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Sage Advice for Musicians: How to Succeed in the Music Business without Really Trying

Insomniac Magazine Interview

What artists can learn from Barry’s 35 years of success with kids’ music

JANUARY 10, 2011

Depending on your age, and where you grew up, Barry Louis Polisar might have played a significant role in how you first started listening to music as a child. Barry is a veteran entertainer who has spent decades making music and performing for kids. His impressive career includes many accomplishments, including: writing songs sung by the character Big Bird in Sesame Street, publishing several children’s books, starring in his own television show, and even performing at The White House. Of all of his successes, the one that may be the most telling is a recent tribute compilation entitled “We’re Not Kidding!” This release consists of Barry’s songs recorded by artists of all genres who grew up listening to his music.


Beyond Barry’s success as an artist, he’s also a music entrepreneur who began his career by booking himself in unique venues, including schools and libraries. He’s also sold music directly to his audience (and their parents) live and online for many years. Barry’s story is compelling and full of lessons for artists of all genres.


Barry, can you discuss how you sell music?

BLP: For 35 years I’ve put out a series of albums for children and marketed and sold them myself. Although I now have distribution through Amazon, CD Baby, and iTunes, for the longest time it was just people buying my albums by mail or after concerts.


There were significant barriers to selling. How were you selling your music for all those years before the Internet?

BLP: It was really a grassroots, word-of-mouth network. I never had the numbers that a mainstream record album label or distributor had, but I did have fairly strong sales. I have about 350,000 CDs, recordings and books in print. Of course, that represents 35 years.


When my song was in the film “Juno,” they sold 600,000 CDs in just a few months and then sold well over a million copies. I could never do that. However, the people who found my original songs saw it for what it was, which was something that was really different. It was not mainstream. It was not the standard kind of children’s music you were going to hear anywhere else. And 35 years later, I think I have the fans I have because they realized–even at a young age–that this was something that was not your typical children’s fare.


I sold my recordings to schools, to libraries. I sold through catalog sales and placed my albums in book and toy stores on consignment. I would do a lot of sales after my concerts. And then of course when the Internet came along I did get a Web site pretty early on and offered my songs and CDs online.


Wow. Do you find or hear stories from parents saying that they listened to your music when they were kids?

BLP: Oh absolutely. My audiences now and the people who are emailing me on my web site are often people who had my albums as kids and are now raising their own children on my songs and my CDs. After my song was in Juno, a lot of people who had my albums as kids contacted me. They’re in the theater; they hear my voice and go, “I know that voice. That’s the guy I used to listen to as a kid.” A lot of people have gotten in touch with me as a result of that. A lot of people have emailed me from my web site or from my Facebook page and I’m hearing from many fans that way. Now they’re getting my CDs and they’re doing downloads and going onto iTunes and that sort of thing.


The new tribute album that just came out features many artists who had my albums as kids and have grown up and become musicians themselves and cover my songs in genres from hip hop to jazz to folk to rock and roll; they’ve taken my songs and re-invented them. That’s just been an amazing thing for me to listen to and to hear their songs.


That’s the ultimate compliment and testament to your career- Kids growing up and paying tribute to you.

BLP: Having my song in Juno was pretty amazing for me and was definitely an interesting ride. But this Tribute Album touches me in a more fundamental way because it is exactly what you just said, it’s kids that had my albums when they were growing up and have somehow been affected by those songs. Many of them said that I was their first concert or first record album or listening to me sing my songs gave them the idea that maybe they could do something like that when they got older. And so yes, that’s been amazing.


Do you find that that’s really the secret of success- your connection with your audience?

BLP: Absolutely. And it sometimes gets a little zany because between Facebook and the internet, I’m reachable everywhere. When people friend me, that goes to me directly…personally. Same thing with my email on my Web site; when people email me from my Web site they’re not going through an agent or any intermediary, they’re actually connecting with me.


I remember years ago I used to get letters from kids who saw me at the library or at their school and they would write to me and I always wrote back because I felt like anybody who was reaching out and connecting deserved that respect and deserved that kind of personal contact.


