Interview with Jo Harman, Singer / Songwriter

“Sometimes you hear a voice that leaves you speechless…”

– Huey Morgan (Fun Lovin Criminals), BBC Radio 2

Artists want to create music and promote it to as many people as they can; but there is the financial element that has to be embraced. To an extent money gets in the way of what artists enjoy the most; making music. These interviews are aimed at understanding how different artists approach this challenge.

Jo Harman is a 30 year old singer / songwriter from Devon. A wonderfully talented singer with a mix of blues, soul, gospel and country. She has established a strong presence in the UK following the release of her album, Dirt on my Tongue, in 2013.

2015 saw the album released under V2 Records in France and she has just signed a deal with Sands Foley Entertainment (SFE) to bring her music to the US market. Additionally she performed at the Art for Amnesty awards in Berlin (performing to Joan Baez) and on the festival circuit she will be appearing at the Acoustic Festival of Britain, Burton Agnes Jazz and Blues Festival and OnBlackheath Festival, amongst much other international touring.

Jo’s approach to her career feels unique and very different to how many artists approach the music industry. The interview is a mix of her input and notes from the discussion we had.

Visit her website: http://joharman.com/

Or to purchase his music: http://joharman.com/shop


Q: “On your bio you talk about consciously ignoring the mainstream, and steering an entirely separate path – can you expand?”

Jo: It’s perhaps more accurate to say we’re deliberately building the business bottom up. The mainstream can turn its power on and off like a tap which means the artists caught up in that world are at the mercy of that…consequently many burn brightly for a moment but then find themselves cut adrift with no means of sustaining any success they may have enjoyed. If you build your own platform…building for the short, medium and long term….it’s harder for someone to pick you up and drop you. You are master of your own destiny and when the mainstream do engage, you can do so on your terms, not theirs.

Shininglights: This may seem slightly alien when talking about music and so I asked Jo to expand on how she went about this. Jo explained that she does have a unique partnership with her manager and isn’t something that is normal. She explained that they met shortly after she left Music College. Mark’s background was not in so much about music but, professionally, he was a property entrepreneur who also worked as a senior corporate Communications Director. His experience of the music industry ‘proper’ was limited other than for his love and passion for it. As such Jo and her manager used that ‘naivety’ to their advantage, just using common sense and general business experience to form new working models in a fast changing environment.

Jo and Mark have set about building the business themselves. She is the artist and the front facing figure with Mark supporting on the business side. Jo herself is very aware of what is going on and it is partnership where business decisions are very much made together.

Throughout our conversation it was clear that Jo sees this as a journey. The industry is changing and she is part of that change. Perhaps they are making it up as they go along to reflect a rapidly changing environment but clearly they have the foundations of good music and a sound commercial model which brings in an element of control.


Q: Describe your journey to where you are today. Do you feel you have had to compromise artistically to get where you are?”

Jo: No, I don’t ever compromise artistically.

I’m in this to express myself and if I didn’t do that it would make me unhappy. When I left college I immediately got signed to a production deal from a famous Grammy Winning (with Sting) producer to front a (very commendable) commercial project. I’ve tried it, but it’s not for me.

I want to sing my own songs, be my own musical director and run my own ship. Similarly I’ve had various record labels offer me worldwide deals with my own stuff. Some very famous labels and some very powerful, household name, industry figures have expressed an interest in signing me at various times but frankly I don’t trust them to trust me. Also the financials don’t always make sense. It’s like buying a lottery ticket – if you win you can win big but the vast majority just lose. Don’t mistake all this for lack of ambition.

Of course I want to be a household name and sell tons of units etc etc but only on my own terms. Where am I today? I’m self-sufficient and solvent and I’ve enjoyed some incredible life/career experiences already such as playing at festivals to 10’s of thousands, once 300k, people. Hung with superstars from the arts and sang to people like Jimmy Page and Joan Baez, to name but two. But my biggest success to date is making my career work on my terms. Lots of very talented people aren’t fortunate enough to do that, because they don’t understand the business needs involved.

Shininglights: I was intrigued by the link with a Grammy Winning producer as I had read something about this in an interview Jo had done and I wanted to understand more about this. Jo explained that once she had been through Music College and met Mark she felt she was at a crossroads. Unsure of artistic direction and the offer was made. It was an experiment and you feel that it was an amazing experience for her.

