Anyone can make and distribute music for the world to consume. Artists no longer need a Capitol Records or a Scooter Braun. In 2010, Damon Albarn, co-creator of popular virtual band the Gorillaz, created an entire album on iOS apps.
If you love music, you can do it on your own. But curating music and putting it out on the web is an entirely different ballgame than building yourself from the ground up in a saturated music-entertainment business.
If you don’t enjoy the grind, you can’t enjoy your passion. For those who have the will to create a lifestyle they love on their own terms, their life is a constant struggle to intertwine their reality with their romanticism.
Anthony Obi was in Arizona for the Tucson Hip-Hop Festival. Under his stage name Fat Tony, he did a DJ set from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. at Club Congress. Two days later he performed at the festival’s after-party. After that, he hopped on a plane and goes to his next gig in another state. Rinse and repeat.
“I’ve had a flight every week this month, this morning I put out a new song. I’m a publicist for another artist, I’ve handled his record, at the same time I’m pitching my own music,” Obi says, listing his myriad of responsibilities. “I’m in another band called Charge It To The Game, I’m dealing with our new album that’s coming out… I’m constantly doing something. Constantly out of town. Constantly working.”
The relentless seek-and-destroy for work has been Obi’s job for around a decade. Now 30 years old, he got his feet wet in the entertainment industry when he was a 15-year-old high schooler in Houston. Involved in the grime-core and punk scene of his area, Obi began booking shows. The first show he ever put on was for The Ergs!, a band that would end up playing an influential role in the punk genre.
“I remember being into this band called Minor Threat. I watched an interview with the singer, and they were talking about how they book their own shows, started their own record label, really DIY with their business,” Obi says. “I remember the exact moment watching that video clip and being like, ‘Damn, this dude is my age right now and he’s doing what I want to do, and what I thought I needed help to do.’”
From an early he age he wanted to learn as much as possible: how to engineer his own music, production, promoting shows. “I think that really helped me sell myself to other people that wanted to invest in me.”
And because of the work that he put in from a young age, people did end up investing in him. A record label that was under the parent company Partisan called Young Ones signed Obi and he put out two records under them.
“That is when the world first heard me. That’s the first time I got lots of press, being on Pitchfork and NPR,” he explained. “I did a DIY tour before that record deal. After that, I’ve gone on countless tours and been able to, y’know, change my life.”
But the album that he put out on his own before the deal, titled RABDARGAB, is what got his start locally in his home of Houston. With his boots on the ground, Obi worked the record around in Brooklyn, where he first started meeting people in the industry that had interest in him.
He was able to do this it without a backing support by working part time jobs, paying his friends to help him record, booking his own shows and marketing himself on the internet and in person.
“Pretty much since I signed that record deal in 2011, I’ve only worked in entertainment,” he says. “Being a writer, being a musician, being an actor sometimes, being a promoter sometimes… that’s just what I do.”
Most artists live that way: doing a bunch of different things to make their income. “Everything that I do, if any one of them was my only job, I’d be super broke,” Obi explains. “I couldn’t pay my rent if I only got money from photo-shoots, or only got money from writing essays, or only got money from being a DJ. All that shit together is what keeps me alive.”
“For me, being a success means I get to do me for the rest of my life, and by that I mean take on jobs, take on projects that I’m interested in,” says Obi. “Things that fulfill me in some way that put food on the table for me and my family.” If it wasn’t for music, Obi says he “wouldn’t be anywhere.”
“I never left Texas until I made music. I was never on an airplane, I didn’t grow up rich at all. This is the best job that I’ve ever had, and I hope it continues to bring more opportunities to my life.”
For many (“quote-unquote,” as Obi put it) creatives, music has been a saving grace for the non-stellar aspects that life always throws at people. Mathew Murphy, professionally known as Snap Murphy, grew up with an abusive dad. His single mother raised him and his brothers who got in trouble around a gang culture. Growing up around a lifestyle where his siblings’ culture soaked into him, as an 8-year-old, Murphy wrote his first rap.
“My brothers were laughing and they liked the rap, it was like a way of me knowing I was accepted by my role models, my big brothers” Murphy says. “I’ve just always been into it.”
Murphy, now 33, has been paying his dues in the Las Vegas hip-hop scene since he was in high school. He would skip lunch and go to other schools to battle other rappers. “That’s how I made a name for myself, because I was battling everybody locally,” he explains.
Once he turned 21 he was able to integrate into the local Vegas scene. Playing shows on the strip, getting more connections with emcees and promoters, he was grinding himself into the public view. “I was working hard, I wanted people to know my name. I never gave up,” Murphy says.
But he cautioned that statement, warning of the façade that the rap persona puts out. “I think anyone who loves making hip-hop music and wants to make a living out of, they gotta realize that you’re not gonna make a lot of money.” Audiences see big projects with illustrious names and they think the artists are eating well. “Meanwhile I’m just a starving artist with a few bucks in his pocket barely scraping by to pay my bills.”
Those bills were the hardest when Murphy was about 24 years old. “I got engaged to my girlfriend of six years and three months later she broke up with me,” Murphy explains. “I came home, she quit her job, said she’s not in love with me and left the next day.” They were renting a condo together in an expensive part of town and too much money for Murphy to afford on his own.
“I got to this point where I started selling all of my DVD collection, all these things to pay my rent for the next 10 months.” He had just started working at a new job at a business called Legacy Sports Cards. The owner was going to close up shop.
“Now here I am trying to think about what am I going to do for work, I can’t afford my bills, and then my car breaks down,” Murphy says. “Then my mom told me she’s was going to have to have heart surgery.” He got together the little money he had from selling various items and fixed his car. Then his air conditioning broke. Right when the summer hit. In the desert of Las Vegas.