I can’t tell you how many people email me and say, “I wrote you a letter when I was seven years old and you answered me and I had that on my wall for years!” I never want to be so big I can’t respond to people. You were talking before about the success of the internet; having my song on iTunes was really how Jason Reitman, the director of Juno, found me for that film.

So, he found you online and then he reached out to license the song for the soundtrack?

BLP: He tells the story that he was actually looking for a song by a different name and he accidentally typed in the wrong words. He typed in “All I Want is You” and then came upon my song and said, “What’s this? That’s not what I was looking for.” But he hit the play button and said, “Oh that’s fun.” And then he paid his 99 cents and he bought the song and then had his music supervisors email me and ask if I would license it to them.


At that point nobody knew what Juno would become. it was just a small independent film and every musical artist from Cat Power to Kimya Dawson were all going to get the same rate. There wasn’t a whole lot of money involved in the film. Some money came later because they did a soundtrack of that album. And the soundtrack sold a million copies, and so the royalties started coming in from that. Not from the movie. Everybody thinks, “Oh you had your song in Juno. You must have made a million.”


It was a very small licensing fee, but because the movie was successful and then the soundtrack was successful, it got picked up everywhere; downloads, on the soundtrack, and iTunes.


Sony Music then stepped in and now manages that one song. I’ve written 150 songs, but that was the one they wanted to manage because of the visibility of the film. The song has been featured on a number of commercials overseas and has been used for some public service announcements for some pretty good causes.


Interesting. Has this resulted in more performances for you and more traveling?

BLP: Not really. I work in the elementary schools. And those kids wouldn’t have even seen the movie, it’s a mature topic for an elementary school kid.


I have played a few college shows as a result of the film but it really hasn’t had the same kind of bump that Kimya Dawson probably got from the film because the film is geared closer to her demographic. That is really her audience, whereas my audience is much younger. Now what it has done for me personally is something even deeper and more fundamental; it has re-connected me with the people who had my albums as kids — people who saw the movie as adults, and that’s just been a great thing.


As a writer, as a performing artist, as a musician you want to be able to connect with your audience. You want to be able to write and produce and record something that resonates with people. It’s very funny for me because this song was a throw-away song for me. It was filler on my second album released in 1977, and then forgotten about for 30 years until it was found and used in the film.


The song has given me a new visibility with adults, and I guess in some respect, it is adults who are the teachers and the parents and the librarians who hire me and bring me into their schools and bring me into their libraries. But in terms of my core audience, which is kids, it hasn’t done too much.


In regards to building the awareness, especially early on, how many shows were you able to do? And, were you spreading yourself throughout different regions?

BLP: I was a maniac when I was younger. I’m 56 now and I started when I was about 21 years old. I would sing and perform in schools and libraries all over the US — as far as Alaska, up into New England, out in the Midwest, down South into Florida. Pretty much anywhere that would invite me to do a program in their school or library. What I used to do is print and mail catalogs which listed my albums — back then it was vinyl record albums.


I would mail those catalogs to schools and libraries all over the country. I stopped when the Internet came because it’s a greener way of reaching people. But, let’s say I’m doing a tour in Florida and three or four schools want to bring me in. I’ll go on the web, and I’ll look and try to find emails for all the elementary schools in a particular area where I’m going to be and let them know that I’m coming to visit, and suggest they go onto my site if they want to get more information.


There’s a lot of grunt work involved, and I’ve done that grunt work, and still do. I have this ability to just sit down at my computer and just punch out emails until I get all the information out to the people that need to see it. There probably is a better, smarter way of doing it. But, my goal has always been to just get my songs off my shelf.


That’s phenomenal. You did all this without traditional distribution?

BLP: That’s correct. Periodically through my life I had various kinds of distribution. But the distribution, especially in music, was always very spotty. There was a folk music distributor in Vermont and I actually talked the owner into carrying my recordings for kids when she first started her business. They ended up being the preeminent children’s record distributor for many years.


I saw on your site that you have a variety of books. Was that something you were doing early on or is that fairly new?

