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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Yes, they play weddings
Sure ain't easy, but some Madison players make a living from music
Boeger (with his son, Will): If my career goes bust, I'm just going to open a hot dog stand.
Credit:Eric Tadsen

So you bought a guitar. You learned 'Stairway to Heaven.' You did an open mike. Maybe you even played some club shows. But are you ready to earn your keep with that thing? Some local musicians are doing just that. Madison may not be one of the nation's music capitals -- New York, Los Angeles, Nashville -- but songsters here who are sufficiently resourceful can piece together enough work to put food on the table. Heck, even buy a house! Heck, even start a family! I sat down with four musicians -- bassist Chris Boeger, cellist Mary Gaines, multi-instrumentalist Chris Wagoner and pianist Tim Whalen -- who positively beam with gratitude that they are living the nightlife and not working for the man. They shared industry secrets about health insurance, life on the road, and what mortgage loan officers really think about musicians.

Burns So you all make your living predominantly or entirely from music, in one way or another. How is that?

Whalen I love it.

Gaines It's rough, but it's good.

Whalen It comes down to what is important to you. Some people, they want things. They want to have a lot of money. That's not saying you have to be poor when you're a musician, but it's a decision to invest in yourself. For better or for worse, you're totally responsible for everything that you do. So if you don't make a lot one month, maybe it's because you didn't try hard enough to get some work.

Wagoner All of us know how to make more money, if we wanted to do that. Obviously, we've chosen to do what we want, follow our passion.

Burns Do you all have health insurance?

Gaines We do, but we pay through the nose for it.

Boeger I've had major medical for a while, which I got super cheap.

Whalen I have catastrophic. I get my dental through ASCAP. It's discounted. But I don't have full coverage. I just try to live healthy and not do anything stupid.

Burns Did you always want to be a musician and nothing else?

Wagoner I wanted to be an astronaut! No, I wanted to be a pilot!

Boeger I wanted to be a drummer.

Burns Is touring good for the bottom line?

Whalen No. Not for an eight-piece band.

Gaines It's not even particularly good for a four-piece.

Whalen It's good, though, when you do festivals. But getting in a van for four weeks, playing 20 shows, 25 shows in 30 days, it doesn't work for a band that size.

Gaines I remember the last time we went out to New York with the Moon Gypsies, we just ate it big time, I think. We went to Philadelphia and played this club for nobody.

Wagoner We made enough money to pay for parking.

Whalen It wasn't like we were starving on tour. We made enough to survive, to pay our bills. But the amount of work, and wear and tear on your body, is pretty intense. It's not really being a musician, if you ask me. It's being in a band.

Burns What's the difference?

Whalen The craft is what I love, the craft of writing, recording, playing. But if you go play a gig, you load out at four in the morning, you go to a hotel and sleep, and then you probably have to wake up at eight, depending on your route, maybe later, and just drive and drive and drive and drive and drive.

Gaines You spend 90 percent of your time doing the travel and the business and the crap.

Whalen You really only play for three hours a day.

Boeger That's the drag of it. You're stuck in an effing van, so you can hardly practice anyway. You feel like you're almost a hostage.

Burns Do you know from month to month how much money's going to come in?

Wagoner Steady gigs help a lot. Teaching helps a lot.

Gaines We generally know what we're going to make, because we don't usually just play for the door anymore. It's too much of a shot in the dark.

Wagoner The trouble of being sole proprietors, as we all are, is that you have to juggle it all, and you can't let any ball drop. Like, what if I'm feeling creative this month, and I just don't want to make those phone calls? And you realize the next month, oh, crap, I don't have any gigs in November!

Burns What other kinds of work have you done?

Whalen My first job in college was jazz record buyer for the Exclusive Company. I worked at Patti Music for a while, which was on State Street. They had a catalog company upstairs, and I was the shipper. After that, I worked at Dean Healthcare for a month.

Burns What were you doing there?

Whalen I was listening to the radio with my headphones. I quit that, and then from 2000 till I moved to New York, I worked at Madtown Twisters Gymnastics, behind the desk. It was a nice little situation. But I vowed to myself, after I got my master's: I don't want to have a day job again.

Boeger I've been a pizza guy, a waiter, bartender. I shipped cars to Cambodia. I've had a ton of jobs. I wouldn't last too long at most jobs. I just get bored, you know?

Wagoner Pizza, taxi, restaurants. I worked in shipping at a management consulting company. That was a good job. It had good health benefits, and it paid not-bad.

Gaines I worked retail, clothing stores, Pier 1, and then I drove taxi. I did temp work, which was really humiliating. I quit working a day job about nine years ago.

Wagoner She let go of the rope first, and I did later. And we realized were doing as well being full-time musicians as we were at jobs.

Gaines Even though the pay as a musician wasn't great, it was still better than working retail.

Wagoner And we were more in control of our own lives. There was less stress because of that.

Boeger I realized at one point, this job's starting to get in the way of my playing. I figured that if I dove right in and just played, it would probably work out. And it's working out.

Burns Do you own a home?

Wagoner We do. But we never would have been able to get the house without having those jobs, for the bank to recognize us as being responsible. Even if we could prove that our income is within the bounds of what they're looking for. Because they don't see the professional music career as being responsible, unless it's a particular type of music career.

