The Business of Creative Careers: Paul and Storm, Musicians and Impresarios

I have been a Paul and Storm fan for years. Paul Sabourin and Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo sing smart, funny songs that are often geek-themed but are, just as often, parodies of music itself. Prior to becoming Paul and Storm, they sang as part of Da Vinci’s Notebook, an a cappella comedy group that recently had a song featured in Despicable Me 2.

Paul and Storm are also self-described impresarios (though I was going to use that word even if they hadn’t); they continually bring together musicians, comedians, and artists to create events like the music-and-comedy festival w00tstock and my favorite thing in the world, the JoCo Cruise.

So I was super-excited when they agreed to talk to The Billfold about their careers.

ND: When you all started out, and I’m assuming the beginning was the Da Vinci’s Notebook days, how did you look at music and money? Did you think “this is going to be my full-time job,” “this is going to be my 20 percent job,” or “I’m just going to see what happens?”

Storm: It was a weird transition. It had been a hobby that had started making money, and then it got to the point where we had to choose. The demands of what we were doing were taking us away from our jobs so much that we had to choose whether to take the risk of doing the creative thing, or potentially losing our jobs anyway because we were taking so much time off.

Paul: It was a slow evolution over, I’d say, about four or five years; from being a hobby or a pick-up group to becoming a little side thing and then a part-time job and then a second full-time job. Neither of us started out at the beginning saying “oh, we totally want to be musicians for a living.” It was a slow evolution over time, until the point where we looked up and said “it makes more sense.” We’re making money in Da Vinci’s Notebook, and it makes more sense for our collective sanity to leave our day jobs.

At that point, were you making as much money in Da Vinci’s Notebook as you were in your other jobs, or did you take a pay cut?

Storm: We definitely took a substantial salary cut, but at the time it seemed like the kind of opportunity we wouldn’t have again.

Paul: Also, all of us in Da Vinci’s Notebook were in a lucky position in that we had spouses who worked full-time. Only a couple of us had kids. It was such that nobody had to risk their health and home in order to do it.

Storm: And on top of that, we were young enough that we could say “okay, we can try this for a year,” and it could become clear that this is not going to work, and it would be easy for us to pick right back up where we were with the things we were doing.

Paul: We sort of backed into it, because usually you hear the story of the kid who knew he wanted to be a musician since the time he was 9, and Mom and Dad bought him his first real six-string at the five-and-dime. We were doing it because we loved singing, and we had sung a capella in college, and we found each other and enjoyed doing it together, so we just kept doing it. The job part snuck up on us. The “doing music for a living” aspect snuck up on us. It was the result of doing a thing that we enjoyed, and doing well enough at it that it started bringing in money and jobs.

We were never all hungry, like “Man, we can’t wait to be full-time musicians and drop these jive square day jobs!”

Storm: We’re accidental professional musicians. It shows in our work ethic.

So when you transitioned into “Paul and Storm,” what financial lessons were you able to take with you? Was it easier to do Paul and Storm since you had already done Da Vinci’s Notebook?

Storm: Fear is a great motivator.

Paul: This is true. This is very true.

Storm: We very much did not want to go back to the standard world, and we knew that there was a limited amount of time where we could capitalize on the fact that people even knew who we still were. It was very hard, because we didn’t want to just take what Da Vinci’s was doing and do it with two people. We did have to build something else.

Paul: We didn’t want to just sing the Da Vinci’s Notebook library. We started from scratch, basically. Because of that, there were a number of pretty fallow years where we would do “side work.” Since 1999, when we all quit our jobs, I’ve always put “musician” on the tax return, but it’s not like we’ve never done anything else. There certainly were times when we said “we have to find some other work to get us through this period while we’re re-establishing ourselves.”

We could have toured 300 days a year and slept on floors and eaten ramen, but we were both guys in our mid-30s at that point, and both of us were married, and I had two kids. We knew we had to go about it a bit more responsibly. We were no longer the 20-something guys who were free to try things and make mistakes and go down some paths that might not be quite so financially rewarding.

Storm: We also had partners in our lives who were willing to —

Paul: Put up with us.

Storm: They knew it would take time to re-establish ourselves, so it was sort of going through that process again, of saying “okay, let’s see how this goes.”

Paul: When we get asked the question about what you would say to a young person who wants to go into music, I’ve always said things like “follow your passion, do the thing that you love, and one way or another it will come around and work out for you,” but I always follow that up with “but that doesn’t mean you will become famous or wealthy or even make a living doing the thing that you love.” You still have to find a way to eat, and you can’t shirk your other responsibilities.

