As musicians, we all have to change with technology. CDs are getting phased out so now it’s onto streaming services like Spotify. And if you work really hard, you can earn a living from just your streaming royalties. But first, you do have to find your niche and just focus on that. Join Bree Noble as she talks to pianist Emile Pandolfi about how he got into millions of streams and playlists. Learn how he earned success from word-of-mouth by just performing in art centers. You don’t have to be famous to live a successful and happy life. Also, learn more about Emile’s book Play It Like You Mean It.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Evolving With Technology: Paying The Bills From Spotify Streaming Royalties With Emile Pandolfi
I am excited to be here with Emile Pandolfi. We are going to talk about his journey, his years of playing piano for millions of people and tons of streams on Spotify. I love that I have him on the show because we have a lot of singer-songwriters on this show, not as many that are instrumentalists. I’m excited to talk about your career and inspire those reading who are instrumentalists. Let’s get started. Let everybody know a little bit about your journey with music, how you got started and the whole trajectory from the beginning to where you are.
First of all, I need to say that given my advanced age, I’ve been doing this for many years. What I have to say is the old way of doing things. On your show, you interview a whole lot of people. There is so much information on the web and new technologies that I’m not involved with but I made a very successful career in an old-fashioned way. I’ve been playing piano since I was a child and I got my degree in Music like many of us did. When it became time to make a living at it, I never considered doing anything else.
There were times that I did have other jobs like I worked construction for a little bit. I was a janitor to make ends meet. I was happy and fine with that but I started playing the cocktail piano years ago. There’s very little of that going on. You still find a place where a person’s playing in a restaurant or a cocktail bar. What I learned from that time was how to entertain people because you’re playing piano, having conversations, telling jokes and having a good old time. I learned a lot doing that cocktail piano. There’s a whole lot in the book that I wrote but I wanted to do concerts. We rented space and did our first concert in a rental space.
It was a beautiful hall. We did all the prep work like getting tickets printed, marketing and all of that. We then started doing concerts in a performing arts center. It’s usually about 400 or 500 seats. We’re like a recital hall type of venue. We got up to as many as 1,200 seats. In the next 5 years, we got to maybe 30 concerts in a year. We did that all ourselves. We did not have an agent. When I say we, that’s my wife and me because my wife is a very good business person. She became my manager. She arranged to rent halls and photo shoots for me, all the things that a record company would have to do.
We were a teensy monetizing record company. We did more of that. I recorded 30 albums in the last many years. When it came time to put those albums up on streaming, we did that so that we have a great stream. We have 400 songs up on streaming. I still make one video a week. I find a fine artist and put one of my songs to do a video so you can watch some very beautiful artwork while you listen to one song. We’re still doing things but I’m in no way up to the technology that you and some of your guests are. I learned a lot reading one of your shows. I did it the old-fashioned way but if that’s any use to anybody, I can talk about that at length.
The first thing I want to say is that you were smart enough to take all those albums and put them on streaming. You’re doing decently. I have heard the instrumentalist can do very well with streaming, even though, we get paid less than pennies for streams. Are you having some good royalties coming in from streaming?
I’m making my living from streaming. I have had 800 million streams of my music over time, 700 million on Pandora and another 110 million on Spotify and others. Once you get into the millions of streams, you can make a living. We started concerts in 1990. I’ve been playing longer than that. As technology changed, we changed with it. My wife take all the work of it but she took all of my CDs, which at that time were about twenty CDs when we started streaming.
She did all the paperwork that you have to do to submit each song with all its metadata, submit it to CD Baby and then CD Baby distributes it to all the digital distributors. We’re getting behind because it seems like the technology is moving crazy fast that it’s hard for us to keep up but we’re working on it, nothing like Web3 or NFTs. It drives me crazy. I don’t even want to know that.As technology changes, you have to change with it. Click To Tweet
You don’t have to because you have a massive body of work and then you’ve put that catalog up on streaming. You’re able to bring in income from the work that you did in the past. That’s an important point. You’re always amassing these assets that can work for you in the future. Your wife is doing a lot of this for you. It is amazing to have that person that has those skills. If musicians don’t have those skills within themselves, you’ve got to have that person on your team that has that organizational ability and the ability to deal with details and all the business paperwork stuff that a lot of us hate. As far as putting them up there, did you also seek out playlists? Have you got on any editorial playlist or things like that that have helped your streams?
