Brian Karscig has been a fixture of the San Diego music scene since I discovered there was a San Diego music scene. It was a different time, before twitter and iPhones, even before MySpace. He’s met me at a coffee shop near 30th and University in North Park, which is the cradle of scenester civilization in San Diego.
I’m actually early for our meeting, so I sit at a table outside, to try to catch him on his way in, and offer to buy him a coffee before we start the interview. As I said, Karscig is a fixture, which means a lot of people have seen him on stage with various bands over the years. And we’re at a coffee shop in North Park, where all the cool kids are. Naturally, he ran into some other musicians and had promised to go to a show and gotten a coffee before he even made his way to me.
Like me, Karscig is old enough to remember the days before Evites replaced flyers. He has dark hair and a slender build. He’s got a baby face hidden behind a full beard and mirrored aviators. He’s fond of wearing hats onstage. The rest of his wardrobe stays about the same onstage, and off; Tight-fitting pants, vintage button-down, long sleeved shirt, vest, and a belt with a serious buckle.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to make a living as a writer for years, and I’m always looking for case studies of people that make a living with their art. Luckily, he’s been interviewed many more times than I’ve been an interviewer, and after I tell him I want to hear about his experience with the ups-and-downs of the music industry, he begins, right at the beginning.
“It’s an ever changing climate with music,” Karscig says, “I never set out with a specific, real goal, except to make music to live.”
Making a living as an artist has always been a tricky proposition. Even during the Renaissance, there were only so many noblemen looking to bankroll creative geniuses. Today, the only wealthy patrons left are of the Hugh Hefner variety, and they’re not interested in geniuses of any sort. Singer, songwriter, and guitar player Brian Karscig has managed to achieve his seemingly humble goal of making music to live, while most people I know can barely make a living with a sensible degree and a dull desk job.
“I started out in high school, with Jason and Mark, and we started a band called Dishwater, just playing around town at the Casbah and the old Spirit club.”
After a couple of years, Karscig and his former schoolmates, now band mates, went on to form another band, Convoy.
“Convoy was my first little taste of national touring, you can make a living off music, get a record deal, stuff like that. It was also my first experience of how things change constantly in music.”
“I haven’t had a day job in a long time. I worked in a French restaurant in Rancho Bernardo, did telemarketing, and my friend Mark and I had a window washing company. That was fun. But, I haven’t really had a day job since Convoy got busy.”
Even though he’s been fortunate enough to avoid waiting tables for the last two decades, following the path of a professional musician has been a long and winding road. Karscig details the brutal food chain of record labels buying each other out, bigger fish eating little ones, and putting finished records aside, instead of spending the money to release and market them. This practice of “shelving” leaves artists trapped in contracts with no choice but to sit and wait for their deals to expire.
“We were just kind of sitting ducks there [at the label]. We couldn’t do anything as Convoy. After a year of twiddling our thumbs, not being able to do anything, a couple of the guys got frustrated, got married, whatever. Mark, Jason and I took a bunch of ideas that were going to be the next Convoy album, and started Louis XIV.”
“Louis XIV was an example of how everything can happen overnight. With Convoy, I was at it for six or seven years, touring, sleeping on floors, doing it hardcore, just putting a lot of effort into it. And then with Louis, within a year, we had a deal on a major label, and had a big hit song.”
Karscig tells me about the grind of writing, recording, and touring at the international level; the expectations and the stakes are higher. Behind the scenes, the personal lives of the band members began to suffer. There’s a reason this story is a cliché; the business is structured for artist burnout.
“That was 2005 when we signed, then, by 2009, we’re supposed to put out another record, and half of everyone at Atlantic [Records] got fired.”
By this point, Louis XIV had attempted a tour with hired guns stepping in to replace some of the band members at the last minute, and as the déjà vu of waiting out another shelved record kicked in, Karscig began to realize it might be time to move on. When the band returned from a tour in Australia, they decided to a break.
“I took a plane straight to Cambridge and finished some songs I’d been working on for a few years on my own…After playing with the same guys for the last 12 or 13 years, I thought this might be my only chance to do something on my own.”
Karscig finished a few songs in the studio, and began to worry about releasing something new to fans who were expecting more Louis XIV material.
“I kind of thought of releasing it as The Nervous Record, because I was worried about how people were going to react.”
While he was preparing to release the songs as a one-off side project, Karscig got a call from The Killers, offering him an opening spot on their upcoming tour. In three weeks. At that point, he didn’t even have a band. Karscig called on some musicians he knew in other San Diego bands, drummer Andy Ridley from Transfer, and pianist Maren Parusel. Through mutual friends, he was introduced to guitar player Lindsay Matheson, and after a little googling revealed that The Nervous Records was already taken, The Nervous Wreckords was born.
They may not have a hit record, yet, but the change seems to be just what Karscig needed after so many years laboring under the weight of other people’s expectations with his band mates in Convoy and Louis XIV.
“It’s been fun. It’s been rewarding rocking out with such an enthusiastic group of people.”
Karscig acknowledges that he’s lucky to have the luxury to release his music with The Nervous Wreckords without the backing of a record label, big or small. He’s garnered enough experience, connections, and financial stability to be able to release the first two albums of this new project himself.
Producing albums for other artists is another avenue that Karscig uses to make a living in music. While he was with Louis XIV, Karscig and his band mates took advantage of having major-label money to build their own recording studio here in San Diego. With great equipment now at their disposal, he began to record other bands.
“Since we really didn’t need the money at the time, we just started to record our friend’s bands for super cheap. None of our friends in bands had $600 a day to record something good. It’s just kind of grown from there. It’s a changing climate for musicians. You kind of have to stay on your toes to try and stay one step ahead.”
To paraphrase Darwin, and perhaps Madonna, the key to surviving as an artist is “adapt or die.” Brian Karscig has adapted to being successful, being shelved, and being unsigned. It’s helped him achieve that humble sounding, yet nearly impossible goal, of making music to live.