THE DIY PROFESSIONAL
Musician Anna Vogelzang on being a DIY artist and developing a sustainable career in music
By Karina Vahitova and Siena Oristaglio on April 26, 2017
Anna Vogelzang is one of my favorite musicians. One time i was playing one of her songs, Heart Beat Faster, for a friend and there’s a moment at 3:08 where i just paused it and said, “Her voice here is like a glass shattering while still holding itself together, somehow.” My favorite affect. Anna’s songs have carried me up and down the Hudson back when i was 19 and coming home from my late-night job at a club. They’ve taken me to all of my errands and meetings, through heartbreaks and meltdowns, and while driving alone down Mulholland Drive. When i heard samples of her latest album Hiker on her Kickstarter page, i sent it to everyone i know who cares about music. Anna is one of those people who makes me love doing my job at The Void Academy because i need her songs to exist in this world and know that in order for those songs to exist, we have to keep talking about sustainability in the arts. Yes, for artists, but also for us as art lovers. The sustainability of artists is everyone’s problem - artist or not, because we need the songs, we need the poetry, we need the music. It’s what keeps us afloat. In this interview, Siena and i ask Anna to tell us how she has self-managed her career and community for over a decade. She shares some of her discoveries, grievances, and joys as an independent DIY musician. — Karina Vahitova
Siena Oristaglio: Hi, Anna. To get started, please introduce yourself! What do you want people to know about you and your art?
Anna Vogelzang: Hello. My name is Anna. I make songs. I've been making songs for 15 years. I made my first real album in 2005. A lot of friends of mine made songs at the time and I just fell into it. I've always been a musician and then I just started making records. That took me on this path of touring — I did a lot of touring, selling records, and making albums in very DIY settings. In the last couple of years, I have gotten a bit more professional. I started branching out and using different producers. I started traveling, I made an album in New York City, I made an album in Madison, and I just made my most recent album in Oregon. My lifestyle as an artist contains many different hats within it: I run a website, I do all of my own booking, and I attend conferences where I meet other artists and musicians. I also produce shows — I produce a charity show every year in Wisconsin during the holidays where we raise money for a local food bank. Basically, I do all of the business tasks that are associated with my career while the career itself is focused on trying to write songs and make records.
SO: Awesome. Can you tell us about your most recent record?
AV: Yes — my last record was called Hiker and it came out in May of 2016 and I made it in Eugene, Oregon with a producer named Todd Sickafoose who I had worked with before. He played bass on my records and as soon as we were in the studio together, I knew I wanted him to produce my next record. There was a three-year span where the scheduling was really difficult, but we finally scheduled it for the spring of 2015. I had been writing a bunch of songs in 2014 — I did a project where I wrote a song a week for a year, so I had 52 songs to choose from that process. Then I had songs from even before that that I knew I wanted to be on the record I made with Todd. These were songs that I probably wrote two years before we even got to the studio. It used to be that I'd write twelve songs then make a record, write more twelve songs then make another record, but with Hiker, it was way more picky. I had a much bigger pool of songs to choose from. Because Todd was full-on producing the record — it's the first record I didn't co-produce — I asked him what songs he wanted. He picked songs that I wouldn't necessarily have picked, which was scary. Then I'd say, "Well, I think this one needs to go on there too," and he'd say, "Oh! Yeah, yeah, of course!" I toured up the West Coast on the way to make the album and there was a song that I wrote on the tour that made it onto the record.
The range of all of the songs on Hiker are over a two-year span, which is kind of bananas. I don't want to say it's my darkest record, but I think sonically, it's the most complicated. It's funny because I've made a lot of records with way more players — it's been like, 15 people playing on a record, but a lot of those were really straight ahead. This was only three musicians: myself, Todd on bass and synth, and then my friend Shane Leonard on drums and auxiliary instruments. The three of us played everything we could play and basically made a trio record that sounds much fuller than a trio. I think the darkness and the sonic texture that came out of it, to me, sounds like Todd's brain. It's my songs on Todd's brain, and I love that because it doesn't sound like anything I would have made. Because of that, now when I tour solo, I made a pedal board for my guitar and I use a second microphone which runs through my pedalboard to create bunch of vocal effects, so that I can try to match some of the textures that we created. So not only did he change the way the album sounded, but he actually completely changed the way I think about my live show and how I perform.
