Widowspeak and Scout Gillett Are Doin’ It For Themselves

The artists dive deep on their DIY business models.

Scout Gillett is a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter; Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas make up the also-Brooklyn-based indie rock band Widowspeak. Scout’s latest record no roof no floor is out later this month via Captured Tracks, so to celebrate, the labelmates hopped on Zoom to chat about it.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Scout Gillett: What are you guys up to right now? What’s been the latest?

Robert Earl Thomas: We’re getting ready to go on tour again, so we’re kind of trying to get the house in order before that, and trying to think about what our next plans in the New Year are. We’re kind of yeah.

Molly Hamilton: We’re kind of in that phase of promoting a record, but also trying to get some writing done.

Robert: It’s like, the record cycle is not technically over, because we’re going to tour behind it in Europe. But from where we sit, we’re kind of done with the record cycle, we’re starting to think about the next thing.

Molly: So I don’t know, it’s just kind of trying to find time to get in the practice space. What about you? 

Robert: Yeah, are you guys stoked with your record release lead up?

Scout: I am! I mean, it’s one of those things where I recorded the record two years ago, and I’ve already mostly written the next record. So I have a lot of feelings. It felt like it took forever for it to get here, but now that it’s a month out, I’m like, how did it happen so fast? But yeah, I’m in an interesting place just because I have been writing a lot lately and I’m really excited to record the second record, but I haven’t even toured the first record yet. But I have a November tour — I’m on my first support tour [with Sarah Shook and the Disarmers], and then I booked DIY out to Kansas City, my hometown, and then Chicago and Detroit after. And then I have a West Coast tour in December. 

Molly: That’s a lot of touring — which is great. 

Scout: It is, it is. But also, I want to get my room sublet-able — oh, maybe this could be promotion. I mean, it’s under construction right now, but it’s a big New York room and it has its own bathroom. 

Robert: En suite! That’s classy.

Molly: That’s literally what we’re doing, trying to get it sublet-able, and trying to figure out who’s going to take our dog.

Scout: Aw, if I was here, I would. I’ve never gone on a tour that I haven’t booked on myself so—

Robert: Here we go. OK, so did someone approach you about [doing the support tour]?

Scout: Yeah, on our last tour, someone was at our show in Knoxville and he said that he had a tour and he was looking for support artists and felt like we’d be a good fit. 

Robert: Very cool. So you’ve always booked yourself? 

Scout: Yeah.

Molly: How long have you been playing shows? 

Scout: I guess for eight years. But I’ve been singing since I was five — I grew up in the church and in choir and stuff. But I started writing my own songs and playing eight years ago in Kansas City, and then I moved here five years ago. 

Molly: It’s been a while since we booked our own shows, but it seems like you book a lot of really extensive tours, like in smaller cities that people don’t necessarily always go to. 

Scout: Yes, exactly. I like doing it that way. To be very honest, I love New York, I love living here, but it’s my least favorite place to play Not least-least — I’ll take New York over Philly, personally. But I just like how supportive [it can be] if you find a good scene and good pocket. 

I mean, I just surf Bandcamp all day. I’ll Google search, like, “Tallahassee Bandcamp” — and I haven’t figured out how to filter through Bandcamp in this way, because it’s weird, so you have to Google search it and then go to new arrivals and type in a genre. That’s how I find the bands in the scene — and you can even type in “DIY.” That’s been really resourceful and helpful.

Robert: [For touring,] what percent of this is people you’ve cold called versus people that you’ve had previous like interactions relationships with?

Scout: I’d say it’s about 50/50. Some of it’s been just growing over the years in Kansas City. I was really involved in the DIY scene there, and with booking shows actively, and met a lot of people through there. It’s been just a slow build. 

But I started Road Dog because I realized the issue with gatekeepers at venues. You’re like, “Hey, I’m a touring band, I’m an independent artist,” and they’re like, “What’s your tour history?” It’s like, Well, how do you get a job without a job experience? And I realized the importance of crossing regions. Take jazz for example — Chicago through New Orleans, Kansas City was in the middle and so much sound transformed and changed through that segue. And so you think of getting Northeast folk down to the South and vice versa, and you see these little pockets and scenes and they all have their little thing going on. So it’s really cool to just seek out and get inspired by.

