Nika Roza Danilova has been recording and performing as Zola Jesus for more than a decade. As a classically trained opera singer with a penchant for noisy, avant-garde sounds, she launched her career with a series of lo-fi releases that pitted her soaring vocals against harsh industrial clatter and jittery synths. Her work became more hi-fi as she began to explore her own skewed vision of pop music on releases like Stridulum, Valusia, and Conatus. That era culminated in the release of Versions, a collection of string quartet interpretations of her most beloved work, conducted by J.G. Thirlwell (Foetus). That album and subsequent tour were followed by her most hi-fi outing to date, Taiga. In 2017 she returned to both the Wisconsin woods in which she was raised and her longtime label, Sacred Bones Records, to release Okovi, her darkest album yet. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon.
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 Leron Thomas.
What’s the best way to make a living as a musician?
Be really good at budgeting money. Don’t live in an expensive city. Don’t get too comfortable.
What’s the hardest part about making a living as a musician, as you’ve experienced it? How can you avoid that trouble?
The instability. It’s feast or famine. It’s important to understand that every good year comes with three bad ones, financially speaking. Don’t take anything for granted. Plan accordingly. Work smart. Work hard.
Do you think using social media—Instagram, Twitter—helps with sustainability?
Yes. Social media is the watering hole of our culture. For better or worse, it’s where we congregate. Also, having access to the public directly gives us autonomy and control over our art. No longer do we need to rely on some Big Joseph from Shareholders Inc to get our message out and speak up.
Where are there opportunities for making money in the music industry currently?
On a practical level, hope that your music gets played in a movie or TV show. It will help to pay the bills, especially at times when you have no active income. I’m starting to learn something else though. I think when we talk about “making money,” our ideas have to come from something capitalistic… like a sponsorship, or a record deal, or whatever fantasy of being a rich rock star yields. But really, instead of focusing on making money by selling what you do, we should focus on making connections. Fostering the relationship between you, your music, and the people who like your music. Find a community. Respect it. Once you have that, turn to it. The community can sustain you, if you let it. Forget the Apple advertisement or sponsorship or whatever else you think you might need to be a working musician in late-stage capitalism. Turn to people. Mutual fucking aid.
How important has Patreon been for your sustainability? Why do you think it’s been so successful?
Here I will repeat myself from what I said above. But, Patreon allows me to sleep at night. It has been amazing to experience the generosity of a community. I never thought about being able to be supported in this way. Before I started my Patreon, it always felt like I was forced to figure out how to package what I did as a thing to sell, and I hated it. I can’t think about my music in that way. But instead I realized, I could figure out how to change how I made money from my music. This way, I don’t need to change what I do. I just go directly to the people who my music is for, and they can all come together and support it, if they can.
How important is it to develop a digital audience for you work?
Well, I live in northern Wisconsin, so my regional audience is pretty sparse. “Digital audience” really just means audience. When you make a thing, especially a weird thing, you’re only going to find so many “matches.” That is to say, “people who get what you’re doing and like it.” These days, it’s pretty convenient to be able to have access to nearly an entire world of potential “matches.” So, while I tour as much as I can, there are only so many places I can go in order to evangelize my work. For everywhere else, I am grateful for the possibility that I could find a match of someone in some far-flung place that could never stumble upon my show. Having that channel open for us to find each other is vital.
How important is merch to making a living?
I’m horrible at merch, so hopefully it’s not super important and I’m not missing the point on all of it. For some people it’s huge I think, or so says the legend.
Is it possible to make money as a musician through streaming? How much is reasonable to expect?
Ha. Some say yes, some say no. It’s possible to make money, but not enough to live on. I would never count on it. You’re basically being paid micro amounts for each listen that could one day add up to the actual amount of the purchase of one record.
How should someone just getting started wade into the streaming waters?
I’d like to know as well. I guess getting on playlists is important? But I’m cynical about it. About all of it. Sorry, that’s not helpful! The one thing I can recommend is to use sites like Bandcamp, which puts musicians in the front seat with their music.