Can a Working Musician Find a Decent Job in This Town?
Musicians looking to subsidize their poverty-level passion already have one strike against them
Sitting in the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians office last summer, waiting for an eye exam, I realized none of the musicians there were at a day job. Since I don't have one, most of my income comes from odd jobs, freelancing, self-employment, and savings now down to zero. What little money my band the Moving Panoramas makes goes back into recording, merch, tours, etc.
There are no profits.
When starting the local trio three years ago, I sank all available resources into it. Surviving near poverty level on a shoestring budget while managing the band full time – unpaid – has proved no picnic. I can't afford to live this way anymore.
My trajectory to musicianhood began in childhood, but my BS and MFA degrees are in film and art, fields sustaining me over the past decade. I originally thought film production might allow time in between jobs to do music, but the hours are long and contracts can last many months. Touring demands flexibility.
Never has it been so hard to find work than this past year. Even with a master's degree, I can't find a part-time job in the field I'm trained for. Working in the greater music business via a local festival didn't work either. My band grew fast and became a conflict of interest.
After bouncing around freelance gigs with no stability, I sent out dozens of résumés for steadier options. The first interview was for a part-time, partly remote social media/photo job at a company that makes bongs. I thought I had a decent shot, until my band came up. They hired the non-touring musician.
This scenario repeated itself again and again locally. Like the part-time photo/video job at a sporting goods company, which offered me work then suddenly implemented a hiring freeze. Or the full-time video job at a museum that eluded me after a monthlong, multi-interview process that included heavy discussion about my band.
Because it's been a major topic in all interviews, being a working musician appears to have made me unemployable.
All About the Benjamins
According to the 2015 Austin Music Census, some 56% of musicians worked another full- or part-time job outside of the music industry to make ends meet between the 20% who are below the 2014 federal poverty level of $11,670, the approximately 75% below the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area Mean Annual Wage, and more than 62% below the Austin MSA Median Annual Wage. Nearly 40% of full-time musicians earn $15,000 or less from music, and nearly two-thirds are making less than $25,000.
Don't get me wrong. We're so fortunate to have musician resources in Austin unlike any other city (HAAM, SIMS). Unfortunately, most of the music community still struggles. As has been cited by local media over the decades, single-digit club covers and performance payouts have remained more or less the same since the Reagan administration even as the cost of living here has skyrocketed. Not only does the average music lover not know this, their per diem has plummeted as well.
Most working musicians, even ones we'd all consider successful, don't make their whole income from music. They're like me, catch-as-catch-can. Even so, this is less about how little music pays (revisit "We Can't Make It Here Anymore," May 27, 2016) and more an attempt to acknowledge a tacit discrimination further handicapping those who drive the so-called live music capital.
Myself, I'm humbly grateful for the gains my band's made in this amazing town, but they're certainly not financial. I was fully aware of that paradigm before heading down this path, and if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't do it much differently. So how does one continue music without starving?
My father embedded in me that if I wanted to be an artist, I'd need a buffer. He's a musician, too. I grew up watching him play bass for country and blues acts in Dallas nightclubs. By day, he ran his own small used car business, beginning from very little and turning it into something substantial. Music was his pastime, not his career, but definitely his passion.
He expressed a constant concern about me becoming a musician because he was all too familiar with the struggle involved, financially and emotionally. He also worried boys in bands would try to get into my pants. Dad was right on all counts. Now he's my biggest fan with the strongest voice of reason when it comes to balancing it all, especially now when it's time to find work again.
If employers Google me, they'll see I'm in a touring band, and it's becoming clear at least some of them aren't hiring me for fear I'll hit the road. Thus, the bigger issue here is how does one find work in Austin that allows room for music? That's the $100 question, and man, I could really use $100 right now.
The Way We Get By
Many summers ago, I went on a life-changing monthlong tour, playing bass in a band called Western Keys and supporting Crooked Fingers and Britt Daniel of Spoon. Sharing room in his SUV, the latter performed solo each night accompanied by a boom box supplying beats created with hands, feet, and mouth. Pretty inventive. At the time, Daniel's now renowned group was just beginning the crossover into Spoon's current celebrity.
