Gigging for a living: How local entertainers make it work in the Vail Valley￼
Part II in the Vail Daily's 'Making It Work' series examines the lives of local entertainers
In the Vail Valley, après-ski is almost as popular as the skiing itself. What’s more fun than coming off the hill with your friends or family, grabbing a few beers, and bragging about your big air before singing along to a little “Brown Eyed Girl” or dancing in your ski boots?
But what about the entertainers? They’ve crafted their skills to know your requests, read the crowd, get you to put down your phones for a while and enjoy the moment, high-fiving with your buddies at the bar.
How do they make it in an expensive resort area like Vail? The Vail Daily checked in with nearly a dozen local entertainers to find out how they make gigging work in the Vail Valley.
Housing is a big topic when it comes to the local workforce challenges in Eagle County, and that certainly holds true for the musicians in the valley. Seasoned musical professionals who have been here for decades found it easier to get into the housing market at a lower price, years ago, even if it didn’t seem like that at the time.
“We were lucky to buy in 1999 and we thought it was expensive then,” said Terry Armistead, who performs in the Turntable Review and also teaches skiing. “Now it’s much more difficult to afford real estate here, but the county has some assistance programs and while difficult, it is not impossible.”
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Still, Armistead said there’s a common misunderstanding about the economics of the gig economy for local musicians.
“It’s funny, music rates have not gone up as much as other wages have,” she said. “People think, ‘Oh you play for three hours so you make a certain amount per hour.’ What they don’t see is the lifetime you’ve put into your art and the equipment and cost to be a musician. That is what we charge.”
Cristian Basso has been playing in the valley for 25 years in bands such as Little Hercules, a nationally recognized studio project titled Royal Peeps, The Sessh, Renegade Sons and now leads Babaux and the Peacemakers. He purchased a house 21 years ago in Eagle.
“At that time, my friends thought I was crazy for moving down valley,” he said. “I’m glad I did. If I didn’t have housing, I would probably be looking for all means of earning an income so, being a musician would definitely help that cause and be part of the financial solution.”
John Dunn has been working in Vail since 2012 and plays a wide range of pop, rock and country hits and he’ll also sit in with his Austrian friends and play some German folk music. He lived in the valley for three years until the rent went up. He then spent two winters in Eagle.
“I traveled with a camper during the summer and lived in there. Now, I live in Breckenridge where I bought a house in 2017, and just commute to my shows,” Dunn said.
“If I was not able to find housing here, I would commute from another town where affordable housing still exists. For me, that was Alma,” said Kevin Danzig, who has been playing in the valley for 14 years. “That drive was very challenging in the winter season and definitely not for the faint of heart.”
Danzig not only performs as a solo act, but also plays in bands such as the Buzzed Drivers and Gandy Dancers. You can typically find him at the King’s Club Lounge at the Sonnenalp hotel in Vail Village and the Tavern on the Square at the Arrabelle in Lionshead.
Andy Cyphert, who has been performing as a solo act in Vail for eight years, most recently at the Red Lion in Vail and Southside Benderz in Avon, bounced around quite a bit during his first few years in Vail.
“I was always looking for cheaper rent options. I even slept in my Jeep for periods of time until I established housing for that season. I’ve since found adequate long-term housing which is great to have that reassurance.” Cyphert said. “If I couldn’t find housing, I would recommend not keeping many possessions, getting a vehicle with good heat, and getting a gym membership in order to shower every once in a while.”
For Taylor Hines, who has been working in and around the valley for five years at Shakedown Bar in Vail and living here permanently for just over a year, finding housing was almost impossible.
“I applied to over 25 different places with no financial issues or anything else to stop me from renting a place and I didn’t get accepted at any of them,” Hines said.
“After three months of trying, we were able to make something work as a lock-off situation with one of my closest friends. A lot of work and a lot of money went into that, just to be able to rent a place. I can’t stress enough how impossible this task was,” Hines said.
Wages are another big topic in Eagle County, with many residents having multiple jobs. The joke is, if you live in the Vail Valley, you either have three homes or three jobs. Many musicians supplement their performances, especially when they are just starting out.
“I have several jobs to supplement my music. I am a ski instructor in the winter and I am on Minturn Town Council and raising four kids takes more time than most could imagine,” Armistead said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are a dual-income family and I wouldn’t be able to follow my musical pursuits without my husband’s support. But I do think if I was single with no kids, I would be able to support myself just playing music.”
Basso is both a licensed landscape architect and a solar and energy storage consultant.