Burns What would that be?

Wagoner I don't know, maybe some sort of steadily paid job, paid by some employer in the music industry, then that's a real job. But if you're a performer, if you're a self-employed performer-slash-everything, that's not legitimate in the eyes of a bank. Regardless of what your tax statement says.

Burns What do your parents say about what you do?

Whalen In high school my mom said to me, "If you ever became an accountant or something, I'd be really disappointed." Which is fortunate.

Wagoner Mom's big thing was always, 'You need something to fall back on.' But they never tried to talk me out of doing music. Still, 'something to fall back on' -- my response was, I don't want to look back 30 years from now and think that I didn't give it 100 percent.

Boeger If my career goes bust, I'm just going to open a hot dog stand.

Gaines My family always totally encouraged me in music, but I think they always secretly hoped I would have something to fall back on. But I didn't want to fall back on something. I just wanted to do this. I think they worried a little bit, but they've been supportive of all the music. They come to shows, still.

Burns It has been my impression that doing business as a musician is not as straightforward as doing business as, I don't know, an insurance broker. Do you get the sense sometimes that you're operating in a gray economy?

Boeger Somewhat, but I try to line shit up real straight. Contracts. Just get everything down. And you learn how to feel stuff out. You know after playing sometimes that there's a good chance you're not going to get paid, you know? And that stuff gets around fast.

Burns What about 'money' gigs, versus ones you're doing for artistic reasons? Is that a balance you've been able to strike?

Wagoner There definitely are some gigs that we book just because we like to play the room, and we know we're not going to hardly make any money. We do those when we can afford to.

Gaines Those are going to be creative gigs.

Boeger That's the nice thing about having stuff that pays well. You can pick up other gigs, just to fill in the calendar, that really are just a blast.

Whalen The Nonet is definitely a non-money-maker. And thankfully, all the guys in the band still want to play, I think it's because it's a very creative outlet for people. I write, other people in the band write.

Burns But is it something that you have in the back of your mind, that wealth could actually come out of this?

Boeger I just like playing. I can't stop playing, no matter what.

Whalen I think because I grew up listening to Van Halen and Rush and seeing those big shows, originally I wanted to be in a band that had a big light show and played for 20,000 people.

Gaines Me too.

Whalen It wasn't even the money, though.

Wagoner But with that as the obvious extreme, the pinnacle of superstardom, there are levels going up to that. We've all realized a certain amount of success at different levels already. And in certain people's eyes, of our fan base, we're there -- the fact that we can actually make a living doing this. And there is a prospect, a good prospect, that we'll continue to learn how to do this better and actually be more successful money-wise, without losing our souls.

Burns What are tasks that go into doing music for a living?

Gaines Picking a tune, learning it, arranging it.

Boeger Phone calls. E-mails. Keeping your tax stuff in order.

Whalen Researching venues. Calling those venues.

Gaines Let's talk about calling for a second. It's not like you call the club, you get the person, you do the gig. You call about six times before you actually talk to the right person. And then you send them your stuff, and they eventually get to it. It takes a long time to get one gig. They're way more work than anybody suspects.

Wagoner Just getting a single gig. And setting up a tour, that's like a jigsaw puzzle.

Burns What about promotion, marketing, advertising?

Boeger You're making press kits. You're at Kinko's. Hanging posters.

Whalen You've got to have a Web site now.

Gaines Yep. And you've got to get somebody to maintain that Web site and keep it current. And you've got to keep up with photos. Photo shoots.

Boeger Things have changed so much in the last couple of years, just that end of it.

Wagoner Keeping your equipment up and running.

Boeger That's a lot of work.

Burns Practice?

Gaines We haven't even gotten to the music. Yeah, rehearsing.

Burns Does it come up sometimes that someone will say, for example, 'We need some calypso music,' so you have to learn what that is?

Whalen Oh, yeah. That's a thing about ego. Some people would take insult to that. 'I'm a jazz pianist, I'm not going to learn.' But you want to be a professional, and you've been hired to do something.

Wagoner It's not just an art. It's partly a service industry, too, if you're doing it to make a living.

Burns So there is a balance between your integrity as an artist, and giving people what they want and what they have paid for, sometimes handsomely.

Gaines Right. I don't think it's any fun to play music people don't like. And it's not like I'm going to play everything they want to hear, but sometimes music can be too exclusive. And I don't find that fun or desirable as a gigging musician. I don't really want to impress anybody that much that they don't understand what the hell's going on.

Burns Are you able to live healthily? Do you get enough sleep, and eat well?

Gaines Better now.

Wagoner We get enough sleep.

Gaines Eight hours, whenever you can get 'em.

Wagoner You know, if that's noon, and we're not working until later, we should get enough sleep. I'm a lot better about that now than I have been.

Boeger I can usually catch a nap.

Gaines Naps are awesome!

Boeger But when Will was born, man, holy shit. I'd get home, two or three in the morning, and he'd get up an hour later. I'd have to deal with him for an hour or two. And then get up at seven, when she goes to work.

Burns You've been able to manage all this: Will, your life, your business.

Boeger Yeah, it's going good. And he's going to be a good drummer.

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