Pop singer-songwriter Terra Naomi creatively uses social media and fan engagement to make and promote her music. This week marked the release of “To Know I’m Ok,” Terra’s first album since she left Universal-Island Records and became an independent artist. The album was entirely fan-funded through Pledge Music, and she’s got a video in the works through the iPhone app “Hipstamatic,” that her fans can participate in. Read on to learn about her smart approach to self-promotion, her experience of being signed to a major label, and why it’s important to remember why you’re making music in the first place.

Without using the words “alternative,” “pop,” “rock,” or “hip-hop,” describe your sound.
My sound is basically raw emotion transformed into music. It’s a mix of classic songwriting influences and honest lyrics taken from life experience. I let it all out in my songs. I used to be afraid of too much emotion, and now it’s really all I care about–putting my truth out there for people, and hoping that they can feel and connect to their own emotion. I like to make people laugh and cry in the same song sometimes, just by telling it like it is. Life is that way.

Why did you decide to work independently after being signed to a label?
It was less a choice than it was a decision dictated by the state of the industry. My experience at Universal Island Records was a very common one, i.e. it didn’t work out, and I was left somewhat disillusioned by the whole process. I moved back to the U.S. from London, and considered my options. I was approached by some “big people” in the industry, and was offered a few deals, all of which sucked, to be honest, and I also knew from experience that someone who was in a position of power one day could be gone the next day. (In fact, one of the people who wanted me to sign with him lost his Executive Vice President position a few months later!) I couldn’t do that to myself again. I was not willing to hand over my music, my career and essentially my life. It’s tempting, especially now, as I work 18-hour days, trying to accomplish what I once had dozens of people doing on my behalf, but I know that I will ultimately feel much better, doing this independently. I want to feel like my successes and my failures are my own.

What’s your team like now? (Manager? Band members? Marketing team?)
I’m laughing as I type this…it is literally just me. I had a series of managers at some of the most powerful management companies in LA, and it was always the same experience: over-promise, under-deliver. I realized that I was the only person who would care enough about my music and my career to actually make something happen. I know that the right team is out there for me, and I believe that I will find those people. Until I do, I’m going to do this on my own. The illusion of having someone’s support really only holds us back. It’s much better to know I’m on my own.

Describe some of the challenges you’ve faced as an independent artist.  How did you handle those challenges?
The biggest challenge has been finding a way to get my music out there, with none of the resources I had when I released my first album. It’s frustrating at times, because I can say with 100% certainty that this album is worlds better than my major label album. I’m a better artist, the songs are better, the production is better, the musicians are better –everything about it is better, and I struggle to get people’s attention now. Some of the same people who would have been completely accessible when I was with Island Records do not return my calls. It’s hard, but all I can do is work harder and find ways around it. Sometimes it feels like I’m trying to blow up one of those giant air mattresses using only my own breath, and everyone around me has one of those electric pumps…but I don’t let that stop me. I appreciate a good challenge.

In this case, I needed support for my album, needed to find a way to get my music out there and make some noise. I decided to cold-call the heads of major technology companies and iPhone apps; companies I engage with on a daily basis, like the photo app Hipstamatic. It was an ambitious undertaking, but I had no budget to hire PR, and I also wanted to create something new. The way I see it, tech companies are way more powerful than music companies at this point. The people at these companies are the innovators–paving new paths and moving us forward culturally. It’s not the music industry anymore. I aligned myself with people who are doing things that I find interesting.

How have your fans helped your development as an artist?
My fans are incredible. They funded my album, for one thing. I raised the recording budget through Pledge Music, a company that connects artists with fans to fund recording projects. I’ve been close with my fans from the very beginning. I started touring many years ago, played house concerts, slept on peoples’ couches. Then there was YouTube–I posted my videos online and people embraced me, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. I still communicate with people who were sending messages to my YouTube account when I had 300 subscribers. Their belief and support has gotten me through several really tough stretches.

Is there usually a set marketing plan you follow when you release new music?
I have no set marketing plan, at least not this time. I look around, observe, follow my intuition, create music I truly believe in, and trust that it will find its way into the hands of the people it needs to reach.

How do you use social media to promote your music?
I am active on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, StageIt, USTREAM, and several other social networking sites. I am finding, through trial and error, that the best way to keep people engaged is to release content frequently and consistently. I know this, yet I don’t always apply this knowledge. It’s hard to keep up with everything. Many artists with large online followings have a team of people maintaining everything. I do the best I can, and stay as involved as possible.

Do you have any advice for other independent artists trying to promote their music and be heard?
Everything starts with the music, and it has to be phenomenal. A good friend and I were talking about this, and she brought up the point that music has to be exceptionally good or exceptionally bad (e.g. Rebecca Black) to break through these days. It’s more true than ever before, because we are completely saturated with music.

Another thing that I have found to be absolutely necessary is single-mindedness of purpose. Complete focus. It is much harder for an independent artist to be heard–that is the simple truth–and it therefore requires so much more focus. If you’re independent artist #1,000,647, no one cares if you start slacking off. If you’re not willing to work harder, there is someone else who is, and chances are, that person is equally or more talented than you are! It’s a really hard thing to grasp–this concept of taking full responsibility for ourselves. At least it has been in my experience. And it’s a delicate balance, because we can’t work ourselves into the ground.

Most important is to remember why you are doing this. Our expectations are kind of unrealistic these days, with the culture of celebrity and the mixing of art with commerce. That is to say, it used to be the case that someone was a great musician and then that person was approached to make an album, and maybe that album took off, maybe it didn’t, in which case the artist would continue to develop and release another album, and maybe that album would do well. The goal was not to sign a record deal and get rich and create a line of clothing and perfume and back-to-school supplies. Artists created art because we had to, because it’s who we were, and if that happened to make some money, then great. Mozart lived in poverty and taught lessons til the day he died. We need to stay really clear about why we do what we do. If the goal is to “get famous,” then release a sex tape or go on some crappy reality show. Music should be created for the love of it, and anything else that comes along is an added bonus.

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