We’ve been trying. We have thousands of personal playlists but we haven’t got on curated playlist yet. If we did, the income stream would explode. That’s a fact. For example, a lot of my music is called Peaceful Piano, playlist-wise, generically. We’re on maybe 57,000 playlists of individuals but what if I were to get on Peaceful Piano on a curated playlist on Spotify, for example? They would have already had six million listeners.
We automatically have the potential to be played for a whole lot more people. I have a tech guy who looks at statistics all the time, who’s my audience and what kind of tunes get on Peaceful Piano. I’m trying to look at all of those algorithms and make sense of it so there’s something that I could play that’s still me but that hopefully, gets the ear of the curator.
Are you still then creating new music and releasing it on CD anymore or are you mostly going directly to digital?
I’m not releasing any more CDs because as you know, there are dinosaurs. Years ago, anecdotally, the old-fashioned way, when we were selling CDs, in our best year, we sold something close to 400,000 CDs in 1 year. My very first album, which was made in 1990 has sold 600,000 units by itself as a CD, as a hard copy. Now, we might sell 3,000 CDs in 1 year. That’s a thing of the past. What I do is I will take a new song. My whole strength is arranging well-known songs for solo piano in a way that seems meaningful and people like it. I have one song that was streamed 78 million times. It’s mostly from 18 to 35-year-old women as far as the stats go.
The thing is that if you’re not playing out, it’s harder to sell CDs. I do think that CDs can still be sold at shows and some people do still buy them online. Are you playing out or are you mostly doing digital?
Mostly, digital. I haven’t officially retired.
Let’s applaud you for that. That’s awesome that you’re still making music.
When the pandemic hit, we canceled about ten shows as everybody did. At that time, my wife is doing 100% of the work. She writes the contracts. It was a couple of years when we had agents but we didn’t do any better within agents than we did by ourselves. We went back to being just the two of us. She happens to be a very good artist. She was making all my marketing, arranging photo shoots, writing contracts and designing lighting. We had some beautiful lighting in many of these shows.
She was burnt out about years ago and we were still doing it. When the pandemic hit and we were not doing any shows, we said, “This feels pretty good.” I took that time to write a book and put more songs up on streaming. We said, “Streaming is paying the bills.” We two together decided that I’m not going to do any more performing arts centers. At least, that’s my retirement thing but I’m going to do private events so we’ve done a few private events since then.
Let’s go back to when you were doing the performing arts centers because I don’t want to miss this. A lot of performers would love to get into that space of working with performing arts centers and doing small theaters like that. I have some students that are doing that. They have one-woman shows. A lot of times it’s a program where you are not just playing piano. You’re also telling stories or doing comedy in between, which makes you unique. Probably, it makes it easier for you to get booked than someone who’s playing piano. How did you present that to the performing arts centers? How did you talk about your program? Why do you think you were as successful at doing this as when you had agents?
All these years, most of it is a word of mouth. I live in South Carolina. All of my hundreds of concerts have been in 5 or 6 states in the Southeast. Here are a couple of points that I want to make. One is that you find your niche. I found my niche, which is peaceful piano, easy piano, easy listening and cover tunes of people who love piano music but they’re not originals. I pour everything like all my energy into that one thing. I don’t try to play like Billy Joel or Elton John. Frankly, I can’t. They did themselves great.
I play like me. The reason how we got into is mostly word of mouth. When you think about it, the first point was finding your niche, doing that and not trying to do something else. The second thing was all of these performing arts centers have one big shot. If they’re big enough to have Yo-Yo Ma, they have Yo-Yo Ma but they have to fill up their season with another twelve artists that maybe you never heard of but they’re brilliant.
Our performing arts center in Greenville, South Carolina does the same thing. They’ll have one huge star as best as much as they can afford and then fill up their concert series with other good artists, string quartets and people like me that you may never have heard of but when you go there, you say, “I enjoy that.” You then tell somebody else. Plus there are numerous performing arts centers throughout America that can’t afford Yo-Yo Ma. What do they do? They get me or somebody else.Find your niche and pour everything into that. Don't try to do what other people are already doing. Click To Tweet
If you find your niche, in my case, it was 500 to 1,000-seat halls. It wasn’t just word of mouth. We went to the musicians’ conferences for several years. We went to five national musicians’ conferences and had a booth. Back in the day, we had VHS playing on a big fat monitor screen but they didn’t do very much for us. We would be in my 10 by 10-foot booth and next to me is William Morris, who is God in his program. They weren’t that successful but we did that. We made ourselves known and joined the arts presenters conferences where we are presenters in North Carolina and South Carolina. We did all the work that we knew to do. The reason that we were about the same success with or without an agent is I don’t think we had agents that worked for us very hard.
