Laughs And Music: A Conversation On Balancing Personas With Jeff Michaels

We spend a lot of time on this blog talking about how to manage your career in music, but it’s important for us to note that there are many who have lives outside of music they must promote and balance as well. Jeff Michaels is an incredible solo artist with a world of potential, as well as a comical YouTube talent who makes parody videos under the alias Johnny Fiscal. He’s also an author. Jeff has built his career in every field one step at a time, and recently we had the chance to speak with him about how he balances everything, as well as his advice for others trying to balance multiple passions amidst an already busy life.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me! Can you tell me a little about yourself, and your current projects and releases?

Sure! By means of introduction I’m a solo artist and writer from Boston, MA. I’ve rereleased several independent albums and have performed for the past ten years on both the west and east coasts, primarily as a piano player with my indie band. Right now I’m still heavily involved in the promotion of my latest record, “Townie Paradise,” which was released this past June. We’re working on several new videos and I plan on continuing to perform in support of this record well into 2016.

You’re a man that wears a lot of different hats, from solo artist to author. Some might even know you by the YouTube channel, Johnny Fiscal, which creates satirical political videos. How do you juggle all these projects?

Yes, I do quite a variety of things… but I don’t think the juggling is all that difficult. In fact, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have five or six projects going simultaneously! I’m entrepreneur at heart, and I look at each project, whether its an album or a book or a website (I design websites as well) as a business opportunity with a start, middle, and end. When one project is completed, I simply move on to the next one.

You mention you’re an entrepreneur at heart. Do you think that’s something that’s inherent in people, and how (if at all) do you think we can hone in on those skills?

Actually, no I don’t thing being an entrepreneur comes naturally to most people. Yet, it’s incredibly important for artists who aspire to grow their brand and career to learn as many additional skills as possible, and be willing to try different things in order to keep moving forward. I think for anyone who struggles with this, a good idea is to develop a list of talents that you feel are your strengths, then spend a little time each day working in the area that scares you, but you know could possibly lead to something big. In fact, these are generally clues as to what the next step in your career may be. For instance, if you are incredibly good at performing, yet are not seeing your fan base expand much beyond your local area, maybe it’s time to focus on another aspect of yourself where you could connect with people in other cities, or across the globe. It could be as simple as starting a small online business and selling something that you yourself use. You can create videos using your natural ability to perform in front of an audience. Then, when you start to make new connections in new locations, you can drive people to your website where they could discover your music.

Although at first glance your solo career, Johnny Fiscal Youtube channel, and work as an author may seem very separate, I’d argue that they have also become fairly intertwined. Do you view each persona as a separate business, or do you ever find them overlapping?

This is a great question. You know, at first I really thought they were separate, and I think a lot of artists struggle with this identity issue. I viewed myself as a piano player and singer, and published several books and was writing for blogs as a means to sort of fund my music career. Yet, as the years have passed, I’ve realized the form of expression from one medium to the next is not really all that different—from writing a song to writing a book or a blog to creating a video, you are still trying to impart some knowledge or feeling you have about the way the world is or isn’t working to others, to hopefully enlighten them and provide a viewpoint they might not necessarily have considered. For instance, I might go on and on about why it’s cruel inhumane to judge others based on sexual preference in a blog post, while at the same time I can write one line in a song like “we all live under the same f’ing sun” and it’s all the same thing. I just feel my job is to try as many different avenues as possible to get my message across… luckily I’ve developed skills in many mediums to be able to do this, and I hope to continue to do this on a much larger scale.

You also bring up an interesting point,  that your job (and arguably, any artist’s job) is to try as many avenues as possible to get your message across. How did you figure out which avenues were right for you and how have you seen success from that?

