Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

Mark Rushton Interview

Published in Blog, villin. Tags: , , .

Mark Rushton is both a recording and visual artist. This simple set of labels is a fine way of providing an overview of the “what,” but it fails to express the mammoth scope of his body of work. Since he began experimenting within the medium around the turn of the century, Rushton has amassed a catalog of nearly 3,000 pieces of recorded audio, largely falling across genres such as ambient, beat-driven electronica, and soundscapes, as well as field recordings and sound effects. Utilizing a uniquely creative spin with the release process itself, he’s spread this catalog across more than 20 artist names. A small selection of those names include Aleodeology and My Love Underwater (ambient), Every Day is a Rainy Day and Weather Escape (environmental field recordings), and Tanpura Express (tanpura drone and tabla beat music).

The work itself isn’t the end of the story, however, as over the course of the past decade he’s transitioned from making little to nothing from his work to actually earning a living from it. Somewhere along the way, experimenting with audio evolved into having roughly a quarter of a million monthly listeners across his artist pages on Spotify. (Linder Valley, alone, accounts for roughly 140,000 of them.) That’s a somewhat startling number when taken out of context, but through spending time with Rushton’s newsletter, his focus on analytics and attention to the processes behind the distribution of his work paints a picture of understanding around how it came to be. In this discussion we dig a little bit into his past projects, but primarily focus on areas of note relevant to how he’s found success with the business elements behind his music, and has made the transition to being a professional recording artist, himself.

villin: I’m curious about how some of these questions relate to your visual art, as well, but as my focus with villin is on music, I’m aiming my thoughts to that side of things in the discussion. This question is one I’m curious about regardless of the medium of your work, and that’s one of intention. You’ve created nearly 3,000 pieces of audio (whether that be songs, field recordings, etc.), which is an astonishing volume of output. How has your intention with creating and capturing sound changed since you first began with a loop-based program around the turn of the new millennium?

Mark Rushton: With the music and sound recordings, when I started in 2000, I was just playing around with new technology. Over time it evolved through a lot of experimenting with different music styles, techniques, using digital distributors, understanding how the streaming services work, being accepting of licensing, and taking good business advice. I earned basically no money from my recordings until around 2016, and even then it wasn’t much. The growth of streaming and licensing changed all that.

Visual art is different. Original wall art has no distribution network, so that will limit an audience. For me, it’s still a money loser. If I was making something like kiln-fired pieces, then there are wholesale networks to join. I’ve heard only around 2% of artists represented by galleries can earn a living from it, so that’s a hard road. Print-on-demand, craft fairs, and websites can be a piece of the pie, but it’s a lot of work and there’s no guarantee of success. Social media is not a silver bullet for artists. There are exceptions, but they’re exceptions. Being talented or lettered has nothing to do with it. A lot of artists don’t want to listen to or heed these kinds of truth bombs. Here’s the biggest one of them all: If you’re in art school or pursuing an art degree, drop out immediately.

At the start of 2023, I started a publishing company with a friend. He had written a bunch of “short books” on various topics—15 to 30 minute reads—and didn’t know how to publish them. I sub-edited a couple of them, learned how to publish Kindle eBooks, and then figured out paperback formatting. I use my artwork for the covers. In July 2023, we sold about 30 books and sales have been slowly increasing as we add titles. That’s a good start. Most of the sales are paperbacks. Some are eBooks. We’ve had some KENP read royalties, which are from people reading through Kindle Premium subscriptions. We’ve sold books in the US, Germany, and France. Even though Kindle publishing has been around a long time, I’m new to it. Amazon is a kind of distribution, even though they’re a benevolent monopoly, and at least they have good “natural discovery” if you categorize well and use metadata and keywords. These are all skills I learned as a recording artist.

Circling back to your question, I’ve been able to get my recordings out there in the world, but I’ve met a lot of artists (recording, visual, and writers) over the years who have produced a large body of work and it just sits on hard drives, in drawers, or in closets. For whatever reason. Or they become deceased and the work becomes lost because the heirs don’t care or don’t know what to do with it.

My intention changed around 2015, about the time that music digital distribution services were evolving. I read an interview with Brian Eno, originally published in The Believer magazine and reprinted in Salon in 2012, and it was a huge influence on me:

Q: If you could email your 20-year-old self about what was ahead, what would you tell him? Or would you tell him nothing and just let him get on with it?

A: I think I’d say, “Put out as much as you can. It doesn’t do anything sitting on a shelf.” My feeling is that a work has little value until you “release” it, until you liberate it from yourself and your excuses for it — “It’s not quite finished yet,” “The mix will make all the difference,” etc. Until you see it out there in the world along with everything else, you don’t really know what it is or what to think of it, so it’s of no use to you.

