Making a living playing original music is like mountain climbing. Besides the struggle and the steep learning curve, avalanches abound — technology, trends and the economy are always in flux. Furthermore, as writer Nitsuh Abebe noted in New York Magazine, even apparent success stories like Grizzly Bear aren’t swimming in rock-star indulgence.
Still want in? We contacted some successful Columbus musicians for advice.
•Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots, a multi-genre duo that built a huge regional following and signed to major label Fueled By Ramen.
•Jerreau Smith of Fly Union, a rap trio that has recorded with Curren$y and Big Sean, played Jay-Z’s Made In America festival and just toured with Kendrick Lamar.
•Jesse Bartz of Lo-Pan, a metal band signed to Small Stone Records, about to tour with High on Fire.
•George Barrie of MojoFlo, a soul and R&B band that has toured nationwide and performed with Jimmy Cliff and Trombone Shorty.
•Micah Schnabel of Two Cow Garage, the hardest-touring rock band in Columbus.
•Phil Cogley, a.k.a. The Saturday Giant, a one-man band whose month-long tour (hint, hint) ends Saturday at Kobo.
1. Define “success,” then strategize. As Bartz noted, you have to know where you’re going before you can figure out how to get there.
2. Put the music first. “Really put the time in on what it is that you’re selling — the songwriting, the live show and the recording,” Barrie said. “A lot of people jump into it trying to sell the product before they got it.”
3. Build a healthy online presence. Bartz and Barrie agreed a professional website can help you score gigs and win fans. Tour dates, contact information, music samples and live video are crucial. “You definitely have to use all the mediums that make sense,” said Smith, whose Fly Union posted video blogs from tour. But don’t go overboard; “You can end up stretching yourself thin trying to keep up,” Smith said. And don’t bombard fans with constant promotional posts and event invites. Joseph sprinkles band news between a stream of humorous musings and only promotes select performances online.
4. Get ’em hooked, then back off. Saturate the market early. Get your name out among varied crowds. As Schnabel noted, a healthy hometown fan base can launch tours with a moral and financial boost. Once established, reduce local appearances before your welcome wears out. Twenty One Pilots performed across Ohio, framing Columbus shows as rare special events.
5. Get out of town. Bands can be discovered online through word of mouth if you’re lucky, but that’s rare. Touring proves you’re serious and spreads your name around. Every panelist agreed: You have to tour.
6. Travel smart. Touring is expensive, so jam econo. Lo-Pan planned weekend runs in a three-hour radius before attempting multi-week tours. Fly Union started with spot dates.
Less gear and personnel is better. Cogley is scraping by, but if he split his tour pay with bandmates, they’d all starve. He can fit himself and his gear in a Civic, whereas MojoFlo travels with up to seven people. To curb lodging costs, they installed bunks in their RV.
Bring merch! Stickers, T-shirts, albums, download cards — make sure fans have something to take home. Merchandise sales can be the difference between making it to the next town or not, Bartz said.
7. Insure your gear. Cogley’s equipment was stolen out of his car in June, but he was insured. “That saved my ass,” he said. “I would have been out five or six grand.”
8. Build connections. Network locally and globally. Be persistent but never pushy or entitled, Smith said: “You might see somebody in different settings. You have to be aware of that. Repetition helps.” Schnabel considers relationships Two Cow’s greatest asset: “Even when we were playing at all these empty bars for the owner or the bartenders, we made all those people like us because we were nice. Now any one of us could go into our phone and book a tour in a couple days.”
9. Don’t quit your day job. Bend over backwards to hold down work until doing music fulltime is the obvious choice. That might be a while: “Tons of my friends that are in national touring bands still work day jobs,” Bartz said.
10. Find bandmates you can stand. Collaboration breeds conflict, particularly when traveling. “It’s just like ‘The Real World,’ but it’s even more confined space,” Bartz said. “You don’t have your own bedroom where you can go talk to the camera about the other roommates.” Schnabel agreed: “You don’t want fistfights over ‘Wendy’s or Burger King?’ And there are people who will have those fights.”