ELAV (c) Nathalie Düring
ELAV (c) Nathalie Düring

In this series, mica – music austria and Austrian Music Export have collected the experiences and perspectives of women in the music business. No matter the categories, quotas or breakdown, the goal is 100% of us working together in the struggle for feminism. Valentina Vale is a successful artist and content creator; for about a year now, she’s been making waves as a musician as well, under the name ELAV.

How and where did you get your experience in the music business? 

ELAV: Five years ago, I had a really incomplete picture of the branch. I almost never went to concerts when I was younger; I was in completely different bubbles. I had a hard time meeting people who had a similar vibe to mine but also made music. I learned a lot from my previous relationship with a musician – I took on responsibilities in management, creative direction/music videos, press photos, etc. and I got a very direct, artist-centered introduction to the business. But even today, a lot of things still aren’t clear to me.

What were your biggest challenges, and how did you overcome them?

ELAV: My absolute biggest challenge was not knowing where to start. The music biz, or the idea of a career in music, seemed so distant to me that until I was 18, I didn’t realize that it was actually a realistic – though extremely difficult – option. You have to do something about it.

“Music can get expensive really quickly, especially if you want to pay the people you’re working with well.”

What kind of support have you received in your career? 

ELAV: The question is, where does the “career” start? Music was very present in my family. My parents gave me the opportunity to learn instruments that I was interested in. Recorder, oboe, piano in private lessons, and then other instruments at school – guitar and even a bamboo flute that I made myself. I sang a lot, and took singing lessons as well, but there I mostly learned classical technique and sang Italian aria, although I would rather have learned pop songs.

When I finally dared to start writing music of my own, in 2021, it was pretty hard to find people who wanted to work with me – I didn’t really have a direction of my own yet, and nothing to show them. My manager at the time tried to help me with contacts to producers, but it wasn’t easy to find producers who were right for me. He [my manager] helped me a great deal with the bureaucracy and grants. A distribution deal with Sony Deutschland helped the label I co-founded with an advance (in other words, a loan that I have to pay back with income from music); I can use that to pay for my music, or at least part of it. Music can get expensive really quickly, especially if you want to pay the people you’re working with well.

Video: ELAV – diva

After my first EP and the financial support from Sony, I have to be incredibly thankful for the production grant I received from the Austrian Music Fund (Österreichische Musikfonds). Before I started with music, I already had an idea of the level of quality that was important to me in music. But I can’t deliver that quality on my own, so the bills for production, equipment, engineers, mixing and mastering, music videos, etc. pile up very quickly. (I “save” a lot on music videos because I do a lot of the work myself, but at the same time, I pay for it with a huge time investment. That’s not always the most economical way to go.)

OK, I got a little sidetracked. What I wanted to say was, a couple of amazing souls that crossed my path showed me approaches to music that still influence me, help me, and inspire me. David Graf was the first person who really showed interest in my project, after several difficult months looking for a team – although I couldn’t tell him exactly what I wanted to do. David helped me build the foundation, so to speak – with a lot of love and patience. That was how I was able to learn how to work with others on a project that’s so close to my heart. Not an easy thing to do! 

“I was really surprised how condescending people who have been in the biz for years were to people who were just starting out.”

Where would you have liked to have (more) support?

ELAV: I would have liked more openness to someone who was basically just beginning and had no plan. I was just really surprised how condescending people who have been in the biz for years were to people who were just starting out. Here, too, communication from both sides makes a huge difference. My interest in music is so broad and I want to do so many things; a lot of people didn’t understand that. I keep getting this feeling that people in the business think in categories, that eclecticism isn’t really on their radar. Like, they automatically don’t like what they don’t know.

When I was looking for people to work with me, I met with a lot of skepticism. Maybe it was partially because it wasn’t really known publicly how deeply I was musically involved in my previous project. The Austrian scene just knew me as a partner, a lot of people didn’t take me seriously or give me a chance to show them what I could do. So generally, I would have loved to have an environment where it’s OK to try out things you’re unfamiliar with or can’t do. An environment that’s curious enough to find out what you can do.

Did you have role models around you to look up to? 

ELAV: I wouldn’t really say “role models”, but I get inspiration from a lot of different people and artists. I’m very analytical and I have a hard time to see someone as a role model when so many different variables impact different lives, and there’s no concrete recipe for how to become an artist. That’s one reason that it was so hard for me to explain what I want to do – I don’t really know of anything else like what I see and hear in my head. Which is logical in a way; that’s the beautiful thing about doing your own thing.

I find artists again and again along the way who impress me in some way, and I try to analyze why they impress me and how I could use it. A few people who have really inspired me (and who are now VERY successful) are Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, and some other. It’s also been really interesting to see how Nina Chuba’s career has developed, how she’s picked up momentum in the past few years.

What role models do women/queer people in the music business have right now? 

