The band’s hesitant to talk about money at all. And after I talk to solo artist and former Hold Steady sideman Franz Nicolay about the rigors of his job—constant low-level panic over never having more than a couple of months’ worth of cash, rarely having health insurance, having to tour so often that you can’t take a break to write and record another album to tour for—he sends a quick explanatory e-mail: “I want to make clear,” he says, “because a lot of the response musicians get when they talk about the difficulty of the lifestyle, especially touring lifestyle, is of the ‘oh, boo-hoo’ variety, that I’m not complaining about any of it in any way that anyone wouldn’t grouse about their job. The smart lifer musician goes into it with eyes wide open, assuming it’s going to be a rewarding but difficult way to make a living.” When I go to a Williamsburg bar to meet Frankie Rose, veteran of a string of much-discussed rock bands, she’s just back from touring a solo album—her first stint without a day job—and already talking to the bartender about finding work. “I feel like if you’re in this at all to make money,” she says, “then you’re crazy. Unless you’re Lana Del Rey or something, it’s a moot point. You’d better be doing it for the love of it, because nobody’s making real money.”
If you're in it for the money, well, there are easier ways to make money. Sounds familiar. The article also discusses one musician who decided to escape the grind.
Travis Morrison is one person for whom it ended—an ex–professional musician. From the mid-nineties until 2003, he fronted the D.C. band the Dismemberment Plan, which had a rabid following and briefly signed with a major label; after they split, he embarked on an ill-fated solo career. “I was making absolutely no money,” he says. “It forced my hand into some major life choices, which in retrospect I’m really appreciative of.” He’s now the director of commercial production for the Huffington Post and finds himself enjoying music in ways that vanished when it was his full-time job. “You get popular for a while,” he says, “and then you get kicked out of the game. That’s what happened to me, and if I have reason to complain about it, then so do tens of thousands of people who had some kind of success and then it ended.” As for the money: “You know how some people say, ‘I would really like to make a middle-class living doing the arts; I feel like I deserve that’? Honestly, I never felt that. I never felt like artists deserved a living. I feel like getting a million dollars for my songs is just about the same as getting it from playing a card at 7-Eleven.”
Bands tend to blow up faster than comics do. The downside of that: They can fade a lot faster too.