky Emerson reached #58 and Sarah Morris got to #85 on the AMA (Americana) chart, amongst artists like Sturgill Simpson, Bonnie Raitt and The Avett Brothers. Emerson and Morris took the time to sit down with me, and divulge some of their secrets before crisscrossing the Midwest together on their Highways & Heartstrings tour.

RM: What are you two feeling on the cusp of your joint Midwest tour (Highways & Heartstrings Tour)?

Both: Excited! (in unison)

SM: It does feel a bit like a vacation, we’ll be on the road away from our usual responsibilities. We get to go play!

VE: Just us every night, we aren’t splitting a bill with anyone – just us.

RM: How many shows are there on the tour?

VE: All together 6, including a Concert Window performance and 4 radio spots, plus a podcast. We are doing the WGN Chicago overnight show where musicians come and play and talk after a show. That’s going to be so much fun.

SM: We are going to be up so late!

RM: The two of you singly put out well received albums in 2015 (Vicky Emerson: Wake Me When the Wind Dies Down & Sarah Morris: Ordinary Things), and embarked upon a DIY Americana radio campaign journey together, how did the joint campaign come about?

VE: Krista Vilinskis (Tinderbox Music) suggested it to me.

SM: So I’d started a spreadsheet, anyone can go on the internet to find the basic information about radio stations, but I felt like it wasn’t very deep and I wanted to make sure that I had the best and most current information. The lists didn’t have emails for instance, and I felt like that these people must have emails. So, I started with 80 stations and I assigned tasks to my mom, my dad…and I had heard your (Vicky’s) album and heard really good things about it, and I thought that Vicky must also be going through the same thing, so I asked if you (Vicky) wanted to share my sheet.

VE: Yes! My album came out in January 2015, and Sarah’s came out in the fall. When mine came out I had it all scheduled – that this is when the radio campaign is going to happen, I’m going to do it myself because it’s expensive to hire a radio promoter and my budget is gone. So all right, what are we going to do? That same week as I was internally processing all of these issues, Sarah came along with “Hey, I have this sheet”…and I was like I can bring some stations to the table too, and we started working to fill the holes and gaps in the situation.

RM: Can you share the other’s specific jobs or skills that they brought to the table?

SM: Vicky is generally more knowledgeable on a lot of these things, and had more connections.

VE: I did, and we also got lucky too – remember one of the stations – KXE sent me a Facebook message that said I was charting this week (she whispers-“what does that mean?”), the station told me that I was charting both on the Americana chart (AMA) and their chart. I had no idea what it meant, and we decided to email the Americana chart-so I did. I told them that I had been told that I was charting, but that you (AMA) only show the top 40-where is everybody else? How do I find out? They were like: “You have to pay for that information” – of course you do! That’s when it got real! We were able to swing a 3 month pass and split that fee and boy, that just changed the trajectory of the whole campaign.

SM: There were all these rabbit holes, to glance at it you wouldn’t know, but one night I found something that I hadn’t clicked on before. and I was “Oh my God! Vicky!”, suddenly we could see not only our charting position, but what stations were playing us. Before that, we could only get feedback from stations that responded back to us. There were stations that played us in heavy rotation that we had no idea of, the contact had never responded back, I had no idea we were being spun there. NONE! Then you could see what songs were being played, what stations had more spins to give. That was eye opening because we had thought that a station like the Current would spin it more, but they actually don’t have that many spins for the AMA chart. So, it became clear as to who exactly we were going after: the stations that had a lot of ads to give and lots of spins to give.

VE: The campaign became like a pyramid, the bottom being where we sent out all these albums, follow ups, then when we got more information it became very strategic and efficient. We both broke 100 on the AMA, very few independents break that number, and a lot of them actually have a promoter.

SM: We got very fascinated by the process, there are these big internet stations that you wouldn’t necessarily think of, and it’d be interesting to submit someone’s album only to the those stations. You can get a lot of spins, and what would that do to the terrestrial stations-would that equal more play there? You want to think that the stations are spinning music because they like your music, but they aren’t necessarily picking it that way at all.

