Debating The Grizzly Bear NY Mag Story And Making A Living Making Music

Michael Nelson | October 2, 2012 - 1:05 pm

As you may have heard, Grizzly Bear was featured on the cover of this week’s New York Magazine, alongside the headline, “Is Rock Stardom Any Way To Make A Living?” The feature itself, written by Nitsuh Abebe, came in at more than 5,000 words, and among other things, tried to illuminate the difficult economic realities of being a musician, even a relatively popular musician. We did a post on that story here yesterday, and the discussion it ignited in our comments section spread like wildfire. And rightly so: No serious music fan can claim to be indifferent to such a question; we all have a stake. It’s a dialogue that has been going on for ages, recently sparked anew by the actions and arguments of such artists as David Lowery and Amanda Palmer. And now this.

Stereogum contributors Doug Moore and James Jackson Toth have unique and nuanced perspectives on this subject. Both are working musicians whose music has received critical acclaim. James records under the alias Wooden Wand, whose last album was released on Michael Gira’s Young God label, and “is an intersection of outlaw country’s toughness, Dylan-inspired pith, and Waits-like attentiveness and wit,” wrote Pitchfork in 2011. Doug is the frontman of Brooklyn-based experimental metal band Pyrrhon, about whom Decibel Magazine said, “Outré as they get, everything Pyrrhon do emanates from an obsidian death metal core — just that this music is that much more expressive, its impact that much more disquieting than almost anything else in the genre.”

Despite their accomplishments, neither James nor Doug is currently making a living solely via music. In this way, they have much in common. However, in the debate that follows, they express certain fundamental disagreements regarding the subject at hand. Because this is a conversation with no logical conclusion — and because this is such a hugely multifaceted issue — I’ve asked Doug and James to keep an eye on the comments section here, and respond when it’s possible/appropriate to do so. I hope this dialogue helps to advance our collective understanding of the plight of the modern musician, and I hope too that you’ll listen to (and support!) both Wooden Wand and Pyrrhon.

Take it away, boys!

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Doug Moore: The New York Mag piece on Grizzly Bear makes me feel lucky to be a member of a generation of musicians who never expected to be able to quit their day jobs.
 
I’m 25 and I’m in a metal band. For us, success as a professional band would look something like this: release an album that does incredibly well in the metal world and achieves some crossover recognition; drop out of the normal workforce and spend the ensuing year or two touring mid-sized venues and playing European festivals; repeat as many times as possible.
 
Since even touring isn’t very lucrative these days, we wouldn’t accrue much in the way of savings during this period. After five or six of these cycles, we’d likely wane in popularity or break up. By then, we’d be in our late thirties or early forties, with no career, no money, and no marketable work experience. Remember, this is what ‘success’ would look like.
 
To me, bailing on normal work and dedicating myself to this career arc sounds insanely ill-advised. The better, more sustainable bet seems to be treating music as an avocation, not as a vocation.

James Jackson Toth: I’m 34 and am a member of the generation that came before yours, Doug — the one that has this crazy idea that we should be paid for our work. Under the current model, Patti Smith would have never left the Piss Factory. On the other hand, we’d still have Nancy Sinatra. You see why this is such serious business.

Doug, you say — quite reasonably — that the idea of dedicating yourself to music as a career sounds insanely ill-advised, and you’re right. And my advice to younger musicians has always been that if you CAN do something else and be fulfilled, do it. For some of us, though, that choice doesn’t really exist.

Since 1996, I’ve occasionally had to supplement my income as a full-time musician with temporary, freelance and “quit-able” jobs — contracted construction and carpentry work (mostly flooring, house painting, and hanging drywall), writing and copy editing, truck driving, and the like. I’ve rarely held any job for longer than three months and have never worked for more than a third of any given year doing anything besides music. Wooden Wand is not what you’d call a household name. I make it work because the idea of doing anything else, for me, is death. I do without health insurance, cable TV, “date nights,” and other perks others may take for granted. I don’t mind. Neither does my wife, a PhD candidate in English whose long-term job prospects are ultimately as grim as my own. We’re in this together because we agree that even being destitute is preferable to not doing what we we feel we were put on Earth to do. In short, we’ll always choose a cot at the YMCA over a 40-hour work week doing something we hate.

Because of this, I expect to be paid for my work, because, like anyone, I must survive. I do not play free shows, I do not allow my music to be used in films (even student films) without a fee, and I do not give away music for free on the Internet. If that makes me a capitalist swine, then so is your plumber, your dentist, the dude who sells you kale at the farmer’s market, and the girl who serves you your mocha latte, none of whom are expected to work for free. Bands who give music away for free essentially reinforce the idea that music is valueless. It also sets a dangerous precedent, and is not altogether different from crossing a picket line.