Listening to him on the phone in the car doing band business daily provided an education all by itself. He came off stern, strong, smart. Managing everything on his own required a Herculean effort, but that wasn't the only work he did on the road. He also worked as a copy editor, maintaining as a musician partly because of his remote job. Huge eye-opener seeing someone balance those two worlds simultaneously.
Before then, the singer-songwriter-guitarist had a full-time office job while trying to get Spoon off the ground. Eventually, the juggling began to affect his work, so he was told to get it together. Daniel quit the next day.
"I had a tour coming up opening solo for Conor Oberst and I remember feeling like I was taking a big leap," he says today. "The reason I started doing solo shows wasn't because I like to express myself that way. It was because I could just show up with my boom box and guitar, and leave with $50 or $100, which made a big difference."
After that tour, Daniel stumbled across a job working as a copy editor at a company called PowerEd.
"Once on tour, it was perfect, because I could do it in the van, or the SUV," he chuckles. "I did that for about two years. It was good for me because it wasn't social, wasn't stressful. I wasn't taking too much work, and it was enough to help make ends meet. I was getting by then. I remember one year calculating making $7,000."
Eventually, after signing to mid-level North Carolina indie Merge Records and putting out Kill the Moonlight in 2002, Spoon began generating enough that its frontman didn't have to seek supplemental income.
"The whole thing is a struggle," he sighs. "I've been very fortunate. It's a combination of luck and working hard, and occasionally getting inspired. If you can get those things to happen, you're on your way."
I had no idea at the time how influential this road trip would become for me. It not only inspired me to start playing solo shows with loops and backing tracks that eventually became Moving Panoramas songs, it also made me reconsider an alternate income plan if I wanted to sustain musically.
A Hard Day's Night
Moving Panoramas regularly receives show offers it can't take, so the alternative's sometimes a side project, like my country band the Rated Exes, or playing solo. This caught the eye of Sabrina Ellis from Sweet Spirit and A Giant Dog, who approached me to play shows with her for extra cash between tours, sparking a new project we're calling Glad Girls. She's been on tour nonstop even before Merge released A Giant Dog's disc last year, picking up odd jobs in between, but mostly working in the service industry.
"I just returned from six months of touring this year with $10 in my wallet feeling pretty desperate," admits Ellis. "I called Ramen Tatsu-Ya where I worked before I left, asking out of desperation with my tail between my legs if they needed extra hands. I've never had to say that in my life."
They brought her back like a number of working musicians they employ there.
"Sometimes a few of us were on tour all at once, but we come back and still have our jobs," she says. "I feel really lucky to have a place I can work at that's supportive of artists. A musician has to sleep less, work faster. Unless the industry miraculously changes and money abounds for musicians, an artist has to be a lot harder than anybody else."
For Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards, bartending got her through the first decade of her music career in Ohio, where the local fourpiece began as a trio.
"It's easy to give up or trade shifts, and flexible enough to allow me to get out of town every other weekend to play drivable, regional shows," says the singer/guitarist. "I did it for quite a while and continued once I started touring, because I was able to come back and still have a job."
Even when Wennerstrom started making a living off music, she didn't quit bartending right away.
"I get depressed if I go on a tour for months and come back to just hanging out in my house," she says. "If I'm not busy in other aspects of my life, I don't have anything to write about, so I kept on bartending just for my mental health."
Although I don't have service industry experience, I haven't ruled out that route, but my tech background pulls me in other directions. Dabbling in web design over the years, I've recently sought an immersive coding class. These courses average $10,000 to $15,000, which seems risky since I barely make that much annually. I'm now trying to teach myself through online courses instead.
Working as a government temp years ago, My Jerusalem's Jeff Klein found himself with some downtime, so he Googled how to build a website for his band, which is how he fell into self-taught web design.
"As time went on, I'd offer web design services to friends and made extra money," he says. "I did it for a long time until I started touring half the year. Since then, I've gone back to it a bit, if I have time. It's good because there's no employer. It's just me, and it's something I can plug in along the way."
As such, Klein recognizes the sacrifices of being a working musician.
"It takes a certain work ethic," he offers. "Sometimes you give up things like having a family and material things, and you have to figure out your definition of success, which changes for me. Sometimes I don't know how I'm eating tomorrow. That's where mental health comes in for musicians and is the breaking point. If you can find a way to be happy and sustain that, you can succeed."
