music morsels
March 2008

INDUSTRY PROFILE - Vicki Blankenship - Indiegrrl CEO/Indie Music For Life Executive Director
by Mark E. Waterbury

Vicki Blankenship

When you are five years old and your grandfather puts drumsticks in your hands, then your great grandfather gives you a guitar, it is probably pre-ordained that your life is going to involve music, That is the way it was for Vicki Blankenship, who culled influences from the jazz, bluegrass and rock music she grew up with. After graduating from high school in Rocky Mount, Virginia, Vicki attended Elon University in Burlington, North Carolina where she earned degrees in English, journalism, and communications.  Vicki also performed in various bands and groups throughout her schooling, and around the end of her college years, she joined the Carolina Cowboys. She spent several years working with the Carolina Cowboys, who toured extensively and opened for Conway Twitty, George Jones and James Taylor among others. Vicki actually left the music business for a number of years, pursuing other careers including owning her own restaurant.

In 1998, Vicki was diagnosed with bladder cancer. This actually energized her into an even further pursuit of her musical dreams. Getting back into recording and performing, Vicki  founded Indie Music For Life, a non-profit organization who along with Indiegrrl and its other entity Laughs For Life, raises money for cancer research and education through live performances, compilation CDs, and other events. She became involved with Indiegrrl which supports women's involvement with all mediums of art, and, in 2005, she took over as CEO, placing Indiegrrl under the umbrella of Indie Music For Life. She also runs Spotted Kiva Productions, helping indie bands and musicians create web sites and produce various promotional materials to help further their careers, and belongs to Outmusic, promoting music in the GLBT communities. Vicki is a person very dedicated to independent artists and the causes she holds dear, and an inspiration to anyone trying to make it in today’s music climate.

MM: How did you originally get involved with Indiegrrl?

VB: I originally signed on with them as a member. I got to know Holly "Figueroa" O'Reilly who was the CEO and was helping her as a volunteer with some marketing and doing their web site. It ended up where Holly needed a much deserved rest, so we met face-to-face at the final Rockrgirl conference and we decided there that I would take it over. Holly always dreamed that it would be organized as a non-profit, and since I had already founded a non-profit with Indie Music For Life, we just folded that into the existing non-profit.

MM: What was the impetus behind Indie Music For Life when you started it?

VB: I performed for a couple different Relay For Life events in North Carolina, and I decided that some way or another, we had to incorporate music into these type of events. Music has been important to me in my fight against cancer, and I just thought there was some way that we could work with music. So we produced three concerts in North Carolina in 2004 and the proceeds went to the Relay For Life chapters in those counties. They were a big success and we wanted to make sure that the money went into cancer research directly, and we also wanted to put money into the educational programs we were trying to establish to promote musical therapy for cancer patients.

MM: Explain a little bit about this music therapy for cancer patients.

VB: What we are doing is putting together educational materials about the benefits of musical therapy for cancer patients. We will be helping promote the American Music Therapist Association. Many cancer treatment facilities have now incorporated musical therapy as part of the treatment. It has been proven to help ease nausea, ease pain, and gives people a focal point. It is soothing and relaxing. Our first big project is geared towards pediatric cancer patients, and the material in the package will explain about what musical therapy is, and if your center does not offer it, how you can get in touch with music therapists across the United States who can implement a program. We are also going to put some fun items in there for the kids, such as CD compilations of children's music, and a read-along story with music set in the background - some other things like stickers and maybe flutes or kazoos, because one of the first things you lose with chemotherapy is the strength in your lungs. So the kids can blow on the flutes or kazoos to exercise their lungs. It’s an ongoing project right now as we are trying to put together 15,000 packets and distribute them to different pediatric cancer facilities.

MM: What are some of the things you are trying to do to raise funds and get musicians involved with it?

