Ep45: Mary Spender on finding a smarter route to a full-time music career and building a huge fanbase on YouTube – Transcript

Ep45: Mary Spender on finding a smarter route to a full-time music career and building a huge fanbase on YouTube – Transcript


SPEAKERS

Laura Kidd, Mary Spender


Mary Spender  
There was never going to be any other way for me. It was always going to be out of being completely stubborn and being the “last man standing”. Think how many other people we’ve just lost along the way because they just realised that they weren’t ever going to make any money from being a musician.


Laura Kidd  

Hello and welcome to episode 45 of Attention Engineer.

I’m Laura and this is my podcast. Hi!

Attention Engineer is a show where I seek to make the best use of my own valuable time and attention by having deep conversations with fellow artists about creativity, grit and determination. My aim is to consistently remind you – and remind myself – that creativity really is for everyone….because it really is.

Let’s kick that inner critic where it hurts.

If you’re new here, welcome, and if you’re a returning listener, welcome back! Thank you for pressing play on this episode when you could have clicked on an infinite number of other things. I never take you for granted.

I’ve been thinking a lot about consistency, recently. I’ve just started week 5 of a 12 week experiment prompted by a book called “The 12 Week Year”. The idea is to focus in on 1-3 goals you’d like to make really good progress on over that 12 week period, break those down into weekly actions and then concentrate on executing those actions consistently. 

At the end of every week you score yourself, not on the results of those actions, but on whether you executed them or not. Did I go running three times? Yes. How far and how fast? Doesn’t matter.

Did I spend Wednesday writing music for the Obey Robots album? Yes. Did I write the best song anyone’s ever written, and if not, should I just give up forever and lie on the sofa? Doesn’t matter. Just turn up again next week.

Weeks 1-3 felt energising and game changing. Week 4 was a grind. I felt like I was going through the motions a bit, I wasn’t finding much joy in what I was doing, even though I was ticking actions off my list and spending my days on the things I care about. The initial excitement of trying something new had worn off, and I felt like throwing in the towel.

Then, I remembered that before starting the 12 weeks of action, the book had asked me to write an aspirational vision – a view of what my future life could look like 10 to 15 years in the future. How am I spending my time? Where am I living? What goals have I achieved, and what am I reaching for next? After writing that down, the next exercise was to work backwards, looking at my life 3 years into the future. How are things going then, on the way to my 15 year vision?

Yesterday morning I spent some time reading through my aspirational vision, reminding myself why I made this list of actions to execute on a weekly basis. Today I feel re-energised.

These days, for me, it’s not enough to make long lists of things I think I should do, and haphazardly try to attack them – I need a really good reason why I’m spending my time on what I’m spending my time on.

Making this podcast is the first truly consistent thing I’ve ever done – because I know why I’m doing it. The reasons don’t necessarily stay the same week to week and month to month, but the core values do – I make this show to open the lid on the creative process for you, the listener, to demonstrate to you and to myself that creativity is something we can all access, whatever we do in our lives. On a personal level, I love having a reason to speak to fellow artists about their creative process, their hopes and fears, dreams and disappointments, because it makes me feel less alone in what I’m doing, and it makes me realise that I’m not doing it all wrong, that we all have our individual paths and that there are many, many ways of approaching building your own creative career.

In the last episode I announced to you that I am committing to uploading a new video for YouTube every week for the next 10 weeks – one of my three 12 week year goals. Since I told you that, I have uploaded two videos – and this Saturday, come what may, I’ll be uploading my third…because consistency is what makes a difference. I’m interested in exploring topics around the core values of this podcast and the wider Penfriend project in a focused, practical way, and YouTube feels like the best place for that, with the topics from this podcast feeding into the videos I make.

At the start of the show I say “let’s kick that inner critic where it hurts” – and my latest video gives tips on how to do just that. Plus there are unicorns. Come and watch at youtube.com/penfriendrocks – I’ll put the link in the show notes for you.

All of this leads neatly to today’s guest, Mary Spender, and the timing of this conversation really couldn’t have been better.

I met Mary in Bristol in 2013 at a venue called The Louisiana. It was an unusual evening – I had been invited to come and answer questions about my music in front of an audience, some of my music videos were screened and then we all went down into the basement where I played a live set.

I was experiencing major imposter syndrome that night, because I just wasn’t used to being the focus of the whole event – I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with that now either, to be honest. I remember feeling very distracted when Mary and I were introduced, and doing that pointless thing we all do where we assume the other person thinks we suck. Weird, and such a waste of time.

A while later Mary got in touch, and we started meeting up for the occasional lunch, where we talked at length about how we were trying to do things as independent musicians. It was such a boost to get to talk to someone honestly and openly about how hard it could be sometimes, how impermeable the music industry itself seemed to be, and whether there could be a better way of doing things.

