Mella is a session singer, songwriter and voiceover actor living in Nashville, Tennessee. Also an animal lover, she has three dogs, a rabbit, and any number of foster animals in various shapes and sizes. She is the author of Way Less Cowbell, a book on communicating with session musicians.
Mella Barnes on Breaking into the Music Scene
How about if I brought you an amazing individual who is actually a professional musician who has reached a thousand clients. Now, imagine that a professional musician having already achieved servicing a thousand clients at the age of just 30 years old. On this episode, we’re going to be talking to Mella, and Mella has done an amazing job of finding her way through both Corporate America and the music scene. Mella, I’m very excited to talk to you because you’re unlike many of my guests. You took a talent that I believe you told me you started when you were fourteen years old and started monetizing it at that early age to reach where you are now. Welcome, Mella, to the show.
Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here.
Take us back to the beginning and explain how you got into this.
I come from a musical family. I know every musicians says that. Through my cousins, I started to know other musicians who needed singers and I couldn’t drive at the time. Like I said, I was fourteen so my grandparents would drive me around to different recording studios. It was actually them who said, “You really should charge for this,” because I wasn’t at first. When you’re fourteen, you just are happy to be doing anything that seems like you’re making it somewhere. I don’t remember how much I charged. It was not a lot but it was enough to get me some experience and enough to make those connections early on.
My daughter is a singer and she too got her first gig at fourteen and she was paid with the Amazon gift card, $25.
You got to start somewhere.
She was thrilled. She actually did two songs for an Indie movie and it was wonderful. We went to the recording studio and she got to meet the actors and the producer. It was it was just a fantastic experience. She’s since gone on to Lesley University to major in Creative Writing where she had a very active role in the acapella group. Here you were fourteen years old and grandma’s driving you around you’re going from place to place and you’re showing up and you’re singing and now you’re starting to get a little bit of money. What happened? You’re now starting to get a little bit older, you probably by the age of sixteen or seventeen now have done this quite a number of times?
My grandparents and my whole family was very adamant that I stay in school. I didn’t drop out and move to LA and try to do it full time yet. It was many years before I was like, “I’m going to do this as a career.”That was just like my side hobby on the weekends or when school wasn’t in session. As soon as I could drive myself and I got my first car, I was doing it myself. It was several years out of high school before I even considered doing it as a side career let alone a fulltime one.
Back then, did you sing in a band?
I sang in a band with my dad. He had a blues band with all of his friends. I’m much more of a studio person. I don’t consider myself to be a performer. I have stage fright. I love the behind the scenes world a lot more.
Actually, it’s a perfect contrast to so many of the people that we’ve had on the show. I would call you a commercial musician, would you agree with that title?
Tell me now what happens at the age of seventeen, eighteen, how are you getting clients?
At that age, and really up until a couple of years ago, it was all through referrals. They had to be somebody who knew somebody that I knew. I just was afraid to really put myself out there. I kept my circle very close. I probably should have done some type of promotion, but I just didn’t. I don’t know why. I was shy and I was worried about being too out there.
At that age that was working for you. Obviously, you were getting people to come by and tap you on the shoulder and say, “Work with us,” right?
Now, you’re twenty years old and you’re using referrals and you’re generating some money, how did this get to be a real fulltime position in a full-time company for you?
I was probably 25, because I just did it very sidelines and I had full-time jobs and this was something I just did on the side. Once I lessened my fear of being known or my fear of criticism and I started to really promote who I am and what I do and how I can help other people, that was when it started to pick up so quickly that I was able to do it full time.
I want to pick up on two things you just said. Helping other people, what did you mean by that?
I think for creatives especially, when you’re marketing yourself, it’s a tricky thing. For me, it always was because I was like, “Why would anybody care about me. Why do they care of what I do?”Once I focused on, “Here’s how I can help your band. Here’s how I can take your song and give it that emotional performance that it needs in order for it to be picked up by a commercial company.” Once I took the focus off of myself, that’s how I was able to find out how to promote myself.
Fantastic lesson and for everyone who are making notes, this is a great place to start writing. Help others succeed and you’ll succeed too. Would you call yourself at that point more of a coach?
There’s an aspect of that. I think people come to me and they’ve got a song, they don’t know if it’s good, they don’t know if it has potential. They aren’t sure what they can even do with it. That’s where I come in and I’m like, “You’ve got enough here that we can take and you can achieve your goals. Maybe this isn’t the song that’s going to make you a celebrity but it can start you on your way.”Whatever their goals may be. I don’t know if they want to be celebrities.
We call that a pivot in our world. That means basically you stop focusing on yourself and your own success and started focusing on helping other people. You pivoted and I would call you a coach. I would call you a music consultant even at that point, because that’s what you were doing as far as I’m concerned. Then you also said that you started to promote yourself. At 25, how did you start to promote yourself?
It’s been a learning curve and I would say at 25, I was not good at it. I just started doing whatever I could figure out how to do. I would say, especially for everyone, the most important way to promote yourself and it’s free is social media. That’s been the main way that I’ve been able to connect with people and work on other people’s projects and it’s all been just through posting online. You don’t need to rent a billboard. You can, but if all you’ve got is a computer and you’re on Facebook, that’s enough to start.
