The Way We Get By

[17 November 2004]

By Jon Langmead


TV on the Radio

It’s as un-romantic as rock and roll gets, the nickels and dimes of making a living making music. Only a handful of bands actually have the resources to make money on a consistent basis, and in many cases even bands whose music has international exposure aren’t making enough to survive solely from their music. While taking a ‘real’ job puts binds on your time, it can provide the steady income, and usually the health insurance, that full-time musicians rarely have. For those who are able to stay out of the job market, money has to come from somewhere, whether it’s touring, album sales, or royalties from song use—all of which require compromises of their own. And while it’s obvious, it bears repeating: recording an album takes time, touring takes time, writing and rehearsing take time. Adding-in a full-time job, a family, a mortgage payment, or often all three, can make the situation seem almost unmanageable.

The eight musicians featured below shed light on the different ways they approach their own situation. Some of the artists are just starting to see opportunities open up for them. Some are in the middle of defining exactly what role making music will take in their lives as they grow out of their twenties and take on other responsibilities. Others have made that definition and must now work to maintain the balances they’ve struck.

It’s not a surprise that, besides money, the rub between wanting time to be available to your bandmates and time to be available to your family was also a recurring theme. Some have the freedom to see relationships as a temporary casualty of conflicting schedules while others try to find more of a middle ground. And while how everyone defines success is different, the eight people below are all similar in that each seems determined to make that definition for themselves.

Tunde Adebimpe is the front man for Brooklyn’s TV on the Radio, who seem to be on a virtually non-stop world tour. They have released an EP and one full-length (Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes) on Touch and Go Records.

Clint Conley is a member of Mission of Burma, the highly influential Boston band who made a return to full-time music after two decades on hiatus (their 2004 album OnOffOn is out on Matador). Conley also leads the band Consonant, who have released two albums (2002’s Consonant and 2003’s Love and Affliction) on Fenway Recordings.

For almost 10 years, Tony Goddess played as a member of Papas Fritas, who released three proper albums on Minty Fresh Records between 1995 and 2000 (a greatest hits compilation was released in 2004) and toured the US and Europe with the Cardigans, the Flaming Lips, and Blur. If you’ve seen the Dentyne Ice commercial where the woman snows up the subway car window with her breath and writes her phone number in it, then you’ve heard their song, “The Way You Walk.”

Kendall Meade fronts the New York band Mascott and runs the Red Panda Record label. Before Mascott, she was a touring member of Helium, The Spinanes and Sparklehorse.

Amanda Palmer is one-half of the Dresden Dolls, who went from releasing their debut full-length on their own Eight Foot Records in 2003, to being scheduled as a part of this year’s ultimately doomed Lollapalooza, touring full time, and signing on with a major label (rumored to be RoadRunner Records) for their next album.

Bret Tobias is a member of Philadelphia’s The Bigger Lovers. They’ve released three albums, with the two most recent (Honey in the Hive and This Affair Never Happened… And Here Are 11 Songs About It) out on Yep Roc Records and have toured the US (including a run with the Pernice Brothers earlier this year) and, recently, Europe.

Charles Bissell and Kevin Whelan are members of the Wrens, who released their 2003 album The Meadowlands to floods of critical praise. It was their first album in almost seven years and though they play live somewhat sporadically, their shows are almost uniformly sold-out and enthusiastically received. The band is currently the subject of a documentary being filmed by Little Quill Productions.

All responses were via email.

Do you make your sole living off of making music? If not, what do you do for a living?

Bret Tobias: Oh, Christ no. Even if I lived in a shelter when we weren’t on the road I don’t think I could make ends meet. So instead I market physics journals. We’ve gotten to the point where we break even on the road, even after paying out per diems, so that’s a degree of success. Album money, if any, gets tossed into the pot twice a year. Publishing money goes right to the gal who lent us a shitload of money to get us out of our first record “deal.”

