Being a musician in Portland takes new forms with changing economy

Portland-based musician Dave Gutter. Gutter is the lead singer of popular Portland rock mainstays Paranoid Social Club and Rustic Overtones. Although both bands have seen major label success, Gutter still relies on alternative sources of income to make ends meet, such as writing music for national advertisements.
Chelsea Ellis | The Free Press
Portland-based musician Dave Gutter. Gutter is the lead singer of popular Portland rock mainstays Paranoid Social Club and Rustic Overtones. Although both bands have seen major label success, Gutter still relies on alternative sources of income to make ends meet, such as writing music for national advertisements.

Posted on February 27, 2012 in Arts & Culture
By Dylan Martin

Barry Arvin Young didn’t plan on making a living on music in Maine. But after dropping out of college, Young found himself joining a band called Blitz. As he met new friends and role models, he joined other bands and toured continuously through New England during the late 1970s and 1980s, never stopping, never finding a real job and never putting much thought into it.

This lifestyle consumed all of his 20s, but it’s a lifestyle that is rare amongst musicians in the state now. Young said the times have changed since that period. Back then, he said, the world worked in different ways.

“It was very common for a band to pull into a town for a week or two, and the bar or club would pay for the band’s hotel, food and everything else. It was very loose and very freeing,” Young said. “There was nothing but time.”

 

A different time

Flash forward to 2012 and two of the most popular artists in Maine say being a fulltime musician isn’t as easy as it used to be. Rapper Ryan Peters, best known as Spose, and Dave Gutter, frontman of Rustic Overtones and Paranoid Social Club, both admit there are times when income from touring and royalty checks aren’t enough to pay the bills — a problematic situation considering they both have families.

“My entire time I’ve been uncertain,” Peters said. “The normal stuff that makes people insane — like fear of the future — I don’t even think about. The thing that keeps me confident for the next two years is the relief that I give something that people need.”

It’s been nearly two years since Peters left his job waiting tables at Barnacle Billy’s in Ogunquit, where he spent his downtime writing rhymes and recording for songs like “I’m Awesome.” The single became gold certified by the RIAA later that year, selling more than 500,000 units. Unfortunately, his cut from his label at the time, Universal Republic, was only 16 percent. The major label eventually dumped a record deal Peters had signed for an album called The Audacity!, which resulted in him losing the rights to most of the album’s songs.

Now his music is a fulltime enterprise requiring him to work 9 to 5 every weekday to stay on top of marketing, writing and recording. Thanks to a connection with a regional label representative, Peters has a distribution deal with Sony Music — an arrangement that lets him retain most of the rights to his recorded music.

“You have to be disciplined to get the work done,” Peters said.

Just two weeks ago, he released a music video for “Pop Song,” the only song Universal granted him following the deal’s collapse. He’s now using the video as a way to promote his new album, which is also titled The Audacity!, but contains all new songs because of the failed Universal deal.

Jonathan Wyman, who runs a studio in Portland that services artists like Peters and Gutter, said he tries to work out what musicians want while considering their budget when recording local records. Depending on the scope of any given project, Wyman said each song can cost anywhere between $100 and $1,500, and that’s just a sampling of his work from this past fiscal quarter.

“I can make any reasonable budget work,” Wyman said. “There just has to be some compromise.”

 

An enjoyable grind

Unlike Peters, Gutter doesn’t get most of his money from digital or CD sales. His profit instead comes from touring with his two bands. In March alone, Paranoid Social Club will cover 12 locations across the United States, while Rustic Overtones will hit a few spots in New England from now through June.

“It’s a grind just like anything else, but a very enjoyable grind,” Gutter said.

During the day, Gutter sometimes works as a contract composer and musician, creating music for commercials and documentaries. Because of various connections he’s made in the past, some of his clients include Coca-Cola, NASCAR and Pinnacle Vodka.

Gutter said he’s recently been able to live on his music for the most part, but there have been darker times. He took odd jobs in the past like driving elderly people to medical appointments and working at an ice cream shop. Sometimes when he’s dealing with a particularly dry spot, he relies on friends or business partners to loan him money for bills.