Molly: Yeah, totally. That’s something that I love about touring. I definitely used to be really involved in the DIY scenes in Tacoma and a little bit of Brooklyn—

Scout: Tacoma is where you’re from?

Molly: Yeah. I think that it’s been interesting seeing how the internet kind of changes local scenes — there can be these pockets of people who have an audience that aren’t necessarily part of the surrounding, terrestrial music scene. It can be sort of hard to gauge who’s actually playing a lot of shows. Or sometimes there’s people who are playing a lot of shows and it’s sort of something that you wouldn’t even know was happening unless you were physically in those spaces.

Scout: It’s weird to gauge a sense of what’s going on. I think the internet in ways has made it really accessible, but also kind of hard. Because, you know, back in the day when it was just zines and stuff — like this is even really before my time, I was on by MySpace when I was 13, 14, going to shows by then. But even MySpace was amazing for music. Can we bring MySpace back? 

Molly: That’s how I discovered so many bands. 

Scout: Yeah, it was the music and then the events, all right there! Facebook’s weird, Instagram’s too much. But anyways, it was more intentional. With social media, everything’s just blasted out there and anyone could look like they’re doing cool shows if they have a cool photographer, you know? Or a TikTok that got famous.

Robert: Well, it’s funny. The internet, I think, has made it so that a lot of people look professional coming out of the gate. And god bless them — we’re not even professional. But it’s like the aesthetic of pro. I think the abundance of technology and good photography, you’re able to have never played a show, have ten listeners on whatever platform you’re talking about, but have this appearance of real professionalism. Which is kind of cool, but in some ways I don’t like it, because it’s kind of throwing me off. Like, I don’t know how to gauge people.

Molly: Well, it’s also interesting because I think it’s totally valid for people that right out of the gate have ambition that transcends wherever they think they are allowed to be at that moment. It’s totally valid to kind of envision a future for yourself that is different from wherever you are currently with your music project. But it is an interesting thing, going back to what DIY kind of represents, to skip that phase of it. Like I feel like you’re losing something when you don’t have that. 

I know that people always talk about cutting your teeth, that it’s important for bands to have indie cred or something. But it’s not so much about the credibility that goes on with that, so much as you do learn so much about what it means to be a good participant in a music community — like how to support other bands, how to bring people into shows in a way that they’re going to enjoy their time, [how to] build bills that are really balanced and interesting.

Robert: To that point, I think we came out of a scene. I was at the shows every weekend and knew everyone, and then it was kind of like, “Oh, Molly has a band.” And then Molly’s band is like, “Oh, we like Molly’s band, they’re a cool band.” Or Do you know what I mean? It was kind of like, you were a member of this place before you became the center of attention.

Molly: Or just going to shows, being a music fan. Being a friend of bands, being a fan of bands, and just paying for a ticket. 

Scout: Yeah. I think it’s true about gaining grit and understanding before. I mean, even when I take on new clients, they’re like, “Oh, I want to go on a support tour!” And it’s like,” Hey, me too.” I’ve been at this for, you know, almost a decade. Now at this point — with the last tour I did especially, because I kind of came to grips like, this might be my last full on DIY road dog tour. There was one night in St. Louis where we played to, like, 20 kids, maybe even 15, and I got to hug every single one of them after. And I just thought of how I came from a scene — I went to shows, sometimes two shows a night in Kansas City, just hopping around. I know the importance of having a role in the music community, and I think you have to suffer for a while because it’s not it’s not easy. I’m still eating SpaghettiOs and Eggos, you know, but I’m making it work. I’m doing anything just to play shows, and I’m grateful for whoever is there. It’s a certain kind of attitude. 

I think what stands out to me the most — it’s hard to tell on social media, but finding authentic people and authentic artists who are making art because it feels good, I think that’s really important.

Robert: That’s great. Speaking to that authenticity or grit or compass — not a moral compass, but your artistic compass — so we obviously are on a label and we have a booking agent, but we have been self managed our entire kind of career—

Molly: [Laughs.] As if we’re not DIY in a lot of way.