VE: We had a lot of comments from station contacts: “I get hundreds of CD’s a day, how am I supposed to do my job?” One guy was like: “I’m not listening to any new music” and I asked him if his boss knew this! He asked me if I was getting smart with him and I said: “I am!”.

RM: You both seem to have the confidence to do this, I mean you just went for it!

VE: Yes, Sarah’s confidence has GROWN!

SM: I was scared! I felt like I was going to throw up when I did cold calls!

VE: Sarah would get warm in her nether regions (laughter).

SM: But, you know, any of this stuff in music, I wanted to be a model for my kids. When you have a dream, you are going to do it and not give up. I want my kids to see me dong the work, not just the getting dressed up and running away to do a show part. There’s more to it, I love it, so I do the work, and Vicky was a great cheerleader!

VE: I’d done cold calling before, it’s a horrible task, but I always led with where I was from, everyone loves Minneapolis. They all think our music scene is really great.

RM: What challenges were there to promoting your own work without a label or PR to back you – specific frustrations?

VE: It did get frustrating at times, there was a  man I was talking to that said: “I will be told who and what to listen to and play, I don’t want to deal with an independent.” People were like: “Why are you calling me?” I told them: “I don’t have a promoter, I cannot afford one so please go through your stack and find the CD.” A gentleman in Canada informed me he wasn’t interested because my album had went down on the AMA chart and he told me “interest was fading”, to which I asked him if he’d even listened to my album.

SM: I feel like that was it, that I’d thought they would listen to the album and like the album and that was the path, or not like it and pass. I wanted the album to be listened to, and judged on its own merit. Going into the campaign, I assumed someone would listen to it, and then decide.

VE: Sarah had to resend hers a lot.

SM: I did, my CD is skinny. I don’t have a spine on mine and I didn’t know that was a problem.

VE: When they stack the CD’s it’s an issue.

SM: And mine was very dark, I mean things that I would have never thought of!

VE: So that was frustrating, resending albums, and the endless email follow ups, or people wouldn’t take calls, or only at certain times.

SM: They might have one hour a week where they take calls, and their line was always busy. I just felt that there was something we must be missing. Some key to these people, not all of them, but some because there were plenty that answered their phone like they were supposed to. They supply their accessibility to the AMA so that you can contact them (part of the fee based subscription).

VE: I will say that when they figured out that it was actually me calling about my album, I had several go: “You are really calling for yourself?” and at least three were like  “Girl, I’m gonna go track down your CD.”

SM: We really connected with people and they liked the music, they were really rooting for us.

VE: We are going to the Americana Conference and there was a Nancy and a Martin who emailed to say they couldn’t wait to see us!

SM: I have to say though, that squeezing those times into your day was a challenge. On Wednesdays, I had my niece and daughter and it would be like: “you two play right now”, and I’d take calls, then quick text Vicky that these people were in a good mood at their desk, and that she should call them. It was so nice to have someone like Vicky who was going through the same exact thing, my husband was super supportive, but having a support network was great!

VE: I have to say that I kind of miss it! Our banter was spot on!

SM: Now we are going to do it onstage with microphones, I keep telling people how funny it is going to be! It is going to be musically great too!

RM: Releasing an album has been likened to giving birth and sending your child into the world, how nice was it to share that experience with someone who could commiserate on the hard things and enjoy the successes? Also, the two of you are in the same market, locale, and genre-is there a healthy amount of competition between the two of you?

SM: There was a solid month in there where I was lagging substantially and frustrated with  my own thing, but I was really inspired by Vicky’s progress. I often mentioned to my husband about how clean it felt, no girl drama. I’m impressed by how it all transpired, when you build it that way it – it works.

VE: No drama whatsoever, Sarah’s just took a little time to get off the ground and I think it was partly because it was her first radio campaign, I’d done one in 2009 and had hired a promoter, so it was my second time around. I did have some name recognition, so that helped. Then, Sarah’s CD got some major traction and it really started to climb. I was so excited! Come on pass me!

SM: Success for all!

RM: Sometimes musicians feel left out that of the scene, that no one is supporting them. How important is it to support other musicians within you own music scene?

SM: I think that it’s something that I’m not able to do as much as I would like to being the mother of two small children. I joke that I selfishly book shows with artists that I want to see. I heard Kari Arnett on the Current so I asked her to play at the 331 club with me solely so that I could see her! I’ve done shows with Katy Vernon for the same reason, the only way I may be able to see someone is to play gigs with them.