BLP: I’ve always considered myself more of a songwriter and poet than a full fledged musician. I don’t even read music. I play by ear, and I’ve always had a love of literature, a love of writing, a love of poetry–as well as a love of music. Writing books was a natural extension of my career…and the schools really bring me in as a visiting author for kids who happens to also play the guitar and write songs. So they get the best of both worlds; they get a performing artist who sings songs and tells stories and makes the kids laugh, at the same time talking about the craft of writing and doing rough drafts and revisions and talking about books.


In addition to the new tribute album that just came out, I also have a new book of children’s poems. The books usually don’t get as much attention as the new albums or the new songs. They get released and they get a little bit of notice but they don’t get the flash I think that an album of songs typically does.


Were you also distributing the books in the same manner?

BLP: I was. My first book was called “Noises From Under the Rug.” It was a collection of all my songs–a songbook. I took my songs and had the sheet music done and added illustrations. I have great book distribution now and my books are easily available everywhere.


Let’s talk a little bit about activity online. What are some of the most effective things that you’ve done?

BLP: People looking for my CDs and my books will find them on my web site. But I really put the site together as a resource for people to find out about what I do. I have my songs online for people to listen to for free.


Even the songs on the tribute album are available for people to press that little button and listen to for free. I’ve also put my books online as digital downloads for kids who want to read them. I go into inner city schools or rural schools where kids cannot always afford to buy a book or a CD and so this makes everything available to everybody for free.


I know it runs counter to the world of selling and the world of sales, but I’ve always been of the mind that if you put stuff out there, it’ll come back to you one way or another. And so I use the Internet for making all those connections. A lot of what’s on my site is stuff I give away and let people listen to and read for free.


Interesting, because that’s really the biggest problem at least as far as the record labels are concerned, is the perception of free music. It’s also a buzzword in regards to marketing today. Is something that you’ve been doing for quite some time, giving it away?

BLP: It is. I think Radiohead asked people to send in whatever they think their songs were worth. I don’t even do that. I just have the stuff there and the idea is that enough people will listen and like it and order a CD. But even if they don’t, it’s nice to be able to tell people, especially kids who are not really the buying public, “You want to listen to the songs? They’re on my website. You can go there; you can just click a bunch of buttons and listen to song after song after song.” It has been something I’ve done for a long time. Books, too.


Once I got digital copies of my newer books, I said, “I’d like to digitize everything and just put it out there so kids can read the books.” I don’t think it’s going to be the end of my career. I think that enough people will read the books online and say, “I like this book. I think I’ll order it for a gift or I’ll order it for my children.” I know that not everybody will. A lot of people will know that if they want to read the book it’s always there online and that’s okay too.


In regards to selling on your site, you accept payment, via checks, after shipping the product?

BLP: I’m still doing that. People can order from Amazon and find my stuff. You can go to iTunes. People are more comfortable with those places. I think the people who tend to go to my site and order are fans who along with their order will email and say, “I had your albums growing up and now I’m buying this for my kids.”


A lot of people discovered me for the first time after Juno. I think some people were truly surprised because they fell in love with my song “All I Want is You” and then they go to my website and they say, “Oh, this guy is a children’s singer and writes for kids.” I have written many songs, and probably a dozen or so of my songs are in a very similar style to the song used in Juno. It’s fun to see that a lot of those songs are also covered on the tribute album.


In regards to selling on Amazon, you mentioned CD Baby earlier, is that who you use for Amazon or do you sell to them directly?

BLP: CD Baby does most of the music distribution. CD Baby sells to iTunes and all the other places. Amazon also gets my music from CD Baby, but they also get some of it from me because I set myself up as a marketplace seller. I did this because there were a lot of people selling my recordings for $60, $70, $80 a CD. I set myself up as a marketplace seller to sell at the list price of $14.95, because I didn’t want to see people gouged by the pricing of some unscrupulous second sellers.


I would imagine if someone’s willing to pay $60, that’s also a tribute to you. They’re only going to pay what it’s worth.

BLP: But it’s not like the albums are out of print. They are in print. Why they would even get listed at that price I don’t know. For a while my original recordings that I released in the ’70s and early ’80s were out of print.


