Almost famous: With merch, tours, and hope, this band rocks on

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Bent Knee plays at Schubas Tavern in Chicago, June 14, 2022. With the rise of music streaming, bands increasingly depend on tours and merchandise sales to pay the bills.
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While never flashy, there used to be a well-trodden path for less-than-famous rock bands, a middle tier of fame and fortune that could support a middle-class lifestyle: Go on tour, sell records. Mostly sell records, though. But in today’s age of music streaming, the digital-only economy rewards the biggest acts. 

Without people paying for albums, a new emphasis has been put on tours and merchandise sales – and finding so-called super fans who will pay for anything and everything, from music to monthly Patreon subscriptions.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Musicians are revered for their creativity and artistic skill. But in the current economic climate and music scene, “making it” has as much to do with perseverance as musicianship.

Our staff writer went on tour with Bent Knee, a rock band from Boston that is intimately familiar with the new strains put on musicians. After years of shoestring tours, the trip was the last one for bassist Jessica Kion and her husband, guitarist Ben Levin. 

The remaining four musicians of Bent Knee will continue to play on. Through a combination of playing shows and doing side gigs, the musicians are doing OK. Multi-instrumentalist and producer Vince Welch just purchased a home with his wife, singer and keyboardist Courtney Swain. If anything, this short summer tour demonstrated that the benefits can still outweigh the hardships, even amid the changed financial landscape.

“We came out for this supershort tour that wasn’t publicized hard ... and everyone walked home with a decent paycheck and had a great time,” says violinist Chris Baum. “There’s a lot of optimism right there.”

On a stretch of highway under construction near Chicago’s downtown skyscrapers, horns blare in standstill traffic. As seven lanes of cars funnel into one, a black van inches along in the 90-degree heat. The van’s occupants have just finished work and are now slumped in their seats. Rush hour? No, it’s half-past midnight.

Ninety minutes earlier, the four men and two women had finished entertaining roughly 120 people who came to hear their rock band, Bent Knee, play a small, sweaty venue named Schubas Tavern. It was the latest stop in a nine-date tour, their first as headliners since the pandemic upended the live arts world.

Over a decade of touring, Bent Knee has endured plenty of scrapes on the road. There was the time in 2018 they drove through a blizzard in Wyoming. Their van skidded off the road on black ice and flipped onto its side. 

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Musicians are revered for their creativity and artistic skill. But in the current economic climate and music scene, “making it” has as much to do with perseverance as musicianship.

“It took five seconds,” recalls multi-instrumentalist and producer Vince Welch.

“The two scariest details that stick with me are, one, the fact that I couldn’t open the driver’s side door because the wind was so strong,” says lanky guitarist Ben Levin. “The other chilling detail is that Jessica was hanging from her seat belt. Vince had to physically ...”

“Catch me,” finishes bassist Jessica Kion.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The six-piece band Bent Knee has been together since 2009. At a stop in Indiana, band members pose in front of their rental van.

Mr. Levin and Ms. Kion are married. Onstage they’re a goofy duo, playfully hip-bumping each other. For once, Mr. Levin isn’t smiling. He can’t forget their near miss in Wyoming and the reason they kept driving in a whiteout, not willing to pull over for a night.  

“This emphasis that you just can’t miss the gig, because if you miss a gig it’s a huge cost liability – that almost killed us,” he says. 

Every night across America, countless bands operating on a shoestring budget abide by the ethos that the show must go on. They can’t afford to do otherwise. These musicians are the original gig workers. Bent Knee realizes that it’s not likely to be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine or on a Marvel movie soundtrack. Its goal is more modest: to make a living wage as musicians by building a robust fan base that is willing to pay to hear its music and see it play. 

This used to be a well-trodden path for rock bands, a middle tier of fame and fortune that could support a middle-class lifestyle. Today it’s harder than ever to break out of obscurity. Simply put, the digital economy rewards the biggest acts, leaving the rest to chase the crumbs. 

“You have two economies in the music industry now,” says Andrew Leff, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles, who used to manage rock bands. “You have the economy which I’ll call Big Music, which is the 1%, and then you have the 99% of everybody else, which Bent Knee is part of. And the industry doesn’t care about the other 99% anymore, which is why groups like Bent Knee are doomed. And I say that not out of cynicism because, listen, I love Bent Knee.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Courtney Swain, the band’s lead singer, unloads the van in Chicago ahead of a show at Schubas Tavern.

Bent Knee doesn’t make it easy on itself. Its genre-bending art rock is hard to label – and to market to the masses. But underappreciated, idiosyncratic acts have historically lit the creative bonfires that rejuvenate the mainstream music industry, from disco to grunge and beyond.  

To get this far, Bent Knee has squared its shoulders against the doubters, found alternate sources of income, and dug into deep reserves of grit. The question is whether this is enough to ride out the post-pandemic uncertainty and keep the band going. 

