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A Visit from a Mustachian Musician

There are some pretty neat people among the readers of this blog, and they’re sending me great stories from their lives all the time. A few months ago, a guy named Franco shared the story of how he built his own house in the Pacific Northwest mortgage-free for $30,000, and now his family lives there happily.

But there was more to come. It turns out this Mustachian is also part of a high energy Ska band called Locust Street Taxi, and they had a very relevant video on the topic of “Stuff”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-PvDlwU550

When he found out that I liked his video, he also sent me this unsolicited story about balancing the exciting life of a musician with the constraints of limited funds and a family at home. It rang true to me, as I’ve watch my own brother tour the world on a shoestring budget as well – the hard times of a life touring are excellent practice for running a good financial ship back at home.

How to be a Mustachian Musician

by Franco

Being in a working band could be considered a very anti-mustachian profession. Commuting six-hours from home, one-way, to work a job for one hundred and twenty minutes and then driving six hours back home, bleary-eyed, through the wee hours of the morning while drinking all sorts of strange liquids to help one stay awake sounds like the antithesis of efficiency and the definition of anti-Mustachian insanity. And it is. But some people cannot be persuaded not to do it by any number of wise and loving old people. The reason is that they love it and they also happen to own optimism guns (Triple M brand.) This is where the hint of Mustachianness in the life of a working musician comes in.

The optimism gun turns the six-hour hellish commute into a six-hour super fun road-trip with three of your best friends to perform music that you wrote because you enjoy writing music for people who love and adore you – and coming home with more money than you had when you left. After using the optimism gun it sounds like a most Mustachian achievment. Getting paid to play music is pretty cool. My band loves playing music so much that even after hundreds of gigs, we still have a hard time saying no to any gig that promises a beer and a meal. Rock out and get free beer at the same time? Count us in! We also know that the amount of money we make at a gig doesn’t really affect the amount of fun we have, but it does affect our ability to justify the time involved to our wives. We have, therefore, learned to say no from time to time when a gig doesn’t make financial sense.

To tell the truth, even though we still get a kick out of being paid to do something we love, my band has indeed experienced the “six-hour hellish commute” version of gigging as well as the “six-hour super fun road trip” version- and sometimes both at once. But there some ways to make musical work more Mustachian rather than less. We don’t always succeed in following them, but they are there.

One of those ways is to not do it full-time. My band normally performs about 50 shows per year and not all of them are six hours from home. This makes the “fun road-trip to play music with friends and get paid at the same time” view almost reasonable. If we were playing a hundred and fifty gigs a year like some working bands, I don’t think we could consider them all to be fun road trips- at least the two of us in the band who have kids couldn’t. The two single dudes would love it.

Because we only play fifty or so gigs a year, with many of them bunched together, I have time for other side jobs and productive activities like building my own house, chopping my own firewood, helping my wife coach soccer and chasing my own children around the yard. My band mates have other jobs too, such as going to college, working in restaurants and doing freelance writing. Right now, our fifty gigs don’t pay them enough to live off of for the whole year – but that is the goal, and we are getting closer.

I think our band is pretty lean and efficient. Often, relatives and friends have a hard time believing that we come out ahead in our musical pursuits. We often get asked if we break even, but we do a heck of a lot better than break even.

Here are some of my personal favorite ways we save money:

1. Staying with friends and fans when on the road instead of in hotels. This is obvious, but so much more fun and interesting than staying in hotels. Homemade food is better, the conversation is often enlightening and the good feeling from being taken care of by people who like you is hard to beat.

2. When we do stay in hotels reserving just one room, not two. This means sharing beds with trombone players and drummers, but saving a lot of money. It also turns out to be way more fun (even though none of us are romantic partners.)

3. When we do stay in hotels, never throwing furniture out the window and no matter how late we got in the night before, always, always getting up in time for free continental breakfast. (Though, recently we checked in so late – 7am – that we couldn’t decide whether to have breakfast before bed or after.)

