Trumpeter, songwriter, rapper, and producer Leron Thomas is one of the principal players on Iggy Pop’s upcoming album, Free (September 6, Loma Vista/Caroline International). Thomas, also a member of Iggy’s touring band, releases music under the moniker Pan Amsterdam, a rapper who was found on the coast of Miami, Florida in a state of amnesia.
Editor’s note: This Creative Wisdom is part of our Music Industry Investigation. Visit the series page to find additional wisdom on the topic of making a living as a musician from Fat Tony and Zola Jesus.
What’s the best way to make a living as a musician?
This may come off very condescending, but I really feel that the best way to make a living as a musician is to really explore and execute your love for music and art itself and keep a healthy balance of openness for anything that may occur.
What’s the hardest part about making a living as a musician, as you’ve experienced it? How can you avoid that trouble?
For me it’s the lack of guarantee and stability. If you’re really onto something, there’s still no guarantee that you’ll receive gratification. This can give way to instability in finances, friendships, relationships, etc. This can really affect an artist, but usually a true artist can use this seemingly unfortunate mishap of manure as strong fertilizer for their garden of art. Whether they do it knowingly or unknowingly depends on the individual. It’s a combination of both for me on the “knowingly” and “unknowingly” thing.
Do you think using social media—Instagram, Twitter—helps with sustainability?
I always get a kick out of people who have a trillion followers and get a trillion likes on their Instagram posts and don’t really have sells. The funniest is paying for bots like nobody will notice you did that. I’ve done that goofy shit before, but like during early Myspace/YouTube days. Glad I learned from that mistake early. Social media is a tool, not a religion. For me it’s hard to create some good shit and appease A.I. and the algorithm wizards, at the same time. My stats indicate that my audience doesn’t really care to follow me on my social sites but loves to listen to and purchase the work. I ain’t comparing myself to these giants, but do you really think you would want to go home with Charlie Parker or Miles or Monk, and see what they’re doing every minute? You’re already getting the best of them through their work. I digress.
Where are there opportunities for making money in the music industry currently?
You tell me. Seriously… Well in my case, it’s been through publishing. Genuine people have come into my life and seen value in my work and I appreciate it deeply. It so happens that some of these genuine people are already a brand name. Through collaborations and publishing I’d say is where I’ve made the most bread. There’s sideman live performance for bigger acts type of work, also. But one has to know if that’s for them or not and weigh up the benefits. Again, this depends on the individual. Acknowledging people in your community helps big time as well, to generate income. If you’re lucky enough to get a write up of some sort, get to know that person’s work and if they will let you, get to know them. Community has its place—although difficult at times for an artist, they should make strides to wave at the people in the community who waved at them. One never knows what can occur from that.
How important is it to develop a digital audience for you work?
A digital audience is very important but, as I said, not as a high school popularity contest on Instagram or Facebook. Put your music where people can hear it and let them decide.
How important is merch to making a living?
I personally haven’t really explored that like I should. One time my rap alias Pan Amsterdam went on a tour of the UK. Our merch was just vinyls. And people were buying them. But the one time where I could see how important merch really was due to the massive following the headline act had. My label manager and I rolled out before anyone could buy anything because the headline act was so shit, and it was discouraging to watch them have such a big audience. But I was on another tour opening for Open Mike Eagle and would watch him make bank every night off of merch. He would have to order in more and more merch. I was on the phone cussing out my label manager for not shipping the vinyls over to Open Mike Eagle’s branch of joint dates. We could’ve made some serious bread because I was having good live shows and Open Mike Eagle’s audience was digging me. I hope that OME didn’t take our lack of preparation on the merch tip as a dis on his hustle because he inspired me to definitely have merch on the next tour.
Is it possible to make money as a musician through streaming? How much is reasonable to expect? How should someone just getting started wade into the streaming waters?
With reality shows comes the era of a bunch of people thinking they’re artists too, and so there’s a huge melting pot of music to sort through. Thus streams and streaming money is like finding water in a cactus in the desert unfortunately. I haven’t seen that much money from streams personally, as you don’t get that much per stream anyway. Maybe I see 20 bucks here and there every so many months. I think the best education I got from all of this is when I checked out Iggy Pop’s John Peel lecture on YouTube. For anybody starting out in this wilderness, I would say it’s essential that they check that out.