Talking to musicians about money and ‘day jobs’ is like talking to a woman about her age and weight. It’s a little rude. People identify heavily with what they do for a living and musicians want others to view their artistic endeavors seriously. As a musician, success isn’t necessarily measured monetarily and the gypsy-like lifestyle of touring with all its sacrifices doesn’t fit traditional definitions of a successful career.
This pricing trick didn’t stir up much conversation about how artists were getting paid, nor did it bring many to question the value of music.
Around the same time, big-box stores began getting into music retail. Best Buy and others artificially lowered the price of music and marked up other merchandise, even though record labels were still selling their CDs at full cost to them, as documented in the 2009 book, "Appetite For Self Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age" industry writer Steve Knopper.
This shift in the price of physical recordings began the demise of the record store. Long before illegal digital downloading sites like the infamous Napster and the 99 cent songs of iTunes, Mom and Pop record stores and chains like Tower Records in began shutting down, unable to compete with big-box and other large-scale retailers, Knopper explains in his book.
Fast-forward several years to Radiohead’s seventh album, “In Rainbows,” released in 2007. The band severed ties with its long-time label EMI and made the album available only through the band’s website at a “pay-what-you-want” rate.
According to NME Magazine, this new model generated more money than their previous album, “Hail To The Thief." It did so even before “In Rainbows” was made physically available and even though the majority of fans paid nothing. Analysis by the label Warner Chappell concluded it was a financial success., but many argued this could only be achieved by an already-established band such as Radiohead.
San Antonio is home to many artists of various levels of achievement within the modern music industry. To know how successful an artist or band has become isn’t a measure of their bank accounts.
Take the band Grizzly Bear from New York, for example. In a 2012 story by the online magazine Vulture, the band details its many milestones such as selling out Radio City Music Hall, having a song played during the Super Bowl, performing at national weekend festivals such as Coachella and Bonaroo, preparing a tour of New Zealand, etc. Yet, a few of them don’t have health insurance and one still lives in the small apartment he had at the start of the band's ascent. Does this mean the band is not successful?
I discussed this topic with Ariel Faz of Chisme, a hip hop artist and producer; Nicolette Good, a folk/Americana singer song-writer; and Ernest Gonzales, a.k.a. Mexicans With Guns, an electronic music artist, producer and DJ about their experiences with music, money and what success as musician looks like in 2013.
Ernest – alongside District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal – and Ariel are both performing at The Aztec Theater on Sept 28. The show is part of The Current's San Antonio Music Awards Showcase where 35 bands and DJs are to perform at seven different stages and venues across town such as 502 Bar, The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and several others.
I spoke with Ariel at the Faust Tavern and had a beer and talked about his experiences and views. The most interesting thing about speaking to another musician from a different genre, is that we arrive at basically the same conclusion, but through different paths. Ariel told me that when considering a performance, pay isn’t the number one factor. There are many facets to mull over, such as sound quality or who is involved with a show. Each performance is considered on an individual basis.
When asked about rehearsal and scheduling, he said, “Me and (band mate Erick 'Progeny' Frias) are (so) on the same page, when things need to come together, they do.” Ariel said Chisme still performs its last record, “In One Ear, Out The Other” because their audience is “continuously growing and those songs are still new to them.”
He told me about touring out West and how selling merchandise helped finance parts of the trip. In thinking about our conversation I realized these issues are ones that all musicians face.
I asked Ernest and Nicolette several similar questions to help give more insight:
MT: You had your album “Ceremony” reviewed by Pitchfork. Maybe I’m just a fanboy, but in my opinion: That’s big time. Is that type of media coverage important to you? Did this effect your career in any way?
EG: I am aware of Pitchfork's reputation as a tastemaker, but I personally don't visit their website to learn about new music or to find out what they think is new and worthy. I have received one pretty good review and one that wasn't.
I don't really know of any affect it has had on my career, though. Reviews are generally a nice thing ... I'm glad when they happen because there's an opportunity there for new listeners to find my music.
