Joey Arena joined his first band when he was a 16-year-old student at Penfield High School.
During the last decade, Arena, now 26, has played guitar in more than a dozen bands. He has toured the country, his music has been played on the radio and he has performed on the same stage as some of his musical heroes.
Yet, after the cost of travel, recording and equipment upkeep, minimal merchandise sales and all his other bills, Arena says he has not made a dime from music.
"When you do the math, I've probably put more money into it than I've gotten back," he says. "That's just the way it goes. It can't be about the money. If it was about the money, you wouldn't last six months."
Arena's story is a common one for young musicians looking to survive in the music industry. He says most of his peers have been in and out of several bands by the age of 25, without any money to show for it. Yet they refuse to give up.
Most are searching for the dream lived out by an act like Gym Class Heroes. The hip-hop band from Geneva, Ontario County, was discovered on MySpace in 2003 by Pete Wentz, bassist for multi-platinum band Fall Out Boy.
Wentz signed Gym Class Heroes to Fueled By Ramen, a sub-label of Atlantic Records. The band gained national exposure in 2006 when its single "Cupid's Chokehold" peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Gym Class Heroes has gone on to release four more top-20 hits and tour the world.
Another recent success story is that of Fairport native Julia Nunes. The 23-year-old ukulele player has generated more than 50 million video views on YouTube since 2007 because of her covers of songs from acts like the Beatles and Destiny's Child.
Nunes used her online success to land gigs performing at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee in 2009 and 2010. She also appeared on the late-night talk show "Conan" last January.
John Chmiel, owner of Water Street Music Hall, however, says a band like Gym Class Heroes and social media success stories like Nunes are rare, especially nowadays.
"The industry has dried up," he says. "There are fewer labels now that downloading has caused a lack of CD sales. Labels just don't have the cash to throw out there more."
Chmiel says a more realistic path for local musicians is one similar to that of reggae band Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. The band began its career playing shows at local clubs in 2004.
Once Giant Panda built a strong local audience, the band did trades with out-of-town acts that came to Rochester. Giant Panda would book those bands on its shows, and in exchange those bands would book Giant Panda on their hometown shows.
Chmiel says the strategy helped Giant Panda get exposure outside Rochester. The band now spends roughly half the year touring the country. Giant Panda is represented by the Agency Group Ltd, one of the largest booking agencies in the world, representing more than 1,000 international clients, including 50 Cent and Flogging Molly.
Jeremy Seaver, who handles talent buying and booking for the Montage Music Hall, says a band's success lies in its ability to draw fans to shows.
"The bands who promote the most often succeed, where those who don't promote only draw 10 people to shows," Seaver says. "You can't just go online and find fans like you used to on MySpace. You have to network, go to other shows, make flyers or give away a free CD here and there. Sitting and waiting for people to find your band is not going to happen these days."
Even for local bands that are able to draw crowds, however, the financial ceiling is not that high. Randy Peck, owner of the Montage Music Hall, says an original band that can draw a few hundred people to a show can make around $400. A more realistic good draw for bands is 50 to 60 people.
Peck says acts performing at venues like the Montage and Water Street make money in a variety of ways. Some prefer to take a percentage of ticket sales. Others would rather get a percentage of the money taken in at the door on the night of the show or money made from drink sales at the bar.
In rare cases, if an original band has proved it can draw a large number of people, it might get a base payment from the venue along with a percentage of tickets sold in advance. The method depends on the agreement between the venue and the artist, Peck says.
One band that has been able to draw such crowds in Rochester is Tinted Image. The jazz-pop act first garnered attention because of its front woman, Alyssa Coco, who appeared on the seventh season of "American Idol" in 2007.
From there, Tinted Image built a strong following that earned it opening slots for national acts at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, as well as shows at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center. The band also plays a regular acoustic showcase every Tuesday at the Woodcliff Hotel & Spa.
"I think there's some luck involved with getting the kind of attention you need as a band to prosper," says Tinted Image guitarist Matt Merritt. "But it's more about what you do with that attention once you receive it. We've been able to deliver good performances at shows, and we have a loyal fan base. People know that when they book us, so we've been fortunate to perform at some pretty cool shows."
Another avenue for musicians unable to break out playing original music is to be in a cover band. Typically there are two kinds of cover bands, those that play music from one artist's catalog and those that play music of a particular genre, such as 1980s hair-metal songs from acts like Bon Jovi and Whitesnake.
Peck says a proven cover band almost always get paid upfront because of its ability to draw an older crowd that is guaranteed to produce strong sales at the bar. He says the pay for a cover band can start at $500 or $600. Some of the bigger local cover bands of recent years, like 50/50 or Uncle Plum, can make around $1,500 per show.
One of Rochester's busiest cover bands these days is Something Else. The trio of bassist Michael Klock, singer John Cumming and drummer Michael Lasaponara plays everything from Lady Gaga and Snoop Dogg to Stone Temple Pilots. Since June, Something Else has played more than 25 shows, including 14 weddings.
Lasaponara knows the recording industry well. The Rochester native has worked as a drum technician for a number of national recording artists like Cobra Starship and The Used.
Lasaponara was also a member of Cute Is What We Aim For, a Buffalo-based rock band that was signed to Atlantic Records but was dropped from the label and split up in 2009.
"The music industry can be a roller coaster ride," Lasaponara says. "Even if you're lucky enough to get signed to a label and be touring, that doesn't mean you're rich or that it will last forever. If you're able to play music even part time and fulfill your passion, you should feel lucky."
A number of venues like the Montage, Water Street, Dub Land Underground, Abilene Bar and Lounge and Lovin' Cup are willing to give young, original bands a chance. Seaver says most promoters will take a shot on a band if the members seem motivated and passionate. That, of course, is no guarantee of a long career.
"I'm not sure that making a living is a realistic expectation in music at a local level," Seaver says. "Many big-name artists and touring bands even struggle to make money today with their music. I think it has to be a passion first and foremost, but if you are looking to make a living at it, that may be difficult in this day and age."
As for Arena, he says he plans to release new music and start touring again this fall with his current band, Young Bloods. He says he has thought of starting a cover band as a way to make money at music. For now, he continues to pursue his dream.
"I think I'll keep trying at this until I'm physically unable to play my instrument," Arena says. "Will I ever be rich and famous? Who knows? But the passion I feel and the joy I get on that stage, no matter how many people are standing in front of me, is priceless."
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