The Business of Creative Careers: John Roderick, Musician

John Roderick is a Seattle musician, songwriter, and performer whose career includes not only his own band The Long Winters, but also contributions to numerous other bands including Harvey Danger, Death Cab for Cutie, and The Decemberists, as well as collaborations with Jonathan Coulton.

When I first heard John Roderick perform, I was captivated by his songwriting — each lyric is like a puzzle piece that you re-arrange into a new image as the song proceeds — and am excited now to get to interview him about the business aspects of his career.

ND: When you decided to pursue a career as a musician, did you plan for the financial considerations of your career? Was it “do what you love and the money will follow,” or “map out every potential expense and prospective income source in advance,” or somewhere in between?

JR: I didn’t have a plan and had no real information. Bands didn’t talk to each other about money then; it was considered uncool, and there were few resources of information. Steve Albini wrote a screed about bands getting ripped off by “the man” that put the fear of God in everyone. It portrayed everyone in the music business as a rip-off artist and I wish I’d never read it. We all had a sense that there were oceans of money out there, but in the meantime the REAL considerations were: how to pay rent on a practice space; how to afford and insure a van for touring; how to get decent equipment, including a PA; and most importantly, how to afford to make a decent recording in an actual studio. Those expenses were real, and soaked up all the money that even the most successful bands made.

I don’t know anyone who had a real detailed plan for making it a profession. Everyone I knew had a fantasy about being rich enough to quit our jobs, but there wasn’t any methodical way to accomplish it except to make the best recording you could and hope it revolutionized the music scene!

What did you learn after you got started? What surprised you?

Money is tight, and it follows success. Nobody in the club business has money to spare and everyone has expenses. A lot of musicians I know waited for the money to start rolling in BEFORE they bought a van to start touring, or BEFORE they bought good equipment. They had it backwards, and some of them are still waiting. You have to go in debt, get the best stuff you can beg borrow and steal. You invest in the band FIRST.

Even then, even if you’re in the lucky minority that has success, the money isn’t REAL. A good friend once broke down his band’s $1 million signing advance for me: half gone to taxes right out of the gate. 15% to the lawyer, 15% to the manager/agent, now you’re left with $350k to split four ways among band members. That’s $87,000 each, before any expenses are factored in. That big signing bonus was the pay off after working on their band for ten years. That’s not really a big score.

Money is this huge issue in the arts. Everyone in music has the subtle feeling they’re being kind of ripped off all the time, and they’re not exactly wrong, but the bitterness and anxiety can doom you if you don’t find a way to brush it off. You literally pay your dues over and over. Hopefully you stick around long enough to get paid back a little in the long run, but you can’t count on it.

How much did you finance your career “out of pocket?” At what point did your career start to pay for itself, as if it were a small business? Are you able to earn a personal income on top of the cost of running this business?

My first paid gig was in the spring of 1995. I’d been working on learning to write and play music for four years before that. I played paying club gigs every chance I got for five years, but kept my job at the magazine shop because I funneled all the money back into the band. I finally quit my job in 2000 when I got a job as a sideman in Harvey Danger, but I was being paid a wage and that was an anomaly. After that I was dedicated to music full-time, which meant I moved back in with my mom when I wasn’t on tour and lived frugally and with a total focus on making music. I was splitting the tour money with my bandmates, and we toured over half the year, but they all had jobs to came back to when we weren’t touring. Finding a job that will let you be gone half the year is one of the top skills for aspiring musicians. It wasn’t until 2007 that I first had money in the bank that I didn’t consider “band money.” I mean, I finally thought of some of it as being “my money.” Up until then it was all band money.

What are your current income sources? In addition to performing and selling Long Winters merch, do you also receive income for other types of work?

