Talking to Seth Boyer About Burgerwave Music and Living on $12,000

Seth Boyer knows more musical terms than I do, and he’s tagged his music as “indie folk” as well as “skypunk” and “burgerwave.” He’s been the Weather on Welcome to Night Vale, which should also count as a musical genre. Most recently, he was part of Space Weird Thing, the sweded version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity that was featured on the AV Club, XKCD, and Bowie’s own website.

Boyer is also a friend of mine, and we recently did a show together, but I set up this interview before that, after we spent an afternoon playing mini golf and talking about how to make money as creative freelancers. When he told me his income, I said “okay, now I’m interviewing you for sure.”

When you got started as a musician, how many of the financial aspects did you consider? Did you think “I’m going to do what I love and the money will show up,” or did you have a plan for the money before you started?

I’ve played music my whole life, all through my childhood. It was really my focus through high school, and then when it came time for college and “serious career opportunities,” I bought the line I was told that you can’t make a living playing music.

It was 2006 at this point, pre-YouTube being a big thing, pre-Kickstarter and Patreon and all of these revenue streams for creators, and it sounded like pretty sound advice. So I stopped playing music for a while.

I picked music up again, kind of to fill a void in my soul, and started playing around town. This was back when I was living in Anchorage. It started bringing in a little bit of money, and I started playing with and accompanying Marian Call, another independent musician, and that helped supplement my income too.

Then, a year ago last December, I moved to Seattle. I sold most of what I owned and saved up a fair amount of money as a cushion, and started playing and writing music full-time, and recording and all of that. The consideration that went into the business side of it was “making sure I had enough money to pay for rent for three or four months.” That was if nothing came in, but then things started coming in.

It’s not riches and glory, but that was never the goal. There were temperate expectations and a little bit of preparation and planning.

So what’s the goal, then, if not riches and glory?

The end goal is to live long enough to watch capitalism be dismantled so I can continue to make art and take care of the regrettable physical necessities like eating and shelter.

Barring that, to take care of the food and shelter with the art that I’m creating. To me, that’s to a large degree the reason why I’m here and why I’m doing things. Not just here in Seattle, but in an existential sense.

I’m struck by how similar your goal is to anyone’s goal, really. You want to be a musician, and you want to be a musician next year too, and you want to feed and take care of yourself.

If you were listening to someone else, and they said “well, I’m a teacher or a dentist or a sales representative, and I want to keep doing this thing next year, and I want to earn enough to support myself and my family,” that’s reasonable. It’s not different. And yet being a musician or a creative person, there’s this stank of difference all over it.

Yeah, there’s a stigma. And it’s this weird double-edged sword, because on the one hand people are all “that’s so wonderful, good for you, you’re pursuing your dream.” That’s something we’re bludgeoned with as young people, the whole “you can do anything you want in the world, you just have to put your mind to it.” Then by the time you hit 18, they’re all “But not that, that’s not tenable.”

It’s unfortunate that this does seem to be the reaction and there does seem to be a double standard when it comes to creative endeavors as viable pursuits in our society. Luckily, the people in my life tend to be really supportive and understanding. And the people who weren’t, they’re not in my life anymore, so it tends to work out.

In terms of income and cost of living, is it easier to do music in Seattle than it was in Anchorage?

Cost of living is actually a little less in Seattle, despite skyrocketing rents in the city proper. Things like a gallon of milk or a gallon of gas are much more expensive in Alaska, despite the fact that the gas is coming from Alaska.

The real market reality, the big difference maker, is airfare. If I wanted to fly somewhere to play a show, it’s a lot cheaper to do it from Seattle than it is from Anchorage. If you’re flying from Anchorage, odds are you have to transfer in Seattle anyway, which made it a logical next port of call for me.

So how much do you need to make to keep yourself going? When we were talking about this at Smash Putt, you said the number was surprisingly low.

Yeah, and it can scare people sometimes. Generally speaking, my rent is $475 or so, with a little bit extra for utilities. I have a sizeable internet bill, because Comcast. Recently, I’ve picked up some side employment because I’m out of student loan deferments for the loans I got during my attempt at college. That’s the most harmful of my bills, in terms of there being no recourse. It’s one of those things that you have to take care of, unless you choose to default.

We were just talking about that on The Billfold! That New York Times guy who was all “Yeah, I defaulted, it was the best thing I ever did.”

It’s been tough. There are huge swaths of the country — my entire generation, frankly — and I can see a large percentage of them being in the same boat. They’re going to have to default on their loans because of skyrocketing tuition costs and there being no relief. Student loan debt is the one type of debt you can’t declare bankruptcy on, for seemingly arbitrary reasons.

