L.A. Singer-Songwriter Ali Angel on Building Your Own Niche

“You can’t go home again” may still be an article of faith among the literati, but singer-songwriter Ali Angel’s return to her hometown of Los Angeles, after stints in New Orleans and Nashville, was just what she needed to find her voice. Now she’s carving a niche outside the mainstream, building a loyal fanbase and, ultimately, a brand. 

Only a few years out of college, the earthy Angel says that returning to the place where she grew up as a self-described “valley girl” in order to be a musician has been both hard and easy. While she’d had a band during school and played everywhere from porches to “grimy” New Orleans clubs, being back in Los Angeles meant starting from scratch, but as a professional. “I learned as I went,” Angel tells me from her car on a freeway somewhere near Hollywood. “I didn’t have a band at home so I just had to put myself out there and find people to work with–not only the right people to play with but the right people to produce with.”

Angel, a child of the 1990s, found herself largely inspired by music made before she was born. “A lot of what I write is retro soul,” she says. Leon Bridges has been a “huge” inspiration, while her latest cover is of an Al Green standard. Angel also cites Hall & Oates and the White Stripes’ Jack White as influences. When some fans told her that they sensed a country twang, she fondly remembered her mother listening to the Dixie Chicks, Toby Keith and other stars during the decade that country went mainstream. “I remember listening to Keith Urban going to the beach in middle school!” she laughs. “My mom is from Texas, so she listened to a lot of country growing up.”

New Orleans, where she attended college at Tulane, provided a live-music master-class in the brass sections that are now part of many of her singles. And it was the vibrant scene there that pushed her into performing. “A lot of artists nowadays can get away with being on TikTok or having a lot of streams but they’re not artists in the sense of being performers,” she says. “I love gigging and doing shows.”

L.A., she says, is a little more sceney than New Orleans–also less rambunctious and more intimate, which suits her singer-songwriter vibe. Angel writes her own music and lyrics, then takes them to her producing partner and the band for fine-tuning. “Most of the songs are about my own personal life–relationships, problems, feelings,” she says. “It’s the easiest and most authentic way to go. Writing what you know and all that. I started writing in college about my life and my friends’ lives because there was just a lot more to write about. The latest song I wrote is about the mess that is being in your twenties.” Unlike a lot of recording artists or social media stars, Angel isn’t trying to pander to a certain demo or trend.

Authenticity is a hallmark of Angel’s music, which means using real musicians and often, vintage recording equipment. This kind of production is far more expensive than just plugging into an iMac, but she’s networked to make it happen. “The more music I make, the more friends I make,” she says. “For example, I know a trombonist who plays in a big band in New Orleans. He doesn’t charge me an absurd amount even though he could.” She and her producer have also been “clever” about how they manage the recording process, mixing and matching different components from plug-ins to tape machines to a rare console from the 1970s to MIDI, the granddaddy of digital music, in order to mimic a Wurlitzer. “Whatever we can get away with!” Angel laughs. “I’m scrappy but I’m also lucky because my co-producers have great equipment. But what’s cool about new music now is that anybody can make it. You don’t need access to an expensive recording studio, and a lot of artists are doing an EP (extended play record) instead of a full album. Or just single after single. The cost of recording, mixing, mastering and producing thirteen full songs is insane.”

While Angel prefers older technology for recording–something that is gaining popularity but still hardly mainstream–she’s using the latest platforms for marketing. Even though apps like Apple Music and Spotify avail listeners of decades of popular music, people are (thankfully) always looking for what’s new. She says that streaming platforms mean independence–at least the possibility for artists to make full-time livings as independent musicians, without the financial backing of a label. “It’s all about playlisting now,” she says. “Every artist just wants to get on the Spotify Editorial playlist. My main priority was getting on as many user playlists and platforms as I could.”  Last year, she hired a consultant to help her launch her single “Play Pretend,” which has so far chalked up more than 75,000 streams. 

She’s found that where she finds new music is where her fans find her music. That means Apple Music and Spotify, though not Instagram. “There’s no correlation between success and audience on IG and the streaming platforms,” she warns. “I have a friend who has only 6,000 followers on IG but 2 million streams; then there are people who have a huge IG following but they only have 10k streams on their Spotify. You can’t gauge real fans based on Instagram.”

Nor, she says, can you do it all virtually. “Performing is important because it puts you in front of the promoters who put together bills and shows,” Angel says. “And you’ll never know who’s going to be at the show itself. We had a gig at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood, a really old-school venue. This photographer was there taking photos near the stage. Later he gave me all of these amazing photos for free.”

Her advice to others looking to follow a similar path is threefold. First off, build a fanbase that’s actually listening and pre-saves and follows your playlist. Keep in mind that it’s better to have 300 real fans who are buying your stuff than 10,000 fake followers–and that the fastest way to get there may be slow and steady.

Another priority should be learning all the aspects of the music business. “I quickly learned that you can’t just be a musician, you have to be a businessperson and figure out the best strategies for advertising and pitching and making sure that you’re making money on all of the options available,” she says. “That’s why I paid money to people who would help me do that. Now I have a team and we have a whole plan to roll out the EP, single by single and video by video. We schedule the music to send to music supervisors and brands. You can’t just expect people to find your music, you have to give it to them.”

Finally, she advises to always take input from other musicians, then go with your gut in the end. “When I first started out, I thought everything had to sound super-professional so I hired an experienced producer but my songs just ended up sounding a bit radio-y and were going in a direction I just didn’t see for myself” she recalls. “It cost me a lot of time and money and effort that, if I had just been honest and upfront, I would have saved. So even though I hate confrontation and I’m a people pleaser, I’m always so glad when I put my foot down. There’s so much you won’t know when you start out; meanwhile your gut is leading you somewhere for a reason. Follow your intuition.”

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