The Hustle of a Singer-Songwriter: A Conversation with Matt Duke

by Julie Beck

I met Matt Duke at a concert venue in my college town, cornering him so I could take a picture for the student website I worked for. Several years later, he has three records and one EP under his belt from working with record labels, and is now self-financing his next record on a Kickstarter, which, full disclosure, I contributed to. I cornered him at a show again, and he amiably agreed to speak to me over the phone about his struggles with record labels, the costs that go into self-financing, and why going on reality shows can be a good career move.

You started off on a record label and now you’re self-financing. Why make the switch?

In terms of budgeting for records and how they were allocating what they were spending on the record, it was sort of being mismanaged. There was a lot of turnover. And when there were so many different people coming and going, nobody got all that familiar with the stuff that I was doing. It was either a waste of money, or money wasn’t being well spent in other places where it should’ve been. We had an amicable split over a year ago. As much as I love the president of the label — she’s unbelievable, she’s been such a huge supporter of mine — it just wasn’t working. And I was getting frustrated not being able to control the decision making as far as where the money was being spent and how much we were spending. So that’s why, once I went completely independent, I was excited to try self-financing my new album.

How did you come up with the $10,000 figure then for your Kickstarter? Can you give me a breakdown of what costs go into making an album and why you picked that amount?

Sure. I started with $10,000 because with the Kickstarter thing, it’s not like you’re necessarily selling yourself short, but you set a realistic goal for something that you know that you can get. You obviously want to make more than that. So in my mind, the magic number was hopefully actually going to be $15,000. We set it at $10,000 because the last record that I made through [my label], Rykodisc, was somewhere around the $7,000-$10,000 range. After years and years of playing music I’ve established relationships with engineers and producers and mixers. There are people who are interested and wanting to work, in general, for a lot cheaper than they usually would. I know that we can do the same quality product for less. We’re not going to exceed $10,000 to make a record, but we could probably keep it somewhere in the $6,000-$7,000 range. Kickstarter takes a percentage off the top of whatever you make, so you have to keep those things in mind too.

But after that, it’s making sure that there’s a little bit of money to be able to pump out merchandise, including the physical product itself. It’s going to be different for me this time because I get charged a lot for my back catalog, because of how much the record labels take per copy of the record. This time around, it’s going to be exponentially less, which is great. The money leftover, a lot of that is post-production, advertising, speaking to people about radio, finding somebody to do press. Once the record’s finished, you want a window of two or three months to be able to get all the good press out. You also want to make sure that you have a little bit of a safety net, a little bit of extra money, just in case you hit snags. So those are the very nebulous metrics of what it is that we’re going to be doing.

Are you planning on having it all being funded by the Kickstarter or do you think that anything might end up coming out of your pocket?

I would be naïve to say that I think it could all be accomplished through the money that we get from the Kickstarter — I’m hopeful that we can. The management team that I have and myself, we’ve got a plan in place. We all know what happens to best-laid plans. However, as long as all the right people are in place to do it, we can do it for what we’ve got. I’m prepared to still spend a little bit more out of my own pocket if I have to. That really won’t be the end of the world for me. I feel a lot better in my life at this moment, to spend a little bit of my own money to make this happen as opposed to having the strange bureaucracy of the record label industry manage that and dictate what they’re going to do for me.

All the costs that you were talking about, the nebulous costs, those would be covered by a record label if you were on one, right?

Yeah. They would be covered and ultimately they would be rigged through all the millions and billions of records that I would have sold. It’s all, like, liquid. That’s part of the problem, too. Here’s the difference between myself and the business side of the record label: I’m strapped. You know what I mean? I work very hard. We’re going to be penny pinching [making this next record]. And that’s a good thing. It’s going to put under a microscope absolutely every move we make in order to have this record be as successful as humanly possible.

At the label they can look at old models and plans that they had dating back even as far as the ’80s and say, “Well we threw this much money at this and that worked before, so it must work again. Once we throw all that money, ultimately the artist is going to be responsible for paying at least half of that back, so we don’t necessarily need to talk about how much it is we’re spending, but it’ll come out of his pocket anyway.”

Again, as much as I loved the people that I was working with, it’s irresponsible. And it sucks. However, it’s sort of like shame on musicians sometimes for signing these contracts. You go in with the high hope that they will be able to manage it a lot better than they ultimately do.