KV: Power of collaboration. It's crazy to hear that it was a two-year process in the making because it sounds so incredibly cohesive. You mentioned that you did things DIY previously and then said things have gotten more professional in the past couple of years. Can you talk about what it means to go from DIY to professional and yet still indie?
AV: I would still say I'm a DIY musician. Some of the biggest things that changed were that I got a manager. Having management has changed so much of how people interact with me and how I get to interact with people. It sounds silly because it's very emperor's new clothes — it's like, "Oh, you just have to have someone in front of you saying they are your manager and actually she needs this much money for this gig and people respond differently." You're like, really? That's what it takes? Emily White, my manager, and I were friends and knew each other from way back when. I'd asked her to be my manager on two different records and she said no. On this record, I didn't even ask. She came to a show at Rockwood and after the show we were all chatting and I was telling her about my plan. I said, "Next year, I'm doing a song a week and I'm going to do an EP because I can't get in the studio with Todd until 2015. Then in 2015, I'm going to make the record, do a Kickstarter for it, and in 2016 the new record will come out and then I'm going to do a Patreon." That was my three-year plan. She basically said, "I can work with that. I know how to help you get a publisher." Different managers are different but she's very tied into conference culture so she got me on a panel at a conference where they were talking about musicians and time management. I've always treated my job as a job. I've tried to go to work every day and write emails and do the thing. But especially once I had a team — I had a publicist come on board as well as a manager — and I wasn't just on my own, I had people I could check in with.
I've always treated my job as a job. I've tried to go to work every day and write emails and do the thing. But especially once I had a team — I had a publicist come on board as well as a manager — and I wasn't just on my own, I had people I could check in with.
SO: There's a level of accountability with that, too.
AV: Right. You owe people things. You have to write them back and you're paying them money. They're working for you so they're accountable to you, too. The best part of having a manager for me was that I'd have an idea and I'd just email her and she'd say, "That's great. What if we added this thing?" Then it would move from there. I still feel like a DIY musician because I'm not on a label, I run my own label — and when I say I run my own label I basically mean I run my own career. But also, there was a shift when I got to start working with other people on stuff that made it feel more legitimate, which I think made me act more legitimate. I'm not saying I wasn't legitimate before I had an agent, but I think that having a team around me made a difference in my approach. When I was doing DIY stuff, I hand-made an album at my house that I sold at shows. Then I made two more albums and was actually signed to a label in Madison for a short time, but it still had a DIY vibe because I'd want to go on tour for 10 weeks and I'd just pick up any show I could pick up while I was driving around the country. Anywhere I could play, I would play. Part of what shifted was age and maturity, and having less tolerance for bullshit. Also, saying to myself, "Okay, I'm really ready to try this." That happened around the same time Emily came on board. It all kind of meshed and became more of a job job.
KV: There's something about having a community — not just your fanbase community — but also people that are helping you that believe in your work from a professional standpoint. You mentioned the emperor's new clothes and I was thinking, "Where does that legitimacy come from?" It seems like it's that it's not just you, there's also someone there who will advocate for you. That's why we have advocates in all kinds of scenarios. It makes you feel like you're not alone.
AV: Yes, it's huge. It changes the way you perceive yourself, no matter what, and that might be why people treat you differently too. Not only is it like, "here's a manager in front of me to take this email," but also, when I'm in conversations with someone and I say, "I'll have my manager email you," there a legitimacy component to it. It changes the way we perceive one another. That maybe sounds arrogant when I say it like that, but it's more just that there's a community supporting me that thinks my work is good and they want to connect with others. It's not just one person saying, "hey, I have a Myspace page." There's a group of us and we're promoting this work.
SO: Speaking of Myspace, you mentioned having this three-year plan and that included Kickstarter and Patreon. How has your relationship with the internet shifted over time?