Kevin Whelan: Not even close. I work for Pfizer in the Regulatory department, which makes pretty nice money and leaves me open to play more music… well kind of. It’s a bit hard to balance the two. Everything takes more time than expected. My rock star time line has been moved around more than imagined when I was 17.

Clint Conley: My primary income has been from being a TV producer for the last 16 years or so.

Tony Goddess: I’ve been making a living from music since 2000, largely due to publishing. I worked off and on in a record store from 1998-2000, but from 1995 to 2000, as long as pApAs fritAs was on tour we basically managed to get by. Meaning if we subleted our apartments we could stay on tour and break even. I don’t know if that’s a living; no health insurance, etc…. Since 2000 co-writing and film and TV usages have made it possible for me to be a full-time musician.

Charles Bissell: I do make my living off of music but that’s only partially due to the success we’ve had in the last year. It’s more of a situation by default since I got laid-off from my job at the end of May. Now I’m just trying to maintain my world’s only full-time Wren-ness at least through the end of the year so that we might catch up on stuff and hopefully get crackin’ on a new record [laughs to self]. The job had been in the finance department of an ad agency. Maybe not the makings of a career, or at least one that I wanted, but at least I learned to type, learned Excel and how to curse a computer and my resume looks almost respectable - for a senior in college.

Amanda Palmer: For many years after college, I supported myself as a street performer and with other bizarre forms of income supplement; artist modeling, naming and branding, brief stints as ice cream scooper, dominatrix, etc., etc. Since I was always creating my own schedule and hours, I just gradually stopped working on other jobs as the band became more demanding.

Kendall Meade: In my 20s I almost did. I had a very cheap apartment in Brooklyn and was touring pretty consistently. In between tours I would freelance or work retail jobs. When I started Mascott, I knew I would be starting over. For the past year I’ve worked full time as a copywriter. It adds a good balance to my life and allows me the extra money to run my label. On a good month I’m able to pay all my bills. Sometimes I can’t. But I’ve never put pressure on myself to “make it” in music. It’s not the way I approach songwriting or playing and I don’t need the added stress in my life.

Has working a steady job affected your creativity? Has it been a struggle balancing the commitments of a full-time job with the commitments of a fully functioning band and, if so, how do you do it?

Kevin Whelan: In good and bad ways; the good is that there is a structure and you do a day for “x” hours and then you get to work on your music. The bad is that you don’t get to increase the “x” hours for more music so there are times you force to get things done, which doesn’t help produce the best work. Its tough, I guess, but I never look at it that way. It gets rough because I “wish” I could stay home and just do music, but shit, I wish I could win the lottery and look like Brad Pitt but ya’ can’t worry about everything. I manage the time by enjoying both. Of course, snotty artists will say, “Then he doesn’t love his art because he is not committed to it 24/7;” well, fuck you I am. It’s just I have to pay my rent and I’d rather spend time working on music than sitting around all afternoon at the coffee shop discussing my next “projection;” essentially, less talk—more work.

Tunde Adebimpe: It’s only been a struggle as far as making time to do everything. It can actually help in terms of creativity because nothing gets your “fantasy mind” going faster than being somewhere you’d rather not be and taking orders from someone you can’t stand.

Clint Conley: I can’t say that work has inhibited my creativity. In fact, I find work and music are more easily reconciled than ‘family and music.’ For one thing, I compose early in the morning, and performance usually is at night—so work and music are complimentary in that sense. Secondly, I have a lot of control over when and how I do my work, so I can contour it if needed around musical intrusions. Lastly, I have a humane and supportive boss who has worked with me to allow for the occasional Burma outbreak of performances. Travel, in particular, is hard on a family with young kids. Though my family’s been supportive, I am pretty sure they would change the locks if I traveled any more than I do.

Charles Bissell: Looking back on making the last album, it’s one of the chief reasons it was so hard—the daily claims on so much time and energy. No more griping that for anyone else or anything, but yeah, when you factor in commuting time etc. you end up with 12-hour days. So you kind of either have friends/family/social life or you maintain the second career (making a record). Of course it had its up side too—a consistent paycheck, first health insurance in my life at age 36, feeling of American normalcy when you have to get up and get to work by 9:00 just like everyone else…. that can all be kind of comforting. Plus, getting a ‘day’ job coincided with us lowering the priority of the band a few notches in a way so it was fine.

