What Does a Rock 'n' Roll Musician Look Like Today?

Ezra Furman released two albums last year, both to critical acclaim, but he's still not totally sure how he makes his money.
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Ezra Furman released two albums last year, both to critical acclaim, but he's still not totally sure how he makes his money.
Ezra Furman. (Photo: Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Ezra Furman. (Photo: Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Few phrases represent as big a chasm between idea and reality as “rock 'n' roll musician.” Even in the free-music era, we still picture, in many cases, when we think of rock 'n' roll, the mythological characters of the ’60s and ’70s, or even the anti-culture martyrs of the ’90s. But being a rock musician in contemporary America is a dodgier trade—when the royalty lives like this, what does that mean for the rest of the field? In addition to the new economic realities of being a rock band covered in that New York profile on Grizzly Bear, they also included a breakdown of what an act might hope to achieve. What does the ceiling look like for a member of a successful indie act? A little over $100,000 a year.

The floor? $435.

Ezra Furman is somewhere in the middle of that space, even though, quality-wise, he’s in the highest tier of people currently writing these types of songs. In 2013, Furman re-released his solo album The Year of No Returning and released, with his band the Boy-Friends, another LP, Day of the Dog, marking the latest stage in an evolution that began at Tufts University making shambling Dylanesque music with his band the Harpoons. Both were among the year’s best albums, rock 'n' roll records that nailed a frenzy and intelligence and depth of feeling but faced the mammoth task of carving out space in an indifferent culture. I spoke to Furman about what his life is like as a howling frontman in the present day, and if it involves making even a little bit of money.

Give me a brief musical history. I know you sort of first got your music out in college.

I was in college and had written songs and so I started a band with these others guys: Ezra Furman and the Harpoons. It was something to do on weekends for people who—I couldn’t go to fraternity parties unless I was playing in the band, I didn’t drink and couldn’t stand around. We thought it was just a hobby and then we went on this little tour, and I know this guy who decided to be my manager when we formed the band, he put together this little three- or four-week tour and we got a record deal from that tour because a vice president of Minty Fresh, a Chicago label, was somehow convinced to come see our show in Chicago. They just gave us a record deal. And they let us finish college and tour on breaks and stuff. We made some records and then the band kind of broke up—those other guys decided they wanted to do better things with their lives and contribute to society more.

So the band split up, and I was excited to make a solo record, or just kind of be a control freak instead of the democracy of the band. And I made The Year of No Returning record and self-released it, since I wasn’t on a label anymore. After that record was made was when I realized I should go on tour and promote it, and that’s when I formed the band that’s now called the Boy-Friends. I just kind of threw this band together through various people I knew. They turned out to be really good, so I wanted to make an album with them. I was writing a lot of fast songs—I’ve been into manic music lately—and we got signed to Bar None records: they wanted to re-release The Year of No Returning and put out our next record.

When the band broke up—what did you study in college? Did you consider doing something else with your life, or were you pretty sure you wanted to keep on with music?

I was living in Chicago. The last Harpoons album was Mysterious Power: we made it in summer 2010 and didn’t have a label yet. We had all this trouble because we thought one label was going to release it, then it fell through. It didn’t come out until April 2011.

"Sometimes the check will show up, and it’ll be like, god damn, I needed that money. I should probably keep a better eye on it. It’ll be like, for radio and TV in Spain and Austria, and list some song titles, and be like, here’s $300!"

After the album came out, it was like, well, these songs did not get that much attention either.... I don’t know, I feel grateful to have people listening to my music, and you try and release an album, you try and envision the possibilities for it, what it might do for you, and there’s a lot of disappointment in that at times, and I think the band was feeling kind of disappointed—like, do we keep doing this? This is not the main thing that we want to do with our lives, so we might have to get started on the next thing, law school and jobs and etcetera.

Meanwhile, I was in this house in Chicago and a recording studio was the top floor. The attic was a ramshackle recording studio and it was really good. [Chicago producer] Tim Sandusky lives up there. He knows what he’s doing, and he could make a good record in that space. I was like, man, it’s at the top of my house, it’s at the top of the stairs—I want to go up there, it was tempting me all year. And then there was just some records I got into that really made me want to do stuff as a solo artist: Tom Waits, Harry Nilsson—I was just like, I can do something good like that, you know? And then I started writing some of those songs, and I was not sure how the band was going to fit in. It all felt natural, at the same time as it felt kind of scary.

What was it like, releasing The Year of No Returning yourself?

So I’ve got this manager, this guy who’s been with me before I even formed a band—my trusted advisor. He decided to take on the crazy task of, like, having all the stuff we got printed up and the vinyl we got made, from a couple different places, you can just order these things. You can send them a master and they’ll send you records. So his whole office became stacked to the ceiling with record sleeves and records and he assembled them all. I was already off in California where I moved to follow a certain love interest (laughs). But I saw pictures of his office, and it was just full of shit, from which they just assembled all the records. And I just tried to email everyone we knew and blogs to tell them it was coming out—like, “Hey, I’m an interesting musician, why don’t you blog about this.” Which didn’t go that well! (laughs).

