James Priestner of Rare Americans: “You gotta wear a lot of hats! It’s not enough to just be an artist”

You gotta wear a lot of hats! It’s not enough to just be an artist. You have to manage your time and run your career like a business. Social media, marketing, merchandise, customer service, fan engagement, accounting, are all necessary parts of your career. If I were talking to a band on day 1 besides […]

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You gotta wear a lot of hats! It’s not enough to just be an artist. You have to manage your time and run your career like a business. Social media, marketing, merchandise, customer service, fan engagement, accounting, are all necessary parts of your career. If I were talking to a band on day 1 besides writing great songs (which is definitely step 1), you should be thinking about educating yourselves in all these areas.

As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Professional Athlete” I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing James Priestner.

In a world filled with bullshit, Rare Americans are the real deal. Since launching in 2018, Rare Americans have established an identity as inventive storytellers. Their songs, paired with narrative-driven animated videos, have garnered the band over 150M streams, 1M+ followers, and an album debuting with a spot on the Top 100 Albums list for Billboard. To this day, the band has stuck to their “DIY” roots, running the business fully in-house including everything from production to animation, management, merchandising, accounting, and social media.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! We are honored to have you with us. Can you share an interesting story about how you ended up where you are in your career?

I was playing hockey for the Prince George Cougars in the WHL when I started writing songs. When we weren’t at the rink, we had curfew at our billets house, so I had plenty of time to myself in the evenings. I bought a guitar, learned 1 cover song, used the same chords, and wrote a song. It was like a ghost took over my body, one of the coolest experiences of my life. I didn’t know if it would ever happen again but sure enough one by one, I kept writing them. Sarah McLachlan was performing one night in our rink and she was using our dressing room as her green room. I asked my coach if he could arrange for me to play a song for her. He asked, she said yes, and just before she went on stage I walked into her room with my guitar and played her an original song. She said “Wow! That was actually pretty good!” and encouraged me to keep writing. Looking back on it, I had only been playing for a few months, so it was probably a cringeworthy performance, but it totally changed the course of my life. I knew from then on that was exactly what I wanted to do.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you first started? What lesson did you take out of that?

We were playing a 16 show UK tour which meant every day we were somewhere else, and cities started to blend together. We had a show in Newport and I made a joke on stage quizzing the fans if they knew the national food dish of England (which is Chicken Tikka Masala and that really surprised us). One fan in the audience yelled out “You’re in Whales, mate!!”. It was a deer in the headlight’s moment, such a dummy! We hadn’t traveled very far from the last city and I didn’t realize Newport was in Whales, not England. I had to take that one on the chin and now I make sure to quadrupole check facts about the cities we visit.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting new projects you are working on now?

We are building out the Rare Americans universe. It’s a huge undertaking but very creatively fulfilling. Our upcoming album centers around my avatar, Jamesy Boy, and his experiences that have led him up to this point. It’s been fun to showcase these personal stories through animated music videos.

We are also developing our first TV series with our animation partner, Solis Animation. This has been a big learning curve and I’m really enjoying the challenge of both developing the series and voice acting.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

It’s been cool to work alongside D Smoke. He was the winner of the Rhythm & Flow Netflix special and then his career really popped off, being nominated for 2 Grammy’s this year. We sent him a track with an open verse to see if he would be interested and he threw down 16 deadly bars. We’ve also had his creative input on his avatar for the video. You can tell he’s very detail-oriented. I think that’s a big part of why he does great work. This isn’t even his song and he’s totally dialed in.

10-time Grammy Winner Joe Chiccarelli was also great to work with and learn from. He produced our first record and really showed us the ropes. He is a damn hard worker. He’d go 10 straight hours, maybe stopping for 10 minutes to take a bite of a sandwich halfway through. We were nobodies at the time, and he’d made huge records with The White Stripes, The Strokes, etc. You could just tell it didn’t matter to him; he was looking to make the best record he ever had. I think if Joe signs up for a project, you get that from him no matter what. I really admired that.

