Local musicians go solo

The recording industry is an evolving and unstable venture to delve into. A few years ago, tangible compact discs were phasing out – it scarred the business, but it quickly bounced back a tad with digital download sales.

The latest trend for hearing new music doesn’t even involve an MP3 – listeners are gravitating toward online streams like Spotify and Pandora, an easy-breezy format record companies are still sorting out, royalty wise.

It’s a risky business, but there are ways to earn a living as a recording artist. Local musicians Ian Graham of the Lansing-based band Cheap Girls and area jazz saxophonist Phil Denny have both managed to put in their two weeks and commit to performing. Here’s how they did it – successfully.

On the Road

Last summer Ian Graham, bassist/vocalist of Cheap Girls, a busy Lansing-based power-pop band, did what many songwriters aspire to do – he walked away from his day job.
The 28-year-old songwriter quit a long-time retail gig, since then he’s been copiously engrossed in songwriting, recording and touring the world. Last year the band, which formed in 2007, toured the United States twice, England and Australia. 2014 is looking just as hectic. Cheap Girls release its fourth album, “Famous Graves,” on May 13 via Xtra Mile Recordings and in June the trio hits the road for more shows across the country.

Quitting a steady-income job to pursue an artistic passion is an enterprising decision. In preparation for the move away from his nine-to-five, Graham asked advice from a few songwriter friends who are veteran full-time musicians.

“I was kind of nervous, I had talked to a couple friends who’d made that plunge,” Graham said. “From their perspectives, it was that you just kind of figure out what you need to do as you go.”

Being a self-employed musician on a notable record label has its perks – like opening tours for major-label acts like Against Me! and scoring ink from Rolling Stone and SPIN – but Graham said it also adds some pressure.

“You get advances for the records, things like that,” he said. “But you become more aware of when you need to go on tour again. Instead of thinking, ‘Hey, it’d be nice to go back to L.A.’ – it’s more like, ‘We really need to go back out west.’”

So what enabled Graham to focus solely on the arts? Hard work.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to play a lot of shows, having the word of mouth of people seeing us in their hometown the night before,” he said. “And we’ve never had long gaps in between records or anything – then you factor in all of the 7-inch singles in between the albums. So it’s a mix of consistently playing shows and recording … and having a publicist.”
The Crossover

In 2011 Phil Denny knew his days as a loan originator were numbered. He’d started at the company in 2004, in healthier economic times. 

“I had been the branch manager as well as a loan originator for US Capital Mortgage,” Denny said. “I enjoyed my career in the industry and took every step possible to position myself as a career loan originator. Though, it became increasingly difficult to perform my job and make the kind of income necessary to support myself and my family considering the state of the real estate market.”

After months of debate and months with little or no income, in 2011 Denny decided to resign and pursue his long-time interest in jazz saxophone. “It was a thought out process,” he said. “I very much understood the risks involved.”

“Why switch from drowning loan originator to starving artist, right? It seemed to be a natural transition considering my business experience and my desire to play my horn,” he said.

Since his career shift he’s recorded two albums, toured the country, gigged in Dubai and Africa, and scored three Billboard charted songs: “Push,” “Traffic Jam” and “Crossover.”

Beyond his passion for smooth sax licks, the 36 year old is a true independent artist – with that comes leg work and behind-the-scenes paperwork.

“I currently handle all aspects of my music career,” he said. “It really is like any other small business. You have to balance your work hours, time on promotion, advertising, practice, tour schedules, flights, hotels, expense reports, earnings reports and so on. I do have a music producer that I work with on my recordings and only recently have I employed a booking agent.” 
What's next for Denny? He’s touring this summer and starts production of his next album in the fall. Denny said musicians looking to tour and record as a profession should have a plan.

“The key is to be unique,” he said. “Think of it like a product you would buy at the store – what is it about that product that draws you to purchase it? Be marketable. More promoters are seeking what is marketable and are even analyzing the artists following. ‘Likes’ on Facebook are even a consideration with some promoters. Whoever is hiring you wants to know that you have a following and can provide a return on their investment.”

Though, along with his biz tips, Denny said personality and talent go a long way when you’re selling tickets and tunes.

“Be approachable and humble,” he said. “Keep in touch with the people who support you. Be consistent and make great music that is honest.”


Rich Tupica is a local writer and freelancer for Capital Gains Media.
Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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