In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, local musician Grady Spencer, of Grady Spencer & The Work, spoke with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff about quitting his day job and taking his music career full-time just before the pandemic shut down in-person concerts.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Fornoff: Tell me about the past couple of months. COVID-19 changed everything, and it seems like things are getting back to normal – if there is a normal anymore.
Spencer: It was kind of an ironic thing. Like you said, the past year and a half, two years, it’s just been wild and discouraging and really hard to get something cooking.
We knew we were going to put out our new album in January, and we wanted to do the big release tour. And then in true COVID fashion, we had to cancel the first two shows because my bass player had COVID. So it was like, is this ever going to happen, you know? But then after he recovered, everything’s been great since then.
We’re getting to play markets and cities that we’ve never played before, so it definitely feels like a tide has turned. And hopefully there’s brighter things for 2022, for sure.
Fornoff: Do you have a bucket list venue that is on this tour that you’ve been so excited to get into?
Spencer: Maybe not venues, but cities for sure.
We got to play Atlanta for the first time, and in Chicago, we got to headline our first show there.
Those were both markets that we can see, like on our Spotify like stats or whatever, that there’s a lot of people that listen to us in those cities, but we never played there before.
And so, yeah, to go to those cities and actually have really good turnouts at both as like this is super encouraging and gives us a bit of confidence in these numbers that we’re seeing every month. Like, well, maybe these really are real, you know?
Fornoff: Do you have any idea how those listeners found you?
Spencer: A few just had an uncle who, like, showed them on the golf course or something. But a lot of it is just, you know, people listening to a certain artist on Spotify and then the algorithm on there shows our music to other people.
And so I’ve been really lucky in that way, for sure.
Fornoff: That’s really interesting to me. I wonder if it’s (because) you’re at the intersection of so many genres. How do you describe it for people who have never listened?
Spencer: We’ve been trying for years to try to put a term on it because it is difficult.
I think it’s because everybody in the band listens to stuff that’s not country, but then me growing up where I grew up in West Texas, it was like, it’s just going to be a little bit of country, no matter what we do.
We say like country, R&B or like groove Americana, you know, like just making up stuff to try to put a tag on it.
But it’s also exciting to hear it change from album to album.
Fornoff: I want to talk about Spotify for a little bit and how to make this financially solvent as an artist. I know that this was not your first career. You were working in construction and said goodbye to that not too long before everything shut down. That had to be a scary moment for a lot of reasons, but especially financially.
Spencer: Yeah, definitely. I was kind of balancing a career in construction and a part-time career in music for, you know, five or six years. It finally reached the point where there just wasn’t enough time. I was working 60 hours a week on a job site and then we were going out every weekend.
My wife and I decided this isn’t sustainable one way or another, so something had to change.
Like you said, financially, I’ve got a wife and two kids, and so that comes first, providing for them.
We sat down and came up with a super meticulous spreadsheet that was like if I step away from construction, this is exactly the number that I need to hit every month. And live music was like half of the number.
So Jan. 3, 2020, was my last day on the construction site and then, mid-March, everything shut down.
To take that huge chunk of income out from live shows was like, well, I guess I’m going back to construction because there’s no way this could work.
But every month, I just kind of took it as a challenge, whether it was doing online streaming shows or making special posters or whatever, that mixed with the money from streaming music services, we were able to scrape by every month and make it through.
I’m one of those guys that I think Spotify has a lot of improvement to make in how they treat artists and how they pay out. But it would be extremely hypocritical for me to throw them under the bus because they’ve gotten me through hard times. It’s been really good to me, but I also recognize that it can get better, for sure.
Fornoff: Both can be true, right? They can promote you, and help you expand your [audience], but the pay per play is still fractions on the cent, right?
Spencer: Oh yeah, it’s like maybe .003 cents (per stream) per song, which is wild. But people are trying to make changes. Hopefully it’ll get better.
Fornoff: I watched some of your live streams and you had your Venmo up there. You dove in headfirst to make this work. You were on Instagram Live, YouTube and had Discord going.
Spencer: When I realized that this wasn’t that shows weren’t going to be coming back for a while, I wanted to learn how to do the streaming stuff in a way that wasn’t just somebody holding the phone up and playing guitar. So I kind of dove headfirst into doing YouTube streaming stuff and following what gamers have been doing for years as far as streaming their stuff.
Sometimes it worked great and sometimes I failed miserably. But it was a fun thing to learn.
Fornoff: It was interesting to see the set up where you had a green screen and there were like multiple things happening, and then there is another video where you were covering Bon Iver, and I was like, “That’s a Barbie dream house (in the background).”
Spencer: (Laughs) It definitely was. The best light in my house is my kids’ playroom. But I was like, I’m just going to set up here, and I thought it was a funny backdrop, for sure.
Fornoff: Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to mention?
Spencer: We’re just excited to see what happens in 2022, and just keep trucking.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.