How Airbnb Supports a Musician in Brooklyn

Suzette Sundae rents a private room to travelers and subletters

Suzette Sundae and the Lovelifes. Used by permission.

Last month, I interviewed Garnet Henderson — personal trainer, freelance writer and professional dancer — to better understand the gig economy.

How a Dancer in New York City Earns a Living

This month, I talked to Suzette Sundae. For twenty years, she worked as a brick and mortar retailer in Brooklyn. However, when her vintage clothing store closed two years ago, she decided to become something she’d always dreamt of: a musician. Interestingly enough, Airbnb has made this dream possible.

What are your streams of income? How do you earn money?

Being a previous store owner, I still have a lot of things to sell on eBay and a little bit on Etsy. However, my main stream of income is definitely Airbnb. Nowadays, I also make money here and there playing shows.

What makes your Airbnb listing unique, compared to surrounding listings?

Maybe it’s the algorithm! With the apartment I have now, it’s set up as a private, separate apartment. People like that. It’s clean, organized, minimal, and very close to the L/M trains in Bushwick. That’s a big thing for Airbnb; people want to be close to a good train to get to Times Square, which is about forty minutes away, and other attractions. Location is huge, aside from privacy and your reviews.

If you have a lot of good reviews from past Airbnb guests, you’ll do a lot better. People read and check a number of your reviews, along with the star rating you received.

What do guests say about their stay in your apartment in your reviews?

They like that the listing description was accurate. They like the proximity to the train.

Travelers like the neighborhood, because it gives them the feeling of being in a real New York setting versus the impersonal feel of a hotel with other tourists.

They like being immersed in a local culture, I think. There’s a lot of interesting things going on in my neighborhood.

Do you ever experience gaps in your income from Airbnb?

Not too much. There’s definitely a slow time for any tourist business. It slows down a little bit in the dead of winter, after Christmas. It slows down a little bit at the very end of the summer in August, but [business] is pretty solid. For whatever reason, I’m doing it right.

During those slow periods, what do you do to make up for the income gap?

I sell more stuff on eBay or play more shows. Again, it’s so few times when that’s been an issue with Airbnb. Last winter got a little bit sparse, but I was still selling a lot at the time, so I didn’t starve.

What types of products do you sell on eBay and Etsy?

I’ve been a vintage clothing dealer for twenty years, so I still have a lot of vintage clothing. At this point, I’m at the end of my merchandise, but I still have fixtures, supplies and things like that for a business. Until recently, I had two stores worth of inventory. I’m hoping to transition out of selling on eBay. I’ve enrolled in a copyediting class for the fall.

Why are you transitioning away from selling on eBay?

I enjoyed being a retailer for over twenty years, and I would’ve continued. Unfortunately, the writing on the wall became apparent: brick and mortar retail died, especially for vintage clothing in Park Slope. It was impossible to continue selling anything, but I was passionate about and selling in that particular location. Even still, regardless of what we sell now, brick and mortar retail is so hard. It’s pointless, because for some reason, you’re either a total masochist or really love selling retail to the point you don’t mind making less money, working twice as hard.

I made some great online sales, but frankly, sitting behind a computer all day at a desk, going between your desk and the post office, working yourself ragged for little money, depending on what you sell — that online market is so saturated. To me, why would anyone want to do that?

I sold vintage clothing for twenty years, but I thought it was enough. I wanted to do something else.

It seemed like a good place to start asking myself what I’m passionate about. I thought, I’ve always wanted to be a singer, I have a band. I’ve hired many employees over the years. My last store was 2,000 square feet, no fewer than six or seven employees at all times, most-full time. They all had bands and I was always jealous! I wanted to do something for myself and develop the skills I could be proud of. I wanted to educate myself that would fundamentally, provide me a new skill set.

There’s something really romantic about the idea of playing a pretty song well with a nice guitar, that you can go anywhere and do that. There’s something really fulfilling about that notion. I made my fore into a stage. And it’s been going so well. Lately, I’m surprised. My band is booked every weekend through the fall into October and we just started booking. We’ve got some great shows coming up. I work with incredible musicians. It’s been a wonderful thing to do, and Airbnb has made it all possible.

Let’s talk about your bands. What are their names and genres?

My namesake band is called Suzette Sundae and the Lovelifes, the main band with five people. I’m also in a trio version of that band called the Suzette Sundae trio. They’re both mixed between jazz songs and a bunch of rockabilly covers, like an old-timey, good-time mid-century, western-swing kind of band. I’ve got a jazz band I started singing with called the Candyland Jazz Band, like mid-century with a little bit of bee-bop.

What instruments do you play?

I sing and play rhythm guitar.

Is that something you picked up later in life, or had you always been doing both?

I dabbled with singing, but having a store for twenty years, I never had time to give it any proper attention or learn how to do it right. I’d sing in the shower and the car. I started singing more right before the store closed, when I needed something for myself. I started putting a band together. I didn’t start playing guitar until right before the store closed, too, so only just over two years. That’s a really new thing for me. I would joke about writing songs, but I never really wrote many before. Now, I have so many.

I’d been a retailer since I was 17, and towards the end of my business, it was sad. The way that I coped with that was to become something else. I’ve always wanted to be more of a creative person.

I like being self-employed, because there’s a ton of creativity, but I always wanted more than that.

It saved my life. I didn’t know how I was doing to make a living, but I didn’t care. For my sanity, I needed something to do that was creative and that I’d hopefully be good at.

How long ago did you listed your apartment on Airbnb?

This is the interesting part. I had an Airbnb listing — one room — in my old Bed-Stuy apartment when I had my store in Park Slope. It went really well, and I had a hard time finding a steady roommate. For one reason or another, usually good reasons, my roommates would get a promotion, a new job, or married. I got sick of finding new roommates. It took a lot of time and energy. When one of my roommates moved out, they asked if I tried Airbnb. I didn’t know what it was yet.

As I was closing my store, I knew I needed a new place to work. At that time, I was going to channel my creative energy into making clothes, which I’d done for years — I had a clothing label for five years — and I needed a bigger space to work. I rented a duplex apartment in Bushwick with the idea I’d use the basement level as a work space and I’d rent out the ground floor as an Airbnb. That would pay for itself.

At this time, there weren’t any regulations in place on Airbnb. If you had ten Airbnb listings, it was fine, but now, that’s illegal. I’m legal. I only have one listing, and actually live in the apartment I list within. It’s such a big apartment that I was able to break it up. Now, I live in the basement as well. That was about two and a half years ago, that I established this particular Airbnb listing, but I’ve been doing it for over three years now.

Danielle Corcione is a freelance writer based in Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has recently appeared on Vice, Salon, and more. Follow her on Twitter via @decorcione.

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