She went to Denmark, recorded tracks but she just felt she didn’t want to conform to others, to compromise her artistic talent for others. The commercial aspect didn’t work and if anything it led her towards what she is doing today as an independent artist. It is very clear that Jo was grateful for the experience, and seeing artists who crave fame and fortune it must seem an alien thing to do but I think that reflects Jo as an artist.

This then led onto record labels and for me an understanding as to how it works. We touched on X Factor and Jo explained that this is its own whole little bubble. In the early days the million pound record deal was to get the business up and running. The recording, the touring etc. very little of that went back to the artist. So although it appears to give instant success, it doesn’t necessarily give a long term sustainable career.

Jo also explained that even outside of this signing to a traditional record label means that very little of the money from record sales goes to the artist. She estimates this is about 8p from a £10 sale of a record. You also have to reflect that record sales are declining (although live music is thriving) and therefore losing most of the income is not good. She also explained that just signing is only the start of a difficult journey. It is the record label who own the master rights to the records and not the artists, they have effectively handed over their rights to the record label.

She also explained that certainly a few years ago record labels would sign a number of artists and only a few will make it to the top. So even having a deal doesn’t guarantee success. She feels the industry has changed so much that it empowers artists to do it themselves and in their own way.

Jo added that just because she isn’t part of a big record label it doesn’t mean she is not ambitious. She is but she wants to do it on her terms and not someone else’s.


Q: “Bands / singers have become more creative in the production of records, using the likes of Kickstarter and Pledge Music to fund the release of music – what are your thoughts?”

Jo: Never used them myself but it’s a great way of getting started or getting see capital for projects like new releases etc. Myself, having achieved some degree of success, I’m exploring private investment …think ‘Dragon’s Den’…which is another way for investing into the business.


Q: “Do you feel different ways of producing records is a reflection of a changing industry?”

Jo: Yes, the old music industry models are collapsing fast …it’s a brave (and often scary) new world out there.


Q: “How did you fund the release of your first album?”

Jo: My own funds (OK my manager lent me £1500 to manufacture the record – he got paid back pretty quickly!) and the album was made on a shoestring. Less than £5k all in, manufacturing included. I financed it from other music related activities which I no longer have to worry about – things like sessions, teaching, and singing in high paid function bands and the like.

But I would say to anyone wanting to make a career in music to look at it the same way anyone would look at starting any small business. You need plans, budgets, seed funding etc. It’s called the music business for a reason. Artistic creativity is the core thing, of course, but arts and music are not except from normal business disciplines of course.


Q: “Securing million pound record deals seems to be a thing of the past. For those lucky enough to secure deals the promotion aspect of their music is taken on by the label. You have achieved your success without a major record label.”

Jo: Yes and no. Social media and good old fashioned press releases, word of mouth etc can get you on the map but we do have major label help because we’re signed to V2 (home of Adele, Mumfords etc) in Europe and Sands Foley (part of Universal/Caroline) in the States.

Difference is we’ve ‘partnered’ with them, rather than an old fashioned ‘sign yourself over to them’ kind of deal. Having established our own initial fan base, touring, sales etc allowed us to work with them on our terms, as well as theirs. Like I say, if you get some initial success, people will come to you and both V2 and SFE have been great, supportive, partners…always respecting our artistic integrity and always supporting our vision.

V2 have got me on mainstream TV and radio in Europe and my debut album made the national album charts. They have a lot of power and can really help you push on. Difference is we don’t owe them any money (many ‘successful’ bands are deep into a hole financially in what they owe their label) – they effectively licence our product – and I have total freedom going forward.

People like SyCo (Simon Cowell’s company) have expressed an interest in us but common sense tells me that might be a whole different ball game so it’s unlikely that that would make for a natural partnership. At the end of the day, we are a self-sustaining business, with or without label support.

Shininglights: In this part of the discussion it emphasised the journey Jo is taking. She explained that being tied to a record company means that they own the album. Through this route they licence the product to someone else to sell it on their behalf.

V2 was the first deal they did. She explained that it was a business risk but from a business perspective it was worth doing. She also felt it was probably not the best deal financially for them but it has been fantastic for them from a distribution viewpoint and has worked for both parties. Understanding this they would no doubt look to secure a better deal in the future but this is a journey and you can only learn once you have done something.

We talked about SFE and she explained this is similar but there are some specifics that were important to the deal. The US is a market they don’t know and they need someone who does. SFE will therefore help Jo introduce her music to that market and for that there is also a management arrangement in place as part of the deal. We talked about when she might go the US and she explained she is working on her second album but expects this to be towards the end of the year.


