The Berkeley Haas School of Business is probably an unlikely place to find an aspiring musician, but that’s exactly where Zach Briefer found himself, staring down 9-to-5 mundanity and the white-collar purgatory of banking or accounting. “I knew two things,” he tells me, musing about his undergraduate days. “I didn’t want to work in an office, and I wanted to do something with music.”
Briefer didn’t go into banking or accounting. He went into rock n’ roll, and it’s probably no surprise that he and his bandmates in Pistachio treat the band like a full-time job — a business with a groove; a band that pays taxes. Though he admits a few of the members have a side gig or two to help out with costs (“They only take up about two to three hours of our day,” he’s quick to point out), the group is a self-sustaining entity that covers both band and life expenses. Pistachio is the closest I came to a band that was surviving solely as musicians when doing research for this piece.
We should all know the story by now: The Internet has completely revolutionized the way consumers listen to, access and experience music, decimating the major labels’ stranglehold on the market in the process. It’s great for the consumer, but is it necessarily great for the artist?
Now more than ever it seems like musicians are sifting through the debris of a crumbling industry, scavenging spare parts from the past to construct a new strategy to stay profitable in a world where anyone with a Wi-Fi connection has immediate and mostly free access to millions of songs with just the click of a button. Who would be crazy and/or desperate enough to pursue music as a viable career option at a time like this?
Quite a lot, it turns out. I’m one of them. I’ve been playing in bands since I was fifteen, and I’m still figuring out how to prioritize costs, budget band expenses and get fans to buy the music of my current projects Ken Riffey Jr., Rumble Mother, and The Y Axes. Most of the musicians I know are trying to figure this out as well, and somehow make a living in this ridiculously expensive dot on the map. Making a living as a full-time musician, however, is practically the thirteenth labor of Hercules. Is Pistachio an anomaly, or are there other Bay Area artists out there making enough income off their art to meet the costs of living inside or around San Francisco?
Who’s Making a Profit?
First off, the obvious question: are local artists in the Bay Area able to profit enough from their music to both fund their projects and cover the cost of living expenses?
The depressingly short answer: no. Most artists fund their projects through day jobs, payouts from live performances and sometimes hiring out their services for various purposes (corporate gigs, music lessons, etc.). Very few I talked to survived solely off the music they compose for personal pleasure; their finances often derived from a mix of sources.
Solo artist Robert Gillies sees this as the future for musicians, and the achievement of a steady income stream is really only obtainable through diversification. Though he has been mostly just “breaking even” over the past couple years, he does admit the amount of money generated by his music increases “a little every year.” Gillies has done this by pursuing numerous “revenue streams” and focusing on “untapped markets.” He says the most profitable endeavors have been “private house concerts, partnering with brands, and writing songs for both companies and individuals.”
He admits to a lot of frustration in this diversification, and the constant attention given to projects other than personal ones. When I asked if he feels the struggle to fund personal projects stymies the creative process, he responded with a tone of hesitant optimism, saying, “On the whole, not really. That being said, I have to be really careful about what I’m working to achieve…I take a lot of time paring down to what makes sense to create at a specific time based on what funding I have available.”
Singer-songwriter Chris Reed answered the same question even more bluntly: “Yes. Absolutely. It also makes me question whether I should still be doing this anymore.” Musicians today, he says, are “expected to also be small business owners” and observes the need to “organically find what interests us and use that to connect to our audience, so we don’t need to feel like used car salesmen.”
This sentiment was echoed in various shades by every musician I interviewed. Mike Laglia from the electronic trio NVO summed it up well, “It’s not that hard to keep costs down, but it is challenging to grow a project to the point where the band covers its own expenses and creates enough money for human beings to pay rent and occasionally eat something other than peanut butter.”
To combat this challenge, artists have to get creative and rely on the resources available to them. NVO in particular benefits from the fact that one band member’s day job involves video production, allowing the group to internally produce professional music videos and not hire out the work at a higher rate. Tricks like this can save a band a heap of production costs, and just having friends that work at recording studios or a PR firm can aid them immensely. Networking was emphasized as a key piece of finding ways to work around the high costs of music production and promotion.
Besides time constraints, the biggest obstacle that came up again and again in conversations was (yep, you guessed it) the inability to sell music. Consumers just aren’t buying music the way they were 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. Some point to streaming as the current culprit, others still condemn Napster, but it’s clear that the internet is to blame for the easy access to an almost unlimited amount of music from every inch and crevice of the globe.
Singer-songwriter Travis Hayes remains upbeat about using the current consumer trend to his advantage. “The ideal new fan will listen to music for free,” he says, “and hopefully love it so much that they’ll buy a ticket to your next show and maybe take a T-shirt home.” This seems to be the hope of many modern musicians willing to give away their music for nothing in order to establish a following, spread the word, and eventually get the consumer out to a show.
There is, however, a troubling deeper issue extending from this consumer culture that guitarist Brent Curriden of Lords of Sealand touches on. He brings up the “issue of distraction”: “When so much music is available, each artist gets less time spent on them. For a band like Lords of Sealand, which can take a couple listens to ‘understand,’ people tend to be unwilling to invest the necessary time.” Even though the Internet has made it incredibly easy for musicians to meet, record, and distribute their music, there is now so much music available even the most fervent fan can’t process it all or keep up with the massive amount of releases that drop every year.
And how can an artist invest a large amount of money in a project if very few people will end up buying it?
“Bands often underestimate the value of a good quality recording,” musician Lucy Arnell says, “and it truly is difficult and costly to have good sounding recordings. It takes people who are experienced in studio work and sometimes even a third party — like a producer — to help guide the band and get more out of them. After the recordings, you have mastering, the art of the package, and then the cost for whatever format you choose to put your record out on, if any…all of these things add up and can be extremely expensive for a band, and also discourage bands from attempting to record at all.”
