“I don’t really understand how any musician can afford to stay in one place,” indie veteran singer-songwriter Cass McCombs told me during an interview for Vulture earlier this year. “We don’t make enough money to afford an apartment. I know pretty much half of the musicians in existence have a side job of some sort.” One of the most common misconceptions in the social media age — a time in which you can log on and see your favorite indie musicians partnering with brands, playing festivals, and posting selfies on tour as if they were on some endless vacation — is that the foot soldiers in the industry itself are awash in capital.
The truth is that most indie artists — from some of the nebulously defined genre’s biggest stars to its buzz-making heat seekers — rely on multiple sources of income outside of their music career to pay the bills and put food on the table: “Wavves Is a Landlord Now and Everyone Is Freaking Out,” a headline read on Exclaim earlier this year after the pop-punk act’s front man Nathan Williams posted an Instagram listing advertising vacant rented space on a property he owned. But why was everyone freaking out, other than in reaction to a commonly mistaken set of expectations regarding indie musicians’ financial statuses?
Indeed, when I brought up Williams’s property-owning non-troversy to artists I spoke to for this general survey — which covers what said artists do for a living to sustain their own musical careers, as well as the financial realities that come with making music in 2019 — they expressed not indignation, but a sense of admiration that someone in their field could even own property. (Almost none of them owned property themselves.) What follows are 17 testimonials from working indie and indie-adjacent musicians about what they do when they’re not making music, how they perceive their financial future in the industry, and how much money they make — or, much more often, lose — in the process.
Side hustles: shipping for a fragrance company; Refinery29 red-carpet-event setup; secretary for a psychiatrist’s office
“For the past year, my main job has been running the shipping department for a fragrance line. I do a bunch of other things, too — I’m always hustling for jobs. Another job I do is setting up the backdrops for red-carpet events, which is my favorite job because I wear a tool belt and drive a giant truck. It’s a job that men predominantly do, but I got it because it’s for Refinery29, which is primarily a women-run company. It’s pretty cool. During my first album, I worked as a secretary in a psychiatrist’s office, which made for good lyrical content.
There’s this self-shaming perspective I’ve seen in a lot of my peers in that they feel like they’re a failure of an artist if they have another job. I feel the opposite way about it. I think you’re more of a failure if all you do is play in a band for the rest of your life, honestly. What a limited view of reality. I’ve found that the discipline and schedule of having a job only helps the creative phases of my life. It’s like working out — it fuels your day and gives you more energy. Touring is another story, of course, and it’s hard to get a job when people Google you and see that you tour.
Anything emo or metal is gonna make merch — that’s the way to make money. For the majority of time making music, I’ve lost money. There are a few moments where I’ve seen making music through a careerist lens, and I regret it. I want to keep it as a sacred space to heal myself through. I have friends who are famous rock stars who struggle financially. Any other job makes more money than being in a band. Even if you’re working full-time at McDonald’s, you’re gonna make more money than a lot of my peers. The industry structure is built against the artist. It’s not a lucrative dream. I still consider it a total privilege and luxury to be an artist. It’s not something that makes me money.”
Side hustles: truck driving; worked in bookstores, record stores, movie theaters, delicatessens; painter on the Trump Tower; demolition work; stable hand; projectionist; folded and licked invitation envelopes
“As a musician, in the early days you’re supposed to cut your teeth and pay your dues to the road. But then that turns into a decade, or two decades, and you’re paying your dues for life. It never really turns into a grown-up’s job. There is a musicians’ union, but for whatever reason the majority of us musicians are excluded — it’s relegated to symphonic musicians and late-night talk-show bands. But how do you unionize ducks? They’re hard to corral, if you’ve ever tried to corral ducks.
This is a shitty thing to say, but maybe musicians don’t deserve to make a living. Maybe it should be a hobby. But if that’s true, I don’t want to see some talentless pop stars making what they make, while quality living museums of folk-music knowledge get paid nothing. That’s not cool. But I’m not the one to decide. It’s good for people to know that, when they come out to see a show, these people are putting their whole life on the line to give their heart and soul. It means something more than money.”
