The Business of Creative Careers: Molly Lewis

Molly Lewis and Wil WheatonMolly Lewis has been making music both on and offline for nearly eight years. She began working as a performing musician while she was still in college, and her introspective and hilarious songs cover everything from the Lincoln assassination to the story of Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who drove across the country with the plan of kidnapping her boyfriend’s new girlfriend. (And yes, you end up empathizing with both Nowak and John Wilkes Booth.)

I wanted to talk to Molly about how she runs her creative career, including her touring expenses and whether she can predict how much money she’ll earn every month. The part that surprised me most is that Molly knew from a very early age that she wanted to have a career on the internet. (She had one of the early viral YouTube videos with her 2007 cover of Britney Spears’ ”Toxic.”)

This is where me being in my 30s vs. Molly being in her 20s makes such a huge difference—I thought that the internet would help me do my thing, and Molly knew that the internet would be her thing.

Interview is edited and annotated for length and clarity.

From the beginning, when you were thinking about pursuing a career in music and songwriting, how much did you consider the financial aspect? Did you think ”do what you love and the money will show up,” or did you think about how you could earn money from this?

A lot of the tools that I use did not really exist when I started. I was a big fan of Jonathan Coulton and Paul and Storm, and as far as I knew, most of their income was coming from touring and shows and selling shirts, the traditional sort of ways that bands have made money. I didn’t know about Bandcamp, and I thought that only big record labels could send things to iTunes.

But I’ve known since I was a very small kid—it’s written on record somewhere, in my six-year-old handwriting—that I didn’t want a job where I sat at a desk all day. When I was about 10, I told my mom that I wanted the internet to be my job. I didn’t know what that meant, and she didn’t know what that meant, and it ended up basically being true.

I figured that I would play shows, maybe, and that I would sell CDs, but the whole trickle that you get from mp3 sales was not even a thing that I’d factored in. I’ve been surprised at the areas where I’ve earned money—”People will buy shirts? I can make buttons?”—and it’s all just kind of come at me in pieces. I’ve never had a grander plan for myself, and if I did, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college in the first place.

Fair enough!(1) I was going to ask—that was going to be my next question—what surprised you after you got started. So mp3s, merch options like buttons, you haven’t  made any dice, yet(2)

No, but I have looked into making handcranked music boxes. I don’t know if that’s a think people would be interested in. I feel like a chiptune generator would be much cheaper to make, but I like the idea of making people work just a little bit for my songs.

So talking about touring specifically. Pomplamoose, for example, got a lot of flack for ”eating food” and ”sleeping in beds” and spending more money on tour than they made, but I think that a lot of people, certainly myself included when I travel, spend more money than we make. Has that also been the case with you?

It has, and that was the surprising thing about this musical that I just did(3). The plan was always that everybody else would get paid, and I would not necessarily go into debt, but I would not make money back right away(4).

We sold enough tickets so that everybody, including myself, could get paid, which seemed very lucky considering that it was my very first big live-show effort. I had a lot of people who knew how to do that sort of thing who were there to guide me a little bit.

I don’t understand the flack about the Pomplamoose thing. It seems in the vein of ”well, you should get a real job,” that kind of pressure that artists get sometimes. It was obviously important to Pomplamoose that everyone involved in the production walked away with a good experience, so they didn’t sleep in cars and didn’t eat Lean Cuisines and Big Macs every day.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn, and they are very big on providing a good live show experience, and the finances seem to take a back seat to putting on a show. And that’s really what it should be about, especially when you’re also making money from other sources.

The first Ladies of Ragnarok tour broke exactly even. We walked away with money from our merch take, but the costs of the tour zeroed out at the end. The next tour, because we didn’t have Liz with us as tour manager(5), we ended up making a profit. Just having one fewer person on tour meant that we could take a smaller van and reduce our expenses significantly while keeping our income roughly the same. It’s a learning curve.

So how much of your earnings go back into funding the business?

I’m lucky in that my boyfriend Ben helps cover our living expenses like rent and food, so my income can go straight back into my music, pretty much immediately. Like, I did a commission, and then I immediately bought a theremin.