I had gone back into the recording studio and re-recorded a lot of my older songs on newer albums mostly because humor changes over time and sensibilities change…things that people thought were funny 30 years ago, maybe are not so funny anymore. I had re-recorded a lot of my songs. I gave some of them a musical facelift. I edited some of the lyrics, tightened up some of the bad rhymes.


What happened of course is that as my original fans got older, they were really clamoring for those original albums that they had when they were kids, complete with all the out-of-tune guitar playing and off-key singing. The first albums were like basement recordings. I recorded my first two albums for something like $250 in studio time.


I just went into a recording studio and I sang into a microphone and three hours later came out with 18, 19 songs and put them on an album, never expecting I would do this as a career. It was really a way to put my songs out there. People heard me singing them. They asked me if I had an album. I never expected to make a living doing this.


I’m still sort of baffled 35 years later that I’ve been able to carve out a successful career for over three decades. So when the original albums went out of print I think their market value picked up briefly. But then I got the master tapes and re-issued them all on CD. And so now they’re all out there for a reasonable price.


There’s something to be said about music that has lasted, that has seriously lasted, the test of time.

BLP: It was interesting for me because I never quite understood why people wanted those original versions, the actual albums, song by song by song. And then I was looking for an album that I had as a kid, and I went onto the artist’s website and saw that he had done the same thing. He had re-issued all of his albums, all of his songs on newer recordings that were a little more polished. And I went, “Wow!” I wanted that album I knew by heart. I wanted that exact album. It was like an “ah-ha” moment and I went, “Oh now I get it.” That was the reason I decided to reissue the original recordings. I realized what my fans were looking for.


When you’re young, you play an album over and over and over and over again, you almost anticipate the next song. You anticipate each note because you’re so familiar with the flow of the album. I think that was what was going on with people asking for my original material.


Very true. I could definitely relate to that. Actually not too long ago I bought some music from my childhood, and when I heard it as an adult I was like, “Wow that was so basic.” And the recording wasn’t really that great either, but I still loved it. It still meant something. I still felt that nostalgic connection.

BLP: I’ve always felt like an outsider in the music industry, even though I’ve had a lot of success. I’ve always felt that I didn’t really belong anywhere. I wasn’t really a folk artist because I was writing my own songs. I wasn’t doing traditional songs. I was writing about my own experiences.


I didn’t really fit in with the other children’s artists because I wasn’t politically correct and my songs were a little weird…they were a little edgy. They weren’t your typical childrens music. All these years later I realize I just carved out my own niche–maybe by necessity, because I wasn’t able to be easily pigeonholed into a specific genre.


I saw on your website that you had written songs for Sesame Street.

BLP: Sesame Street called me in and wanted me to write songs for Big Bird. My songs–especially my early songs–are all about kids’ rights and giving voice to kids who didn’t really have a voice. They were going to do an album of kids liberation songs by Barry Louis Polisar. They asked me to write a couple of songs, which I did. They called me back in and they had my songs laid out and had words circled and they were questioning my lyrics; either the words were too mature or they were too edgy. And, so that project never went anywhere but I recorded the songs on my third album. Then, about a year or two later, I found out that Sesame Street had released an album with Big Bird singing one of my songs.


It wasn’t one of the songs I had written for them. Actually that was the first song of mine that had ever been recorded by anybody else. So I like to say that Big Bird was the first person to do a cover one of my songs.


That was the original tribute.

BLP: Yes. It was my song “I’ve Got a Dog and My Dog’s Name is Cat.”


Speak with me about your TV show.

BLP: I had a TV show for about three years. I was eventually replaced by puppets, and then the show went off the air. But the show won two Emmy Awards when I hosted it. It got lots of accolades from teachers. It was basically an educational show that should’ve been on PBS, but it was on the network. It was on an ABC affiliate in Washington, DC, and then broadcast all over the country. It got a lot of coverage and made its way around the world. I think they had a couple hundred stations that broadcast it all across the U.S.


When Juno’s soundtrack won a Grammy, did you get one as well?

BLP: No. I don’t even know who actually has the physical Grammy, probably Jason Reitman, the Director…he was the one who picked the songs.


I think you should be able to at least get a copy of that.

BLP: I have a picture for my website. That’s enough.