The world of geeky subcultures is a tough one to navigate, especially as an indie musician. I was lucky enough to get an interview with someone who has made a name for himself in it - and yes, that is his real name. Ladies and gentlemen, time to put on your vampire fangs and say hello to Voltaire.
[image from Voltaire's Facebook album, used with his permission]
1. Your style of music and range of influences are so diverse. What would
you call your style of music? Has your uniqueness made it easier or
harder for you to promote your personal brand?
V: It makes it harder actually. It's sad. One would think that if you fit too neatly into a certain genre, chances are you are making 'cookie cutter' music and that if your music is harder to categorize that perhaps it has more depth or is more unique. But sadly, unique doesn't sell. It's easier to sell someone on your record if they are a fan of Heavy Metal and you can say, "I make Heavy Metal music". When you can't find the words to neatly describe what your music sounds like, it's much harder to get people excited about it. And unfortunately, I have never been good at that. Any time someone asks me "What kind of music do you make?" I have no idea what to tell them. These days I say that I make funny songs about scary things and I list some song titles like Zombie Prostitute or Cannibal Buffet. Or I mention that I've made some songs for the Cartoon Network show The Grim Adventures of Billy And Mandy.. and that helps somewhat. But for me, it falls very short of really describing what I do. I need to get better at this!
2. I understand you made your start in the days before social media,
without the help of an agent or music label. Is that so? How did you do
V: That's true! There wasn't even an internet yet, well, except for the one Al Gore was using with three of his friends. Back then you had to be creative. I had all sorts of weird stuff that I would do to promote my shows. I had a skull encrusted book with blank weathered pages that I had made that I would bring to my shows. Near the end of the show I would hold it up and say, "this is the Book of the Dead. If you put your name and address in it, you will die…. maybe, someday, probably not really soon." And all of these Goth kids would run up to put their names in it! Then when I had a show coming up, I'd mail them (yes, through the actual mail!) an invitation. But even the invitations weren't normal. They were usually these little 8-page mini comic books I would make called "Oh My Goth!" (before I started making the actual comic book series). I'd draw them and print them up at Kinkos. I got the idea from religious tracts people would hand me. They'd have me being chased by the minions of Satan, trying to prevent me from playing my next show and then of course on the last page there would be the information for where and when it would be. I'd put them in black envelopes and hand address them in silver ink and sometimes I'd throw in a rubber bat or a plastic spider ring. I'd also make a hundred or so extra copies and hand them out at Goth clubs. It was really funny to see all of these kids in black sitting on the floor all reading the same little comic book and trying not to smile or laugh when they realized how ridiculous the comics were. I've always disliked the idea of handing someone a flyer with show info on it and leaving it at that. It puts you in a position where you are asking the person for a favor. You are asking them to come to your show. Instead I set out to entertain. If I made someone laugh with my silly little mini comic or if they were touched by this special little gift they got in the mail from me, they were far more likely to be intrigued and want to see for themselves what was further down this curious road.
But it's important to note that I got signed to Projekt Records about two years after I started making music. Being on a label with a built in following as well as distribution did more for me in the way of reaching people outside of New York City than I could have possibly done by myself.
3. Now that you are self-releasing albums, how do you utilize social media
to promote your music? Do you think it would be different if you were
signed with a label?
V: It's hard to say. Being signed to a label is not the end all, be all. You can be signed to a terrible label that takes all of your money and never promotes you, or tells you that you have to change the way you look and the way you sound and then when you don't sell any records they drop you, or worse, they don't! The worst thing a label can do to you is keep you on an exclusive contract and NEVER put out any of your records. It happens!
But in the best case scenario if I were signed to a major label, they would spend millions of dollars to promote my music. And hey, if ten percent of those people become fans for life, I'd have it made. But I'm putting out CDs independently now so there's no promotion department or publicist or marketing budget. It's just me and the internet and the people I meet in person at my live shows. So, I tour a lot! And I spend a couple hours a day at the very least on the internet answering emails, updating my Facebook page, my Myspace page and now that no one is on Myspace anymore, I've started a Reverbnation page. It's a tremendous amount of time that I could be using to make the music instead, but it's really a necessary part of being a musician if you want to succeed. There will be no one at your shows if people don't know you're playing. You have to make yourself as available as you can be to people on-line and you have to constantly find new ways to reach people because they migrate from the current hot social networking site to the next when they get bored. And because of that, the most important thing I have to do is constantly collect email addresses whether online or at live shows from people who want to be kept informed so that I can keep a dialogue going with them. It's a full time job.
4. What would you say is the key to creating, promoting, and evolving a
V: For one, don't suck. No matter what business you're in, the product has to be good. Otherwise people won't care, at least not for long. Secondly, you have to provide great customer service. It sounds odd for a musician to say perhaps, but it's no different from any other business in that sense. If people like your music, they might buy a record. If they come to your show and have the time of their lives, they will come again. If you make yourself available to talk to people before and after the show (I run my own merch booth to ensure this happens) you give people a person experience that's so lacking from the entertainment industry these days. People will remember that.
5. You simultaneously celebrate and mock geeky cultures. Has this ever
presented a problem?
V: Not really. People generally understand that I tend to mock the things I love. I mean, you can't write a song like "The U.S.S. Make Shit Up" and have it chock full of Star Trek jokes unless you actually watch the show, religiously. And Goths generally understand that I am one of them. When I mock the Goth scene, I'm mocking myself. But once in a while I do get one of those really uptight Goths who takes it too seriously who will get mad at me. I MC'd Convergence, a big Goth festival, in Seattle several years ago. Some Goth guy emailed me later to tell me I had ruined the entire weekend for him because I was making jokes on stage! It's that kind of person that I occasionally have problems with but let's face it, who wants to please that kind of twit anyway?