When you presented this program to them, did you mention that you were also talking in between or did they not care about that? Did they just care, “It’s this piano that’s peaceful,” and that people are going to recognize all the songs? They’re going to be their favorite songs from musicals or pop songs? Was that the draw or did you also say, “We also have a running stick or whatever that goes along with it?”
I call them comedic monologues because I’m not telling jokes. I lived in Los Angeles for 15 years and worked at a comedy store as a pianist for 6 years. I heard hundreds of comedies and learned to write comedy. The comedic monologue is family-friendly and good-natured but there’ll be some guffaws and mostly more giggles. The reason I started doing that is that it invites people to be your friend. They’re already your friend before you even touch the piano.
I had a comedian working with me in my show for a few years. He was a Southern guy who had a Southern accent. He’d come out and say, “What are you all here to see?” They said, “Emile. What does he do?” “He plays the piano. Do you all know that when you bought the tickets?” I would be the straight man. It was self-abrogating. I’m the better joke and he was the punchline. It was good. It means it’s a friendly atmosphere. I wanted my show to be not sit up straight and cross your fingers. I wanted it to be, we’re all in my living room. These are potential friends and they want it to be good. They wouldn’t have come here if they didn’t think it was going to be a good show or hoped it would be. They’re already on your side.
That’s going to be helpful information for everybody that wants to get into this niche. Performing arts centers are awesome. I never thought about the fact that they have to fill their seats and can’t afford all the big names. I’ve noticed that too. There’s this one that I like to go to. When we visit Maine, with all these performing arts centers, you don’t know that they’re even around. They’re in Backwoods, Maine. Maybe they have a few people I’ve heard of and then have a whole list of people I’ve never heard of but I’m only there for 1 or 2 weeks. I can only go see who’s there when I’m there. If I want to go there, I’m going to go. They’ve got to find artists for that. I’m sure once you are at a performing arts center and you get a good review, it is much easier to get back there the next year.
In some places, I’ve been back eight times. Here’s a good message for everybody. I have had a non-stop very successful career without ever being famous. My message is you can be very successful and never be famous. Some people think particularly in their younger years, as I did, either you’re going to get a record deal and be one of the big household names. You’re going to be, in my case, the next Roger Williams. That’s what I wanted to be. Somebody else wants to be the next Liberace or Andrea Bocelli. You can have a wonderful, happy, exciting, successful life and never be famous. If it’s okay with you, it’s okay.
That’s better in my opinion. I don’t want to be famous. There is a lot of hassle that goes along with that. You were still making videos every week. Is that on a YouTube channel?
I have a YouTube channel. The video is a series. It’s a montage. We pick one painter, a watercolor oil and take that painter’s work with his permission and make a montage of it. The last one we did was the song What’s New, How’s The World Treating You? There are pictures of people meeting in a café and things like that, whatever it goes appropriate. I did the song under the Paris skies. There were all these café scenes of Paris and dozens of pictures. There are many fine artists out there, instead of just posting a static photo of my album cover with me playing with one of my tunes. These are all students I’ve already recorded in the past.
Are you monetizing that YouTube channel or is the goal more to get people to go over to the streaming platforms?
It’s mostly to get them to go to the streaming platforms. The YouTube channel is monetized but it’s minuscule.
You got to get a lot of views on YouTube to make good money there. Being that you are older, have you beyond YouTube embraced social media at all?
My daughter does my Facebook, Instagram and Messenger for me. She’s qualified to do that. She’s an independent journalist. She does podcasts and writes blogs for people. She has clients that have companies and they give her a subject that they need to write a blog about. She researches it and does blogs. That’s been her profession.
That’s nice that you have a lot of talented people in your circle already that have helped you, your daughter and your wife.
Those are essential. In my book, the last chapter is called, “You have to have a Judy.” My wife’s name is Judy. “It doesn’t have to be your wife. It could be somebody you hire or yourself but you have to have someone.” When you think about it, you spent thousands of hours mastering your craft. How much time did you spend on mastering business? For me, three hours, maybe. Somebody good at that.You need a good circle of people around you that can help you while you spend thousands of hours mastering your craft. Click To Tweet
I was reading to one of your last guests, who’s brilliant. She was talking about Web3, Metaverse and NFTs. There’s so much that I don’t know. There’s so much information on your show, for example, because I was looking at the titles of the different shows that I feel like we got all of our learning. My wife got the book back in 1988 called This Business Of Music, which is a Bible for that. She read the book from cover to cover but we had no internet. I was recording in 2-inch reels. My first several albums were on cassette. It’s ancient history. It has gone far so quickly. It’s a snowball effect. It gets faster.