AV: That's a hard question, but let me try. To start, I can't talk about the internet without talking about LiveJournal. I used the internet in High School to connect with other people, as most of us did. My sister went to college and said, "hey, you should do this thing that we're doing called LiveJournal because you and I can keep tabs on each other. You don't have to blog but you have friends and you can read their stuff." So I started a LiveJournal and used it in High School as a journal — like, "I went to a party and kissed a boy...or wish I had kissed a boy." That was a lot of my High School experience — there was a lot more kissing of girls. Then, I went to college and in that senior year of High School, LiveJournal had kind of shifted for me to become an artistic expression. What happened was that I found a community of people who I knew in real life from music shows. At the same time, I started going public with my posts and started posting in more of an artistic way. By the time I got to college, I was taking photographs and scanning them. It would be photos, some text, or a poem, or a song. It became this way to express myself that I think a lot of us encountered that was based around the idea that if I made something, I could put it out immediately. Then I wanted people who I admired to see the thing I just made and tell me how good it was. I was constantly seeing things that other people were making, too, whether that was a list of books that they were reading or a poem that they had written. In that sense, on the internet, it was hard to separate my real person self from my musician and artist self. This is a conversation I've had with my friend Emilyn Brodsky a lot because she doesn't see a delineation in those two things and I've always tried to create one. I've always tried to have a private life and a public artist life. There are certain things that I post on my personal Facebook page and certain things that I post on my public artist Facebook page, for example. I keep them separate.
So, in college, I put tons of content on the internet and was also writing songs. I was doing this through LiveJournal and also Myspace. I had Friendster for my real-life friends, LiveJournal for artistic expression like lyrics and images, and then Myspace was my legitimate artist profile. I would put sketches and demos on there. I recorded my live shows for a long time so I'd put live bootlegs of shows up there. Throughout college, I used Myspace as a tool to reach my community, create my community, and put out content. In that sense, my LiveJournal life and my Myspace live diverged, with my Myspace being for a broader art community and my LiveJournal being for closer friends. If it hadn't been for that community-creating instant validation that the internet provided, I don't think that I would use the internet in the way I do now. That relationship with the internet really shifted into new social media platforms like Facebook. I never found my community on Youtube — I wish that I had tried a little harder but it didn't seem as intuitive to me so it was always peripheral. What's crazy is that I teach at a Girls' Rock Camp now and the campers are always asking me if I have a YouTube. Nobody cares about Facebook, nobody cares about Spotify, they all just care about YouTube. I do have an official YouTube page but it's so funny to me that that's the only platform that young people care about because it's the one that I decided didn't matter to me. It's big because it's free and you can watch music videos or songs on it if the artist decides to upload them there. It's similar to Bandcamp for musicians, but with the additional option of having video.
If I had gotten on there and subscribed and used it as a feed and cared about it, then I think I could have created that type of community on there. That's what I've learned in all of my years on the internet: you can't just go somewhere and post a bunch of stuff and not reciprocate. You have to be invested and participate with others. That's why LiveJournal was such an intense community because I was following all of the people who were following me and it was a huge symbiotic relationship. Facebook is kind of similar, and even Myspace, it was like, "I'm going to put this person in my top 8 because they put me in their top 8." You follow other people and add people. I think that's intention with the community on YouTube, but I just never used it in that way.
Basically, for me, now it's a completely different story. The first tour I ever booked, I did almost exclusively through Myspace. The whole tour. That was 2007. A lot of it was looking at other musician's tour schedules or finding venues on Myspace. I used that more than I used email. I also called people on the phone, which was crazy. Now, it's a similar thing but instead I'll go to other band's websites and I'll look at their tour schedules or I'll try to find a Facebook event of their whole tour. I use the internet as my most helpful research tool and I obviously use it to represent myself, to reach out to people, to create a web presence so that if a venue says, "do we want this person to come play here?" they'll see that I do have an official Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I have all of these verified accounts and they'll see that I'm active on social media, that I'm creating content, and that I'm working with my community. I wouldn't even call it a fanbase —there is a community on social media that I'm a part of and it covers those bases.
SO: You mentioned email briefly and I'm curious about when you first created a mailing list? I know that you've had a mailing list for a while.
AV: Yes, I've had one for forever. As soon as I started playing solo shows, I had one. Where I went to college was very nerdy and you could make d-lists, or distribution lists, at my school and you could add people to it. So I, at my very first show, passed around a composition notebook. I had seen other musicians do it when I toured with them and I knew this was how I could have people keep in touch with me. We didn't have Facebook at the time yet — it was 2003 — so the only way to do it was to make a d-List.
SO: So you've essentially had a mailing list for 13 years.
AV: Yes, and it's the same one. I took all of the people on that d-list, I got a guy to start hosting my website, and he created a mailing list for me. It was only about 3 years ago that I moved over to Fanbridge from a manual email subscription list. But yeah, email was the first step in creating a community for me.
