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Greenville Business Magazine

Restaurants to Chiropractic Offices, Musicians Find Creative Ways To Pay The Bills

By Donna Isbell Walker
Photo by William Armonaitis

As Ringo Starr sang, “You’ve got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues.” Musicians know that fact all too well – and not just the ones who play the blues.

Greenville’s Andrew Oliver is a successful musician and business owner now, performing with his brother Stephen in the psychedelic folk-rock duo Brother Oliver.

But a few years ago, Oliver was rolling sushi for a grocery store to pay the bills while playing gigs into the wee hours. 

“I’d get up at 4 in the morning because we’d have to be there at 5 in the morning,” Oliver recalled. “I would do that six days a week, and what that did was free up my afternoons and evenings, but it was brutal on those late-night shows. We’d play in Atlanta, and I remember multiple times, I’d drive through the night, right to the store and start rolling sushi with no sleep.” 

That’s the way it is for many musicians, working a dull day job to support themselves and build a music career one gig at a time, night after night after night.

Columbia jazz trumpeter Mark Rapp has walked that path many times over two decades in music. Early on, he waited tables while studying music in New Orleans. He lived in New York and supported himself with temp work, then taught himself computer programming and website development, two skills that still serve him well. 

In the Big Apple, Rapp took a lucrative day job in website development where “I’d work a full-time Monday through Friday job, practice on my lunch breaks, and then play gigs on the weekends and at night. I did that for 6½ years.”

It was exhausting but fun, Rapp said. 

“I went through a long stint of doing this really late night club gig on Thursday nights. It was the type of gig where you don’t start playing until 1 a.m. So, I’d get home at 5 a.m., sleep for three hours, and then go to work. Those Fridays, whew, those Fridays were hard,” Rapp said.

Blues-rocker Eric Weiler adjusts spines by day, gets fans moving on the dance floor by night – or at least, he did before the pandemic. Weiler is a chiropractor who performs with the Eric Weiler Group and the trio J-E-T.

These days, thanks to Covid-19, Weiler only plays venues that follow CDC safety guidelines, but pre-shutdown he played more than 120 shows a year with his two bands. They ventured out of the Upstate, playing as far away as Florida, and the 2020 calendar was filling up fast when the shutdown hit. They had to cancel shows around the region.

The pandemic has amplified the struggle for many artists. With few options to play, it’s harder to connect with fans, and tougher to create new ones. Many artists have livestreamed shows from their living rooms, getting their music out to fans and, with any luck, inspiring them to buy the songs online.

Back in the spring, Weiler and his bandmates turned his house into a recording studio and cut demos for several original songs. They also livestreamed shows, inviting special guests, including blues singer Wanda Johnson and Cravin’ Melon’s Jimbo Chapman.

Covid-19 has infected seemingly every sector of the music industry. Big festivals, including Bonnaroo and Coachella, were postponed until 2021, and Ticketmaster announced that it’s looking into ways to make concerts safer once shows get back on the road.

Music venues have been forced to close temporarily, or adapt to safety guidelines by limiting seating capacity or moving shows outdoors. The National Independent Venue Association has formed a nonprofit foundation to help venues and promoters with fundraising efforts to keep them afloat.

The pandemic “crushed all of us,” said Rapp, who is also executive director of the ColaJazz Foundation. He had to go on unemployment earlier this year.

“It’s a very real thing that affected all of us,” Rapp said. “I was playing gigs three, four, five times a week, teaching lessons, and all that was canceled. I did not immediately go on unemployment. We had a good savings that could float us for a while, but after three months, and it’s not going anywhere, things are not improving, I had to bite the bullet and go on unemployment, which was a saving grace. It really helped out. I also took on a couple of web jobs to supplement it. So, it’s been tough.”

For Greenville electronic dance music artist Curtis Smith, who performs as Scary Poppins, working as a cook at a local restaurant is a good fit as he develops his sound and builds his fan base. 

Smith, who recently played the Of the Werewolves music festival in Virginia, finds that his restaurant job gives him plenty of time to work on his tracks, as he’s usually off by 11 p.m. That’s especially true now, with few opportunities to play live shows.

Smith, whose music falls into the dubstep subgenre of EDM, is teaching himself music theory and production online. 

Unlike some artists, who have a financial goal in mind when deciding when to quit the day job, Smith is looking to a creative goal.

“I don’t really have a time stamp for it, but I’ve got an idea of when I’m going to step out of a day job and just go to full-time production, but that’s at least four years from now,” Smith said. “Finances can always be worked around … but it’s more based around skill.”

