Gordy Quist of Band of Heathens
Making a Living in the Live Music Capital of the World
Written by Chad Swaitecki
Photo by Mark Abernathy
When Gordy Quist packed up his music-making dreams in 2004 and landed in Austin, his only worry was making enough money to eat and to keep playing music. A steady series of gigs and collaborations led to the formation of his stalwart roots-rock group Band Of Heathens, and a thriving scene at the long-gone Momo’s bar and music venue quickly showed Quist and his bandmates they had an opportunity they should capitalize on.
“The idea back then was to do a residency, play every week and see if it builds — try to build a life because that’s your goal. The band was this kind of a little microcosm of Austin, which is very collaborative. There was no leader. It was — no one was trying to make money,” he says.
“As the band started eclipsing the other things we were working on, we were like ‘Well hey, maybe we should work on this and take it a little more seriously.”
That’s when Quist and his cohorts broke out the spreadsheets — a short run as an investment banker and a degree from Dartmouth give Quist a keen business sense — and took to the side of life in the Live Music Capital that rarely gets talked about: treating the band as a business.
The band made a commitment to save half of all gig money for recording a debut album and to focus on touring around Texas and beyond, which was made possible in part by taking on a booking manager.
Then came a crowd-funding innovation before crowd funding became cool with Kickstarter a few years later: Fans would pre-fund the Ray Wylie Hubbard-produced album, and then 80 percent of all album sales would go to paying them back until they recouped their full investment plus 20 percent.
“We borrowed a bunch of money, and we said ‘All right, we're gonna pay you back 80 percent of all the money we make from this record until you're paid back in full plus 20 percent profit.’ I told them, ‘I don't know how long it's going to take, and you may not ever get it back.’ In like two-and-a-half years we had paid everybody back plus profit. And then we had enough money in the bank to make the next record, and since then we've never had to borrow money again … we had a business plan for every record.”
More than a decade later, Band Of Heathens is something of a moderate-profile model for Austin musicians trying to survive in a city that gets more expensive by the day and in a music industry in which album sales are no longer a reliable pillar of income.
Quist, co-founding band member Ed Jurdi, and newer members, Trevor Nealon, Richard Millsap, and Jesse Wilson all earn their living from the band and from side gigs, with no other traditional nine-to-five day jobs in the mix.
That commitment means all involved have to be creative, not just with songwriting but also when it comes to bringing in revenue and growing the band’s audience in the age of social media and streaming, which makes music free and readily accessible.
For Quist, a shift in his life as a working Austin musician recently came when he decided to purchase the North Austin recording studio formerly owned by beloved Austin producer and musician George Reiff, a long-time friend and colleague of the band who passed away in 2017 after a battle with lung cancer.
An initial inquiry from Reiff’s brother about purchasing some of the studio equipment eventually grew into a complete purchase, with Quist and a friend partnering to buy the converted single-family home and taking over the studio as a means to pursue Quist’s growing interests in producing music for other musicians.
Between a handful of albums in the works from acts including Mayeaux and Broussard, The Texas KGB, and The New Wildcatters — and occasional stops from touring acts, including young country star Margo Price — Quist spends more and more of his time working with other musicians and behind a recording console. That is, whenever Band Of Heathens isn’t tending to a still-healthy touring and recording schedule.
“The last few years, that's kind of picked up when someone asked me to produce a record for them and then someone else asked, and it has snowballed into this is kind of what I have been doing when I'm home. If not producing, I’m playing on other people's records or in someone else's, [I’m] in the studio and helping out.”
The innovative thinking by Quist, his bandmates, and close friends hasn’t stopped, either.
An annual multi-day retreat for songwriters on Lake Travis — operated and marketed as SongFarmer — that Quist started with longtime friend Owen Temple has turned into a yearly highlight and a chance for the two to stretch out creatively. And it’s also birthed a book and a SongFarmer app created by Temple that helps songwriters get past their writers block and just start creating.