4. Buying food using my “most calories per dollar” rule. Not everyone in the band espouses this method, but I have used it to successfully fuel my body on the road for half the amount that an average guitar player might spend.

5. Writing songs that aren’t too depressing or pretentious. This has saved us untold amounts of money in the form of gigs we would not have gotten and fans we would not have made if we wrote those kinds of songs.

6. Recording an entire album in a day. (Big-time bands can afford to spend months in the studio to make mediocre albums. Someone should tell those artists that they could make albums just as mediocre in a single day. In fact, I bet in some cases that this would make their albums better.)

7. Not lugging around stacks of amps and speakers that are thirty sizes too big for the venues we perform in. Small is good for gas mileage, especially in that it makes it possible to fit the whole band into one vehicle. Also, sound engineers thank us all the time for being reasonable with our stage volume.

8. Having a trombone player in the band make a really fun clay-mation music video with $100 worth of clay and materials, a web cam, Windows Movie Maker and lots of tedious work. (Girlfried just getting home from work: “How was your day, honey?” Trombone player: “Great. I got 8 seconds done.”)

Besides these, there are some things that I have learned on this blog that I intend to try, such as squeezing the band into a smaller vehicle that gets better mileage. We fit the whole band and all of our gear into a GMC Safari now, and I used to think that was pretty impressive of us. But MMM has inspired me to do much better than that. I am imagining a 35mpg hatchback or station wagon with a tremendous storage bin welded to the back bumper. Perhaps I could get a collapsable guitar to save space.

(MMM Comment – I think a little closed-top cargo trailer would be perfect, and they’re light enough to tow with a small car!)

Also, in the past we have always stopped for gas whenever the gas gauge read low. How simple of us. Our drummer now has a smart phone which he is very pleased with. I think he would love to have the assignment of finding good deals on fuel while we are cruising down the interstate.

Above all, I think the most valuable asset any band can have is a good attitude. That may sound trite, but it has been true for us. A lot of musicians who are very talented have bad attitudes. “People just don’t support music any more,” they like to say. That hasn’t been our experience. Just look at all the people who have fed us good food and drink and have let us sleep in their houses.

 

Thanks very much for sharing the story Franco, and have a great weekend all!

  • rjack October 27, 2012, 6:17 am

    MMM – I’m getting 404 on the The Locust Street Taxi link.

    Also, what a great video!!

    Reply
  • Gerard October 27, 2012, 6:50 am

    Oh, this reminds me of my musician days! We managed to take things down even farther (two person band, touring by Greyhound and train), but I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone. The biggest thing in Franco’s list, I think, is staying with normal people, instead of in hotels. Aside from saving money, you get a much better sense of how people live, and if time permits they take you to the cool stuff in their town (record stores, restaurants, weird tourist things). It’s a completely different way of experiencing travel, especially once we got popular enough to get gigs in Europe. I need to apply that lesson to my non-musician travel, somehow… maybe get over my big self and start using Couchsurfing.

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache October 27, 2012, 10:35 am

      So true, Gerard – nowadays I try to practice couch surfing by meeting people through this blog during travels, which is great fun.

      And my brother recently did a music tour by Greyhound instead of car and was shocked at the cost savings: a trans-Canada tour can rack up 10,000km, which is thousands of dollars even in the cheapest car (he has completely evaporated several old Honda Civics in the past 12 years alone). A bus pass for the same time period (unlimited rides) was just a few hundred! Plus you can work on tunes in the bus.

      For a musician, that cost savings can make the difference between broke and flush.

      Reply
    • Franco October 29, 2012, 5:26 pm

      I’ve never ridden Greyhound but would love to. I am going to blame drummers and their loads of equipment for now…but I suppose if we were really on the ball, we could travel by Greyhound and do a lot of advance work coordinating to share equipment with local music people in whatever town we were coming to. We could travel much lighter that way. However, there are drawbacks to having to play a different instrument at every show. I wouldn’t mind playing a different guitar at every show…but if I were a much better guitarist perhaps I would.

