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Making a Living in Music | Featuring Austin Vintage Guitars

by Pablo Fuentes | Last Updated March 1, 2017
Making a Living in Music

Making a living in the modern music business has changed dramatically.

In the late 90s, free downloading services, like Napster, were considered a dangerous threat to the music business.

In many ways, to survive, the music industry has had to reinvent itself. Services like Spotify and SoundCloud help people discover new music and helps unknown artists get their music heard.

The Internet has also had a dramatic effect on the retail side of the business. Budding musicians can now turn to online sites to purchase musical instruments.

With these rapid changes in the music business, how can a musical instrument store prosper? How can you make money as a performer in this new digital age? Ultimately, how you can make a living in the modern music business?

In today’s episode of Small Business War Stories we tackle these challenging questions and more with Nick Boettcher from Austin Vintage Guitars and performer in band The Reverent Few.

Listen to the podcast:

Show Notes

A summary of our interview with Nick Boettcher of Autin Vintage Guitars is below.

You can use the links below to jump to your interests.


Today we're going talking about the business of music, and music is something that's really interesting because it has such power to move people, but it's also really misunderstood in terms of what it takes to make music happen.

We're going to talk a little bit about both musical instruments side, which is something you're involved with as well as what it's like to actually be in a band and try to make it that way which is something you're also doing.

Hunter S. Thompson has this great quote where he says:

"The business of music is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."

Nick Boettcher: I really enjoy that quote because it's so hyperbolic. The music industry has had times when they have very much taking advantage of musicians themselves. But the quote is blown out of proportion, so it makes me chuckle more than anything else.

I have been thinking about the music industry and how everyone says it's a dog-eat-dog world. It's this constant battle, but I have to say I've never seen a dog eat another dog. Never seen it, they run in packs. That's how they survive. I think that in the music industry, the thing that serves musicians the most is making sure we work together.

We all want people buying music, being involved in music, thinking about music. We want people, musicians and non-musicians alike, to go to shows, to buy instruments, and to be inspired. We think that it serves humanity best.

Austin is really good about having a very open music community. What has been your experience?

Nick Boettcher: Absolutely, absolutely. The music community here, when I first got here, a little over three years ago, was extremely welcoming, extremely warm. Everyone was great. We would sit down with old time musicians who have had the residencies forever. They would let us sit in and play and they also shared information about where you can go to get gigs, and who do you talk to to get a gig at a place. They also talked about what can you expect from each of these performances, and what can you expect from the culture of Austin in terms of how the fans react.

I think, the kind of music that comes out of Austin is very inclusive, and at times, can be a little bit more relaxed that I'm used to having come from Chicago. Chicago is very pocketed, this scene and that scene and that scene.

Lets talk a little bit the history of Austin Vintage Guitars. For those of you who may not know, Austin Vintage Guitars is an amazing music store here in Austin, Texas. You have a beautiful, beautiful store... it's almost like a museum with a collection of instruments. But it's a museum where I can actually play and I am encouraged to pick up guitars that I couldn't even begin to afford the down payment on.

Tell me a little bit more about the history of the business.

Nick Boettcher: I can share with you the little bit of Austin Vintage history that I know.

The owners are Steve and Leslie Fulton. Steve started collecting guitars years and years ago. He loved vintage instruments, and was really, really into them as a collector, as a person who just enjoyed them and enjoyed playing them.

He started consigning guitars with this small guitar shop, and eventually, he developed a relationship with the owner there. He had enough guitars on consignment. The owner said, "Hey, do you want to be a part of this?"

That evolved into Steve eventually taking over, and it's grown and grown from there. The shop used to be on South Lamar, and once the lease was up on that building, they said "Okay, we'll find a new spot." So, they ended up on Bernard Road while they built our current location on Red River.

Now, the current location is big, it's cool. But the heart of the store is still small business, mom-and-pop store. It's a small team of people, and everyone's really connected to all of the instruments involved.

We all very much try to stay in the know about each thing, each item. We all get our hands on every item that comes through and get to play them and really try to get to know. My strengths at the store really lie within my professional performance career. I know what it's like to play these gigs.

There are different types of customers that come in. Some customers are collectors, some people have a lot of money and they really love guitars and they want to find the right investment piece that they could also play and enjoy.

There are a lot of customers who are working musicians. They are players that come in and they want to know what is the best overdrive for a specific context.

In the age of Internet and the age of next day delivery, what's the key to making a musical instrument store prosper? How do you see musical instrument stores in the future in this context?

Nick Boettcher: Well, I'll tell you, there's a couple of things about that. Where we get our instruments has a lot to do with that. Many of the pedals and things that you would get are the same price wherever you go. There's MAP pricing that everyone's got to agree to.

So, that has a big bearing on that. So, if someone wants to buy a common pedal, it's the same price wherever you go. We want to be the place where you can come in and ask questions about it. We provide information about it and have experience with it. We can help you learning how to use it, and we would hope that you would buy it from us and not go home and order it online. It really works. It works to connect with people and to offer up something from you to them that's beyond whatever the product itself can just do.

