By: Gregg LaGambina
Most afternoons, you’ll find songwriter Michèle Vice-Maslin sitting poolside at a club in Marina del Rey. She comes here during the day, armed with sunblock and a laptop, to market herself to anyone who needs music – recording artists, television shows, films, advertisers, app developers, game developers, etc.. At night, she hunkers down in her studio and gets to work doing what she loves to do most: making music.
Like most musicians, Vice-Maslin began her career with different plans. She wanted to be a singer – most of all, she wanted to perform. But as her songs kept getting placed with artists, in film, and television shows, Vice-Maslin ended up morphing into a songwriter/producer. With the rise of Napster later on in her career, she decided to focus even more energy on media placements and less on artist record releases. And, like most people who carve out a career in the arts, Vice-Maslin’s story is a combination of talent, tenacity, and luck.
She met the right people, found a mentor, was hired to write songs for daytime television, won an Emmy® and was nominated for another, and will still tell you that if you plan on pursuing her line of work, think twice, then think again, because it is not easy and definitely not for everyone, even if you have talent to burn.
Vice-Maslin has amassed thousands of credits for her work on artist recordings, in film, and in television, but laments the rise of streaming and piracy for making her already impossible job even more difficult. This is why CreativeFuture met with Michèle Vice-Maslin, out by the pool – of course – and talked about the variety of skills it takes for up-and-coming songwriters to survive in the 21st century – when they’re on their own, have all the digital tools at their disposal to go it alone, but still can’t find a big enough audience to make a decent living.
Gregg LaGambina: People know what a songwriter is – they write songs. But, in your particular case, you’ve taken a different route than most. Maybe we can start by talking about how your career started, your education, your early experience in music, and how you managed to carve out a career writing songs and licensing them for television and film?
Michèle Vice-Maslin: I think most songwriters and music producers – I’m a producer as well – start out wanting to be artists. We don’t know anything else. I was a little girl, 5 years old, and I wanted to sing and that I think is the beginning for most creative music people. I sang and I wrote poetry and then I started to write songs just for me, because it was my passion and part of my being and I wanted to do it as a career, but I didn’t understand what that was, of course. I never wanted to do anything else. My favorite thing to do would be to get in the car with my father and drive anywhere, just so he could put the radio on so I could sing along. I knew every song that was out.
GL: What kind of music was your dad into? Was he supportive of your musical pursuits?
MVM: He was into everything. My parents were very into music and had a lot of artist recordings and musical theater albums. They were young and cool in those days. My path was easier because I didn’t ever have to decide what I wanted to do. I always knew I wanted to be in music. I never questioned it. So many people go to college and still don’t know what to do, so I feel even though I chose a path that’s very difficult and a career that’s very difficult to thrive in, I always knew what I wanted to do. That made it a bit easier.
Also, my father has always been really supportive. He’s an artist and made money as a graphic artist. But he has an artist’s sensibility. He was very supportive emotionally, and sometimes, financially. He was often a “patron” of my art. I was very lucky. I had a dream and I morphed into a professional songwriter. I knew I wanted to sing and be on stage. When I was very young, I wanted to be famous. If I wasn’t famous by 17, I was washed up [laughs]. At about age 20, I was approached by a management company to sign as an actress. Those days you couldn’t be a singer and an actress, and the company forbade me from performing my music in public if I signed. It was really compartmentalized. You had to choose between the two. So I pursued singing and continued writing songs.
GL: Did you go to school for music?
MVM: I went to the University of Arizona. I studied creative writing and majored in poetry, which is not exactly stable [laughs]. I ended up not lasting long in school and ended up going on the road with a rock band. That was the best. I loved it. Then I moved to Los Angeles with $57 in my pocket. That was it. No job. Nothing. I had a cousin who connected me with a friend of his who put me up, and he happened to manage a restaurant and got me a job there. I got set up here in Los Angeles and I pursued being an artist.
GL: A lot of people do that and fail. Where did you begin and how did you get a foothold in the songwriting community?
