We all know how it goes with the old struggling musician trope. In order to be an artist, you have to live in a dank basement and inject a bohemian mixture of cat piss and broken dreams straight into your jugular until finally some slick record label dude rolls up and offers you your big break. From there on out of course, women will be brought to you in a steady flowing, totally STD-free conga line and your only worry will be whether to do blow with Elvis' ghost or go camping with Pharrell. But however lovely that might sound, it's just not the reality of things.
In fact, just because a band reaches a certain notoriety, doesn't mean their problems will dissipate, or that they're automatically guaranteed a bright future with a steady income. In light of this, I sought out members of some of Denmark's most established bands to see if they've actually been able to live off their music. You would think bands playing to thousands at Roskilde wouldn't have money issues, right?
The first guy I got around to chat with was Uffe Lorenzen, also known around town as Lorenzo Woodrose or Guf. He has steadily been playing music for decades, spearheading two projects in particular—Baby Woodrose and Spids Nøgenhat. Both bands lend themselves to a considerable following spanning many years. That being said, Lorenzen is no stranger to the struggles of balancing a collection of part-time jobs while making music.
"10 years ago we had some moderate success with Baby Woodrose and at that point we actually lived off our music for a few years," he says. "Denmark was a bit different back then because the main radio station was open to playing other music than mainstream pop. And the royalties from radio actually made it possible to make a living. We actually did quite well for a little bit."
Since then, Lorenzen has been working at a Frederiksberg bar for 8 years. Spids Nøgenhat recently won two Danish Music Awards—one for Danish Rock Album of the Year and another for the Danish Live Name of the Year. The exposure has certainly helped the band as their last release has become the best selling vinyl record in Denmark of the past 20 years according to Guf. But he still must rely on extra employment to make ends meet. This is a man who has played shows of 14.000 in attendance with SN, and entertained even larger crowds with Baby Woodrose.
In spite of tasting success, Lorenzen is intent on not letting money taint his art. "The music business is up and down and things become quite commercialized when you reach a certain level. In order to make a living off your music, you have to start viewing your songs as a product, selling them for commercials and products, essentially turning it into a commodity. We didn't want to go down that path."
Esben Valløe of Reptile Youth has a slightly different opinion, currently financially supporting himself completely through music. He too worked many jobs in the past before taking music on full-time to focus on a solo album—the last one required him to monitor a woman with a degenerative muscular disease in night shifts.
Valløe attributes RY's success with embracing commercialization, but only to a certain extent. "It would definitely be harder to live off our music if we weren't open to commercial opportunities and collabs. But I think we keep a strict border between company involvement and the music we produce," he says, using a collaboration with Mercedes Benz that helped finance a tour as an example.
"I think young musicians in general are more and more accepting of the fact that you can have commercial partnerships without it affecting your artistic freedom and integrity. It's significant because it's been taboo in the past for some musicians to even talk about the economics of music like that. But it's an important thing to accept. We're living in a world where your success depends on not only your luck and talent, but also on your persistence."
Valløe remains optimistic that he will continue to live off of music by being flexible and open to opportunities. "I have a hunch that I will live well off my music and I think I'm dedicated enough to do it. I'm not going to stop being experimental with what I do on my own for example, but I'm not afraid of writing a pop song or something. I have what it takes to live off my music in one way or another. I've worked hard to be where I am. "
In contrast, Emma Acs maintains that money has never been the focus of her music, nor should it be the main ambition of any artist. Actually, Acs has become quite fond of working at her part-time job (currently at a bar) as well as writing music, taking that latter bit quite a deal further after being accepted into the Musicology program at the Royal Danish Academy.
"When you're going into music, you know there's not a lot of money in it. And you have to spend money in order to make money," she says. Acs explains going through cycles of being strapped for cash having to pay for studio time, and then experiencing a surplus of funds during touring, describing it as a natural cycle of being a musician.
"I think I always knew that I wasn't in music to make money, so I've always taken things for what they are. I never thought it was an issue really, just part of the deal of doing what I love."
"Of course it's nice when it happens but making it big shouldn't be your ultimate goal as a musician." she continues. "The way I see it if I'm good enough and the opportunities arise I will hopefully get paid for my efforts. But the reason you go into music shouldn't be in order to make money."
"My music is very much my baby. I've quit jobs so I can focus on songs. So if I have to, I will always choose playing music."
"I'm not sure that I'll make a living off music for the rest of my life. In a way I think that's okay," admits Simon Muschinsky, keys man for When Saints Go Machine. It's surprising to hear considering the band's massive fan base. In fact Mushcinsky is looking for a job and not because he needs the money. He's been living off music for about six years now.
"I kind of feel, like in a weird way, that all the big things I dreamt about with music, like playing big shows, they've all been fulfilled. Of course there's always stuff to do, but right now I'm curious about doing something else. Not because I don't like music, but because I would like to try something else as well."
As much as he loves it, producing music full-time for many projects is a cerebral and exhausting endeavor. "It can be hard when music becomes your job, when it becomes part of everyday life. I would like to try something that I find really boring. Something where I can just switch my brain off," he laughs.
So ultimately, even though he doesn't need to, Muschinsky is optimistic of the benefits of part-time work on the creative brain. He explains that side jobs with set parameters and tasks add an atmosphere of structure and tangibility to his day, in contrast to working with an otherwise frenzied medium such as music, limitless in options and direction. For him, a job offers a moment of respite from mentally demanding work.
It clearly isn't easy being a musician—not even at the high levels of success these guys have experienced. Earning a living off music requires inexplicable and constant effort. It's just a myth that a "big break" is the threshold into an easy life for an artist. Really, there's no such thing as an easy life for an artist. Or STD-free conga lines of willing women for that matter.