I gradually found my better way through crowdfunding and then my paid member’s club, The Correspondent’s Club, and Mary turned to YouTube. She moved to Brighton a few years ago, and it’s been a delight to watch her grow her audience over the last 5 years from pretty much zero to nearly half a million subscribers, building a full time artistic career from nothing. I’m so pleased Mary agreed to be a guest on the show, because to me she’s a real world example of how consistently grafting away in the right places can lead to a sustainable artistic career that doesn’t rely on the confusing whims of the music business.


Let me introduce you to Mary: combining her sultry voice and electric guitar to create rock songs infused with blues and soul, Mary Spender’s songwriting showcases her virtuosic style of guitar playing as well as her wide vocal range.

Mary has – so far – amassed over 46 million hits on her YouTube channel, with nearly half a million subscribers watching her weekly videos, predominantly targeted towards guitarists and singer/songwriters.

She also offers online courses in Ableton Live (with producer Rachel K Collier) and Fingerstyle Guitar for Beginners on her website maryspender.com.


MS  
Hi. 

LK  
Hi, how are you? 

MS  
I’m good. How are you?

LK  
I’m good. I’ve been watching your videos again to refamiliarise myself with all of your awesome stuff. It’s great. Mary Spender…I know we don’t have a lot of time, so I’m just going to dive right in. We can catch up during this if that’s all right?

MS  
Yeah, yeah, sure. Yeah.

LK  
Could you introduce yourself for my listeners, please, in case they have not heard your name before and know what you’re about?

MS  
Well, I’m Mary Spender. I’m a singer-songwriter, but I also make YouTube videos about music, guitars, creativity, all that malarkey. And yeah…and we go way back.

LK  
We do! I think the last time I saw you, we had lunch and you were telling me about Snapchat – about how I should be spending time on Snapchat. And I was like…

MS  
That sounds like me.

LK  
Yeah, I was like “I don’t disagree with you, but I also only have so much time…” So I was like, “You’re right. But I’m not going to. And I’m in the wrong and you are right, but I just can’t”. I just was like, “Yeah, sure” and we talked about Snapchat… And then…not overnight, because it’s taken you maybe 5 years of a lot of hard work, but you now have nearly half a million subscribers on your YouTube channel.

MS  
Yes.

LK  
And what I love about that is that I knew you when you didn’t have any. So you’re a real person who has done a lot of work and got yourself to a place. You’re not someone I’ve heard of who already has that, if you see I mean…the growth has been actually real. 

MS  
Yeah.

LK  
You know, obviously it’s real for everyone, but I’ve seen that be real. So I love that. I’m so in awe of what you’ve done.

MS  
Well, I was thinking about one of our conversations at The Louisiana. You know, I don’t even know when that was…2013?

LK  
7 million years ago.

MS  
Yeah, a long time ago. And we were talking about social media, and you had a great following back then, let alone now. And it was just really inspiring the way you were using it. So I think it sort of gave me the confidence to be like, “Okay, well, there are other routes. Other ways to make it in music without going down the record label route”.

LK  
Yeah.

MS  
And it just takes a lot of bloody hard work, really.

LK  
It’s a lot of sitting in that chair, me sitting in this chair…

MS  
Yep.

LK  
“All the glamour all the time” is one of my favorite mottos…

MS  
“All the glamour all the time”!

LK  
“All glamour all the time.” Whenever I was sitting backstage, eating pasta out of a pot with a broken piece of cup, because there was no cutlery I’d be like “it’s all going to be worth it one day!”

MS  
Yeah, yeah. And then you realise, like, it’s just all a long slog, and it’s never as glamorous as you sort of thought it might be…I kind of thought by this point with YouTube, it’d be a lot easier. And actually, it’s just the same. It’s the same.

LK  
You put a lot of stuff out though. How many? It’s at least a couple a week, isn’t it a couple of videos a week?

MS  
Yeah, at the moment it’s always at least one a week, depending on all the other stuff. And even that is tricky sometimes. But yeah I try and stay consistent to play the game. You know how it is…

LK  
Yeah, of course. But I love also that you’ve switched the slog of, you know, going up and down the country… (obviously, pre-pandemic times) going up and down the country playing support slots, and your own headlines and stuff, swapping that slog for a different slog. And I feel like I’m also trying to swap that slog for different slog, and this was also pre-pandemic – I decided to take a break from live to do something else, and launch the Penfriend project and everything, and then, you know, the world went mad. And we’re in this situation, whether we like it or not, but I’m just really interested in that, because you clearly saw the light about five years before I did. Was that a conscious thing? Did you do that on purpose?

MS  
September 2016 was when I started making specific YouTube videos.

LK  
Yeah.