VE: Right now that is difficult for me, with kids – sitters are needed and my husband travels a lot so it is tough, I wish that I could do more! I find that my support is through backing Kickstarter and album funding projects. I have mentored some folks in town and answer questions about booking gigs. When artists from New York come here, I help them get booked (Emerson lived in Manhattan for a time and even helped Sarah get a gig there at Café Vivaldi). I feel like at this point in my life that is the kind of support that I am able to give. I do try to get out to shows, but that part is tough right now.

RM: Are people seeking out you DIY PR knowledge, are you PR pros?

SM: We think that we should approach organizations like the MMC (MN Music Coalition) to speak on it. We feel like we’ve earned something, part of our healthy competition and success for all mantra!

VE: It is a lot of hard work, not easy. You have to have thick skin, not everyone will think you’re great or like your music…We haven’t talked to anyone about doing any PR seminars, it’s in the idea stage right now, but I think that we should.

RM: What have you learned from-success or failure wise in this campaign?

SM: The “The thing that I know for sure” moment? Making the call, making phone calls in general and flying in planes are my fears. I prefer to be hammered for both (laughter). Connecting, that is the deal. Making the connections with people, and believing in my own work – that it is okay for me to do that. I made this and I believe in it!

RM: Do you think that women are taught again to not take pride in their accomplishments, to not take credit for their successes?

VE: Well, most of the promoters, radio contacts etc. were men, very heavy in the male perspective. For me, I felt success when I looked into the top 100 and saw that there was just no one (independent artists) doing this. You know, you really can do this, you don’t need a man or anyone to take charge, and do it for you. You can buckle down and do it yourself. If you are passionate about your work, it’s contagious, it’s real.

SM: I learned to steer my ship in a way that I don’t think I knew that I could. I’ll always have someone else produce my album, that’s not something that I want to do. There is a whole business side to things, I need Krista Vilinskis for in town press – I don’t want to do that, but there is some steering that I can do.

RM: So you really grew as an artist?

SM: Yes – so much!

VE: I felt very empowered!

RM: Would you do it all over again?

VE: I can’t believe that I am saying this but – Yes! Yes! Yes! I talk to my husband about the next time that I do an album, and he’s like: “Let’s just get through this one!”

SM: I’m already talking to my band about times to get together and move forward. I have a lot of songs, I don’t know if they are an album, but I am writing a lot. I didn’t always write a lot, so I am glad to be in a new phase in my life. I did go through different periods when I said that I wasn’t going to go through this (process) again. Even if I paid someone to do it, I’d have to be involved. I’d have my mom and family involved stuffing envelopes, my mom’s military corners!

VE: At least with the launch! Hire PR for a few weeks, we both do the calls and then you are out, and I’m in. Next time I’d switch it up a little bit, but I’d want to do most of it myself. I’d still have my family there in an assembly line doing it all in front of House of Cards with a bottle of wine.

SM: Yes, because you want a high impact week where everyone adds you at one time so you get to be a top add. The top 5 added are paid extra attention to by the stations. Then there’s the personal touch again, sending notes that I’d be in  Nashville or their town – next time I’ll have way more notes to send!

RM: What’s next?

SM: I feel like Vicky and I will open a PR firm (wink).

VE: I could see it. I think that we might do some panels to help people learn about how to promote themselves. That’s probably next. But, here we are talking about nexts! Sarah and I do need to follow this all up with some killer work.

RM: If only the readers could see the chemistry! Is there anything that you want to let our readers know?

VE: I think all of this is great, but I mean I made a really good friend out of all of this. I think that is even bigger than all of the campaign success. To find a friend and an ally in a business where you do so many things solitary and alone. To know that you don’t have to be alone on the journey.

SM: Just finding another woman who was parenting small children while being her own bandleader, songwriter and releasing her own album – that has been amazing! For the tour I am pretty geeked out and excited to be able to be with you (Vicky) all the time, excited for the car stuff and to listen to your great music and to sing with you too!

RM: I’m excited to see the both of you on the Highways & Heartstrings Tour!

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