Moore: I feel your pain, James. I’m currently in the same situation that you are; I work three part-time jobs to support myself and to foot the bill for my music. (Like most metal bands, Pyrrhon perpetually loses money.) I like my jobs, but it’s still a pain. Somewhere along the line, I chose to sacrifice some material comforts for the emotional satisfaction of playing music. I don’t resent the world for failing to reward me more richly for doing so; I knew what I was getting into.
 
You’re presenting a false dilemma here. I don’t propose that all music should be free or that bands should give up on asking people to pay for shows or albums. When Pyrrhon plays a show, we expect to make at least a little bit of money. We don’t give away shirts or CDs for free. (Not to strangers, anyway.) But we also don’t realistically expect the band to support us, now or ever. In that sense, it’s a hobby, albeit a partially remunerative one.
 
You’re right that musicians who give away music for free are reducing the market value of that music, in some sense. At the same time, they’re also recognizing that the market value of music is already very low and that there isn’t much they can do about it. I suspect that most musicians who give away free music would rather charge for it, but can’t. Few consumers will pay for something they can illegally download for free. So, musicians give away their work in the hope of getting more popular and eventually finding ways to monetize it. This sucks too, but it’s the reality we’re living in. The Internet and file-sharing aren’t going away any time soon.
 
If we wanna play music, we have to come to grips with this reality. We have a number of options for how to do so. One option is to forgo most stable forms of employment and shoot for broad-based success. If it works, you’ll likely end up in Grizzly Bear’s position, which I personally don’t envy. Another option is to find a job (or jobs) you like, hold onto it, and play music with whatever time you have left over. I don’t think it’s reasonable to compare those who opt for the latter with scabs in a labor dispute. Would-be professional musicians don’t have a moral monopoly on the art form, regardless of whether the amateurs are bad for business.

Toth: All well and good, but do you feel that prosperity is an unreasonable goal for a band like Grizzly Bear? Do you feel that financial independence as a result of years of toiling is something a band shouldn’t take for granted if that band seemingly has all the necessary elements, as Grizzly Bear seem to, to achieve the kind of success that allowed bands like Nirvana to rake in millions of dollars less than two decades ago? That seems unfair at best, tragic at worst. Your attitude is a common but unsettling one — bands seem to be throwing up their hands and reluctantly agreeing to ‘play ball’ despite the consequences. Why shouldn’t Grizzly Bear be making millions of dollars? It seems to me that as many people I know worship Grizzly Bear as worship professional athletes, reality television stars and celebrity chefs. I guess I didn’t think the band came off particularly grumpy in the article — maybe they didn’t come off grumpy enough.

I don’t know about you, but when I had to work those jobs I referred to earlier, I found I had very little time to actually do something creative. If I come home after a nine hour day with drywall dust in my hair and arms that feel like two slabs of dead salmon, I’m not thinking about writing a song. I’m thinking about taking a shower, eating something that can’t be acquired through a drive-through window, and squeezing in as much time with my family as I can before I have to wake up to the alarm clock and do it all over again the next day. I feel that, merely by circumstance, this lifestyle forces me to forfeit my identity as an artist. This schedule also, of course, prevents me from accepting regional tours, non-local gigs, and out-of-town collaborations, to say nothing of the occasional video shoot or interview request. These things are necessary to my spiritual, financial and creative survival. Without them, I may as well be another dude playing Thin Lizzy covers with my bros on the weekend. And there isn’t a thing wrong with that. But that’s not what I have chosen to do with my life. 

I guess my question is, with three jobs, where do you find the time? How do you make it work? What happens tomorrow if Neurosis asks you to join them on a three-week tour? You’d only be getting $200 a night. Do you turn it down because you’re afraid of losing one of your jobs and would very likely come home broke? Do you use up all your vacation time and hope no more opportunities come up for the year? I’m genuinely curious, because any time I’ve been in that situation, I’ve just up and quit whatever shitty dishwashing job I had and went ahead on tour. Because I’m a musician, not a dishwasher. And I’m assuming you, too, are a musician, and not something else. So how do you reconcile this?

It’s true that the Internet and file-sharing aren’t going away any time soon, but I think we need to examine ways in which we can make it work for us as artists rather than allow ourselves to be exploited by the new boss. Pragmatism should not be mistaken for defeatism. Those evil major labels of yore are beginning to look downright cuddly.

Moore: Who is the new boss that’s exploiting musicians? It seems to me that our answer is the audience. People are downloading music for free instead of paying. Watermarking files won’t stop it. Prosecuting them won’t stop it. Appealing to their moral sensibilities won’t stop it. The numbers have shifted.
 
Commodities are only worth what people are willing to pay for them. People will pay a shitload for sports tickets and paraphernalia, and advertisers will pay a shitload to run ads during televised games, so sports are lucrative. But few people will pay much for Grizzly Bear songs or shirts, and the band probably won’t sell ad space in their music or at their concerts, so there isn’t nearly as much money to be made. (That being said: If any corporations out there are interested in commissioning a Pyrrhon-composed jingle or theme song, we are currently accepting bids.)
 