That advice gave me permission to release a lot of old recordings sitting on hard drives and to explore other genres with pseudonyms. It helped me grow as an artist. Although, I must emphasize that releasing a lot of recordings is not a silver bullet.

villin: There was a period of time where you were involved in performing, bringing soundscapes to a live setting. How did you first get involved in performing in front of an audience and what led you away from it?

Mark Rushton: It was an experiment. I discovered quickly that I’d rather work on my own.

villin: What is it that first drew you to making field recordings or to record nature sounds? What do you get out of that process?

Mark Rushton: In 2005 I bought a Zoom H2, my first digital audio recorder that saved on a SD card, which I still have. It enabled me to record for long periods of time and to capture the unknown, like recording overnight. I got better at editing.

villin: Earlier this year in a Junto Profile Q&A, you mentioned that “most of my music has arrived from iOS apps.” What does your setup look like when making music or sounds, and how has that changed since you first began?

Mark Rushton: I do a lot of “pre-programming” in the apps, for lack of a better term. I set everything up, run it through my boxes, make sure the recorder is on, and then press a button. It looks easy, but there’s a lot of prep work. Then I have to edit and sometimes multi-track.

Besides the apps, my recordings use lap steel, kalimba, guitar, drum machines, synths, loops, and I have a bass clarinet with a Piezobarrel pickup that I got from a guy in Australia who makes them. My band Vibrating Wires is entirely about processed lap steel guitar. Vibrating Wires doesn’t do anything on Spotify, but it does pretty good on Pandora.

villin: What made you start considering releasing projects under various pseudonyms and how has the idea of compartmentalizing your projects influenced the way you think about creating music?

Mark Rushton: I blame the aforementioned Eno quote, but I also have a good friend who I bounce off ideas and he’s very encouraging. At first, I was very nervous about going in the pseudonym direction. Over time, I discovered it gave me lots of freedom as an artist.

villin: While the medium has changed over the years, we’ve both been lifelong mixtape creators. Now working with playlists, you’ve turned that idea on its head slightly by utilizing playlists as a method by which to disseminate your own music. This outlet has me a bit curious about that intention question again as Spotify shows you have almost 1,400 public playlists. What sort of thoughts do you have when assessing the sheer volume of content you’re putting your name to, and if providing guidance to other recording artists about how to gain traction in the digital landscape, would you recommend this sort of “flood the zone” approach when seeking exposure?

Mark Rushton: That’s not what I did, but I can see how it might be misinterpreted. 1400 playlists is a culmination of 12 years of being on Spotify. Some of those playlists are entirely other artists. I save everything. I’ve experimented with different playlist titles, graphics, descriptions, lengths of playlists, etc. I’ll bet that the majority of my public playlists get no listens. I build things regularly that die on the vine, but sometimes one of them catches the wind.

Spotify is a great place to build playlists, but they neutered “natural discovery” about 2020. The big tech companies are mostly about “command and control.” They push the music you’re told to like. The streaming services are paid to push certain acts. Apple and Amazon Music don’t want you discovering anything at all. Tidal recently changed their policy regarding sharing playlists, but I don’t know if that will lead to better discovery.

I use a service called Soundiiz to transfer playlists from Spotify to everywhere I can get an account, either freemium or paid. I pay for a few streaming services so I know how they operate and to confirm that my distributors are doing their job. I once used a VPN so I could create some foreign accounts on KKBox and Yandex and push playlists there. I also store my playlists on Soundiiz in case a new service shows up. Most of these pushed playlists never get listens on the other services, but they may in the future. This goes back to the 10 Rules for Artists that I’ve used for years—“save everything, it might come in handy later”—it’s mostly by Sister Corita Kent but there’s one by John Cage.

villin: In 2006 I had my first podcasting experience, joining in as one of a rotating cast of music bloggers who contributed songs and commentary to a show. You’ve got me beat though, as you started the Hooray For Vouvray! podcast in December of 2004. What are your memories of that project and is podcasting a medium you’ve considered returning to?

Mark Rushton: That turned into the Ambient Rushton Podcast, which has been going almost 20 years and has about 189 episodes, or something like that. I’m thinking about letting the podcast go, though, as podcasts are mostly about talking and mine is about music. The podcast these days is to promote my music on stock music libraries.

villin: In a past lifetime I worked very briefly in music marketing, and by my personal account, I was fairly ineffective in that world. This was in 2013, which is the same year that I started subscribing to Spotify, and in the following years that platform has become one of your main drivers in terms of finding an audience for your work. Throughout your Substack posts, you’ve mentioned a few different angles you’ve tried utilizing to find traction on Spotify, including playlist submission, Discovery Mode campaigns, and sort of just lucking into landing a track on Spotify Radio. For new artists just starting out, where would you recommend they begin when attempting to navigate this arena?