On the internet, it was hard to separate my real person self from my musician and artist self.
SO: Well, that was an awesome overview of your relationship to the internet. I'd also like to talk about how your relationship with your community has translated into financial support of your work. How has your work been supported financially over the years and where are you at with that today?
AV: In 2004, I emailed everybody I knew that wasn't at my school and asked them for money to create my first album. I said, "Hi, I'm making this album. It's going to cost $1,000 to get it printed. Would you want to buy a copy of it for $10?" What's crazy is that I got a bunch of people who sent me checks for more than $10. Amanda Palmer, for example, sent me a check for $100. I didn't even think about this until I did my first Kickstarter and then I realized I've been doing this kind of crowdfunding since the beginning. That was also the year we got Facebook at my school. Facebook saves old messages, so sometimes now I'll be on a tour and I'll go to message somebody to say I'm in their town and it'll show that message that I copy and pasted to everybody I knew that was like, "Hey, I'm making this new album. Would you like to buy it?" It's me asking for $10 ten years ago.
For my second record, I didn't do that because I got grants. I applied for two grants at my school so I was funded by my school to get it printed, which was great. I made my next record on my own, recorded it at home and put it up on Bandcamp, did it all myself. Then I was on a label for a minute and they backed Paper Boats financially but I split my profit with them. They put, I think, $5,000 total in to make the record and then every record I sold, I gave them $5 of that $10 or whatever it was. That worked okay for a while but then I left the label to do it on my own. What happened was that they changed their terms. Part of why I used them as a label was that they did radio distribution and physical distribution and they changed what they did to not include those services. They gave me the option to walk because they knew it wasn't what I signed up for. They recognized that the things they were going to continue to do were things I could do on my own like digital distribution and press. We already had the studio time in New York booked to come make Canary in a Coalmine and this was in January, and he said, "You know, it's $5,000" and I thought, "Well, I can make that on Kickstarter." A friend of mine had just done a Kickstarter and I saw it and realized that it was a great option. So in February of 2011, I launched a Kickstarter. I unintentionally launched it on my birthday, which was very smart for social media because everyone was coming to my Facebook to wish me a happy birthday and would see it. I posted something like, "Hey, it's my birthday and you should back this project!" I made my goal with a little bit extra, which was great, made my record that way, toured it, and hired a publicist.
Funnily enough, it was the moment when I walked away from my label and ran a Kickstarter that I felt I had crossed that threshold into professionalism. With the funds from the Kickstarter, I was able to have more people around me helping me. I then approached a couple of high-rolling Kickstarter backers and asked if they would be interested in funding my company. I ended up getting what was basically a capital investment from five different people. All of them had backed the Kickstarter at a high level and I reached out with a ten-page proposal and business plan with six-year projections and convinced them to invest. That was what let me tour for that next leg of the process and that money is also why I was able to make Driftless. All of that money was in my savings account for many years, and having that safety net, as an artist, was great. It was like, "Oh, I can go on tour and if my car breaks down I'm not screwed. If I need to stay at a hotel, I can stay at a hotel. If I need to get an instrument fixed, I can get it fixed." That was a huge change. Before, merch money at the end of the night was what I used to buy food and gas the next day. It was very hand-to-mouth. I was never in debt but I was always floating on that line. I was never making money and when I did, I paid it to the people who came on tour with me. It was a self-sustaining cycle but it was also kind of a scary thing.
The investment really did help because I saved it as a rainy day and emergency fund. When I went to make Driftless, I spent at least $6,000 on studio costs for that record. I paid musicians and I paid a publicist and a manager. At that point, I had income coming in from other music jobs — I teach at a camp and I teach at a pre-school and I teach private lessons and do studio sessions — and I wasn't touring as much so I actually had profit. That profit plus the investment combined allowed me to make Driftless by myself without asking, which felt important because it felt like I had asked on every record. It's hard for me, and I think for every artist, to keep going back to the same people over and over. Also, at the end of a successful crowdfunding campaign, you're pretty depleted. So it felt good to make an album with money I had made or had been invested in me already. I felt like a grown up and it was nice to go into the studio and be able to pay the musicians what they needed and pay a publicist to promote it. It was great. It was a really successful record as far as my records go.