MVM: My best friend at the time was a professional songwriter and I really didn’t even know what she did. She was signed to a publishing company. She wrote songs. But, the songs I wrote were for me. When I first moved to LA, I had a band and did “performance art” – very strange stuff. I would have people hanging from the ceiling on stretchers reading poetry and polishing their nails [laughs]. I was also really good at schmoozing and I’d have every A&R guy at my show. Their mouths would just drop.
GL: You were having fun and getting noticed.
MVM: I thought I was touching people. Then, one day, I realized that it was people like Madonna who touched people; not my performance art. It was like a light bulb moment. She was touching the masses and I really wanted to touch people with my art too. But it was too off-the-wall.
GL: Why do you think you needed to get through that phase, just to see how far you could push yourself?
MVM: That was my passion, that was where my heart was, but I really wasn’t touching anybody. One A&R guy said he had to call a summit of A&R people to think about what to do with me.
GL: That could be taken as a compliment. You’re unique!
MVM: At the time, one of my shows was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times and the writer said, “When somebody’s gutsy enough to call themselves a singer, songwriter, and performance artist, you just hope for the best.” Then, he went on to write that I did it and did it well. So, that was pretty cool. But, what happened, as I continued down my own path, I had a friend who was making a movie with John Cusack and Tim Robbins called Tapeheads. I said to my writing partner, who is still my writing partner – Larry Treadwell – we’ve been working together forever. I said to Larry, “Let’s write something for this movie and I’ll submit it under a pseudonym because if I submit it under my name, they’ll laugh. They know what I do as an artist and know it has nothing to do with pop music.” Larry was a little more mainstream at the time, but he’s very out there too. We wrote it and had someone else sing it. Once it got it in the movie, only then did I tell them that I wrote the song. I said it was a friend’s song just to get it in the movie. That was the first time I created something that wasn’t just for me, as an artist.
GL: Was that an artistically satisfying experience?
MVM: I became like an urban songwriter overnight. It was very strange and a few years later, the same director was doing another film and asked me to do another song and so Larry and I wrote another song. I actually got to produce myself – which was incredible and an amazing experience. It was with Sam Moore of Sam & Dave. Then, that same year, I started working with Nile Rodgers. My stepsister is very tight with him and she told him, “I’ll go out with you if you help my sister.” And he did! He invited me to New York and I was there for about three years.
He really mentored me. He let me sit in on his sessions and let me meet his people. He set me up with his assistant, who was also an aspiring songwriter/producer. His assistant had a partner and the three of us wrote a song together and they were trying to record it before the song was even finished. It was the most bizarre experience.
We were writing this song and I was back in L.A. and they were in New York City. We get a call in the middle of the night that Mica Paris of Island Records is cutting our song, except there’s really no completed song, just the start of it. It’s nothing. We were up all night and wrote it over the phone. Those days, there was no internet. We were literally on a handheld phone with a cord, writing this song. Mica Paris was flying in from London the next day and that song became her single.
So, here I have this other urban song and now I get a publishing deal. I had no clue what that entailed. I knew nothing. I’m sitting in this meeting and they are all talking around me until finally one of them said, “Don’t you think we should tell her we want to sign her?” At that point, I have a hit song and $9 to my name.
Island Music sent a messenger with $500 to the Border Grille on Melrose where I was waitressing, then $5,000 a few days later with a promissory note saying I’d have to pay them back if I didn’t sign the contract. Then a check for $25,000. When I got to my bank to deposit the check, they wouldn’t take it because I only had $9 in my account. I pleaded, “Can’t you put a hold on it?” They just said, “No.” It was a lot of money! It was so embarrassing. I had to go back to Island so they could take me to their bank and get me a cashier’s check. I sent my dad a copy of the check and said, “Can you believe it? They really pay you to do this!”
GL: And that’s how you became a songwriter instead of a performer?
MVM: I became a pop songwriter. My own stuff was bizarre, but I was signed as an artist too, not just as a writer. But they didn’t get what I did at all. They liked that I was having success as a writer, so they started to hook me up with people who needed songs written.
GL: Eventually, you won an Emmy®.
MVM: I did! After that first publishing deal, I had a second publishing deal, which didn’t last long. Island was bought by PolyGram and that was the end of my deal, basically. Then, I signed to NEM Entertainment and they went under too.
