How Denver Musicians Pay the Bills (Hint: Not By Playing Music, Mostly)

Megan Crooks and Cody Coffey of Ancient Elk.EXPAND
Megan Crooks and Cody Coffey of Ancient Elk.
Courtesy photo.

In the Whale’s Eric Riley needs a job. At the end of June, he’ll return to Denver after seventy days on tour — this following last summer’s busy tour schedule: two weeks on the Presidents of the United States of America tour, two weeks home, three weeks on the Guttermouth tour, one week home, then an entire month on a solo tour. That, Riley says, is a schedule an employer doesn’t like to see. At 31, Riley has spent the last ten years working various service-industry jobs, primarily working in entry-level kitchens and random catering gigs because he’s dedicated himself to what he calls an almost impossible lifestyle — the life of a working, touring musician. Riley estimates he has at least another year of working service jobs, explaining to employers that weekends aren’t good for him and making that embarrassing phone call home to make ends meet. After that, he hopes, In the Whale’s success will sustain not only the band, but also the people in it.

This is the struggle of many musicians: They love their art, and they’re good at it — so good that they’ve booked enough shows in and outside Denver to consume their time and mental energy. But even in a thriving music community like Denver’s, most musicians have to find another source of income to supplement their music, a day job to fund their dream. What results for musicians like Riley is a seemingly rigid dichotomy between work and music, day job and passion, that they spend their entire careers negotiating.

Strange Americans’ Michael McKee understands that struggle. In addition to playing drums for the rock band, McKee works as a program coordinator for the Denver Public Library, arranging after-school programs like “After School Is Cool,” during which kids can play games, do crafts, cook food and see exotic animals from the zoo. McKee enjoys his job and the kids with whom he interacts, but he says dividing his time between his music and his job is a constant struggle. There’s the fear that every time he has to ask to leave work early to go set up for a show, he gets one step closer to his boss saying, “This isn’t working out. We need more from you.”

“What if I don’t have more?” McKee asks. “What I do as a musician comes from my core — whatever the hell that is. Everything else, I love it and care about it, but it’s a day job.”

In the past, McKee has tried and failed to find a job more conducive to the life of a musician — a job like Cody Coffey’s. Coffey and his girlfriend, Megan Crooks, both of Ancient Elk, are pedicab drivers. Coffey has been pedaling for three years, and he loves it. He sets his own schedule, he gets to meet interesting people from across the country, and sometimes he catches a unicorn — the pedicab term for a generous rider who leaves the driver with a $100 bill. It may be the ultimate musician’s day job.

For Coffey, cruising around LoDo is meditative. It gives him time to just think about his music, sometimes even giving him a melody to record on his phone and work on later. For Crooks, driving a pedicab allows her to reflect on her social skills and her interactions with the public. Getting people interested in your band isn’t too different from getting people to ride in your pedicab: They both require charm and a good pitch line. Once someone is in the pedicab, both Coffey and Crooks use the time and exposure of a ride to introduce people to their music and that of other local bands, playing a new song or album from their bike’s speakers on a long ride.

This idea — that a day job can actually increase the quality and exposure of a musician’s music — is a comfort to many musicians. Chella Negro of Chella & the Charm says that her job at Denver Relief provides her with the mental space to tackle her music anew at the end of the day, as well as with plenty of characters and story ideas for her songs. Shane Franklin of SF1 says his job as a radio personality at KBPI allows him to both promote his music and connect with the audience he and his band perform for. For instance, Franklin recently agreed to a radio stunt in which he was dropped off at I-25 and 104th at 7 a.m. and given three hours to hitchhike from there to the radio station at I-25 and Belleview, only staying in a given car for the space of a song. It was humbling, he said, to see how willing people were to drive him and talk about music on the way. It helped him connect with his audience.

And then there’s David McGhee of the Vanilla Milkshakes, whose day job literally makes playing music possible. McGhee, a musician with autism, works for bandmate Frank Registrato’s cannabidiol (CBD) business, a company that makes products from agricultural hemp that have positive health effects and are low enough in THC to be legal across the country. Not only did the business allow the band to move out of an extended-stay hotel and into a house with a back yard, but the products have been a game-changer for McGhee and his autism. Band membership usually means having the ability to collaborate and perform consistently, and autism often presents a challenge to both of those activities. The CBD products help alleviate such hurdles, helping McGhee perform more with more consistency and stay focused. They also allow him to devote more of his thought process to music than he’s been able to previously.

