I interviewed 3 up and coming musicians about the struggles of trying to make it big in a ruthless industry.
Jack Harris from Corn on My Dinner Plate:
Jack Harris is the guitar player for Corn on my Dinner plate, a five piece Chicago jazz-rock band
When was your first gig and how did you get it?
Like of my life?
I was ten years old and me and my sisters, we had a band, let’s call it the Harris Family Band. We got invited to play at a farmers’ market and, instead of money, the vendors all gave us Wisconsin cheese curds and fresh fruit.
I mean, that’s all you really need in life, right?
Yeah, it was pretty cool. From that point forward I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
Flashing forward, what was your first gig with Corn on my Dinner Plate?
Well, our first gig was junior or senior year of high school. We had been jamming for a couple of years and one of our friends was having a birthday party. She asked us to play, so of course, we said yes. It was probably the dirtiest, trappiest grunge scene I’ve ever performed at, but it was so much fun that we knew we had to continue performing. Just maybe in a more professional setting.
Would you say warehouses and house parties are common for starting gigs?
Yeah, of course. Nobody is going to get a huge gig for their first concert, it’s important to start off small to get some experience.
And what would you say the scene is like at your gigs now?
Over the summer we were gigging a lot more. It was a lot of small venues (300-400 cap). We did one show where we bought out a rooftop and had people pay for tickets, it was super cool. If nowhere will take you, it can be a really good idea to rent out your own space, like us.
All your band members go to school in different parts of the country. Does that make it difficult to create as much as you’d like?
Definitely. We can still collaborate, but it’s so much slower. Like if I have a line I wrote, I have to send it to my bandmates, and they can take a couple days to respond with some more lyrics, but when we’re together we can write so much faster and recording is so easy. It’s hard when we can’t get together as much as we’d like.
What is the biggest hurdle you guys are currently facing, as a band?
We’re all busy. Corn is super important to all of us, but Jeremy is getting his degree in physics, I’m getting my degree in entertainment industry studies. Collin is studying music. We’re all grinding separately, so that means a lot of our gigs don’t include the whole band. The last gig that we were all able to make it to was at the beginning of summer at a venue called Martyrs’ in Chicago. That’s the hardest part — having something so important to us, but not being able to get together consistently.
Are there any other difficulties you guys have faced in the past?
In Chicago, specifically, it’s a little ruthless. Venues can be tricky to work with. We’ve done a couple shows at Martyrs’, and they’re really great, I’m going to plug them for a second. Martyrs’ loves to have new bands perform and they are helpful in getting a good stage set up and allowing bands like us to put themselves out there. They also don’t scam new artists, which is a plus. Other places will scam you. If they don’t sell a certain amount of tickets, they will make you pay the rest of what they were planning to make for the night, so read the fine print. Especially if you’re a new band, venues love taking advantage of newbies.
Do you have any advice for any new artists trying to make it in the industry?
I probably should have figured you were gonna ask that, so I could have thought of something wise. But on the fly, I would say don’t do it to get clout. Don’t do it for money or women. Do it because you love it. Because when the authenticity comes through, you can tell. You know when an artist is trying to be something they’re not. Just be yourself. And writing, write only for you; you’re your own worst critic. And if you keep on trying to make other people happy you’re going to end up hating your own music.
Oh, and be professional. If you don’t take yourself seriously, nobody else in the industry will.
Last question: with all these obstacles and trickery, would you still say music is worth it?
Absolutely… Absolutely. That’s why I’m here, Y’know? That’s why the five of us are still playing to this day. It’s great that other people enjoy it, but it brings us together in a way nothing else can. The fact that other people listen is just the cherry on top.
Stephen Giunta is an independent multi-instrumentalist from Chicago who, last year, released his debut album, Sunspot.
Have you done any gigs?
I haven’t done a lot for my own music, but there was a really cool gig I did last year in a garage-looking venue, super neat. It was me on keys and vocals and a friend on drums alongside a backtrack and click track. We played for like forty minutes, which was a lot more than I was expecting. The best part was when I took out the Talk Box and everybody started going, “Woah, what the fuck??” and it hit me like, wow, they like this. This feels good.
I actually got the gig by chance. My friend was supposed to perform with his band, but they weren’t able to make it. They still had the venue and somebody needed to perform, so they let me do it. It was kinda stressful because I ended up only having like four days to make my setlist. Stressful, but super cool and fun.
Is there anything particularly hard about getting gigs and setting up?
Yeah, most definitely. It’s gotta be easier to get gigs in Chicago than anywhere else because there are so many bars that need bands to play. I haven’t actually played any gigs here yet, but I just started a new band and I’m going to assume it’s a lot easier to land gigs than back in Naperville. They didn’t really have bars and none of the venues, for the most part, were pleasant to play in.
You’re a Music Industry student at DePaul, do you find that advantageous or disadvantageous in terms of trying to make a name for yourself?
