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Milana Zilnik. Photo provided.

From jazz to minimalistic piano: MilArt Studio finds Apple Music success

By Sonya Gankina on June 17, 2021

This is a guest post from Arty & Milana of MilArt Studio. Arty & Milana live in Kanata Lakes in Ottawa.

My wife, Milana Zilnik, started playing piano and singing at 4 years old. I (Arty Sandler) myself am not a musician but I come from a family of a great lyricist (my mother) and an electronics engineer (my father) who spent many years working with audio equipment. Milana and I got married back in 2003 when we both lived in Israel. In 2008 we moved to Canada, together with our 4-year-old daughter and 5-months-old son.

After getting married and having our first child, Milana stopped thinking about making a career in music and leaned towards early childhood education. She used music a lot when teaching kids but it was just one of the tools and not the main focus.

I had to overcome her resistance and it took me quite a few good years to convince her to try making a full career in music. In 2012 she finally agreed and we started our project. In 2015, we did an interview with Daytime Ottawa:

At first, our work was about recording her piano improvisations, then she wrote lyrics to some of those pieces, turning them into songs. We posted our first shy attempts on SoundCloud and to our surprise, we quickly gained some popularity in the community. In January 2013, as a recognition for being one of the most active and influential members, we got the “SoundCloud Heroes” award—two of the only 40 members who received this honour. We were the only ones from Canada. The only ones from Russia, Ukraine and Israel as well, speaking of all the places we lived.

We did refinance our mortgage to buy a grand piano.

Since then it’s been a long journey of ups and downs. There were many times when we felt stuck and frustrated. Yet, there always were some “triggers” that motivated us to keep going. We did invest into our project a lot, making it quite an “expensive hobby” as I used to call it. We did refinance our mortgage to buy a grand piano. Then we did it again to fund our first large-scale music video—filmed in Kailash Mital theatre, with a group of dancers, decorations, a crew of videographers, etc. The video brought us our first important award – “Classical Song of the Year” at the International Music and Entertainment Association’s (IMEA) Awards. It was our very first red carpet event.

Though, speaking of the technical aspects of this music video, I wasn’t very happy with how it turned to be. Perhaps, we jumped in way over our heads by attempting to pull off such a project with the experience we had. Yet, it definitely was an important learning experience. All of the following videos were based on those lessons learned. Both “The Piano As Big As a Tree” where I built 12 feet high replica of The Giant piano and filmed Milana playing on it in a local forest (in Dunrobin), and “Time” that was all done in a steampunk setting in Lime Kiln Ruins in Nepean.

Along with growing our own music, we also spent significant time and effort investing in the “session musician” side of my wife’s career. It was all based on the experience of collaborating with other musicians on SoundCloud in our early days there. We took it into a more commercial direction and bit-by-bit built some client base on SoundBetter—a site connecting freelance musicians with those who need music for their projects. There we’re getting all kinds of projects. Mainly arranging/composing piano lines for clients’ songs and/or recording them acoustically in our studio. However, we also get jobs asking us to record vocals or to compose for films. This latter one is the direction we’re currently trying to advance in—film composing. We did score three short films but definitely want to get our hands on more and bigger projects.

One of the tracks was nominated for the Hollywood Music in Media Awards.

As for our own music—last year we reached our first significant milestone that I can call “a breakthrough.” Back in 2019, I asked Milana to compose a minimalistic piano album—something that was quite different from her jazzy style. We released it in the summer of 2019 and the album got some significant recognition—one of the tracks was nominated for the Hollywood Music in Media Awards (along with one of the soundtracks we wrote for a short documentary). This was when we chose to fly to Hollywood to the award ceremony. This nomination and the style of music helped us to connect with a German indie label that expressed an interest in working with us. In the same fall of 2019, we composed and recorded a brand new piano solo album for the label.

Before January 2020 we had maybe 200-300 plays a week. By early February we had 200-300 thousand plays a week.

To our surprise, this album exploded on Apple Music—a platform we didn’t invest in at all (we were focusing on expanding our presence on Spotify). Before January 2020 we had maybe 200-300 plays a week. By early February we had 200-300 thousand plays a week. The label requested new albums, we recorded a few more and they exploded as well. This all was very timely—at that time most of Milana’s income came from her piano and vocal students. When the first lockdown started, most of her students decided not to switch to online lessons, hoping that it would be resolved quickly. Overnight, Milana lost two-thirds of her income.

We just finished composing all the tracks for our most advanced multi-instrumental album, prepared over 300 pages of scores for all the parts and were ready to start hiring session musicians when COVID-19 happened. We were quite devastated — after all the work that we’ve done, after all the preparations, we just didn’t have any funds to continue. And then the royalties from Apple Music started coming in and that changed everything. That was quite a timely miracle and we got lucky again to have another miracle happen right away—after several years SoundBetter accepted our request to become Premium providers (less than 5% of SoundBetter members get that). This immediately resulted in more recording jobs than we had before. Both these miracles made it possible to continue working on the album, which we released on Halloween, along with our music video—also the most challenging work we’ve ever attempted, with much more advanced camera work and special effects. All done as a family effort—Milana, myself, and our two teenagers who assisted on the filming day. This music video was the first one I dared to send to film festivals. To my surprise, it received numerous awards and was selected by over 30 festivals all over the world.

“Time” music video festival awards. Photo supplied.

Speaking of the Apple Music success—it didn’t stop last year and Milana keeps getting more and more recognition on that platform. In the last two weeks, Milana received the honour to be a guest curator of the biggest piano playlist on Apple Music, “Piano Chill”. To date 30 of our tracks were selected for this playlist by the official Apple Music curators, collecting 20 million streams on Apple Music alone.

As for our future plans: we are working on our next multi-instrumental album (along with piano solo ones), which will be like a sequel to the one we released last year: same vibe, same style but taken to another level by involving more instrumentalists. We’re also taking an online course to improve our film composing skills.


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