Don’t Get Rich, Don’t Die Trying: Thriving V. Surviving in the Music Industry

Hutch Harris of the Thermals isn’t rich, but he’s not sure he wants you to know that.

People like to tell artists, “Don’t quit your day job,” as if most even have a choice. Sure, you can quit your day job whenever you want. You can also move back in with your parents — if they’ll let you. Mine wouldn’t let me, and I didn’t want to. If you’re really interested in “making it,” you can’t go home again — and you shouldn’t. You should get up every morning at five-thirty to serve mochas and lattes or stay up every night until three-thirty serving beer and whiskey. If you work as hard on your art as you do at your job, you may one day be lucky enough to quit the latter.

I’ve played in a band called the Thermals for the past fourteen years. The band signed to Sub Pop in the fall of 2002 and over the next five years released three records and toured at least six months out of every year. Throughout those years, I kept my day job at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon, sometimes working an early morning shift the day after I got home late from a long tour. It wasn’t until 2007 that I quit, and even then I didn’t really quit; I just asked to be removed from the schedule. At the time, I was doing all right financially, but that wasn’t the main reason I left. I was getting too busy to continue working, and I also felt a growing resentment from co-workers who had to take my shifts when I went on tour. It was unfair to continue to ask people to fill in for me as I trotted around the globe — even if it was something that sounded a lot more glamorous than it actually was. But what bothered me most was that I was often getting recognized while I was working, and it embarrassed me. It got to the point where I felt I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) work anymore, because the band was too popular.

Is our band really popular, though? I’m not really sure. How do we determine whether or not a band is popular? I can tell you that we no longer determine that based on record sales. As we continue to phase out music ownership and embrace streaming, we have entered an era in which a band’s fan base can grow larger even as their sales decline. As we trade sales dollars for stream cents, I’m constantly reminded of what (head of Sub Pop A&R) Tony Kiewel once told me: “The future of the music industry is about adding up parts of pennies.”

I know that it’s also hard to determine a band’s popularity based on their social media followers. If you’re savvy enough online, you can attract people who become fans of your posts even if they have no idea what you actually do. Just a few days ago, a woman who came to see us play in Washington, DC, told me she followed our Twitter for my jokes before learning we were a band — and we’ve had “fans” on Instagram who were surprised to learn we were more than just a bot that posted pictures of Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice every four hours.

One of the myths about the music business is that once a band reaches a certain point of success, it’s smooth sailing from there, that you’ll reach a point where you’re set for life and will no longer have any worries save for where to park your fifth car or when to schedule your next spa day. That’s the myth, and I didn’t get into this business to end up shattering myths. I got into this business to avoid real work and to be “cool,” which I’ve found to be way too much work. I’ve always been a strong believer in perpetuating myths, especially when they service my career. Perception is everything. If the public can be convinced your band is popular through social media and word of mouth, then your band is popular. And if everyone thinks your band is popular, they will also think you are raking in cash, though you may in fact be raking lawns to make ends meet.

It’s one thing to work a day job when your band is coming up. It’s another thing entirely to have to go back to your day job when whatever income you were lucky enough to generate starts to recede. I was embarrassed when I would get recognized as being in the Thermals when I worked at Stumptown ten years ago. I would be mortified if I had to go back and work there again — and had to explain to co-workers and customers that I’m not the rich rock star they all thought I was. It would feel like admitting defeat. I mean no offense to my friends who still work there, of which there are many. Stumptown is a great job with good pay and plentiful benefits, and I usually enjoyed working there. But I do have my pride, even if I’m not always proud of it.

The cold, hard truth is this: being in the Thermals does not pay all of our bills. All three of us work jobs of some kind when the band isn’t recording or touring. Our band could be your Lyft. Not literally. We tend to avoid mustaches in any context. But a lot of musicians you think of as being well off may actually be living very modestly. We could live off our band if we toured more than a month or two each year, but we just don’t want to tour that much anymore. Why would we expect to support ourselves at a job where we only work a few months a year?

Music is like any other job. Why shouldn’t it be? Work full-time, get paid full-time. Touring in a band full-time would be an incredibly hard job, and we just won’t do it. I hope I don’t sound like I’m complaining. Don’t get me wrong, I can complain when I want to. When I hear people say, “I can’t complain,” I want to ask them, “Why not? What’s wrong with you?” Anyway, I do like to stay busy, and I do like to work, even though I pretend that I don’t. Work may not set you free, but it does keep you productive and (sometimes) healthy. Many well-known artists have advised against quitting your day job not just to retain fiscal stability, but also to keep your time tight (and therefore more valuable) and your creative juices flowing. I personally have been fortunate enough to find jobs that utilize my musical skills, such as composing songs for Amazon Studios and working with the actors in the film Green Room to help them look and sound like a real band.

I don’t want people to know that I’m not rich. I want people to think I’m rich and successful beyond my wildest dreams — and beyond their wildest dreams. I want to be admired, worshipped — but more, importantly, envied. But at the same time I do want people to know I’m not rich. I want people to know the truth, and I really want people to stop asking me if they can borrow money.

You have to be delusional to think you can support yourself making art. You have to be downright crazy to think you can tailor your art to only your specific personal tastes, to cater to no specific demographic and still expect to profit from it. If you really want to make money-playing music, I suggest starting a Beatles or Prince or maybe Vampire Weekend cover band. Play weddings and high school reunions. I know from experience that there is satisfaction to be found in being an artist, but I also know there’s usually more money to be made wearing a blue or white collar than there is wearing a ripped black T-shirt.

(Photo credit: Judie Vegh)

Hutch Harris was born in New York City, raised in Silicon Valley and has resided in Portland, Oregon for the past twenty years.  Harris founded and was the lead singer/songwriter of the Thermals. He is currently working on his first solo LP. Follow Harris on Twitter here.

(Photo Credit: Westin Glass)