“I think a big theme for the band for many years is just to persevere,” says the band’s singer and keyboardist Courtney Swain. “It’s a big bond that we’ve formed through that.” 

The morning after the Chicago show, the band hits the road for Pontiac, Michigan. Sound check is at 4:30 p.m.

The van hurtles down Interstate 94 beneath an oceanic sky dotted with small archipelagoes of clouds. On the sides of the highway, strips of peeled tires look like rubber roadkill. Turkey vultures swirl above billboards in which smiling attorneys promise bonanza payouts for injury lawsuits. 

The band only stops once to fill the van’s tank. Unfurling themselves from the vehicle, the musicians head to the bathroom. Inside the gas station, the lunch options range from fossilized doughnuts to hot dogs that have been tanned orange from sitting under heat lamps. 

Yes, it’s every bit as romantic as it sounds. But for violinist Chris Baum, it’s life on the open road – and he loves it. “I’ve seen more of the world than most people will in their lifetimes,” he says. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Jessica Kion, who plays bass guitar, writes down the night’s playlist during a sound check in Chicago. This is her last tour with Bent Knee; she and Ben Levin, the lead guitarist, have decided to quit.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Jessica Kion, bass guitarist, jots down the night’s play list.

“I like the ‘being in-motion,’” says Ms. Swain, who grew up in Japan and is now married to Mr. Welch, the multi-instrumentalist.  

The singer co-founded Bent Knee with Mr. Levin in 2009 while they were both students at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The band’s name is a playful portmanteau of their first names: Ben and (Cour)tney. Mr. Levin, gregarious by nature, recruited the other members in the college cafeteria. 

As the six musicians holed up together to write songs, they became a mutual support group. Each began to share formative experiences. Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth had grappled with depression. Mr. Baum lost his father fairly young. Mr. Levin endured summer camps that he likens to “Lord of the Flies.” 

The band that emerged from these sessions shares a quirky sense of humor; they played with bags over their heads on a recent livestreamed show. Their diverse musical influences - Kiss, Fiona Apple, Kendrick Lamar, Nine Inch Nails – go into a blender that produces songs like “Queer Gods,” a 2021 release in which sugary auto-tuned pop is backed by heavily distorted mariachi horns. By contrast, a song like “Bone Rage” is powered by defibrillator jolts of guitar, a glitchy high-hat rhythm, and operatic interludes. Predictability isn’t their strong suit. 

Bent Knee’s big break came in 2016 when a subsidiary of Sony Music signed Bent Knee for two albums. The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe wrote features about the group. Bigger bands asked it to tour as their support act.

Going out on the road is what rock ’n’ roll is all about. For decades, musicians went on tour in the United States and overseas to promote their latest albums, but most of their income came not from concerts but from vinyl and then CD sales. That was the business model.

But once music became digitized, first as downloads and then as streams, people started paying less for it. It was easy to share digital files. It was also easy to pirate music. Today millions of people subscribe to streaming platforms like Spotify; millions more simply listen for free on YouTube and other digital platforms. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A sign on the door at Schubas Tavern in Chicago announces the night’s performers.

Artists like Drake with millions of followers can rake in big money from licensing tracks to streaming platforms. But a single stream is worth peanuts: roughly $0.0038, according to the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers. Bent Knee has only one song that has been played more than 1 million streams on Spotify, which adds up to $3,800. 

And that’s not even their paycheck: Spotify pays out to the song’s copyright owner, typically a record label. “The label takes 85% of that money and most artists are still on a 15% royalty, which was low even back in the physical [media] era,” says Mr. Leff, who used to manage Living Colour and King Crimson. 

For most artists, touring is now the only viable path to making a living. Big names typically charge hundreds of dollars per ticket. For acts like Bent Knee, though, tickets cost $15 each. After promoters and venues take their cut, there’s not much left for six band members and a manager, which is why Bent Knee always brings boxes of T-shirts and records to sell to fans at concerts. 

Odd as it sounds, band merchandise is what can make touring profitable. Still, there are only so many T-shirts you can sell at $40 a pop, which is why members of Bent Knee aren’t going to buy mansions with guitar-shaped swimming pools anytime soon.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Bent Knee merchandise, including vinyl records, is on display at Schubas Tavern. Smaller bands rely on merchandise sales while touring to turn a profit.

The Pontiac show is on the second floor of a venue called The Crofoot in the heart of what feels like a ghost town. In 2009, General Motors shuttered its manufacturing plant here. Empty storefronts look as if they’ve been closed for decades. Towering overhead, a high-rise art deco building seems as lonely as a decommissioned lighthouse. 

The motels and hotels where Bent Knee stays aren’t glamorous either. But a two-star Midwestern hotel with the euphemistic description of “unpretentious” sure beats the punk flophouses where it stayed in its early years. 