So, back in the day, there was no recorded music. Messages and teachings were repeated over and over so that people absorbed the material. Today, it’s the opposite. Nearly everything we do is documented on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and probably soon a 24/7 live feed of our lives streamed right to the Internet. I feel that the challenge now is not so much which avenue to choose, but to remain consistent with your branding and your message across everything you do, so that people can understand what it is you’re trying to say. For instance, look at a band like U2. They might rock a stadium, they might partake in an online Twitter chat, or they might be the first band to broadcast a show from the moon. But no matter what they do or where they are, they will all be wearing black coats, and Edge will be wearing his beanie cap. Their brand and their message screams through every single thing that they do, and consistent message is how you get successful across any medium.

As far as the avenues I’ve tried, I have a natural tendency to write, so I’ve found books and blogs to be a wonderful area to reveal a little more about myself to the world. I also think Twitter is a great avenue right now for an artist of any genre. I don’t particularly care what people eat for lunch everyday, so I try to stay off Facebook and Instagram, but if that’s your thing, go for it!

As a fan of music, as well as someone on the industry side, I completely agree that a lot of artists struggle with identity. Do you have any advice for artists looking to shape their identity, and really figure out who they are and what their message is?

This is definitely something artists of every level struggle with, from a young singer/songwriter just starting out in a coffee shop, to a mega-selling artist like Billy Joel, who stopped writing rock music in 1993 and switched over to composing classical music because he didn’t feel he was that same artist anymore. Or Katy Perry, who started off as a Christian artist before she wrote about girls making out. I don’t think anyone can really know their true self until you have lived your life for many, many years. It’s very rare that someone comes out of the gate with a message of hope or tolerance or a political agenda and is ready to speak to millions. Even Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen took years before they were able to intertwine political views into their songs. Long before Springsteen became best buddies with Jon Stewart and the proponent for the blue collar American worker, he was writing about young love and hooking up with girls under the boardwalk. It simply comes down to always being true to yourself, and reflecting as much of yourself in your songwriting as you can–without forgetting that a song without a proper chorus is simply a poem!

You just released a new album, “Townie Paradise” in late June, and shortly after released your latest Johnny Fiscal video, “If Donald Trump Were President.” Was the timing of the Donald Trump video planned in conjunction with the album release? Is that kind of strategy something you think about when juggling both projects?

No, it wasn’t. How can you plan what The Donald is going to say next? Ha ha! I don’t ever really plan songs or videos, as they need to come from experience, and the heart. My latest song “If Donald Trump Were President” simply popped into my head after his comments about Mexicans made the news, and the fact that I released it shortly after my album was just coincidence.

I have a great deal of respect for artists who continue to put out album after album well past the point that their career has peaked, as this represents a true dedication to the craft of songwriting. I have been fairly consistent with putting a new album out every 2-3 years, and continue to write daily in order to have the material to do this. Yet, each song on each record has to come from somewhere, and that’s where the magic and fun happen. The Johnny Fiscal tunes became a sort of side project that reflected current happenings in the media, starting with the Fiscal Cliff crisis. How I ever got on CNN Radio for a spoof song that took me five minutes to write and two hours to shoot a video for, while getting a single spin for an album that we spend three years and thousands of dollars recording has proved beyond challenging is beyond me, but that’s the way the world works sometimes!

I think what you said about a spoof song that takes no time/money getting on CNN Radio, but an album you poured years and thousands of dollars on is a challenge to promote, is something a lot of artists can resonate with. It seems the things we spend the most creative energy on become the hardest to get recognized. Do you think part of this has to do with creating content people can instantly relate to, (such as a song that directly ties into politics, where one people tend to hold a strong opinion) whereas with a typical song or album it requires an investment of time to get to know?