MT: I know it can be an awkward subject, but do you have other jobs besides music?
EG: My day job is a technology teacher for SAISD, specifically STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) at Irving Academy Middle School on The Westside. Music pays bills, but not all of them, especially when you are married and have children.
MT: When considering a performance, is pay the number one factor?
EG: Pay can be important, but there are many factors to consider like when, where, and what the show is for. I have released about 12 albums, four of which were on vinyl, one of which was a book, and I've been able to play shows across the country.
I feel pretty fortunate that I can create my art and there are people out there that help me do this and people out there that support what I do.
MT: Do you feel like you’ve arrived or you’ve “made it?” Is there a pinnacle or plateau?
EG: I don't think I've reached a pinnacle ... that spots reserved for the pop stars like Katy Perry. I never set out to do that, though. I just want to make music.
What can you tell me about the Aztec Theater CD release performance?
I can't wait to get into The Aztec Theater. The photos will look incredible and the CD Release will be a great celebration. Diego (Bernal) and I go back to late 2007 when I first heard his music on his Myspace page.
I asked Diego to have one of his songs on my label's compilation. I ended up releasing two of his albums on my label.
Now that he's a city councilman, finding time to make music has been extremely difficult for him so he asked me to help him out.
I reluctantly did because I have been trying to wrap up a new MWG album.
I'm glad we worked on it though, it gave us a chance to kick it at Geekdom and make some beats.
It also was the impetus for getting SAMPL started. SAMPL (San Antonio Music Production Lab) is going to become a non-profit organization aimed at teaching San Antonio youth how to produce music.
MT: It can be like spinning plates trying to balance writing, recording, rehearsing, performing, touring and the rest of life. How do you manage that? Is there a schedule?
NG: It's easy for me to get caught up in the booking and promotion side of music. Anytime I feel like the business side is outweighing the creative side, I stop, regroup, and set aside the bulk of my time toward writing.
Music basically is my social life, so that kills two birds with one stone. I went on a date once with a guy who asked me, "So what else are you into besides music?" The date ended pretty quickly.
MT: Do you have other jobs besides music or do you live exclusively on the money generated by your recordings/performances/ merchandise? Or does most of that get put back into the music machinery?
NG: I am lucky to have a full-time job that I love and that also supports me. Right now I'm happy with this balance, because it keeps music as something I can never have enough of. I'm not the type of artist who necessarily thrives in being immersed in music 24/7. I like to get out into the world, talk to all sorts of people, hear their stories. Otherwise, what am I going to write about?
M: When considering a performance, is pay the number one factor? Do you have outside support like a booking agent, manager or publicist?
NG: When I consider taking a show, it either has to be a ton of fun, a lot of money, or it has to promote my name. All three would be great! I do all my own booking; I am a one-woman shop, but the Americana, singer/songwriter, folk communities are very supportive and happy to swap secrets and share resources when it comes to "professional development."
MT: What are your thoughts on streaming music like Pandora and Spotify? Is it a necessary strategy to be accessible or a gimmick to empty our pockets? How do you listen to music? Does this effect your decisions about merchandise?
NG: I think Pandora and Spotify, while imperfect, are great new tools for listeners and artists. I don't think, though, that they are done evolving. When I think about merch, I try to remember that people buy things to encapsulate a memory. It matters less what your merch is as long as your show is unforgettable.
These three artists come from different genres and backgrounds, yet a common thread runs throughout their attitudes and motivations. Creating and performing music is central, and having the ability to continue the journey, no matter the path, is the goal. Recognition and money are nice collateral, but what keeps a musician going is only the music. Many issues and obstacles exist in the local music scene but San Antonio will be swinging in the dark at problems if we are unclear about the issues musicians face.
Miles Terracina is chief lyricist and beat programmer for the electronic music and arts group Mixed Use Media. He has been a live music performer in central Texas for several years and also blogs, DJ’s and performs solo as PunkSoda. Follow Miles on Twitter @punksoda, Soundcloud, and Facebook.