Eva Hendricks, Charly Bliss
Side hustle: stocking milk in coffee shops
“None of us have jobs right now, but our new record was the first time we’ve made a record without day jobs. When I was working at a coffee shop while we were making Guppy, I was writing songs while stocking milk. But the financial reality of being in a band is … not awesome. Right now, we’re in a position where we’re just able to potentially make it work without day jobs, but that can turn suddenly, and then it’s hard to get a brand-new job when you’re explaining the realities of being away all the time.
Financially, we’ve got nothing to lose. [Laughs.] We try our hardest to make sure that, at the end of every month, we can give every person in the band a $1,000 payout. My rent is $950 a month, so there’s no wiggle room. Some months we’re able to do $1,500 or — very rarely — $2,000, but it’s really hard. It definitely makes you wish you were a trust-fund kid, but unfortunately none of us are. If I didn’t believe that doing this full-time was a potential reality, I’d stop doing it. On some level, I have to believe that.”
Matt Batey, Ruler
Side hustle: email marketing for Alaska Airlines
“I’m unemployed now, but my job was kind of perfect. I worked remotely on the email marketing team at Alaska Airlines, so I was able to work on tour. All the financial worries that come along with going on tour — because no one ever makes any money going on tour — weren’t there. Most people who go on tour are either using paid time off or unpaid time off, so they’re trying to lose as little money as possible while they’re out. For every other job I had, [making music] has been impossible. Spending late nights playing music and trying to be creatively engaged doesn’t lend itself to working a full-time job.
I didn’t profit in any way last year. I probably lost — conservatively — $15,000. It would have been more than that, but the shows were better and I got signed to [Barsuk]. I’ve been doing this since 2005, and the loss has grown every year. Just when you think it’s gonna get better, it gets worse. I still love making music, but I can’t expect to make money from it. It’s never been a sustainable business. This is like a really expensive hobby for me.”
Side hustles: high-end clothing boutique; personal stylist
“I work at a boutique in Nashville that deals in high-end clothes for liquidation, and I have a side hustle in which I style clients personally. I go to their home, clean out their closets, and help them build a wardrobe. I love my co-workers at the boutique, so being able to have friends who aren’t in the music business is really cool. It helps me to have perspective. If you’re just doing music, you can lose your sense of reality.
I’m broke. I had to downsize my life this past year. I moved back home with my family just to take off the added stress of making rent in Nashville. It’s really good for me to have the support system — I don’t know how people do it without family. I want to see this as paying my dues, and you hope that one day it will pay off, so we’ll see. If it doesn’t, then I had fun living in a van for months at a time. There’s such a high threshold you have to meet, though, and I have not met it yet. But I remain hopeful that I can do it because I don’t have a trust fund and I don’t have a rich dad funding my career.”
Peter Richards and Andrew Hall, Dude York
Side hustles: bouncer; Amazon Music
Richards: “I’ve been working at [Seattle venue] the Showbox as a bouncer for years, and I love it. I used to work at Amazon Music, and when my contract was up I decided to coast on savings. That was a bad decision. I spent a year trying to write and record a song every day, and I was in a dangerous position financially. In this facsimile of the music industry — which I call ‘the liquor promotion industry’ — it’s magic if you can get yourself to a stable place. We’ve always had a tacit understanding that we wouldn’t gamble on the band with our money. That said, we don’t make money.”
Hall: “Every monthlong U.S. tour we’ve done, we’ve made or lost about $1,500 and haven’t recouped yet. My royalty check last year from [rights-management organization] SoundExchange was, like, $14. Any money we’ve ever taken home has come from weird one-off shows like private holiday parties. Doing a U.K. support tour last summer cost us double our anticipated budget — I’ll describe the loss as low five figures. As a band, we lost a moderate four-figure sum last year and have had to support ourselves entirely from other work since that tour. The U.K. is probably the worst-paying market in the world, so breaking even there is all but impossible. British music fans are really supportive, and doing those shows can lead to other things, but the touring market itself is brutal.”
