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Amber sings out on illegal downloads, Clarkson’s woes

Amber’s pissed!

        As sales of albums plummet annually and potential buyers download CDs illegally, the traditional music industry is reeling. The number of radio stations playing high-energy dance music has dwindled to nearly zip. And international singer/songwriter Amber’s mad about how it’s all being mismanaged.

        Don’t even get her started on the years she was packaged as a commodity while others dictated what she could sing or say. Even her professional name was decided without her input. But Amber (a.k.a. Marie-Claire Cremers) is on her own now, and she’s saying what she damn well pleases.

        But what’s Amber pleased about? Well, iTunes, Kelly Clarkson, her “boys” and her visit to Pittsburgh for the Sept. 29 river cruise.

        When the special events committee of Pride in the Street announced the latest fall cruise on the Gateway Clipper fleet, its coup was attracting Amber. A decade ago, the Dutch-born singer topped the dance charts with her single “This is Your Night.” That success was quickly repeated with “Sexual (Li Da Di),” “Love One Another” and “Above the Clouds.” More recently, three of her singles climbed to the Top 5 of the international dance charts. In addition to more than six albums, Amber’s released remixed CDs and her songs are included on many dance music compilation CDs. Her latest single “Melt With the Sun” is featured on iTunes. Impressive.

        Not surprisingly then, Amber took control of her recent phone interview with Out. She’s enthusiastic about being in charge of her career and performing in Pittsburgh, but first she had a few things to get off her chest.

Amber: We have lost so many radio stations that support the genre of dance music. Right now we are down to about seven or eight stations that are BDS connected, that actually could have some input in promoting our music. [Editor’s note: BDS or Broadcast Data Systems collect airplay data and detect how often a particular song is played.] Pretty much, we’re back to zero.

        In 2004 when things were really in a state of emergency, for me it was the best chance to get out of my contract because I wanted to be on my own for a long time. I’m very self-sufficient. I had already established a fan crowd, but I also wanted to come out with a different kind of music. I’m very widespread musically, but I was marketed and geared to one crowd only. I didn’t appreciate that. So for me it was good at that time.

Out: How do you feel about how the Internet has taken over the role of radio stations? Online, Pandora and Last.FM do play your music.

Amber: It all depends. I saw an industry that was very oblivious to the needs of creative artists, and that was my reason for why I stepped out of my conventional recording contract. I clearly saw an industry that was fighting the change. There is nothing you are going to do about millions of people illegally downloading music. You really have to come up with a different concept.

              Sure it’s great to have Internet radio, but it’s still questionable how good it will be. And another thing is a lot of these Internet radio stations are not BDS connected. At least when you are played by a BDS station, as a writer you would get paid per play. Now you don’t get shit! Your music is just out there, and everyone’s enjoying it—hey, let’s have a good time! But in the end we don’t get anything back. I have to pay for remixes, production, mastering, artwork—name it, a million things.

Do you see yourself as a singer and a songwriter?

Absolutely. This country feels they need to pigeonhole you, put you in little boxes. That’s very much how radio reflects music. Everything is boxed.    Whereas if you go to Europe and turn on a radio station, you can hear a rock song, a pop song, a ballad, hip hop. Music is music, people! There are all kinds of different formats and forms. That’s what creativity is about. I come from a musical family. My mother is a piano teacher and songwriter, my father is an opera singer; so you can imagine my house was filled with all kinds of music. And that is what I like to express in my music.

Why do you think you were able to cross over internationally? What made your music click?

That is something that if people knew the formula to that, everybody would take that formula and be successful. I really think all kinds of things just happened to collide in the universe and explode. I didn’t really know until I was 16 or so that maybe it was a possibility that I wanted to entertain. I went from fashion show to fashion show, covered songs by Barbra Streisand, maybe modeling in between, and from one thing comes another. In my mid-20s I started to meet producers, and I just happened to meet one producer team who had a hit record here in American. We sat down and wrote “This is Your Night” and produced it. They took it to America, and I got a call for a huge Universal deal—boom, bang! Everything took off from there.

