Work a day job like a rock star

Jeff Tyler Oct 29, 2010

Work a day job like a rock star

Jeff Tyler Oct 29, 2010


Tess Vigeland: We heard earlier about jobs you just can’t do forever. Here’s one: rock star. With notable, and somewhat scary exceptions, like…

KISS: You show us everything you’ve got, you keep on dancing.

And these AARP-eligible rockers…

The Rolling Stones: If you start me up, if you start me up, I’ll never stop.

Seriously, he’ll have to stop someday. Right?

O.K. maybe not. Of course there are plenty of folks ready to take their place in the rock pantheon. I’m willing to bet at least one of you out there is still fantasizing about giving up your day job for life on the road. The limelight, the groupies, the easy money.

But put the drumsticks down, airboy — ’cause the money really ain’t that easy, as Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler discovered.

Jeff Tyler: I’m not willing to admit that I ever really believed that I could get rich. But I definitely dreamed of a day when I could quit my crummy temp job and make a living by playing drums with my old band, Haggis. The sad truth is, the most money Haggis ever made was about $100 — split four ways.

Granted, we were never exactly a marquee act. More successful bands can make a living in music. But as it turns out, even rock stars have trouble retiring rich. Members of many established bands still need day jobs.

Take, for example, one of my favorite bands from the ’90s — Pavement. Pavement has recorded five albums and headlined concerts around the world. The band reunited this year for a tour. After a recent concert, I went backstage to talk with drummer Steve West.

Tyler: Once you do hit it big, does that mean you never have to do a day job again?

Steve West: Ha-ha. No. When I was younger, we thought we hit it big and it was great. We were making good money for your person in your 20s with no kids. But, you know what? You’re not making the kind of money that a lawyer or a doctor makes.

Tyler: Could you live off of royalties if you wanted to?

West: No. I have to work. Just like every other schmuck.

When West isn’t banging on the skins, he bangs on rocks as a stone mason. His bandmate has an even more unlikely day job.

Percussionist Bob Nastanovich makes his living in horse racing. I met Nastanovich at Southern California’s Santa Anita race track. Prior to the reunion tour, Nastanovich tried his hand at just about every job in the racing industry, like representing jockeys as an agent.

Bob Nastanovich: Being a jockey agent is the most arduous thing I’ve ever done. All your income is totally dependent on how well your jockey performs. Sometimes you work 80 to 100 hours a week and you make $80.

Compare that to his best years touring with Pavement.

Nastanovich: There was a few years where I personally made between about 100 and a 130.

That is, of course, $130,000.

In terms of royalties, Nastanovich says the most he ever got in a year was about $30,000. That’s decent money, sure. But not enough to retire on.

A number of successful rockers have taken second careers. The singer for the heavy-metal band, Iron Maiden, is a commercial airline pilot. The frontman for Bad Religion also teaches paleontology at UCLA. And then there’s the bass player in this next band — The Vandals.

Joe Escalante is on his third career now. First, he was an entertainment lawyer. Then a punk rocker. Now a radio host doling legal advice about the music industry.

Joe Escalante: Joe Escalante here with the Barely Legal radio program.

Why is it so hard to make money off music sales alone? Let’s do the math.

Escalante says that once a band sells a million CDs, it typically gets paid about $1.3 million. That’s divided between by the band members — minus expenses.

Escalante: You’ve already spent $300,000 recording a record. How much on a video? $300,000? $1 million? It happens. Tour support. How much did that bus cost? Well, that bus cost $1,000 a day.

And in today’s crippled music industry, Escalante says few bands can sell a million compact discs. They’d be lucky to sell 100,000 CDs, which would earn the band about $130,000.

Escalante: You divide that $130,000 by four or five guys, it’s not going to put your kids through private school.

Sometimes, the money is just better outside the music industry.

For 15 years, Keith Clark played drums with The Circle Jerks. At the same time, Clark worked as what seems like the antithesis of punk rock — a tax accountant.

Keith Clark: People think of me as the punk-rock accountant.

Clark managed to hold down both jobs.

Clark: I was able to somewhat manipulate our schedule so that we would always come back from tour no later than January 30th. And then not tour then until after April 15th.

These days, Clark will still grab a guitar and make up songs on the fly.

Clark: Jeff Tyler rocks, yeah yeah yeah.

But when the Circle Jerks stopped touring, Clark devoted himself to taxes full-time.

Clark: In the year 2001, they reunited, but at that point in time, I was too busy with my tax practice.

Sometimes a second career drives folks back to their first career. That’s the situation that Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich found himself in. Back at the race track, Nastanovich and I placed some small bets.

Nastanovich: Six is going to win.

Number six did win.

Nastanovich: All right, so I made a couple bucks.

Over the years, Nastanovich has lost more than he’s made. Not from betting, but by investing in individual horses.

Nastanovich: I decided that I would start breeding race horses. And that was the beginning of my downfall.

Ironically, he lost enough money in his day job that he needed to go back to his old music job — touring with Pavement.

Nastanovich: It’s a big opportunity for me to wipe-out all my debts in a six-month period and get a fresh start and put behind the misfortunes that I’ve had in racing.

A lot of people would say that a career as a rock star is a long-shot. For Nastanovich, it’s his fall-back job when his financial dark horses don’t cross the finish line.

In Los Angeles, I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace Money.

Vigeland: Oh and Jeff? A word of advice if you ever decide to resurrect your rock star career: avoid band names like Haggis — a traditional Scottish sausage of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs simmered in the stomach lining? Unless, of course, you want to be famous in Scotland.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.