The other way I paid for it, I used Kickstarter. I heard about it that year because I was just like, “How the fuck am I going to make a record without a budget up front?” That was incredibly helpful. I’m continually surprised about how people—I’ve developed a fan base, and people funded that record. I made all these rewards, and I think it was worth it for them. People think of Kickstarter as like, charity, and I don’t think it is at all. If you do it well, it’s just buying stuff, like a pre-sale or merchandise sale. We mailed them out ourselves.

How much did the record cost to make?

I think it was like $10,000 to make the record. I know it cost more than I got from Kickstarter, which was like, $7,000 or something. The rest of it all came out of my pocket. I took some out of my savings. I was really broke and then made it back.

And then that album got you the deal with Bar None.

Right. So yeah, financial-wise, my life is crazy. It’s unstable, and yet, I don’t know. I’m not actually out of money, and I haven’t been out of money since, like, 2009.

People think rock musicians are destitute—like, obviously, it’s not the most lucrative arena anymore, but with the new economy, they think there’s just no way for them to make any money. It seems like a misconception. How do you make your money from music?

I tour and sell records, and I also get some amount of royalties sometimes. It’s not really clear what the checks from ASCAP are for? Sometimes the check will show up, and it’ll be like, God damn, I needed that money. I should probably keep a better eye on it. It’ll be like, for radio and TV in Spain and Austria, and list some song titles, and be like, here’s $300! And then that just drives home how much, I don’t know, if you have a song that people like and it’s around for a while, it ends up being on the radio in Spain or something. I think there are TV spots in some countries that have used my music, but I don’t know what they are! Maybe there’s a commercial about the Primavera Festival in Spain, it shows a clip of my performance for three seconds, and then I make some money.

So do you think that overseas music community makes up a pretty real part of your fan base and your life?

Yeah! I’m about to go there in a week and a half, Germany and Austria and Switzerland and the U.K. I get Facebook messages from countries I have never been to yet of people, I think they like my music.

What do you feel like rock 'n' roll’s place is now that it’s slipped from the hegemonic position it used to have in music?

Well, I’m on the side of, like, to me the way to be a boring band is to try and be on the zeitgeist. I’m someone who doesn’t pay much attention—I’m excited about what I’m excited about. And we all have access to old music as much as we do to current music, or I do, anyway. I get excited about what I’m excited about, I do what is interesting to me—what feels alive, you know? It’s probably a failing of mine that I don’t have a sense of, like—I just don’t really care. This song is fucking cool, I’m into this, I’m going to see what I can do to expand on that and make it my own.

I guess sometimes people get excited about bands because it’s cutting edge or part of a musical moment that seems very now. That’s what music critics do. They think about what’s important, but I think most fans don’t care about what’s important—it’s just like, where’s the real feeling at? What changes the way I feel about life? That’s the goal of most fans of music. And that’s what I’m focused on as a fan and a music maker. I’m not interested in a tribute to a different time; I don’t think music was better in the past. I really think that notion is kind of toxic. But I also don’t think that old-fashioned sounding music is powerless, just because it sounds like—I don’t know. I also think that the sense of now-ness is fading from our musical consciousness, and we’re only going to amass more. It’s been 100 years now since we’ve made musical recordings. We can get all that stuff. It’s all fair game to influence us.

Yeah, and it’s all so accessible: my dad used to tell me about this Rolling Stones live album, “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!,” and he talked about it like it was a lost record, because of him, it was lost—his mother threw out his vinyl of it. And I always treated it as such, and then the other day I looked for it on Spotify, and there it was. I finally listened to it, maybe a decade after listening to my dad talk about it. It feels like there’s been this elimination of scarcity from music.

It does a little bit. But scarcity still exists. I was trying to find this album that someone gave me a homemade CD of in 2004 or 2005. It’s just nowhere. I’m trying to find the musician, and now he’s not responding. I’ve really enjoyed getting my hands on this thing. My computer was stolen in 2009—that’s why I lost it.

Do you feel like you are or have ever been part of any sort of rock 'n' roll community?

You might say I’ve struggled in that regard—I’m too antisocial. But I have collected some musical pals, people I’ve toured with and gotten along with—you find these music friends. They’re just individuals, I’ve never been in a scene, really. It’s a failing of mine, I think, that I’m so antisocial. I don’t know, maybe I’m just, I like to be alone while working. I’m a solitary type, you might say. Tristen [Gaspadarek] from Nashville is someone, she was a big part—we went on tour on the last Harpoons tour and she helped me gather strength to do a solo venture. I’m also about to have coffee with a Chicago musician named Nick Tremulis. I just hole up and write a couple songs a month and work on them all the time. Which is one way to do it.