How does an indie musician become successful? I wish I knew. But I am sure of one thing, there isn’t any magic person or company or website out there who will make it happen. You have to do it yourself. New York-based singer-songwriter Aviv Cohn aka The Widest Smiling Faces is just 23, but he’s already got that figured out.
When I first encountered him on TheSixtyOne, he had uploaded “The Only Lonely Ocean,” a song full of shoegaze echoes and alliteration that I knew was destined to be a hit on the site. And sure enough, the song caught on and burned up the charts. I really admired the way he developed his networking skills, making friends, picking up tips and promoting his music far and wide.
Aviv is a largely self-taught guitar player. He had lessons, but mainly used them as a chance to show off his compositions. “I took guitar lessons when I was younger but I never really followed the lesson plan and would go to the lessons to show off my songs,” he told me in a recent interview. “I think though that that was a good fire starter for me, because it encouraged me to get in the habit of regularly composing so I had something new to show each time. But most of my playing style I developed myself I would say.”
Aviv plays regularly in New York City. “It’s been good,” he said. “I’ve played at a lot of good venues like Mercury Lounge, the Knitting Factory, The Bitter End. I had residency at The Beauty Bar in Brooklyn a few months ago.”
He has one album under his belt, The Widest Smiling Faces, which features the song, “The Only Lonely Ocean.” You can download it for free or get a physical copy for $5 via Bandcamp. A second album is in the works, and he is building a website.
As much as I liked the way Aviv handled networking on T61, I had even more respect for the way he handled the demise of the old, community-friendly gaming version of in favor of the new slick version that doesn’t seem to be much use to anyone. While most of the T61 stalwarts (including me) were getting angry and depressed, he took it in stride and simply moved on, found new ways to promote himself. I thought the pic he uploaded to Facebook around that time summed up his attitude pretty well:
A couple of weeks ago, I had a nice little chat with Aviv in Facebook messenger that turned into an interview. I learned a lot about him and we got into some very interesting topics.
First the basics: Aviv grew up in Long Beach, New York, and went to College at Suny Purchase. He got a BA in Media, Science and the Arts. Sounds like a pretty good degree for a practicing musician on practical grounds, but he picked the major for intellectual reasons: “I decided to study Media, Society and the Arts because I felt it would give me more insight into the way art interacts with society.”
The Widest Smiling Faces is essentially Aviv’s project, although he has had some help along the way. “At times it’s had other members; all my recordings have been solo, and for the most part it’s been solo but occasionally I have performed with other people under the umbrella of the Widest Smiling Faces. But for right now it continues to be solo.”
What’s in a name?
MusicMissionary: “How did you come up with the name, Widest Smiling Faces?”
Aviv: “Hmm, thats a bit complicated. I got the name from my head, it just came in there one day, and I thought it sounded good and felt right, is the simple answer.”
MM: “What’s the more complicated version? Now you got me curious.”
A: “I started playing music at around the same time my face started twisting. I used to have a cute smile but I can’t smile the way I used to. All the good feelings from my normal smile left my mouth and went to my fingers when I started playing, so that’s why the music is the Widest Smiling Faces.”
The melancholy smile
MM: “If i had any genre that your music reminds me of it would be shoegaze. Shoegaze is most often associated with melancholy. Yet your stage name and emphasis is on happiness.”
A: “Yeah, you’re right, my music is probably more melancholy than happy though. I think melancholy is one of the best words in the English language as well.”
MM: “Me too, come to think of it. Feels good on the tongue. So is there a kind of irony to your stage name that you enjoy? And melancholy… it is a bit more complex than ‘sadness.’ It can be kind of pleasant, right?”
A: “Well, I think a smile can be melancholy as well.”
MM: “Who are your big influences, favorite bands?”
A: “I really like Sigur Ros and Boards of Canada. I like Radiohead a lot. Neutral Milk Hotel, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Beatles, Nirvana, The Beach Boys…”
MM: “What about Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine?”
A: “I really like the song ‘The Sadman’ by Slowdive.”
MM: “Jesus and Mary Chain…”
A: “That connected with me.”
MM: “Still it doesn’t sound like shoegaze bands are your biggest touchstone. or am I wrong?”
A: “I would say they aren’t my biggest touchstone.”
MM: “I can definitely hear Beatles and Beach Boys. Is there a certain feeling or sound that you go for when you perform live or record? Atmospheric, reverb, etc.?”
A: “Well I guess it depends on the song. I’m usually going for more of an image or a set of images.”
The Only Lonely Ocean: The Storybook
Speaking of images, one of the most interesting Widest Smiling Faces projects was Aviv’s collaboration with artist Daniel Spenser. If you’re a fan of the satirical website, The Onion, you may have seen his artwork. He is also the artist who designed the cover for The Widest Smiling Faces album. That eye-catching, professional-looking cover was one reason Aviv did so well on T61.
Aviv let Daniel hear his music and come up with artwork based on his impressions. The art was fashioned into a book featuring Aviv’s lyrics for “The Only Lonely Ocean.” “He’s an incredibly talented artist and I’m really fortunate to be able to work with him,” Aviv said.
You can see more of Daniel’s artwork here: http://www.danielspenser.com
Marketing and the Internet
MM: “So… We talked last time about your inspirations, etc. Now how about the marketing and business aspects? For example, would you consider yourself an ambitious artist? Do you expect to make a good living from music someday?”
A: “The music industry keeps changing so I don’t really know what to expect. Right now I’m trying to get my music out there as best as I can.”
MM: “How do you view the Internet as a way to promote yourself? Advantages, pitfalls?”
A: “I think it’s an incredible tool, and there’s no question it’s revolutionized music. I think it’s had more of an effect on music than on any other art form. With regards to advantages/pitfalls, I think it’s helped artists spread their music, while at the same time, perhaps made it harder to make the same kind of living.”
MM: “More positive or more negative? Downloading has impacted a lot of artists’ income don’t you think?”
A: “More positive. People are exposed to more music than ever before, more genres as bleeding into each other.”
MM: “What ways have you found on the Internet to promote your music? What has worked well and what hasn’t? And what kind of lessons have you learned so far?”
A: “I think the best way is to realize you’re dealing with humans and not numbers, and to be as real and genuine as you can with people.”
MM: “I discovered you on T61. Was that the first sort of social networking/venue site you used?”
A: “I think MySpace was the first. MySpace isn’t what it once was but I think it’s still useful.”
MM: “So… what would you say are your most useful tools on the Internet right now?”
MM: “Meaning that no magical site out there will make you succeed, you have to do it yourself?”
A: “Yeah, and I think music is the most important thing as well.”
MM: “I thought you did quite a good job harnessing T61 in its old format. What lessons did you learn from operating in that environment? And what lessons from when the site owners made the big change? Are you still getting good use out of it?”
A: “I haven’t used TheSixtyOne in a while, I would love to go back to it but I feel like all my fans have left (maybe that’s not true though). They sent me an e-mail a litle while ago on myspace asking for high res photos, which I updated, but I heard from them since really. And they updated one of my songs with artwork from the storybook themselves, which I thought was a nice touch.”
MM: “What all are you using right now?”
A: “I’m really liking Bandcamp. It’s clean, it sounds good, people like it.”
MM: “I can tell you I like it because it’s easy to embed songs. which for you means the music can go viral more easily.”
A: “Yeah, that’s one of its best features I would say.”