THE LONG HAUL: Being a Musician Without Touring
Tristan Scroggins (photo by Nico Humby)
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of a three-part series in this column exploring financial challenges that affect musicians and their careers. Read Part 1, about how musicians are affected by student debt, here, and Part 2, about musicians and homeownership, here.
For many musicians such as myself, touring has been an essential part of life and a financial necessity for as long as we’ve been playing music. I never really thought to ask myself how I would make my career work without touring. But of course I was forced to consider that situation in a very real way this past year when the pandemic hit. I found myself floundering and frantically trying to start a Patreon page without having too much time to consider my long-term goals with it. I taught Zoom workshops and took every random remote gig I could find, including playing lullabies in Spanish for a bilingual church service and writing LinkedIn bios for IT sales executives. A global pandemic isn’t an ideal reason to completely change your business model, but it has shown us freelancing creatives the vast power of the internet and introduced us to the various ways that we might be able to create more sustainable income streams through our own channels.
Long before 2020, my friend Tristan Scroggins, one of my favorite mandolin players in the world and a very smart guy, told me that he had made the decision to leave his band and get off of the road for his own mental health. It was a shocking idea to me at the time, but I’ve since marveled at his foresight and bravery. I’ve also seen how innovative and successful he has been at carving out a specific niche and consequently a successful career path for himself online. Personally, I think I will always thrive on the adrenaline and connection of live shows and travel. But for many people, that isn’t an option, or it may not be a forever option. And then of course, there are those pesky pandemics that take touring off the table now and then! As the world starts to potentially reopen a bit this summer, many musicians are considering how and when they want to re-enter the world of live performance. So I thought it would be the perfect time to ask Tristan for some thoughts on creating a successful non-touring music career.
You made the choice to stop touring long before the pandemic hit. What factors were at play in that decision?
I had been touring for a long time at that point. It wasn’t just the way that I was living my life, it was the only way that I had lived my life, because I was a teenager when we started. I already knew that anxiety, depression, and addiction were things that I struggled with, but I had mostly believed that touring helped me deal with those things. In reality, I figured out that I was just constantly overstimulating and distracting myself so that I wouldn’t have to actually examine any of those things. After a long-term relationship of mine ended, I realized how much I had been leaning on that relationship for structure and comfort. I saw that it wasn’t sustainable and decided to move to Nashville because I had a lot of friends here that I thought would be able to support me emotionally while I tried to figure some stuff out. I started going to therapy and really quickly realized that my lifestyle was not serving me. And because of the support from my friends and community, I felt empowered to make a better life for myself. I’d never felt that way before. Touring always felt like the only option both spiritually and financially.
As a musician, what is the best thing about being home? What is the best thing about playing shows on the road?
I’m not sure that I could really compare the two. And I think it’s just because I have only experienced them in extremes. That, and I think they are naturally opposed to each other. Being on the road long enough to get into the rhythm of it requires so much recovery time when you’re home that you don’t really get to enjoy the good things about being home before you have to go out again, at least in my experience. This year is by far the most time I’ve spent at home since I was probably in elementary school. And before that, I was spending nearly 100% of my time on the road. There are lots of great things about playing shows and traveling. Performing is great, meeting new people is great, making friends, seeing old friends, seeing new places — it’s exciting, it’s constantly changing, and it’s very interesting.
But there are lots of negative things about all that, too: You only ever see the world through a windshield, you are always a special occasion to all of the people that you meet before they go back to their regular lives (even though meeting them was your regular life). Not only do you have to constantly be “on” emotionally, but your livelihood and reputation depend on it. You rarely get to see your friends, the food is mostly bad, you sit for extremely long periods of time, it’s really hard to focus on your mental health, much less your physical health, and many other things.
And honestly, I think that being home is just all of those things reversed: It’s boring, the same thing happens every day, you see the same people, you do the same things. But the food’s pretty good, you can focus on yourself, you can get good sleep, you can make choices about what happens in your day, you can see your loved ones, and you can take care of yourself.
What was your plan for making a living as a musician without touring, and how has that plan changed over the past couple years?
I certainly didn’t have a plan when I quit my dad’s band. I figured that I would be okay because I’m usually okay. I felt pretty confident that I would be able to figure it out because I’d been in Nashville for about six months and had already found that my particular skill set lent itself to the type of jobs that would just show up. In the beginning, a lot of what I was doing was just through my connections and through my friends. It’s kind of one of the great things about this town and community: There are a lot of people who came here without a plan, and flailed around a lot and then figured it out. Those people are still here and want to help the new people that show up flailing.
I eventually got some more stable work through music by pursuing some other interests of mine that were adjacent to performing. I’ve always been really interested in history and had done some writing, and that led to me getting a job working for John Hartford’s family. That job gave me some stability, which allowed me to pursue some other options. I’ve never been very good at keeping a teaching schedule so I was trying to avoid teaching private lessons if I could, but I was learning a lot about that world from friends and mentors here in town like Megan Lynch and Nate Lee.