That’s something I wanted to ask you too, because I don’t know. How does compensation work when you get a record deal?

As per my deal, as it stood before I left, they had me for a number of records and after that they had a couple of options. It’s up to them whether they want to keep me or not, but obviously you can sit down and renegotiate. Every record that I’ve made, the advances got a little bit bigger. Were they substantial numbers? Sure. But in my case, too, because of how small the label was, we ended up having to restructure to try to make things work. My advances went down, actually, significantly. That was part of the decision-making process that I was a part of and I was willing to forgo X amount of dollars off the advance to try to make this work and pump that money back into the record.

When it comes to mechanical royalties, I get a small percentage of the sales in terms of the records sold, songs sold on iTunes and things like that. The records that I made from 2011 dated backwards, they have control of those records for maybe another seven plus years or so. There’s a record that I had that I think is owned in perpetuity actually, by a student-run record label. Which is kind of a drag, but when you’re 19 years old, you’re not exactly thinking of business economics.

So, the royalties are a little small, the advances can be big, but ultimately, it’s still money that you will be paying off. Depending on what kind of percentages they are taking from you, you’ve got to be very smart with how you’re investing that kind of money. If it’s not going right back into the record making process, you better be putting it somewhere, because that might be all you get. If you’re an unsigned artist in your development mode, you have to be very very very very very careful about what you sign. Mine fell in the middle between a good deal and a bad deal.

Were you able to live on that, on your advances?

Oh, no. No. Absolutely not. Oh God, no. [Laughs]

I don’t know if you saw that Grizzly Bear article a few weeks ago. The Internet was all in a tizzy about it for a while because they’re a relatively big name, playing Radio City, whatever, but some of them still don’t even have health insurance.

Being a signed artist to a label, or just being a musician in general is not an easy road to follow. You don’t think about these things, because the dreamers that we are, as artists and musicians, our hopes are so high for every record. Your expectations are so great that things are going to work out exactly the way you think they can: “I’m going to work hard, this record is going to be fucking incredible, people are going to love it, I know that I can find my voice and exactly where I need to go.”

Then when you start thinking that way, when you start thinking with your heart instead of your head, these deals are a lot easier to scribble and autograph your name to, and then you are left with these really shitty advances, and you’re left with really bad percentages. You get a check maybe once every six or seven months because they’re behind on their accounting, or because they don’t necessarily need to get you a quarterly check. I completely feel for them. Because you can be in a position where you’re playing a really big stage and everybody looks at you and says, “Man, those guys made it,” and in reality you are just kind of scraping by.

The health insurance thing is a bar. There’s a great program called MusiCares, but that’s in the event of really extreme circumstances, like you have hospital bills that you can’t pay. They come in and they try to help you out when you need it, like FEMA. It’s like fucking FEMA for your health.

It’s funny, because I think a lot of us laypeople see it as “oh, you’ve got a record deal, you’ve made it.” Obviously, there are different degrees of making it, but I feel like most people would define it as supporting yourself doing what you want to do. But it seems like signing to a label doesn’t end that struggle at all.

No, and the funny thing is, that if you were privy to conversations between musicians as you’re touring around and you’re palling around with a bunch of artists, when you start to meet other guys and you find out that they’re signed, the conversation is never, like you said, “Oh, you’re signed? That’s incredible!” The conversation is more like, “Oh. What was your deal?” You’re almost like, “Oh no, are you okay? Is everything okay?”

A buddy of mine was just on the show “The Voice,” Tony Lucca. He just signed with Adam’s label [Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Lucca’s coach on the show] and he was in a position where he was rolling the dice with the show. If you were to be in the top four, and especially if you were to win the whole thing, Universal Republic could pick him up for a record deal. Because he placed where he did [3rd place] and because he made the connection that he did with Adam, that worked out really well because he didn’t have to do the Universal thing, but he made this incredible connection. Here’s a guy who’s got a lot of clout, as far as the industry is concerned. The dude is sort of a mastermind, he’s got his own label and he’s got the money to be able to finance and promote an artist that he really truly loves, which is Tony. That’s a good situation to be in.

