Indie Spotlight: Mary-Jess
Indie Spotlight is a content series by Indepreneur dedicated to highlighting the successes and stories of our Indie community members.
Each month, our staff selects students and clients from our community to interview and gain insight into their journey - the challenges, the setbacks, and the major wins!
This month, we'd like to introduce you to Mary-Jess.
September 30th by Graci Phillips
Hey, Mary-Jess! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today! For those who don’t know you yet, tell us a little bit about who you are and how you got started in music.
Thank you for inviting me!
I am a Contemporary Classical soprano from the UK and my career started when I won the Chinese version of ‘The X Factor’ in Nanjing, China. This then led to me recording my debut album with Decca, being invited to sing the lyric version of the theme from Downton Abbey for three of the Official Soundtrack Albums, and being appointed representative of the UK Government's ‘GREAT Britain Campaign’ in 144 countries by No. 10 Downing Street and The Foreign Office.
Amazing! You not only started learning Mandarin in your teens, but even moved to China to keep learning! Where did the initial desire to learn Mandarin stem from?
My Grandma gave me an amazing piece of advice, she said: ‘You must have more than one string to your bow’. She was a florist and a hairdresser, my Mum is a florist and a seamstress, and now I’m a singer and I speak Mandarin Chinese.
Initially, I thought that Chinese would be an incredible second string. I went on to study Western Classical Music with Mandarin Chinese at Sheffield University, and then at Nanjing University in China, but I didn’t realize at the time that it would be the most amazing unique selling point. As of right now, I’m the only soprano in the UK who can deliver a full show in Mandarin Chinese.
Your grandma sounds like a smart woman! I understand that you come from a long line of singers! With your grandmother and mother being in music, did you always know that you would be too?
I always knew that I was going to be a recording artist. I didn’t know how or when it was going to happen - but it was going to happen! It was an unshakable belief. My Grandmother was a soprano soloist for local choirs and my Mum sang with rock cover bands, because of this they could see how difficult it would be to make music your full time career, so the second piece of advice they blessed me with was: ‘make the most of every single opportunity available to you’. I still try to live by that everyday.
A lot of your career has centered around live performance. With such a pristine voice, I can only imagine those performances are magical in person! With the ways the pandemic has changed the scenery for touring artists, what are some ways you’re shifting that pillar in your career?
Thank you! Well, I was always told to have ‘more than one string to your bow’, but I also try to have different strings within my music business. Therefore, I’ve shifted my focus to the other strings.
These include things like: YouTube, releasing singles, collaborations, and my new podcast that I launched during lockdown. I continue plugging away at these day to day, but I’m also focussing on bigger projects. For example, I recorded a live album before lock down, I plan to release it in November and then build an Ultimate Album Launch around it. When I perform, I tell all my stories and I’m no longer afraid to be vulnerable with my audience, so by the end of the show we feel like we’re very good friends. It builds a lasting connection, so if I can bring that online to my buddy system I feel it will be a really effective way to build a lasting fanbase.
I also plan to launch a crowdfunding pre-order campaign for the live album and a subscription based service too. Here’s hoping my business will be stronger and far more robust by the end of all this Covid rubbish!
You are a semi-recent graduate of the IndieFounder: Foundations program! Tell us a little about how Founder and Indepreneur have changed your approach to your career?
Before Indepreneur and IndieFounder, I felt like I had exhausted all organic methods I could think of. I was resisting diversifying into technology because no matter how much I try, tech just does not want to be friends with me. I’m just not a natural with it, but the more research I did, the more possibilities I saw. That’s why I enrolled in Founder, I could see all the possibilities, but I knew I would need extra attention and help to implement them. So Founder and Indepreneur have enabled me to transition from purely organic to online and digital marketing. I’m sure that technology and I will always have a rocky relationship, but I live by the idea that nothing is impossible, I just don’t know how to do it yet.
Speaking of Founder, Corrin Campbell (our Co-Founder, Director of Growth, and Director of all things IndieFounder) told me that you’ve been developing some crazy cool merch! Anything you can share with us?
Yes! I’m about to launch a crowdfunding campaign for my fourth album (a live album - recorded before covid!) and it will include my most incredible piece of merch to date!
A wet plate collodion tintype, which is an early type of photograph using a process from the 1850s! So the album cover picture will be developed on a plate of aluminium, which is painted black, then coated and sensitised, exposed, developed and fixed. The light areas of the picture will be made of real silver and black paint behind will make up the darker areas. They are all handmade and take a lot of skill, patience and experience to make. It's a very challenging, and somewhat dangerous process, due to the potent chemicals involved, so only a handful of people in the whole world can do this now!