Robert: No, the point is that we are. We have this joke that Molly, for a person who does not have any of the aesthetic trappings of punk, is the punkest person I know because—

Molly: I’m just stubborn. [Laughs.]

Robert: She wants to do it herself and not hand over the reins to somebody unless you really trust them and know what they’re going to do. You’re like, “I want to steward this thing because it’s my art.”

Molly: I think that when you get attached to your music as representing a part of who you are, and also representing some ideas about the value of that, is when it becomes harder to just blindly trust people to have your best interests at heart. And we haven’t run into a lot of bad experiences, but also…

Robert: We’re a little cagey about it.

Molly: Yeah, and the more that we’ve done it this way—

Robert: It’s harder to flip. Do you have a manager? 

Scout: Yeah, I guess! It’s one of those things where it’s a friend of mine, someone I met who has worked in the music industry, who really helped me and was like, “I’ll just be your manager.” It’s interesting. I’m kind of controlling and want to be knowing what’s going on, and I feel kind of removed from that at times just because I’m so used to being so hands on. What is that like, managing yourself? 

Molly: You know, any of these people that you add to your team — whether it’s having somebody book shows for you or help you creative direct, or some styles of manager are more administrative and they’re kind of just answering emails — any of those things I think can be such great assets to whatever an artist needs if you just trust them. And so I think for us, it’s not that we didn’t trust people, it was just that nobody we met early on seemed like the exact right fit and there wasn’t enough happening that we felt like it was out of our control. And then it kind of just snowballed and there were times where we were really stressed out and like, “I don’t know how to make this happen!” And then luckily the label is making sure that certain things get done, and on the booking side, at least some of that is happening without our needing to oversee it.

Robert: But we’re definitely coordinating it all.

Scout: Do you tour manage as well? 

Molly: Yeah. In Europe we usually work with a driver or tour manager type, because there’s a lot more touring companies where they’ll basically facilitate the backline rental and the van rental and kind of help you to manage. 

Robert: I’m still picking out the backline rental now. But in general, I think it just helps because we’re not as used to the customs at this point. 

Molly: Driving on the wrong side of the road.

Robert: But we definitely coordinate everything. And I think part of it is that we were lucky enough to get a record deal kind of early on, so the whole time we haven’t needed to bring in a manager to be like, “We’re going to send you the top and put you on Rolling Stone! We’re going to get you signed to a major label!” We kind of already had a bunch of wheels in motion. And so it was kind of like, we can keep things going, we can coordinate everything. 

Molly: A lot of what a manager also brings — which is a lot like any facet of the music industry — I feel like the people kind of just bring relationships or connections that maybe are relevant to you or are a good fit. And some of it is not a good fit or not relevant. And so I think so much of that is like finding people who already want to be in your corner instead of just kind of trying to fit you into their corner.

Scout: In terms of managing yourself, does that mean that you also do all the budget proposals and everything?

Robert: That’s why we’re in such a bad financial situation.

Molly: [Laughs.] It was something where I think… You know, a lot of our relationships — like our booking agent in the US, John Chavez, and Captured Tracks — all of that came out of being in this scene where everybody kind of knew each other outside of those relationships too. So these non-professional relationships were where all of our professional relationships came out of, and I think that unfortunately I didn’t go into this at the beginning with a lot of business acumen, in terms of the band as a business.

Scout: You just wish you would have had more confidence as a business.

Molly: Or, you’re talking about budget and stuff — at times in the past when we’d be like, Alright, the record is demoed and ready to be recorded, we’re ready to make studio plans, it would just be like, “Alright, here are our demos! We wanna record here!”

Robert: I don’t think I can co-sign what you’re saying. We do do a lot of planning. For example, we’ll know how much the label wants to pay for the record, is willing to pay, what we can go over — we have the information, and we’re the ones then talking to the person we’re making the record with being like, “how much can we do with this much? How many days do you want to do? Can we do a points thing?” The label is part of that conversation, but we’re definitely also in the middle. It’s not like both of us just throw our hands up and are like, “Well, let us know when we’re going to show up to record!” 