      Reply
  • Craig October 27, 2012, 7:11 am

    Awesome video and great story from Franco! My kids will love seeing that video this morning (I have been helping them build their frugal muscles along with me). Unfortunately I have always equated stuff with success and I do not want to pass that along to my offspring. I am a recovering stuff addict and am now trying to get my “hits” from my balance sheet. Thanks MMM!

    Reply
  • Mr. PoP October 27, 2012, 7:58 am

    http://www.locuststreettaxi.com for the corrected link

    Check out the album tracks!

    Reply
  • Molly October 27, 2012, 1:24 pm

    I hadn’t seen the optimism article that was linked before, what a great article! This one was nice as well

    Reply
  • {Simply Cozy Nest} October 27, 2012, 1:52 pm

    Great read. Thanks for sharing, Franco (and to MMM for posting). Love the idea of staying and visiting with friends, along the way, when possible.

    Reply
    • Franco October 29, 2012, 5:22 pm

      Yes, staying with friends and fans is the best. In addition to their generosity with food and sleeping arrangements you may experience all sorts of other surprise perks like hot tubs, Jackie Chan movies, indoor basketball, cigars on the deck and really fun informal golf lessons at rural golf courses.

      People are fascinating and kind.

      Reply
  • Shawn October 27, 2012, 3:08 pm

    Very cool Franco! DD and I just enjoyed “Stuff”. A happy take on a sometimes sore subject. (Ill With Want by the Avett brothers comes to mind) We enjoyed “Stuff” so much we also watched the “Muppet Show” and “Santeria” It seems like all four of you guys have been shot by Optimism Gun. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  • Jimbo October 27, 2012, 3:52 pm

    Awesome stop motion!

    Loved it.

    Reply
  • Steve October 27, 2012, 3:52 pm

    Hey Franco,

    Rocked out a bit to your band on Spotify. Just wondering: can you explain a bit about the economics of being a musician?

    How does Spotify/merch sales/booking gigs/etc. work? What works and what doesn’t work in your experience?

    As a fan I like streaming music because of the unlimited selection and that I’m not stealing from artists…but I wonder, how much of a difference does streaming make?

    Reply
    • Franco October 29, 2012, 1:24 pm

      Hiya Steve,

      We make most of our money by playing live gigs. This is the quickest way to provide lots of value directly to people, especially for a fun live band like we are – and it seems to be the thing that folks are more willing to pay for. The world is overflowing with amazing (and terrible) recorded music that is hard to compete with, but a great live music experience can never be replaced and is in shorter supply. It is a lot of hard work to deliver – but it is fun.

      The hardest part is not playing the shows, but booking the shows. When we first started I calculated that I landed one gig for every twenty-five phone calls I made. That might sound terrible, but when I figured that ratio out it was great news to me. I could sit down and make phone calls and know fairly reliably that I was making money – not wasting time. Every phone call I made was worth a few dollars. And it doesn’t take very long to make twenty five calls once you get in the groove.

      Now, most of our gigs come to us – but it took a lot of elbow grease at the outset. The good news is that it is doable. If a person is already a decent musician and performer, he can easily make a living if he works hard at the business side of things too. I have found this out even though I don’t work nearly as hard as I should at my business. A lot of musicians I know work minimum wage jobs. I know from experience that they could make much better than minimum wage by just sitting on their behinds making phone calls and sending emails and getting gigs – it just takes more discipline. It’s a lot harder to make one’s self sit down and make calls for six hours than to show up to a restaurant and build sandwiches for six hours.

      In a nutshell: if a musician treats his music like a real job, it can pay like a real job too. (Or, as in my case, if you treat it like a part-time job, it can pay like a part-time job.) But hardly any musicians do that.

