I come from a long line of performers. My grandfather and his brothers formed the group The Esquires in the ’60s and won two gold records. They toured the world and supported their families. I still hear their songs in the grocery store sometimes. My father was a singer and piano player, and I’ve been carrying on the tradition. So, you can imagine my excitement last year as I planned my album release tour with my band for my third record. I scoured the internet looking for the best venues to fit my music, for booking contacts, emailed back and forth for two months with different venues, wrote numerous grants, and finally nailed down all the details. We were set for the MARROW East Coast tour for August 2020. When March rolled around and the world shut down, I didn’t freak out. I listened to the news, stayed inside, rested with my family, enjoyed the momentary break, and was optimistic that in a couple months everything would be under control. Six months later, the pandemic is still roaring, and it’s gotten harder to stay optimistic, to say the least. My tour is postponed to March 2021, which I’m hoping can actually happen.
My first cancelled gig came at the very beginning of March. It was actually for a performance in June through a large corporation. Since March, I have lost over $10,000 in revenue from gigs that were already on the books for the year. And likely another $20,000-$30,000 in potential income that could have been by the end of 2020. Let’s break this down, for those that have no idea how musicians and artists make a living.
There are six main ways musicians make money: performing, CD and merch sales, teaching, studio session work, licensing music, and royalties/streams. Arguably, a musician could focus their efforts on just one of these areas, but generally, working indie artists are shooting for them all. Now, we all know streaming pays pennies and you can’t stake a living on that alone. Royalty checks usually come quarterly and depend on how well your music got streamed and played. In 2015, Pharrell claimed to make only $2700 from ‘Happy”, one of the biggest songs in the world that year. Now, licensing music does happen and when it does it is glorious; but, most indie artists don’t stake a living on getting their song on a TV show. Studio session work comes and goes usually through industry connects and friends, but isn’t the bulk of most musicians income. Some musicians are good teachers and can make a decent living this wage, but not everyone who can play can teach (it takes a special person). CD sales and merch get sold a lot actually, to the surprise of most people who think CDs are dead. But, you can only sell CDs and merch, if you can…perform. Performing makes up the vast majority of most working musicians income.
I have a band myself, and I also get hired as a lead singer for other bands. Let’s talk about how I make a living with my own band first. On a good year, my performing, helps to employ 15-20 other artists and musicians. When my band is hired for a performance, and let’s say paid $1500 for a two-hour show; I don’t get to keep that $1500. As the band leader, I contract and pay the other band members. My being employed for one show, helps three or four other musicians be employed as well. Sometimes I book gigs on my own, sometimes an agent books gigs for me, and sometimes I’m asked to sing at weddings or other corporate events.
Now, when I am hired as a lead singer, rather than the band leader, I don’t have the expense of paying a band. Usually this means there’s someone else acting as the band leader, and I am the one being hired as a contract worker. So, if I make $500, that’s mine to keep. I get hired for these gigs from word of mouth, experience, other band leaders that I know, corporate bands who need a lead singer, and awesome organizations like ATL Collective, who understand how musicians make a living and help to keep money circulating in the local musician community.
Let’s say, my average pay for one show, whether I’m the band leader or singer for hire, is $300. I would need to play two to four gigs every week to make an annual income of $30,000-$60,000. Most musicians I know, do this regularly. We book gigs in advance and we plan out our year. When January rolls around, we should start filling up dates for February, March, April. Usually the goal is to leave no weekend open; all weekends should be filled with work. This is a success and normal for a working musician.
Now, how did musicians lose so much money all at once when COVID hit and why are they all freaking out? Most gig bookings are booked months in advance. Festivals, tours, corporate events, weddings, are all booked six months to a year in advance of the actual performance date. So, this means not only has all of our gig work for the last six months been cancelled since March, but also future gigs have been very difficult to book or plan; since no one knows when it will be safe to have live performances again. This is nearly a year of cancelled work. There are of course local gigs, like bars and restaurants, that can be booked the month of, but many are still closed and sadly, some may never reopen. Churches play a huge part in keeping steady work for musicians to count on each Sunday. With churches closed as well, they have had to cut budgets, which means less pay for musicians. Most gigging musicians have been living in a state of suspended belief since March, and for the near future, with little to no income, outside of federal assistance.
What in the world are we supposed to do to make a living then? Well, thank God for the internet. Musicians with an audience base (This is important to note, because many musicians are side men and don’t have their own following) have been able to pivot and turn to virtual performances as a way to make a performance income. Virtual performances allow you to reach and perform for people anywhere in the world. Keep in mind though, that this is a very expensive pivot. When you are looking at capturing good sound and video, you have to pay a sound engineer and video production, which severely cuts into profit margin. Nevertheless, this is the best alternative for some musicians right now.
