Kassi Valazza, LLC

Getting Paid and Making Sense

“I think we're on a wheel,” Kassi Valazza tells me over a coffee at one her favorite spots in Northeast Portland, Oregon. “And I think at some point it's got to break and begin to get better. It's just gonna take a long time.”

It’s early-May, and the Arizona-born musician, songwriter, and visual artist just finished up a three-week West Coast club tour with two sold out shows in her adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, in hopes she returns to her new base of New Orleans with enough money to get her to the next tour in June. After paying each of the four other band members an equal split of the gig fees and merch sales, after covering tour expenses like food, travel and lodging, reimbursing the record label for vinyl LPs sold along the way, paying her booking agent, and something she must be forgetting, it ain’t much. As she will tell you from the stage, she’s broke. She’ll also tell you she’s very lucky. Reconciling the two on the daily is the challenge. It’s hard to buy gas with a song.

“It’s not lucrative,” Kassi says. “Like you see $20,000 in your bank account, and then the next day it’s all gone, spent on doing the job. That shit is heartbreaking. It’s stressful.”

When you’re the artist, when you own the business, everybody gets paid their fee, and you get the leftovers. One day, maybe that’s enough. Maybe it makes her wealthy. Ten years into a music career, however, Kassi, age 32, is lucky enough to scrape by without a day job, leaning on friends and a tightknit community to stay afloat as she invests everything into building this business of hers: a woman, a guitar, her voice, her songs. She can flex from solo folk singer up to a six-person wall of psychedelic sound.

Kassi is part of a growing class of musicians whose music may never be what we’d call mainstream, but who nonetheless are leaving their marks on music and culture. Kassi has two critically acclaimed albums, a label, a booking agent. She is Portland-famous and regionally relevant enough to fill a couple hundred seats in Seattle, but beyond the giant evergreens of the Northwest, she’s largely unknown. That’s partly why she moved Southeast to New Orleans, to be closer to more opportunities. She’s yet to play in Texas. She’s barely broken into the East Coast.

In 2014, Kassi, dropped out of art school at Arizona State University, where she was studying painting. Itching to get out of Arizona, she and a boyfriend at the time decided to move to Portland where some friends had previously landed. She got a job at a bakery, making pies. Music, which had always been part of Kassi’s life, bubbled to the surface amid the deep wells of folk, country, and psychedelic inspiration in her new West Coast outpost. Her dad was a musician, played around the Southwest before Kassi was born. He worked as service tech for the local gas utility. Splitting time with him and her mom in Phoenix, she wrote poems and songs but never dared perform them; she was far too scared and anxious to do anything in front of anybody. Painting or sculpture appeared to be her path.

But in Portland, something clicked with music. She remembers seeing Zach Bryson play one night at the Landmark Saloon. “I fell in love with his voice,” she says. “I introduced myself and we became friends. Eventually I was like, I have some songs if you ever wanna hear them, or like you want harmonies. We just started hanging out, and he was the first person to be like, oh, you should do this. You should really do this. I owe a lot to Zach and his encouragement in those early days.”

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An album’s worth materialized, and Kassi set to building a band. She met Oregon Music Hall of Famer and local legend Lewi Longmire at his bar, the Laurelthirst Public House, a local live music institution for which Lewi is part owner; he’s been running the stage for more than 20 years. He’s also a multi-instrumentalist hiring out to countless bands when not gigging with his own. The initial list of 13 players credited on her debut album, ‘Dear Dead Days,’ include three of today’s band: Lewi, Tobias Berblinger, and Ned Folkerth. Sydney Nash, Adam Witkowski, and Erik Clampitt solidify the band today, when Kassi can afford to bring them all out. “It’s just insane how lucky I am,” Kassi says. “I get shit for not having women in my band, but these guys are geniuses and have an immense amount of wisdom. They’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve learned a ton from them about music and about this life. I am so committed to making this work for them.”

Dear Dead Days was recorded at Kassi’s rental house in 2018, completely independent of the industry. It only came to vinyl life thanks to a pre-order strategy, sold mostly within the local community to folks willing to wait nearly a year for it. Kassi uploaded it to streaming services. “Then like three years later,” Kassi says. “Greg Vandy at KEXP in Seattle heard it and booked us to play on his show. That’s kind of where people started catching on. But it took a while. I always tell friends putting out albums to just be prepared. Nothing’s gonna happen for like three to four, five years. But then again, who knows; it’s all luck.”

In the summer of 2020, Kassi had a critically acclaimed album on her hands but few ways to market it. The pandemic knocked out tours. House concerts helped keep the Portland music community afloat, and there was the gift of time to write new songs and make videos. The Western AF Youtube channel came calling after KEXP. Their video of her song, “Johnny Dear,” caught some internet fire. The video popped and today sits at 1.5 million views. Kassi credits that to kickstarting her Instagram followers and streaming numbers. No marketing. No promotion. No tour to capitalize on the moment because of COVID. Just two highlight spots on Youtube. It’s modern word of mouth mixed with social media scale. A little bit of money started to trickle in from Spotify and Apple Music. And because she owns Dear Dead Days, its songs, the publishing outright, after a cut to the streaming behemoths (around 20%), she doesn’t have to split any of the revenue she makes from it. That’s the nice and clean side of streaming for an artist that can pull independence off.