It may be unfair and tragic that Grizzly Bear will never make the same millions that Nirvana did, and it may be a huge pain for you and me to structure our creative time around day jobs, but that’s the new normal. It is an old normal in many ways. Historically, most musicians are amateurs. Music is not traditionally a profitable profession — the millionaire pop star is a recent development. Even some of history’s most celebrated musicians never achieved financial stability; Mozart was famously buried in a common grave.
 
We can rend our clothes and gnash our teeth before this callous fact, or we can adapt. This is what I meant when I said that I feel lucky to be a member of my generation of musicians. To you, it’s unfair that rock music doesn’t pay, because you came of age while it still did. To me, it’s just a hard fact of life — a product of uncontrollable natural forces, like aging or hurricane season. (My fatalism here is aided by the fact that I play a style of music that was never commercially successful.) If you have any ideas for how to re-monetize this stuff, I’d love to hear them. Seriously. I certainly haven’t heard many viable ones yet.
 
Regarding your Neurosis hypothetical: the first thing I would do is cry tears of joy. Then I would try to arrange for the absence with my employers. Failing that, I’d quit, because I’m young and I’d value the opportunity over a patchwork of part-time employment. (Incidentally, the way I make it all work involves lots of coffee and very little sleep.) But if I was older and was forced to choose between a career I enjoy and a three-week tour with Neurosis, I’d take the career and live to rock another day. One of my favorite metal bands, Pig Destroyer, has predicated its existence on this model — the members have professional jobs, and they make time for the band around those jobs. They’re critical and popular darlings; they aren’t just “playing Thin Lizzy covers with their bros.” As I understand it, Neurosis is doing something similar these days. Steve Von Till is a teacher.
 
It’s a tradeoff, to be sure, and it’s your prerogative to find it distasteful. But for me, it’s preferable to a lifetime of poverty and tedious day labor.

Toth: You raise some great points here, and I’d like to focus on your Pig Destroyer argument in particular. I, too, am a big Pig Destroyer fan, and I know that the way those guys augment their income as rockers is by tattooing, writing, producing and mastering albums, and creating album art. Kind of an ideal situation, right? Seems to me that Scott Hull, JR Hayes, and the gang have found that elusive loophole that allows them to supplement whatever they make with their bands with other artistic endeavors they enjoy.

Southern Lord is another great example of a ‘shouldn’t work but does’ business model. Can you imagine the conversations around the Anderson household when this whole Sunn0))) business began all began? “So, baby, we’re going to start this heavy, totally inaccessible, totally artsy drone band band, see, and we’re going to headline festivals and sell tons and tons of merch — it’s going go be the biggest metal band since Slayer. And the good news is if it doesn’t work out, we can always fall back on the label — you know, the one that releases impenetrable crust punk, guitar drone, and black metal that sounds like it was recorded in a storage locker.” As an artist and a fan, I salute the sheer audacity, the courage, and the spirit of adventure inherent in that sort of leap of faith. Maybe I’m just poorly organized (I’m not), but I couldn’t see such an empire being built on weekends between telemarketing shifts. Without complete dedication and sacrifice above all, I’d reckon that Southern Lord (and Pig Destroyer) would have been a logistic impossibility. 

I’d argue that the ‘new boss’ isn’t fickle audiences, or Spotify, or illegal downloaders, but the artists themselves. Every time an artist takes less than he or she deserves, it makes it that much harder on the rest of us. The myth that bands should do things for ‘exposure’ is what’s resulted in what you correctly identify as the decreased worth of our art as commodity. This creates conundrums like our Neurosis one: Now, taking into account that the touring budget allocated for support slots has nothing to do with the band itself (as Neurosis have always been one of the more straight-up bands in the world and in hindsight is probably a bad example, but let’s stay consistent), if you were to try to negotiate a little more money for this theoretical tour, what would happen? You might say, “Gee whiz, I really, really love Neurosis, and this is a great opportunity, but $200 won’t even cover our expenses — can you do $300 a night instead?” Chances are, there are about 10,000 bands who not only would do it for $200 a night, but might even do the tour for free. And so your request for more money would be denied. So even though all of your friends are jealous that you got asked to open for Neurosis and everyone in your scene thinks you’re suddenly famous, you find you have no bargaining power, and are about to pay to play and go into debt to play these shows, something even the local cover bands wouldn’t stoop to.

I think this is what Grizzly Bear are reacting to. The only thing worse than having people resent you for being rich is having people resent you for being rich when you’re anything but. Not to get all name-droppy, but I stayed at Grizzly Bear’s house once in Boston while on tour. It was nice, but not, like, Cribs nice. It should have been, because they deserve it. I certainly wouldn’t deny Grizzly Bear their yacht and their Zero Gravity Room, if that’s what they wanted, but I suspect all they really want is autonomy, and maybe some rad gear.