This is a question that if we were able to answer, you and I both would be zillionaires! I was just reading an article about a top LA TV producer, and she was saying how there is literally no formula for instant success. People right now have more opportunity than ever before to change over to another channel, flip the screen to a new webpage, or scroll immediately past whatever you are trying to promote on their phone. Whether it’s music, movies, art, or books, attention spans are so short, it’s really challenging to form a bond with your audience and expect that they absorb everything you do. Here again, I think consistency is key. I will forever support the artists I admire, because they have been consistent for decades in putting out the quality of music I have come to expect and enjoy from them. Yet, I’ve noticed that some of the one-off things they’ve done have seen immediate success, and brought them a whole new legion of fans. Ben Folds singing with the Muppets comes to mind, or Bruce Springsteen inviting young kids up on stage to sing “Waiting On a Sunny Day.” It’s pretty much the worst song he’s ever written, but it’s so adorable to hear a six-year old on the microphone singing this in the middle of a concert… pure genius.

If there is a formula, I think it’s Consistency + Willingness to think outside the box = Greatest shot at success.

In my case, I hope people appreciate the time I spend writing and recording, because while the world has jumped on the instant mp3 release and EP train, I’ve remained true to the album. I feel that you need tell a full story with an album, and each album you put out can take writing 20-30 songs in order to find 10 that work together. Given that music sales are down, and people want that instant gratification, not a lot of bands are putting in this time anymore. Especially the younger ones. I was actually disappointed to discover a major artists like Rachel Platten who is blowing up right now has only a single EP available. I would have bought a double album had she had the material, as I immediately fell in love with her sound. In my case, I’ve worked extremely hard to create a catalog of material that should someone discover a humorous song or hear something I do on NPR, they’ll be rewarded when they come to my website and join my mailing list and find several albums worth of material making their way to their inbox.

To sum it up, people want something they can instantly relate to, but if you can also give them a real, tangible brand full of quality music or whatever it is you do, I think you have a real shot at gaining a lifelong fan base… just don’t expect any of this to happen overnight!

Do you think artists can benefit from using multiple avenues outside of typical merch/CD sales to build their brand and online presence? (For example, creating a separate online persona to build buzz, authoring a book, etc)

Absolutely! In fact, I feel very strongly this is a MUST for artists right now. Especially younger artists who have no choice but to give away their music in order to reach new fans. If you are an established band with a dedicated fan base, you could conceivably sell just your CDs and merch and make enough money to survive. Yet, for the vast majority of indie acts, selling even a few dozen CDs is a massive effort. People just aren’t buying music. Yet, they are supporting artists and individuals in unique ways, and if you put in the effort, you will find those people who will become not just your fans, but your customers. Anyone who wants a sustainable music career should consider whatever else they can do, or whatever else they happen to have a natural talent for, and then see how they can introduce that to their network. Maybe it’s baking cupcakes, or maybe it’s working in fitness and nutrition (or nutritious cupcakes!) Whatever it is, you need to spend time developing a business model around that idea so that you can sustain yourself for years to come. If you happen to have a huge hit, or a breakthrough in your music, you’ll be able to gain even more customers for your business through your spike in popularity. But planning on only trying to make money in music, right now at this point in history, is nearly impossible.

I’d also like to add, while this might be perceived as “selling out” or admitting you don’t have what it takes, I don’t think this is really anything new. Successful A-level artists like Brittney Spears, Jay Z, or Justin Timberlake have always gone into other aspects of marketing themselves—it’s just shifting now as the independents are also dipping into this world. If you want a great example of a woman who has succeeded in many careers, look at Gwyneth Paltrow–actress, singer, author, health advocate, web entrepreneur, CEO, are just a few of her many talents that encompass millions of dollars worth of global brands, all based on marketing herself. If I can achieve even a fraction of that, I’d be pretty stoked! But am I still searching for that one worldwide hit song? You bet.


Angela Mastrogiacomo is the owner of Muddy Paw Public Relations. Muddy Paw specializes in working with up and coming artists on personalized campaigns designed to bring their careers to the next level. To date, we’ve secured placements on sites such as AbsolutePunk, Property Of Zack, PureVolume, and many more. You can find us at www.MuddyPawPR.com

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.