Katherine Paul, Black Belt Eagle Scout
Side hustles: production; talent buyer; ticketing manager
“I work for Mississippi Studios and Revolution Hall in Portland — I actually just left the position I was doing for a long time so I can go on tour for most of the year, but I’m still working with them part-time to work in production and box office. I was a talent buyer and ticketing manager. To be honest, I’m a little worried, but I’ve got a lot lined up, so it should be okay. It’s hard to be creative when you’re always on the road and tired. The travel element of touring inhibits feeling like a musician, but this is my job and it’s what I do right now.
I haven’t lost money [on music yet] because I’m trying to be strategic about it. I’m in hustler mode. Whenever I’m on tour, I have to hustle my merch because it’s the only way to make a profit. As an emerging artist, touring and support fees aren’t a lot — and a percentage is going to my agent, and my manager, and my band members. I make $60 or $70 a day playing a show.”
Daniel Salas, Versing
Side hustle: web-content manager for Seattle’s Freedom Socialist Party
“I work at a Seattle-based socialist political party called the Freedom Socialist Party. I’m their web-content manager. They’re really cool with me taking time off for touring — they’re a bunch of chill socialists who have been in the game for a long time. But they don’t pay me very well, and I don’t work full-time for them. I do have benefits, though. It could be a lot worse. We used to lose a little bit of money as a band every year — probably in the hundreds range — and selling music is a nonfactor, which is the biggest bummer. After a few years, we were able to break even. Making art is really expensive, especially to get it to the expected standard of music nowadays. It’s impossible to make money.”
Steve Lamos and Steve Holmes, American Football
Side hustle: college professor; senior director of operations at ADP
Lamos: “I’ve been a professor at the University of Colorado for 14 years — I teach argumentative writing. The band revolves around school schedules. We all have younger kids, so we tend to be more open to touring in the summer and on breaks. We do 25 to 30 days of touring a year at max. That’s the most we could pull off. When we reunited, it was staggering how much more that seemed to be worth than anything we ever dreamed up when we were doing this in 1998. Now that we’re a ‘real band,’ the money has changed somewhat.
The band is a nice supplemental income — it helps mitigate the fact that my wife is home raising our kids full-time. But it’s not a lucrative lifestyle. We’ve generated profit from the band since reuniting, but from 1999 to 2015, there were fairly modest royalties and they’ve dwindled because of the internet. I would tell my own kids to pursue things that matter to you because they make life more electric, but I’m grateful for my parents saying to me, ‘You can do music, but damn it, you better have something to do, too, because this is an up-and-down world.’”
Holmes: “I’m a senior director of operations at ADP, which is primarily known for payroll. I’ve worked there for 13 years. I’d never considered a life in music as a thing that was even possible as a career — it was more just something fun to do with friends. I’m squeezing this stuff in on weekends and using vacation time, which is hard. My wife is at the point where she’s like, ‘When are we going to go on a real vacation instead of wasting all your vacation days on the band?’ Which I totally get.
It’s impossible — almost unheard of — to be a middle-class musician. That’s why most bands are full of young people. There are a handful of middle-aged bands who have figured out how to make a long career out of it and are also more or less indie artists, but they’re very rare. Also, if you’re a solo act, it’s way more economically viable than when it’s four or five guys. Bands don’t make money. People would be shocked if they saw the balance sheets. Even when you get high guarantees, there’s so much overhead.”
Stina Tweeddale, Honeyblood
Side hustle: snooker hall
“The last full-time job I had before the band took off was at a snooker hall, for about nine months. You don’t have the time to commit to your first love, so trying to write and record while you’re working a full-time job can be really difficult. I’m about to release my third album, and by the end of a release campaign, your finances can take a hit because you’re not actively working if you’re not touring. You’re just squirreling away money at whatever opportunity you can for dry spells when you’re not actively performing or getting cash from merch. When is it gonna be when I have to get a real job? is always in the back of my head. But having a financially stable career is not why you make music.”
Kevin Olken Henthorn, Cape Francis
Side hustle: video editing
“I’m a video editor, and I’ve been working permalance at a financial institution. That has roughly subsidized my music and given me enough money to put out a record every year. Next month I’m gonna go on tour, which is usually chill with my job. My new album, Deep Water, is centered around the difference between work life and music life, which I’ve struggled with for a long time. There’s a lot of shame around being a musician. When I go home for the holidays and I get asked what I do, I say I’m a video editor. This culture is all about whatever really pays the bills. It’s fucked, but that’s how it’s been.