Amanda Palmer: Funnily enough, I sometimes find that when one wants to write one finds the time. Some of my least creative periods have been the result of too much freedom and not enough stress and urgency. On the other hand, when I was working 24/7 to get our label off the ground I found I had no discipline to write. Every spare second could be used “more productively” contacting distributors, answering mail, catching-up on networking; all that bullshit. It’s addictive, really, and much more gratifying (instantly) than songwriting, which can seem abstract in the face of “real work”, i.e. paper-pushing. And it can be very hard to rush from one to the other. I would create free time but the last thing I would feel was inspired. After four straight hours at a computer I would want to go to the gym, not sit at the goddamn piano.

Kendall Meade: I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a struggle some of the time. I feel that I have to make a concerted effort to make time for long walks home from the office, or to keep some evenings and weekends free so I can just be in my own head for a while and not think about work and label stuff. Running the label fuels me to keep working hard on Mascott or other bands on my label; to keep that inertia going is exciting for me. And without my job I cannot run the label; it’s too expensive. I’ve just accepted that this is where my life if right now. I usually only write when I’m inspired. When that happens I make the time, even if I’m sitting at my desk or on the bus. I’m always scrawling something on the back of a receipt or gum wrapper.

Bret Tobias: I’ve been doing it this way for so long I don’t know any other way. All of us have arranged our employment situations around the band, and I suppose we’re lucky to be able to do as much music as we do. Creatively, it’d be nice to have more time to sit around and stare at the ceiling and really think about the kinds of songs I wanna write, but that’s in fundamental opposition to the way I work. I come up with song ideas at all hours while doing other things, and they take shape organically from there. I usually have things pretty well worked out before I ever pick up a guitar. Not sure if that’s my way of coping with having to slog it out at a job or if it’s just how I work naturally. If anything’s a struggle it’s balancing a domestic life between day job and band. My wife’s getting the shits of all my holiday time getting eaten up by the band.

Have you found it necessary to get involved with the business side of music; licensing, contracts, royalties, etc? If so, has this changed your relationship to the creative side of music? How has your perception of music as business changed over time?

Tunde Adebimpe: We’ve had some stuff in movies and on TV now, so yes, we’ve had to deal with all of that. Honestly, it has changed my relationship to the creative side of music. It’s weird because of course you want to make some money, but you don’t want to be like, “Hmmm. I think that songs A-5 through A-15 could pretty much fill up a season and a half of ‘the O.C.’ and get us those matching houseboats we all wanted, and the drug habits it would take to forget how far we had fallen, and the therapy, the facelifts, the relocation fees, the blot, the shame.” I guess that my perception of music as business used to be, “I can do this (music) and enjoy it and do other stuff to get paid, and that’s fine,” and now it’s, “Oh, I can do this and get paid for it, and it might turn into a full time job and that’s great, but I owe it to myself to become a better artist and not get involved with anything I don’t believe in, no matter how many viewers, dollars or weird-ass fake breasts it has.

Kendall Meade: I do it all now! I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I have to say the learning process is ultimately empowering. The cool thing about running my own label is that I own my masters and my publishing, so if I get any licensing deals or any extra money, I don’t have to split it with a label; it goes straight to me or whoever I’m writing with.

Amanda Palmer: I believe that you really must do this in earnest so as not to get fucked. Musicians who assume that magic people will do all the business for them may be right, but with no education those people are bound to fuck up your career or rob you blind.

Kevin Whelan: Well, I believed I needed to in the past so I got a job working at a music agency that booked classical artists and, well, this just broke my spirit after a while. It’s so depressing; its all about getting gigs, making money, and so little about the enjoyment of the artists. So I quit, went and bought a tie and got a corporate job.