GL: Before we get any further into the weeds, can you explain what a “publishing deal” is? People hear the word “publishing” and don’t often think of music first.
MVM: Every songwriter is a publisher because songwriting is split – half is the writer’s share, and half is the publisher’s share. So, if you write your own songs, you’re automatically the publisher. There are companies that will want to sign a writer and then for them to earn a piece of their publishing pie, they will invest, nurture, give them money, set them up on collaborations, and hopefully pitch their songs somewhere. I can’t say that happens most of the time, but you do get the money. And I wanted the money! I was still waiting tables. Because I couldn’t quite let go of my old life even though I was making enough as a songwriter. My boss at the restaurant, who was like a mother to me, finally made me quit. At that time, I was offered work on some daytime soap operas – As the World Turns, Another World, Guiding Light. Those were my main shows, especially Guiding Light, which I worked on for 18 years and won the Emmy® for. I was also nominated for a song on the show One Life to Live.
GL: Were you composing the score for these shows or writing songs?
MVM: I wrote songs. The royalties from the major networks [ABC, CBS, and NBC] were the highest tier at that time. I was getting network royalty money every day. It was an amazing gift. I learned so much because on a soap, you don’t have the luxury of time. They air every weekday. So, I would get calls in the middle of the night – “They turned the club into a Latin club and now we need salsa music! Now it’s in Russia and we need something more classical!” It was beyond fun and I learned how to write in so many different genres of music. All my friends benefited from it too. Everyone I wrote with got their music on those shows.
GL: At some point, you also became a producer. Can you talk about that part of your career evolution?
MVM: I was always a producer because, in those days, the writers produced their own music. That’s just how you did it. When I first started, you hired players, they came and played on your song, and you learned how to produce the music out of necessity. It wasn’t like you’d find some producer who was going to produce your demo and your demos still needed to sound like records. So, I learned by watching Nile Rodgers, and other producers I worked with, and it became my passion. My passion is more in production than in the writing now.
GL: You’ve also been credited as an arranger. What does being an arranger entail?
MCM: Producing and arranging are my focus now. The real classic definition of a record producer is not an arranger. An arranger creates the musical parts. The producer is the person who watches over the budget, puts together the project, makes sure it comes in before the deadline. But, now, the role of the producer has morphed into the arranger.
An arranger, to me, is more important, because that means I’ve arranged the musical parts, and the vocal parts, and I came up with the parts for the musicians to play. Also in the musician unions, the arranger is considered a musician, but the producer is not. They have this thing they call the “special payments fund” which is for union movies and TV shows where they pay special royalties. But if you’re the producer, you don’t get the royalties, you have to be the arranger too.
GL: I have friends in bands. I also know some songwriters who have moved into scoring for TV and film because they can’t sell records anymore. Nowadays, the only way to make money for some musicians is to either license a lot of their music for use, write something specifically for a show, or tour non-stop. From your perspective, how have things changed over the years? With all of the content out there, I would imagine the demand for original songs has increased.
MVM: I was doing the film and TV stuff way before everyone else was. Most people in my circle thought it was really low class. But it was beyond lucrative. When my friends started seeing the royalty checks, they understood. The world has changed completely since then. I used to pitch songs for artists all the time. I am doing that again, now, because there is a prestige factor in it. But, financially, there’s no money in it.
Streaming has just killed it. It really started going bad in 2001. I had a big hit from a TV show called Popstars, a precursor of American Idol. Most people don’t remember the show, but it was huge on the WB and their highest rated show at the time. One of the singers in the group on the show, her boyfriend leaked the song on Napster the day before the official release. There were 567,000 illegal downloads the very first day.
GL: How did that make you feel? Piracy is widespread and a known risk now, but around the time of Napster, finding out your song leaked was a whole new experience.
MVM: It was very bad. That’s when I really learned about piracy, firsthand. It put a huge damper on not only our income, but also the chart positions of the songs. It was terrible. We lost a lot of money. We got gold records [indicating sales of 500,000 units], but we would’ve gotten platinum records [indicating sales of 1 million units] if there weren’t so many illegal downloads. The next year I had a big hit with Nick Carter and the same thing happened. It was in 2002 – the same problem. Right after that second time, I said to myself, “I’m just going to do more film and TV.” I had already done that kind of work, it paid well, and I shifted my focus to that full time.