What would you advise a young person who aspires to follow your footsteps and emulate your career? What advice would you give?

Be ready to work your ass off. Nobody will hand you anything in this industry. You have to be writing music constantly, improving your craft, and give people something unique to hook onto. I would also say don’t emulate another artist; you have to find your own niche. I think that’s why someone like Oliver Tree has had great success. His whole presentation is just so different, it stands out, you can’t ignore him whether you like his music or not.

Next, I would say you have to honor your fans. I can’t stand when I see artists starting out and they get 25–50 YouTube comments on a video and don’t respond. If someone is willing to give you their time and show interest, you should engage them personally and earn a new fan one by one.

Lastly, you can’t just be an artist. I’ve observed that most great artists are also great marketers. They spend an equal amount of time thinking about how to release their projects in creative ways, how to make stuff pop online, how to make people interested in them. Making a song and video takes an unbelievable amount of time and resources. If you just hit upload with no thought behind it, you won’t get results.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My favorite example is a fan of ours named Nick. I had a zoom call with him, and he shared with me that he was misdiagnosed as bipolar when he was 12 years old. He gained a ton of weight, his emotional spectrum was shortened by the meds, and he became somewhat of a hermit and fell into depression. He never thought he was actually bi-polar so when he was 18, he got another opinion. That Doctor agreed with him, took him off medication, and his life totally turned around. He said it was like a light suddenly turned on for him. He lost 60 pounds, made a bunch of friends, went to university, got a girlfriend, and is now studying to earn a Ph.D. He doesn’t want anyone to go through what he did. I took his story (with his permission) and wrote a song called Ph.D. which will be on this next record. We are animating his character in the video. He also got an RA tattoo and really spreads the word about our band to his friends. He’s an awesome guy.

We make it a priority to spend a lot of time with our community. That’s responding to nearly every DM, chatting with fans on discord, scheduling zoom calls with fans, etc. My favorite messages are when people say our music has helped them get through hard times, or deal with depression, or with grief. We really champion the underdog with our music, and I think it can help motivate our fans in their personal lives.

The truth is that none of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person that made a profound difference in your life to whom you are grateful? Can you share a story?

Definitely. My brother Jared. We took a brother trip a few years ago for the first time and I joked to him we should write a song together. He’s a big thinker and said “a song? Screw that, let’s write an album!” I laughed in the moment but sure enough, 10 days later we wrote the first 15 RA songs. I was in a band previous to Rare Americans and in school for audio engineering and music production at the time. I think my family didn’t totally take what I did seriously. Jared is 11 years my senior so his opinion holds a lot of weight in the family. I think us working together on that trip really changed his opinion on me. He understood what I’d spent so much time working on and he became my biggest champion. Since then, he’s had the unwavering belief that Rare Americans will be a huge success and having that confidence has made the world of difference in my life. He’s also full of wisdom and a great songwriter himself, so having another horse in the race gives me the belief needed to have success in this industry.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

One that stands out is from Bob Dylan. “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between does what he wants to do”.

Songwriting and creating is my vocation. It’s what I love spending 10 hours a day doing. That quote hits hard because if I had to spend my days working some other job to get by, I really don’t think I would be a happy person. This job is so fulfilling in every way. I don’t really take time “off”. Even when the workday is over, I’m still thinking about song ideas, marketing ideas, characters, storylines, etc.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each)