It’s important that you did embrace enough that you were paying the bills with your streaming. You didn’t just dig your heels. Some people want to do and be like, “No, I’m only selling CDs and cassettes.” I’m very glad that you did that. Are you selling sheet music of any kind with the arrangements that you’re creating?
Yes, a few. When somebody asks, we haven’t done. Here’s the thing. This is where I have refused. I’ve had Sibelius for about 10 or 12 years and a finale before that. I refuse to learn to do that. All of my arrangements in the entire catalog have never been written down. The way I’m making arrangements is I play a tune over and over again with the type running and then listened back. I take the parts that I like and write a few chickens scratch reminders. I learned my arrangements. I’ve never written them down by hand.
If I have a service, they can do a takedown. It’s usually not. It an accurate, note-wise but it’s not accurate fingering-wise or idiomatic things that you do. I can’t even explain it but you use different fingering that’s important. Maybe you divide the melody up between two thumbs. Since we’re talking to people who are musicians and making money, because of minor all-cover tunes, I have about 8 or 9 songs on a sheet music site. If you buy one of my arrangements for $5, I get $0.40. It’s nothing. It all goes to the publisher and the composer, which is understandable and fair. It doesn’t make sense for me to pay a whole lot of money, hundreds of dollars to get something transcribed by somebody who can do it. If I could do Sibelius myself, that wouldn’t be good.
You could potentially sell these on your site. You still have to pay the royalties and all that to the composers but you could sell them for more. I’m coming up with income ideas here. I had someone on my show who does these things. He sells it all through his site. He’s got funnels and things like that. You could create a video and my guest, Jason, does this too, showing them like, “You have the sheet music but this is what I do to make it sound the way that I do. Here’s how I finger it.” That goes along with it and then they pay more for that because they want to learn from him. They’re paying a lot more than just for the sheet music.
That is an excellent idea. Early on, I didn’t do that but I have 21 videos of me playing certain tunes that people like. It wasn’t explaining or a teaching thing. You can see me playing this tune and listening to it. The first time we made sheet music, we made nicely bound hard copies of the sheet music. We sold some. When we went to digital, we sold a lot more digital but when we sell them hard copies, it would be $10 and it has a beautiful cover. It’s a lovely thing. That was financially worthwhile, except as soon as people can buy them digitally, that’s what they would do like I do mostly by digital.
There is still a market because my guest did that and is still doing that. He’s selling physical music books and thousands of them online.
Does he do cover-up tunes or original ones?
He does a lot of his arrangements. A lot of them are probably public domain but maybe some he has to pay royalties or some are his compositions. I’d love for you to tell people a little bit about your book as we’re ending our interview here.
It’s called Play It Like You Mean It! It’s not just pianists but musicians of any level where how come when this guy plays the song as time goes by, that’s very nice. This guy plays and you get, “I’m moved.” Why does this one artist move you and another artist doesn’t? That is the thrust of the buckets. It is holistic. It’s not how to play the piano. It’s everything you need to know about playing the piano, except how to play the piano.
We assume you can play to some degree. I have some tips technically that I like to do but that’s almost incidental to the book. The book is, how do you get from, “Yesterday, we went to the beach and it was wonderful,” to, “Yesterday, oh my gosh, we were at the beach all day long and it thrilled us.” The person is listening like this because they’re like, “I want to hear what happened next to the beach.” My whole background was classical. I knew lots of classical players who didn’t move you but you were impressed.
Can they find your book on Amazon?
Yes, it’s called Play It Like You Mean It!
Let people know how can they find you online.
If you type in my name, everything will come up. I have a website, YouTube channel, Facebook and all the other things.
This has been great. I love getting this perspective of somebody who has had such a long-running career and has seen all the different areas of the music industry. Thank you so much for lending all of your knowledge and experience.
Thanks for having me as a guest. I appreciate it.
- Emile Pandolfi
- YouTube Channel – Emile Pandolfi
- Facebook – Emile Pandolfi
- Instagram – Emile Pandolfi
- This Business Of Music
- Play It Like You Mean It!
- Play It Like You Mean It! – Amazon
About Emile Pandolfi
Emile Pandolfi has been playing piano professionally for around 50 years recording and touring performing arts centers (“I can’t seem to do anything else!”) He is known for piano solo arrangements of standards, movie themes, and songs from musicals. He has recorded thirty albums over the years and has garnered over 800 million streams of his music.