Note: 'The Hustle' is a KQED Arts series exploring how artists make ends meet in the Bay Area. After an exodus of artists priced out of the region, every Thursday in March and April we talk with a different artist about how they're able to stay in the Bay Area through cost-cutting measures, side gigs, and sacrifices.
Most of Lilie Hoy and James Jackson’s artistically inclined classmates from their Waldorf high school in upstate New York moved to New York City to pursue their creative careers. The married bandmates wanted to follow a less typical path, so seven years ago, when they were both 20 years old, they relocated to the Bay Area along with three bandmates from their art pop outfit, Yassou.
“This seemed like a much more manageable way to live in an urban environment. It’s smaller, it’s more beautiful, and it has that nature element — we really fell in love with it,” says Jackson.
But as costs of living began to skyrocket across the Bay Area, a more sobering reality set in. “We were pretty naive, as well," he continues. "Maybe in retrospect we would have gone to L.A. or stayed put. We don’t regret it, but we weren’t thinking it out financially. We were like, ‘Let’s move.’”
In the last fiscal year, the couple made $95,000 between the two of them, and they estimate that $5,000 of that is directly from their art. (In previous years, they've made up to a quarter of their earnings from music, but the number fluctuates depending on shows and commissions.)
On a recent afternoon, Jackson and Hoy recline on a leather sofa in the control room of a recording studio at Zoo Labs, the West Oakland music incubator where Yassou had a residency last September. Working in this studio, with its state-of-the-art mixer, speaker system, and collection of musical instruments, would ordinarily cost them nearly $1,000 for a 10-12 hour day. But because they’re alumni of Zoo Labs’ residency program, it’s free as long as they’re working on a long-term project. Today, Hoy and Jackson are fine-tuning a score for an indie rock ballet based on Mad Max: Fury Road, coming to the Chapel this September.
"We really like that sort of mash-up of classical with something more pop-oriented," says Hoy. "Something a little bit more emotionally raw yet accessible."
Jackson and Hoy’s band Yassou has had some big opportunities over the past few years; since releasing their a stunning music video EP in 2015, they opened for veteran indie rockers the National at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2016 and composed the score for the Louisville Ballet’s 2016 season opener.
But even as the bandmates fill their weekly calendar with prestigious projects — like their upcoming performance with a string quartet at a gala at Minnesota Street Project — the monetary payoff hasn’t been enough to for them to live off their music entirely.
Cutting Costs and Eliminating Distractions
“The dream is to buy a house off music someday and live off of it. But for now, I make most of my money at Outerlands,” says Hoy, referring to the upscale Outer Sunset restaurant where she bartends full time. She's the band's lead singer and handles most of the visuals, like the short film she directed to accompany their next EP.
“We definitely don’t live lavishly. We enjoy our lives, but to maintain that lifestyle strictly off music, we’d have to be really successful,” says Jackson.
He worked in food service til August, but quit to focus more time on Yassou. The band doesn't have a management team, so in addition to being the lead songwriter and producer, Jackson takes on many of the managerial tasks, like coordinating collaborators and handling PR. To make ends meet, he teaches private music production lessons to local students in the couple’s home base of Mill Valley for $50 an hour.
In search of more space to rehearse four years ago, Jackson and Hoy moved from a one-bedroom apartment with roommates in San Francisco to a cottage in Mill Valley, the Marin County town about 15 miles north of the city. Rent is $1,900 a month, but they have a two-bedroom apartment to themselves, with a basement large enough for their entire band to rehearse. There's enough distance from their neighbors to avoid noise complaints, something that wouldn’t have been feasible had they stayed in San Francisco.
Mill Valley, a mostly quiet, family-oriented town, doesn’t have nearly as many distractions for two twenty-somethings as San Francisco does, either, which helps the band stay productive and cut costs. “Staying home as much as possible, you get more work done that way,” says Hoy. “There’s not much temptation in the form of nightlife.”
Staying True to Their Creative Vision
The financial aspect of playing with a full band (and, in their recent performances, a string ensemble) comes with challenges, but Jackson and Hoy are uncompromising in their vision of performing with live instrumentalists.
“It’s always been, for me, a huge part of our identity,” says Hoy. “Some of my favorite ways to create music is having the input of so many different people with such different tastes and backgrounds. It’s that as well as their own commitment to be a part of the project. We all have to be a bit in love with it to keep doing it. It becomes like a chosen family.”
One of the major difficulties is scheduling. With Hoy’s full-time job at Outerlands, Jackson’s teaching gigs, and the other bandmates’ various day jobs, Yassou only have one day a week to get together — which is usually on Mondays, when they go to Zoo Labs. “It takes like five times as long” to complete projects, says Jackson, adding that many of their collaborators donate their time.
“It’s no one’s fault, but it’s difficult to collaborate if there’s not much money involved," he says. "These other people have to survive; they’re gigging or they’re teaching. Everyone’s hustling really hard, so unless you can supply them with something it’s hard for them to give their time.”
“We’re all sort of in this for the dream of being in a band,” says Hoy. “[Our bandmates] moved out here with us for that reason, not to make money.”
Yassou split the money they make from their gigs among all five bandmates, and sometimes additional musicians. The band has received generous compensation for some of their projects, but because Jackson and Hoy prioritize paying everyone else before paying themselves, their take-home pay is often scant. The Louisville Ballet, for instance, paid the band $15,000 for their commission. But most of the money went into travel, a former bandmate's fee for helping score the string arrangement, paying the other musicians, and taxes.
“That was a big learning curve,” says Jackson. “When you think of that $15,000 — I knew about taxes, but you’re used to getting a paycheck where it’s already all taken out. But everything we put aside from that commission got eaten up by taxes the next year.”
The opening gig for the National at the Mass MoCA, one of Yassou’s most high-profile performances, paid $1,000. But the entire fee went into flying out Hoy and Jackson’s bandmates for the show. The band stayed at Hoy’s mother’s house to save money on accommodations. While on the East Coast, they booked a “warm-up” show in their hometown of Hudson, New York to offset some of the costs of the trip.
"Financially, it's not feasible. It's the reason we don't tour," says Jackson. "Before, to be successful, you'd just get in a van and drive around the country for two years. Now we can't do that with this many people."
Jackson and Hoy realize that trying to make it as musicians is a risky proposition in such a cost-prohibitive region with little music industry infrastructure. But they say that their creative community is what keeps them rooted in the Bay Area. As Jackson says, “If we didn’t have the spot where we live, places like Zoo Labs, and our small group of collaborators — who are so generous and such a big part of what we do — then we could have been gone a long time ago for sure."