Tony Goddess: Yes, absolutely. Before I was rather scared and intimidated by this side of the biz. I just figured I’d ignore it and it’d work out. As it failed to work I grew more dispirited; “What’s the point?” type thinking. This was bad for the creativity. Now, getting paid a bit and learning the biz, the creativity is free. Understanding how my work can generate income has filled me with hope and desire to do so after basically giving up, believing it to be utterly incomprehensible and impossible. So, I’d say learning the biz has helped my creativity. And what I’ve learned is this… Bands/songwriters—we have the power! Not the media business type, but the actual fuel that keeps this business going—music and songs. That’s it! This whole business wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the songs. So hang on tight, work your ass off, be prepared to starve, all those cliches, but at the end of the day, when we listen to new and old hit radio what are we hearing? Singers and musicians playing songs!

How has your perception of music as business changed over time?

Amanda Palmer: It’s expanded, but not changed much. The industry itself has changed undeniably in the past few years, people just dropping like flies because of the net. Which is good. Change is good. I’m wildly curious to see where it all leads.

Kendall Meade: I’m just starting to figure it all out. I’ve learned it is a tough business to stay positive about. What I’m searching for are the little nooks and crannies that bands like Mascott can exist in.

Clint Conley: Hardly at all, sad to say…

Kevin Whelan: Yes, I believed it was evil and everything was rotten and all that and yes it is, but its always been that way because it’s a business. However, a change for the positive is all the amazing people who do their own stuff; make their records, book their tours, start labels…it’s just great and this puts the power back into the hands of people who love music, not just the business!

Bret Tobias: Sure. We now aspire to blue-collar level success, like most of our label-mates and peers, and the process of getting there seems a lot more transparent. Doesn’t make it any easier, but we know a lot more about what has to happen in order to get there.

Was there a point when your band was touring on a full-time basis and, if so, how does having a full-time job affect the possibilities of going back to that lifestyle? How do you balance the job with touring now?

Kevin Whelan: We all quit jobs at one point to “make-it” and, well, we had a great time, became a better band and made lots of memories but we made no money and after a few months you just can’t do it. It makes going back to the normal lifestyle sad because you want to be on the road but it’s impossible because when you start, and “starting” a band for most of us usually means six to eight years, when you start you can’t get shows, bookers won’t have you, you make no money, so can’t even pay for gas. [Now] every free moment I can get we play a show; all vacation, everything.

Bret Tobias: Nope, have never toured full time. We go out a few weeks at a time and probably do 70 shows a year. Ed [Hogarty], Scott [Jefferson] and Pat [Berkery] all freelance, so they’re really flexible. I’m a salary man so I’ve gotta get more creative. I work for Brits, and they’re much more humane about letting people do their own thing and get away for a few weeks at a time, so that’s a huge advantage. When I run out of holiday time I start piling on the hours and banking more time to be on the road.

Tunde Adebimpe: We all had to stop working full time to tour. We can usually pick up again at old jobs during time off, but it’s getting a little harder to as there’s less time off.

Clint Conley: A long, long time ago Burma toured, but at the time we were unemployable anyways. We don’t want to tour now—we specialize in short ecstatic bursts of performance (weekend trips).

Charles Bissell: There was a time. It was called the “Early Clinton administration.” But that was generally stupid touring, touring just to do it (or ‘cause we thought we should) and so often playing to five people as a result. Now it’s not so much the jobs as the responsibilities behind needing the jobs that prevent us from touring more often—Jerry [MacDonell] is married with three kids, two cars and a mortgage, Greg [Whelan] is also a newly married homeowner and Kevin now just bought a home too. I have a new sweater I’m looking forward to paying off.

Are there compromises that you find yourself having to make to continue to survive off of music, either personally or creatively? How has it been different from what you imagined?

Amanda Palmer: We’ve recently signed with a pretty big label, and I know I’ve made a certain sacrifice. I tried running our own label for a while and it was actually going very well, but I was working on it ALL THE TIME. So I decided to back off, let other people make the calls and send the promos, and in exchange they could keep basically all of the money we would ever see from our record. But in return for that we would get a massive amount of exposure, make more on touring, and I would be able to get back to writing and living. And it’s worked.