Theremins are awesome!

They are awesome! I know how to make them make fart sounds, which is the best use of any amazing instrument.

I recognize that I have kind of a luxurious position, and I know that if it were not for Ben’s support, I would have to get what they call a ”real job,” but I would still Do Music, and it would still finance itself.

From my experiences as well, it seems easy enough to have the business pay for itself, and I say ”easy” in a very, very cavalier way.

But the overhead is lower than it used to be. That’s for sure. I don’t have to print a CD to get my music out to people, or makes copies of tapes.

It’s getting that extra $50,000 that it takes to live in an apartment and eat food that’s the problem.

Yeah. If I didn’t have Ben’s support, this would still be my vocation, but it might not be my career.

What else have you learned about the finances of running a music business?

Making a budget ahead of time is very, very important. You can’t just say ”I’m going to buy a plane ticket and we’ll do some shows and eventually it will pay for itself.”

If you say ”hey, I’ve got a merch table” during shows, you’ll increase your sales. I felt kind of weird saying it, but then I looked at the numbers once and went oh, that’s why people do that.

The nice thing about being an internet musician is that your fans want to see you do well, and they have a keener understanding of ”buying this album helps this person make a living.” That connection is much more direct.

That’s also the thing with Patreon. It’s ”If you give me money to help make this thing that you like, I can afford to continue making it!” That math makes sense to people.

Our fans know that we don’t have managers. They know how self-sufficient an artist can be, and there’s kind of an empathy that happens. They can see that you’re working hard, and they want to support that work.

I can’t imagine being a touring ukuleleist before the internet happened.

Can you predict in advance how much money you’ll make every month?Is that number relatively stable?

It isn’t, because my main stream of income is Bandcamp. There are also iTunes sales, which are three months delayed. So if I appear somewhere, I’ll see a peak in sales, but with iTunes I’ll do a thing, and people will buy my stuff, and I won’t see the money for three months.

Interest in new songs also peters out over time. The people who buy my songs are also Molly Fans; I don’t have a passive audience that will just buy my stuff because it’s a thing, the way I bought the new Taylor Swift album because it was a thing. So while my fan retention is good, they don’t re-buy all of my songs every month.

The thing I need to get better at is writing more songs, because that is directly connected to earning more money, especially through Patreon.

If Ben were ever abducted by aliens, I could kick the song engine into full gear—once I’m done mourning Ben being abducted by aliens—and live off my Patreon income for a while. In the meantime, that money goes into savings, and into my business account.

What do you think people don’t know about the business of running a creative career?

I generally followed my intuition about things. There are all these movies about the musician that’s trying to rise to the top, and all the machinations they have to fight against. The virtue of being an artist on the internet is that you’re not subject to any of that.

There’s no one way to reach the Top of the Pops with this kind of job. You don’t have to listen to a record label. It’s not a ladder anymore; everyone is just climbing up the mountain in any direction they choose.

You also can’t think ”Hank Green did this, so it will probably work for me.” The landscape is always shifting. You should do what makes sense to you at any given time. That’s what I’ve done. I probably haven’t made as much money as I could have, but I feel comfortable and secure in what I do, and it’s something I can stand behind.

I’ve never really been like ”well, one day I’m going to fill the Moore Theatre.” If I aim myself at that, I’m going to lose sight of all the other awesome stuff that happens in between. I feel good about where I am.

(1) Molly’s college did not look kindly on the fact that she was simultaneously working as a performing musician and playing huge gigs like w00tstock.

(2) We’re referencing The Doubleclicks’ custom-printed dice here.

(3) This is Thanksgiving Vs. Christmas, the musical in which I played the role of hyper-frugal overachiever ”Nicole Dieker.”

(4) One of the classic methods of earning money as a creative artist is to pay people to help you make an awesome thing, and then reap the benefits of re-selling that thing. Finding passive income sources is an important part of any career where you have to literally make all of your products by hand.

(5) This would be Liz Smith of Dammit Liz Productions, who has helped manage many awesome shows and tours.

Photo credit: Genevieve

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