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In NerdWallet’s Money/Makers Q&A series, we talk with artists and innovators about their money moves, including unique struggles they’ve faced and lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Hollis Wong-Wear knows what it means to fight for what you’re worth. The Los Angeles-based musician and activist has worked for years to build the business infrastructure needed to make her passion profitable — while championing the social causes she believes in.
In the beginning, that meant working on music for free while holding down a side job. She began collaborating with other musicians, such as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and got a deep understanding of the logistics of making money as a musician.
Once she had that foundational knowledge, Wong-Wear professionalized. She formed an S corp, a type of corporation with favorable taxation, and turned her musical career as a singer and songwriter into a formal business. Wong-Wear has brought her talents to the TED stage, is a Google NextGen Policy leader and was set to present at SXSW earlier this year, but the coronavirus pandemic disrupted her plans — and her finances.
Wong-Wear talked with NerdWallet about how she makes money as a professional musician, what this pandemic has meant for her career and how she works to empower other artists to manage their careers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you get your start as a professional musician?
A: I sang in choir when I was a kid and did musical theater, but none of that felt like I was doing any sort of professional development towards a career. I think I always wanted to be a singer and to perform, but I had never seen that be possible.
It felt silly or stupid to think that I could make a career doing that, whether that's because I didn't necessarily see any representation of Asian American women thriving and singing in pop music, or just because I kind of had this perception that if I wasn't in "The Mickey Mouse Club,” I could never be a viable artist.
Really, the origin for me as an artist and as a musician was spoken word poetry and slam poetry, which I think was a blend of my sharpening progressive politics and my desire to kind of be in the art community, which has really been the catalyst for everything that I've done.
Q: When did you begin viewing music as a career that could be financially sustainable?
A: When I moved to Seattle for college, I got in with the nonprofit Youth Speaks Seattle. I started performing my poetry there, and then I really was able to finally convince myself that I could make a career of music.
And even though all of the voices in my brain were like, "That's stupid. That's never going to be sustainable. You're going to disappoint your family legacy. Your mom didn't come all this way from Hong Kong and sacrifice so much so that you could be this whatever."
Then, I ended up becoming friends with my favorite band in Seattle, Blue Scholars. And within a span of a year, I ended up working for them. I gave myself the title of operations manager, but I basically was co-managing the band with them.
I was literally shipping their merch out of my living room thinking, “Is merchandising a line of business that's actually sustainable for artists? And how do you develop a line of merchandise for a fan base?”
That was my first paid job in music. And at the same time, I was doing a very lengthy unpaid job, which was producing Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' first music video for their song “Wing$.” And when I came onto that project, there wasn't even a song, and so I ended up co-writing the hook of that song with them as part of my production moniker. And I was like, "OK. That's something I can do."
Q: Diversified income streams seem key to a sustainable living as a musician. How have you achieved this?
A: I'd say pre-COVID, the general rule of thumb for independent artists is that the two biggest revenue streams are live events and merchandising.
You used to actually be able to make significant revenue with recorded music and records that people would physically purchase. But now that recorded music has been so depreciated due to the way that digital distribution is set up, you can't earn significant revenue from it.
But by the same token, what’s really money in the bank is how you connect to the consumer directly and how you can maximize what they're spending to what you're earning. And I'd say the No. 1 way to do that is by selling them merchandise or by producing your own live shows that don't have a significant commission from promoters so that you're connecting directly to folks.
Then, the most valuable thing that you can get from anybody is their data. Merchandising is really a great mechanism to capture people's information so that you can follow up with them.
Once I started building my own artistry, what I recognized is, OK, if I work with an artist like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, nobody anticipated the way that they were going to be successful, but they were able to break into the upper echelon and were able to make revenue on that. And because I was a featured vocalist with them, I saw a small piece of the pie. And I was like, "Oh ... if I was able to replicate this with 10 other artists, I'm good. Then, I can go do whatever I want.”
NerdWallet tip: Passive income, whether through rental properties or music royalties, is a smart way to diversify your income.
Q: Do you ever have moments where you say to yourself, “I just can’t do this anymore”?
A: Like, two days ago? If we're being really real, I think artists at any level often feel doubt and uncertainty navigating the music landscape because it's so highly unregulated and volatile and constantly evolving. In some ways, that's fantastic, because it provides for innovation and disruption.
