Recently, Time magazine featured a guest column from brothers and bandmates Abner and Harper Willis, who front the group Two Lights. In it, the brothers estimate they've spent as much money trying to live their indie rock dreams in the Big Apple as it costs to purchase a house in a nice Omaha neighborhood.
The article takes into account not just the day-to-day costs of fronting a band, but also – and kind of strangely – includes expenses that range from childhood piano lessons to missed economic opportunities. All told, they decide this is how much it costs to be the indie rock boss: $109,000. “Ouch!” they say, and “ouch” we agree. Let's see if we can't take what we've learned from good old do-it-yourself ingenuity to get that number down to something more manageable.
They Say: “Our folks shelled out for 15 years of piano and guitar lessons (times two of us!). These days, we're spending $250 to $500 a month on voice lessons."
We Say: Fifteen years of piano and guitar lessons? Guys, the easiest way to learn how to play is to find music you like and copy the crap out of it. You'll find your own sound through imitation, and you won't have to learn scales from a severe lady you have to address as “Ma'am” as she raps your knuckles with a ruler when you hit wrong notes. We'll make an allowance for some important album purchases and even a few books. But voice lessons? This is indie rock, not opera.
Their Cost: $30,000.
Our Cost: $150
They say: “We rent a space in Brooklyn for $50 per three-hour session.”
We say: Jeez, that's awful, especially when you can practice and record at a home studio you build for a cool hundred. The cost of beer, of course, is worth considering.
Their Cost: $3,000
Our Cost: $200
They say: “Our family has invested in dozens of musical instruments and other gear (pianos, guitars, drum sets, keyboards, mandolins, PA systems, amplifiers...). And, oh yeah, it cost more than $500 to move a piano down three flights of stairs and then up to Maine (a story for another time).”
We say: Who owns a huge piano anymore - are we reliving a Victorian period piece? That'll save you $500 right there. And while it's of course important to have some actual instruments, why not purchase Band in a Box for everything else? You'll save space, money, and won't have to change as many strings.
Their Cost: $25,000.
Our Cost: $1,500
They Say: “Our recent single, "Summer", cost more than $1,000 to record — even though we did much of the recording and mixing ourselves. We've set aside another $5,000 for our forthcoming EP. Again, we'll save money by doing much of the work in Harper's home studio.”
We Say: With the right software, you can bypass many of the fees associated with so-called “professional” studios, producers, and other noxious costs. You guys have your own studio...so where did 1,000 bucks go to record one song? Given that you might need to update your software and maybe get some outside ears for production work, we're thinking more like 2,000 bucks...total.
Their Cost: $6,000.
Our Cost: $2,000
They Say: “For gigs here in New York, we hire taxis to lug our keyboards, stands, guitars, basses, amplifiers and drums to and from the venue. Whatever cash we earn beyond that usually goes to our current drummer. And expenses soar when we hit the road.”
We say: Leave New York. For gigs here in Austin, we take a van to the show, and spend what we make on future recording costs and beer. We usually break even.
Their Cost: $1,000.
Our Cost: $0
They say: “Once you have music out, you need to promote it. We pay a guy to send email blasts to databases of hip music blogs. Postcards, demo CDs and other materials are also essential.”
We say: Don't think you need to hire someone to send your email. Of course it's a-okay to pay for promotion – it's just that hiring PR firms is a gamble and doesn't guarantee squat. Send out personalized, quality press kits, learn to use Twitter, and spend the rest of your money buying a van.
Their Cost to Date: $1,000.
Our Cost to Date: $0
They say: “The two of us each put about 20 hours a week into band-related work. Abner (still in school) could easily make $10 an hour working at a bar on weekends. Harper (a freelance writer) has to turn down writing assignments worth around $400 a week.”
We say: Of all of the estimated costs, this one seems the least easy to quantify. Writing assignments worth 400 a week? That's good money for journalism – don't quit your day job.
Their Cost to Date: $25,000.
Our Cost to Date: $0
Living in New York City
They say: Our cousin Abby lives in Atlanta in a house — a house! — with a couple of friends. They pay a third of what we pay for our combined living spaces. New York is absurdly expensive — but the band's future demands that we live here rather than, say, our hometown in Maine. All told, we estimate that decision costs us an extra $1000 a month.”
We say: Folks, you don't need to live in New York any longer to “make it.” The internet is big, but it has made the world of music much smaller. Living costs are going to be somewhat substantial anywhere you go – see the “don't quit your day job” caveat – but a healthy music scene can happen in any city, be they large (San Fran) or tiny (Athens, GA). Try Abilene.
Their Cost to Date: $18,000.
Our Cost To Date: $6,000
WHAT YOU SPENT: 109,000
WHAT WE BUDGETED: 9,850
YOUR SAVINGS: 99,150