Want to Make a Living in Music? Get Out of Brooklyn


Dear Fan,Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist and is the author of The Girls’ Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her — confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.

I am a songwriter and have been in DIY/punk bands for the past 10 years. It was never how I was trying to make a living, it was my central creative focus. My first band was self sustaining and made money on tour, but the money went back into the band fund and never to pay our rents. After a bit of a break from band-time-all-the-time, I have regrouped and my band is about to tour and release a record on an awesome DIY/indie label that has been nothing but supportive and has recently put out bands that are doing well on a national and international level. I’ve been encouraged (unsolicited!) by both the people running the label and many other friends to “go for it,” and really pursue my music independent of a long-term day job. I would love more than anything to do that, but previously it didn’t feel in the cards for me. If I’m ever going to dive in and tour all the time and support myself through music, the time is now. So my question is, as someone who isn’t getting any younger (I’m almost 30) and is tired of living paycheck to paycheck, what are the best ways to commit full-time to making music responsibly, both emotionally and financially? Are there major differences to managing what is ostensibly a solo career versus a band where everyone has equal creative investment? My concern in starting out on solid footing and not just winging it.

I can’t picture myself not playing music and am confident in my ability to make a go of it. But we all have bills to pay and I feel like I’m missing a piece of the music business puzzle to keep both my band and my sanity.

Conflicted in Brooklyn

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Dear Conflicted,
There is no secret recipe of how to make a living doing this, even though it often seems like if you take a particular path and get those Best New Music stars to align–et voila, you can pay your rent and not be dumpstering your meals. The people I know at your level who are making a living are making a rough living: odd jobbing between tours, living in a room in a punk house that they sublet the nine months a year while they are on tour. I imagine you’ve already lived that existence a bit and that’s where your reluctance comes from.

If your label is encouraging you to “go for it,” meet with them and say–I really want to “go for it” (it would be useful to outline for yourself and them what that really means–and ask what they can do to support your efforts. Can they hire a publicist who is great at tour press, can they help get you a booking agent, could they have another one of the hard-touring bands on the label take you out as support? The label you are on is in a good position to help you as their recent track record means that people have their eyes and ears peeled for what is the next thing. You may want to consider management–even someone to help you strategize how to make the most of the push you need to give this record.

All that aside, what I hear you saying here is you are willing to scrabble and give this everything you’ve got but you are not interested in moving back into your parents basement at 28. It’s good to know your limits. You need to go forth with a quality of life in mind, which means you need to get the fuck out of Brooklyn. There will only be hand-to-mouth suffering and dank built-out-warehouse live/practice space bedrooms if you try to pay that Greenpoint rent on tour wages. Why not move to New Paltz or a 90 minute train to the city podunk recess of New Jersey, give yourself a two year time line to just plumb the underground and your artistic/business capacities for all it’s worth? Lean in by leaning all the way out, you know what I mean?

Sure, brace for the potential humiliation of having to move into your parents basement between tours–but stop sweating the almost-30 thing. People who have their shit together as they arrive on the doorstep of 30 are doing it wrong. You don’t have children or a mortgage–get free with your art and your time and live some place circa New York/your band that’s easy to tour out of and where you can still have a satisfying bohemian-punk quality of life despite pulling down all of $957/mo? You are unencumbered–milk it.

Just for your own sanity, I suggest you put a timeline on it in your heart/mind–the life cycle of a dedicated push on a record is about 18 months, so at that point do a honest emotional/financial cost-benefit analysis. Choose to continue a month at a time and have a plan of addressing your Life Direction at 24 months out. Don’t make it contingent on if X happens, or if this feels like an upswing–don’t tether it to success, tether it to satisfaction. Having a plan that isn’t super vague (i.e. “If this doesn’t work out, I will do something else”) will make you feel much more secure and empowered as you go forth with this.

It’s probably going to be a slog, so it’s important to remember to not get trapped in this way of thinking that there is going to be this one magical event that MAKES IT HAPPEN for your band, and suddenly it’ll be easy (or easier). You can look at careers of bands that have come out of your scene and while that appearance on Jimmy Fallon sealed the deal in as far as their relationship to the mainstream, that was after three records and doing 80 dates in a row every single summer. My suggestion is that you commit fully, consider what you are and are not willing to do with and for this band (sync licenses, putting members on salary when you are on the road rather than just splitting everything evenly, get a manager, seek a publishing deal, live in your parents attic). Dive deeply into both the making of your art, and study things that will help you be great at what you do. Find people that can help you usher this dream into the world.

Worst case scenario, it doesn’t launch you into a sustainable career and you become like everyone else with a day job and a night band. For a worst case, that’s still a pretty sweet deal.

Best of luck,

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