While the shutdown has been difficult financially for musicians, many have found unexpected creative inspiration during the quarantine.

Charleston’s Pierce Alexander and his band haven’t performed since March, though he’s done some solo livestreams. The group was set to play an outdoor show in Charleston in November, but it was canceled because of the weather. He’s hoping to reschedule the show for January.

Early in the shutdown, Alexander couldn’t play live shows, and his other main gig, teaching music lessons, started to dry up. But he discovered a silver lining.

“During the quarantine when I wasn’t working, I would write a song every day for a month,” Alexander said. “I never felt like I ran out of inspiration.”

Weiler also sees the positive side in how Covid-19 has affected his music career.

“We’ve been able to step back, recollect, reassess, do some recording, and kind of game-plan better for when this does end and things do get back to normal,” Weiler said. “I think it gives us the ability to where we’re going to gain more traction than we had before. When you’re playing a lot of shows all the time, and it’s day job, shows, day job, shows, it gets to the point where you’re like, ‘We need to step back and figure out and plan things.’ Well, this forced us to.” 

Smith, too, has had to deal with career changes during the pandemic. Now, networking and marketing are conducted online, rather than going out and meeting DJs and fans at shows. 

It was especially tough when both restaurants and music venues were closed, and he couldn’t work or perform. For Smith, it’s better socially and creatively to have the day job to focus on.

“Being able to work and talk with people and socialize keeps my head space where it should be,” Smith said. “Instead of me being in my own head and just being manic and depressive and not focusing on music. It’s another outlet to give me creative space.”

Oliver is fortunate that he has two businesses to fall back on. He owns Forthright Records, a record label and marketing company, as well as WAVS, a company that makes customized audio products for musicians. His brother Stephen works with him at Forthright and has a day job as a bank teller. 

It’s been an unusual year for the duo, which finished a three-year touring cycle and was settling in for a long-planned break when the pandemic hit in March.

“When you’re touring heavily, it’s definitely hard” to blend the day job with the music, Oliver said. “Previously, that was our full-time gig, playing shows. As far as performing the music live, we’ve taken a different kind of position, that we’re really focusing on just the larger shows, larger ticketed events …  as opposed to just playing anywhere and everywhere under the sun. We like to play, but with scheduling, you can only do so much in a day. That’s a pivot we were planning to make going into this year.”

If not for Covid-19, the two would be back onstage on a regular basis. Brother Oliver has played one live show since March, but Andrew Oliver says they’re trying to be patient and wait for things to reopen. In the meantime, they’re releasing a three-song EP in December.

Although finding success in music is challenging, many artists wouldn’t have it any other way.

Asked whether he considers himself a chiropractor who plays music or a musician who works as a chiropractor, Weiler said, “At this point, I don’t know if I can separate the two.”

That’s partly because when Weiler moved to Greenville to open his practice 12 years ago, he found music helped him connect with people and make friends. 

He hung out at Downtown Alive on Thursdays, played open mics and went to music venues all around town. He jammed with other musicians and found that Greenville felt like home.

Music and chiropractic don’t seem to have much in common, but Weiler said the common ground between the two is less about influence and more about structure. 

“I think they both make me very good at time management,” he said. “Obviously, I want (at the office) successful outcomes, people to be happy with their treatment and feel good about what we do for them, and I think that applies to music, too. You want people to come to your show, have fun, be happy about the experience.”

Rapp can see the alignment between website development and the art of music. 

“Web development has a lot of similarities to being a trumpet player,” Rapp said. “It’s very precise work, it’s very methodical. So, there was some enjoyment I was getting out of creating websites.”

Despite 2020’s upheavals, Oliver is striving to find balance in his creative and work lives. 

“You never really have a perfect balance. In my experience, everything’s moving,” Oliver said. “You’re always juggling, and constantly, you’ll lean really heavy into one thing for a while, and then you’ll have to pull back in the other direction for the other side of things. So, there’s always a back-and-forth. It teeters, but you never fall over if you’re doing it right.” 

For Rapp, music is the centerpiece of his life, and nothing will change that, be it an exhausting schedule or a global pandemic.

“Music has always been my primary love and passion,” Rapp said. “I just can’t live without it. So, even when I was exhausted or whatever, I was still practicing during my lunch breaks and these kinds of things. I’m very consciously, particularly with web development, going into a job that allowed me the flexibility. Especially doing freelance, it’s a matter of getting the job done at a certain deadline, so I can work at any time.”