However, with that said, you still go in with a little bit of trepidation. There’s always the “hopefully,” like “I hope that Adam is as invested as I think that he is, I hope that it’s going to pan out exactly the way that we think it could.” So we’re always taking a gamble no matter what we do. The business is trying to protect itself from you, the artist, in case you bomb, and you yourself have nothing to protect yourself with, you’re at the mercy of these labels. And that is the way it’s always going to be, unless you’re Bruce Springsteen and you’ve already sold a shit ton of records, and you walk into Columbia and jump up on the desk and say “I want an advance of $60 million, or I’m not signing.”

I was watching The Voice when Tony was on it, and I remembered him from when you two did TFDI together. It’s surprising to see people that you’ve heard of before auditioning, who’ve had record deals and they’re on there saying “I can’t support my family, I need to do this show.”

You’re looking for the next big break. I felt like it should go without saying, but I’ll have to say it because I feel like this has become a bitchfest on my part about how tough it can be, but we’re so lucky because we do still make money. We can survive. You go month to month sometimes, well, a lot of the time, but we still get to play music and we get to do something that we love, which not a lot of people can say that they get to do. Not a lot of people are that fortunate, in fact there’s a lot of people who just don’t have jobs, period.

I don’t blame anybody for wanting to audition for those shows. It’s always worth a shot. If anything, you can at least ensure yourself a little bit of exposure, maybe give yourself a little bit of a kick start. Why wouldn’t you be hopeful that things could be great? That a record label that you had to sign to because you won a TV show could maybe really help you skyrocket? They’re lofty expectations but those are the expectations that they set on that show. So I don’t blame anybody for wanting to do that kind of thing.

But it’s just like we were talking about, everything is changing. The labels aren’t nearly as important anymore. They’re just not. The money is important, to deal with clients and get these things to happen, but if you’re savvy you can do those things yourself without having to give up a whole lot.

When you were on your label, did you ever have conversations with people there about how they could help you earn a living?

Yeah. The woman in charge was so great, and she wanted to see me succeed. She was trying to do everything in her power to get me opportunities and to put me in places where I could be successful. But there were a lot of people in that company, there was a lot of turnover. When she would look down, all of a sudden, every face was different. Another four or five months would go by, she’d look back down and they were all different again. People weren’t familiarized with the record enough. They put her in a precarious situation. We would have a conversation and she would be sympathetic, like, “I know you’re not earning what you deserve to be earning and I know that it’s really tough, but if you could just hang in there, we’ll try to work this out and then hopefully we’ll get that big moment where things are just going to turn around.”

Unfortunately, that’s not good enough for both sides anymore. We can’t afford to do that. I’ve been working odd jobs for the better part of this past decade, trying to supplement income to make sure that I can continue to pursue my dream of playing music. The best part, though, now, is that without the label it is actually a little bit easier. I’ve got more control over what it is financially I get to do. That gives me peace of mind. Maybe that’s something that’s actually worth a little bit, at the end of the day.

What kind of odd jobs have you been doing?

I garden. I love gardening, actually. I used to work other jobs, too, like picture framing, or waiting tables. You do whatever. But this last job I’ve had for the past four years, and it’s worked out nicely. The thing was, with this woman who hired me, I told her, “Listen, the only caveat is that I might need to disappear for long weeks at a time to go on the road, and I don’t know how flexible you are.” She basically just told me right then and there, “Any time you need to leave to go on the road or go record, or do any of that, you can do it. Absolutely. And any time you’re home, there will be work for you to do.” I scored the best job ever. I’m in a good spot where none of that gets in the way of what I want to do. There’s a lot of other people who have a more difficult time being able to manage their time between having to make steadier income to survive while also pursuing music.

Do you have any worries now that you’re striking out on your own? Is there more pressure?

It’s the same anxieties that anybody will get. I’m 27 going on 28, and you hope that you can achieve some kind of consistency, some financial stability. If I was worried about anything, it’s always that the project could fail. But to be honest with you, what outweighs that is that I think it could be really fucking great. And that’s why I keep doing it. I can deal with month to month if I really think that I can make this work. And I do believe that I can achieve something closer to financial stability, that it can be more consistent than it is now. But yeah, like I said, same anxieties as anybody else. Outside of that, I’m in a pretty good spot. I’m happy that I get to take the reins on this.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Matt Duke is a musician in Philadelphia. He likes the smell of cut grass.

Julie Beck is a writer in Chicago. Every plant she has ever owned has died, even the cactus.

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