March 22, 2017
By Justin Wiseman
I’m not saying anything that everybody doesn’t already know — being in an independent band is not always a gravy train of free pizza and PBR in hip rock ’n roll clubs in the artsy parts of towns.
Most of our career has been a serious hustle. After our start in college in Abilene, Texas, we decided to relocate to the live music mecca of Austin, where we still reside. Over the years, I have delivered Chinese food, hung blinds, worked as a substitute teacher and taught piano lessons. Everyone in the band did whatever we needed to do for a chance to record our music and travel to perform for folks across the country.
One encouraging thing about being in a band these days is that there are many different ways to make money — lots of revenue streams. You can sell music digitally or on vinyl or CD, play shows, sell merch, and license your music to television and film.
But you have to do it at a pretty high level to make it all work. In addition to having five band members, when traveling it’s important to have someone to sell merch, run sound, and/or figure out where your bass player is at 4am — maybe you’re even lucky enough to stay in a hotel every now and again! At a certain point, you need an agent to help book decent shows, folks to help promote your music to press and radio, and a manager to help keep everything together. With all these people working plus the cost of transporting people and gear around the country, it takes a hell of a lot of money to make it all work.
Back in 2011 we were at a crossroads as a band, in the midst of several members quitting, and we wondered whether or not we could, or should, keep going. I was going through some old “junk” mail that had piled up in the band house one day when I came across an envelope from SoundExchange. It was a check for nearly $10,000 – I had nearly thrown it away! Months earlier our manager had registered us for SoundExchange, and this was our first check.
To some people, ten grand might not seem like a lot of money. But for a growing band, a check that size was absolutely revitalizing. That kind of money could facilitate recording an entire album, buy everyone new instruments, upgrade the 250,000-plus mile touring rig, rent rehearsal space for a year or more, or, heaven forbid, put a little rent money in our pockets! That SoundExchange check would have been meaningful any time, but it arrived at a crucial, existential moment for us as we were debating whether to continue. And keep going we did. These days we are fortunate enough to (mostly) not have to work other “day jobs.” Now, after spending the better part of 2016 at home in the studio, we have a new album, Certain Circles, which we’ll release this year!
We shared our story with SoundExchange’s CEO Mike Huppe at SXSW 2016 when we ran into him at a show. I don’t imagine there are many companies where you can just walk up to the CEO, shake hands and talk about what a difference the organization has made in your band’s life. But that’s exactly what we got to do over a few Shiners.
My advice to young bands is, first, to point out the obvious: it’s no easy task to build a band that can fully support itself. But if you’re smart, there are a lot of revenue streams you can tap into. For us, our synch fees have really saved us over the years. We’ve hustled, getting ourselves out of town, and we’ve done pretty well on the road. And, of course, there is SoundExchange money coming in every month. It all adds up.
It’s important for young bands to register and become members with SoundExchange early on, amidst choosing between ASCAP and BMI, building a cool website, and all the other initial pieces it takes to become a viable act. You need to take advantage of every source of income and opportunity that’s available to you as a band. You never know when some unexpected mailbox money could change your life, or at the very least, keep your dream alive a little longer!
Justin Wiseman is the keyboardist for indie band The Rocketboys.