Music is such an integral part of a vibrant city. The net weaved by musicians is large and affects so many people. Right now, musicians need support more than any other time. Fans who can donate or pay for virtual performances helps so much. The biggest help was coming from federal assistance, which has stopped assisting. So, we look to organizations like ATL Collective and their With the Band Fund to help alleviate some of the financial burden in a moment of crisis. Working musicians have families to feed to homes to pay for; it is not a hobby or pretend job. I think a lot of people have this perception that it’s not a real job. It is a very real job when it puts food on your table.
To meet the critical needs of our Atlanta-based musical community, ATL Collective has moved swiftly to create a relief fund we call With The Band Live Music Fund. The purpose of the fund is to create crisis relief for those for whom illness, injury, immediate family death, sudden care giving responsibilities or disaster has temporarily or permanently halted their ability to work. Support full-time musicians (or crew members) whose primary residence is in the metro Atlanta area that spend the majority of their time devoted to live music performance and preparation or technical support of performances. We’ll be rolling out the opportunity to support and engage this fund in the coming months, but in the meantime, you can donate to the ATL Collective’s broad mission to empower and connect Atlanta’s music community here.
ATL-Collective co-founder David Berkeley had a quick virtual sit down with upcoming curator Robby Handley. They talked about Robby’s musical roots, what he loves about Ram and what’s so special about Atlanta.
DB: Hey Robby. Thanks for sitting down to answer a few questions before you the big Ram event. Let’s start with you telling us a bit about your musical upbringing.
RH: I started piano at 5. I played bass clarinet in band. I played lead guitar in a Death metal band in middle school. I moved to bass in high school when the band director needed a bassist in the jazz band. I fell in love with jazz. I went to GA State University for jazz studies. I fell in love with a girl, dropped out of college. I went on the road with some pop singers for a few years.
I love what I do. I play bass professionally with amazing singers and bands. I have been slowly writing the music of Sleepy Guest for about 3 years.
DB: When and how did you first encounter the Collective?
RH: Friends of mine, Daniel Clay, Tim Brantley, and the Telegram crew started doing shows with the collective and I had to check it out. The first show I saw was Paul Simon “Graceland”. It was hot as hell up in Danneman’s top floor.
DB: Has it altered your musical landscape or the Atlanta musical scene?
RH: This will be my 20th show with the ATL Collective. I’ve had the good fortune of playing with some very amazing and unique performers that I would have never met without the collective. That is a huge blessing.
DB: How do you feel about the Atlanta scene?
RH: I love Atlanta. I’ve had opportunities to move to other cities, but the amicable Atlanta music community keeps me here. There’s no recognizable and distinguishable Atlanta “sound.” You can write and perform anything you want here, and if its good and genuine, people support you. There are strong musicians in every style of music here.
DB: I like that. Got to say I agree after having lived in a bunch of different cities. Atlanta is quite special. On to the upcoming event, do you remember when you first heard Ram?
RH: Yes. My Dad had the record. He had an amazing record collection. RAM was one of the records I listened to most.
Can you describe what drew you to the album?
RH: I think it was the album art is what drew me in. I was 12 when I really discovered my dad’s collection.
DB: Maybe asking too much, but do you have any sense of how the record has
changed for you from when you were 12 and now?
RH: I think the overall feeling when listening to this record has remained the same as when I was a kid. It was very experimental and quirky. That’s what I liked then and now. The only difference is now I know all the words and every instrumental part which has expanded my musical vocabulary.
Every record I’ve had to learn and perform with the ATL Collective has expanded my musical vocabulary. Thats a valuable resource for me. As Johnny 5 says, “need input”.
DB: Any thoughts on how Paul’s writing changed post-Beatles?
RH: So RAM was like another Beatles record to me. It wasn’t until my 20s when I discovered “McCartney”, his first solo record, and Wings. I got really into Wings. I wasn’t so into “McCartney”, but I do feel like it was the most necessary record he could have done upon leaving the Beatles. It was a simple approach to recording that allowed him a fresh start on the next several records. I think he continued to be very revolutionary stylistically with RAM and Wings. I’m not too familiar with the Paul of the 80s although I’m about to listen to “McCartney II” after we’re done here.
DB: Do you have a favorite track on Ram?
RH: Heart of the Country. I like to garden. I want barnyard animals. But I’d love to bring that country living to the city. Atlanta is the perfect place for it.
DB: How and why did you choose the musicians you chose to join you for this bill?
RH: I wanted to bring some new faces to the ATL Collective. This will be Lera’s and Cicada RHythm’s first collective show. The musicians in Sleepy Guest are some of my best friends and they all have participated in many collective shows.
DB: Have you had to prepare differently for curating than you ordinarily
prepare for Collective events where you’re just playing?
RH: I’ve wanted to curate an ATL Collective show for a while now, so I’m very excited about this one. I’ve always been a side man singing back up occasionally. For this show, I’m stage front and center singing and playing and directing. To say I’m not super nervous would be unfounded, but It’s a stride I must make.
DB: Are you a big Beatles fan?
DB: Are you a Paul guy?
RH: I think we know the answer to that. 🙂
David Berkeley: Do you remember the first time you encountered Elton John’s music?
