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Carmyn Hoen (right) and her husband, Nick (not pictured), lead two bands: their acoustic duo Open Tab and The Third Wheels.
During daytime business hours, Nick Bretl wears grey-brown scrubs and a surgical mask, going over the fine points of an X-ray, filling cavities or performing other services in the mouths of his patients at his Weston dental office.
On a typical Friday night he dons cargo pants and a band shirt, then hammers on the drums during band rehearsal with three other 40-something musicians in his band, The Mad Mad Ones. They jam out aggressive but harmonious tunes in a former office space in downtown Wausau that they rent for practice. Cans of Miller Lite are scattered atop band equipment.
Bretl, along with Ted Fox, Jeff Sandbom and Ryan Anderson, form The Mad Mad Ones. Bretl being a dentist by trade may sound unusual, but the band shares many similarities with others in the Wausau area. Like all of the musicians interviewed for this story, they’re proud of and work hard at perfecting their music. And like the rest, they find themselves in the role of not only music maker, but also small business owner.
Sure, it looks like all fun, crazy nights and adoring fans. But running a band is a venture that involves employees, overhead, revenue development and even capital investment.
Just as businesses range from small, side-operations to full-blown companies, so it goes with these bands: They can be folks with full-time day jobs who work music on the side (like The Mad Mad Ones), to those who’ve turned music into a career.
Their goals might be different, but the reality is the same: master the skills of running a business because success and a paycheck depend on it.
When the band is your paycheck
At age 16, Tom Jordan came home late one night, buzzing with excitement. He got caught sneaking back home from playing his first-ever gig as a musician, but convinced his parents he was returning from a friend’s car to retrieve a textbook he needed for school. The excuse sufficed, and Jordan was stoked from playing in front of people and getting paid for it.
“I’d played a couple of talent shows but nothing like playing in front of a captive audience of all strangers. It was terrifying. But after I did it, it was a super big high,” says Jordan, who grew up in the Northwoods and now lives in the Wausau area.
Two decades later, Jordan now tours across the U.S. with his alt-blues rock band 20 Watt Tombstone.
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20 Watt Tombstone’s Tom Jordan (front) and Mitch Ostrowski.
The band’s agent secures shows in different parts of the country, allowing Jordan and band mate Mitch Ostrowski to play gigs most days of the year, from festivals to tiny bars they book along the way. The pay ranges from hundreds of dollars, to playing for the door, which means if few people show to pay the cover charge, you make almost nothing.
If they tried to make a living solely from playing gigs, Jordan and Ostrowski would be living on someone’s couch. But Jordan can make music his fulltime occupation because he educated himself on the finer points of marketing, brand building and merchandising. He turned 20 Watt Tombstone into an enterprise. The band might make $150 to $250 at a typical gig, for instance, but will take in double that in merchandise sales. And that became a necessary element to keeping the music alive.
Jordan figured out quickly that offering just one shirt design was limiting sales. Instead of trying to sell one shirt over and over, he thought, why not provide different options for fans? The t-shirts have become almost a business themselves. The band creates a new design, orders a limited run, take pre-orders, and sells them until they’re gone.
Enough people wanted the latest 20 Watt Tombstone shirt that pre-orders alone covered the production costs. They’ve added hats and even a skateboard deck with a design fitting of 20 Watt’s bluesy, muddy sound.
This success is no accident: Jordan has carefully cultivated the band’s brand.
“I wanted to take the next step,” Jordan says. “I started reading a lot, and taking courses. I watched other people who were successful and looked at how they did it. I’m not the end-all for band business but I feel like in the 14 years I’ve played music I’ve learned a ton.”
That included something as severe as changing the band’s name from The Goddamns to 20 Watt Tombstone in early 2015. The old name was good for attitude perhaps, but bad for business. Jordan discovered the band was missing out on national-level licensing opportunities because marketers didn’t want to deal with a cuss word in the credits or promotions.
Music alone isn’t enough
Bob Allen played in bands since high school. He’s an accomplished guitar player and his brother, Brandon Allen, is a skilled drummer. Along with bassist Wade Kaiser, the Allen Brothers Band plays shows just about every weekend throughout central Wisconsin and the Northwoods.
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Brothers Bob and Brandon Allen play at an outdoor gig during the summer of 2016.
Bob Allen generally headed his own bands playing original music. But he didn’t learn the crucial skills of stagecraft until he joined Brad Emanuel’s band. That experience taught him to go beyond simply playing songs to truly putting on a show, and getting a bar full of people to dance and sing along. He watched Emanuel do it, and kept those lessons in mind when forming Rebel One and later the Allen Brothers Band.
“We were doing something that we weren’t doing with the original groups: We were packing bars and being asked to play weddings,” Allen says. “We actually had an opportunity to make some real money.”
From Emanuel—perhaps the Wausau area’s best-known, busiest musician—he also learned how to run sound, how to cut down on expenses. “A lot of bands hire people for lights and sound, but I don’t think that’s entirely necessary if you have the right equipment. I don’t feel to play at Intermission you need to hire roadies or a sound guy if you’re just setting up a few speakers, a subwoofer and some monitors,” Allen says.