Q: “How can artists fund and promote themselves to a wider audience?

Jo: Make great music, be compelling, understand marketing and run your career on general business model lines – as opposed to traditional record business models which simply no longer apply. It’s a brave new world out there. Build a great team around you as you go, too. People you can trust and who are in it for the long term.

Shininglights: We touched on her fan base, Jo explained that a lot of this is hard work and also luck. In her case she had a lot of support from the blues community. As she explained it is a community of like-minded people. She can be played on one radio show and that can quickly spread to others.

She did explain the importance of nurturing those early fans. The first followers are really important, and social media is a good way to engage with them. She made a comment earlier in the interview about being scary and this is perhaps it. With social media you have to open yourself up more and engage with your fans. She therefore comes across as an extrovert, but as she said and it came across she is a private person. Perhaps similar to all of us she can be shy, she can crave her own space and therefore the rule of thumb is to be natural and not someone that you are not.


Q: “You benefited from a BPI grant, can you explain how this might help new artists and for you personally?”

Jo: Yeah, it’s a government export scheme – much like any other, except this one is for music. We filled out a form (not as easy as it sounds) and the government felt we were a good enough bet to give us some seed funding – about £15k – to help take our music to America.

Of course we could have used that to play a few gigs and have a fun trip round the States or whatever but actually we thought strategically and found a US label partner (SFE, mentioned above) to help us spend that money more wisely. We haven’t spent any of it yet – it’s actually burning a hole in my pocket – but, again, it’s about making sensible business decisions, thinking strategically and making ‘windfalls’ like that work for you..in much the way any other business would best be run.


Q: “At the start of the journey many individuals are not only the artists but also the promoter. It therefore means that they have to engage with the system in a different way; effectively running a business. You talk about running a successful business model.

Explain how you approached this, how this changed over time, and where you find the best sources of revenue?”

Jo: Pretty much what I’ve laid out above. To succeed in the music business you need, I believe, two fundamental things. One you need to tour (i.e. play shows) without losing money and secondly you need good product (merchandise, called ‘merch’ in the business) that people want to buy.

In our case it’s CD’s and vinyl but other artists sell all kind of things from mugs to laptop covers to whatever. But live shows are fundamental to success. People have to want to pay money to see you. Music industry revenues from music are at an all-time low. Young people see music as a free resource – something you don’t need to pay for – so, for many musicians (let alone labels etc) this is a new challenge that has to be faced.

Shininglights: I wanted to understand more about how you make money from touring and she explained that appearing in venues can be more of a risk because you don’t know how many people will turn up. We talked about Passenger and how often he plays by himself, and Jo explained that for artists to make money they need to take a bigger part in the process and keep expenses down. She feels that if you control that then a venue of 200 to 300 people should be profitable.

We touched on festivals and she said this is an easier way to make money with little risk. Effectively the artists turns up and plays. They don’t have to worry about numbers.

She added that even within live music there are challenges with people not turning up to venues but paying to watch from the comfort of their own homes.


Q: “The outlets to getting your music out to the market appears much more diversified than it did ten to fifteen years ago; radio (on-line and digital), streaming, downloads etc.

How does an artist get themselves heard, and how do you approach this?”

Jo: Well platforms like Ditto, Tunecorps etc make all that easy. You send your music to them and they ensure it gets on iTunes, spotify, amazon and the rest. Problem is getting your music heard above the noise. Anyone, literally anyone, can release music these days and everyone is fighting for attention. Radio, despite rumours of its death, remains king. So Radio 1, Radio 2 airplay is still the Holy Grail for many.

Shininglights: I talked to Jo about how she goes about getting onto Radio 1 and 2. She explained this is very difficult as it is controlled by the bigger names and much harder for independent artists to break through. However, she can get airplay through more specialist shows like Paul Jones on Radio 2.


Q: “Is there a temptation to develop stand-out tracks to get heard rather than creating an album?”

Jo: Yeah, but I’m an album sort of girl. I don’t tend to write lightweight tunes with catchy choruses. If I did I’d be on Radio 1 and 2 more often! You have to dig into my stuff a bit deeper, but that’s the kind of artist I need to be and will always be. So ‘instant’ success may not be an option for me but I’m hoping that is compensated by longevity and credibility.

