From Musician to Freelance Writer: Kevin Mitchell’s Incredible Journey
“If you buy into the rule of six degrees of separation, by knowing me you are immediately a mere three degrees from your favorite pop/rock star. I don’t get to hang out with Tom Petty, but I’m close friends with his tour manager of 40 years; I’ve never had a drink with Billy Joel, but I have his lighting guy’s cellphone number.”
Most young musicians seeking a music degree enter college believing that this is their first step towards fame and fortune. At the end of four years, many of these students will instead obtain degrees in Music Education or Music Therapy to guarantee post-graduate employment. Very few of these graduates will go on to make a living as full-time musicians, and even fewer will actually make it to the “big time.” Competition is fierce in the music profession and, aside from the few careers mentioned above, a degree in music offers very few evident job options.
And then there’s Kevin Mitchell, a freelance writer and stay-at-home Dad who lives in Webster Groves. Using his lifelong musical passion and education, Kevin has become an incredibly prolific writer for the musical instrument industry. In addition to writing for the musically-minded, Kevin’s list of clients includes many names well known to the present day consumer, including Hewlett Packard, Nestle, Best Western, Huggies, Kellogg’s and, one of the most elite clients in the world, Disney.
Kevin spends his days writing articles or copy for magazines, flyers, press releases, digital media, producing educational or corporate videos and scripts, and managing a multitude of Facebook and Twitter streams for his clients. A typical assignment may entail going to see Brad Paisley in concert in order to interview a tour manager or to write an article about the lighting schematic for the show. Past gigs include writing about the business side of musical instruments, so when a new guitar or amplifier is hitting the market, Kevin will provide text describing its capabilities and provide comparisons with other similar products. He is quick to point out that he does not receive free merchandise in order to test for these missions, however if he happens to buy an item in advance of his review process, it is tax deductible.
So, how does a Music Composition major end up writing and editing for so many different industry magazines? “It’s all luck,” according to Mitchell, “things just kind of fell in place.”
When Kevin entered second grade he started bugging his father to buy a piano. At age 9 he wrote his first musical composition, a piece so memorable that the composer remembers more about the writing process than he does the title or melody.
In high school, Kevin became a bass player for the Lindbergh Jazz Band, while at the same time getting heavily involved with the school’s drama department. A self described “theatre geek,” he formed a group at Lindbergh called The Sloths, a small group of friends and fellow drama students who produced comedies, musicals and sketches. It was during this time that Kevin began to write short plays and one-acts for his friends to perform.
When it was time to go to college, Kevin discloses “I was kind of torn between theatre and music.” He enrolled at St. Louis Community College – Meramec, taking an equal number of music and theatre production classes. By the end of his second year he had decided to pursue a degree in Music Composition from the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC). His father was initially unhappy about this decision, concerned that his son would not be able to land a good job with just a degree in music. Kevin had not yet realized that getting a musical education would not result in “being the next Elton John, the next Billy Joel or getting a job with the St. Louis Symphony.”
While at UMKC, Kevin took a job writing for the campus newspaper, the University News. The Conservatory was thrilled, because for the first time they had someone writing about events happening in the Music Department. His first interviews were with the music school’s faculty and visiting guest artists like Jerry Goldsmith. Shortly after he got his feet wet writing for the school paper, he landed a job at the Kansas City Star writing obituaries.
Kevin explains, “If you were interested in journalism (in the early 80s) around here, you could go to Columbia (Mizzou), or KU (Lawrence, Kansas). If I had gone to either of those I wouldn’t have gotten to do anything. At UMKC I walked in and I started writing movie reviews, then I became the Features Editor, the Arts Editor, Managing Editor, then Editor. It was a paying gig, so I was able to work my way through college a little bit. I got to interview a lot of great people before I even got to the Kansas City Star.”
After graduation, Kevin spent the next several years living in Kansas City, playing in rock bands and working as a word processor for an architectural engineering firm. “I was gonna be a rock star of course in Kansas City,” declares Kevin, ”I had my own band! When I was 27, I was pushing a big amp up to a bar on the second floor, I had already been married and divorced, and I thought, you know, I don’t think I’m going to be a rock star.” When asked which rock star he wanted to be at that point, Kevin quickly responded, “Todd Rundgren!”
That moment of clarity became a turning point for Kevin. Upon realizing that he was not going to be the next Todd Rundgren, he came up with an alternate plan that made perfect sense at the time. Kevin would move to L.A. to become a comedy writer.
