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What’s Working in Indie Music Today: Lessons in Success from New Artist Model Member Justin Ratowsky

New Artist Model member Justin Ratowsky of CaliConscious
New Artist Model member Justin Ratowsky of Cali Conscious

New Artist Model member Justin Ratowsky of Cali Conscious

By Dave Kusek and Lindsay McGrath
Sponsored by the New Artist Model: Turn your passion for music into a rewarding career.

Cali Conscious is all about good vibrations. The reggae band that got its start playing under the pier in Huntington Beach, California combines a talent for creating great music with a commitment to organizing beach cleanups and helping the homeless.

The group recently launched a new social media campaign to attract fans to its message of peace, love and environmental preservation. And so far, it’s working.

“We’ve gotten over 1200 email subscribers and more than 10,000 Instagram followers in the past 12 months,“ according to Justin Ratowsky, the band’s guitarist.  “We are implementing the strategy of giving away our music in exchange for email addresses that we learned in Dave Kusek’s New Artist Model to successfully create our own fan base.”

“Our goals are to support our families by doing what we love while performing and touring on a national and global level.  We also want to continue to grow our subscriber base to over 100,000 and get our music licensed for TV and film,” he says.

Cali Conscious plays 25 shows a month in the summer and 15 in the off season.  The group is currently hard at work on its second album which will be released in 2016 and supported by a tour.  In addition to Justin, the group includes Anthony Haas on bass, Jason Sandoval on trumpet, Chad Stanner on keyboards, Chuy Vidales on drums, Dig Gbye on percussion, and Stephen Wood on sax.

Cali Conscious puts almost as much work into activism as it does into music.  The band has organized monthly community beach clean ups in Huntington Beach and funded construction of a clean water well in Ethiopia by donating live performance tips to charity:water.org.  Cali Conscious doesn’t sell plastic CDs at its shows and created a plantable paper download card embedded with carrot, lettuce, and tomato seeds to celebrate the release of its first album “High Times.”

The group is making the website Noise Trade a centerpiece of its current social media campaign, Justin says.  The music distribution platform lets the group trade their music to anyone who shares their email and zipcode on the Cali Conscious website.  http://caliconscious.com/  Currently, the group gives followers a download of “High Times” as well as an EP featuring acoustic versions of four songs from the new album.  

“You should use your social media platforms and the real estate on your website, to give away songs and build that relationship with your fans to gain trust and turn them into superfans,” says Justin, adding that “superfans” to him, are people who share news about the band with their followers.

Justin believes that developing 1000 superfans will enable Cali Conscious to have a sustainable music career — one that includes adequate support for crowdfunding, merchandise sales, touring and live shows.

“With Noise Trade, we get email and zip codes and fans get to download and share on Twitter and Facebook.  It lets you encourage your fan base to become part of your marketing team,” he says, adding that the service also allows fans to “tip” musicians.  “Noise Trade charges 20 percent of the money that comes in but we are still getting revenue from that every month.”

Raising awareness about the group and its music will help the band complete its newest album.  The offering will be paid for, at least in part, with a crowdfunding campaign, Justin says.

“This next album will put us out there as an Orange County band starting to break through.  We believe in our producer and the message,” Justin says.  “We already have 30-40,000 listens on Pandora or Spotify.  I think when our next album comes out and we step up our SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and get more organized and put up our video, I’m hoping we can reach 100,000 subscribers. “

Gigging is the main source of revenue for Cali Conscious. On May 21, the group will play the Concert for the Coast in Santa Barbara where they will feature “One Love For You,” a song about homelessness written by percussionist  Dig Gbye and the first single from the new album. The band will make a music video for the song that includes an informal “jam session” with local homeless men and women.  

During their visit to the city, the band will also provide blankets, clothing, food, water and socks to people in need with the help of online sock retailer Bombas http://www.bombas.com

“Water,” the second single from the new album, will also get its own video. All proceeds will benefit Gravity Water, a nonprofit dedicated to providing filtration and storage systems to poor communities around the globe.  http://www.gravitywater.org/  Both of the videos for the singles will be included in a pre-purchase crowdfunding campaign, Justin says.

While using social media can be exciting and productive, it is essential for musicians to stay up to date on each service’s policies and guidelines, Justin says.  Early in his career, he gave away music from his own CD “Enjoy the Sunshine” to users on Facebook and got blocked by the company for a time. “They thought it was spam,” he says.  

“Be aware of limits on how many people you can contact each day and how different social media systems work. Their policies are always evolving,” Justin says.  “At this point, the main reason we are using social media, besides putting out photos, is to try to get people to go to our website. I want to get as much exposure for our website as possible. This is also something we learned from the New Artist Model.”

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media tools can really help musicians advance their careers — but players should never forgot about the importance of personal connection. Justin knows from firsthand experience that it is impossible to predict when opportunities will appear.

A local entertainment lawyer introduced the band to renowned recording engineer and producer Sjoerd Koppert who has worked with Pink Floyd, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Doobie Brothers and other bands. Out of nowhere, this chance meeting from a mutual connection turned into an incredible opportunity to record in a top studio.   

“I went from busking to a million dollar studio,” Justin says. The result?  His first EP “Enjoy the Sunshine.”

That recording is at the heart of another story about the power of networking. Music from “Enjoy the Sunshine” can be heard in the new documentary film “Return to Cape St. Francis” created by Robert August. August starred in the iconic surf documentary “The Endless Summer” which was released in 1966. Justin performed at the Newport Film Festival this April when the documentary premiered.

Justin has played the Huntington Beach High School Surf Team’s annual banquet for the the past six years, and the coach of that club just happened to be the director or “Return to Cape Francis.” That connection ended up getting his music in the hands of Robert August.

Justin and his bandmates are excited about what lies ahead for Cali Conscious. A bigger fanbase, new album and tour all point to great things for the band. While Justin is looking to the future, he emphasizes the importance of never losing sight of the values that define the group.

“The most important part of our music is the message we have in our lyrics, that’s how we want to connect with our fans. We strongly feel we have this musical ability and we are purposefully using a positive message to help bring the world together through our lyrics,” Justin says. “We want to be a catalyst for our fans to inspire change. If we can create an easy avenue for them to be able to support our music but also support causes we believe in — like getting water to the world and making sure that people on the streets have warm feet — that’s where we want to be.”

Embracing these values have encouraged the group to do benefit shows for The Walk for Arthritis which drew an audience of 4000 to Anaheim’s Angel Stadium, Surf’s Up for Down Syndrome and Walk On Water, a nonprofit that offers sports therapy for children with disabilities including autism, among others.

“It is important to use our gifts as musicians to make the world a better place and encourage others,” Justin says.  “I am glad to use my talent as a vessel to do good in the world.”

To learn more about Cali Conscious visit http://caliconscious.com/

New Artist Model is an online music business school developed by Dave Kusek, founder of Berklee Online. The online school is a platform for learning practical strategies and techniques for making a living in music. Learn how to carve a unique path for your own career with strategies that are working for indie artists around the world. Learn to think like an entrepreneur, create your own plan and live the life in music you want to live. New Artist Model provides practical college-level music business training at a mere fraction of the cost of a college degree. Programs start at just $29/mo. For more info on the New Artist Model visit http://newartistmodel.com

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