My major is centered around sound, so I really enjoy it. It allows me to retain my creativity while learning about how to further my craft. I think if I was a performance major I would really hate it. They have to play all day, every day, which would get tiring and take way too much time. I only have to be a part of a couple ensembles so I’m not constantly being bogged down by a big workload. It is still hard though; I get back from class at like 9 and it can be rough getting the motivation to start writing. I mean, if I start a new project, I’ll be up until one in the morning, so it’s a gamble. It can be hard to find the time to develop my artistry.
And what has been the hardest part of developing yourself as an artist?
There’s a lot. Obviously. But I’d say it’s really hard to see yourself as “having your own sound.” Like, I get all these ideas, but it can be difficult to manifest them, taking what’s in my brain and making it a reality. Creating your own sound is so tricky because you’ll make your own song then realize it sounds just like this other damn song.
Also for me, it’s hard to find other musicians on my schedule, so I end up having to play a lot of the instruments myself. Musicians are all busy so collaborating is difficult. Performing live can be worse because of that, as sometimes I end up needing a backtrack to fill in the rest of the parts and it doesn’t sound as organic.
Everything said and done, would you still say music is worth it?
Oh, 100%. When I was growing up, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. I can’t imagine doing that today. It’s so much busy work. I love music because you’re never doing the same thing. You learn something new everyday. Other careers, you just do the same thing every day, 9-5. I’d hate that.
Before you go, do you have any bits of advice for people trying to start as a musician?
Focus on perfecting your craft. Some people are so excited to perform live that they don’t develop their sound, so they’re stuck doing the same old gigs without progressing. They get stuck because they don’t allow themselves to have a good sound. Also, just listen to a ton of music. Writing music, you have to know what’s come before so you can move forward. I was listening to Japanese City Pop on the way here, and I feel like that’s not super popular, but it definitely contributes to my sound more than any other genre.
Ben Dombkowski AKA Slate
Ben in a producer at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
When did you start releasing music?
I think I was like 17 when I released my first song. I just got a Macbook with Logic Pro on it, I didn’t know a lot about DAWs at the time. I felt like I was on my own because nobody else was doing this and I felt like some stupid kid who got a computer to make songs. I don’t think my parents knew I was going to take it so seriously.
I ended up releasing my first song, “Echoes.” It’s kinda dumb, it’s still on my SoundCloud. I made it as a reflection of the feelings I was feeling at the time, which are still there. I had just been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and I wanted to shed some light on this darkness that I couldn’t escape from.
Overall, I think the production was pretty good, considering it was my first song.
Have you ever performed live?
No, but some friends want me and my roommate to perform at one of their parties. I have 10 or 15 beats that we are working with, so hopefully within a month or two, we’ll be ready to perform, between those and some $uicideboy$ covers. Bars don’t really cater towards hip hop and emo rap, so house parties are kind of the go-to right now.
What obstacles have you had to overcome to where you are currently and what barriers are you facing currently?
Honestly, I feel guilty saying that my only obstacle is myself. I didn’t have a troubled childhood. My parents were always extremely supportive. A lot of people have had it a lot worse than me. Which makes me feel guilty, I don’t really know why.
I’ve been dealing with a lot of mental health so it’s mostly just a battle with my mind. In high school, I started having suicidal thoughts and dealing with that has led me to realize that there is no true point in life. You just have to find your own happiness and meaning for yourself. Im rambling, but in terms of struggle, a lot of my own emotions have prevented me from putting as much time into music as I had hoped. It feels like other people are always in the studio while I’m watching anime.
Lately, I’ve been thinking I don’t want to be famous. All I want is a stable job and to be happy; I just changed my major from music to Radio TV and Film. With my music, at this point, I just hope that it can bring other people happiness. I don’t care if it effects a lot of people as long as it is able to enhance somebody else’s life.
Has all of this made it more difficult to develop your own sound?
I’d say so. I want to take more time to produce more and more so I can find out my style. Right now, Emo rap is kind of at a standstill. A lot of the songs sound the same and it’s just a bunch of sadboys repeating the same lyrics. I don’t really relate to everything they’re saying, so I want to find a way to incorporate my own life story into the genre. As any musician should, I want to push the genre until I can really find my own sound.
Do you have any advice for other musicians?
Don’t compare yourself to other artists. There will always be those who are better than you. Stay true to yourself, you’ll figure it out. My parents always said to stay in the moment and live like Obi (Ben’s dog). There is no right way to do things, so do it your own way.
For you, your struggle has been largely internal, yet you still push through and continue to create. What makes music so worth it?
Music is one of those things that I’ve always felt like I can relate to more than other people. It’s gotten me through some of the hardest times in my life, and listening to various artists throughout the years (Jon Bellion, Lil Peep, Watsky) has been like therapy. Music has proven to be a powerful emotional tool, so it will always be worth it.