How Working Double Shifts at Applebee’s Helped Me Succeed as a Musician

Kelsey Byrne’s — a.k.a VÉRITÉ — career was on the up and up while she served tourists Triple Chocolate Meltdowns.

I spent my first three years in New York with my head down. I was horribly shy and genuinely unsure about what I was doing professionally or artistically. I started working at Applebee’s in Times Square. I’d been working at an Applebee’s an hour north of the city since I was eighteen, so transferring to one of the busiest locations in the country seemed logical when it came to making the most money in the shortest amount of time with the least hassle.

I worked the 6 a.m. shift, which was usually ten to twelve hours — unless it was slow and you begged to get cut. In retrospect, those first few years were a blur. I was on autopilot: wake up at 5:00 a.m., train by 5:30 a.m., chairs down at 6:00 a.m., set tables by 7:00 a.m., have someone make you a giant blueberry pancake at 7:15 a.m., wait for tables and go. I worked four or five days per week when it was slow (because really who wants to stand around and not make money?) and six or seven days a week when it was busy (because you don’t miss out).

My years as a server taught me how to compartmentalize tedious work and creative work. My hours waiting tables were not spent fantasizing about a later date when I wouldn’t be waking up at 5:00 a.m. to serve breakfast to tourists. They were spent with my head down, focused. In the cracks of pragmatism, I was able to find bits of inspiration: moments to dissect and overanalyze into lyrics and arrange into melodies.

I am a writer, musician and artist. It took me a long time to feel validated in declaring that and, honestly, it’s still uncomfortable for me to own those titles as so much of my time was invested in my identity as a server. Eventually, I had a body of work that I loved and was proud of. I wrote a song called “Heartbeat,” paid for a video and put it on YouTube. At the time, it plateaued at one thousand views.

Despite lingering insecurities, I wanted more people to hear it, so I started researching what other artists were doing. I started a Twitter and began following blogs. I emailed the video to every blog I saw. One U.K. blog called SelfBlown  (what a great name) posted it, which spiraled into a lot of emails from record labels and a spontaneous trip to London to meet with them.

One constant in being a recording artist: it costs money. There are millions of talented, tenacious artists competing for attention in a market place that is oversaturated with content. Fans are inundated with options. I learned by trial and error that you not only need to be talented, original and relevant, you also need to be patient, strategic and willing to fund your endeavors.

I was offered money really early on based on “Heartbeat.” Labels offered to fly me to meetings, pay for mixing and mastering, buy me lunch, etc. I politely turned them down, started working with management and began planning an independent release funded with my tips from Applebee’s. The first release wasn’t cheap. In fact, the first budget I was sent for the release of my Echo EP was the largest sum of money I had ever considered spending.

I’m not sure if I was naïve, crazy or a little of both, but I approved the budget and we moved forward.

I was simultaneously terrified and all in.

“Strange Enough” was received shockingly well, as was “Weekend” and the rest of the Echo EP. I started playing shows, doing interviews and photo shoots and taking meetings. I continued working forty to seventy hours per week at Applebee’s, sometimes working from 6:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. — sometimes straight into sound check (this actually happened more than once). I would get home from a show in D.C. at 3:00 a.m. and be at work by 6:00 a.m.

I almost signed with a major label after the release of Echo. The dream. My team and I were all set and confident in the deal and in the players involved. I sighed my little whisper of relief and thought maybe I could quit my job. The negotiated deal fell through at the last minute. I had a pretty legitimate nervous breakdown.

My dad is the best person to be around when you feel like your world is falling apart. He’ll sit and watch horrible movies with you and make sure you’re constantly fed. I went upstate and sat on my parents’ couch for a few days and regrouped.

I had Sentiment fully written and almost finalized at that point. Once I got myself back to normal and reconciled with the fact that I would not be quitting Applebee’s any time soon, I asked my managers for a budget and approved it immediately.

I had basically drained my bank accounts for Echo and all of the expenses surrounding the release and development of the live show. I didn’t have money saved to fund the release of Sentiment, but I was determined to make it happen.

Times Square during the holidays is fucking insane.

From mid-November 2014 to mid-January 2015, I worked almost every day. At one point, I did fourteen twelve-hour shifts in a row, pulled a few twenty-hour shifts (6:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. and back at it again at 6:00 a.m. the next day), and didn’t see sunlight for over two weeks. I was exhausted, frustrated and literally out of my mind. I was simultaneously prepping to roll out the next EP, approving tour routing in the U.S. and Europe and trying to stay level. I balanced Applebee’s and VÉRITÉ into March of 2015. I also balanced an odd, competing guilt. I’m conditioned to work one hundred percent, so time away from Applebee’s meant not making money — and time away from VÉRITÉ seemed counterproductive to all of my investment.

I finally quit Applebee’s before I left for my first tour — before my project was making enough money to sustain. Before I was sure I’d have enough money to pay rent. I was terrified.

Within a few weeks of quitting and dedicating one hundred percent of my time to music, I was officially running a sustainable independent project. I was an unlikely CEO of a creative startup. I am so lucky I currently work with a phenomenal team of management, lawyers, agents, publicists and publishers who work incredibly hard for this project. I get to be in control of my finances, the music, the writing and all aspects of VÉRITÉ.

Currently, I’m beginning to roll out my third EP, Living, as an independent artist.

There’s a lot of discussion around the relevance of major labels in the age of streaming and accessible DAWs (digital audio workstations), which sparked the democratization of music production and distribution. I definitely believe that major labels are still a valid and effective means for building a music career. While I love working independently with my team, I am not at all opposed to signing a well-negotiated deal with any record company or investor when it’s the right situation. Eventually, I’m aware I’ll need more working capital to continue to grow, as any startup does, and I place a lot of value in having an effective team. That said, I do not believe that major labels guarantee success or that a record deal is the Holy Grail.

It’s helpful to be patient and focused on building a life-long career. So far I’ve gotten to prove my concept and vision without external pressures or fear of not living up to a particular image or expectation. I’ve learned to place more value on myself and my music and my team, and I believe other independent artists might benefit from doing the same. Place value on talent and your ability to hustle initial funding for projects while being creative, strategic and entrepreneurial — without selling yourself short by giving away ownership and control at early stages. Realize that we don’t operate in an industry that caters to dreams or passions; the freedom to create without limitations is such a privilege. Accepting that compartmentalization and focusing on the practical comes at a creative sacrifice, but will enable you to have much more control and freedom in the future.

It’s been less than two years since VÉRITÉ performed her first live show, but in that time she has released three acclaimed EPs, surpassed twelve million Spotify streams, performed at Lollapalooza, Firefly and SXSW, opened for artists including MS MR, Tove Lo and BØRNS and sold out a headline U.S. tour. Her glistening pop sound has received praise from SPIN, W Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Nylon and Complex. VÉRITÉ began her music career while working as a waitress in Times Square and operates as a truly independent artist.

(Photo credit: Chad Kamenshine)