MS  
It wasn’t that I saw the light…I did see creators who were notoriously underpaid, underappreciated, suddenly doing really well building businesses, by just doing their own thing on YouTube rather than going down the traditional pathways, whether it’s filmmakers photographers, bassists, you know, guitar teachers… I just saw this other thing. And it was also just that I had no other choice, because I was working 9-5 in a finance temp job for £8  an hour…I just didn’t really have anything to lose. I was doing gigs on the weekend in Bristol, you know, treading the boards continuously and doing the four hour cover sets because those gigs are actually paid, and then doing the half hour support slots for free. And just doing that because I was grateful to play original music, obviously. But it just got to a point where I was like, well, if I keep doing that, then I’m burning those hours just doing that. What if I…even if I get 300 hits on a video, that’s 300 times the creation of the video. And then luckily…well, I mean, it took a long, long time, but..it worked. I really am relieved, obviously, that it worked for me,  but it’s also nice for other people to see that it worked for someone like me, where I was never going to be a commercial success.

LK  
Yeah.

MS  
And I had to, you know, be brave enough to learn these other things that were away from music, so presenting to camera, editing, all the other stuff that goes on behind the scenes. But yeah, so hopefully, hopefully, they’ll just be plenty more of us really.

LK  
Can I just say when you said you were never going to be a commercial success, and I just said “Yes”, I wasn’t agreeing with you in a really horrible way just now.

MS  
No, no, no.

LK  
But people might be thinking, “Oh, that’s mean of Laura to agree”. What I meant was… how many people would be though?

MS  
Exactly.

LK  
Because those odds are so ridiculous to get commercially successful. It doesn’t just mean a brilliant song that rises to the top…I don’t think that ever happens. I think there’s a huge machine that goes into all of that stuff and that’s just not accessible. I’ve just put a record out, and I spent some money on PR…it was all wasted. The PR people were very nice, they were very nice to email every week going “has there been anything? No!” Perfectly pleasant people doing their very best in a system that doesn’t work in the way that I would love it to work.

So…yeah, about a year and a half ago, I was thinking I don’t want to drive up and down the country any more doing this…it doesn’t seem to be doing anything. And I kept hearing this phrase around the place – quite a lot on YouTube actually…I’m really into Matt D’Avella and Thomas Frank and Ali Abdaal (who I think you know), and lots of different people who do these really interesting videos that make me think, what am I doing? And the phrase was, “what got you here won’t get you there”.

And I thought I’ve got here by hard graft and touring and releasing albums independently and all that and very proud of that. But the sort of very slow, incremental growth thing is not particularly satisfying. So I’ve just been trying to think of different ways – hence starting this podcast, and hence my new foray into a bit of YouTube inspired by people like you and the others I’ve mentioned. 

MS  
Yeah. 

LK  
So I think it’s just so smart, and every time I checked in with your channel I was like, holy shit, this is brilliant. It’s working, you know? All of your hard work. 

MS  
It really works. It really works. It’s just consistency. So I used to try and persuade everyone to start a YouTube channel…

LK  
Yeah. 

MS  
…and then I just realised, no, no, I’ll wait for people to come to me and ask me questions about a YouTube channel if they’re interested and they’re taking that initiative, because it’s not for everyone. It’s definitely a different thing. But if you actually uploaded a video 10 minutes long: every week, same time, same day – so people know when you’re going to upload – and you do that for the next two years and don’t expect to make any money, you’ll make it. You’ll build an audience…

LK  
Yeah. 

MS  
…preferably around a topic that you actually know about, and kind of the more niche the better. So I started off with guitar pedals. That’s not even applicable to every single guitarist, because only a portion of guitarists play electric guitar, let alone are into pedals, you know? It’s just like, as niche as possible, find your first 1000 fans and then it kind of just gets out of hand. Then it just keeps growing, and it grows so slowly – which is actually the best thing, because then you adjust and you learn and you make mistakes and you fail and then YouTube just kicks you in the face and says, “Oh no here’s an *almost* successful video. But no, we’re not going to make it super successful for you just yet…” and then you’ll fail over and over again, or someone won’t like the video or whatever. Someone? Many people won’t like the videos.

And then finally, years later it might hand you – and obviously there are exceptions to this rule – but it might hand you a viral video. And then you crash back down and you have to keep up the consistency and then it might hand you another one, potentially, maybe not and yeah, it’s…it’s crazy. I obviously didn’t expect it to get this far, because I had many, many years of no one watching or listening or caring, and that was okay. Because thank God for those years no one cared because I was a bit crap!

LK  
Also we get used to that – “I did a thing and the world didn’t throw a public holiday for me”. 

MS  
Yeah.

LK  
I put a record out, and some people care (and I love them the most) but most people don’t, because we don’t make things for “the world”. We make things for people who will like us, and I think it’s the same on YouTube. 

MS  
Yeah. 