Mella, how do you use social media?
When I first decided that I wanted to get serious about social media I got help. I found somebody who was a social media manager. She was kind enough to sit with me and show me the ropes. What you would need to do is find out where your target audience lives. I don’t know what that would be for everybody but for some people it’s LinkedIn, for some it’s Pinterest, Twitter or any of those, find out where your clients are. Then focus most of your time on that social media site, but keep an active profile on all of the others. When somebody Google’s you or searches for you, you want them to be able to find you up and active wherever you can be. If you’ve got your Twitter, you update three times a day but you haven’t updated your Facebook since 2014. That looks weird. I would say, be as active as you can be on as many as you can but find the one or two where your clients are and hang out there.
I could hear voices in my own head saying, “Mella, I have a Facebook page for my company but three times a day, what would I write?” How do you figure out what to do? What to say? Do you have a strategy for that?
Yeah. I admittedly have it pretty easy because I work in music. I’ll just search music news and I wouldn’t say I post three times a day, but I’m like, “What did you think of Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve performance?”when it happened. I get people commenting and they want to weigh in. I think there’s like an 80-20 rule or a 60-40 rule where you mostly post not about yourself. Then you post every once in a while, “Check out my page.” Anybody can use this. If you are a hat maker, you can look for celebrities wearing hats and be like, “What do you think of this one?” Find a way that you can take current news and turn it into something your audience will like and use that.
The 80-20 rule is perfect. You’re saying basically shut up about yourself, talk about others. Then occasionally, by all means talk about yourself a little bit because after all you now have their ear. How often do you do that yourself? Do you use other people to help you do that as well?
My top social media websites are Twitter and Facebook and I try to do at least once a day on both. I did have the person I was working with before, she was helping me. She’s a tremendous help. Now, she’s more of a friend. She’s got actual work to do so now that I know how to do it, I don’t really ask her to anymore. She was tremendous in helping me at first.
Sounds like a virtual assistant could help you with that as well.
Yes, but you don’t want to lose your personal connection with clients. If you choose to hire a VA, I would have them check in with you every once in a while for something personal to say.
Here now we get to the point where you’re using social media, you’re starting to attract people from your ideal audience to your page and you’re doing a few posts about your own work and about yourself. You also mention that you have a corporate connection. When did that take place and how did it come about?
This was last year actually and I contacted them myself. I don’t know why I waited so long. I thought, “This is enough to get by.” I realized, “What if it isn’t? What if I am in a car accident and I can’t afford my care or something?” I wanted to do more. I wanted to do it fulltime. I reached out to maybe twenty corporations and I was like, “Do you need a songwriter or do you need a singer?” Many of them didn’t respond at all or said no. For the couple that did, it was enough to fully push me over into the fulltime and beyond limit.
What did you do and what types of companies did you reach out to?
I researched companies that work with musicians just in general, whether those are recording studios or production houses. I contacted them. By then I had a decent reel of my previous work, so I emailed them. A lot of times, I didn’t even know if I was writing the right person. I try to be personal and I was like, “Hi. My name is Mella and I’m a singer songwriter and I don’t know if you could use me but here I am.”It’s funny that we’re talking about this because I just got an email a couple days ago from someone I wrote last year who was like, “Are you still looking for clients? I actually have somebody for you now.”It was good to keep that open and good to not take it personally when they told me no right away.
Were you persistent? Did you go back to that same group of twenty over and over again or did you leave it at one email and done?
It depends on how they responded. If they were rude right off the bat, I just don’t want to work with people like that. I just left that alone. For those who said, “I don’t have anything for you now.” I would put that into a little spreadsheet with a date of when I contacted them and every three months or so, I would write them again and be like, “Just reminding you that I’m here if you need me.”
That’s very smart and very organized as well. Another important tip is that if you’re going to reach out to companies or to people, keep track of what you’re doing. It’s so simple. By the way, I find that annoying. I hate doing the admin part of business in some ways and yet that stuff doesn’t bother me. I actually liked watching the progress I make when I do that. Do you feel the same way?
That’s part of putting myself out there. That’s the part that I don’t like and if I could hire a VA to just have them you know send my initial emails and take the rejections so I don’t have to deal with it, that would be nice. I do love checking off boxes and getting stuff done, crossing things off my to-do list. Creating a contact list is like that.
I think we are all the same in that regard. I love checking stuff off my list. I want to know a little bit more now about some of the things that absolutely blew up in your face that you did completely wrong and you maybe even decided to quit at some point. Tell me some of those stories?
I guess the things that I did wrong initially was telling people they could pay me later and having them rack up a tab. I have some people who owe me hundreds into the thousands of dollars. I was just so young and nice and trying to be friends with everybody that I was like, “You can just pay me later. I’ll do two, three, four more songs for you. That’s okay.”Not realizing that this is my time. When you add up how much time I gave them that they got for free, and now they have my voice on their tracks that they’re using and I’m not getting paid. That blew up in my face and I would definitely recommend finding a way to prevent that. It’s different for every business so I can’t say something that would work for your entire audience. For me what it was, was you can pay me half upfront and then half when I complete the job. That gives me the security that you’re going to pay and gives you the security that I’m going to finish.