Compromise is a very weighted word, because it implies that you are giving up on your dreams, and it’s not exactly that. The compromises we made were never about turning our backs on our art. We were compromising to find ways we could still practice our art and not have our spouses divorce us.

I remember you talking about that on your podcast, how you had other jobs — and I really appreciated hearing that, actually.

Paul: I think what I’m trying to get at is “these are the choices you have to make, no matter how you make them.” Our Da Vinci’s Notebook tours were four or five days, across weekends. It maybe slowed us down professionally from where we might have gotten if we had been working a steady full-time pace, but that was the choice we made.

Storm: Which is all to say that we were able to find ways to ramp ourselves up and do our thing — and other people can too. And you can do it without sinking a bunch of money into it. If you have a creative project that people are interested in, there are ways to get that out there that are not expensive. Once you get a sense that you have a fair number of people interested in what you’re doing, it makes it less of a risk if you want to invest cash in making videos, revamping your website, buying art supplies, whatever you’re doing.

At some point you went from “two guys and a guitar” to “two guys and a w00tstock” and “two guys and a cruise ship.” What was the learning curve on hosting a nerd music festival and a cruise?

Storm: Our story is consistent. We backed into it. Everything we’ve ever done, we just backed into it.

Paul: Our memoir will be “Paul and Storm: Living Life in Reverse.”

Storm: But that’s kind of a good thing, because it wasn’t “we have to be this” and chasing it down. It’s more “here’s what we’re good at, and here’s what people are responding to, and here’s this opportunity.” W00tstock, you could say, was the start of our newest career as impresarios and event producers. We were doing these gigs with all these different people, and we weren’t intending to create a concert series, we were just doing things that seemed cool.

Paul: And after spending so many years doing shows, and having pretty good business heads on our shoulders, and seeing how other festivals work, you can do the math and figure out how to do it without losing your shirt. We saw other people doing these things and thought “we can probably do one of these ourselves!” We did the first few, and they went well, and we learned along the way, and w00tstock is in its seventh year now.

Storm: It does help that we had professional backgrounds. We had financial experience, document preparation experience, graphics experience, all of these things that, at the time we were doing them, might have been for a job or something that was a drag to do. Then, suddenly, when you have a cruise or a concert series to run, you can pull on those experiences, and you’re very glad that you were in a cubicle for some time learning Photoshop or whatever it was.

Paul: We also made connections with people who were very good at what they do. It felt like dominoes toppling, around the time that w00tstock started. When we thought of the idea, we thought of how many people we knew who could participate, and knew it was a viable thing. It wasn’t “We should throw a festival! Who should perform at it?”

It’s not like you should live your life trying to find other people you can use —

Storm: In fact, you shouldn’t, and if you’re working the right way, you don’t even notice you’re doing it. The whole reason we started traveling with Jonathan Coulton was that we were looking for someone to do a gig with us, in New York, and Paul came across Jonathan on one of John Hodgman’s recordings, and we thought “he sounds like a cool person to do a gig with,” and he agreed. It was just natural from there.

Paul: The cruise worked in a similar manner. Both we and Jonathan had the same booking agent, and this agent had been suggesting for a while that we do a cruise, and we had been resisting it. But finally things came together and we had a travel agent who helped run the first one, and we had a great time. We also realized that, having done the first one, we could probably run our own. We had enough experience and heads on our shoulders that we made the choice to try and run it ourselves — us, and Jonathan, and Jonathan’s assistant/business manager Drew [Westphal], who became our fourth partner.

So it worked because we had the desire to do something like that, but we also had experience and had been paying attention for all these years previously.

Storm: We have many good heads on our shoulders and they all wear a lot of hats.

Do you do the business and accounting work yourselves, or do you have a back-end team?

Storm: We do it. We both have experience in bookkeeping and finance, and that’s an advantage we have that most people don’t — but the simple money in vs. money out, if you focus on it you can figure that out, and it’s critical. Money isn’t the primary driver of what we do, but it’s absolutely essential to manage it well to continue doing what we want to do.

What surprised you about earning money in a creative career?

Storm: The first time we got paid it was amazing. The idea that someone would pay you for doing the thing you want to do. There are still those moments when you collect your pay for something you had fun doing, and you say “Wow. This is honestly the best job in the world.”

Paul: I can’t really add much to that. I would always be creative for free, and I would always have music in my life for free — which is not to say that I would do what I am doing right now for free — but I can’t think of a thing I would enjoy more than doing the stuff that we’re doing.

Photo credit: Thrilling Adventure Hour/Maarten deBoer