While some musicians are financially successful enough to focus exclusively on music, most aren’t quite so lucky. For the average musician, making a living can be a difficult puzzle to figure out.
“It’s not going to look the way a lot of people think it will. It’s not glitzy and it involves a lot of negotiating between the dream and the reality,” says bassist Sean McPherson. “But if you are a very capable musician and are willing to give lessons, if you are a very capable musician and you are willing to sit and write grants for a certain number of hours of the week, if you are a very capable musician and you are willing to perform backing up other musicians, yes, I think it’s possible.”
Even here in the Twin Cities, with its abundance of venues and thriving music scene, it can still be hard to make ends meet. The music industry is constantly changing and so is what it means to be successful as an artist. Here’s how three local musicians are making it work.
Thinking outside of the box
While many musicians have merchandise available for sale at shows and online, Caleb Hinz has taken selling T-shirts to the next level. As founder and owner of Normal Parents, Hinz runs the independent clothing label that also serves as an umbrella for his other music projects. For him, Normal Parents has become a successful way for Hinz to market himself and promote his work, but he didn’t intend for it to be that way.
“I just thought it was a good title for a project and some music that I was going to call Normal Parents. The name for a project came first and then, on a whim, I sort of made a T-shirt. I thought it would be funny if there was a T-shirt that said that on it, and I posted it on Facebook to see if anyone wanted it for free. Then too many people started wanting it, so I had to start charging money,” Hinz says. “I was just really excited that anybody was interested at all and was inspired by the fact that it was kind of moving around. So I started running with my instincts and my ideas, making more things and posting them to Instagram. At first, it was all spray paint stencils, so it was a super limited image, but the demand was there so I kept on going with it.”
In addition to T-shirts, Normal Parents also encompasses Hinz’s band, The Happy Children, and his work as a music producer for other groups in the Twin Cities. In the future, Hinz hopes Normal Parents will continue to have a following and grow to include more projects he starts on his own and with other collaborators.
“I see Normal Parents just as a brand that has a unique creative output and I think that’s where I want it right now, but it’ll just keep growing as time goes on. I really like that it’s open-ended and it’s been able to be open-ended the entire time,” he says. “Just recently I started putting the music production element in it and it was a seamless transition. It was never like people started questioning who I was again. It was just like, oh yeah, Normal Parents makes things and just keeps doing things and somehow they’re all connected still. In the future, I think it’ll be the exact same thing, but it’s just a brand or a story.”
Staying true to themselves
It’s not uncommon for an artist to have another job on the side, and accomplished singer-songwriter Savannah Smith is no exception. In her case, though, she really loves her day job as well as her work as a musician. Having originally started her music career in the Twin Cities, Smith decided to take a chance on Eau Claire when she landed a job coordinating an after-school program in the area. Although she liked living in the Twin Cities, she was tired of the stress and unpredictable nature of working in the service industry. Smith says her current job is a much better fit for her and that moving from the Twin Cities has given her the time she needs to focus on herself.
“I kind of wanted a little bit slower of a lifestyle and more space in my schedule so I could focus on the things that really mattered, and this job happened to fall in my life at the perfect time. I got a heads up from a family member and thought it was above what I could do or what I was used to doing, but when I got it everything settled into place really well,” Smith says. “Work as a musician ebbs and flows. I think for me I’m definitely a bit of a workaholic and so the trap I got into in Minneapolis was working part-time jobs and sort of stacking them on top of each other and I didn’t have the time to focus on my music. Taking a step back and really moving to Eau Claire has let me do much more and kind of set a game plan so I can get back on the road again.”
Although Smith says she still considers Minneapolis to be her home base, it has been important for her to make connections in both states.
“Everyone’s just so welcoming and supportive and it hasn’t really been a struggle to find myself in part of any scene,” she says. “It’s just a really welcoming community. I’ve been trying really hard to dip into the Madison music scene as well, which has been surprisingly welcoming. Being from Eau Claire I thought I might have a little bit of a tough time, but they’ve really kind of embraced me and invited me to some shows that local Madisonians have curated and it’s been very warm.”
Later this month Smith will be releasing her upcoming album and hopes to get back on the road again someday, something she says would not be possible without the support of fans.
“It really matters that you go out to shows and that you buy merch and that you continue to support art as much as you can,” she says. “Musicians are hands down some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met and they’re really doing it for the love of it because it’s not lucrative to be a musician. And it probably never will be, but I don’t think anyone is going to give up because of that.”
Adapting to the times
You don’t have to be Bob Dylan or Janelle Monáe to have a song featured on movies or in a TV show. McPherson’s group, Heiruspecs, are among the local artists who make their music available for licensing.
McPherson has licensed the group’s music through In The Groove Music, a company that publishes and licenses original music to be played on projects, such as TV shows, advertisements, and video games. When other media organizations use Heiruspecs’ music, a portion of that money goes to In The Groove and the other portion to the artists.
In The Groove used a practice known as retitling when Heiruspecs entered into an agreement with the company in 2009. As McPherson (who’s also a host at The Current) explains, “Retitling is quite literally what it sounds like. They would take a song of ours called ‘On My Way’ and would register a new song with BMI called ‘On My Way itg.’ They then send that onto a new list of producers and go, ‘Hey, here’s a bunch of music you can use,’ and when they use it the money is going to go half to them and half to us.”
(Update 2/27: According to a representative, In The Groove no longer engages in the practice of retitling. The two paragraphs above have been edited for accuracy.)
Looking back on his career, McPherson says the streaming era has been good to him. He puts much of Heiruspecs’ music through software called TuneCore, which makes it easier to get the band’s music on digital music platforms like iTunes and Spotify. As opposed to having to hunt someone down to get paid for his music, one of the big ways McPherson makes money as an artist is through what’s known as passive income.
“You might not be getting paid that much, but there’s no more, ‘Hey, we gave you 10 CDs when we were in Madison and you said you would pay us if they sold, but now you can’t find the piece of paper now?’” McPherson explains. “We went through that in the consignment era when you would walk in with a set of things and when you came back they would count them, see if you sold anything, and then pay you some of the money. That sucked way worse than streaming.”
Throughout the year McPherson gets checks from the different companies he licenses his music through. When he takes the money out of the account each year, it isn’t enough to fully support each member of the band financially, but it does add up over time and reminds him that making a living as an artist looks different for different people.
“In some ways, there have never been fewer people stopping you from making money,” McPherson says. “If said club doesn’t want to work with you, you can do a pop-up show. If said radio station doesn’t want to work with you, you can often find a different media service that does, or you can get your stuff to SoundCloud. There are still barriers of entry, but there’s never been a time where there have been more paths around those barriers.”
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.