Allen, a full-time graphic designer in Marshfield, agrees that starting a band is like forming a small business. Besides the marketing, cash flow and revenue, there’s capital investment to consider. Instruments and amplifiers aren’t cheap; many bands invest in their own PA systems, which allow them to land more gigs. But it’s a huge upfront cost that needs to pay dividends.
Carmyn Hoen is a local performer most Wausau-area music followers recognize by now. Led by her powerful voice, her bands The Third Wheels and Open Tab are playing regularly all over Central Wisconsin.
And she agrees: It is a business.
In addition to paying about $10,000 for their own PA system, her bands also have a lighting system to help control their appearance on stage. The equipment opens up a whole world of possibilities. They can play weddings, bars, private parties—all ways to generate income.
Hoen, 27, splits her livelihood between music and a part-time day child care job, plus is a mother to her 5-year-old son. The Third Wheels started a year ago as an expansion of her acoustic duo Open Tab with her husband Nick Hoen, which started in 2014.
In these past two years Hoen has had to learn what works and what doesn’t.
“It’s always changing,” Hoen says of the music business. “Right now we want to stay really open and versatile. We want to be able to play out as much as possible. That might mean more original songs or spicing up the covers.”
Hoen is no stranger to the stage — she’s been involved in Wausau-area community theater shows and performed in the touring music group Kids in Wisconsin.
Her time in Kids in Wisconsin taught her the stamina to perform a number of shows in a row, and showed her how much work it takes to make them successful. Those proved valuable lessons.
Hoen constantly markets her bands by contacting venues and updating her Facebook page with things like promo videos. And the more they play out in public, the more private bookings they get from people impressed with what they hear. Hoen and husband have quickly become musical mainstays. Their bands play once a week or more across Wisconsin at venues as varied as a church festival and Wisconsin Dells resort to the rollicking room at Intermission.
Keeping up, like all industries must
Tyler Vogt, owner of Malarkey’s Pub, carefully curates the bands that grace his successful downtown Wausau music bar. He has seen what has worked and not worked so well for the many acts that come through.
Vogt says something essential to getting booked is having electronic press kits. It’s a marketing tool that highlights a band’s work. These kits not only can convince the decision-makers of the band’s abilities and professionalism, but also provide the venue with materials to promote the show.
And Vogt backs up what Jordan says about merchandising. The more successful acts take this aspect of the business seriously, selling lighters, stickers, t-shirts and CDs— something fans can take home to remind them of the great show they just watched. In the process, the band’s brand is being established.
By most measures, John Altenburgh is probably the most successful musician in the Wausau area. Over the span of his three-plus decades in music, his jazz and blues-rock albums have charted nationally and he has toured throughout the U.S. Though his touring days are done, he draws huge crowds to the few occasions a year that he plays locally (namely Bluesfest, Concerts on the Square and his annual Christmas show at The Grand). He’s a composer, producer and owns a recording studio in Mosinee.
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John Altenburgh leads from the keys his current band, Johnny and the MoTones.
But he started by playing in local polka bands, plus rock, jazz, country—just about any kind of music there was to play, he played it.
When Altenburgh graduated from college, he thought his days of playing shows were over. He spent his savings on a recording studio and intended to scratch out a livelihood by recording and selling music. Because playing music live night after night is not easy.
“Sitting in my room playing air guitar imagining what it’s going to be like, you think it’s going to be great,” Altenburgh says. “You don’t think about the things that can happen: The lights are blinding you, you can’t see your keyboard, or no one shows up to your gig. Maybe you forget the words.”
But being on stage turned out to be necessary. Albums didn’t really sell unless he performed live, and the two things fed off of each other. People bought CDs if they saw him playing first.
Today Altenburgh has a long list of albums to his credit, in a variety of genres, and they all still contribute to his livelihood. (His cold storage business that houses cheese primarily for Kraft is his main job). He joined with a label that ultimately sold to Sony, which put his entire catalogue in Sony’s marketing team. That’s led to his music being selected every so often for a TV or film project, which keeps royalty checks coming in. His favorite: hearing a clip of his music during a Packers-Bears game.
While some musicians bemoan streaming sites such as Spotify, they’ve been a great source of revenue for Altenburgh. For someone with nearly a dozen solo jazz albums, plus joint efforts with Johnny and the MoTones and appearances on dozens of compilation albums, he says Spotify brings in a steady source of revenue.
Jordan had similar things to say about Spotify: His second album took off, he says, with more than 20,000 streams.
Since Altenburgh first made his mark on the music scene, the biggest difference, he says, is the variety of ways to reach an audience. Recording equipment is more readily available and cheaper, allowing skilled musicians to self-record albums. But other bands are able to do the same, meaning there’s more competition.
Another difference: The transition from vinyl to CDs started when Altenburgh first starting making albums. As an independent, he made contacts with about a dozen distributors who committed to putting his CDs in stores around the country.
A new album he’s working on today likely won’t even be pressed for national distribution. While he may sell some CDs at a show, Altenburgh says the majority of his fans are listening on platforms such as Spotify, Pandora, or YouTube, or getting them digitally on iTunes.
All of that means, now more than ever, someone who’s serious about making music has to think like an entrepreneur. That great band you saw out the other night? Keep in mind that its road to the stage was neither cheap nor easy.