VB: The number one thing we have focused on the past are different events. We put on benefit concerts and have had a few that involved dinner theater type shows. Some were in coffee houses with acoustic musicians, some were in bars and were more band-oriented. We would take the door proceeds from those events and then we started incorporating raffles as we gathered donations from various businesses. This week we just hired a consulting firm to help us with grant research and writing. We’re also trying to pull in corporate donations and sponsors, and it is not that easy because, as you know, the economy is not that great right now. We’re still getting our name out there, and we are dedicated and trudging along.

MM: Are you finding that musicians, bands and club owners are willing to help out with this for the most part?

VB: The performers and entertainers have really stepped behind it. We have a waiting list of performers wanting to get involved, so the main thing now is trying to get the events booked. We are working with another company who is helping us book and promote these events. With venues, on one aspect they want to reach out to you, on the other hand they want to have some guarantees coming in the door. We have to pull at their heartstrings to get them to give up one night for our cause. That’s not a lot we are asking for - one night out of a year at each club. We are also working on more of a national campaign to really get it pushed out there this year. We have named the tour Indie Nation Fights Cancer, and that is also what the CD is going to be called. It will be two disc compilation of various artists, and we will also be producing a comedy CD and children's music CD.

MM: Tell me us little more about Indiegrrl and what that is about?

VB: It started out mainly with female singer/songwriters, but we have since opened it up to include all women in the arts because we have such a big cross-tie with the other parts of the non-profit that we wanted to open up the doors and start expanding the networking with women in various parts of the entertainment industry. I think that is going to help the organization itself in the next level. All the arts sort of go hand in hand, and we set up events that feature our artists with some of the proceeds going to the cancer research side. Last year we produced a two day festival in Virginia, and we have the Indiegrrl Conference coming up this year in August. We hope a good part of the proceeds that come in from that can go to the cancer fund.

MM: Do you feel that Indiegrrl is doing what it is supposed to be doing, that people are really being helped by its existence?

VB: It can be a mixed blessing because it depends on what the membership wants to contribute to the organization. It’s not all what we are doing for them. We look for members to help set up events, help us set up showcases and volunteer for various duties to help us out. This year is the first year we produced the conference, and it is really geared to workshops that will be very good educational tools for their careers. Even for basic aspects like web design, photoshop, video editing, and how to create wav files. It is several different basic workshops along with some industry professionals who are coming in to talk about information that they can glean from this conference so it can help the artists to develop. The artists showcasing will all be members of Indiegrrl, but anyone can come to the conference. It will be a higher fee for non-members, but anyone can attend, even males, because we are trying to open this up to the songwriter and artist communities in general.

MM: What do you enjoy the most about what you are doing?

VB: I really like meeting the performers, getting to know people all around the United States, the networking involved. It’s hard work and some serious volunteer time. For me personally, I hardly listen to mainstream radio anymore. My office and house are filled with independent artists. That is what I listen to. I can name artists from about every state that most people have never heard on the radio. I’m just a big indie buff.

MM: What sort of advice do you have for independent musicians just to get their name out there?

VB: First, they have to realize they can’t just have a starving artist mentality. It is work, and the music industry has gone through major shifts. It is very hard to get signed to a major label, and if you want to do this, you have to learn the business side. You have to learn to be a business person, not just a creative person. Don’t expect everything is going to happen over night. Be prepared to get into the trenches and work hard to get yourself built up. Learn how to do your own bookings and promotions. and then when you get a bit bigger, you can afford to bring in companies or people to do those things for you.

MM: Do you think some bands focus too hard on getting signed to a major label and as a result they are not being realistic about their careers?

VB: There are hundreds and thousands of artists out there. The way technology is right now, people can record music in their bedroom or their basement fairly easily with equipment they can pick up at stores. If you have any kind of technical savvy at all, you can produce something that is really good. The niche out there is getting harder and harder to find, so you really have to be dedicated and put a large amount of time into working the business part of it - working your bookings and your promotions. If you are not strong in that. you are going to suffer no matter how talented you are.

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