      Our second largest source of income is from CD sales at live shows. People who really enjoy our shows want to take the music home – so they buy a CD or two. (We sell one for $15 or two for $20. Most people take two. We can also take credit card payments at shows.) Sometimes we sell T-shirts too, but the profit on these is not as good and they are a bit bulky to pack around and keep nice. Also it seems to be impossible to guess which size we will sell the most of. If I order more mediums everyone wants 2XL. If I order more large sizes everyone asks where our kid shirts are. Still, the t-shirts are fun and we usually make one run of t-shirts each year.

      Way down in third place for income for us is digital music sales. Our music is distributed to all the different online digital music companies by Cdbaby.com. Of all the companies they deliver our music to, we make the most from iTunes by far. I think Amazon MP3 comes in second, at about one twentieth of what we have made from iTunes.

      Even though we make the most from iTunes, most of us in the band do not use it much, and a lot of people I know who are tech-savvy, don’t like iTunes because you can’t play the tracks on anything not made by Apple. If you love Apple products and they are all you use, iTunes makes sense I suppose.

      It is interesting that you mention Spotify, because our drummer just started using Spotify to listen to music and likes it. I think we make about $4 per one thousand listens we get on Spotify – so it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference until we have great volumes of folks listening, but I think that is fair. The best part about all the digital delivery services is that once our music is up there, the income is completely passive for us – even if it is small. If you keep listening, Steve and tell all your friends and they tell their friends, eventually we might have a nice little stream of dollars coming in!

      Reply
  • AnnW October 27, 2012, 4:00 pm

    Oh, man! You should have a Mustachian Summit and invite this band! Loved the post. Posted the video on Facebook. I love ska. Ann

    Reply
  • KC October 27, 2012, 11:58 pm

    That is awesome! I am not retired YET, choosing to work not quite full time and that means having less stuff. But, I like what I do, which happens to be messing around with human blood in a hospital lab and telling doctors what’s going on with their patients, or at least adding my paid-for two cents!
    This post makes me think of Jack Johnson. I believe he’s been quoted saying something like “if it isn’t fun any more, I’m not doing it” in regards to music. I imagine he is very conscientious of how his profits are managed as he seems to spend a lot of time at home with his family and catching waves in HI, tours every few years or does the occasional special gig and is very charitable. By the way he/his band is a member of onepercentfortheplanet charity. Have you considered that charity for your Blog profits Mr. MM?

    Reply
  • Tradies wife October 28, 2012, 2:37 am

    Fab, very very cool music. I’m actually trying to absorb as much of this cool vibe as possible on you tube.
    As for mustashian ways, very very cool thoughts.
    I love the idea of you guys staying at fans houses :) Keeping costs to a minimum makes great sense too.
    I hope the love of making music stays with the band as far into the future as the horizon is at the beach.

    Reply
  • lurker October 29, 2012, 5:08 am

    Great music/video. Great band. Great story. really liked all of it. thanks.
    oh your house is beautiful by the way. well done.

    Reply
  • Matt October 29, 2012, 7:44 am

    As an ex-struggling musician, I love reading about bands doing this for themselves. There are so many talented musicians about who just wouldn’t get a look in on X Factor type shows, it’s really heart warming to know that there is another way.

    Reply
  • nicoleandmaggie October 29, 2012, 12:33 pm

    Just like the Blues Brothers, but without the car chases!

    Reply
  • Eric Hansen October 29, 2012, 6:58 pm

    Awesome post! I’ve written a little bit on my blog about how to make music and other hobbies more affordable. I’ve been a drummer in a Grateful Dead tribute band for the last 2 years, so I’d love to add a few thoughts:

    - there are 8 of us, so our transportation and lodging costs are higher. Half of the members have RVs. So for the out of town shows, we’ll either all pile in the 29 footer, or take 2 smaller ones. all the gear then fits in a single small trailer. then most of us will stay in the RV, or with friends in whatever town we’re in. every once in awhile we’ll get a hotel room, mostly for the bathroom/shower.