Last year I probably cleared between $12–14 grand, and that was totally fine. I was for the most part comfortable, and not scrambling too much. When you’re living that close to your baseline expenses, there’s not a huge cushion of savings, but I also don’t have a car, so I don’t have the equivalent of a car breaking down.

I’m lucky enough to be on Medicaid based on my income. For a while, I was on food assistance. That was really helpful because it made sure I was able to afford vegetables and occasionally meat for my ramen, and it left me with enough money to get a pint of Ranier or Olympia at the end of the day.

When you get into creative endeavors that don’t cost that much — my last two records have been produced in my living room studio — your overhead gets really, really low. That helps a lot.

Do you also try to sell T-shirts or things like that?

I don’t truck with physical media. It’s too expensive, and it has a large up-front cost. Every once in a while, like when I go on tour with Marian Call, it’s nice to have physical copies of my music. Some audiences still want that physical music, although most of my audience tends to buy digital.

I did a small, limited run of cassette tapes for the full-length record that I released last year, Half Lonely. It was a limited run because the demand for cassette tapes is … niche. But I love cassette tapes. They have this fantastic grit and sturdiness to them that I miss. It’s probably a nostalgia thing.

I’m assuming that you don’t have, say, a long-term retirement plan.

No. I’m 27, and I’m still on the tail end of thinking I’m somewhat invincible. I’m lucky enough to be able-bodied, and mostly of sound mind.

So I’m not thinking too much about the future. I don’t have a 5 or 10-year plan. I’m just taking things as they come.

I’m living outside of the credit system, which is something I’m able to do because my income comes from freelancing work and [crowdsourced] donations. Because of that, and because I have meager goals when it comes to physical goods or living situations, I’m perfectly content in a small apartment, I don’t intend to buy a house or a new car or anything that requires credit. So that’s not a thing that I need, or a system I wish to live under.

But yeah, at a certain point I’ll get too old or too beat down to continue at the clip I’ve been doing. Still, no plan as of yet.

I don’t have a plan either! I have an old 403(b) that I got at an office job, and I’m thinking “Yeah! That’ll take care of me forever!”

I am in the Public Employees’ Retirement System for the state of Alaska, because I worked for the state for a while, and I was grandfathered in before they gutted it and said “here’s a 401(k), best of luck.” So it’s an actual pension.

I didn’t work there long enough for it to be vested, and there’s not enough in there right now for me to retire on, but that’s always a backup plan since I’m grandfathered into an actual pension plan.

So Patreon. Have you found that to be successful? Are you glad that you signed up?

Patreon has been wonderful for me. It fits my release schedule pretty well, since I want to be constantly putting out new music. The nature of creating anything in an online space leads to this “what have you made for me lately,” and that can be really frustrating, and it can also be self-imposed. I can’t give myself two months to be proud of a thing that I’ve completed; I need to immediately move on to the next thing.

So Patreon is this consistent form of income that is rapidly approaching “paying my rent” levels, which is the point at which I will feel truly comfortable, having that big symbolic and real chunk of my expenses covered by one thing. It’ll be the closest I get to a normal paycheck.

It’s also a really nice kick in the ass. It’s the “you need to finish a thing this month because people are expecting it and are willing to pay for it.” That’s been really, really fantastic. Obviously I want to create all the time, but now I can’t practice complacency. I have to make things on a consistent basis.

Last question. If someone reading this wanted to become a musician, or do something creative, or quit their job and do a passion project, what advice would you have?

This was something that, literally 10 minutes ago, Molly Lewis and I were talking about. For me, my favorite art in any medium is always something that it’s made clear that someone is making because it’s a passion project. Because it’s something they love and something that they want to see in the world.

A mostly random series of events could unfold to make it so that someone else also enjoys this thing you’ve made and is willing to pay for it and support your livelihood. That’s certainly not a thing to count on. But if there’s something that you wish to make, don’t wait until you’re in a position to focus on it full-time.

For me, working a full-time job and being a musician in my off hours was really good and really exhausting, and it was something I was able to keep up for about a year before I was like “no, I need to dedicate more of my time during the week to music, and I need to find a way to make it commercially viable so I can continue to live.”

But I don’t want to tell people to jump in head-first with no savings and just go full time into whatever you have. It’s totally viable to start slow and ramp up into something that you’re investing all of your time in, and relying on as your primary source of income and means of survival.

Seth Boyer is currently working on his first studio album. If you’re interested, you can learn more at his Kickstarter.