Singing the blues for the music scene

For young and ambitious musicians, there is strength in numbers

Musician Matt Phillips hold up a picture of his "wrap sheet" after a gig.
Tom Maxwell

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — At 21, Matt Phillips has a youthful face. He is a musician and lives in Chapel Hill, a town with a heritage of good music. You may not know it walking down the town’s quiet, leafy streets, but it has earned its reputation of startling musical breadth and diversity. Over the years, Chapel Hill has produced platinum-selling artists like James Taylor, Ben Folds Five and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, as well as legendary musicians the dBs, Flat Duo Jets and Superchunk. (North Carolina as a whole can claim an exemplary list of musical sons and daughters, from Nina Simone to Doc Watson to John Coltrane.)  

Matt holds up a picture of what he calls a “wrap sheet,” a piece of paper given to him by a local music club at the end of a show. “We were the first of three acts,” he says, referring to his band Matt Phillips and The Philharmonic, a loose-knit group of a half-dozen or so talented young locals. “A good bill, one that we trusted to pull pretty well.” The night was a success, enough to gross around $650. The wrap sheet itemized a number of overhead costs for the venue, including a “6.75% amusement tax,” all of which was subsequently deducted from the gross receipts. The end result, and the purpose of the wrap sheet, was to let Matt and his friends know the club would take close to $250 of the door before any of the three bands got paid. Then the promoter took another $80. At the end of the night, Matt and his band split up about a hundred bucks.

“Sometimes it seems like venues are a big ol’ hookup for people wanting to make money off of local music,” Phillips says frankly. “Chapel Hill has a heritage of great music, but as of right now the scene is weak.” He is clear-eyed about the situation: “You have to cut your teeth playing open mics, but in Chapel Hill nobody pays anybody anything. You’re going to end up playing at this venue for $15 because ‘We didn’t make our costs.’’’

Glenn Boothe, former music venue owner, says venues need to cover overhead at the door.
Abby Nardo

Glenn Boothe, until recently the owner of Chapel Hill’s mainstay music venue Local 506, explained the practice of some local clubs taking a percentage at the door. “With 10 years’ hindsight, I can say it’s imperative for a music venue to try and cover its production overhead at the door,” he says. “If not, then you really have to consider focusing more on the bar and less on the bands. The sound person alone, on average, is about $100 a night. When you do 300 shows a year, that's a $30,000 expense. If a venue is expected to cover that out of bar sales, they are doomed. Had we not taken that money off the top, we would have been closed by 2005.”

There are a number of pitfalls for young musicians to identify and avoid if they’re serious enough to want to become professional. Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that the traditional revenue models for a musician — writing, recording and performing songs — have changed dramatically in the past decade.  Luckily, the “new” is not all bad, and while he recognizes that it may be harder for a performing musician to make money, Phillips isn’t daunted.  

Not all music clubs in the Chapel Hill area take a cut of the door. Some give their musicians a percentage of the bar; others make decent guarantees and have a built-in crowd. Some, like the legendary Cat’s Cradle, are big enough that they don’t have to take a chance on their acts; the bands that can bring in hundreds of fans are a known quantity.

In a post-label world, artists can record and distribute their own material without an industry intermediary, but their chances of making a living are bleak.

On a national level, there is a growing movement toward applying a fair trade sensibility to the work performing musicians do. Local 1000 of the American Federation of Musicians has organized Fair Trade Music 1000 for traveling folk musicians, enlisting venues across the country to make a promise to pay musicians a living wage. Similar efforts have been made in New York by the Musicians Solidarity Council and Portland’s Fair Trade Music Initiative. By seeking out and forming alliances with similarly minded venues, individuals and organizations, each of these groups is working to create a framework of sustainability for both musician and venue. 

Alternative venues like house concerts are also cropping up. These are events put on by nonprofit organizations in special venues, or music fans in their own homes. Audience members are asked to contribute a suggested donation, and often the musicians do quite well: People who attend house concerts are there solely for the music. Touring musicians often use house concerts to anchor their tours, guaranteeing, as one player says, “the ability to get back home.”  