    - we all run in-ear monitors, which reduces the amount of equipment we need to transport. granted, smaller bands may not have to deal with their own monitors (the Front of House usually takes care of this), but due to our size, and our penchant for supporting our own shows with our own FOH equipment, we have chosen to rock our own monitor system. as a bonus, the FOH guys love this and can spend more time dialing in our overall sound for the audience, which turns out to be easier because our stage volume is so low.

    - when working out of town, we try to book “mini-tours” as much as possible. we try not to do the type of show you describe in the post – 6 hour round trip drive. we’ll only do a 6 hour drive if we can book a few nights in a row in nearby cities. we all have jobs, so it can be tough to justify a single show on a Thursday night 6 hours away (that’s 2 days off of work for a single show). but if we’re playing Thursday, Friday and Saturday, its much easier to justify those 2 days off.

    - unfortunately, bands go bust all the time. which means Craigslist and the like can be a goldmine for entire PA and lighting kits. we’ve mostly put our kit together piecemeal, but when a full rig shows up online, it’s going for pennies on the dollar. same is true when looking for drums or percussion equipment. sets will always be cheaper then paying retail for bits and pieces. especially things like racks and hardware.

    - some venue owners will cut deals on lodging or include other things like this in the contract. ask. does the bar you’re playing include a restaurant that will give you free (or reduced cost food)? venue owners or local promotors are usually tied in pretty well with local businesses that can give you great deals, but you have to ask.

    - when you buy new equipment, don’t buy cheap, buy durable. get (good) cases for your gear. our bassist recently bought a $4k bass made of carbon fiber. any bassists reading this will know which brand i’m talking about and also know that it’s almost completely indestructible. you could survive a zombie apocalypse with this bass as your only weapon. $4k for an instrument that lasts the rest of your life is a good investment. buy things that will make you play better and give the audience a better show (lights, pedals, lessons), not things that they will never notice (more expensive cables, expensive and fragile vintage gear)

    - go with smaller emulation equipment if it sounds good. such as a Rotosphere pedal instead of a Leslie cabinet. or in my case, the Wavedrum electronic hand drum instead of multiple bongos, congas, timpani, gong, etc.

    i could go on and on. i might write another blog post…

    e

    Reply
  • Brian October 30, 2012, 9:36 am

    Absolutely amazed at the story. Having lived quite a few places in the world, it has alloted for knowing friends in low and high places. I always try to stay with friends. Has anyone tried couch surfing?
    Thanks for the story and fellow living on a shoestring budget tips.

    Reply
  • Brooke November 2, 2012, 1:01 pm

    Hooray for another money mustache musician! I have to tell you my first album put me in debt and speaking with a producer in Nashville about the importance of having a business plan and budget prior to going in to the studio was a huge wake up call for me. I was able to produce my latest album while on a budget, paying off my debt and building up my savings all at the same time. Not only did budgeting help me keep my finances in line it also forced me to be frugal and find higher quality and smarter options at lower costs. You don’t have to break your bank to produce and market a high quality product. You just have to be willing to make the investment of time. Practicing relentlessly before you go in to record is probably the best tip I could offer any musician.

    Reply
  • Ian November 24, 2012, 2:17 pm

    Playing in a band for a long time now I can identify pretty well with a lot of these things. We recently recorded a new album and were able to save a bundle of money recording it on our own. The only thing we outsourced was the recording of the drums and the mastering. This allowed us to take the time to make something we were proud of. We found a cool box thing for recording vocals, it is basically the size of a milk crate and you put the mic in it. It worked out really well.

    I remember hearing an interview with one of my favorite bands. They said that while they were on tour with other bands that rode in big tour buses they would take a van with a trailer. 20 years later, all that money they saved allowed them to continue to play the music they enjoyed and not have to answer to record labels telling them what type of music to record. They have their own label and way more than enough fans. They don’t have to be on major labels or get radio airplay. They simply tour when they want to and take time off when they want.

    Many of the other bands they played back then still have to deal with their record labels demands because they are not in the position to say no to them.

    I think this is a great example on how living a more frugal lifestyle can be so beneficial on many different levels.

    Reply

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