“We slept in some janky places,” says Mr. Welch, who plays keyboards and also uses a laptop to spontaneously create sound designs onstage. “I’m pretty sure I would not be able to continue to tour like we were touring at the beginning.”

As prices rise, budgeting for multicity tours – van rental, insurance, hotels, and meals – gets tougher. Gas alone for this tour is likely to top $1,000. At least this time Bent Knee is the main act. It’s also done tours as support acts to other bands, which earn an even smaller cut since the idea is to gain exposure to new fans. 

When the six musicians studied at Berklee, the importance of finding alternate revenue-making ventures was drilled into them.

Most employers won’t give full-time workers a month off to go on tour every year, says Mr. Levin. He hasn’t had a day job in years, or the regular salary that comes with it. Five years ago, he had to wear broken glasses with a rubber band holding the damaged lens in its frame.

Today he has over 150,000 subscribers to his channel on YouTube, which he parlays into online guitar courses that can net him $150 per hour. Mr. Baum is a session violinist. Mr. Wallace-Ailsworth, who has been profiled in Modern Drummer magazine, teaches music lessons over Zoom. And Ms. Swain plays keyboards in musical theater productions in Providence, Rhode Island, where she lives with Mr. Welch, who moonlights as a driver for a ride-hailing service. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The band relaxes backstage at Schubas Tavern a few hours before its show.

A few years ago, Ms. Swain talked with her therapist about the stress of living on her erratic musician’s income.

“She gave me this printout, which was called a values worksheet, and on it was just all of these values about, like, I want to be part of a community; I want to be financially viable; I want to find meaning in my work; I want to have friends; I want to love somebody,” recalls the singer. “What that did for me was that I realized that I’m really successful and happy in the sense that I’m fulfilling a lot of my values.”

Ms. Swain says that although she wants people to hear her music, she’s making it for herself. But like virtually all performers, she enjoys the validation and morale boost she gets from an appreciative live audience.

That night in Pontiac, Ms. Swain’s voice swoops, dips, and glides through several octaves as effortlessly as the turn of a dial. The audience is smaller than in Chicago, but it’s a more energetic show. For a rock song called “Lovemenot,” Ms. Swain’s voice takes on a gnarly tone. During the crunchy guitar riff, Mr. Levin and Ms. Kion are bouncing up and down. Mr. Baum’s fringe hangs low as his frenzied bowing arm seesaws on the violin. The audience heaves like storm-tossed waves that are trying to batter against the stage. Ms. Swain shakes her long hair. She’s beaming.

Bent Knee is a big believer in a business model called 1,000 True Fans. In 2008, Wired magazine writer Kevin Kelly published an essay that posited the idea that if you can find a thousand “true fans” who “will purchase anything and everything you produce,” you can carve out a sustainable career in the arts. 

It’s an idea that speaks to a strain of Silicon Valley techno-utopianism, a counterweight to the network effect of tech platforms and their winner-take-all culture. And it would seem to favor acts like Bent Knee that are far from blockbuster status. The band members are active on digital platforms that exist to facilitate that sort of connection between artist and fans. These include Bandcamp, a streaming and merchandise sales site for musicians; the crowdfunding site Kickstarter; and the subscription patronage service Patreon. Ms. Swain says that one fan used to pay her $100 per month via her personal Patreon page. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The crowd shows its appreciation for Bent Knee during a concert on June 14, 2022.

But some in the music industry are skeptical about how many struggling artists have actually managed to find their true fans who pay them $10 a month. One thousand doesn’t sound like a lot. But first you have to find them. 

George Howard, a music industry veteran and professor at Berklee, reckons that a band would need to get its music in front of about half a million fans since only a sliver of them will qualify as hardcore enthusiasts. The kind of fan who will hand over their credit card details for recurring monthly payments. 

“As they sort of cascade down to that funnel, most of them are like, ‘Yeah, I like this band OK, but there’s no way I’m adding to my Hulu bill, my Netflix bill, my whatever bill,’” says Mr. Howard, who co-founded a digital marketing firm and is a director of TuneCore, an independent music distributor.

Mr. Howard says that streaming platforms have data that can pinpoint “true fans,” but they don’t share that information with artists. He argues that blockchain technology, which powers cryptocurrencies, could eventually help bands get access to that information.

For now, Bent Knee is trying to deepen the connections with the fans that reach out to it. 

On this tour, a pair of devotees who’d just graduated from high school flew from Florida to Cleveland to catch a show. One follower from Ohio is attending every show. Another admirer buys the band dinner every time they visit Michigan and has hosted them overnight at his home. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Jessica Kion and her husband, Ben Levin, walk back to the venue after a quick dinner before the performance that night.