Despite the doom and gloom, Gutter said he doesn’t regret anything — especially because of the time it grants him with his daughter.

“It seems like a noble occupation when music can make an impact on someone’s life,” Gutter said. “It’s the best job in the world. I love the experience more than the money.”

 

The benefits of living in Portland

For younger bands like The Milkman’s Union, a folk-rock act that formed at Bowdoin College a few years ago, the imperative of making money isn’t as great. Two of them share a house with a few roommates, and none of them have a family yet. But the idea of doing this for a living is getting closer than ever before.

Patrick May, president of the Portland Music Foundation, said bands are better off staying in Maine as opposed to moving to large metropolitan areas like New York City to seek success. He said it’s easier to get attention in a small city like Portland, and the costs of living are considerably lower, which means more money can be portioned for business expenses.

“For the money you’re not dumping into expensive apartments, you have money for marketing and brand development,” May said.

According to members of The Milkman’s Union, there is one other benefit to living in a place like Portland: the centrality. Cities like Boston, Burlington, Providence and New York are all within a short driving distance. It’s one of the reasons why they’ve been touring throughout the Northeast in the past two years.

The key to making the most money, drummer Peter McLaughlin found, is booking shows at colleges and universities where there is almost always a budget allocated for student concerts. McLaughlin learned this from booking shows for Bowdoin when he was a student, and he was able to get his band to open for national acts like Deerhunter and Ben Kweller.

“When we get an offer from a college, we try to feel it out to get paid as much as we can,” McLaughlin said.

 

The DIY approach

McLaughlin said while the traditional clubs are still important for a band like his to expand their audience, the band has also found the importance of playing do-it-yourself house shows and other events that strip away the usual formalities of rock shows. At one house show in upstate New York, the band made more than enough money for the gas they used to get there with donations collected from a hat.

That DIY ethic also resonates with how The Milkman’s Union sell albums and recordings. The band has decided to go with the pay-what-you-want model for all of their albums, EPs and singles — a model originally made popular by Radiohead when they released In Rainbows in 2007. In comparing digital sales of The Milkman’s Union’s first album, Roads In, which cost $4 or more, to the acoustic EP Telos, which had no set price, McLaughlin said he found people on average paid more for the latter.

With the band planning to release an EP and a second full-length album this year, they hope to reach the point of working on music full time. For now, McLaughlin mixes sound for the occasional shows at SPACE Gallery and One Longfellow Square, where he also helps with online promotion; bassist Jeff Beam telecommutes 20 hours a week for a communications job for the National Committee for Prevention of Elder Abuse — a job he’s been able to do in between shows while on tour.

As for lead singer Henry Jamison, he’s been without a day job since last fall — a reality that grants him more time for music but also creates a lot of financial uncertainty.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do this month,” Jamison said. “Either I’ll make it through or I’ll crash.”

 

“The art of surviving”

Barry Arvin Young, the Maine music veteran, said this starving artist mentality doesn’t have to be the only way. After playing around Maine for several decades, he recognizes how to make a living: demonstrating flexibility and being open to playing cover music in non-traditional venues more often in order to make a living.

“Dreams are flexible if you’re flexible,” Young said. “The art of surviving on music can be its own reward. And no one knows where it’s going to lead you.”

Patrick May of the Portland Music Foundation agrees. “If you’re getting older and you’re not making it, you need to think about diversifying,” he said.

May said his foundation seeks to help bands figure out the business of making a living by providing workshops, consultations and discounts to various music services provided in Maine, like recording studios, CD replication and guitar shops. The foundation also seeks to promote bands and musicians in a plethora of ways. Last fall, they hosted a Portland music showcase at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York, where acts like Spose and The Milkman’s Union performed.

Though Young said there was a time when he needed to work an extra job in the late 1980s when shows started to dry up, he now finds himself a fulltime musician again at the age of 53.

But the picture is much different than what Ryan Peters and Dave Gutter do: Young mostly plays restaurants and pubs by himself with an acoustic guitar, playing a mix of originals and covers. It may not be the dream of younger generations, but Young said it works for him.

“We came from a different mentality that we could make money from anything with our instruments,” Young said. “The times have changed and the expectations have changed.”

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