        But from there I had to learn some very hard lessons, which I am trying to pass on to musicians out there who ask me for advice. I tell them you have to educate yourself because this industry was built on creative people who are not really good business people. So other people were able to take advantage of us, and that’s how they built an empire. It’s why everybody’s so angry right now because everything that they have stolen is falling apart. But in the end we artists are going to suffer too.

        I got a huge deal and I had never dealt with the music industry before. The industry’s saying: Let’s see what kind of dumb bitch we have here. How can we market her, get market groups—I was never aware of target groups, marketing, imaging. I was completely oblivious to that, and obviously that’s how they take advantage. Unless you have extremely good lawyers from the beginning. I was stupid enough to listen to my producers who said, “Hey, take this lawyer. He’ll take care of you.” And that lawyer said, “Great! Just sign right here.” And I signed my rights away.

Now that you’re in control, doesn’t that have its minuses too?

Well, you control your own destiny. You have to put out everything out of pocket. You’re taking the risk. On the other hand, if it messes up I can say to myself that’s because I messed up. Or maybe the song was not as good as I thought it was. But I’d rather be in my situation now than I was before being under a label. It’s very stressful. There are a lot of demands, and a lot of things that go against my grain. I’m not good with authority. I’m very much my own person.

Now that you’re not being packaged, what are you doing differently?

Right now, I obviously make all the decisions. I started in 2004 and came out with an album called My Kind of World, which was a mixture of all kinds of musical styles: electronica, rock. It really was on my timetable. I started writing and working with my producer on it in Germany. It was a very slow-moving project because at that time I was going through a horrific divorce with a bastard of an ex-husband. All of these emotions and darkness inspired the album, which was the complete opposite [of my previous music].

        At that point in time I just wanted honesty. After all those friggin’ years of working hard for everybody else but myself, I needed to do that just to keep myself sane. The reviews were extremely positive, but the way this country markets and boxes its artists, it doesn’t give them a lot of play room. Overall, the album did not sell as well as I expected.

But you did have some Top 5 dance hits from that album: “You Move Me,” “Voodoo” and “Just Like That.” Did you write those songs?

Yes, I did. Then last year I came out with a single, “Melt With the Sun,” which I wrote and produced with the main production with Sweet Rain, which was one of my previous remixers. He came to me with a basic track and asked for some advice on it. I actually like the way he had it and just had him change some lyrics and this and that. He said come in and change whatever your want. I sang the demo in his studio, and about six months later I thought that it really was a song for me.

        When I started out with “This is Your Night” the lyrics were too simplistic for me. I didn’t realize back then that that would be my market niche, keeping me dumb and stupid. When I realized that, I decided to raise dance to a different level, and that’s when I started writing songs like “Love One Another” or “Sexual.” It wasn’t boom-boom-boom, I want you in my room. It had a different lyrical content to it, and it crossed over to a lot of Top 40 radio stations in the end. Which was good for me.

        With [“Melt With the Sun”] I felt the lyrical content was poetic and very beautiful because I really like poetry, and the singing lines are very strong. So there are a lot of components I look for if I’m boxing myself into that genre, which people really want to hear. So it became a matter of how to package it correctly without undermining myself and my musicality. Of course, they said, “OK, that’s an Amber track.”

Is “Melt With the Sun” on a new album?

No, it’s not on a new album because right now you have to understand that being the way the market is, the album market is completely dead. We’re blessed to have legal downloads right now. God bless iTunes, wonderful people with genius enough to come in with that particular concept. At least there’s something coming back. People have the opportunity to download everything, which means we have less physical, production costs. If you have an international online distributor, you send them the masters and they up-load it to all the people they are connected with. That is much better.

I still like to have the album. I want to see the artwork and read something. But I know younger people who never buy CDs; they get their songs only from iTunes.

