Austin may be considered the Live Music Capital of the World, but playing live music doesn’t always pay that well.
“Sometimes you walk out of there with freaking 46 bucks,” says musician Mike Booher, who fronts the band Booher and plays guitar with the band A. Sinclair. “It’s heartbreaking.”
It’s hard to determine exactly what Austin musicians make per gig; there is considerable range depending on the show. According to an informal Pause/Play survey on social media, musician pay can range from playing for exposure (aka nothing) to playing for $50-$100 per person to playing for several hundred dollars each. Sometimes more. The responses put the average pay per gig around $100 per person.
At $100 per gig, a musician would need to play 45 gigs a month to comfortably afford Austin’s median rent price of $1,500.
Many musicians have jobs outside the industry to supplement their music incomes, but some, like longtime musician and Austinite Terrany “Tee Double” Johnson, have found ways to make money doing what they love. He wakes up to a few email “briefs” from music supervisors just about every day.
“They’re very detailed. They’ll say there’s two kids walking down an alley across the street from a club that has hip hop playing, and the song is about this, to go with the scene,” he says. “So it’s really particular.” Johnson goes through all his music to find something that might fit the scene and sends it along.
“You have to be quick,” he says. “So if I get my brief at 8 o’clock, I’m probably hitting them back with a song by 8:30, saying, ‘Here, try this.’”
Johnson has found a lot of success in the process, called sync licensing. That’s where the owner of a song or bit of music gets paid for agreeing to have the music paired up with a visual component in, say, a TV show, movie or video game.
When it comes to sync licensing, Johnson has a unique approach. First off, he has 30 self-produced albums of his own material to draw from plus a trove of unreleased music.
“I have like five hard drives of just terabytes of songs,” he says.
If he doesn’t have a song that fits what the music supervisor is looking for, he’ll just make something new.
“They’ll say, ‘We want something that sounds like this, with like a country sound’ or whatever. And I’ll just go through my sample kits or I’ll find a record and chop it up or replay it right. And I can shoot that to them fast,” he says. “My studio always stays on. I rarely turn it off unless I go out of town or on holidays or something, because I never know when I’m going to get an idea.”
There have even been times where Johnson will make a change to one of his existing songs.
“There’s a movie called All She Can and there is a song called “Hey DJ” on there, which was on one of my albums, but they wanted me to tweak the lyrics. They wanted me to kind of tweak the beat a little bit,” he says. “So I was able to do that quick, send it to them, and it made it in the movie.”
Johnson has had his songs placed in “Breaking Bad,” “Rick and Morty,” “The Start Up” and even in National Geographic shows.
As a kidney transplant recipient, Johnson has been especially careful about playing live shows during the pandemic.
“Sync has really saved my life, so to speak, my livelihood, because I’m still working and I’m actually making more money doing sync than I would have been out rapping or performing or anything like that — which is my first love,” he says. “But this other thing is really cushioning that, so I’m not — Oh my God, I have to do a show.”
To hear more of Johnson’s story and to learn more about sync licensing, listen to the latest episode of Pause/Play by clicking the listen button above. Subscribe to Pause/Play on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, NPROne or wherever you get your podcasts.