This interview originally appeared in the fourth edition of the now defunct In The First in July 2000. It is posted here by kind permission of Kevin L. Gilbert.
Interview by Kevin L. Gilbert
In The First: Karen tell us how you got involved with the music biz?
Karen Michalson: The music biz. I got involved as a result of Point Of Ares (http://www.arularecords.com/pointofares) growing and gaining success and my needing to understand how to manage that, although “involved” probably doesn’t accurately describe my current relationship with the music business. Music is a hellishly social business, to a degree that makes me uncomfortable, both because I’m a loner and because there’s a certain level of dishonesty in almost all social relations that I don’t have the patience for or the diplomacy to navigate well. I like to be alone, or with a few people I absolutely trust and have built real relationships with, like my band-mates. I like to play music and then go home and if I’m not too exhausted the next day, clear my mind and write fiction, not be on the phone and/or emailing a dozen people and throwing kisses around to help build momentum while not letting on that I’ve got any momentum to build because that’s the surest way to get blind sided in the indie music world. I mean, I do what I have to do to promote my band like everybody else, but when I’m writing I do a lot less of it.
Fiction writing for me requires a lot of space and solitude, which is at odds with the proverbial rock n’ roll lifestyle of late nights and road trips and strange hours. But Apollo needs Dionysus, right? I mean, I’m a rocker, but I rarely drink, I’m drug free, I’m really a bit of a prude, and when I’m not involved in music and writing I spend my time reading classics and history books. I have graduate degrees in literature, and I still practice literary criticism as a hobby! A hobby! Yes, I’m a nerd. It’s out, and RedRum has an exclusive! The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies just solicited a new piece from me, so my nerd credentials are still in order. I can’t wait to read Stanley Fish’s new book. But rock n’ roll is by no means a “release” from my bookish life. It’s just the other side of it. Some idiot once said to me that rock was my “release” and I told him to stop trivializing 50% of my life, especially since Point Of Ares is a pretty damn exhausting “release”.
Oh, how did I get involved with the music business?
I became a musician because I created a musician character in one of my unpublished novels. This character plays bass guitar, so I taught myself to play bass guitar to better understand what and who I was writing. Or else this particular character was strong enough to need to manifest through both the page and the stage, I don’t know. Anyway, to my gradual surprise, bass playing for me became a second passion. It gave me a medium besides language for expressing the energy I’ve always experienced from hard rock. From bass playing I formed Point Of Ares, from the growing needs of the band I got involved in the indie scene, which of course shades easily into the indie music business.
In The First: Why did you decide to start your label Arula Records?
Karen Michalson: I needed a way to organize band business, and that meant creating my own record label. Basically, I wanted a vehicle to release, promote, and sell Point Of Ares records, a vehicle that I had control of. I had spoken with several large indies and with one guy at a major who were all sort of interested but sort of weren’t sure if their colleagues would be because I’m a female front that doesn’t do fem songs, meaning we’re not “angry hardcore chicks” like L7 or sweetsy pop like Maria Carey, and worse . . . we actually have intelligent lyrics without a recognizable feminist agenda and that annoys people who need categories, which is 99.99% of the major music industry. Female artists aren’t supposed to deal with any emotions besides feminist rage and cloying love. My palette is bigger than that and a hell of a lot more interesting. And it’s going to stay that way.
I frankly got sick of thinking about myself every day as needing someone else’s validation and support to be a “real musician”. Although, like a lot of artists, I still struggle with that, because ultimately I think beauty happens to the viewer, and ultimately it is other people who determine whether you moved them or not, and hence whether you are a “real” artist or not.
I’ll get a ton of pissed off email about that, but you know, there’s a difference between neglected talent due to market conditions and wishful thinking, and there’s enough wishful thinking in this business to choke hell. Tragically, there’s also enough neglected talent to choke hell.
So I’ve been profoundly and painfully on both sides of that issue and still remain divided. I played bass for two years — two years — before I felt I had the right to sometimes . . . sort of . . . in certain situations and contexts . . . call myself a bass player. Other musicians found that kind of reserve ridiculous, maybe even perversely affected, maybe even sort of threatening to their own inflated self-descriptions. I would play clubs and still refer to myself as a “student of bass” out of respect for what I considered the level of playing real bass players demonstrated. When I reached that point, that level, based both on audience reaction and my sense of my own playing, I then began to call myself a bass player, but not before. But I’ve known many people who seriously claim they “play [instrument of choice]” after taking one lesson with someone, if that. The naive ego appalls me. But I understand the need for it, because not having one is also terribly destructive.
Let me explain. I felt I couldn’t claim “writer” as a legitimate tag until I had created something someone else wanted to invest in, that “writer” was a self-description one earned rather than merely claimed, and I hadn’t earned it yet. Was that necessary? It was consistent. It was honest. It was painful. And it was horribly destructive, like the truth often is. I looked in the mirror everyday and said to myself, “You’re not a real writer. If you were, you’d have sold something by now.” And it broke down my early confidence as a writer and had a profoundly negative effect on my work. But sometimes truth is negative and we either take the hit or candy coat a delusion we can live with. 90% percent of the indie musicians and unpublished writers I know choose to candy coat, and I probably would have been better off, maybe even more productive, if I had done the same. But I spent years facing the truth that my literary “art” had no value to anyone besides myself and unlike many other people, I was unwilling to gloss that one over by stamping my foot and insisting to all and sundry that my art did too matter. It obviously didn’t. It was turning to dust with the rejection slips in my drawer. So I understand the need to call yourself an “artist” even if nobody else does, it can get you through the day, maybe through the years, but at the same time I never felt I could honestly use that word to describe myself until other people consistently did, or were consistently moved by what I did. Just naming yourself something doesn’t make it so, although it’s a wonderful magical principle. And believe me, if I slipped up and referred to my “writing” or my “music” there were plenty of people with no knowledge of the indie scene just falling all over themselves to remind me that I wasn’t “really” a writer or a musician because they hadn’t heard of me before, or because they wished they were doing what I was and had to disparage it to make themselves feel better. That taught me to shut up. Shutting up taught me to shut up internally. Not the direction any of us want to go in. But a lot of indie artists face that. Hey, shoot me, I used the word “artist.”