Mark Rushton: Release only singles. Schedule them at least a month out.

Join Spotify for Artists and Amazon Music for Artists and pitch every single so you have a chance at being placed into things like Spotify-curated playlists. There are hugely popular Spotify-curated playlists, but there are thousands of niche ones with smaller audiences where your music can find listeners.

Try to figure out how to write an effective pitch of your single. In 500 characters, tell the Who, What, Where, When, Why – and How you’ll promote it. Tell a story, even if it’s not true. Don’t use adjectives. Keywords and metadata about genres, playlists, and similar artists should be woven into your sentences. Initially, the submission is likely read by a bot, so try to guess what their rubric is so you can get passed along to a human. That will give you better odds. Don’t give up writing pitches if nothing gets accepted—I did this for a while and regret it. Save all your pitches—again, it might come in handy later. Find similar artists and put their music into your public playlists alongside yours. Not just popular artists, but anybody who fits.

Join a performance rights organization (PRO). I’ve been with ASCAP since 2002. BMI is fine, too. Just pick one and pay the application fee once you’re in, make sure you have both the writer and publisher sides set up. I didn’t know about setting up the publisher side until last year. Can you believe it? I’ve made so many mistakes.

Even if you only have one single out and it’s done nothing, sign up with an “administrator” to collect worldwide mechanical and publishing royalties. I use Songtrust. There are others. It cost me $100 and they take 15%. They got me royalties I never could have gotten on my own. They collect from The MLC in the US and something like 60 societies around the world. It’s so easy to enter your songs into their system.

Sign up with SoundExchange. They will collect the radio side of Pandora, iHeartRadio, Sirius/XM, DMX cable radio, etc. They also collect foreign “neighbouring rights” royalties, which is a separate agreement, so if you get played on a German radio station you’ll get paid. Learn how to use their Excel template for bulk uploading of data.

Put all your titles, UPCs, ISRCs, splits, artwork, files, etc, into a cloud based relational database like Airtable. I love Airtable. They have a generous free tier. Learn how to use it. Be as organized as you can.

Sign up with Music Reports and agree to every licensing opportunity. A few years ago, I agreed to something related to in-app usage on the Apple Watch, and out of the blue I started getting royalties because of it a couple years ago and it’s been steady ever since. I don’t own an Apple Watch and had no idea they had in-app subscriptions where my music is used. This is music that does nothing on Spotify, not much on Pandora or anywhere else, but for some reason people around the world love it in some app on the Apple Watch.

Learn how to filter data in Excel, or use Pivot Tables in Excel. You should know this to help look through your royalty statements. It is always exciting to see a new country pop up in the reports. The last new ones I noticed are Eswatini and The Gambia. Do not get hung up on the “per stream” rate because it’s different around the world for many reasons. Just be thankful somebody is listening to your music from The Gambia.

Sign up for Pandora AMP, attend the monthly Zoom calls when you can, and learn how to use AMP—especially how to schedule Featured Tracks, upload Artist Messages, and other things. AMP is run by a great bunch of people and you’ll get traction if you use it.

Put your music on Bandcamp, but don’t live on the Island of Bandcamp. What I mean is that you shouldn’t just be on Bandcamp. You should be everywhere. Always choose your settings on Bandcamp to allow people to pay more. If you get followers on Bandcamp you should run sales, offer your discography at a discount, and occasionally send out a special note. A lot of people on Bandcamp also use streaming services, so try to get them to follow you everywhere.

For your “business,” when starting out just be a sole proprietor and use your Social Security number and personal bank account. You don’t need to be a Limited Liability Company until your CPA says so. I log income and expenses in a basic Excel template. Don’t try to do your taxes yourself if you’re expensing. I use a CPA now because I have a legit business, which is an LLC filing as S corp. I file quarterly tax payments to the IRS and State. I pay unemployment insurance to the State of Iowa, which was a nightmare to set up and seems bizarre because I’m the only employee. I use ADP to manage my payroll, which is how I pay myself. I guess I’m lucky to have made it this far, but it’s always a lot of new things that I didn’t previously know and the bureaucracy drives me crazy. Go as simple as you can on the business side for as long as you can. Most artists get terrible business advice from other artists. Be careful.

Read the latest edition of the Don Passman book on the music industry. He’s funny.

Put your music on stock libraries like Pond5. That’s a great way to understand keywords, metadata, moods, etc. Maybe you have friends who are creatives in other areas. They will be inclined to use your work in their projects.

Same thing with exploring sync music licensing agencies. That’s a hard road, but you never know. Don’t have delusions that your music will be used in a film trailer or a Netflix show.