My current situation is the result of leveraging connections mixed with using all of the different random information about business that I’ve learned throughout my life, and using my interests outside of bluegrass to inspire some creativity. I started my Patreon page before the pandemic (thankfully, lol) after a lot of consideration and planning. I looked at a lot of the other music-based pages on there and didn’t really see a way that I could use a similar model in a way I felt comfortable with. But I listen to a lot of podcasts, and a lot of them have Patreon pages, and I saw a lot more similarities between what I was doing and how they were creating content, and what they were putting behind a paywall versus putting out for free. So I based my goals and decisions on those things.
A lot of musicians have gotten on Patreon this year. What do you think are the positives and negatives of the platform?
I don’t know that I think that there’s anything inherently positive or negative with the platform. The way that I see people interacting with it ranges from creative to annoyingly basic, but I do think that one of the great things about it is that it’s really easy for people to just choose to support you through there, and the cost point is so low. So I think really the greatest thing about it is that it’s a strength in numbers kind of thing. $5 a month is not that much money for a lot of people, but if you get a hundred people giving you $5 a month that can make a truly astronomical amount of difference in someone’s life. It certainly did in mine. It’s not quite the same as things like Kickstarter where the price point is often higher. And I really don’t like the weird social pressure associated with crowdfunding things. Patreon feels a lot more laid back, at least for now. It also gives people who just like what you do and like who you are a way to support you.
I think that a lot of people get hung up on the idea that they have to offer something hugely valuable, but patronage doesn’t necessarily require more than someone just wanting to support you. And I think a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that they have to put all of their work behind the paywall. I make a lot of content that I enjoy putting out for free. And a lot of people that support my page do so because they know that it encourages and makes it possible for me to put out things for free. The stuff behind the paywall is just extra.
Do you have any advice for musicians on how to use social media effectively for career building?
I think understanding what your career is would help someone make better goals about how to use social media. There are a lot of different ways to be a musician, especially in Nashville. But I think a lot of people think that being a musician means being a capital-A “Artist” with a public persona and everything. That’s definitely a way to do this, but there are lots of very successful people who just play in other people’s bands, who just play on recordings, who just play around town, and don’t really need much of an online presence.
I think that an active choice to engage in social media should also be an acknowledgment of the choice to become a public figure. So then you have to make some choices: The number one rule for doing stuff online is consistency. For better or worse, the way that social media platforms are designed is to share large volumes of information in a short amount of time. Think about how long you usually spend actually looking at a post, if you even fully stop scrolling. You have less than five seconds to get somebody’s attention. The good thing about that, though, is that not every single thing you post has to be amazing. Most of what you’re doing is reminding people that you exist. If you post sporadically, people are actually going to have to remember that you exist every time they see a post from you and that’s your whole five seconds gone. If you just show up in people’s feeds regularly, you’re more likely to actually get their attention when you have something important to say. In addition, the algorithms reward consistency.
I think it is also important to acknowledge that you are not going to outsmart the algorithm or somehow be successful on a platform without following the rules. I’m not saying that that is impossible to do, just that it is incredibly unlikely and not worth betting on. So if you’re going to “be” on social media, you need to fully be on social media. I personally have a lot of problems with tech companies and privacy and how all of that is handled, but I also have bills to pay so I play by their rules. And they make it extremely easy. The entire business model of social media websites relies on people making interesting content and having people engage with it. They want to help you do that because it’s in their best interest. Facebook has incredibly powerful analytic tools for posts, but if you get into the ads section you can practically pinpoint people who are going to be interested in what you do. Again, it’s all very Brave New World or whatever, but you have to make that choice.
Personally, I think that if you’re a musician, it should be incredibly easy to hear what you sound like. If I can’t find a video of them almost immediately, then the chances of me looking again are very low. You’re selling yourself/your sound, so people need to know what you sound like.
To that point, it’s a good investment to make some nice videos to just have. And you should do it about once a year. In the meantime, however, you can, and should, have other, less produced content. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be easy to watch. So maybe invest in a ring light or a microphone or a camera or a decent smartphone. That can all add up to be fairly expensive, but things also don’t have to be perfect right out of the gate. You can see the steady increase in quality in my videos from when I was just filming on my phone propped up against my computer speaker that was playing a backing track to when I bought a ring light, to when I bought some editing software, to when I bought a mic, to when I bought a nicer interface, all over the course of a couple of years.
I think the main thing with a music career, in general, is intentionality. Like I said before, I always thought touring was my only option and did it because I thought I had to. It takes work but you can figure out more of what you want your life to be like and make active choices to slowly guide things in that direction.
You can find Tristan Scroggins on Instagram at @tristanscroggins or Patreon at patreon.com/tristanscroggins.