“For 10 years I wrote plays, musicals and I had a couple of things produced,” admits Kevin. Successes included writing for The Groundlings, two TV pilots and multiple near misses with jobs writing for sitcoms. He was heavily involved in the theatre culture of L.A. but made little money from those efforts. Faced with finding a day job to pay for living expenses, Kevin confesses “I was an amazing typist! I did 96 words per minute with no mistakes, so that would open up weird jobs for me.”
Answering an ad for a Word Processing position, Kevin found himself on the doorstep of an L.A. based publisher. Previous to this interview, Kevin had conditioned himself to downplay his musical degree, telling potential employers “Oh, that was just a stupid thing I did and blah, blah, blah, and I don’t do anything with it, and I really want to work with your architectural firm!”
Sitting in his interview, Kevin tells us “this guy kept wanting to talk about my musical background and I kept downplaying it. Finally he says, ‘Do you know what we publish?,’ and I didn’t!” As it turned out, the position was at Alfred Music, the world’s leading music publisher.
While at Alfred, Kevin moved up to become an editor and eventually Director of Public Relations and Marketing. Simultaneously, he began writing books and freelancing for other publications. Books like “How to Put a Band Together,” “Making a Great Demo,” the “Essential Songwriter’s Rhyming Dictionary” and “The Musician’s Ultimate Joke Book” are just a few of the books he has written that are still in publication and still delivering royalty payments a few decades later. It was also at Alfred that Kevin met his wife, Lauren. The couple wed in 1999.
Immediately after marrying, he quit his good, steady-with-benefits day job to launch a freelance career. Kevin then started writing articles for MMR Magazine, the Musical Merchandise Review, a publication read by music retailers around the world. Suddenly he had the clout to interview industry giants like Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars, Chris Martin from Martin Guitars, or the CEO of Steinway. Over the next 15 years Kevin worked his way up from being a freelance contributor to Editorial Director of the entire MMR publication.
“In 2001 we decided to start a family, so that’s when we decided to move back here,” says Kevin. “By that point my writing career was pretty solid, and I could work from anywhere.” An added bonus to this plan entailed Kevin working from home so that he could be a stay at home dad and raise their two sons while still working for seven different magazines, one set based in Boston, the other set based in Las Vegas.
Upon his return to St. Louis Kevin was picking up jobs writing for St. Louis Magazine and several other local publications, almost always exploiting some musical aspect of his subject. New doors continued to open and his roster grew to include clients as varied as an insurance company, a winery in Napa Valley, several non-profits and, most notably, the most famous Mouse in the world. Last year his children’s play, “Ben Franklin Ate My Homework” was published. His “Beanstalk! The Musical!” has been produced twice in St. Louis.
Much of the writing he does for these clients requires the ability to speak in different voices. For instance, the insurance work that Kevin does requires him to ghostwrite in the voice of his client. He ghostwrites daily for the client’s blog, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, and manages two Facebook accounts.
Kevin recently wrote an online quiz for Oh My Disney entitled “Which Disney Princess Am I?,” which includes questions regarding the best qualities to look for in a Prince and your favorite location to burst into song. Another assignment for Disney’s XD Channel needed the voice of a 13 year old snowboarder, a task that sent him to Google to find samples of popular phrases and slang used in that culture.
When asked how he manages to get so many interesting writing assignments, Kevin explains “I just say yes to everything, that’s the secret, just say yes and then figure it out.” He agrees that In addition to being a good writer, you must also have skills of project and time management, business management, accounting, and other endless tasks.
Kevin continues, “You would be surprised how many people who work as freelancers don’t return the client’s phone calls, who don’t follow up, who creates something that the client doesn’t like and take it personally. For some reason I figured out right away how important that all was. No matter how many magazines I’ve written for, or how many clients I have had, when that phone rings I make them feel like they are the only people I’m working for.”
Asked if he ever got to meet his idol, Todd Rundgren, Kevin relays, “I’ve gotten to meet him twice! The first time I met him was in 2005, he came to an awards show that I was producing and he was the keynote speaker. Part of my job was to go and walk him around the trade show. I was trying to play it cool and I said ‘You know, Todd by the time I was 21 years old I had only seen 24 rock shows, and 19 of them were you!’ and he went, ‘That’s weird!’”
You can learn more about Kevin and connect to his many blogs and other writings via his website at www.kevinmmitchell.com. Kevin is also the leader of the Kevin Mitchell 4, a jazz band that offers “Martini Music With a Twist!”