“You could probably survive only being a musician in the valley if you liked that post-college, care-free and roommate style of living. I think it would be very difficult to own a house, raise a family, have insurance and save money if you were dedicated to only being a musician here,” Basso said.
“In general, I think it has gotten harder to make it, particularly because the cost of living, housing especially, but everything has gone up a lot, relative to the fees we receive,” Dunn said. “I would recommend anybody coming to the valley, musician or otherwise, to have some sort of savings or supplemental income to keep them afloat while they get established and to weather the seasonal ups and downs.”
“I have a commercial driver’s license and I drove for ECO Transit for a few years while I proved myself in the Valley,” Danzig said. “I now only play music for a living and I’m very fortunate to be able to say this, but it’s always a smart idea to have a backup plan.”
“Most people are very surprised to find that music is my only job and that I can sustain myself here in Vail. Granted, throughout the seasons, I rarely play less than seven gigs a week and have played as many as 13 in a week,” Cyphert said. “If you want to make it as an artist and musician here in Vail, be prepared to work extremely hard and often.”
In addition to playing a lot of gigs, Cyphert says he spends several hours a week handling phone call and email inquiries for private events, weddings and corporate gigs, while also drawing up invoices and contracts.
“There’s a lot of side work that people never think about. If you are willing to take on that responsibility, you will certainly find success and meaning in your craft,” Cyphert said.
The restrictions during COVID-19 hit musicians particularly hard. The lockdown and ceasing of events meant that many performers were out of a job overnight, which made having a secondary source of income even more important.
“COVID swept every gig I had right off of the table. Hotel work, private parties, corporate events and weddings were instantly gone,” Peter Fontanese said. Fontanese has been playing in the Vail Valley for 40 years and can typically be found playing in the Vail Valley Band with Beth Swearingen and Don Watson. “Luckily, certain entities in our valley really stepped up in providing some work like Beaver Creek Resort Company and we were all very grateful.”
Kathy Morrow has played the piano at several places including Maya at the Westin, Splendido at the Chateau and the King’s Club at the Sonnenalp. She also performs with The Fabulous Femmes with Beth Swearingen and Charis Patterson and Three For All with Brent Gordon and Larry Dutmer.
“The gig I had for six years was canceled immediately due to COVID, and, eventually, completely shut down. That was tough. I had to reinvent the wheel. So, I hung out my shingle as a private music teacher for piano, voice and ukulele. It has turned out to be extremely beneficial,” Morrow said.
Dave Tucker moved to the valley in November of 2013, and first played on the stage at Pepi’s. He has also headlined at the Red Lion and Shakedown Bar in Vail.
“The pandemic reshaped my financial world for sure and as a result I turned back to my other trade, which is carpentry,” Tucker said. “Since then, I have started my own light-remodeling company called Guitarpenter, Ltd. and play gigs on the side, much like I did for years when I started playing music in New York City and New Jersey. I’ve got a pickup truck with tools and guitars. Work all day and gig at night.”
For some, the pandemic created ways to cultivate those in the industry. Scott Rednor, musician and owner of Shakedown Bar, turned this unforeseen occurrence into an opportunity.
“We started our non-profit GoMapsMusic to help artists during the pandemic and it has now led us down a path that we may never have realized. I believe all change needs to be embraced and that is when opportunities appear,” Rednor said.
Hines, who was also involved with Rednor with the GoMapsMusic project, also found it beneficial during turbulent times.
“GoMapsMusic allowed us to keep chugging along in the music realm with a purpose. It was extremely helpful to making a living and honestly might be the only way I made it through as a music industry professional,” Hines said. “Beyond that, it has now become one of the coolest and most fulfilling ventures I could have dreamed of.”
As hard as it may be to make it in the Vail Valley as a performer, these musicians encourage those interested to seek it out.
“Musicians are a unique bunch of people who don’t always cherish money as much as they cherish creating their art,” Basso said. “Certainly don’t give up on your musical dreams but be sure to design your life so that you can make a living and have time and the financial means to pursue the things that mean the most to you.”
Although Hines has given the housing and financial side of working in the music industry in the Vail Valley a hard time, he does find it rewarding.
“I absolutely love it here. It’s been tough, but my journey has been amazing, from the scenery just outside my front door to the incredible people I work with and the amazing work I get to immerse myself in, I really wouldn’t have it any other way,” Hines said.
Cyphert feels that being an artist has always been a negotiation of passion and practicality.
“You are trying to fulfill your soul with your art while at the same time battling the limitations of your environment and the expectations of society,” Cyphert said. “Vail is an extremely risky place to try to accomplish that, but it is beyond worth it.”