Abner and Harper Willis in concert at New York’s Mercury Lounge
We’re brothers who front the New York City-based indie rock band Two Lights. It’s going well. In just over a year we’ve partnered with a manager who’s helped break artists like Blur and The Smashing Pumpkins. We have a booking agent. Our first single has played on major radio stations in New York City and our hometown of Portland, Maine. A Fortune 500 company wants to use our music for a marketing campaign. We’ve gotten notice and good reviews in the indie press in New York and abroad.
We’ve been mentored by former British rock stars, posed for photo shoots, hung out with models, worked with Grammy-nominated producers and rocked some of the top clubs in New York (places like the Mercury Lounge and the Highline Ballroom), opening for some of our favorite bands.
This is our dream. We’re living it.
And we’re broke.
No, we haven’t spent all our earnings on drugs and limos and parties (although we have definitely been to some parties…). So far, there haven’t really been any earnings.
Instead, there have been big expenses. It turns out that breaking into the world of rock and roll is like launching any career in a field with high barriers to entry: It’s expensive. And unlike law school or medical school, the school of rock doesn’t offer financial aid (not even loans).
And yeah, we’re learning a lot — but some of the lessons are pretty daunting. Here’s a scene from a fun evening Abner had this year:
Our manager has snagged me an extra VIP pass to a show by a Grammy-winning British pop star she also manages. We make our way through the NYC crowd (2,000 or so jammed into the venue) toward the door that leads backstage. An imposing bouncer guarding the door sees our passes and steps aside, opening the door for us. This is the good life, I think.
What meets me backstage is nothing like what I pictured. No fountains of champagne, no elegant lounges. It’s just as dingy as the venue itself, with a printed sign taped to the star’s dressing room door. The band is hanging out on a couch that someone obviously found on the street, and there are some catered snacks that look like they could have come from the NYU dining hall I try to avoid.
It occurs to me that if any part of me is doing this for the good life, I should let that go. I’m sure this pop star’s touring budget is substantially bigger than our own, but so are her expenses. Hmmm…
It wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, the suits at the record labels funded the enterprise. Your band would play local clubs in a major city, make a buzz, and an A&R (artists and repertory) guy would sign you and write you a blank check. …These days, you have to build your own following first: Produce music, and prove you can sell it. Then maybe someone will kick in some cash. …Meanwhile, you have to pay your own way. And it’s a challenge. Here’s a quick rundown of our estimated costs to date:
•Training. Our folks shelled out for 15 years of piano and guitar lessons (times two of us!). These days, we’re spending $250 to $500 a month on voice lessons. Cost to date: $30,000.
•Rehearsal: We rent a space in Brooklyn for $50 per three-hour session. Cost to date: $3,000.
•Gear. Our family has invested in dozens of musical instruments and other gear (pianos, guitars, drum sets, keyboards, mandolins, PA systems, amplifiers…). And, oh yeah, it cost more than $500 to move a piano down three flights of stairs and then up to Maine (a story for another time). Cost to date: $25,000.
•Recording. Our recent single, Summer, cost more than $1,000 to record — even though we did much of the recording and mixing ourselves. We’ve set aside another $5,000 for our forthcoming EP. Again, we’ll save money by doing much of the work in Harper’s home studio. Cost to date: $6,000.
•Performing. For gigs here in New York, we hire taxis to lug our keyboards, stands, guitars,basses, amplifiers and drums to and from the venue. Whatever cash we earn beyond that usually goes to our current drummer. And expenses soar when we hit the road. Cost to date: $1,000.
•Promotion: Once you have music out, you need to promote it. We pay a guy to send email blasts to databases of hip music blogs. Postcards, demo CDs and other materials are also essential. Cost to date: $1,000.
•Lost wages. The two of us each put about 20 hours a week into band-related work. Abner (still in school) could easily make $10 an hour working at a bar on weekends. Harper (a freelance writer) has to turn down writing assignments worth around $400 a week. Cost to date: $25,000.
•Living in New York City. Our cousin Abby lives in Atlanta in a house — a house! — with a couple of friends. They pay a third of what we pay for our combined living spaces. New York is absurdly expensive — but the band’s future demands that we live here rather than, say, our hometown in Maine. All told, we estimate that decision costs us an extra $1000 a month. Cost to date: $18,000.
Total (estimated) cost to date? $109,000. Ouch!
In short, the School of Rock is expensive. Then again, class can be a lot of fun, and some of the homework is pretty cool. And of course, if we do graduate — if we make it in the music business — we’ll soon be earning a lot more money than even doctors and lawyers. Or so we tell ourselves…
Abner and Harper Willis are brothers. They grew up in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and now live in New York City, where they front the indie band Two Lights. Abner, 22, is finishing up at New York University. Harper, 25, works part-time as a freelance writer. Find Two Lights’ music on iTunes or download their debut single, “Summer,” for free HERE. Follow us on twitter @twolightsband.