Then I knew that with Hiker, I had basically run down my own funds at that point. I had made a bunch of it back selling Driftless but often as an artist, you spend more money than the profit from albums and that was the case here. So I spent all of the rest of my savings on making this new record with Todd and it was more money than I'd ever spent on a record. I basically invested everything I had to make this record and then went to Kickstarter to finish it because I didn't have the money to get it pressed, to pay a publicist, to pay my management, to get artwork made, to do design, to do video work, and so on. I had money leftover after Driftless — I had run it down but I still had some money — and then I had a lot of money coming in from other jobs and I just emptied it into the new record and then the Kickstarter essentially covered half the project. I'm so glad it worked and that it did really well but I don't know, looking forward, how that can work again financially. I can't throw down $40,000 every time I want to make a record, so now I'm at this crossroads. I asked for Hiker, and it was a big ask and I'm going to live on Hiker for a while because I think it can live for a while and I don't have to make something new right away. So I think I'm going to do a Patreon.
A friend of mine has a Patreon that I support — I think I back between five and ten Patreons at low levels —and she does a patron-only webcast once a month. Her cousin just passed away suddenly at 18 in a horrible tragedy and she wrote the patrons a heartfelt update and said, "Hey, here's what just happened. I have to cancel this month's webcast because I'm going to spend this whole weekend flying and driving and going to the wake and the burial. I bet you guys never thought that your Patreon support would be used to buy me a plane ticket so that I could go to a funeral but in this moment, I am so grateful that I could buy a plane ticket to go to this funeral." Without Patreon, she wouldn't be able to live her life and attend this funeral. Figuring out how that is going to look in my life is what I'm trying to do right now in this crossroads time. How can I feel like I'm being sustained from my creativity if it's not specifically about making a big project right now, right now, right now?
If it hadn't been for that community-creating instant validation that the internet provided, I don't think that I would use the internet in the way I do now.
KV: I just want to say that something I've been noticing as you've been talking is that you really have such an incredible grasp on how to create multiple sources of income for yourself as well as having multiple creative outputs. Is there anything else you've learned from your experience that you wished you learned sooner?
AV: My mom is a musician and she always had four jobs when I was growing up. She was a church choir director and a middle school music teacher and she did this musical theater thing on the side and then she had a jazz group that did weddings. I always thought that the job of the musician was to have a lot of jobs. A lot of people I know do that, or they make it work through working in a coffee shop. You can piece it together. I think that one of the things that I wish that I had learned sooner was that nothing is that serious. If I could go back to my 18 year old self, I'd say, "Hey, you're going to keep doing this for the next 13 years. It's okay. There will always be another record." I actually wrote a piece about this, I think for Medium or Our Lives. I used this metaphor of going up a mountain and how every time you get to the end of a record cycle, you're on this plateau on the side of this hill and you look down at where you came from and you say, "Oh, okay, I got through all of that stuff and I learned all of these things about production and about instrumentation and recording and marketing. Now I can rest for a second." Then you rest, and then you feel like you're ready to keep going because you're bored. So you say, "Oh, I want to make that record" and you start to climb again and you learn new things.
Every time you're in the climbing phase when you're making songs, touring, recording, doing a Kickstarter campaign, whatever it is, it feels like life or death. It feels like if you stop you're going to fall off the mountain or someone else is going to beat you to the top of the mountain or you're going to let your family down. You have this whole thought system based around all the reasons why you have to go, go, go, go, go. Or rather, I do. I think a lot of people have it but it comes out differently for every artist. For me, it's perfectionism and drive. So I'm climbing and climbing and trying to make this record. Then I make the record and I get there and I'm like, "Phew, I didn't die." When you're in it, you're like, “this is the thing, this is the most important record, this is the most important thing, it has to be perfect.” Then you get to the top of the mountain and you look back down and you realize that it was really good and you learned all this stuff, but also, there's going to be another mountain. It's never over. Erin McKeown said this to me. It's never one thing. It's never one album. One album doesn't break you. Hopefully it changes your life in a good way, but it can't be the only thing that changes your life. It's going to be about your trajectory from that record to that record to that record to that record. It has to be a slow burn or you’re going to be a flash in the pan and then not have a career.
SO: Right, if it's so life or death that you are overexerting yourself, there will be a point that you come up against limitations.