Tell me what something that most people don't know about the musical instrument business.

Nick Boettcher: It is a retail business. Before I worked here, I didn't think of it that way. I just thought these are beautiful, interesting instruments and I'm a musician and I love them. But in terms of how it functions as a business, it's still retail.

At first, that felt weird to me. But over time, I have gained more enjoyment out of working in that environment. My mindset now is that these are amazing, amazing things, and I get to try to match them up to people. That flow of trying to find new guitars to bring in to sell and then selling guitars to people, that cycle has become more interesting to me. I am seeing the circular flow of a retail business. Retail feels like almost like a dirty word when you're an artist but when you think about merchandising as an artist, that's that retail.

Who are some of the more well-known players that come by the shop? I know, I've personally seen Eric Johnson at the store; he is a great, iconic guitar player. But who are some of the folks, the more interesting folks you see come by?

Nick Boettcher: Sturgill Simpson was in the store. He's bought a couple of guitars. In fact, he was on Marc Maron’s a podcast and there was a photo of him and Marc where Sturgill was wearing his Austin Vintage shirt. That was pretty cool. Miranda Lambert bought a few guitars from us recently. As you mentioned, Eric Johnson, comes by pretty often, he is one of the nicest guys. Nathaniel Rateliff was in recently.

There are a lot of people coming. And a lot of musicians, working musicians that you might not recognize that play with heavy hitters. Because when you're a guy in the band but not the front person, you're free to roam. So, if you're a heavy hitter, people are a little hesitant to come out in public because you don't want people bugging.

Tell me about the business side of being a performer. You're an accomplished performer, you have a great band called The Reverent Few. I've seen quite a few of your shows here around Austin. What's the business of music like as a performer? You mentioned a little bit about selling your records and your merchandise. How do you see that?

Nick Boettcher: I see this as, as much as I hate to say this, as an enormous pain. I grew up as a performer specifically and an artist. My mom works in fine arts, so it's a very emotional experience for me. Performance is everything. When I was in college at Berklee College of Music, I studied a little bit about the music business but I really put my heart and soul into performance and actually teaching as well.

Now, I'm in this transition time and our band is in this transition time, and we're asking ourselves, "How do we convert making great shows into being paid well for great shows? How do we build on top of that particularly with merchandise?"

In the musician community we talk a lot about what works, is it cozies? T-shirts? What do people like?

People always want to buy records, and we try to identify specific things you that you could monetize. And we think about how to get your music published somewhere else or get it licensed for film or TV or movies.

I know producing a vinyl record is much more expensive than a CD. How do you think about this as you make your own recordings?

Nick Boettcher: I love, love vinyl records, and I have a decent collection myself. We make it a point to -when I say we, I usually mean me and Paige DeChausse or The Reverent Few as a group- we make a point to buy our friends' records when they come out with something on vinyl. It's a specific point. I think that they're beautiful, they're fun to listen to, they're very engaging. If you put on a record, you have to halfway through flip it over, which means you can't check out for too long. If you put a CD on and let it play, you might go do something else and might forget and lose your connection to it.

But I also think that it's not the end all to be all of the audio experience. There are a lot other places. You can also get songs on Spotify, but you don't make a lot of money off of Spotify, and I think that the direction a lot of people are going now is vinyl with a digital download card, or something of that sort, so you're still buying something you'd hold and love and display and take home and experience.

The economics of selling a vinyl record are not as good, but you could charge more per record, which is nice. Paige and I work with this small record company out of Dallas called Hand Drawn Records. They've been charging forward and getting some good traction, but there's a limited number of places to get vinyl made so the wait time to get it made, that's challenging.

I'd love to see more of 45s with digital download cards. I'd love that because you can hang those on your wall, you could display them. You listen to them if you want but in reality, I end up going to digital services for most of my listening, because out of convenience, even though my preference is definitely the experience of vinyl. But out of convenience, you just have to do digital and that's okay. I don't see any problem with that.

Okay, cool. Even if you don't make as much money from the digital, I'm sure it helps you get your name out there too, right?

Nick Boettcher: Absolutely. It's still a numbers game and me as a performer at heart, I'd rather people, everyone be familiar with it, and then come to my show and if you like the show ...

If you like the music, come to the show. If you like the show, buy the record in vinyl.

That's the progression, and that's the progression that we need to constantly be reinforcing and circulating through. That's why touring is becoming more important now because you make more money off your merchandise and people getting money directly to you than you do through digital downloads.

Can you tell me a story about a time when things went wrong during a show? You've done lots of shows and have people ever gotten rowdy or out of hand?

Nick Boettcher: You know, anything can and will happen ultimately. In our band, we're not heavy drinkers as a group or anything. Maybe, when we have good time, but we're not partier band really. Although sometimes the crowds are.