I’ve never had a savings account. Any money I’ve had has gone toward music. I try to keep it as cheap as possible. For tour, I go into a little bit of debt on my credit card. My label helps a little bit, but I still get hit. By the time you think you’re stable, you spend a bunch of money on making another record. I couldn’t tell you how much I’ve spent, it’s just been constant. When I was a kid, I thought I would be a rock star, but it doesn’t look like what it looks like. My new album’s about coming to terms with that: If I really love this thing, it doesn’t matter whether I’m working a day job for the rest of my life. In this line of work, we’re all gonna have to get a lot more creative if we want to adapt.”
Side hustle: music teacher
“Only recently did I start doing music full-time, but every day job I had in the past was music-related — teaching Mommy and Me music classes, picking up substitute teaching gigs. I did that for four years. The financial aspect of being a musician is as fantasized as much as every other aspect. Everyone says, ‘Oh, you must have a bunch of likes on Instagram and you’re playing a festival! You must be happy, rich, and getting laid.’ But guess what? Very often, none of those are true. Financially, having a day job was a necessity because I have student debt, like most human Americans.
So I’m in a lot of debt still, but because the music industry is so spread out now, it’s not like a few major labels are the gatekeepers to having a music career — there are so many avenues. There are so many things that determine whether you ‘make it,’ but the main thing is working super hard. I’m also putting out my first album right now, so even though I’m doing fine right now, my next album could flop and I could never make music again. There’s an element of uncertainty, which is why I’m super lucky my dad convinced me to get a music education degree.”
Brian Profilio, the Budos Band
Side hustle: art teacher
“I’m an art teacher in a New York City high school, and I’ve been doing it for 17 years. The biggest downside is that I can’t tour for more than a weekend. Some of my friends who are professional musicians are on the road for months at a clip, and life on the road is not easy. I don’t think of myself as a professional musician at all; I look at it as a hobby. I don’t make nearly enough money off of it to sustain myself and my family. My biggest paydays are from when people sample our music or use it commercially. On the road, maybe we make $150 a night each. We’ve never made a ton of money touring.”
Eli Kasan, the Gotobeds
Side hustle: art director
“I’m an art director at IDL in Pittsburgh. The biggest perk is that my day job in design helps inform the band when it comes to making tour posters. There’s definitely some contention at work when I need to be on tour for long periods of time, but I try to be a good worker so they miss me when they need me. We’ve been able to buy a van, fund our merch. Once it was an expensive hobby, now it pays a little — but we definitely jam econo. We don’t stay in hotels, drink free, eat free. If we have any extra money, it heads straight through our bellies and into the urinal. We’ve paid ourselves once after a tour — $100 each. Truthfully, there’s more money in the band’s bank account right now than in my personal bank account.”
Ryan Mahan, Algiers
Side hustle: refugee project work
“I work on refugee projects that focus on preventing children from being exploited. Most musicians within my realm are members of the working class. It’s difficult to survive and make a living in the music industry, or any creative industry unless you play into the wider expectations of the capitalist economy. One of our friends in Daughters couldn’t go on tour because of his day job. There are always trade-offs, and the mental, psychological, and economic fatigue wears on the body and mind. Most musicians invest their own money into making something happen. Until people in the creative arts are recognized as cultural laborers deserving of a living wage that supports their work, we’ll be forced to have multiple jobs.
We’ve been performing for five years, and in the first three we lost a considerable amount of money. We’re lucky enough to have a record label that pays us to make records, but our biggest show we’ve ever played in the States was probably 400 people in Seattle. We lose money every time we tour. Luckily, we’ve been able to make a little bit of money from publishing. I might’ve made about $15,000 in the last year on that, which is just getting by. I don’t have a home in London, so I sleep on friends’ floors when I can, and I don’t have a car or any possessions like that. I’m lucky enough to have health insurance through [the U.K.’s National Health Service]. I’ve had to cut back on work to tour, and the typical income in my profession is £25,000, which you give up half of to be in music, as well as the rest of your time and sanity.”