LK  
I’ve been a bit obsessively watching those “How to find your niche” videos that people make, on these weird pyramid scheme channels that are only huge because they’re talking about how to be huge on YouTube…it’s so weird. So that’s why I think you’re especially good, because you actually *do* something and you talk about the something that you do; you don’t *talk* about doing something, if you see what I mean. The distinction is quite different for me.

MS  
Yeah well, it’s always a bit nerve wracking. I’m in awe of people who profess to be experts about something because I just immediately think, well, that’s the first step to becoming a dinosaur and being outdated in that field. So it’s just always better to be constantly learning, like, “Hey, I’m learning along with you guys. So please bear with me”. 

LK  
Yeah, yeah. 

MS  
But also come along on the journey, enjoy, join in the discussion of whatever it is you’re learning. But also. I’m really grateful that I put in the 10,000 hours of music before starting my YouTube channel, because although I’m not the most proficient guitarist, I’m not the best singer, I’m not the best songwriter, I’m definitely not the best YouTube filmmaker – but I can do all those things, and now I have the freedom to be able to spend the time fully on a creative life, to be able to keep improving, and then improve along with it. So yeah, I’m proud of the slog as well because people come across my channel and they’re like, “Oh, you just sit in your room all day and make YouTube videos” and I’m like “Mate, you don’t know. You don’t know how many times I played to three people.” The three people being the headline act…

LK  
Yeah. If they bothered to stay!

MS  
If they even bothered…they were probably eating in the dressing room. The sound engineer. 

LK  
Yeah. 

MS  
And then my dad probably… 

LK  
Yeah!

MS  
Especially when I was really young, gigging. My dad would have to obviously come to shows before I was 18. So yeah, it’s been fun.

LK  
You built this all yourself, you know. Do you feel proud of that? 

MS  
Definitely. Yeah. 

LK  
Good!

MS  
And then I sort of think, I mean, you probably feel the same way. It’s like, there was never going to be any other way for me. It was always going to be out of being completely stubborn and being like, last man standing. Think how many other people we’ve lost along the way because they just realised that they weren’t ever going to make any money from being a musician, so they were like “Oh, seems like a lot of effort, I’ll just be a hobbyist” and then they go and do other degrees or become accountants or…you know? 

LK  
Yeah.

MS  
I’m just like well, I’m pretty glad that I just kept at it.

LK  
There seems to be an age where people start peeling off, and I don’t think any less of them at all. I think if you choose to do something else, that’s awesome. Please go and have a happy life that’s a little bit less difficult than this! I think it’s really smart. People choose to have families and need to commit, they need to be bringing in enough money for that as well. Men and women.

MS  
Definitely.

LK  
I know lots of men who have had to leave their bands because they decided to have a family and it’s not enough, they can’t spend the time anymore and it’s just such a shame, because there’s so much great music and stuff that isn’t being made, because it’s so impossible to make enough money out of it to survive. 

MS  
Yeah.

LK  
So…finding other ways. I mean, I’ve done that as well with my Correspondent’s Club, which is my handmade Patreon type thing, and you’ve done it through YouTube, but also through online courses, Patreon… it’s just super smart of you, though. I think it’s great. 

MS  
Thank you. 

LK  
I do have questions, I’m not just gonna give you loads of compliments. I do have, actually, some questions. Can we talk about the whole John Mayer thing? Because that’s bonkers, isn’t it? 

MS  
It’s completely bonkers. Yeah. Yeah. 

LK  
Can you explain to people who are listening who probably, no offence, I don’t know that people who listen to this podcast are as into YouTube as even I am, let alone as involved as you are. Can you explain the John Mayer thing?

MS  
I’ve been a very long time John Mayer fan because of his guitar playing most of all, and then I discovered him at like, 18/19 and just heard the way he played guitar and wrote songs using the guitar and I was like, okay, I’m sold, whatever this guy does I’ll probably enjoy it. So I started trying to mimic him guitar playing wise, kind of failed, but found my own style by doing so and in a very niche, particular style of guitar playing. And I’ve met him a few times, but never as a peer, always as a fan.

So I met him in January 2017. He was doing a press conference, I snuck into the press conference and ended up at the front of it next to some camera guys, and Paul Reed Smith who’s a guitar maker was standing right next to him and they said after half an hour of just chatting about this guitar amp, “does anyone want to ask any questions?” I had no interview experience whatsoever, so I didn’t even introduce myself – I just asked some stupid question. He ended up worrying about his answer, so he sort of over spoke and I filmed all of it and then put it up on YouTube and that was kind of like the beginning of my association of being a fan of John Mayer, basically, on YouTube. I had 300 subscribers at that time.