Perhaps the most efficient music venue is the musician’s own living room. is a live performance website, streaming shows for viewers who can pay what they like after the first three minutes. Veteran Chapel Hill songwriter Jon Shain says of the site, “It’s cool; I’ve done a couple of them already. You can dress it up or just play in your living room. There’s some technical stuff you have to work out, but it’s relatively easy.”

It’s not just the club circuit that has been transformed. The two great challenges to any recording musician in the pre-Internet age were publicity and distribution. You had to let people know you were out there, and they had to be able to buy your record. Both of these requirements were usually met — with greater or lesser success — by a record label, the traditional industry bottleneck. Labels would pay for the production and distribution of an album or CD, and promote it in retail outlets and on the radio.

Now, almost all the music ever recorded is available with the click of a mouse — no more obsessively flipping through the record store stacks or tuning in to fuzzy and far-flung FM stations in the middle of the night to find what you want. You just have to know you want it. What used to be a brick-and-mortar business has become a digital transaction; an mp3 or similar digital file is infinitely copyable, and therefore of far less value than something finite and tangible, like a vinyl record. Accordingly, we are living in what Phillips calls a “post-label” world: Artists can record and distribute their own material without an industry intermediary, but their chances of making a living are bleak.

“[R]ock bands are just facing the same problem as journalists, magazine writers, literary novelists face,” at least according to a recent article in the New Statesman. “The pricing power of their artistic labour no longer depends on a technological bottleneck: the publishing house, the record label, the printing press. What they don’t lose to pirates they lose to the rentier class – firms such as Apple or Amazon, which demand a hefty distribution payment as the price of selling your wares via the internet.”

Since music has gone digital, an infinite number of copies of any given song can be made. This by necessity drives the price of that product down much more than, say, a vinyl album or CD.

Things seem pretty dire if a band has to make money by creating an album of silence.

In May, streaming service Spotify took down the album “Sleepify” by the band Vulfpeck. “Sleepify” isn’t an album at all, at least not by any traditional metric. It is composed of 10 tracks of silence, with titles like “Zzz.” Vulfpeck, an L.A.-based group that aspires to touring their real music, asked fans to stream “Sleepify” on repeat overnight as they slept, resulting in millions of streams and an expected payday from Spotify of about $30,000.

Things seem pretty dire if a band has to make money by creating an album of silence.  “As with any subscription service,” Spotify says on their website, “our primary goal is to attract and retain as many paying subscribers as we possibly can, and to pass along greater and greater royalties to the creators of the music in our service.” 

“Spotify doesn’t have a subscriber problem,” musician Benji Rogers says. “They have an artist problem. When musician friends direct their fans to Spotify or iTunes to discover their music I want to tear my hair out. Those services pay very little [in Spotify’s case, between 0.6 cents and 0.84 cents per play, or about $6,000 to $8,000 per million plays; YouTube pays about $3,000 and Pandora about $1,500 for 1 million plays] and don’t share their user data. I’d rather get the music directly from the artist.”

Since digital music isn’t worth that much, the trick for young artists is to provide something that can’t be copied.  Benji Rogers co-founded PledgeMusic, a way for fans to bankroll their favorite artists by paying for recordings yet to be made in return for exclusive access to the recording process, via videos, alternate takes, blog posts and the like.  “That is the last authentic experience,” Rogers says.  “It can’t be streamed or pirated.”  If an artist has enough superfans to invest in this experience, their project can be funded within hours.  

Matt Phillips rocks on, against all odds.
Kristen Abigail Collective

Back in Chapel Hill, Matt Phillips is also doing something many other young musicians have decided to do: collectivizing. Along with several other local acts Matt feels are compatible with his own, he has formed the Three Corners Collective. Together, they book shows, perform in cover bands for much-needed income (some of the best guarantees are for cover bands) and split the money. Matt calls the Three Corners Collective a “mutual aid society,” and in this environment there does seem to be strength in numbers.

In addition, Phillips has settled on a strategy of self-respect. He is quick to identify and avoid the scams and low-paying gigs. He works hard and doesn’t complain about a rigged game. He accepts without question this new culture that values experience over ownership, and understands there is a market for his music, as long as he pursues it with perseverance and a kind of fierce professionalism.

“I fully intend on touring the world,” Matt says without hesitation. “There are so many places I haven’t been.”  

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