They will be incredibly unique and will last for hundreds of years, so I’m delighted to be able to make a handful of these available for those who so kindly support me as part of my campaign.
Regular fan nurturing and engagement is something that we’re really passionate about at Indepreneur. I noticed your socials, especially YouTube, have been very consistent over the past year! How have you found the right kinds of recurring content that works for you and how has that worked for your Buddy System?
I found the right kinds of recurring content by being very brave!
When I was signed to Decca, they kept saying that music must fit into a box, and that people must be able to pigeonhole you. I understand what they’re saying from a marketing standpoint, but to be completely honest, I always hated that idea.
I grew up singing rock songs at karaokes in smokey pubs with my Mum, I love being able to sing everything, I won the show in China because I was able to sing Proud Mary one night and O Mio Babbino Caro the next, and my mind kept going back to a phrase in one of my Grandmothers old singing books:
“The voice has the ability and the power to paint in sound the colour of human emotions”
I thought, when have human emotions ever fitted into a nice neat little box? Never. So why should my voice?
So I turned to YouTube. The second largest search engine owned by the first largest, Google. I wanted to show my fans that there was more to me than just another classical singer in a dress, so I stepped out of my comfort zone and put up a video of me singing my favourite karaoke song, Sweet Child o’ Mine.
They were SHOCKED. I panicked.
Until, I had a huge influx of messages and comments from fans saying:
"Wow I never knew you could sing like that!’"
“That’s my favourite song too!”
“We have far more in common than I thought!”
It was that last message that really flicked a switch in me. After that, I started putting up a huge variety of content from my favourite jazz standards, more of the rock songs I sang with my Mum, and even non-musical content like restoring a vintage dress and sharing my love of slow fashion. I always share why I love these things, why they are important to me, and instead of scaring fans away, it’s just shown that we have far more in common than we ever thought and it’s really strengthened our bond! I’ve opened up to them and shared more of myself, and they feel they can do the same to me now. It’s been the most wonderful thing!
It’s also been brilliant for my business. After lots of research, I created a 20 step YouTube checklist for every time I upload a video (which includes Corrin’s Green Light Warmth Boosting!) so that I could create one piece of content per week and have it serve all my social media channels and my mailing list, and it’s made a HUGE difference.
It’s an easy to implement system that ensures that every piece of content is optimised and it saves me a huge amount of time. I started using this system in March, letting it grow and nurture my fanbase, I then had a video go viral in Taiwan and I hit monetization three months ago!
I also started a podcast on my YouTube channel which has helped grow my fan base (because I interview other people /musicians each time) and it’s helped fans get to know me even more.
Fans don’t have to buy music anymore, it’s everywhere for free, so why should they give you their money? It’s because they like you, know you and want to support you. My YouTube channel has 100% helped with that!
So what is next on the horizon for you and your music that we can be looking forward to?
Well, I have the live album coming up that I mentioned, but also some national TV appearances!
There’s a show on the BBC (the national broadcaster here in the UK) called Songs of Praise, normally they film congregational hymns that people can sing along to at home, but with Covid that can’t happen right now, so they invited me to sing four songs for them, including one of my own songs that I co-wrote! They have an audience of up to 2 million people, so I’m really excited about that!
Another thing that I really want to focus on is collaborations, especially with musicians or bands outside of my genre. I’d love to let my inner rock chick out more often and create amazing collaborations in the style Nightwish or Evanescence! We could achieve a wonderful cross pollination of fan bases, I’d interview them for my podcast and we can introduce each other to our respective email lists, and combine organic tactics with Indepreneur methods to grow our fanbases with our amazing new music!
About the author:
Graci Phillips is Indepreneur's Community Manager & Indie Success Specialist. Graci is part of our Nashville team and specializes in providing resources and solutions to our members, community building, and highlighting success stories within this incredible community.
If you are a member of our Indie Community and have a story to tell about your journey as an independent musician, reach out to Graci at firstname.lastname@example.org! We're always looking for new stories to share. If you aren't yet part of our Indie Community, you can get access to our entire library of music business trainings, our entire suite of exclusive discounts on partner products and services for musicians, our 4000+ private community of Indies, and weekly live stream Q&A's and coaching calls by signing up for INDIEPRO!
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