There's one time, I did this gig in New Hampshire that our drummer at the time set up. He had this friend who was this girl who was known for being rowdy. She was barred from this bar, but they let her back in for some reason, and she proceeds to get very drunk. I'm singing and I'm playing guitar, and she knocks the mic stand into my front tooth chipping the bottom of my front tooth.

These are the kind of things that end up affecting how do you choose to setup your stage, like where you place your mic stand, how you watch the audience, and how you can control the audience a little bit if you engage with them. So, if I were thinking about it, I probably would've talked to her and got her attention more so that she didn't just turn around and fall backwards.

Bottom line is you got to roll the experiences and let them happen because life's really about collecting great stories and experiences. It was still a worthy experience. Every rough experience, there's plenty to pull from that's good.

Where do you see Austin Vintage Guitars going in the next 10 years? What do you want people to think when they hear about Austin Vintage Guitars and where's the brand going?

Nick Boettcher: I am excited, particularly with the new location of Austin Vintage.  We have a giant lit up Telecaster upfront, which I think is going become an icon in the next 10 year.

I want people to say: "Oh, make sure you see the giant Tele."

I think that it’s going to become a marker of the city. I also like that it's up on Red River now, as opposed to South Lamar. We are spreading out what will become iconic Austin, Texas beyond the South Congress area or South 1st area. So, as the city grows outward, our Tele is going to be a stopping point. I think it's going to be the place you go in terms of vintage guitars.

The shop is big enough and it’s full of great items and a there is a lot of heart in the place. I think it's going to stay a mom-and-pop style shop, but it's just going to keep that slow, strong climb. They're actually switching up and improving the website now. We're doing more online sales but the heart of it is still, "Oh man, this stuff is so cool."

The guitar room and the amp room both have a distinctive smell. Sometimes when when you turn it on an amp, it's like, just burning the dust off the tubes, and it's such a familiar smell. It smells like amps cooking, lovely.

Austin is growing and stretching out in every direction. Where do you see Austin going in the next 10 years? How do you balance this really powerful soul of the artist community, of the creative community in this live music capital of the world, with the fact that it's growing and you have so many developments, and a lot of people getting priced out of the city?

Nick Boettcher: Well, I lived in Chicago for about six years and I lived in Wicker Park most of the time. Wicker Park at that time was like Austin in the way that people think of Austin today. But it was a small little pocket of that. It was very artist-centric, very small business-centric, and then within that time, things got gentrified as they say.

So, having experienced that and then coming here and seeing the same thing happening, the artists just will find a new area. They will find a new place, they will forge their own way, and it might not be directly in Austin but it might be around Austin.

As the city grows, I think it'll be like Chicago where you'll have these pockets in these areas, where like, this is a cheap place to live where people can focus and work and do creative things, and invest themselves into that, and that'll grow and as that grows, that'll draw more business in that small, little pocket. Then, you'll get gentrified, then you move somewhere else. It's happened over and over again in lots of big cities. Austin is becoming, inch by inch, a big city. The main challenge is going to be transportation.

Where do you want The Reverent Few, your musical project, going?

Nick Boettcher: We are, as we say, we're lifers in the music industry. We will be doing this forever no matter what. We want to keep crafting our career and making records, figuring out the merchandise thing, and also, how do you buy a house as a musician not making a ton of money? It's just a long game of continuing on, keep making great music. We are committed to that.

I really believe that if, whatever your business is, if you make a great product, and you keep crafting it and crafting it and working it, working it, it'll take time but it'll get a foothold, and it'll always have an audience. As long as you keep sharpening it and keep refining it, it'll continue to be more profitable over time. We just want to keep making great records. That's the ultimate goal and it's not going to stop. It's not like there's a like, "Well, if this happens, then we'll just quit."

Is there anything else that you want our audience to know about your business or your band? Where can people find you?

Nick Boettcher: We're pretty heavy on social media. Paige does an amazing job at making sure things are on point there. The Reverent Few on Facebook and on Instagram, we're pretty active on there, and you can always contact us too. We have a website, thereverentfew.com. I love to hear from people directly on social media; we would rather be connected more directly to people.

There's austinvintageguitars.com and, like I said, the new website is going to be up here very soon. We're going to put the finishing touches on that, and you just come by. We're on Red River and 43rd in Austin, Texas. We've got a parking lot and come drive up, park, and come experience the shop, see what it smells like, and play some old guitars, and see the big Telecaster.

Final Thoughts

Making a living in the modern music business poses a variety of challenges, but there are also a lot of advantages to both retail businesses and bands in this modern world.

Social media, band and company websites, and distribution services like Spotify can all help to grow your presence and expand your audience.

In terms of retail, it's all about creating a great experience for your customers and connecting with them. If you do that, they'll have loyalty and be your free brand ambassadors. 

If you have any question or comments about the business of music or making a living in music, please leave a comment below.

Topics: small business war stories, podcast

Pablo Fuentes

Written by Pablo Fuentes

Pablo Fuentes is the CEO of Proven. He is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA. He is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner and a blues guitar player and builder.

 

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