Bret Tobias: Yeah, there are a ton of compromises, but the biggest one is sleep. I get myself into situations where I agree to play Boston or Pittsburgh on a weeknight but promise to work the following day. This justifiably annoys the other guys to no end since it means they’ll be spending the night sleeping on the floor of a smelly cargo van, but at least they get to go to bed when they get home. Sometimes they drop me off right at work.

Kevin Whelan: You have to compromise in some ways no matter what, but I have found out that you really can do both. It can work; depends on what you want. I believed I was going to be rich and famous by 25, I’m 35 now and it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon and the fucking best part is that I’m happier now than I was when I was 25! I’ve let go of those pressures of trying to “make things happen,” however, I never imagined things would be like this and it’s just been the most amazing thing ever!

Clint Conley: We don’t survive on our music. I almost think it’s easier being creative that way, disentangling the music from the next rent check and all. When your livelihood is music, some unsavory elements can creep into the process.

Tony Goddess: Yes and no. Having to make a living has opened me up to communicating/collaborating more with people and I thoroughly enjoy it. It has been a welcome compromise. But I had no idea how much administrative work there is in making a living in music. I spend great parts of my days checking royalty statements, negotiating contracts, chasing money, getting equipment fixed. It’s a business like any other, only more Byzantine and less regulated… but I thoroughly enjoy it. It’s a great feeling to know that your song has generated income. Getting a check for that feels great. And, if sometimes I have to make a call and tell someone they owe me money it feels even better to know that I’m right, win my argument and get paid, albeit a bit later. I love scoring one for the musicians!

Has trying to make a living at music changed the way you look at the, sometimes, narrow definitions of selling out?

Clint Conley: See above, but selling out’s the same as it ever was, I guess.

Tunde Adebimpe: “Daddy, why can’t we eat?” “Because Daddy’s punk as fuck. Don’t be such a little sellout.” I don’t understand that so much. I think that “selling out” is more about being paid to forget who you are and do something in the service of something empty, something you don’t really believe in, which honestly, depending on your situation, is sometimes necessary and happens at a lot of jobs. You should get paid somehow for your art, especially if it’s what’s occupying most of your time. It’s not really a vital thing in the eyes of the world and people could just stop caring at any time, for whatever reason, so if you’re working you should be compensated, so you can keep working if, or when, no-one cares.

Kendall Meade: I do some commercial singing and writing, and sometimes I license my songs to TV or other things. If the company I’m singing for doesn’t totally offend me, I don’t consider it “selling out”. It’s awesome to get paid to do something you like.

Amanda Palmer: Five years ago, I probably would have viewed it as soulless and evil to chop one of my songs from five to three and a half minutes for radio. Now it really doesn’t bother me. Those ninety seconds have so little to do in the long run with what we’re doing and why. Selling out happens when you no longer work from the inside out. It is not bad to aim to please others, but your own taste must be appeased first. If you’re making music you know to be compromised, superficial or made-to-move-units, you’re selling out.

Tony Goddess: No, I never thought about that. I don’t think it’s possible to sell out if your goal is to make music that makes you and others happy. I suppose if you recorded a song forced on you by the record company or something, but I’ve never had to do a thing I didn’t want. Or, if I was reluctant, it was usually out of fear and self-doubt. I love playing and performing music in all its guises. I’ve never understood selling out. I understand growth and challenge and change.

Bret Tobias: Oh yeah. I remember thinking that I’d be really conflicted if ever in a situation where McDonald’s wanted to use one of my songs in an ad. No more! Use away McDonald’s, use away.

Charles Bissell: We’ve pretty much always classified ‘selling out’ as making music you don’t really like or believe in, in order to get ahead. Then again, what difference should it make if I make my money behind a desk in midtown Manhattan or making music for commercials or writing songs for Avril Lavigne? And yet, somehow it does…

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/041117-waywegetby/