It sucks when people owe you money and then you have to go chase them. There’s no worse feeling I think than getting on the phone and trying to basically get people to pay you. I think that sucks. I hate working with people like that too. I agree with you, those are those are the wrong clients.
Learning the wrong versus the right clients was another point to bring to your question that you asked. In the beginning, I wanted to work with everybody. I wanted to help everybody. I thought that, “I’m a nice person so people would be nice to me,” but I’ve had some of the worst people. Just awful people for me, awful for us to work together. I’m not saying they were bad people and I’m a great person but we just weren’t a good fit. There were warning signs early on but I just ignore that because I wanted to help them. I wanted to help everyone and it was miserable for me and probably it wasn’t great for them. I definitely recommend creating like a client avatar and sticking to that.
I am listening to you speak and I am hearing the progression of your mindset shift, have you heard that too or were you aware of that? It’s so obvious in this very short time we’re talking that at first, you weren’t very confident and you really didn’t know who to talk to and you sort of would take work from anybody and then later, all of that completely changed.
Now, I’m selective about who I take work from.
You’re confident in what you do so you just don’t have to work with anybody who happens to have money to pay you?
Now, tell me a little bit about your passion now, where is your passion?
I love helping musicians finish their song. That’s that was my passion initially but I think my initial passion was just I love to sing and write songs. Now, it’s I love helping people do that themselves. I just finished a project for a country singer in New Zealand where I sang backup on her whole album. Or there were two teenage electronic musicians out of Boston that this is their first song and I helped them bring it together and complete it. I love just helping people create the best music that they can or the best product. Then, when I’m done with that that’s something else I can share on Facebook and Twitter. I say, “Check out these great artist I’m working with.”
You told me a little bit about a book that you’re working on. Explain what that is?
It’s supposed to be out in April. It’s a memoir about my first year in business. My first year that I decided I was going to be a company, not going back to age fourteen. The first year I said, ” I’m going to do session singing full time.” It’s a memoir but it’s also a guide for anyone considering entrepreneurship or thinking about starting a business, because I take you through here’s what I did very, very wrong. Here’s what I did right and here’s what you can learn from that. It’s called Creating in Chaos. It’s about my first year of business.
It sounds like everybody’s first year in business. What about other people. Do you ever feel like you would expand your company and maybe bring other talent into your organization at any point? Or you think it will always be a solo practice for yourself?
Actually, that’s something I would love to do. I’m thinking of that more like when I’m too tired to do it myself anymore or I’m too old. I’m just the grandmother who brings in new young singers who want to get out there. That’s something I’ll do at that stage in my life. That is something I’d love to do and maybe sooner, you never know. For right now and for the foreseeable future, I’m just going to keep being a solo operation. It’s just easiest and it works. I already have my system down, so for now, that’s what it is.
It keeps things easy and I totally get that. I will say this, any time I speak to a coach or someone like yourself who is a solo operator, I talk about building wealth. Wealth does not come from selling your hours, it comes from selling other people’s hours and sharing in the compensation. Keep that in mind as you move forward. At this point in our interview, I want to ask you one of my favorite questions. Who in all of space and time would you like to have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park or a quick lunch or possibly an intense conversation with?
That is hands down Max Martin. He is a Swedish producer but he’s responsible for pretty much every pop hit off the last like 20 or 30 years. He’s been behind Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and now, Adele. He just works with everyone and I would love to pick his brain and find out like what is the secret to you know your massive top one success.
I’m going to give you a challenge. I want you to send him an email and tell him that you were asked on a radio show who the one person you would be and you named him, and the producer of the show told you to send him an email.
I will do that and I’ll let you know what happens. He is notoriously hard to track down. That would be amazing if it actually works.
Something I taught my daughter since she was a little girl, I taught her that you never get which you don’t ask for. Now, finally what I call the grand finale. This may change the world question and I asked it of everybody because I think this really brings out the character and others. Tell me, what is it that you’re doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to literally change the world?
I feel like I am constantly days away from being behind the next big artist or the next hit song that could change the world. I worked with so many people and so many of the songs are so great that I feel like I could always almost be that person who was like, “That’s my backup voice on that famous person’s album,” or that hit, “I helped write the chorus for that hit.” I know change the world is relative but music I think definitely can change the world and artists can definitely change the world.
I’m with you 100%. I think music changes the world every day.
I feel like some people might not so I was trying to be careful with that.
As an old rock guitar player from the early ‘70s, trust me, I absolutely believe it. One thing I will say though is that I know that there are people that are going to hear this show and they’re going to know somebody or they’re going to know somebody who knows somebody who should get in touch with you either to get your help or to pick your brain or to buy your book. How can people get a hold of you?
Please connect with me online, MellaMusic.com is website and from there you can find all of my social media. I’m on every social media so whatever is your favorite, feel free to add me. I have a contact on my website as well. If anybody knows, any artists who need my help, like to either singing or helping them finish it, please send them my way. I would love that.
Mella, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you again for showing up and being here for my listeners.
Thank you so much.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode: