Interview: Phil Vanderkill

Phil Vanderkill is the lead singer of Sergeant Steel, a successfully self-marketed hard rock band from Austria (who actually worked with legendary producer Michael Wagener). I met Phil at a radio party and was impressed by his openness to sharing Sergeant Steel’s self-marketing methods. This is what Phil has to say about promotion, marketing, selling and fans.

Julian Angel (J.A.): Hi Phil, ‚Vanderkill’ is not your real name. How important is having a stage persona to you?

Phil Vanderkill (P.V.): Well, I actually do have a personal connection to the name: I’m a descendant of an old Dutch noble house. One of my ancestors is the missing Flodder. Since I’m a little drama queen and maintain my existence as a diva I consider image very important. My stage persona is a deliberate combination of Marty McFly (the height) and Conchita Wurst (the appeal).

J.A.: Looking at Sergeant Steel your collaboration with legendary producers Beau Hill (Ratt, Warrant, Alice Cooper) and Michael Wagener (Ozzy Osbourne, Skid Row, Janet Jackson, Extreme) stands out. How does a DIY band from Austria come to work with such big names?

P.V.: We simply contacted both legends via email. We don’t settle for compromise when it comes to getting the best for our music. Michael Wagener even invited us to visit him in Nashville. His studio is his life’s achievement. There are many, many bucks and priceless know-how in this paradise. For Michael we are the “crazies from Austria”. To us he is a magician and we look forward to working with him again in 2015.

J.A.: This actually begets the indiscreet question whether your releases actually pay off regarding these high costs. Or are you pursuing a different goal?

P.V.: Besides our claim for quality we pursue a strict business strategy: If you chase your money it cannot follow you. Mark these words if you really believe in yourself. At the end of the day we want to get the best out of what we do. This may sound naïve, but life is too short to play jazz (laughs).

J.A.: Let’s talk about your marketing. Videos seem to play a major part…

P.V.: Absolutely. In times of social media high quality video productions ar the gateway to increasing sales. Youtube is definitely our best marketing channel.

J.A.: Your videos have a certain quality too, both on the technical side as well as the story is concerned. But still you haven’t paid a fortune.

P.V.: Our music sounds like big budget. Like you said, our videos reflect our high aspirations. More impoartant than a big wallet are big balls, which you cannot buy with money. We are also lucky to have found a soulmate in director Stefan Lenz Schrankenstein. First you need a great concept that kills. We also love humour in our videos. Nevertheless the


viewers should see immediately that this is the work of professionals. Never consider yourself too good for any hard work. Therefore creativity and diligence come for free. A good network of contacts is very important, too – having a good connection to people of all sorts. Building these relationships is free as well, it only costs time and effort.

J.A.: How did you promote your videos? Did you follow a strategy?

P.V.: Of course, we extensively used our media contacts. The really exciting thing was that it started working by itself. Even zines we had not contacted in the first place featured our news releases and embedded our videos. That really speaks  for a certain recognition within our scene. Our main focus, however, was personal contacts. We have carefully contacted our personal and Facebook friends to make them aware of our work.

J.A.: Private Facebook messages with video links can be very annoying…

P.V.: Not if you address the people personally. We have sent hundreds of private messages with personal salutation and a bit of personal small talk. I think this delivered a certain type of appreciation.  That really was a lot of work, but it paid of in terms of more than a thousand views for “Mama Horny” on the first day.

J.A.: Which promotional activity is your favorite?

P.V.: Actually everything that involved people personally. Everybody can become an important multiplier. The more personal, the better. Ideally you personally hand someone a promo copy of your album. Then there is physical sampling, follow up – that’s extremely important. Always contact people personally, whether they are fans or media representatives.

It is also important to walk through life with open eyes. As a good networker you will find people and channels waiting be opened. That’s creativity again – remember, creativity is free. So we have sold a number of CDs through local music stores, supermarkets and strip bars. I rarely see CDs of other bands there (laughs).

J.A.: How do you distribute your music?

P.V.: Distribution is even more important than promotion. Demand itself doesn’t help if your product is hardly available. We have successfully worked with cdbaby and Music Buy Mail. Both partners also supply Amazon for the masses as well as other mailorders for the genre geeks. Always focus on an international presence. Digital distribution is being handled by cdbaby as well.

J.A.: You have mentioned some rough stats about how each distribution channel contributes to your overall sales. Could you repeat that for our readers?

P.V.: About half of the sales of “Men On A Mission” have been private sales. Again, network is the word. You don’t need to be a pushy sales person. If you talk about your product with self confidence and excitement you will automatically win customers. Don’t forget that private or direct sales let you collect all of the money without any deductions. Don’t underestimate voluntary donations, by the way.

Sales at live shows amount for 20%, the same is true for sale through mailorder shops. Cdbaby generates about 10% of all sales.

J.A.: Your live dates mainly list festivals and opening slots for bigger acts (Deep Purple, The Sweet). You rarely seem to play club gigs. Is this just a coincidence?

P.V.: There’s a strategy behind it. When we play live we either want to reach many people or at least get enough smart money. We already had the ideal situation when both was true. Playing in a stinking hole to almost noone is out of the question for us. We rather fondle ourselves than driving endless miles for nothing.

Nevertheless we will be playing a few self-organized club gigs in 2015. Demand from our local following is huge. Superior Austria rocks (laughs).

J.A.: Then we still want to know how you got the opening gigs for Deep Purple and The Sweet…

P.V.: We have raised attention right at our doorstep by spreading the great news about our collaboration with a multi platinum producer as well as our true live power. Again I mention the magic word: networking.

J.A.: Two final questions about the music business. What has worked best for you and Sergeant Steel?

P.V.: Definitely our music videos. We have also been running a dual strategy for years. We not only work the international genre niche, but also focus on our local network – here it is again. There are so many things at an arm’s reach: Fans, promoters, live technicians, studios, journalists, venues, labels. Bottom line: Don’t only gaze into the distance but also grab the offline opportunities in your area as well.

J.A.: And what would you recommend not at all?

P.V.: Providers of marketing campaigns that do not offer transparence and realistic prospects of success. The same is true for lady visitors backstage (laughs).

Sergeant Steel Website
Sergeant Steel on Facebook 

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About MusicBizMadness

Julian Angel is a chart-noted songwriter and film musician with Hollywood credits. He has successfully released six (physical) records by himself. MusicBiz Madness started as a business conference in Germany and keeps sharing hands-on advice for musicians and people in the music industry.
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