One of my oldest friends from DFW, John Wesley Coleman, has been barely sustaining in music for the past 20-plus years, bouncing around odd jobs until finally becoming his own employer, including doing my yard work.
"You almost feel like an ex-con being a musician because people are afraid to hire you," says Coleman. "In a town making lots of money on music tourism, you'd think they'd give more jobs to musicians. Other countries have it figured out, but in the USA, capitalism rules over everything, so it's hard to balance in this environment."
Another dear peer, Michael Booher of Zykos and Booher, ran up tens of thousands in credit card debt while juggling odd jobs like ridesharing or booking. Eventually he got a full-time corporate job to get out of the red. He says working full time takes away from his real skill set.
"I was balancing so much and wearing too many hats that it took away from creating," he acknowledges. "I'm barely scraping by, especially with the cost of living increasing. I've tried taking breaks to focus on work and save money, but I have to keep creative momentum going or I lose it. It's not like a heavyweight fighter can take six months off between fights. They have to stay in shape to be successful."
This fall, I got to know my Modern Outsider labelmate Walker Lukens while he considered moving his Airstream trailer into my backyard to save money.
"The general public doesn't realize how long it takes to start making enough money to feel comfortable in music," Lukens says. "I'm really lucky I work at [Austin Community College], where I teach in the GED department. My boss is amazing. I think she employs me because I'm a musician and enjoys being part of that. My bass player works at Home Slice, another place that likes employing him because he's a musician.
"If it wasn't for HAAM and SIMS, I wouldn't be able to do any of this," continues the multi-talented keyboardist and entertainer. "It saves me thousands of dollars a year. How I make money changes frequently. Once, I worked for my friend's leather goods business at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. A customer said I looked like Walker Lukens and when he found out I am, he couldn't believe I still had to work. I said it makes touring better knowing I can come home and work.
"I'll be the first to say I totally chose my art poverty," finishes Lukens. "While it can be a struggle, I don't wallow. Those getting to another level of success don't wallow. There are so many easier paths."
Recently, the rhythm section of Moving Panoramas couldn't get away from their full-time jobs to go on a weeklong tour supporting Matt Pond PA on the East Coast, which forced me to recruit a backup band. We've had to do that for every tour. Training a whole new lineup slows down everything.
Some jobs I've picked up over the years have come courtesy of another close friend of decades, Hotel Vegas and Barracuda co-owner Jason McNeely, who makes a point to hire local musicians at his businesses.
"A lot of our sound guys, bartenders, door people, etc., are musicians and it's great because there's nothing cooler than going to a bar and the singer of one of your favorite bands is working the door," he says. "Unfortunately, that's not the norm. Seems like the policy of a lot of bars in this town is to not hire musicians. Austin is one of the most economically sound cities in the world due to music, so it's sad people don't connect that to the creative culture.
"It's hard to watch the creative culture fight to keep its ground.
"The solution is simple," McNeely adds. "People and businesses benefiting from and exploiting the music culture in Austin need to consider giving back to it by giving creatives more opportunities and providing jobs to the local musicians. That's a start. Think about it as an ecosystem. What you put into it is going to come back to you.
"Your investment is going to come back to you."
Venues, restaurants, and hotels aren't the only ones profiting from music in Austin. Anyone who enjoys living in this city because of its music culture can help feed the ecosystem. If I won the lottery, I'd start an organization helping connect musicians with employers who want to give musicians work.
Let's say, hypothetically – and similar to HAAM and SIMS – it could be called something like MESA: Musician Employment Service of Austin. Envision a temp/placement service joining a network of local musicians and their skills with a network of local businesses and their needs. Musicians could be matched with businesses like ACC, who at least in one department enjoy hiring musicians.
Music fans would want to support these businesses in the same way they turn out to HAAM Day: Because it helps the music community. Ecosystems strive to be self-sustaining. Maybe it's a Candyland dream, but isn't that how great ideas are born?
Some 16 months ago, I shared a story about how music saved my life (see "Believe," Sept. 25, 2015). Regardless of income or profile, I'll be playing music until my last breath. It's my therapy and gets me out of bed every day.
Nevertheless, many of us in the same circumstances find ourselves in the odd place of trying to keep music from breaking us.