Those blogs of that event, which is called NAMM, started doing pretty well. So I think I went back to NAMM in, was it 2019? And again, there was another press conference because he was doing a signature guitar and I got to just meet him for a hot second, take a selfie with him, it was super awkward and it was in front of loads of other people and there was loads of people crowded around. And I was like, “Urgh, this is not the way to meet the guy that literally changed your musical career”. So I went away feeling like, oh, this is just… it’s never going to be equal. It’s never going to be that and that’s fine but when they say don’t meet your idols, it’s like…definitely don’t meet your idols in front of hundreds of other people who are also trying to make their mark on him, and make an impression on him. 

LK  
Yeah.

MS  
So obviously, then COVID: no travel, no NAMM 21, January 21. There was one in January 2020. But in March, he was uploading to TikTok, you know –  the new Snapchat, which I don’t even upload to properly yet…I’m still figuring that all out and you know how, as you said, time is limited. But he was uploading snippets and I was in this room and I was looking on TikTok and I was like, “Oh my God, why is John Mayer on TikTok?”, but he was revealing some parts of his new songs that I assumed would be out that week – you only need to tease for so long now because everything is so much faster paced than it used to be.

So it was a Tuesday. I was like, I think I’m gonna write the rest of the song because that would be fun and I was like, I should vlog it, I guess. As of earlier this year I actually have an editor now, and I called him and I was like, “John, I’ve got an idea”.  (He’s also called John.) I think someone else will do this because this guy’s releasing this to millions of followers. Surely someone else will write the song before it comes out. Surely. It was one of those ideas that just felt so good and made me feel a bit nervous and a bit sick as well. But in a good way, where I was like, “Oh my God, if I don’t jump on this idea now then someone else will do it”.

So the next 48 hours I wrote the song, finished the song using his little snippets, recorded it, produced it and then filmed a music video and then made a YouTube video about the process of making John Mayer’s new single before he did, expecting it to be released at midnight on the Friday. So we got it up at 7:30pm on a Thursday, which is way past my normal upload time but I was like, this needs to go out as soon as it’s ready.  And I had to do some calls with my patrons afterwards and was just sat in the studio. I was like, okay, doo doo doo, got that video done, didn’t pay attention to it. Went over to my videographer’s house just to debrief and talk and chat because we were in a work bubble. Remember those days when you actually could only see like, not anyone? 

LK  
Yeah!

MS  
I got outside…I was in an Uber, got outside my friend’s door and my editor rang me and he was like, “Two hours”. And I was like, “Two hours? What are you on about?” He’s like “Two hours”. I was like, “John, what are you on about?” I was really tired. And he went, “You haven’t checked Instagram?” And I was like, “No… no, really?” And he was like, “Get off the phone right now and check Instagram” and so I did, and John Mayer had watched the video and then taken a screenshot of not even the thumbnail, it looks like a flattering picture of me playing his signature guitar, and then broadcast it to 5 million of his followers.

And he was very flattering, he said, “MS beat me to it. I snooze, I lose”. And then just really complimentary about it. And yeah, so he saw the video, it was sent through a mutual friend who’s a pedal builder, Josh Scott, I have to shout him out – JHS Pedals – and yeah, and then so John Mayer saw it and then, two months later we had a little DM conversation and I was just freaking out, my heart rate was really high. I could literally see on my Apple Watch. And my friend was gathered around, and I was like, “Can I say this?” And he was like, “Yeah!” and I was like, “Okay” and so I was just trying to be funny as well on DM’s with John Mayer and then didn’t bother him for a few more months, but the record never came out and so my video was just sat there being his new single before his new single. 

Then, what was it – May? Mid/late May. I don’t know, I was in a bit of a funk actually, one day, and I don’t know why – I think I’d had a hectic weekend or something, and I was just on my phone and I’m never on my phone late at night, I really try and stay away from it…and I just clicked onto Instagram and I had a DM from John Mayer being like, “Hey, have you heard the news?” Because I think someone leaked it before it was actually out, but it got taken down, and he was like, “Do you want to hear it? I’ll send you a Dropbox link”. So he sent me his new single before anyone else heard it, but he remembered…and I was like, “Okay, what is my life? This is mad” and then he contributed a little voice note to the follow up video where I actually got to listen to it on camera, and listened to whether or not mine was close, which, other than the bits that he gave it wasn’t that close. There were a few lyrics that might have potentially almost been there, but not quite. But yeah, and then he shared that video again. So it was just this surreal thing. 

LK  
So cool.

MS  
And then recently he sent me a box of merchandise, which was kind of cool.

LK  
Didn’t you get a record player and a record from John Mayer?

MS  
And a candle, which is a bit of a joke for him. He did this whole like, he’s trying to be a comedian sometimes. I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen any of his…he’s actually quite good and it’s Feu de Bois or something. But he was doing that as a comedy sketch about it being ‘for the boys’ because it’s kind of spelled that way, and so my Mum texted me the other day, she was like “Well, that candle costs, like £90. It’s very generous of him”. I was like, “Yeah, I think John Mayer can afford it”. 