Shininglights: We talked about albums and the concept that an album is a story and the singles chapters of that story. Jo admits that she will need to do singles but the album is important. It is a story and she wants people to buy the whole album and not download one or two tracks.

She also is passionate about people buying the physical album, for her the album is an experience. From the artwork, to the insert to the music. Downloading takes away that experience.


Q: “You have spent time building up your fan base.

How do you build that up from being local to national, and now international? Are festivals a good way to showcasing your music to a wider audience?”

Jo: Yes but no because it’s hard to capture emails, or connect personally with people, at festivals. So people may enjoy your performance and may go and buy your music on iTunes or whatever, but you don’t tend to know who those people are. I’ve had £50k worth of sales direct to my website so that is a good fan base platform to build upon as well as social media and meeting fans at shows. I seem to have a very loyal fan base and people tend to stay with me – so far anyway – and I’ve enjoyed considerable support of the close knit blues community and blues press, for which I’m very grateful, even though I’m not really a blues artist per se. As with any business (to be repetitive) it’s getting a foothold of loyal ‘early adopters’ and then building things from there. You can have all the marketing techniques in the world but the best way to market yourself is by being good and doing something people actually want.

Shininglights: I just wanted to touch on the link with the blues community and whether there was pressure to play ‘safe’ with the second album. Jo explained that she makes albums for herself and that people will like. It is clear that she won’t play ‘safe’, therefore it gives her space to create and develop as an artist.


Q: “For those artists signed to record labels do you feel there is a danger that artists are pressurised into compromising artistic talent, i.e. are artists sometimes placed into a position where they write for sales / popularity or can they keep their artistic talent intact?

You have recently released your album via V2 Records and Sands Foley Entertainment. How have you balanced the two, and do you feel this could change as your success grows?

Jo: Yes that is always the danger. Even now lots of very well-meaning people are telling me ‘your next record should be aimed at Radio 2’ or whatever. I need to not worry about that and just write what I feel. I’m known for my sincerity and I think people will simply smell it if I don’t do something I don’t mean. Personally I think it’s a mistake to chase the market…I prefer the market to chase me. But each to their own, of course.


Q: “For those who don’t know your music describe your style, what people should expect to hear and what musicians influence you the most?”

Jo: Well, I don’t aim for any particular style per se but I guess my music is influenced in somewhat equal measure by soul, blues, country, roots-rock and gospel. I do aim to make quite ‘timeless’ music with classic arrangements and time honoured values like good song writing, whatever the style. Whether I succeed is another question!

Shininglights: How does an artist measure success, is it fame, is it money, is it both? There is an assumption that these are reasons for entering the industry. Jo’s answer is perhaps no different to any of us. Fundamentally she is doing a job that she loves and wants to do and this then leads you to the answer.

Success is about happiness, how well she is doing, how nice she is to people etc. Although she runs this as a business she is a person who has the same worries as all of us. She does see this as a journey and she reflected that rather than reflecting on the big picture she looks at the little victories.

She went back to the pop project, she was proud of this but it wasn’t for her. She is now in control of her journey and she strives to deliver great albums. On reflection it is clear that artists want to be heard, they want sustainable careers and it can be done without big record labels. It isn’t easy but having a big record label doesn’t guarantee success.

If you are happy, if you are creating great albums and you are making a good living then that is a good measure of success.


Q: “Although it is easy to pinpoint a few multi-million selling artists, there are many more selling considerable less but still making some money. Like any job it is hard. What motivates you and where would you like to be in five years’ time?”

Jo: 99% of music business revenue goes to just 1% of artists….the Beyonces of this world have it all sewn up in that respect. I’d reckon 95% of artists don’t make a professional living solely from their own music. I’m in that small band of artists that do but, obviously, I only make a tiny, tiny fraction of what the likes of Kanye West makes. But that’s like comparing a corner shop to Apple. Successful businesses come in all shapes and sizes. In five years’ time I want to be still doing this – alongside raising a family perhaps – and be an internationally known artist, touring the world and always, but always, making music I’m proud of.


Q: “And finally describe your favourite venue, and where you would like to play in the future?”

Jo: I’ve played greats shows to 30 people and I’ve played great shows to huge festivals of 100’s of thousands of people. I’ve played some of the best venues in Europe and that’s fabulous but it’s all about the audience, rather than the venue, for me. That said, I’m really looking forward to playing in the States when it comes to the future. 🙂

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