Still, says Registrato, even with a business that he loves and really believes in, music is what’s always on his mind. In fact, Riley, McKee, Negro, Franklin and Registrato all say that if they could support themselves playing music full-time, they would.

Many Denver musicians have actually realized that dream, though it might not take the romanticized form of touring and performing to sold-out stadiums. Bianca Mikahn says her musical day job is her calling. She works with organizations like Youth on Record and runs a program called Check Your Head to increase wellness in youth by encouraging creative expression. She spends her days giving lyrics instruction, talking about identity through rap lyrics, and showing kids how to make beats in order to help them explore their emotions in safe ways. One of her favorite parts of her job is watching what happens when she brings a microphone into a room, watching how the inherent power of the mike produces a mix of excitement and fear. She’s found that it’s often the kids who immediately grab the mike who have little to say, while the scared kids in the corner whispering lyrics to themselves have more to put out there. She thinks about that when she’s performing herself: When she picks up her mike, she wants to be bold but really have something to say.

Mikahn’s day job is just a different side of the musical coin that sees her performing on the weekends, and she’s not alone. DJ A-L works full-time as a DJ, producer and teacher of music production and DJ skills. Aaron Howell of MF Ruckus spends his time as a life and career coach for artists and musicians, helping bands develop their vision, align their values and achieve specific goals. Dozens of musicians across Denver give music lessons, repair instruments or do music production outside of their primary project.

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Josh Trindad
Erin Trinidad

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But even with a day job in the music industry, musicians are used to hearing the same question over and over when they introduce themselves as an artist: “How do you support that?” And when asked, each is ready to explain how his or her day job, from bartending to robot-building, contributes to the creation of the music. The assumption, of course, is that a “real” musician either works full-time in the music industry or has another job that is solely a source of income, a means to an end. But for many, like Go Star’s Joshua Trinidad, the relationship between a musician and his/her work isn’t that black-and-white.

Trinidad is a career student currently working on his Ph.D. in higher-education administration at Colorado State University. When he was in his early twenties, fresh out of college with a music degree, he wanted to be a full-time musician without any other responsibilities. He says it ended up being so terrifying that he never wants to go without a day job again. Since then, he’s been figuring out how to balance a serious musical career with a “serious job,” and he’s been doing it well. Trinidad plays an average of 150 gigs a year, but he has also dedicated eleven years to academia. That’s hard for people to understand. Even his father doesn’t understand why his son is pursuing a Ph.D., giving so much of his time to this other realm of life when he’s a successful musician.

“There’s this stigma about what musicians are,” Trinidad says. “People think musicians are only one-dimensional. I’ve been in professional job interviews, ready to sign a contract, and the employer will ask me if I’m a musician. ‘I Googled your name,’ they’ll say. ‘That’s not you, is it?’ Immediately they think I’m not going to be committed to the job or I won’t be available, that I must just want a coffee-shop gig. But that’s not the case. I think you can be a ‘professional musician’ and have a ‘professional job.’”

When Trinidad introduces himself, he says he’s a musician and in education — together, in one breath. His work and music go together for him as much as they do for Mikahn. Why separate them? Like Trinidad, Alex Stewart and Josh Mickelson of the Parlor Pickers have both found a balance between professional music and professional work. In fact, they enjoy their work so much, they’re not sure they would ever give it up. Stewart is a high-school language-arts teacher who uses literature to help his students gain a broader worldview in order to interact with society in more insightful ways. Mickelson is a hospital labor-and-delivery-unit coordinator who once wrapped a baby born in a parking lot in his own fleece vest moments after delivery. Both men love their music, but they resist the idea that musicians should want to do music all the time.

For Stewart, making music his day job would create a kind of pressure that would stifle creativity. But some musicians, he knows, thrive under that pressure; he understands why so many spend their careers trying to shed their day jobs and make music their only job. But the Parlor Pickers have day jobs that make them happy and provide financial freedom, both things that allow them to create without the constraints of a label or strategic marketing. Their identity as musicians is not defined by the presence or absence of a day job, but simply by the fact that they love to create music.

“Maybe in a utopic world, where I could just create music and people would endlessly give me money, then I would quit my day job,” Stewart says. “But here, in the real world, I like my job, and I’m not sure I’d even want to sell the farm and do music full-time. I hope that doesn’t make me a crappy musician.”


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