After 2006 the band started earning real money on tour and concurrently the songs started earning publishing money. This was a thing I hadn’t even considered in all the years I’d been making music, that I would be earning money that fell short of being a fortune but was well in excess of minimum wage. I’d never even heard of publishing, really, except in terms of a “publishing deal” which always seemed like a part of the big-deal recording contract I never got. It ended up that publishing money bought me my house, and it all started coming in at once. My tunes were used on some tv shows, some commercials, some movies, and my BMI checks started being significant. No one thing was huge, but the combination of things added up to an adult income. I was paying the guys real money too. The whole thing graduated to a different level. We weren’t a big band by any means, but we were in the ranks of working bands with an international following and things started to line up.

As time’s gone on my sources of income have changed. I do a lot of public appearances now, I have a podcast, I do all kinds of shows. My publishing income is down to a trickle. But money follows success, so I get paid more now for simple things. I’ve managed to sustain an adult income because I represent a known quantity to people. I guess it’s the “paying your dues” system in action. If someone asks me to do a show now they know they can’t get me for nothing, and all those hundreds of shows I happily played for free fifteen years ago are paying off.

Can you reasonably predict your income every month?

No way. But I set a target amount to earn every year and somehow manage to pull it off. The last five years I’ve hit my target and I keep raising it a little every year to stay hungry. Sometimes it seems impossible, sometimes September rolls around and it looks like there’s no way I’ll get there, but I keep managing to pull it off. The secret is that I keep a cushion in the bank. When the months are lean I depend on it, and then when the months are flush the first thing I do is replenish the cushion. The hardest thing to do when the months are flush is replenish the cushion, and keep the cushion there untouched when things are going well, but that’s the only way to survive the ups and downs.

Do you lose money when you do live performances (due to the cost of renting spaces, traveling, etc.), or do you come out ahead?

You can’t survive losing money on live performance unless you’re making serious money somewhere else, but lots of people look at tours as loss-leaders for other aspects of their business. I used to lose money on my European tours because I really wanted us to be successful in Europe. We toured there a lot and I made sure the band was paid well and we lived well, because it was important to me, but I didn’t make anything. It was a loss leader, and it ended up to be a bad investment in purely monetary terms. The thing is, some of our best times happened on those tours, some of our fondest memories as a band and some of my personal favorite memories of being a musician, so I don’t consider them a loss. We were making good money in the States at that point, so amortized together we weren’t “losing money” touring, we were just using USA money to support Europe touring.

All artists have to factor in that some of the stuff they want to do is going to be a money-loser. You try to have the money work out at the end of the year, is all. Otherwise you go crazy and make bad decisions. If my only criteria is making money I will say NO to a lot of cool things I want to do and I’ll say yes to a lot of bullshit things just because they pay. You can’t live like that. So you do things for free, or you lose money on projects or ideas, and you count on some other thing paying for it.

Do creative projects like Roderick on the Line or your guest spots on Judge John Hodgman bring new fans to your music (and in turn increase your income)?

That’s part of the whole project. I got criticized a lot for the time I spent on Twitter in the early days. The assumption was I was wasting my creative energy when I should’ve been writing songs. That criticism is probably well-founded. I WAS putting energy into Twitter and podcasting and all this other stuff that didn’t earn me money, wasn’t my “core competency,” and seemed frivolous and shallow. But I’m still making a living as a creative person, still making my house payments, eight years after my last record was released, and part of that is due to these “frivolous” activities. I can’t show a direct connection and I can’t quantify how it works. I dove into Tweeting and podcasting with a dumb enthusiasm and no expectation of money or reward. The audience I gained understood I wasn’t asking them for anything, I was just doing it for fun. That has turned into other opportunities for me I couldn’t have predicted.

What financial advice do you have for other people who are thinking about going into music?

Everybody’s an expert and no one knows anything. If you focus on money you’re missing the point. The object for me is to do fun things and say YES as much as possible and be frugal and hope to survive. I have no pension, no “benefits,” and no security, and I ignore the conventional career advice most of the time. I explore the diversity of my interests and have made lots of choices that might appear to thwart my career, but I’ve lived my adult life feeding and housing myself by the fruits of my creativity and ingenuity. That gives a kind of satisfaction that rivals any material wealth.

Previously: Sara Benincasa

Photo credit: Brian J. Geiger

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