The Old-School Approach
Pistachio’s strategy for making ends meet is nothing particularly groundbreaking. It has less to do with savvy social media skills and indispensable record contacts than a nose-to-the-grind work ethic that propelled past generations of artists to success — James Brown didn’t want to be known as the hardest working man in show business just for the hell of it. He played around 300 shows a year to pay bills, bring his music to new audiences, and make performance a full-time profession.
Pistachio can’t claim that astronomical number, but Briefer insists that the band has played about 120 shows in 2015 alone. Many of these aren’t half hour sets either: In order to get a good guarantee from bars and clubs, the band had to learn three hours’ worth of material, filling the slot with both originals and a slew of covers. By playing out so much, and being careful to stick to paying gigs, the group is not only promised a nice chunk of change (from $200 to $500 a night depending on the venue), but they also have been able to build up a following from the constant exposure.
“There is money out there for music,” he tells me, “and it is possible to make a living depending on what you are willing to and can give up. Sometimes it’s not the most ideal way, and a lot of sacrifices are necessary, but the grunt work can and does pay off. It’s about turning what’s out there into what you want.”
Pistachio hopes to turn the money they make from the road into a new album and, when asked if the band has ever considered an alternative platform to raise the capital for a recording such as crowdfunding, Briefer laughs, “I knew this question was coming. There is merit to raising money on a project, but our band consciously did not go that route. Going straight to crowdfunding felt like it would take away from the struggle necessary to make a tight band. Our long shows and busy schedule can feel grueling at times, but it also tightens us up as a band, focuses our attention and motivates us to work harder.”
Speaking of crowdfunding, Briefer isn’t the only musician who cautions about this seemingly simple solution to all financial woes. Kat Robichaud successfully funded her debut album through Kickstarter and, while it worked for her, it wasn’t easy. “It’s worth it if you have the time,” she says, “It’s hard if you’re going at it alone. I’ve been fortunate to have a large outlet in which to gain the exposure I needed to fund my first album,” she says, referring to her appearance on The Voice.”Since the show, I’ve refocused my reach locally rather than internationally because I do feel it’s better to make one fan at a time.” But she doesn’t think she’ll do it again. “It was wonderful to have the album paid for, but it was so much work on top of actually creating an album. I put 6 months of my life aside to finish completing packages for my backers. With my schedule as it is, I just don’t have time to do that again.”
Platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter seem to be filling the void that labels once used to occupy, investing in bands before they are proven profit-makers. Unfortunately, they often get misconstrued as a form of charity when it’s really just a new form of investment. It’s a perverted business model, but one that relates to the current consumer trend.
This next question I didn’t ask my interviewees because it’s an ugly question that would only get them ugly responses from fans: How much is the consumer themselves to blame in all this?
Consumers barely purchase albums by mainstream, superstar artists, so how much is really going to the no-name local bands? Some of this is no doubt due to sensory overload: The daunting number of acts out there is mind-numbing and can lead to consumer paralysis. But, let’s be real here: you can afford it. This is not the late ‘90s when Tower Records was charging $20 for a one-hit Backstreet Boys album. New releases are almost always hovering around $10, and local artists usually sell their stuff for less than that — sometimes even using the “name your price” model on sites like Bandcamp. As Reed points out, “People don’t buy music the way they used to because streaming has been made so easy. I wonder if people knew that us artists only make a fraction of a penny on every play, if that would change the way they listen. Would they purchase music more to help keep us artists afloat?”
That’s something you the consumer have to ask yourself. You have more responsibility here than you probably realize.
A piece of advice that resurfaced numerous times in the responses was the idea of the musician as the businessperson, with Gillies going so far as to say he sees the biggest problem with artists these days are the “musicians” who are not “treating themselves as a business.”
I find it both ironic and problematic to blame the musician for not wanting to become a businessman. Those who pursue the arts do it because it is everything that business is not: creatively liberating, full of weirdos, and free from strict rules and regulations. It’s a cruel twist of fate to tell musicians they have to treat their passion like the thing they’ve probably always wanted to avoid. Zach Briefer’s model with Pistachio is a bit more palatable — hitting the road and playing non-stop shows to pay the bills is work, but it’s also pretty fun at times. Composing songs for corporations or sucking up to endorsement deals — that’s an uglier compromise that some musicians may be unwilling to make.
If the successful musician of the 20th century was characterized by hedonistic excesses, of rock stars trashing hotel rooms and engaging in orgies that would put Caligula to shame, the successful musician of now is a sober-minded entrepreneur; a workaholic always looking for the next fan, the next subscriber, the next Facebook “like.” This is both good and bad for the modern-day musician. It is, indeed, easier than ever to get your music distributed but harder than ever to break through the clutter. Musicians have an unprecedented amount of creative control and autonomy (no more interference from suited label executives), but less real chance to reach out to the distracted masses without the power of a major label behind them. Consumers have more access to music than ever before but less and less of them, in the words of Robichaud, “see the value in paying for music.”
If you’ve made it this far you might still be wondering: is it possible for local, under-the-radar musicians to make a living off their music in this century?
If “making a living” isn’t code for fame and fortune, then yes. If you think “musician” means “celebrity,” you definitely won’t be able to survive the many hardships that come with the territory. If you’re looking to start a project, gain some fans who will support your artistic vision, and make enough money to fund a few albums and go on a few tours, well, that is certainly within reach. To quote Robichaud one more time (because I adore her quotes), “Being in a band is expensive. Touring is expensive. Recording is expensive. And there is zero guarantee that you will ever see that money again. Never do it for the money or the fame. Do it because you love to perform and you love to create and the thought of not playing music makes life seem meaningless.”
Illustration by Victoria Obregado