My perception is that no matter where you fall in terms of your visibility, music is a really tough industry to feel stability in.
Q: How do you define success as an artist?
For me, success is building financial sustainability. My goal in moving to L.A. and working with pop artists and working in pop music is I want to be able to have checks coming in quarterly from the performing rights organizations. I want enough royalties coming in that I don't have to worry about making any more money on top of that. I don't want to have to worry about having to book this, that or the other thing so that I can pay rent. That's my goal.
NerdWallet tip: Gauging your financial health can help you determine if your lifestyle is financially sustainable.
Q: How do you manage your music career as a business?
A: I started an S corp at the end of last year, and this is the first year that I'm using a professional accounting software to manage my business.
Using it has completely transformed my relationship with money and with myself. I carried a lot of stigma and self-judgment about my management of funds. I think that that stems from being a freelancer, and it can feel a little chaotic.
And using this tool has not only made me more organized, but it makes me feel professional. I was doing the work before, but now it's all contained in a system.
I think as artists, we often struggle innately with our self worth and feeling like, "Is this all just a big ruse? Am I just fooling people? Am I truly professional?" Using tools like QuickBooks, you're like, "No. I am a small business. This business deserves to be managed in a professional way using the tools of other businesses, because I deserve to scale."
Q: I know you’ve worked to help other musicians navigate financial sustainability. How have you done that?
A: I'm really passionate about creators' rights in general and creators being literate about how they earn. I think a lot of artists, again, we get distracted by kind of the pretty, shiny things that we as bands see as indicators of success, but we don't actually think about what success looks like in a sustainable way and the kind of unsexy things that are really important to know to make our careers viable.
So I've partnered with an organization called Take Creative Control that's based in D.C., and they do a lot of work around educating artists about IP [intellectual property] and copyrights. And I think for me, I think if there's one thing I'd like for musicians, understanding the copyright is so critical, and understanding how as a music creator, the avenues in which you can get paid and the different entities that you need to register with, the ways in which you can facilitate the administration of your royalties. A lot of people leave money on the table, and I left money on the table in the past because I didn't know.
Q: How has the coronavirus pandemic changed the way you work?
A: I'd say just to be real, I was supposed to go to SXSW, and I was actually producing programming. I incurred between $4,000 and $5,000 of debt because I was project managing a two-day program that I was going to perform at, but I was also curating a lineup and activations [pop-up branding events] and stuff. And we had plenty of sponsorship money, but it all pulled out when the festival canceled.
Two months of lost gigs. A tour. I bought vinyl to sell on tour. I'd say all told, I lost at least $8,000 that I had invested. And it's not for me to say that I can't sell that vinyl eventually or that I won't be able to use those plane tickets and what have you, but the loss is really profound.
And then more than anything, there's just a larger sense of uncertainty. It's uncertain when things are going to get back online, and it's uncertain as to when I will feel comfortable being responsible for convening people.
NerdWallet tip: The coronavirus pandemic has made managing finances complicated. Read our guide to know how to manage lost income, investments and more.
Q: How are you financially sustaining yourself now?
A: My concept for touring when I released my project, an EP called “half-life,” was actually to do a series called Hollis Does Brunch. It was actually a brunch showcase where I partnered with local chefs and local performers to create this kind of city-based experience. Instead of saying, "Come see me perform on Wednesday night," it's more like, "Come see me perform on Sunday with this beloved chef making breakfast."
And so I wanted to create these alternative performance experiences to complement the club shows that I was playing. And now, I'm like, "Oh. I don't know when clubs are going to come back online. This brunch is now my primary thing, and I don't want to have to do it in person."
So I've actually been doing Hollis Does Brunch online every week. I realized, if I'm going to be doing these weekly brunches and committing myself to this model, how can I shine light on community relief efforts and feel like I'm doing something contributive towards folks that aren't as fortunate as I am? As many thousands of dollars of debt I'm in, it doesn't compare to so many people who have been completely devastated, and people don't know how they're making ends meet right now.
And while onboarding as a livestreamer isn't something that's natural for me, I'm embracing the model because it's the only place that I know that I can perform and convene people for the foreseeable future.