“They have an interesting rapport with fans that I haven’t seen with a lot of bands where they know, like, a lot of people’s names,” says Anthony Gesa, Bent Knee’s manager. “The band cares about the people who care about them.”

The fans, in turn, become evangelists. Lia Corrales, an astronomy professor, was introduced to Bent Knee by a friend in 2017. After the gig in Pontiac, her fifth Bent Knee show, she explains that she name-checks the band on her profile on dating apps. “For a long time when I was dating and on OkCupid, I would mention this band. I literally got people messaging me who were not good matches, but just saying, ‘Thank you for introducing me to this band.’” 

When the Pontiac show is over, the band members chat with fans and autograph records. Ms. Kion is still buzzing from the energy of the gig. But her husband is in a more reflective mood. Before the show, he’d called his parents, who were in Boston pet-sitting the couple’s new dog, Rose. When the pit bull heard his voice over the speakerphone, she began to bark. 

“It broke my heart,” says the guitarist. “I’ve got to get back to Rose.”

It’s not just the dog, though. And not just about Mr. Levin’s pensive mood in Pontiac. The guitar-and-bassist couple have already decided – call it a pandemic epiphany – that they’ve had enough of life on the road. And so, this is their last tour with Bent Knee. 

“I used to be made for this,” says Mr. Levin. “I used to drive, like, 17 hours in a row, and I’d be like, ‘Yeah!’”

“Twenty-two [hours] is your record,” Ms. Kion says to her husband. 

“My belief was there was a magic to travel,” says the guitarist. “Life happens, and you change.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Courtney Swain, Anthony Gesa, and Ben Levin check into their motel at 1:38 a.m. in Merrillville, Indiana, after a show in Chicago.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Ben Levin and his wife, Jessica Kion, eat breakfast in their motel room.

The duo broke the news to the others before the tour started. Each night onstage, Ms. Swain and Mr. Baum each pay tribute to the guitarist and bassist. There are visible lumps in throats. 

The remaining four musicians plan to reconvene for a songwriting session in the fall. It will be an opportunity for Bent Knee, minus two original members, to once again reinvent its sound. It also plans to continue touring. Through a combination of playing shows and doing side gigs, the musicians are doing OK. Mr. Welch and Ms. Swain just purchased a home. If anything, this short summer tour demonstrated that the benefits can still outweigh the hardships.

“The band really hasn’t been active for the length of the pandemic, and we came out for this supershort tour that wasn’t publicized hard ... and everyone walked home with a decent paycheck and had a great time,” says Mr. Baum in a phone call a few days after the last date in New Jersey. “There’s a lot of optimism right there.”  

Mr. Levin is still going to be making music, both solo and with his wife and other collaborators. He’s not going to miss all the hours in limbo in the back of the van or arriving at motels at 2 a.m. where his bedroom is flooded with water. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Ben Levin and Jessica Kion interact during the sound check at Schubas Tavern in Chicago. The two met while studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

But when he thinks back to the final tour with Bent Knee, that’s not where his mind drifts. What he remembers is a brass marching band on a field in Michigan.

It’s the morning after the Pontiac concert, and the band has driven two hours outside Detroit to Adrian College, a liberal arts college. When it arrives, the college’s football field is a hive of activity, filled by more than 100 shirtless drummers and trumpet, bugle, and French horn players who make up The Cavaliers Drum & Bugle Corps. They’re rehearsing a production titled “Signs of the Times” that they are set to perform in an international championship in Indianapolis on Aug. 3. It features adaptations of pieces by Bach, the Steve Miller Band, Harry Styles – and Bent Knee.

Sitting in a press box in the stands, members of Bent Knee mouth “wow” to each other as The Cavaliers play a rendition of their song “The Floor Is Lava.” The players’ polished brass instruments gleam like mirrors. The sound blast is immense. Coaches in the stands choreograph the movement of the men on the field as they shift from one formation to the next.

During a rehearsal break, one of the coaches invites the band onto the field. Kevin LeBeouf is a Bent Knee fan – he was at the show the night before – and he had the idea of adapting four Bent Knee songs for brass instrumentation. He’s thrilled that they’ve come to the rehearsal. The Cavaliers form a ring around the band members, who sit on the 50-yard line, and Mr. LeBeouf conducts a rendition of another song, “Way Too Long.” 

Afterward, The Cavaliers cheer for the band whose music they’ve played. Each member of Bent Knee is grinning; Ms. Kion looks teary. “It felt like one of our songs was used in a movie that was amazing, in a scene that perfectly fit,” she says later.

Mr. Levin stands up to address the assembled corps. He’s been thinking about what it means to quit Bent Knee and how music it’s created can take on a new life beyond the band. 

“For me, this is like a bone-vibrating, soul-nourishing gift that I’ll never forget,” he says. “Maybe the closest you could ever imagine to being in the audience’s shoes after 12 years of doing this.”

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