Nathan Angelo: Yes. I remember loving his music at an early age. My mother was a big Elton John fan. I remember being a child and watching my mom respond to one of Elton’s songs as it played over the radio or in a movie. She knew all of the words and would get that feeling that only a true fan gets from a hearing a song, voice and style that has become so familiar that it is almost like an extended family member.
DB: Any thoughts on Elton’s influence on you and your musical development?
NA: Elton John was the first artist to convince me that a singer-songwriter could carve his own way from the piano and not necessarily the guitar. My uncle was also a piano player, and he would play most of Elton’s songs.
DB: Can you try to express what makes his sound distinct or why it hits you?
NA: Well for starters, Elton’s songs always have that distinct piano flare to them. His voice is pointed in an unassuming kind of way, coming off as both natural and unpretentious. For me, the paramount crux of Elton’s music has always been his soaring melodies. It doesn’t matter if he’s singing about a tiny dancer, rocket man, a well-known gun or the circle of life, he always finds a way to hook the listener with his dynamic melodies. The other element that always made sense to me in Elton’s music was the gospel influence, particularly in his chord changes and piano playing. I grew up in the church, so gospel music was a big influence on my music. I’ve always wondered whom the key influences were that Elton was drawing from, particularly since he was from England around the time of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. His music is very different from theirs.
DB: Ever cover any of his tunes?
NA: I’ve covered Rocket Man, Saturday Night’s Alright, and Your Song. I’ve always loved Rocket Man and Your Song. A few tours back I wanted to add an upbeat piano song into my set. I couldn’t think of a better tune than Saturday Night’s Alright. It’s a rocker!
DB: Have you ever dressed like Elton in your concerts?
NA: No! Although, I have been known to add a little bit of flair every now and again (eg. snake skin shoes, grey leather suit jacket). I’m sure Elton would snicker at me even considering those things “flair”.
DB: As to tumbleweed…tell me what moves you about this record?
NA: I heard Tumbleweed Connection a few years back and the album resonated with me immediately. I loved the Western and Southern imagery, but I also loved the musicianship on this record. It just sounds like a group of 5 or 6 talented musicians sitting in a room playing their asses off. I love the bass work and the acoustic guitar work as well. Not to mention the incredible piano playing skills.
DB: Any thoughts on why he went for the sound he did? Or what drew him to the western theme?
NA: I’m not sure why he went for it. I know that he was a fan of Leon Russell and the American troubadour, but I’m not quite sure what inspired him and Taupin to take the lyrical direction. Nevertheless, it’s a fun journey. It truly is a complete album and thought.
DB: Is this your first time curating a Collective show?
NA: Yes. I’ve been a part of a few other Collective shows: Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. But I’ve never curated a show for the Collective.
DB: Tell me a bit about your approach? What preparation and work have youhad to do to get ready?
NA: Well for starters, I’ve spent a number of hours living with the record. I’ve also spent time wood-shedding on the record. I’ve got to be totally honest, covering Elton John can at times be a tall order. He is quite the piano player. I will give it my best effort, knowing that his ability as a piano player is good bit beyond mine. I’ve read a few reviews of the record, none of which really satisfied me (including a semi-favorable Rolling Stone review from the early 70’s).
DB: What other musicians have you called on and why them?
NA: I’ve called upon Tim Brantley for his roots approach to piano rock. I thought he would have a nice spin on a few of the tunes. Also the Shadowboxers. Matt carries the weight on the piano, and the rest of the band will give a nice touch with their approach with harmony. My drummer Paul Barrie will be there. He is a seasoned player and an avid Elton John fan and finds a home in the roots and Brit-rock traditions (eg Ringo, Nigel). He will add a great rhythmic color to the album. Robbie is a seasoned Collective veteran who will hold down the bass. I called upon roots guitarist, Bret Hartley, whose natural approach is similar to the guitar playing on Tumbleweed. It’s gonna be a great band.
DB: I remember often being surprised by what my favorite moments of
Collective shows ended up being. A sleeper song often ended up being my favorite. If you had to pick which song the audience was going tocome away digging the most, which would it be?
NA: It’s tough to say. Since I haven’t heard the renditions, I can’t say which song will find the “magical” performance. “Burn Down the Mission” is a gonna be a fun one with it’s change in time signature and Beatle-esque chord changes. I’ve always personally resonated with “My Father’s Gun”. I’m looking forward to hearing the rendition of “Where to Now St. Peter.” It’s a funky song while also maintaining the soaring, dark Brit-rock melodies.
DB: And finally, what’s next after this for Nathan Angelo?
NA: Well, I just wrapped up 20+ shows in support of the new record, so I’m coming down from the craziness for the holidays. I plan to do some more touring in the spring, balancing between supporting a few more established acts and headlining regional shows. I’m very proud of my latest effort. The challenge is often getting the music heard, particularly in our over-saturated industry. I hope to find new avenues in which new music listeners (particularly, new to my music) can wrap their ears around the record.