Nothing happens overnight. Nobody was born of whole cloth. It’s OK to release juvenilia under pseudonyms. And never give up on your catalog!

villin: One topic I don’t feel particularly settled on—whether it’s as a creator, a music business person, or as a fan—is what an accurate price might be for a piece of recorded audio. How much should someone be paid when a song is heard versus when a song is purchased opens up a galaxy-sized can of worms, depending on who you’re talking to, for example. Back in the ’90s I remember paying $20+ for back catalog CDs, which didn’t exactly leave me with a great feeling when leaving music stores. Now, when considering the collectability of vinyl, it’s not unusual for new releases to be in the $40+ range. On the flip-side is the streaming question, where pre-tax earnings can be somewhere around a third of a cent per stream for artists.

Part of the problem, I think, comes with idea that there should be standardized pricing in the first place, when discussing recorded audio. A song created by an eight-piece band in a state of the art recording studio with a full staff working on production and mastering costs more than a field recording of nature sounds, but streaming sites are effort-neutral in terms of payouts, right? “Fairness” is at the heart of the debate around payouts, but even if they’re standardized it’s not like the model can speak to all the nuance that goes into the creation process. Do you have any thoughts around how today’s market prices audio for creators and how do you think this might evolve in the coming decade as the streaming steps out of its infancy?

Mark Rushton: This is the best time ever for indie recording artists. Creating and distributing sound recordings worldwide is easy, quick, and nearly free. As an indie, you can collect a minimum of 85% of your royalties. That’s pretty good.

There’s really no gatekeepers today. No physical media has to be manufactured and warehoused. You can avoid contracts where The Man gives you 12.5% of net after recouping the advance, owns your master rights for 35 years, takes a cut of the publishing, and gives you nothing but headaches in perpetuity.

Streaming has worldwide acceptance but the growth curve is flattening. The industry has steady income thanks to subscriptions. Companies like Spotify are basically utilities. Apple Music, Amazon Music, and YouTube Music all have sugar daddies.

To be concerned about “per stream rates” is to misunderstand how the streaming services operate and how royalties are determined and paid based on tiers, countries, and exchange rates.

villin: “A Long Rain Sound for Pleasure Listening” under your Linder Valley name has roughly 3.2 million streams on Spotify. It’s a really wild thing to think about the net you’ve cast with your work, utilizing these online tools. Linder Valley has, for example, more monthly listeners than John Cage. What sort of thoughts does that sort of reality bring up for you?

Mark Rushton: It’s out of my control. All I can say is that there’s a genre for everything.

villin: In our first email exchange you introduced me to Pandora’s AMP service, and I’m curious what sort of success you’ve found outside of Spotify? Besides Pandora, there’s obviously Apple Music, Amazon, YouTube, and TIDAL to name just a small selection of music discovery services, but is the bulk of your success still found through Spotify?

Mark Rushton: It’s equally Pandora and Spotify. Apple does good via licensing. Amazon and YouTube Music are a bit less, although I do good numbers on Amazon Prime in India.

All the royalties from services in Asia, Russia, the Middle East, and Africa are lower because the standard of living is different from the United States, but they’re the kind of numbers I had in the US in 2016 and 2017, so I’m curious what will happen in the future.

villin: I watched one of the videos on your Facebook page where you explored a variety of different tools and mediums you use to distribute your work, and you talked at length about the statistics and analytics that underlie it all. When it comes right down to it, what are the main markers of success for you when thinking about your creative work?

Mark Rushton: For me, it’s a lot of experimenting, being open to new things, and learning from mistakes.

villin: Even if only thinking about the volume question, there will be no match for the sheer output of sound that developing technologies will be able to create as time moves on. As generative AI begins to gain traction, how do you think that will impact creators such as yourself?

Mark Rushton: I use things like ChatGPT as a thesaurus, but it’s bad at everything else. It can’t write more than a couple sentences without repeating itself and sounding like a robot. It’s a parlor trick.

I’ve seen the AI “art” and heard the AI “music.” It’s all terrible. And although “terrible” stuff sells, I don’t think AI will get better. Tech has a proven track record of making things worse, inventing new versions of vaporware, or outright scams.

We have to remember that when the “AI” thing showed up in the news, tech stocks and crypto had crashed and the billionaires always need more money, so I get the feeling they came up with “AI” as a prop and paid off the propaganda machine to deliver their message.

Most “AI” seems like little more than remixed plagiarism. It’s being used an excuse by companies to fire people, which seems questionable to me. Techies stopped being original a long time ago. Those guys are too busy micro-dosing psychedelics and believing their BS.

I’m not saying that we should all become Walter Benjamin about art, but I think it’s a good idea to be skeptical about all the things the shiny, well-paid person is reading to us.

For more from Mark Rushton, listen to his music via Apple Music, Bandcamp, Spotify, or YouTube, and follow him online via Facebook and Instagram.

[This article was first published by villin.]