I’m the same way! I don’t have an iPod, I don’t download, but that probably has more to do with our age. If we like something, we want to have it in our hand. We want to feel it, see who worked on it, see who did the photography.

How did you get the name Amber anyway?

Ah, honey, how did I get the name Amber? I’m still wondering. When I first signed, a lot of things were thrown at me. Like, OK, by the way your name’s not going to be Marie-Claire, it’ll be Amber because in America everything is sorted by A-B-C-D in record stores; so we want you to have a name with “A.” Don’t put any deep thought behind this, honey. Now a lot of whores are called Amber! It’s horrible.

That sounds very much like the Hollywood studio system of the ’30s when they controlled the stars’ lives. They picked the names, the vehicles. Very much what happened when you got involved in the music business.

Absolutely. I would’ve loved to keep my personal name, but at this point of time I say, you know what, maybe it’s better this way. Obviously Amber is the professional person, and Marie-Claire is the private person. But it doesn’t make that much of a difference because I’m very straightforward with both personalities.

I found your Web site very interesting. When you write to your fans who post in the forum I was impressed with how frank you are.

For many years there’s been too much putting me on a pedestal. When I started my divorce, I wanted to change a lot of things. The person I was married to for a short time—thank God—there was too much control on top of my label, and he was trying to control my career too. I felt things could’ve been done better. I really wanted to connect with my fans. The bottom line is that they come up with great ideas. These are the people who support me and buy my records, for God’s sake. I feel they deserve some kind of attention. That’s how I started [my site]. My people are there and they ask all kinds of questions; they can write about anything they want—as long as it stays constructive.      

        Kelly Clarkson is in the same kind of situation. She had a certain image around her. She’s a very talented girl. What is a bad selling record? Can a Top 10 record be a bad selling record? After Number One there’s no place to go but down. It’s just reality. And guess what, you will be up again at some point. I listened to her [new] record and think people should just be more objective and not pigeonhole her. She sounds fabulous. It’s just that it’s not the genre you’re used to hearing her in. You cannot say honestly that this is a badly produced record. It’s not.

        That’s something I’ve had to fight my whole career. People want me to make another “Sexual.” I don’t copy myself! “This Kylie song… can you sound like Kylie?” Kylie! Kylie is Kylie. This industry chokes you, chokes the life out of you.

Now about this Fall River Cruise. It’s predominantly gay—well, I’m sure there will be some straight people on it, but…

Honey, it’s a gay cruise! Even if it was a straight cruise, if I’m coming it will be a gay cruise.

But what is it about you that attracts this loyal gay fan base?

I’ve been asked that question so many times. Probably the music style. Generally the gay population has to deal with some issues in coming to terms with themselves. There are family circumstances when people get disowned. Instead of accepting the person you are, they go through a lot of struggles. So I think that this particular kind of upbeat music is for them because they want to enjoy themselves. They’re a very enthusiastic crowd.

        I am glad and lucky to have the gay community as my fan base because they are forgiving and they will stick by you no matter what. Look at Madonna, Cher, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand—honey, if they did not have the boys…. That’s their core base. Maybe we’re kind of like a mother figure.

You don’t think your image is a motherly one, do you?

Oh, I’m not talking about wearing a friggin’ apron. I’m talking about the way you talk, express yourself, the way you handle yourself. A stronger woman, a woman with a little more authority and respect. A woman who can make fun of themselves, can be bitchy—a woman with all her facets and colors. For some reason it’s something that attracts a gay fan club. I don’t know exactly why. All I can tell you is that I feel blessed and I’m very grateful. The boys are a very, very big part of my career.

        For information on the Fall River Cruise, see “Out and About” on page 31. For more information on Amber, visit www.myspace.com/ambersings  or www.amber-mcc.com.

David Doorley for Pittsburgh's Out
The Q Archives and articles like this are republished here by the kind contribution of Tony Molnar-Strejcek, the publisher of Pittsburgh’s Out. Maintaining the cultural history of Pittsburgh's LGBTQ Community is made possible by contributions by readers like you.