“The retreat evolved through our conversations about cracking that code and tracking things as you start from a blank page when you’re writing, mapping a creative process with the belief that you collect these seeds for songs, get an idea and hold onto the things that make sense,” says Temple, a one-time regular on the Austin live music scene who now earns his living writing computer code.
“The appeal for the retreat was for people who are discovering a process and want a reliable way to do what they care about. It’s not really magic — just building up reliable habits that can help you avoid writer’s block and get started creating.”
Looking ahead, Quist and his band are brainstorming ways to take advantage of the studio — in business terms, utilizing an asset — to get more music into the ears of their fans more consistently. They’re still exploring the business and revenue options available to make that happen, but the crowd-funding platform Patreon is one contender that would let monthly contributors receive periodic new songs, recordings of live performances, and other offerings almost instantly instead of waiting for a new album every two or three years.
Quist said he’s also brainstorming ideas for how to innovate the traditional recording studio model.
“What if the studio itself had a Patreon account?” he wonders aloud as a sort of thought experiment. His goal, he says, is to find a way to help more Austin musicians produce more music affordably, in a nod to the increasingly high cost of surviving as an artist.
“I'm kind of interested in a new model, with different models for recording with local artists here in town, or even touring artists coming through town like Margo did. I just love the idea of being able to get artists that may not necessarily be able to go drop a bunch of cash on a whim.
“I would love to be able to like call up some of my buddies and be like, ‘I've got a drummer and a bass player and keyboard player here, we’re running sessions, so let’s get a new song together.’ Different variations of that have existed before, but I'm trying to figure out a model that would work within my little circle.”
We’ll have to wait and see how Quist’s experiment in recording studio economics plays out, but looking back on what he’s accomplished as a 38-year-old working musician with a wife and kids, he’s grateful for how far he’s come.
“I came to Austin in search of this dream and had no idea really how it was going to turn out. Here I am like really grateful that I've got a really great band where we're not huge … we're a middle-class band with working musicians. We all hustle and work, and now I have a studio — which is another crazy dream that I didn't think would happen — and I get to make records all the time, which is unbelievable.”
In His Own Words: Gordy Quist On the business of songwriting
Songwriting's weird. It's mysterious, and there's not an answer. There's not a how-to book on how to do it right. It's just hard and it's mysterious and it happens in all different ways. But I feel like there are some eternal truths that will help you not get stuck. Things you can just try again, go back to, and just not feel like you're banging your head against a wall.
Show up for work. It's funny, the idea of waiting for inspiration versus showing up for work. Inspiration is going to come whether you're working or not, so you might as well be working so you’ll be ready for it and you'll be a better songwriter because you've been working your skills as a problem solver. Good songwriting is just like problem solving. I mean there's a flash of inspiration, and there's no explanation as to how or why that can happen. But then it’s like, “Well, alright ... how do I take that and form it into a song?” That's just understanding music, and then you're problem solving — figuring out what rhymes with this or [thinking] but I don't want to be cliché, asking yourself what are some other ways I can say that. It's just like problem solving.
The more I listen to music that inspires me, the more I write. I'm not necessarily ripping it off. It inspires you. And then the more I read books by authors that use words in a way that inspire me, the more I write. The other part is the more I play my instrument at home … just like noodling on it, ideas just come. If I commit to writing 500 words every morning about anything, stuff comes from that.
We had this idea of like inputs and outputs in there and adopting habits then doing the habits daily. You have a musical input of listening to new music or music that inspires you. You have a musical output of practicing. Sitting down and daily playing your instrument or messing around on a piano. Then you have the words input, and that can be reading books or watching movies. We have this diagram: First input music and then words and then output words so you're writing something down daily. If you're cultivating those habits, ideas will come up. And then you'll be ready to capture what comes from that practice.
Again, a lot of it is just showing up to do the work. Sometimes you're going to feel like it's not working or it's pointless and there's a lot of loneliness and you give up a lot. I remember when I was younger I would be like, “OK, tonight I can go out, spend money, have some fun, or I can sit at home and try to write some songs and be by myself.” That's just the tradeoff.