AV: Yes, and I've definitely done that. I'm in a plateau right now. Hiker's done, I'm at the highest point I've ever been at, I've learned the most stuff, I've put out seven records, I'm looking at all this stuff I've learned, and this always happens when I get to a plateau, I go, "What if I just quit? What if I just stop making music? Could that work? Could I just stop for a minute?" I get so exhausted from talking shop and going to shows and meeting people. I don't even get exhausted from doing the creative work. I love doing the work. I get exhausted from the whole other half — asking people for money, running the business, trying to see if I'm going to move forward and make a career for myself, constantly wondering if I'm going to be able to pay rent next month. All of those things are fucking exhausting. So when I get to this plateau, 100% of the time, I consider quitting. Every time. What if I just stop? Is it worth burning myself out for an entire year trying to do this hustle? What did I get out of it at the end of the day? Am I getting enough that it's sustaining me and making me feel like I do want to continue?
That's what I've learned in all of my years on the internet: you can't just go somewhere and post a bunch of stuff and not reciprocate. You have to be invested and participate with others.
SO: At the very least, I think it's healthy to take a break from all of it at that stage, if it's possible for you.
AV: What I've done in the past hasn't even been big breaks — and it's funny because it is still work — but there have been three different years where I went on self-imposed writing retreats. I went to a cabin and I was offline, I had a vacation responder on my email, I was reading a ton, I had all of my instruments. The one I did in 2013 is where half of Hiker came from — those demos that I made at this cabin. I turned everything off and went for two weeks up in Northern Wisconsin. I was on a lake in the fall by myself totally tuned out. That idea of going somewhere as a refuge and giving yourself creative space after so much output is funny because it's a double-edged sword. I kind of get into this mindset that I can only do the creative stuff in that way. I start thinking, "If I want to write a song I need to be by a lake and my computer has to be turned off and I have to be drinking coffee and do my rituals." That project in 2014 taught me that that was not the case. I can be driving in a car on the way to the grocery store, write a song, do a voice memo, come home and finish it right before I have to do something else. I can live my life and write at the same time. Learning that was invaluable. That was the reason that project was so important to me. Because it is all about balance. Everything. Even that fucking mountain, where you're making record after record after record, finding balance on that mountain is what the end goal is. That's my life goal. I want to make art that speaks to people, but I also want to do it in a way that allows me to feel like I live a full, balanced life. I want to get to do my stuff, have a family, cook dinner for myself and not just always be working and suffering for art's sake. I want to be a human.
KV: I had a similar realization around writing about a year ago. I used to be very attached to being in a certain mindset when writing and at a certain point, I said to myself, "Actually, no. You just have sit down and you think and you write and you do it all again the next day."
AV: Yes, and maybe some days you don't keep what you wrote because it was an off day, but at least you're in the crack of it. There's no right way — everybody's creative process is totally different — but I think that for me, if I take everything so seriously, it'll burn me out. Even with Hiker, I knew that I couldn't put all of my hopes and dreams and eggs in this basket, but there's still a part of me that went into that headspace. But intellectually, there was a little bird on my shoulder that said, "There will always be another album. It's okay." It didn't make me work less hard and it didn't make me want it any less badly, but it was almost an emotional safety net. Because what's the worst that can happen? People don't like it. Or I only sell 100 copies. If that's the worst that can happen, I'm okay. It took me almost 15 years to figure out that while you have to have yearning for whatever you're working on to be an all-encompassing thing, it will be okay if it's not exactly what you hope for it to be.
KV: Right now, after you've learned so much about your community, about your capacity to fund your work, about your work itself, and so on, what do you feel that you still need to know from a business perspective?
AV: There's a lot. I think every artist wants to know how to make it sustainable. There are all of these ways, as musicians, that you can make money. You can have a publishing deal where you write songs for other people to sing, you can do a Patreon and write at home, etcetera. What I want to know is, what are they? And how do I figure out which ones are right for me? And how do I do it?
SO: So if there was a course you could take right now, it would be about mapping the different ways that you could make money within your field?
AV: Yes. If it was a musician talking, it would be like, "Here's the tour route. Here's the making albums route. Here is teaching. Here is performing for money gigs where you are playing in a cover band." I can't do all of these routes, but I would be interested to know how other musicians have done it, especially the things that are a little more obscure, like a publishing deal. To me, publishing is still confusing, and I have a publishing deal! I got it through my manager and I still don't fucking get it. I know a couple musicians who have made livings where they still do their own songs and make records but their main gig is that they have co-writes every day of the week and they write a song for a movie that's coming out. There's a way to make a living doing that. There's a way to do syncs, where your songs get placements. I know how that works and I have talked to a few people for whom that's the thing that has worked and they've made a bunch of money. At the same time, I would like to see a course where there's a panel of ten musicians and they're like, "Here's how I did it."
