Creativity Over Comfort
By Chris Dobstaff, Editorial Director
The suburban basement just outside of Columbus is cramped. Golf clubs, exercise balls and even a treadmill have been pushed into various corners to make room for the four young men and their equipment. Two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer fit into the room that is, quite frankly, not the most ideal band rehearsal space. The drum kit sits in front of a washer and dryer. But it works. The members crack jokes and play random riffs, until all of a sudden the bass player, Chris Carter, yells over the noise: “Here we go!”
And there they go. Suddenly the band is not four individual members. It’s one unit, tearing into arguably one of its best songs, “High Point.”
The group goes by the name Indigo Wild and is made up of four college-aged kids who are just beginning a five-hour practice before a show tonight on High Street in downtown Columbus. As they finish the first run-through of “High Point,” each member has a smile on his face. This is where they want to be. Right now. There is nothing better for the group than this feeling.
But how long can it really last?
In October, New York Magazine released a cover story featuring indie rock powerhouse Grizzly Bear with a headline that read: “Is Rock Stardom Any Way To Make A Living?” The article went into detail about how Grizzly Bear still struggles to make a solid income from year to year.
This was a was a troubling revelation in the indie community. If a group as seemingly successful as Grizzly Bear faces such difficulties, is it even worth it for others to try?
For college bands like Indigo Wild, the answer is a resounding yes.
But that answer doesn’t come with any real sense of naivety. As Indigo’s lead guitarist Michael Norris says, it’s possible to have a career as a musician, “if you’re willing to struggle and not live a comfortable life.”
The issue of comfort comes up quite often in discussions with musicians actively pursuing both music careers as well as degrees. Talor Smith, cellist in the successful Athens band The Ridges, has already accepted that her life won’t be as comfortable as the one she grew up with if she continues to follow her dreams. Her future home won’t have the same amenities as the middle class house in the suburbs of Cleveland she grew up in. And she’s completely O.K. with that. “I like living off of not-so-much,” she says with a swift wave of her hand. “I think it teaches you a lot about yourself.”
Norris even goes on to equate comfort with a sense of dullness. “I think we’re all adventurous people,” he says of Indigo Wild. “We don’t want to live a mundane life. Like, go to work, and then feed your kids, and then go back to work.”
However, one thing is certain. The comfort that once came with being a rock star is fading. Quickly. With music sales continuing to slip, touring has become one of the only ways for an aspiring band to make money. So, after college ends, long tours become imminent for any group that wants to be relatively successful. Those tours can be difficult on band members. Tensions rise. Fights break out. But those who can overcome such tedious annoyances often see the positive aspects of touring.
“I’ve always wanted music to take me places,” says Jason Winner, drummer of Indigo Wild. And to an extent, it already has. Traveling around Ohio for the band’s many shows over the past few years, Winner admits that he’s constantly shocked by what he’s been able to do because of music. “I’ve been able to go places, do things, and meet people all because I got to play a show in some town. And that concept blows my mind.”
In the past, a record deal with a well-known label almost always meant security--at least for a little while. Now, a deal with a label like Merge Records, home to indie big shots like Arcade Fire and Spoon, can only guarantee so much. Indie labels help spread the word about bands through the proper channels, perhaps earning the group a write-up in Spin or on Pitchfork. They can assist the group in securing tour dates. However, the massive record contracts of old don’t happen on such labels. There isn’t much guaranteed money to be had.
But there is a sense of creativity.
“With indie labels you can do so much more without the demands of fans expecting you to sound a certain way,” says Smith. Talking about those who are “lucky” enough to have received a major record contract in today’s music world, Smith expresses sympathy.
“I feel bad for people like Taylor Swift. She probably has more ideas that she can’t pursue because of the constraints placed on her by the record companies.” For Smith, it’s a clear choice. She would much rather take a strain on her finances than a strain on her band’s creativity. Writing music with her bandmates is her outlet, and the idea of anyone giving her instructions on how the band should write just doesn’t sit well with her.
Others, however, don’t even see the need for an indie label. Dave Buker, the 26-year-old lead singer and songwriter for the Columbus indie pop group Dave Buker & the Historians, views labels as an unneeded luxury.
“I think a label is kind of a cliché thing so people can say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m on a label.’ But it doesn’t really mean all that much other than distribution,” Buker argues. “But if you have a big enough fan base, people can find your music on the Internet.”
Which is exactly what Dave Buker & the Historians do: release their music on the Internet. The group allows fans to name their price for its EPs, even letting people download the songs for free, which is something that labels simply won’t allow their artists to do.
“I’ll get into conversations with people about a band like Nickelback, where clearly it’s a business model,” said Buker. “They’re there to make money and they’re following a systematic formula that’s going to make them money. Which, O.K., it’s a great business model. But the reason I find that so offensive is because music means so much more to me than money. I grab onto it and hold it so tightly that when I see it being bastardized for something other than the passion of making music, it’s really hard for me.”
For younger bands, money is obviously still a major factor. There are overhead costs that add up--from gas money to paying for recording time, it’s undeniable that pursuing music makes it hard to break even. While Indigo Wild received between $250 and $300 for some shows this year, the band has also played a number of shows for nothing.
“Sometimes the other aspects of a show can outweigh the need for payment,” says Indigo’s lead singer Garet Camella. “Like if it’s with a band we really want to play with, or in front of a large audience that’s never heard us before.”
Camella admits that the group doesn’t play for free often because it is saving up to record an album. Most bands have a set minimum, such as The Ridges, which charges at least $75 per show. As bands become more established, that minimum rises. Last February, the Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance, which held an annual street festival in Los Angeles, filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In its filings, it released a list of the amount it paid artists that appeared at the festival. While headliners The Butthole Surfers took home a paycheck of $24,000, smaller groups such as Sub Pop Records’ Dum Dum Girls earned only $5,000. For a group that tours nationally, and splits the money between at least its four band members, it is easy to see where financial strain can set in.
Still, Buker will argue that musicians have the ability to be financially stable--as long as they are smart about it.
“I do think that being a musician is more reasonable and you can be successful--probably more so than ever before. You might not make a million dollars, but you can support yourself if you’re willing to work really hard and struggle a little bit. You can’t think about it like the CEO of a major corporation, but rather like the owner of a small business.”
After they finish their practice, the members of Indigo Wild pack up their equipment, leave the basement, and make the short 15-minute drive to the venue: Ace of Cups. When they arrive, there are only a few people at the bar. But by the time the band takes the stage about an hour and a half later, the entire room is filled. People continually file in and pay the $5 cover as each member straps on his instrument. And then, suddenly, just like the start of practice, Indigo Wild cuts through the chatter with a sound that mixes smooth and complex guitar riffs, downright explosive drumming, and mature three-part harmonies.
“Who is this?” asks a man behind me.
“I have no idea,” his friend replies. “But they’re really good.”
When Indigo finally plays its last song, a new one that the group perfected that day in its practice space, the bar is completely buzzing. After the performance, the band members begin packing up their gear. People slowly file forward to congratulate the band on a stellar set and the smiles on their faces are even bigger than the ones from earlier in the day.
And in that moment it becomes clear. Why wouldn’t you pursue this dream? Sure there are risks, but the positives, at least right now, outweigh the negatives.
“It’s a trial and error lifestyle and it scares a lot of people. And it scares us,” said Carter earlier in the day. “But it’s also really exciting.”