LK  
Yeah.

MS  
And it’s not even John Mayer paying for it, is it? So yeah, so it’s all a bit mad and obviously my closest friends know how crazy it is and, yeah, so John Mayer knows my name, which is pretty cool for a girl from Salisbury who likes playing guitar. Feels pretty cool.

LK  
That is cool. But you made an effort!

MS  
Yeah.

LK  
You made a big effort. That’s the thing, stuff doesn’t happen to you unless you do stuff, you know? 

MS  
Yeah, quite right. 

LK  
And you do stuff. And you do stuff that’s of high quality and the intention is really good. You weren’t trying to rip him off or make him look silly or anything like that. I think it’s just done with pure fan love, you know? 

MS  
Yeah.

LK  
Of course he remembers your name – you’re the woman who made a single for him! 

MS  
Before him!

LK  
I don’t know that anyone else has done that.

MS  
I know, and I’ve thought about doing it again – not for John Mayer but for other artists, and then I just have like this…I don’t know. I just have the memories of the actual process behind that video and I don’t know if I have the time and dedication to be able to do it again, or whether people would watch it again. But I don’t know, there might be  other opportunities as well. 

LK  
Yeah. It’s a fun thing.

MS  
Because it’s a really fun challenge and also like, it’s kind of an insane thing to try and do, write a song before someone else has released it. You know?

LK  
Yeah, sneaking in there.

MS  
Yeah. 

LK  
You mentioned the word consistency earlier, which I love. I’m all about that now. So in the last year and a half or so, really trying to treat certain things as commitments, the commitments they should be, rather than “doing music” being at the end of your task list for the week. “At some point, I’ll sit down and work on some music”, it’s a very general, fluffy thing to say. I think a lot of people listening might have the same thing with many other creative pursuits.

So at what point  – because you clearly have decided to be consistent, you used the word yourself and that is a big thing on YouTube – but was there a point where you decided to treat this as work? And if so when was that? And how’s that changed things for you?

MS  
Do you know what? I still don’t believe it’s work. I was in here with my videographer friend and we were just sorting out my lighting and I kept being like, “Okay, let’s just hurry up, because I probably need to get back to work”. And I was like, wait, this is my job to make videos, I have to make them look good so we have to spend time on that sort of stuff now and I still just see it as playtime and I think that’s when you get dangerous, almost. I mean dangerous in a good way, because as soon as you find something that is just playtime, it’s really easy to be consistent.

Not to say it’s always easy, it doesn’t feel great all the time. But yeah, the consistency thing happened: I started publishing videos in September 2016. I created a series called Tuesday Talks that was never ever available on a Tuesday. I kind of got it finished on the Wednesday, but I would film it on the Tuesday and then I started realising it’s called Tuesday Talks, you have to actually create it before the Tuesday and then upload it on the Tuesday, Mary. And I just had maybe three people asking where it was when it didn’t come out one week and I was like, oh! They were people who I didn’t know, they weren’t friends, and I was like, oh my God, okay, I should probably get on board with this then. 

LK  
Yeah. Yeah. 

MS  
So instead of doing daily vlogging in January when I was away in California, I just shot all the vlogs and then edited them and then just scheduled them out for the next four weeks and I was like, okay, I just made four weeks of content. Right. Okay. And I was working a full time job until January 2019. So I had to just spend my evenings thinking about it, there were a lot of Monday evenings that were 4am finishes, because I’d forgotten to get it done. But I knew I had to play the game and I came up with a pretty easy way of making YouTube videos by just doing interviews with people back when you could do it in person, you know? And they were anyone from guitarists I kind of knew, and we would just schedule it in and just get it done. I would just put the camera down one angle, record the audio kind of separately a bit closer to us, and then just use that and then that would be my weekly upload. And just sort of introducing people to other artists for a long time, but then started realising it’s hard to get hold of people and you can’t keep going through your friends. So I would just start talking about topics myself and yeah, now it’s evolved and I don’t do Tuesday Talks, I sort of save that for special occasions and specific interviews. But now I just make music-themed or creativity-themed videos and just enjoy it, or just about guitars really, which is my one true passion. 

LK  
Such a guitar nerd. I love it.

MS  
I’m such a nerd. I actually bought a guitar yesterday? Monday? That I’ve been wanting for four years, and finally traded in some stuff and got it and the grin on my face, I literally caught myself under my mask grinning like an absolute 13 year old that I was when I bought my first guitar, 12/13. And I was like, ah okay, I’m in the right job. 

LK  
Yeah I think it’s great to have those moments, isn’t it? I mean, you work really hard. You do deserve the guitar of your dreams I think. That’s okay. Life is short. Get the guitar if you can.