Told you I was divided.
I digress. As to Arula.
This conflict did not prevent me from saying the hell with the music business gatekeepers and going into business for myself because other people can’t determine whether they’re moved by your work if they’re not exposed to your work in the first place, and I was achieving enough validation from others for my music to feel it wasn’t complete hubris or self-delusion to invest in it. I knew what Point Of Ares was, what my artistic vision for this band was, how it related to my books, and it just became obvious that I was my own best label, my own best manager, my own best business consultant. So I went out and got the distribution, got the air play, got the bookings, paid for my own ads. I’ve gone long past the point where doing all that is way too time consuming, but I continue to do it because all the artist managers I’ve interviewed have struck me as people that will need me to baby-sit them (no time saving there) or else they suddenly hide when I ask them to get serious and show me a business plan and how they expect to get from A to B and on what kind of budget. A lot of people in this business have no idea how to even get from A to A, but they still manage to get everybody else to pay for it. I don’t want to pay somebody to wing it — I want to pay for a plan.
So as I’m focused on writing Book Two of my Enemy Glory series now and involved with writing the new Point Of Ares album with my band-mates Bill and Ryan I simply can’t be caught up in the music business as I was even a year ago.
In The First: Where did you get the name for the label?
Karen Michalson: From my fiction. Arula is a city in the world I created for my Enemy Glory series. It’s a city in a region of my fictional world in which many poets, musicians, and magicians live. For a label that focuses on spoken word and rock music, it seemed like the perfect name. A fan emailed me and told me he had named his just-born daughter Arula. He said Arula is a word in the Tamil language of India that means “grace” and is quite a popular girl’s name. I didn’t know that when I thought I “invented” the word. How charming.
Book One of Enemy Glory kicks off my dark fantasy series about a brilliant tormented student of the magical arts who has chosen to serve the forces of evil precisely because he loves friendship and beauty and learning and magic and has been utterly betrayed by those things. It will be published by Tor early in 2001 — the last word I got from Tor is that they are planning a February 2001 publication date. Check my website at http://www.karenmichalson.com for updates.
In The First: Your first CD was a musical translation of your book wasn’t it?
Karen Michalson: Yes, Point Of Ares’s first CD, also called Enemy Glory, was my attempt to make my characters and world live for other people even though at the time I was convinced no one would publish my novels. I had just fired my first agent — a perfectly dreadful woman whom I understand has now left the profession in disgrace — and she had me convinced I had no talent, that no one would buy my fiction unless I was willing to dummy it down to the lowest common denominator, that my books were too intelligent and so on. Out of the depths of what was a very real and hellish depression I wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the music with my guitar player, Bill. We developed a stage show that brought my characters and fantasy world to rock clubs, and that gave me a forum for performing spoken word from my then unsigned/unpublished book. So Enemy Glory began to develop an underground fan base even though none of our fans had actually read it. I suppose that’s kind of magical. It’s certainly a blessing.
In The First:How did you get involved with WSI?
Karen Michalson: Oh, it turned out that another musician who was active in the business — I believe he was co-writing songs with ex-members of Extreme at the time, or claimed he was, that was never really clear, was calling me wanting to book shows and play Point Of Ares tracks on his radio show. He mentioned WSI a few times, had a connection there, and as it turned out so did a mutual acquaintance of ours who runs a hard rock/glam label out of Alabama. So I was able to approach WSI on the strength of knowing some of the same people and make my pitch. We then got other national distributors. There’s a list of our distributors on Arula’s website at: http://www.arularecords.com.
In The First: Could you give any advice to our readers on how to promote their bands?
Karen Michalson: Nothing they haven’t heard before. Nothing every indie musician hasn’t heard a billion times about playing out constantly and coordinating press and air play and so on. But the one mistake I see a LOT of bands make is not putting effort into reaching a coherent audience with a coherent image, or panicking that they might lose a gig and a few minutes of dubious attention if they don’t become utter artistic hypocrites. I’m thinking of a band I know of that literally changes their show from acoustic Christian coffeehouse-oriented stuff to plugged in Satanic stuff depending on where they play. They’ve had a hard time getting a following because they change who they are every time they perform. Be something! Have a focused image, and don’t be afraid if your image might exclude some people and keep you out of some places. Know how to target yourself to a particular niche market and understand that means alienating some people. If you try to be all things to all people you’ll be nothing to nobody.
We’re mostly in the studio right now, writing our third album. However, we do manage to distract ourselves with occasional bookings while the album is progressing, but not as many as we were playing last year, when it seems like we were playing out nonstop. We were very excited to be invited to play Pagan Hands Across the Red River 2000 in Fargo North Dakota, the largest Pagan event in the area. We’re the headlining act, and they’re putting an outdoor stage together for us where we’ll play under a full moon and chant spells and weave dark rock n’ roll and feel the Midwestern north lands swell around us. For us New Englanders that will be a treat. Can I say that? Do I dare show enthusiasm in an interview that other indie musicians might read? “Do I dare to eat a peach?” said T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock. I love my work, oh indie brothers! Deal with it! Oh, well, screw ’em if they can’t take a joke!