Indie success requires leaving your comfort zone—but be sure you take a strong team with you.
To her thousands of fans worldwide, SONiA is known for her powerful voice, riveting stage presence and a songwriting style that wraps memorable hooks around lyrics that are compelling, if not convicting.
Music is her canvas of choice for painting a message of peace and unity. Her tools include at her signature model Santa Cruz acoustic and two Parker electrics. She has won countless awards including a Grammy nomination. Her 2004 studio CD, No Bomb Is Smart, brought a passionate ‘60s style “War is not the way” message to the post-9/11 iPod generation. According to her website (www.soniadf.com) “She Loves Out Loud and Proud and donates 18% of all downloads of her music to end World Hunger”.
She’s also an accomplished painter and a realist, devoid of that Pollyanna “If I sing it, they will come” attitude that stalls the careers of many Independent artists. With a full schedule of concerts (180 this year) plus live radio, teaching engagements and impromptu performances, she estimates that she’s performing 333 days in 2007. Music may be her life, but it’s also her livelihood, and as such, it has become a carefully managed commodity with a support team of people that are just as dedicated to her success as she is.
A Quick Look Back
As the Folk-Pop duo “disappear fear,” sisters SONiA and CiNDY (Rutstein) of Baltimore, Maryland won multiple awards with their first, self-titled, CD on Rounder Records in 1994. The next release, Seed in the Sahara, (produced by Springsteen’s piano player, Roy Bittan) was equally well received. In 1998, after CiNDY left to become a full-time mom, Rounder released SONiA’s first solo CD, Almost Chocolate. The following year was spent touring Europe and Australia. Her 1999 release Me, Too was chosen by the Human Rights Campaign (along with songs by U2 and many others) for a compilation CD. Following another solo release, Live at the Down Home, SONiA brought back the harmonies which been a signature of the sound of disappear fear. She added Laura Cerulli on vocals, percussion and drums.
Prior to her taking the stage for her annual performance at the Susquehanna Music and Arts festival on Mother’s Day weekend, we had a chance to chat with SONiA and glean some inspiration and advice that benefit all who quest to make a living making music.
RAL: How do you define success?
SONiA: To be happy making the music I want the world to hear. I am successful because of this happiness.
RAL: But on the practical side, what does it take to make a living doing what you are doing?
SONiA: Passion, persistence, naivety, an unstoppable vision, a listening ear for management, a whole yachtful of patience, and perhaps a thimble of talent and liter of luck.
RAL: How important is a “Label Deal?”
SONiA: Well, when you’re on someone else’s label you have a bigger team over the wall gassing up your engine when you come in for a pit stop. But unless that team is truly unified to promote your musical product, it’s of little value. The important thing is—whether it’s your Mom selling your stuff or your brother or an outside party who professionally sells CDs—as long as the folks are backing you, the ups and downs will be worthwhile. Better to have a small team of amateurs than a bigger team of yawners.
RAL:What keeps you going? – What inspires and motivates you?
SONiA: Every dawn is the possibility of a fairer world with folks celebrating this magical existence we call the human experience. Democracy. The sound of language and the language of sound and getting to reconnect with these amazing friends I have now living by foreign seas and deserts.
RAL: How many different countries have you performed in?
SONiA: Let’s see Israel, Palestine, Canada, Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, England, The Netherlands, Finland, France, Germany and Tasmania which is actually part of Oz but I thought it was another country.
RAL: What are the differences between audiences in this country and elsewhere?
SONiA: In every other country, other than the United States, I get paid for my live performances. Here in the US, even though the venues I play at (bars, clubs, colleges and festivals) pay a fee to BMI, ASCAP AND SESAC, this collected money goes to the top. For example, with BMI it goes to the top 100 touring grossing artists. Indie artists, like myself, receive no income for our live performances even though we are singing OUR own selfwritten songs. We rely heavily on CD sales and maybe a portion of the door. Beyond that, people are people—alcohol and dark rooms seem to make people relax easier and express themselves more enthusiastically. My favorite audiences sing my songs loud and off key—just like Joni Mitchell said “The louder and the more off key-the better.”
RAL: How do you know if you have really reached an audience?
SONiA: They buy a lot of CDs. If they can’t afford to—then I give it to them.
RAL: Changing the subject, we’ve been quite involved here at the iLiveToPlay network with SaveNetradio.org and their efforts to level the playing field for those of us who operate Internet radio stations to promote Indie artists. You’ve been really getting behind this as well. How did that come to be?
SONiA: I was invited to speak to Congress with regard to the CRB (Copyright Royalty Board) decision to pass a law that will basically make it impossible for Internet Radio to survive. The good thing is that performance artists and record companies will get actually paid directly by a company known as Sound Exchange. Terrestrial radio pays zero to performing artists. Only copyright owners get paid by terrestrial radio stations. Sound Exchange was delegated to collect retroactive fees for artists for the year 2006 up to 30%—they have already paid 11% to Sound Exchange and each year it would increase to well over 50% of their gross income. In addition they would have to pay $500 for each channel. Some of these web casters have 12 to 30 channels. This would be financially impossible. So while it looks good for us artists to get a retroactive check, the mantra on the Hill in Washington is “Dead web casters pay no royalties.” Clearly the best thing is to come up with a fair solution and that is the Internet Radio Equality Act. This means web casters would pay exactly what satellite radio pays—7.5% to Sound Exchange in addition to a $300 monthly fee for the web site not the channel. Now it is scary to come in and speak about changing things to the hand that feeds you. But the thing to think about is, what was it that Congress intended for Web Radio. To answer that you need to know the difference between terrestrial radio and Internet radio and that is ME and you. Terrestrial radio plays 50 to 100 artists a week while Internet radio plays between 6400 and 33,000 artists a week. The CRB decision also directly attacked NPR radio that is mandated by congress to be protected from this kind of financial torpedo. Personally, I enjoy the royalties I receive from my Internet radio play and it has afforded me the opportunity to perform in cities here and abroad where I never would have worked before. The diversity of Internet radio is unsurpassed in terms of exposure and the ability to buy the product right then and there. I want to continue to receive these precious royalties but if the Internet Radio Equality Act does not happen and the CRB decision goes into law, all the Indies and all this beautiful diversity will be silenced. We are evolution unless we let fear rule us.
SONiA’s next CD, Tango, is schedule for release on September 29th.
“The CD has 6 songs in Spanish, 2 in Hebrew, 1 in Arabic and the rest in combinations,” she explains, “One song, “Mica Moca,” is mostly in English, so content of the music is Latin and Middle Eastern with a bit of acoustic folk thrown in. It has real violins and tin whistles, a lot of guitars and some piano and accordion. It is the first studio project that my bandmate, Laura Cerulli, plays and sings on and includes members of the original DF band with Chris Sellman on Bass, and Brian Simms on keyboards.” The CD was originally titled La Tormenta Santa (The Holy Storm) but was changed to Tango as it is the one and ONLY word on the CD that is the same in all four languages. “Most of the Songs from Tango are new,” SONiA explains, “My experiences during the War in Israel and Palestine last summer—I performed in a bomb shelter and to be there at that time by choice was something that was not easy but I made the right choice. Four of the songs on Tango I had written originally with a Latin feel but more in English than Spanish, Now they are 99% Spanish—and they are happy there. I am exploring new musical territories with the Middle Eastern and even African rhythms. The USA tour will commence following this first concert and then moves onto Australia in late December.