ELAV: OH MY GOD so many. The ones I just mentioned, and I’m just going to name all the names that occur to me. Everyone who reads this should search these names on a streaming app. They all have something special, something that I find cool, inspiring and/or motivating. Sometimes it’s more than just the music, sometimes just a single element from their music or their lives. In completely random order:

Video: ELAV – toxisch

Valeriooon, Pure Chlorine, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift (also because of the music business aspect, that’s super interesting), Lisa Pac, W1ZEYasmo, Dacid Go8lin, Jessi J, Keke, Kerosin95, Alli Neumann, Cloudy June, Billie Eilish, Dilla, Pantha, Charli XCX, Paula Hartmann, Juju, Lea, Nura, Girl in Red, Avril Lavigne, Kesha, Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Bishop Briggs, Charlotte Lawrence, Charlotte Sands, Eli Preiss, Leah Kate, Jessie Murph, Bea Miller, Ashnikko, stef, Salem Ilese, Luca Malina, Emmy Meli, Novaa, Camilla Cabello, Zolita, Quinn XCII, Zhavia, Ava Simons Fletcher, Anne Marie, Sandra Hesch, Felicia Lu, Jennifer Rostock, Yaenniver, Ante Schomaker, Madeline Juno, Elif, Pink, Madonna, etc.

“I try to share my knowledge.”

What can you pass on to others?

ELAV: Tough question. I try to share my knowledge. That’s probably the reason that social media is so important to me, because I can do it there in my own way and reach people who might be interested. I’m sure it comes from the fact that it was such an odyssey for me to get this information, and I would have liked to have access to these worlds sooner.

I just want to pass on that no matter how bad you are at something, if it brings you joy, just keep doing it. Learn more about it and get better, or don’t, and just enjoy it. Don’t let other people and their feedback take away that joy, especially if they don’t really know everything you can do.

If you want to do something, there’s always a way: just find it. It might mean you have to make compromises, but think carefully about what compromises are compatible with your desires.

Feedback from other people is ONE opinion, not THE opinion, even if the person has much more experience that you do.

Tastes vary, and maybe the thing that you like most is exactly the thing that a lot of other people don’t like. There are people out there who will support what you do. I never knew how beautiful it is to make art with other people, when creative people put their heads together, open up beautiful new universes and explore them.

Share your art.

Ask for help.

Learn it yourself. Sometimes you find the people you need, but when that doesn’t happen learn to do things for yourself. No matter what it is, you can learn the basics on the internet. Sometimes that’s all you need to get started. 

Step by step – I have to remind myself of that every day. It’s OK not to be a pro at everything. If you celebrate it, if you have fun with it, the people around you will see that, even if only subconsciously. That’s something that’s very hard to fake.

And finally: if you enjoy it, DON’T QUIT. Life is a mystery full of puzzles. Almost everything can be solved somehow, and sometimes compromises are a gift, not a punishment.

What role does age play for you?

ELAV: Experience teaches us a lot. When you experience things, try things out, you always learn from it. Age can be an indicator of that. But I also know people who experience more every week than others do in an entire year, so [age] isn’t the only measure. In the end, we all have the same problems; age doesn’t usually dictate which level you’re at. Regardless of the project or the passion, at the beginning you’re always inexperienced. The more you do, the better you get.  The important thing is the direction you choose, and how far you develop along it.

Actually there’s no recipe for anything. There are a few tips that will help, but every life is so shaped by individual influences that you just have to learn to deal with it and use it positively. It took a long time for me to realize that, and I’m still finding out what exactly it means for me. And while I’m doing that, I try not to constantly stress about how quickly the time goes and how quickly I’m getting older.

But I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t concern me. I wish I had started earlier, but I didn’t know any better then. At the same time, my knowledge from different areas that I’ve worked in helps me a lot now. What I do now, and how I do it, is only possible because of that. I’m just really glad that I’ve finally managed to be living the life that I only used to dream about. The issue of time and age is complicated for me, and it definitely bothers me. The influence of society doesn’t make it any easier, either – but I try to tell myself: if you want to do it, then do it.

“It would be great to have events that offer inexperienced artists in particular an opportunity to see how this world works.”

What would you like to see in terms of a more diverse music scene?

ELAV: I’d say diverse booking. There are so many events every week in every city, and I think it would be great to see more mixed line-ups. Also, there are so many newcomers that are doing cool sh*t. It would be great to have events that offer inexperienced artists in particular an opportunity to see how this world works. Rhythm & Poetry has some events like that. I wish I had known that a few years ago; I would have like to try it out.

photo of ELAV by Nathalie Düring
ELAV (c) Nathalie Düring

What questions do you get asked that a man would never be asked?

ELAV: Isn’t that question indirectly exactly that kind of question? Haha. I try not to focus too much on the disadvantages that arise because of my gender, or the way people see my body; I try to see how I can make progress in the things I want to do in spite of it. I was always more interested in issues, professions, passions, etc. that are/were male-dominated, but I never let it stop me from doing them.

It’s a big problem in this branch, and I do my best to contribute to making it smaller. But in the end, there are always advantages and disadvantages beyond gender. I find the approach important in every respect – just finding a way to do what you want. I think it’s important to realize that there are differences because of that, but at the same time not to allow yourself to be brought down by it – in spite of everything, to follow the paths that make you happy. Do your thing!

Thank you for letting me share my thoughts.

Translated from the German original by Philip Yaeger.