MS  
Yeah and I can completely justify now because I make a video about a guitar and it pays for itself. So it’s like, okay, I should probably keep investing in that. So many people online love hearing a guitar because they don’t have access to it, especially with guitar shops closing all over the place or being completely closed during COVID. So yeah, it’s a cool thing to share with other people.

LK  
Definitely.

What’s your current relationship with smartphones and social media? You mentioned trying not to look at your phone late at night…I can imagine just from my brief experience of YouTube Studio, I can imagine it would be very easy to spend lots of time going “How many people watched my video? How many people have watched my video?” every day and getting a bit obsessed?

MS  
Yeah, I definitely went through a phase where I was completely obsessed. I have a work relationship with social media, I don’t know whether you feel the same because I’ve had a MySpace page or like a Bebo page since I was 15 that was dedicated to music. So I’ve always been like, okay, be careful, like don’t put up too much personal information and that sort of thing. So when it comes to social media, in general, I definitely have always seen it as a tool for music. But yeah, I’m as guilty as anyone, especially over the last 18 months, of just being tied to my phone, you know, whether that’s reading the news, or just scrolling through Instagram, looking at people having a nicer time than everyone else.

So I have a difficult relationship with it sometimes, but it’s not…it’s not completely unhealthy, and I actually really try and turn my phone over and try and do deliberate work away from it. But yeah, YouTube Studio, the thing I hate about it is that it shows you the three most recent comments on your whole library of videos, which other people don’t see. So people would maybe check the comments and read the comments when a new video has gone live and everything, but when people are finding my videos at different times and becoming aware of me completely out of sync, kind of, they’ll then join in the conversation later.

Most of the time it’s positive, but I do see negative comments, obviously, and other people don’t see that so they just sort of expect that everything’s really positive and nice and fluffy, when the reality is that there are people discovering me, not really understanding what’s going on then sharing their opinion about that – and those comments just should sink to the bottom, almost. But they’re there on the app. I don’t respond to every single comment any more. 

LK  
No. 

MS  
But yeah, it’s part of the game, freedom of speech, and they actually add to the success of your video. So no matter what they’re saying, having a little interaction with the video is actually a good thing. So I think the best thing to do if you hate a video is just not comment on it, and not click on the channel because every little click, every little, typing away of a comment is actually just putting money in the creator’s bank account whether or not you like them, which I just don’t think people realise.

How do I deal with them? Ignore them. And I hate the idea of the bullied becoming the bully, you know, when people set their audience live on someone who’s just sat at home and probably a little bit sad. Or going through something – you just never know what they’re going through on the other end, and I just kind of try and have empathy for whatever, because I’ve never spent five minutes hating on someone’s YouTube video…mainly because I know the hard work that goes into it, and even if I don’t like the person or don’t like the video I just stay silent. But yeah, it’s been a process, and I started boxing in 2017 when I first had my entry into the comment section (and not in a positive way) and that’s really helped, and fitness and having other things other than social media in my life that I keep pretty private. 

Actually the best mental thing I do sometimes, the thought process around it is I say to myself, if I see something and it’s bad and it kind of affects me, I just go, ‘Wait, are they here? Are they here trying to hurt me? No. If I turn over my phone they don’t exist.” So you can kind of like, just take that away, and then recently I read “The Power Of Now”. So I’m really trying to be super zen and present, following that trend, and it’s helped. Because I think as a creative, it’s so easy to live in your past because you’re trying to draw on your experiences as a songwriter and use that to create your future. 

LK  
Yeah. 

MS  
So you’re never actually just like, “Oh, hey, we’re actually having a nice conversation. Right now.” You’re thinking about being super driven about “Oh, my God, what’s the next business opportunity? Or what’s that heartbreak that I can talk about to write that song?”

LK  
Yeah. 

MS  
So yeah, just still trying to figure it out and it’s still a journey, I have good days, bad days, but majority wise, I just try and stay level. 

LK  
Yeah.

MS  
Because it’s a long game and it’s only gonna get bigger and worse. I mean, the pool of people will just hopefully – obviously, unless I do something terribly wrong – it will keep growing and people also become accustomed to you as well. So they might hate you at first but then they just like, keep getting recommended your videos and then they kind of end up liking you…and that’s always the funniest thing where people are like, “I really hated you at first, but now I kind of get you” and I’m like, “Cool. Thank you very much”.

LK  
What a great compliment! It’s just the war of attrition then. I feel the same about my music. I’m just gonna keep putting albums out and albums out until someone’s like, opening the door. It’s gonna keep going. I’m not going away. 

MS  
Yeah.

LK  
Get used to it. 