Dear Dead Days has been re-printed on vinyl a couple times, when Kassi needed money to move to New Orleans, for instance. A truly independent release for her means she and friends set up the pre-order on the artist friendly Bandcamp platform. She collects the money. She buys the boxes, she writes the labels, she mails them out. She deals with customer service when a LP shows up cracked in a fan’s hand. “I’ll never do it again,” she says. “It’s too much on top of touring and everything else. I have thought about giving that album to the label too.” Copies of Dear Dead Days range from $75 to $250 on Discogs’ marketplace. There’s a growing cult mystique to both the music and scarcity of that LP.

The small Portland label Fluff & Gravy Records signed Kassi in 2022, and her second album, Kassi Valazaa Knows Nothing dropped in 2023 to further critical acclaim. A year on, she and the band are yet to see a dime from it, as all streams and album sales are still working to pay back the advance from the label. Kassi doesn’t know the magic sales or streaming number that must be crossed in order to begin profiting. She’s happy to not have to deal with the business side. “It was one of those things,” Kassi says, “where, like, we made the record, and I just knew it would be fine. It’s good. It was the first time I was, like, I have no doubt.” She was prepared to self-release it, but Fluff & Gravy showed interest, gained Kassi’s trust and proved their worth by doing good by some of her friends and now labelmates, Anna Tivel and Jeffrey Martin. “I like small,” she continues. “I know that about myself. I always work better in small groups. I wanna have an emotional connection with the people there and know that they care. A few other labels expressed interest, but I didn’t have that same sense I have with John at Fluff and Gravy. I love them.”

She knows she may have left money or opportunity on the table. “I know they’re a smaller label and there are things they can’t do,” she says. “And like money’s great. But I’ve gone my whole life with no money and made things work, so as long as the product stays good, I’m good.” The grind of the troubadour still exists if you’re willing, to be moving.

The highest minimum wage in the U.S. is around $15/hr. Draw that out across a 40hr work week, 52 weeks a year. That’s $31,200/year (before taxes). The average per-stream payment to artists is roughly $.004. Finish the math and an artist will need 7.8 million streams a year to make minimum wage. On average, that’s 21,370 streams a day.

Kassi has 33,300 monthly listeners on Spotify. “Johnny Dear” has more than 1.3 million lifetime streams; the next song is 530,000, both from songs released in 2019, so that’s spread roughly over five years. Other songs hover between 30,000-150,000 streams. All just to say, she needn’t show her receipts to know that’s not even close to bringing her up to minimum wage.

That leaves touring to pay the bills, to say nothing of taxes, savings or retirement. There is no real musicians union as there are in some performing arts (remember the Hollywood Writers strike?). There are no consistent government programs as they have in other countries. There is no VC fund for musicians but friends and family. It all begs numerous existential questions for any number of amazing artists who may never be popular. Where do we as a culture place their worth? Every music fan should hope these numbers are in fact lying.

“It’s the streaming,” Kassi says. “No one is really buying albums anymore, so artists don’t make any money there. Touring doesn’t feel sustainable. You have all these artists, too many artists, and all these small venues that are barely staying open, like everybody is struggling. So, the streaming platforms. They are convenient. People can discover my music there. But at the same time, I’m not making enough money to support even a basic income for me yet.”

If it wasn’t for a 20-minute noon slot at Stagecoach, the Spring tour would have been tenuous financially. Increasingly, festivals are seen as anchor dates to tours, paying much larger guarantees than clubs and affording artists like Kassi to tour the West Coast with a full band, as opposed to a stripped down outfit, or even solo. She prefers the band setting and wishes sometimes they could just jam for a couple hours instead of playing songs. Her live sets stretch out the music, with the band speaking through sound and sending off for the improvisational unknown, growing as loud and dangerous as her voice is soft and soulful. The Kassi Valazza Band is amazing. Now it just needs to be popular.

“Creatively, I’m super happy with my songs and our sound,” Kassi says. “I’m confident I write good stuff. The next album is getting mixed and I love it. It’s gonna make me sound terrible, but I feel it’s kind of my greatest gift sounding like myself and not being put in a corner. But I do think I’ll never—there’s a level of success that I won’t get to because of it, and I’m ok with that. I write and play what I love, but I do think that limits who is gonna listen to it, what I am gonna get from it, how much money I will make. But I’d rather have a really solid cult following than anything else. That’s what I’m working on. And I like work, and I call it that because I think people forget that it is work. It’s important to call it what it is. I love it. I don’t wanna do anything else. But it’s work.”

A wheel at work. Kassi returns to the circular, rolling, rollercoaster metaphor she uses for the industry spinning around her. The wheel. “So I think at a certain point it’s just not gonna work anymore, and people are gonna get mad, and things will change. But I am preparing myself for the entirety of my career. I will be touring and struggling and continuing to make art. Which is not bad you know. You think, about people that work jobs they hate their whole lives, ya know, I’d rather work for my life.”

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