6. Your main fanbase appears to be goths. Has branching out with “Banned
on Vulcan” and “Hate Lives In a Small Town” brought in new fans? Has it
alienated your gothic fanbase or did they follow you into these other
music styles as well?
V: I think at this point it might be safe to say that I have more fans in the Renn faire, Sci Fi/ horror convention world than in the Goth scene. I'm not totally sure, but I do play to thousands of people a year at Dragoncon and other big conventions. I also have a very large Steampunk following and my appearances on the on-line game AdventureQuest Worlds has introduced me to thousands of gamers. I do still do a lot of shows at Goth clubs, and being a Goth myself, I'd still be going to those clubs for fun. At this point, I would say that my fans tend to be people who populate some corner or other of "geek culture". Whether they are Goths or Steampunks, Sci Fi or Horror fans, I'm not so sure and I don't worry about it too much. We all sort of drift back and forth between these scenes because we are all in one way or another... geeks. I say that in the best possible way, of course!
7. Because of your dark-themed animation and music, you appeal to the
teens and 20s set, but because of the Deady toys and involvement with
“Billy and Mandy,” it could be said that your work also appeals to kids.
Do you have a particular age group that you prefer to create for? What do
you find is the greatest difference between creating for kids and for
V: It has been a little bit of a challenge, I have to admit. Before Billy and Mandy and my stints on AdventureQuest Worlds, I could be as dark and bawdy as I cared to be. But my audience started growing in a different direction and I found myself with more and more younger fans. So I made a CD of songs for kids so that I could point the younger fans in that direction when they are looking for one of my CDs. It's called Spooky Songs for Creepy Kids. Also, at some all-ages shows I probably need to censor myself somewhat (though I probably do a terrible job of it!). But I would never be able to abandon the irreverent and I guess somewhat perverted material that comes to me so easily and that I myself get such a kick out of. So for the time being I just have to proceed knowing who the audience is on a day to day and project to project basis. Deady is more skewed towards a younger audience these days, for instance but I'm pretty sure my next CD is going to be one for "adults only".
8. How did you arrange the collaborations with Artix Entertainment
(including the Deady game and your virtual appearances in Adventure
Quest)? How did these games affect your personal brand, as they pair
technology with the gothic Victorian element, and cuteness with morbidity?
V: Quite simply, Artix Entertainment approached me at Dragoncon a few years ago. To be honest, I had to have them explain to me what a massive, multi-player on-line role playing game was! I was pretty naive. Adam Bohn, the president of Artix was a super nice and patient fellow as I asked him a bunch of questions about how I would fit in and what I would be doing exactly. Be he was the man with the vision. He already knew how I could become an animated avatar in the game and lead players on a live quest. It was a bit ahead of its time, really. We eventually did a live event in which I lead players on a 4-hour live quest through monster-infested waters on a haunted pirate ship while I played a bunch of songs from my CD "To the Bottom of the Sea". It was really a blast and has lead to more amazing partnerships with them. We have done two more live events since then (they all take place on Friday the 13th!) and are working on a fourth one now. We also released a co-branded Deady vinyl toy that came with a code to unlock a digital Deady pet in the game. That was wildly successful. It's been great. But yeah, now I have a whole bunch of new, very young fans I have to watch my mouth in front of.
9. What do you consider to be your main job: making music, writing,
drawing comics, animation, teaching, or something else? Which occupies
most of your time? Which are your main sources of income and which are
labours of love? Which do you most want to be known for?
V: If I had to pick a job description it would be "professional daydreamer". What I do at the end of the day is create. It matters less to me whether it's a comic book, song, film or toy. It's the act of coming up with the idea and then manifesting it in the real world that excites me the most. I probably make most of my money as a touring musician. I make zero money, and in fact spend tens of thousands of dollars on making the short films. That is a labor of love. But I hope it will somehow end up leading to me making feature films which would, one would hope, be lucrative in some way. But if that never happens I'd probably still make animated shorts. It's just something I love doing. At the end of the day I guess I would like to be known for having interesting and entertaining ideas. It if were a hundred or more years ago, I would say I'd like to be remembered as a 'story teller'.
10. Do you have any advice for people looking to make a living from their
intellectual property and creative works?
V: Yes! At the risk of plagiarizing Nike, 'Just Do It!" Seriously, you would not believe how many thousands of people I meet a year who ask me for advice on how to become a successful artist or writer or filmmaker, etc. If I ask them to tell me about the book they've written or the music they've made, the most common answer is, 'well, I haven't actually started yet." It's sort of shocking. It's as if they are waiting for someone to come along with a giant sword and dub them an artist or writer or musician before they can begin. At the risk of ripping off Gandhi here, you have to become the artist you want for the world to see you as. Only after the work exists should you then start asking the practical questions like, 'how do I get this out to people? How do I promote myself? How do I make money from this?'
First and foremost you need to be making the art because you want to, because you love to and because you HAVE to, because your soul demands it! If you end up becoming successful at it, that's just the icing on the cake. If you don't, the creation of the work itself should be its own reward.
If you are only making music/books/art, etc because you wish to be rich
and famous, please do us all a favor and quit RIGHT NOW! The world is
already full of garbage.
You can find all of Voltaire's music and films here: www.voltaire.net
Deady the Evil Teddy www.deadybear.net