  1. Have patience — things take time no matter what. I’m really competitive and I always want things to happen NOW! I’ve realized after doing this for a while that it’s a marathon not a sprint. Building a loyal fanbase who will come to shows 15 years from now takes time to achieve. Quality content takes time to make. Sometimes I need the reminder that I’m on the right path.
  2. Be ready for the highs and lows. Being in a creative job where your success is largely dependent on how people perceive your art is really challenging mentally. You may think something is your best work, and it just flops. We have a song called Berlin that I think is really beautiful. I thought the video was also heartfelt and an interesting story. Unfortunately, it’s one of our worst-performing videos on YouTube. On the flip side, something unexpected can get a great reaction which was Brittle Bones Nicky for us. I had no idea that song would take on a life of its own. The song was a spark of inspiration one day on a walk, and now it’s got nearly 75M streams. The rollercoaster ride can really play tricks on your mental health.
  3. Other people’s input will often make things better. This isn’t always the case, sometimes you need to go with your gut and spearhead your vision. Other times I’ve found when I let people creatively flex on an idea, it often makes it way better. Now whenever I write a song or come up with a video concept, I pass it around the team and get their opinion. I have them try ideas on it. Usually, there’s always something that makes the idea stronger. For example, we’ve been developing a TV series and I wrote out the first 4 episodes. I was pretty dead set on how the story begins, but the director started storyboarding it out and came up with a completely different opening. At first, I was hesitant, but then I realized it’s just so much stronger than what I had. A win all around.
  4. Unfortunately, this industry isn’t designed for totally independent artists. There is a reason why radio and Spotify playlists are dominated by label artists. There are gatekeepers and tools that DIY artists simply don’t have access to. We’ve tried our asses off to do this 100% ourselves but we’ve learned over time that to get to another level, you need the infrastructure built by labels and companies who have been in this for decades. A good recent example is YouTube. We were wondering why our streams weren’t counting towards YouTube charts or Billboard charts. We learned that we are considered a “web content creator” and only YouTuber’s who are distributed by a YT approved label or company, can be considered a “music artist”. That meant we had to sign a deal with an approved company to distribute to YouTube on our behalf and collect 15% of our revenue for the service. We were shocked. Just seemed anti-YouTube creator culture but it’s a thing. This is one example of many. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want this to dissuade independent artists who are just starting out. You have to build enough of a fanbase on your own before these companies will assist you in getting to the next level.
  5. You gotta wear a lot of hats! It’s not enough to just be an artist. You have to manage your time and run your career like a business. Social media, marketing, merchandise, customer service, fan engagement, accounting, are all necessary parts of your career. If I were talking to a band on day 1 besides writing great songs (which is definitely step 1), you should be thinking about educating yourselves in all these areas. I have countless examples of this but here is one. We launched a new merch store integrated with Shopify and ended up getting WAY more orders than we anticipated so fulfillment became a big issue. We just couldn’t manage 5000 orders ourselves. We ended up getting through these orders and shipping them out, but it’s been 3 months and 200 orders haven’t arrived yet to the UK. We had to contact Canada Post, the Royal Mail, just about everyone under the sun to figure out what happened. Turns out they were stuck in Montreal due to COVID for 2 months!! In the meantime, we had dozens of customer service emails coming in. Being a fan first operation, I had to hire my girlfriend for a part-time job to handle these emails so we could respond to everyone within 24 hours. Your band with any luck will become a small business so my advice would be to educate and prepare yourself for that.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A program totally paid for that allowed the youth to develop their craft in whatever discipline they like. Giving tools for songwriters to record demos and learn how to produce, giving writers mentorship in crafting their stories, giving carpenters materials to make cool furniture etc. But there would be a deadline that each kid has to showcase their work, no matter the level. I think it’s important that you strive for something and reach the finish line on a project. It would be super cool to check out a wide variety of young artists creativity. There are so many talented people out there that don’t have the support to work on their dreams.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

Taylor Swift. I think she’s like Dolly Parton and will be making great albums until the day she dies. I also love the fact that Taylor is the CEO of Taylor Swift Inc. She’s a boss lady businesswoman, a risk-taker, an entrepreneur and a pioneer in the industry. I just think she’s the real deal and I could learn an incredible amount from her.

Jay Z would be my other pick for all the same reasons.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow us on the platform of your choosing, we are @rareamericans everywhere. Thanks a lot for having us. We really appreciate it.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was so inspiring.

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