You can look at somebody like Zoe Keating who is super transparent and shows her statements. She put out a public spreadsheet that showed all of the money that she made in a year and it became this controversial thing. She was trying to point out how little she made streaming and how much she made in downloads. It showed how streaming is not serving artists needs. It was a non-album cycle for her and it was all before her husband passed away. So she did that and then he got sick and it was right after she had been super transparent with her financials and I think everybody was like, "What the fuck. That's all you're making as a musician and now you're going to have to deal with medical bills?"
So there are people who are very transparent and some of my work is just reading more and doing more research, but I do think it would be interesting to have a course on this. I've done panels now where I've been a musician speaking and saying, "Here's how I piece it together," but I always think hearing how other people legitimately piece it together is crucial. I'm interested in the nitty gritty details. For example, people ask me how I had health insurance in Madison and I told them it was because I filed for domestic partnership as soon as I moved in and in Wisconsin, you get your partner's health insurance just by proving you live together. You don't even have to be in a romantic domestic partnership. So I was insured as soon as I moved to Madison, whereas I hadn't been in Chicago. So I found shortcuts that worked for me financially to make it work and a lot of musicians I know are in that boat, mostly folk musicians. They have a manager and a booking agent but they also have a partner who has a "legit" job and they're on their health insurance. Two friends of mine are a couple who are musicians and have kids. Their four parents did the down payment on a house for them and they pay the mortgage. It's kind of crazy because when you start learning people's stuff, you realize that a lot of people rely on their families. A lot. I do too. I rely on my family heavily as well. Learning people's truths about how they make a living. When I hear a musician say, "Oh, I sell some records and I do Patreon and Bandcamp and it's fine," I think, "Really? How else does that work for you? What other sources of income do you have?" I'm really curious to know. That part of the business — how it all comes together financially for artists — is super interesting to me.
Funnily enough, it was the moment when I walked away from my label and ran a Kickstarter that I felt I had crossed that threshold into professionalism.
SO: Yeah, that's why we're doing what we're doing. It's to try to circulate that type of transparency amongst artists. We keep hearing from artists that they just want to know how other artists are doing it. Then they want to be able to look at what they resonate with and what they don't resonate with so that it becomes almost like a menu. They'll know the pros and cons for each because artists have tested it and are talking about it. When there isn't one right way, when there's not a standard path, I think that kind of sharing of resources is more important. It's about looking around you, seeing what the possibilities are, figuring out which ones work for you, and then enacting them. This is a cross-genre phenomenon.
KV: I was interviewing Eileen Myles yesterday and she's had a million different jobs throughout her life. She was like, "You know, you can have certain jobs that are not you sitting at a desk writing poems, but that are still part of feeding your writing. You can also have jobs where you are writing during the job." That's such an insightful way of looking at it. Although, we, as The Void Academy, want to help artists maximize the time they spend on making art. You don't usually get to that point when starting out so why not think about aiming for jobs that feed your artwork in other ways?
SO: Also, some artists feel a need to have their hands in other things as well because of the ways in which those other things that they do feed and enrich their work. Other artists say, "I just want to write as a much as possible," and others still say, "My ideal would be to make art and teach and do x, y, or z, in a balanced way." It's about finding that balance.
AV: Yes, I've definitely had friends who've had jobs that have allowed them to practice or hone their skills while working. Everybody has their own perfect recipe. For me, teaching has been a huge part of it. With kids that I've taught private lessons to, what I'm teaching, when you distill it, is how to cover songs. They pick a song they want to play and sing, then we do guitar lessons and voice lessons and master class kind of stuff around actually performing it. What's crazy is that I don't pay attention to what is popular at all but through that, and through the Girl's Rock camp, I get to learn all of these songs that I wouldn't care about otherwise. I get to hear what kids are listening to. It's actually field research. For me, teaching is actually really helpful at increasing my general knowledge of what the music industry is and sounds like right now.
SO: That's a great note to wrap on. Thanks so much Anna.
AV: Thank you both.