The Future of What: Life as a Career Musician with !!!, Prince Rama and Portugal. The Man

Vortex Music Magazine

A weekly music industry podcast for newcomers and insiders alike, The Future of What tackles important topics in the business with host Portia Sabin, president of Kill Rock Stars, and guests. This week on the fourth installment of our Music Industry 101 series, we talk to touring musicians about the realities of life in a band.

Most kids have fantasized about being a rock star when they grow up—touring the world, playing for adoring fans, selling out stadiums. Many hold on to that dream, but few are able to sustain a lucrative career in the music industry, especially if they weren’t prepared for the less glamorous aspects of the gig. Being in a band is objectively cool, but what’s the actual job description—and is it right for you?

Being in a band is “two very different jobs wrapped into one,” says !!!’s Rafael Cohen. Cohen, who just returned from tour, always wanted to play music for a living. Inspired by childhood idols like Fugazi, he’s spent the last two decades making it work, first in D.C. group El Guapo. Touring has become one of the biggest parts of being a musician today, but life on tour is a big change from writing and recording an album.

In a band, Cohen says, you’re “balancing a very solitary, enclosed and private thing, which is writing music and recording it,” and then “going out and performing this music in front of hopefully zero to 10 million people.” When you throw your personal life into the mix, things can get even more complicated. The instability of the job can feel unmanageable with a family. Cohen was convinced he would have to stop touring after having kids until fellow dad and Spoon drummer Jim Eno imparted some advice: “You’ll be a better parent if [you do] a job that you like.”

So is it worth the chaotic lifestyle? For Cohen, “to know that you’re making something that resonates with people in some way and that somehow pays forward the way that music has resonated with you” and that, to Cohen, “is a very meaningful and deep thing.”

How does an album cycle work for these musicians? For Taraka Larson, one half of dance pop duo Prince Rama, it all has to begin with “a death of some sort, like death of your past self. You have to have that moment where you’re questioning everything.” Needless to say, writing an album isn’t always easy. “You can’t ever force the writing process,” Larson says. Prince Rama recorded their last album somewhat unconventionally, alternating writing songs with taping them. Album cycles “are on their own time,” which means that “touring is your bread and butter.” With physical sales down, “when you’re not on the road,” Larson says, “you need to figure out creative ways to make money.”

Zach Carothers of Portugal. The Man with Portia Sabin: Photo by Will WattsZach Carothers of Portugal. The Man with Portia Sabin: Photo by Will WattsTouring can come with sleepless nights and other physical rigors. Portland group Portugal. The Man started out like many bands: broke and sleeping on friends’ floors on tour. Bassist Zach Carothers recalls how he “gave up everything” for the band. “It’s definitely not for everybody.”

Carothers advises young musicians to think “before you sacrifice jobs and education.” Those sacrifices, however, are part of what has made Portugal. The Man so successful. Now, the strains of life on tour for the band have been eased by a tour bus and crew—no more driving through the night and loading heavy equipment before and after a show. The bottom line for Carothers? “I’ve done every job there is. I’ve never worked even close to as hard as I do with this.”

This episode features music by:
!!!: “Ooo”
Prince Rama: “Bahia”
Portugal. The Man: “Evil Friends”

Hear the full episode below and listen to The Future of What on every Friday at 1pm at 107.1 FM and 91.1 FM—or subscribe on iTunes.

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