Similarly for touring — I think Molly is down on herself, joking. Maybe we’re not the best accountants, but we’re pretty great big picture people. Molly knows, “I want to be on tour in this region at this time and do this this.” And that changes on the ground, but I would definitely say that we are certainly overseeing our career in a way that I know other people who have managers are not necessarily. I’m not suggesting that things are just happening to them, but they kind of put their wants out there and wait to see what happens. Whereas I think that we’re a little bit more trying to plan it out. I also know some people who are wonderful musicians, with great producers who I love, but their managers basically function as their babysitters because they self-knowingly are like, “I can’t plan it. Just tell me where to show up and I’m going to.”

Molly: And in certain ways, it depends on what you need. Wherever you need support, it makes sense, right? 

Scout: Yeah. It’s like for me, booking my own shows, I haven’t needed that. But this transition for me, the manager stuff just has helped me more with budget. But I did read this book, [Music Marketing for the DIY Musician by Bobby Borg]. It is a great bible that goes over the things you don’t think about — syncing, playlisting, and just how to set up your business model. Because I think whether or not you have a full team behind you or it’s just you, it’s really important to have tools and a community. I think I just want to know what’s going on — maybe too much. There’s so much happening and so many moving parts in the industry. 

Robert: It’s funny, DIY for some people means just, “I’m doing it myself.” And then for some people it means like, “Oh, it’s a shit show. There’s no rules.” Just because you’re doing it yourself doesn’t mean it can’t be professional.

Molly: I do think that the internet and generational shifts are going to be interesting, because some of the DIY resources are commercial — like they’re apps, they’re corporations. And on the one hand, we have to acknowledge that these are what everybody is using. TikTok and Instagram are unfortunately the common ways we communicate, so it’s it’s not not DIY to use those things. But it’s also interesting how at a certain point, whoever is on the forefront in these communities is going to be deciding how to go against corporate interests in order to keep things a little less… I don’t know, I just mean that I’m still really resistant to how algorithms are driving all of this.

Scout: Totally. 

Molly: It frustrates me. And younger artists starting out are at the whims of that. I think that the equitability of smaller artists coming up in a time when everything’s digital — I mean, it’s so important for terrestrial music scenes to still exist, but then also trying to figure out how to use power against that or resist it. 

Scout: I am so behind that — I’m fingers-crossing that the clouds burst. We gotta go to the old age where we have to print flyers, magazines. Like I met so many cool kids on this last tour that were making zines in the community, and it was modern in the way that they put QR codes to listen to the artists’ Bandcamp — that was dope. I think there are tools and ways to go against the grain. 

Robert: I think you’re hitting on something. A lot of times when you work specifically with people who are in the music industry — I mean, it’s changing now, but people want to fall into patterns and do the things that they know how to do, versus when you’re doing stuff by yourself, you might be more willing to be like, Let’s try something that professional might advise against because maybe it will work in this case. You know, that kind of creativity.

Molly: Honestly, there’s a little bit of a trend over the last couple of years, where there’s a few different really great graphic designers and illustrators that everybody will kind of use. And that’s great! But it is funny, because that’s something that the internet has given us, access to different artists where you can very quickly have them commission an artwork. And in many ways, it’s very good for the illustrator community. 

Robert: But they live across the country from you.

Molly: Right. But then there’s also something about having to put up flyers at the record store down the street and being like, “You know, all I have is the FedEx Kinko’s and my skills as an artist. Which in my case, I can do graphic stuff, I went to school for design. But sometimes Rob, who didn’t, is like, “I have to make a flyer for a show,” and I’m like, “then just draw something.”

Scout: Yeah, and it’ll turn out cool! You added your own flair to it and it didn’t look like everything else. 

Molly: Exactly. The most exciting art right now, I think, in a world of algorithms trying to give me what it thinks I want, is seeing stuff where I’m like, I have no idea what this is. What the hell is this? I love it. Give me more unhinged flyer art.

(Photo Credit: left, Julie Orlick; right, Alexa Viscius)

Widowspeak is singer-songwriter Molly Hamilton and guitarist Robert Earle Thomas. Their fifth album, Plum, is out August 28, 2020 via Captured Tracks.