“I’m driving a car with no air conditioning, I’m in a job that could be closing down any given second, my mom needs surgery, I’m barely scraping by…” Murphy’s tone changes as he continued the sentence. “I came home one day and, being that I don’t have kids and felt like I didn’t have nobody, I didn’t really have friends… I had a gun, dude, and I thought about ending my life.”
Realizing the dark place he was in, Murphy sold the gun, knowing it didn’t need to be in his presence at that time. He took that gun money and bought the book The Secret and started applying it to how he was living. He got involved with the homeless community. Although he was still near his rock-bottom, he used it as a perspective changer.
“Even though all these things were happening there are people that have it worse than I did. I had the perspective of my life isn’t so bad and life isn’t so hard, I need to appreciate these things,” he explains. “Things started changing for the upside for me once my attitude changed. It’s those little changes that give yourself momentum for bigger things to happen in your life.”
Like Obi, the grind that Murphy put in by himself attracted people willing to invest in him. The owner of his job at Legacy Sports Cards, the same owner that was thinking of closing, ended up penning an investment deal with Murphy. At first there was no official contract.
“It was, ‘I love who you are as a person, and I want to help you,'” Murphy says. “It was a friend-to-friend type thing. I knew I had to make something out of it.” With a newfound energy, Murphy started grinding even more and that led to more press from local Las Vegas publications and audiences. His investor saw “how serious [he] was taking everything,” and wanted to make it legal.
Next thing Murphy knows, he is driving to Hollywood in the Bentley of a former Capital Records CFO to sit down in a high-rise building and going over the terms of his investment deal. “It’s better than a record deal because in a record deal you owe them money back. I don’t owe anything,” Murphy says passionately. “The only way the investor gets his money is if I make money in music. It’s a win-win.”
Murphy came into a place where he was going through tough times, but it fueled his passion to make a career with his music. “I was coming home after work and sat in my studio for eight hours by myself after an eight-hour shift of work for a year straight,” he says. “That work you put in… this universe will give it back to you.”
Murphy is now seeing his work being gifted back. After months of reaching out to the DJ of Vegas’ new NHL team, he got to hear his song being played in his city’s biggest arena.
“It’s realizing the sacrifices. Buy a small coffee instead of large, take that initial money and put it towards something that will benefit your music,” he says, offering advice he found so far on his journey. “It’s persistence. You gotta never give up. Once artists take their craft seriously, you gotta keep pushing, you gotta go for it because it’s not gonna come to you, y’know.”
Most artists along their journey are faced with that decision of whether to leave their current, cushiony circumstances to instead have their passion dictate their lives. Enquire García Naranjo, sometimes known as DJ Q, made that decision. “It was more on like a whim, man,” Naranjo says, “I felt like I had always been waiting to do art completely.”
Sitting on a couch, conversing with one of his mentors he brought up a simple question: “You think I should quit my job?”
“He was like, ‘yeah… yeah, you should!'” Naranjo says. His mentor gave him an Irish proverb along the lines of, “To make a leap of faith you have to trust that the ground will meet your foot.”
“After that it was more or less just figuring it out as I was going along.” He attributes two mentors in his life for giving him the tools to negotiate himself as an artist and being able to commodify the knowledge and skillset he’s built in the past.
Naranjo, 22, was a poet first. He’s done poetry workshops at summer camps, the University of Arizona and his old high school in Tucson. He’s been able to travel around because of poetry.
“I ended up winning like nine [slam poetry competitions] in a row,” he says, modestly listing his feats. “I competed in this All-City championship. I placed 2nd and won the next year. We got to compete at the Brave New Voices Poetry Festival in Berkeley. We were like the first team from Tucson to be accepted, to even apply, really.”
This was a part of Naranjo’s path of just writing for himself to being in front of an audience month-to-month for almost a year straight. After getting “burnt out” on performing, he shifted his energy into learning the craft of teaching poetry. It was around this time he got his first dose of intertwining writing and social justice when he attended a workshop on the school-to-prison-pipeline led by his two mentors. He ended up teaching the same workshop later on.
“A lot of what I come from, too, asides from art, is organizing,” says Naranjo. “So a lot of walk-outs, a lot of cultural events where we bring all elements that we like: hip-hop, mariachi, cumbia… dancing, reading, writing, talking, all that.”
The connections and relationships that Naranjo made in his path leading up to quitting his job opened opportunities to sustain himself and keep the lights on… sometimes.
Naranjo recalled the week leading up to the 2018 Tucson Hip-Hop Festival: “In that week, we had our lights cut off at the crib,” he says. “We had no access to the studio, we were sleeping with candles. We’d go rehearse and come home to the dark. It was just this real humbling thing, like, we can think we’re doing a cool thing but our lights are cut off, we can’t do shit,” Naranjo says with a laugh and smile.
The harsh, economic reality of living in the United States can catch up with anyone, especially artists not yet fully cemented in the professional machine.
“It goes back to sustainability, like what you’re going to do to fund a project,” Naranjo explains. “More or less, it’s like, what do I have to take care of in the ‘real world’ so I can do my music stuff? Aight, I’ma pay rent, pay utilities and then I need records to sample and equipment to use. That’s the reality.”
Naranjo, like Murphy, cautioned not to let the arbitrary materialism get in the way of the love of the craft that is usually the origin of pursuing a creative career. “In the reality of pursuing art under the circumstances of a capitalistic society, you really have to remind yourself why you do it,” he says.
“If it’s for healing, then you’ll follow that journey to become a human being. If it’s to sustain yourself, you’ll realize that journey is making connections and those networks. Your romanticism and reality should be hand in hand. You should have a vision of what you would like to reach and the things you know you’re capable of. It begins at the moment when you start thinking about it. If you can think it, you can feel it and manifest it.”
John Ricker is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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