GL: At least you get paid even if the show leaks.
MVM: Right. And you’re still getting the royalties when the show airs, so it doesn’t affect it. I changed my career trajectory pretty early on, when people still thought it wasn’t as prestigious to be doing all this film and TV work. But I already knew it was lucrative and saw what had happened with my last two singles.
GL: How has the rise of music streaming affected your career? Are you seeing any revenue from all of these new platforms?
MVM: Yes and no. Yes, because when I have a release I see it, but because I don’t do that much with artists anymore, I don’t see it as much. I’m not sure of the exact figures, but I’ve heard something like 10 million streams will basically earn $9 for the artist. And the writer/publisher share is 5 percent. So, it’s micro-pennies and there’s no money in it.
What I am starting to see in my world is that it’s becoming micro pennies for royalties on the TV networks now too, because there are so many networks. The same amount of ad dollars is supporting all of these new and emerging platforms, so all the royalty rates are declining, and all the upfront sync master fees are declining. Everything has changed and streaming is a big, big problem.
However, with all the new TV streaming networks, things have changed again. I just saw on a royalty statement that 126,111 streams of a TV episode with a song of mine in it paid $1.24.
GL: What’s your advice to a songwriter who wants to be an artist with a record deal, but also knows the odds and wants to simultaneously support themselves by doing the kind of work you do?
MVM: I guess that’s the $64 million question! It’s not very viable anymore. The market is flooded, the music libraries have taken over, and part of the reason for that is the music supervisors are overwhelmed. Their fees have also dropped and a lot of them have quit. They’re not making any money, and are embarrassed to come to me with the amount of money they have, so they’ll go to someone new who doesn’t have the experience that I have, but won’t make a fuss about being paid so poorly. They’re working on so many projects at once because they have to, just to pay the bills. What I used to make placing one song, now takes about six songs. There’s a lot of good music, a lot of new artists to discover, and a lot of good stuff coming out, but it’s very difficult to make a living.
GL: But it’s possible. There’s something new to hear every day, it seems. And more and more people are listening to music than ever before.
MVM: Yes, that’s true. But, as I’ve said, the royalty rates have plummeted, so you just have to work harder. Is it possible? Yes, of course. I do it, and plenty of people I know do it. It’s just not as lucrative anymore, but it’s possible. If you have a dream for something, everything is possible. You just can’t give up. If you really want to have your music out in the world and heard, you don’t have to give up as quickly as you used to because there are so many ways to release your music on your own now. Of course, now the market has more and more music. It used to be there was a small number of songwriters and artists in the world, and now everyone is getting in on it. It’s amazing how many people have this dream and how much talent there is out there.
GL: Where do you make your music?
MVM: I have my own studio in a commercial building where I rent space. I’ve had that since 2001. I took a lot of the money I made from my second hit and built it so I wouldn’t be reliant on other people’s studios anymore. It was the best thing I ever did. I work all night. Out here [by the pool] I’m not writing, I’m marketing. I spend the day marketing, getting rejected all day. I can wash the nasty rejections off in the hot tub.
GL: Rejection is the worst.
MVM: I think young creatives are surprised because they think it gets better the more work you’ve done. But even in my position, with all these credits to my name, it still happens. Those credits should mean something, but the truth is, they mean nothing. You get rejected all day. They still make you cry. For every 1,000 pitches, maybe I get one placement. That’s a lot of music I’m sending out all day. Add piracy, streaming, and declining fees, and suddenly it’s very difficult to make a living. If I had children, this would not be the life I would want them to have. This kind of work is 24/7 and very hard.
GL: I don’t think enough people understand that. To people who don’t make a career in the arts, it seems like easy work, or not as “real” as a 9 to 5 job.
MVM: I work 16 to 17 hours a day. Last night, I got home at 2am and then had dinner. I got up that next morning at 7am and started all over again. People don’t understand the stress and how hard it is to sustain a living and how nasty people can be, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.