Mastering the Hustle: How to Survive as an Artist (VIDEO)

Mastering the Hustle
04/02/2018
Martin Douglas

KEXP, Upstream Music Fest + Summit, MoPOP, and The Recording Academy have partnered together to present Mastering the Hustle: a panel discussion with six annual events, tackling a different topic to help emerging artists make better decisions earlier in their careers. Throughout the series, we’ll be discussing everything from how to get airplay, legal and licensing, healthcare for artists, and promoting your brand.

 

Establishing and developing a career in music is truly a dream job, but the hard truth is it’s hardly a career which provides enough money to get through a person’s day-to-day existence overnight. It takes a great deal of hard work and resourcefulness to cultivate something financially stable in the increasingly expensive city of Seattle. Myriad resources exist here to help nurture the music community, and the idea of utilizing those resources can be daunting if artists don’t know where to start.

In the seventh installment of the Mastering the Hustle workshop series, several Seattle-based luminaries were invited to discuss the essential component of finding ways to make more money as an artist as well as what artists can do to earn income on their way to becoming full-time creatives. Gigs4U’s Ramona Grotte, Artist Home founder Kevin Sur, The Noise Complaints Group co-founder Kit Russell, and Seattle singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski gathered to discuss various topics surrounding ways artists can better ply their trade on a panel moderated by City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture director Randy Engstrom.

Photo by Victoria Holt

 

“Seattle makes the future, we do it all the time. We invented air travel, desktop computing, online retail, expensive coffee drinks, and changed the music industry in three different ways that I can point out.” Randy Engstrom notes the city is the fastest-growing city in the country for the second time in the last five years, which he indicates in his keynote speech as “both a threat and an opportunity.”

After diving into the genesis of the Office of Arts and Culture, he offers, “Somewhere along the way, we fell into this rabbit hole of arts, culture, and music being rarefied, like it’s only for some people, and that’s never been true.” He talks about the importance of the concept of the arts and makes three very important suggestions to help serve both artists and arts communities.

  1. Consider collaboration as a way of life. Engstrom says, “I think we live in a super individualistic society, where we are taught to value ourselves and our own pursuit over the well-being of others. I think zero-sum games are a myth; I think the idea of your success is somehow at my expense isn’t real.” He notes the more the community comes together as one voice, the better opportunity it has to implement change and influence the Office of Arts and Culture’s strategies. “It turns out being good to each other benefits everyone in the end,” he says.
  2. Be at the table. Engstrom, in his experience, has observed artists are better at talking to other artists than talking to everyone else. The city is making long-term decisions on a daily basis, and it needs artists -- “the soul of this place” in his words -- to help sculpt the future of Seattle. “And if you’re not at the table,” Engstrom says, “You’re on the menu.”

  3. Anything is possible. Engstrom served as the program director of Olympia station KAOS, and during his time there, College Music Journal had a cover story whose headline was, “The Industry is Over, Now the Fun Begins.” He notes, “The internet broke everything.” No one knows where the music industry is going to go next. It’s all about taking risks and influencing its direction.

Photo by Victoria Holt

 

Engstrom closes to recognize the impending takeover of the third floor of King Street Station by the Office of Arts and Culture in order to make it a cultural hub for the city, noting if local government can imagine the possibilities of this idea, the arts community can accomplish a similar feat. He says, “I encourage you to not be constrained by the way things have been done, because the way things have been done are sort of failing systematically.”

Distinguishing the Best Market

 

Photo by Victoria Holt

 

Kevin Sur recognizes that one of the pitfalls of Seattle artists fall into is focusing the growth and development of their career locally. Around 2016, on a map of the United States, he traced how many markets a Seattle artist can reach in a 13-hour drive, and saw there were 50 different markets. He did the math and tallied out 164 Fridays, Saturdays, and nights before holidays an artist could perform in those markets (considering they have a Monday through Friday day job).

Kris Orlowski adds the importance of locating pockets of fans in different cities (via the method of streaming services and mailing lists) to determine where your work is resonating with people as well as looking at artists doing work similar to yours and noticing where they are touring. Utilizing data is key in today’s environment, Kit Russell notes, saying there is no longer an excuse to be oblivious about finding where the market for your work is located. He cites Tableau as an advantageous local resource to track where your fans are listening.

Sur also says an artist shouldn’t go back to a market to which they can’t return in a reasonable amount of time. An East Coast tour might sound romantic, but if you can’t get back there in six months, it may not be in your best interests. He also warns against touring a certain place too much, and when you have a draw (“If 50 people come to your show, you have a draw,” he says), it’s important to play fewer shows and space them out. It’s a matter of supplying demand but not oversupplying it, and giving fans of your work a chance to miss your performances.

Networking in Seattle

 

Photo by Victoria Holt

 

Sur suggests a good way to network is going to shows and becoming fans of everyone else. Support your contemporaries and that support will come back to you tenfold. Self-described as an old punk, he notes the practice of bands at punk shows standing in front for other bands’ sets. He has gone to shows where the headlining band goes to the bar next door while the opening and supporting bands are playing, and then pretend to have caught their sets while they’re onstage. He doesn’t book those bands because they’re not supporting the music community. He notes the perception that the music industry is behind a wall, but stresses the community is the industry.

Russell instructs, “Don’t think, just do.” Get out there and share your work, your personality, your values with others in the community. He asserts the importance of learning as you go, and observes how Seattle is one of the easiest cities to be able to network, whereas in other cities like Los Angeles, there are hurdles to jump and gatekeepers to get past. Orlowski points to workshops at the Vera Project, events at the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Recording Academy (of which he is the president) like the Songwriter Summit, and offers the Upstream Summit (happening before the music festival on June 1st) as something to check out, as it has a very intriguing series of panels on deck this year.

After Orlowski and Sur cite Gigs4U as a great resource, Ramona Grotte points out the possibility of performance at set at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. “It’s like a world tour without leaving Seattle.” Artists have been given the chance to fly to China, be cast in a movie, and sell their music to people from around the world. She notes the cultural significance of busking and how it truly impacts the lives of strangers, saying once you get past the humbling effects, it can serve as a component to building finances as well as a great way to get your music out into the world.

Photo by Victoria Holt

 

Survival Jobs

 

Engstrom acknowledges how waiting tables and bartending helped him supply income well into this thirties, and Sur offers his experience working for a computer components company, loading screws into baggies while watching videos he rented from Blockbuster. Sur encourages working for music venues and companies, who are empathetic to your ultimate goals. Orlowski, who wrote a very good essay on his first year as a full-time musician, worked for a company called Project Line, which was very supportive of his dream.

Russell notes how artists can utilize the tip jar function of various social media sites for quick lunchtime performances, saying he came across an artist in Nashville who made $20,000 a week. “You have access to the entire world right now, so leverage those tools,” he says. An industry veteran gave Orlowski some sound advice to round out the discussion before diving into the panel’s Q&A portion: “Don’t quit your job until you have to. You’re gonna need money to make money.”

Photo by Victoria Holt

 

Key Takeaways

  • Support other artists is a key networking tool
  • Think on a wider scale than just locally

  • Pay attention to data in order to see where people are listening

  • Utilize the public resources in your community

  • Keep your day job until it’s essential for you to quit

Resources

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