MS  
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Right mindset. Also you just have to know that the numbers don’t matter. Pleasing other people literally doesn’t matter. It’s like, do you enjoy the process of actually making that music, or making those videos, or doing that podcast or whatever it is? Because if you don’t enjoy that, then you’re not gonna be able to stick at it forever, and the whole game is that we want to be the last people standing. I want to be doing this til we’re 90. I really hope I’m making YouTube videos at 90, I think that’d be really badass.

LK  
I hope so too and you know what, we’ve survived Snapchat, we’ve survived MySpace. Two platforms you’ve mentioned. Survived Pledge Music (I’m not going to go into that!) and various others. I feel like sometimes my job is just to outlast software, or outlast platforms.

MS  
Oh yeah. Play the game while it’s there but don’t be too crushed when it disappears, and that’s what I feel about YouTube. Like, if YouTube disappears tomorrow, I had a really good run. But the likelihood…all these platforms are becoming so well established now, and they’re not disappearing as quickly – obviously some come and go. But it’s more worrying about, what content are you making that would alienate yourself from your audience? Like, we see YouTubers who were really popular in 2011, they’re still either making the same content on these tiny little crappy cameras and because they haven’t upped their game, or changed their style, or evolved people just get bored of them and then they kind of fade. So it’s always about upping your game for your own sake, as well as the viewers’ sake. So now I have to make videos in 4K, which I was like, I never want to do that. But I have to play the game. And the same with TikTok, I am still trying to figure out what I could do on TiKTok…

LK  
Yeah.

MS  
I’ll play the game while it’s there. If it disappears, fine, but it’s all brand awareness. So be everywhere, always, and make it scalable for yourself as well. Make it as easy as possible: document yourself doing the thing that you’re already doing and it’s a hell of a lot easier to keep up with it, too.

LK  
Definitely. And so for anyone listening who wants to be a bit more creative in their own lives, which one piece of advice would you give them to get started? 

MS  
Ooh. Whatever it is that you see other people doing that makes you green with envy, do it. Don’t just look at them and be like, oh, they’re doing something…just go and try it. Try it out and suck at it. Make terrible art over and over and over again and don’t worry about it. And actually, sometimes don’t show your friends and family, because they’ll probably have an opinion about it that you won’t like, either. If it’s good or bad, it’s actually not useful. *You* have to enjoy it. Are you proud of what you’re putting out? And that’s what I had to do, because at first my parents would always…I’d like to play them a new song and they’d be like, “Mmm”. And I just realised they’re not my audience. The same with videos, they’d be like, “Really? You want to do that?” and then I’d just doubt it, and then I wouldn’t put it out. It’s better it’s out there and then you see the progression, than not being anywhere. 

LK  
Yeah, you need to find *your* people, who find that to be useful or entertaining or whatever it is. 

MS  
Yeah.

LK  
They’re not necessarily going be your nearest and dearest, are they?

MS  
No, definitely not. My parents really do not know anything about guitars or pedals or anything like that. But yeah, you know…

LK  
I’m sure they excel in other areas, that’s the thing. We all have our different niches, as you were saying earlier.

MS  
Absolutely. 

LK  
Their niche is not guitar. That’s yours.

MS  
No. My mum does have amazing…this is just a funny tidbit…she has amazing taste in music. She’s always on Spotify finding the next best thing, and she introduced me to Kendrick Lamar, way back.

LK  
Oh, wow. 

MS  
That’s how cool my Mum is.

LK  
That’s really cool. Good one, Mum. 

MS  
But anyway, I digress… 

LK  
Amazing. 

I just want to say thank you so much. We should probably catch up not recorded at some point because there’s loads more going on, isn’t there? 

MS 
Yeah, absolutely. Me too.

LK
Maybe I’ll book in with you again some time, if that’s all right? 

MS  
Hell yeah. 

LK  
Thank you very much, Mary for chatting to me. It’s been lovely to see you. 

MS  
It’s been lovely to see you too, and thanks for having me. 

LK
Thanks!


LK
I hope you’re itching to watch some of Mary’s videos now, which you can find on her website maryspender.com along with her music, online courses and mailing list.

I’ve created a deluxe show notes page at penfriend.rocks/mary and featured her John Mayer videos. Such a great story!

If you’d like to listen to another Attention Engineer episode after this one, I think episode 44 with Ken Stringfellow of The Posies is a really nice continuation, where we talk about saying yes to opportunities and putting in the work, as is episode 11 with Skating Polly, where we talk about the importance of dedication.

If you’re new here, do make sure you visit my website penfriend.rocks to pick up two free songs and receive thoughtful letters about art and music.

This podcast is a rare ad-free zone, but I do welcome sponsorship from listeners, so if you’d like to find out more about that go to penfriend.rocks/sponsorship.

Giant thanks and love to my Correspondent’s Club for powering the making of this show and all my music.

I’ll be back in two weeks time to share another deep conversation – so I hope to catch you then!

Til then – take care!

Share this:
Podscripts

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *