For the past 45 years, local jazz singer Arne Fogel has made a living with his voice, crooning Sinatra, impersonating Bing Crosby, interpreting Tony Bennett, and making it all look deceptively easy. But if you ask him what the secret to his singing success has been, he’ll tell you he doesn’t have one. “I never had a plan,” he says. “Things change and evolve. Options open and close. I’m just happy to still be around.” And, he says, “to be married to someone who makes a steady income.”
Like most artists, singers live in a world where a few golden stars earn ridiculous amounts of money, but the vast majority do not. Our local music scene is relatively robust compared to other cities, and in every genre one can think of—rock, rap, hip-hop, gospel, R&B, blues, jazz, classical, opera, choral—there are people eking out a living breathing pretty words into a microphone. But even some of the best-known singers in the Twin Cities earn less than $50,000 a year. And those are the lucky ones—the ones earning a full-time living at it. Most can’t earn anything close to a viable income, and must cobble together an existence by teaching, waiting tables or pouring coffee.
Despite the challenges, there’s an ever-renewing pool of new entrants. Music education opportunities are everywhere. The Perpich Center for Arts Education, MacPhail Center for Music, McNally Smith College of Music—these and many other smaller schools churn out musicians by the hundreds. The local café and bar scene offers plenty of places to perform; there is a culture of support for the arts here that includes grant money for career development; and if you want to join a choir, well, there’s a reason they call Minnesota “Choral Country.”
But the rule of thumb is, as the Grateful Dead used to sing, “Don’t quit your day job, until your night job pays.”
Musicians have always had it tough, of course, but singers arguably have it tougher. It seems counterintuitive, but singers don’t have nearly as many options as instrumentalists. A drummer or bassist can play in several different bands, and many do—but vocalists, particularly if they are the recognized leader of a band, or their style is so distinctive that it’s identified with a band’s sound, can be victims of their own success.
For the past 20 years, Brian “G.B.” Leighton has been fronting one of the most popular bar bands in town, G.B. Leighton. Leighton is the band’s namesake and leader, and pays his bandmates on a per-gig basis (known as “per-service” in the biz), which nets him more money on a good night, but can also cost him on a bad one.
For years, Leighton’s Wednesday-night gigs at Bunker’s packed the place, and life was good. Bands like G.B. Leighton typically get $1,000 to $2,000 up front and negotiate a percentage of the cover charge at the door, or some combination of the door and drink revenue, depending on the venue. Leighton and his band recently tried to revive their Wednesday-night magic at Bunker’s, however, and the turnout was spotty.
“Even if people don’t show up, I still have to pay my band,” says Leighton. “So there are nights when it actually costs me four or five hundred dollars to get up on that stage.” Leighton says he’s fortunate that he can and does perform solo as G.B. Leighton, “but I’m not getting rich by any means,” he says. “I’ve got two kids, and, like everyone else, I’ve got debt.”
Furthermore, finding well-paying gigs is becoming more of a challenge, even for one of the most popular bands in town. “I’m not complaining, mind you, because I’ve done pretty well overall,” Leighton says. “But in recent years, it seems like more bar owners would rather hire a DJ for $250 than a band for $2,000. And even if they do hire a band, they’re less likely to hire a band like us that does mostly original material, and more likely to hire a cover band or tribute band.” Or worse: Start a trivia night.
According to Kat Perkins, who recently found fame (but not yet fortune) for her scorching performances on the past season of NBC’s The Voice, the bottom dropped out in 2009, as the Great Recession set in. At the time, she was the lead singer for a local band called Scarlet Haze, which did original material and performed all over the Midwest. In 2005, she even opened for Bon Jovi at Target Center.
“From 2004 to 2009, our band was one of the lucky ones that made money,” says Perkins. “But in 2009, we started feeling the effects of the economy. Clubs were shutting down or hiring only cover bands. People stopped coming out to see live music. It became a living nightmare.”
Trying to hang on, she, too, started a cover band, called SKITZOfrenic. When it failed, she began worrying that the IRS was going to come knocking. Her band was incorporated, but it had lost money three years in a row, and she’d racked up piles of credit card debt while taking large deductions for the band’s expenses.
“Every year, I was afraid the IRS was going to audit me,” Perkins says. The whole enterprise came to a halt when her voice finally gave out and she needed surgery to restore it. That’s when she started working as a nanny.
Many singers in town have a similar pre- and post-recession view of the local music market. But according to James Klein, who managed guitar whiz Jonny Lang’s career for years and now books bands at Bunker’s, it was always thus. “It’s an age-old complaint that bars discriminate against bands that play original music,” says Klein. “It’s true to a point, but what musicians fail to take into account—and don’t want to hear—is that they’re not writing very good music. That, or they haven’t worked hard enough to hone their act.”
In general, Klein thinks people are now actually more receptive to new music. It’s just that when it comes to down to the business side of things, he says, “there aren’t very many bands in town that can reliably fill a room.”
When they do, singing remains “a notoriously difficult market to quantify. Most musicians don’t earn a traditional salary, and often payment is in cash, so it could be that some people don’t report all their earnings to the IRS,” says David Lewis, director of career and alumni services at McNally Smith College of Music. “Ultimately a creative economy is a gig economy. Artists earn different amounts from week to week and month to month, from different places, doing different things, not all of which is directly related to their music.”
Indeed, the Twin Cities are full of singers, but to turn that talent into a career takes an extraordinary amount of dedication and perseverance. Ten years ago, you could walk into the Times Bar and Café in northeast Minneapolis and, for the price of a beer, hear local jazz singer Maud Hixson swing through a set with the sort of elegant virtuosity that comes from considerably more than 10,000 hours of practice. Back then, she was making $100 to $200 a night, and considered herself lucky just to be working.
“When I was getting started, I would go to clubs, hang out all night and wait to see if the band would let me sing a song or two at the end,” Hixson recalls. Now you’re more likely to see her at the Dakota or in concerts at larger venues, both because there are fewer jazz rooms in town now and because, she has learned, singing in clubs every night is a lousy way to make money.
“I’m focused more on doing special shows and concerts, recording and working outstate or going to New York,” says Hixson. “There’s not enough work in the Twin Cities to only work here.”
Like most singers in town, Hixson is basically a solo freelancer who manages her own marketing, promotion and booking, including upkeep of her website and oversight of her CD sales. By far the bulk of her income comes from live performance, however, because “people aren’t paying for music anymore,” she says—a lament echoed by virtually everyone interviewed for this story. Rampant piracy, iTunes, and the growing popularity of such streaming-music services as Pandora, Spotify, last.fm and Rhapsody have made it much more difficult for artists to make money from their recordings, and put more pressure on them to perform live as much as possible.
The fact that the average consumer can now access for free most of the music ever recorded is one of the roiling market realities of the swiftly evolving music business. And it’s one reason that jazz singer Connie Evingson has elected not to have her songs streamed on Spotify, since she makes nearly half her income from sales of her 10-CD catalogue. But even she has mixed feelings about streaming, because she is aware that the counter-argument for streaming—that it has the potential to connect artists to people all over the world—is sometimes true.
“On my sixth album, I recorded an obscure Django Reinhardt tune, but for some reason Pandora chose that song to include in a mix of French gypsy jazz recordings,” Evingson says. “Pretty soon, that song was selling like crazy on iTunes. And it’s all due to Pandora—though I still don’t think streaming is a very healthy business model for musicians in general.”
For any singer, regardless of genre, the challenge is generating enough revenue from live performances, recordings, and merchandise (T-shirts, hats, etc.) to pay the bills. For many, the “secret” is occupying a unique niche and mining that niche for all it’s worth. Others, like local singer/poet/essayist and hip-hop diva Dessa, take a more diversified approach.
Arguably the savviest artistic entrepreneur in town, she performs and records both solo and with the local hip-hop collective Doomtree, gets her poetry reviewed in Rain Taxi Review of Books, writes non-fiction essays, teaches master classes at McNally Smith and juggles all these artistic balls while writing songs, producing videos and managing all the incidental responsibilities that come with being the smartest, hippest person in the room.
“At McNally Smith, the president greets every freshman class by telling them that there aren’t a lot of jobs in music, but there is a lot of work,” Dessa says. “Which means that to make ends meet, you end up seeking lots of varied income streams. I manage risk in my career the way an investor does. Instead of having money coming all from one place, I like to have a diversified portfolio of revenue streams.”
Still, Dessa has only a vague idea of how much money she is likely to make in any given year. “For a long time I made $25,000 to $30,000 a year, but now that I’m more established it could be anywhere from $45,000 to $80,000, depending. Every year I sit down with my tax guy at the beginning of the year and try to guess how much I’m going to make. I’m usually off by about 30 percent.”
One of the reasons the Twin Cities is such a mecca for singers, however, is that one of the largest choral communities in America exists here. There are more than 80 independent choral groups in the Twin Cities, hundreds of church choirs and several world-class ensembles—Cantus, VocalEssence, Minnesota Chorale and the Rose Ensemble among them.
Most pay performers for individual rehearsals and performances, and even the most prestigious ensembles pay their members considerably less than $10,000 a year for their service. Consequently, almost no one makes a living as a full-time choir singer. Those who do are more likely to operate like Krista Palmquist, a member of VocalEssence, who teaches singing at St. Joseph’s School of Music in St. Paul and at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, performs for two churches, sings occasionally with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra chorale and other ensembles, curates special concert programs, does voiceover work reading children’s books, and performs regularly at weddings, funerals, and other special events.
“Most of us have gone to school and worked really hard at it, and many of us have Ph.Ds. The only reason we can do it is that we have lots of experience, understand the rigors of scholarship, and have been taught how to conduct ourselves professionally,” says Palmquist. “We are world-class singers, in fact, but we don’t get paid like it.”
The only people in the Twin Cities who can call themselves full-time choral singers are the nine members of the male vocal ensemble Cantus. Even at this elite level, the financial rewards aren’t exactly robust. The average Cantus salary is $32,000 per year, and members must re-audition every year, though turnover is rare. On the plus side, members get full benefits and six weeks of vacation, and travel all over the world. Members spend an average of 100 days a year on the road, rehearse five hours a day, and work with three local high schools every year.
To be sure, there are well-known vocal soloists in town who make a living at it. Soprano Maria Jette never lacks for work, and sings each Sunday at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, under the direction of VocalEssence’s Philip Brunelle. And Robert Robinson, perhaps the best-known gospel singer in town, has a regular artist-in-residence gig at First Covenant Church in south Minneapolis. But Robinson stresses that performing outside the Twin Cities is also a necessity for him.
“I recommend that all artists tour and perform in other cities,” says Robinson. “If you’re going to grow as an artist, you need that experience, and you need to be recognized away from home.”
Breaking out can be difficult. G.B. Leighton has been trying to do it for 20 years. Jeremy Messersmith’s latest album, Heart Murmurs, has earned him a much brighter national spotlight after years of local toil, earning him an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman in August. Indie songwriter Chris Koza has five solo albums under his belt—but he still gets by, in part, by acting as the superintendent of his apartment building for a break on the rent.
One way to break out is, of course, is to go on national TV and blow the nation away with your talent. That’s what Nicholas David did during the 2012 season of The Voice, where he finished third. Now, David—formerly Nick “The Feelin’ ” Mrozinski—is, in his own way, enjoying the spoils of fame.
“Before The Voice, I was gigging Wednesday through Sunday, sometimes two shows in one night. The exposure from the show gave me a platform, but you still have to work hard—maybe harder. The only thing that’s changed is the gigs are bigger.”
He is making more money, too, but tries not to think about it too much: “Making people happy, giving them hope and peace—that’s my real job.”
Which is easy to say, until the numbers don’t add up and you have to find another line of work.
On the most recent season of The Voice, Kat Perkins was the “former nanny” from Minneapolis who belted out pop ballads like a pro. Perkins was able to do that because she is, in fact, a professional singer—one with thousands of gigs in multiple bands under her belt.
In the mid-2000s, her band Scarlet Haze played the suburban club circuit, performing original songs and, in 2005, opening for Bon Jovi at Target Center. Until her appearance on The Voice, however, her music career was all but over, after enduring years of struggle, including surgery on her vocal cords.
Her success on The Voice has revived her musical aspirations. “I knew half-way through the show that I was going to come back to the music business full force, record a record and connect with my new fans,” Perkins says. “The challenge now is to use the momentum to take advantage of the opportunities that are open to me.”
In July, while Perkins was waiting for her contractual non-compete with the show to expire, she was recording an album and organizing a small tour. The first show, at Burning Hills Amphitheater in Medora, N.D., sold out in four hours.
On leaving her day job: “Most people don’t know this, but the week after I left the show, I went back to being a nanny. I didn’t need to, but I wanted to re-connect with those kids.”
On sudden fame: “It’s strange. You find yourself in the middle of this fame machine. Then when the show is over, the machine is over, and nobody is telling you what to do anymore. It’s up to you.”
No artist in the Twin Cities has been more successful at extending her personal brand in multiple directions than the artist known as Dessa has: Singer, rapper, songwriter, composer, poet, essayist, educator, actor, activist, intellectual.
“I sometimes wonder if I would be farther along in my career now if I’d stuck to an established genre or focused my energies in a more marketable direction,” Dessa says. “My goal has been to establish a bullet-proof reputation that can be imported across disciplines. Whatever I do, whenever people see my name, I want them to be confident that it’s going to be worth their time and attention.”
Juggling all those creative balls is no easy feat, however. “I hate wasting time,” she says. “If I’m in line at the grocery store, I’ll calculate how many emails I can return before I get to the register, or I might use that time to work out a song lyric or get an idea for a poem or essay. I do the same thing when I’m driving or in the shower. I find ways to use that time, because time is the currency of creativity.”
Even so, Dessa (previously known as Dessa Darling, and before that, Margret Wander) estimates that she spends up to 90 percent of her time on the various administrative and managerial tasks that come with her job. “I only spend about 10 percent of my time on the artistic side, and that’s not enough,” she says. “I’m trying to get it up to 30 or 40 percent, but that means ceding control of other things which are also important to me—particularly in the social media/promotion side of things—so it’s tough.”
On leaving her day job: “I’ve worked in a hair salon, sold shampoo, waited tables, sold knives, painted faces and handed out gelato samples at Whole Foods. And as a technical writer, I wrote manuals for things like pacemakers and penile implants. I didn’t just dive into music one day. It was more like walking down a gradual slope until I left all that other stuff behind.”
On the secret to her success: “I’m pretty self-disciplined and I have a lot of self-motivation. I don’t really have a work/life balance, because I’ve tried hard to integrate those two as completely as possible.”
Brian “G.B.” Leighton is one of the hardest-working, best-known musicians in the Twin Cities. For the past 20 years, he and his six-piece band, G.B. Leighton, have been staples of the Twin Cities bar scene, presiding over the party at such venues as Bunker’s, the Cabooze, Whiskey Junction, and the club that bears his name, G.B. Leighton’s Pickle Park (which he does not own).
It’s not quite as crazy these days, even though Leighton still plays an average of four nights a week. “It’s harder now, because a lot of bars would rather pay a DJ $250 than pay a band $2,000, and even if they do hire a band, they hire a cover band or tribute act.”
Many people think of G.B. Leighton itself as a cover band, but it’s not. “We play covers—everyone does—but 90 percent of what we play is original material,” says Leighton. “We came out of the 1990s scene, when you could go to five different bars downtown and see five different original bands. Dr. Mambo’s Combo, Jack Knife and the Sharps, Tina and the B-Sides, Beat the Clock, Ipso Facto, the Replacements—you could see them all in one night. That’s what inspired me: great bands playing original music.”
On quitting his day job: “I worked at a grocery store from the age of 15 to 23. That was my last and only day job, but there have been times—in the middle of winter, when we couldn’t find a gig—that I’ve thought about going back.”
In college, Maud Hixson realized she didn’t want to be a French teacher, so she dropped out of the University of Minnesota and began waiting tables in pursuit of her dream of becoming a professional singer—a dream her family strongly discouraged.
Jazz from the 1930s and 1940s was her passion, and she knew many classics from the “Great American Songbook,” because she had spent her childhood watching the movies that made these songs famous—films starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Peggy Lee and Lena Horne—and, she says, “soaking it all up.”
To hone her performance chops, Hixson hung out at local jazz bars and clubs and waited for an opportunity to sing. In 2003, she quit her job working as a French interpreter for Northwest Airlines and started pursuing music full time. Now she is one of the best-known and most respected jazz singers in town. She’s a regular at the Dakota and Parma 8200, and her latest CD, Don’t Let a Good Thing Get Away, was described by allaboutjazz.com’s David Bittinger as “gently virtuosic.”
On quitting her day job: “My biggest challenge was minimizing expenses while at the same time learning to stay focused and use my time and energy wisely. That’s an ongoing challenge as well.”
Secret to her success: “Make [your] uniqueness obvious to your fans—who will come to you for that.”
The son of a minister, Robert Robinson grew up singing in church, watching his mother deliver roof-raising solos while he sang in the choir. At 15, he was directing that same choir, but it wasn’t until he was in his late 20s that Robinson began thinking seriously about a full-time career in music.
At the time, he was working as a data-processing supervisor for the YWCA, singing at night and on weekends. Friends urged him to take his music more seriously, and it didn’t take long for people to notice. He started the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir in 1990. In 1991, he landed a role in Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s The Nightingale, and the following year began performing during the holidays with pianist Lorie Line—a partnership that lasted 15 years and helped make Line’s Christmas shows a local institution.
Robinson is artist-in-residence at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis and is now a standard-bearer of Twin Cities gospel music, with fans nationwide. Last year, Robinson suffered what he says doctors called a “slight stroke,” and though recovery has been slow, Robinson says he’s getting stronger every day. “I’m trying not to overdo it, which I have a tendency to do,” he says with a laugh.
On quitting his day job: “I was always taught that no matter what happens, keep your day job. And I did, for a long time. But my phone kept ringing, and I kept getting work. One day, a friend of mine said to me, ‘Maybe God’s trying to tell you something.’ That’s when I decided to take a leap of faith and go into music full time.”
Tad Simons has covered the Twin Cities arts/culture scene for decades and writes TCB’s monthly arts picks.