Portland, Oregon guitarist Tim Burke of A//tar and Hound the Wolves takes over this edition of Music and Money with some thoughtful reflections on band/life balance and the dumpster fire that is 2020. He focuses on doom outfit A//tar for this interview... Enjoy!
Tell our readers all about your band! Where are you from and when did you get started? What is your music like?
A//tar got started about five years ago in Portland, OR. Our music is for people that like the ying and the yang of heavy music. At one moment, we can be creating a deep atmosphere with clean melodies, the next thing you know, you are banging your head to riffs. We take some inspiration from Neurosis, sprinkle in some Amenra, with a pinch of Pink Floyd, and you are on the right track.
What are your goals for your band?
We started off just wanting to express ourselves through music. Just making and writing music is something that is very achievable these days, but I also wanted to share the music we created through live shows. There is something special about everyone gathering together as a social unit to see bands perform. The regulars all know each other and often have developed friendships over going to metal shows together. There were no specific goals for the band at the time other than play some shows and maybe record something down the road. But once you achieve that goal, then there is the question of what is next. I have personally always dreamed of getting to play at the prestige festivals like Psycho Las Vegas and Roadburn. Obviously those are lofty goals, but the only way you get there is by growing your art to the point where enough people are interested in what you are doing and industry insiders take notice. You don’t ask to play festivals like the two aforementioned, you get asked to do them. Shorter term we would like to be able to make more records, and get to play live shows, hell ANY live shows for people around the west coast. We are working on new material and preparing to do pre-production before we go into the studio for our next record.
What do you do for a living?
I am an electrical engineer and I design very high performance analog circuitry for audio test and measurement gear. Colin writes firmware for a large company you probably have heard of. Nate works in a drum shop and was previously working in the restaurant industry before his employer shut down. Casey is a professional photographer. Juan told me he would knife me if I gave any details about him, and you know, not looking to get knifed.
How do you balance your work and personal life with the band?
Poorly? Kidding kind of. It is one of the biggest challenges in getting a band off the ground. It takes a lot of time and energy. Every cent we make in revenue gets poured back into the band, and then some. So personally, I do a lot of the back end work on booking and promotion and such. I could easily spend 40 hours a week on the band, but that isn’t possible so I have to set time limits and just get done what I can get done. Accepting that can be difficult for me because of my personality. But we all need our jobs to make the band work. The rest of my personal life is balanced with having times I dedicate to other things, like work and family.
When I was younger I had a lot of hobbies and interests but over time I decided I had to focus on fewer things because I just didn’t have time to do everything justice. Playing music was the one thing that I kept coming back to. I actually tried to quit playing in bands about 15 years ago. Let’s just say the band had ended poorly and I was tired. Sold all me gear and just had an acoustic and bought a mandolin for sitting in the backyard with. But that didn’t work, lol, now I play in two bands!
What do you consider to be the best investment you've made, music-wise?
The best investment I’ve ever made is in learning music gear. It wasn’t so much one piece of gear, as it was the process. I started off like many chasing the tone I hear in my head, and the ones I heard seeing live heavy music. I started buying things and just selling them if they weren’t for me. Eventually, I knew the prices gear fetched and when to jump on a good deal. Now I know how to use any amp I might need to play, and I flipped a lot of gear for years to build up my equipment stash. I found out a lot about myself in the process.
What's the worst or least helpful thing you've ever spent money on as a musician/band?
I would probably go with gear here too. It is easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of chasing tone, wanting a new guitar, amp, or pedal, thinking it is going to be that thing that makes all the difference. Nothing wrong with tone chasing, but at some point if you are spending more time on your gear than working on your song writing or promoting your project, you have to ask whether such pursuits are helping or hurting you. On the other hand, I would not have the gear I need to do what I want if I had not gone through that process.
What kind of merch sells the best for your band?
T-shirts sell the best for us, we have a couple of designs that you can check out at our bandcamp merch page. Most of our sale and revenue generally is generated by playing shows, and that isn’t going to be happening any time soon, sadly. And what do you purchase most often as a music listener?
I am a huge Bandamp fan. I just incorporated 8 albums today I purchased on bandcamp into my music library, Obscure Sphinx, Raum Kingdom, Hundred Year Old Man, Ire Wolves, YLVA, Sequoian Aequison, and Archelon. I try to listen to as much new music as I can, and I make judicious use of the wishlist on bandcamp. You can check out my fan profile.
If you've been on tour, can you share some tour budgeting tips?
You are almost certainly going to lose money on your first tours. If you break even on hotel and gas expenses you are doing really good. The fact of the matter is that traveling with five people and their gear is expensive any way you slice it. Budgeting depends on your situation. If you are a newer band with limited reach and do not have an established fan base, you will lose money, or if you are lucky, break even. Break your budget down into the big ones, transportation, food, and lodging. Everything else is extras. Figure out what it cost you per day. This will lead you to what kind of money you need to make per show to make the tour profitable. Finding people to stay with every night helps a whole lot, though that can also mean some crazy uncomfortable situations. Good instinct will let you know when it’s time to spring for a hotel.
Which online music or social media platforms are most helpful to your band?
Bandcamp is the big one. Perhaps I am biased considering I like Bandcamp a lot. Facebook in theory can be a good way to reach people, but Facebook severely restricts your natural reach, and mounting effective advertising campaigns isn’t in the budget right now. Instagram is a good platform, particularly for video.
What does "making it" mean to you, and what do you think a band needs to make it in 2020?
Making it is such a foreign concept to me in 2020. What does that mean with the touring industry completely shut down? I also see many people chasing the mythical plays on videos or Spotify. So a bunch of people listened, but did it help grow your band? Did you make sales because of that? Or do you just get your monthly $0.15 from Spotify streams? Making it in my mind means keeping the band together and keep writing and creating music.
Everything else boils down to taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. So I guess, I consider making it getting opportunities to do the things you want to do as a band, to create music, to record that music, to go on tours opening up for larger acts to increase your visibility. The music industry has changed a lot, and metal is not the hot commodity these days, so in many ways you are swimming against the grain even making any kind of metal. To make it in 2020, you need a lot of hard work that no one sees and a fair amount of luck.
Hard work and luck indeed, a winning combo. Connect with A//tar here.
Interview and photos courtesy of Dewar PR.
To learn more about band finances, order Money Hacks for Metalheads and Old Millennials in paperback and ebook formats: https://amzn.to/3lCsFdq
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