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DUSTY LEE STEPHENSEN (WANDERERS) INSIGHT TO WORKING IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY… THE HIGH’S, LOW’S & HIS DEFINITION OF WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE.

The latest edition to my Q+A series is with Dusty Lee Stephensen from Wanderers – some great answers, particularly around his definition of success, advice about money and how he chooses to reinvest.

It also comes at a great time where we can share that he’ll be performing a solo gig right before me this weekend at The Wheatsheaf Hotel in Adelaide.

For more info about tickets click —>
Nathan Cavaleri – Demons Tour – Adelaide

LOVE, Nathan.

Dusty Lee Stephensen – Q+A


In an industry where expression collides with business, how do you keep the passion to play/write music alive?

That’s forever something I’m trying to work out..
Wanderers actually started out as at project that was designed to not worry about all that stuff so much. I was in another band at the time that was more down that triple J/PR game/image/strategy and release schedule rabbit-hole, so Wanderers became a get away from that where I was able to write and create music with my friends without any pressure. That period was very creative and productive… having a project for creativity, and a project dealing with all the other aspects. But for the last few years Wanderers has become quite time consuming in the latter, which naturally has to happen once people start connecting with the music and you realise the project has potential for some amount of commercial success.
So it’s a balancing act that I well and truly haven’t mastered yet. It’s an eb and flow of feeling creative, feeling stagnant, feeling successful, feeling like you could do more, feeling elated, feeling underwhelmed… its a trip.
I guess the main thing I do now is try to make time to just create with no deadline in mind, no project in mind, for no purpose other than to let what ever it is out and express what I need to at the time.
Sometimes these songs will end up in my band or they might be shelved for another project, other times it was a night well spent getting my chops back up on what ever recording software I’m diggin’ at the time… even if I wake up the next day hating the song.
One night of this a week seems to keep my creative soul pretty happy! And my regular Monday night jam gig is for the free free flow guitar practice, which is still very important too, good to keep the chops up, as I’m sure you know Nathan. Them fingers get itchy for some rosewood if they spend too much time spending emails.

Have you ever come close to leaving music? If so, what prompted it and what inspired you to stay?

I’ve certainly felt like it, but I haven’t left myself with any other options in that regard, career wise. As shitty as it sounds, and as much as I don’t want to lead with this… nothing without study or a trade that I can think of can bring in as much cash as quickly as I need to support my family, so even when I feel like I might need some time off, I can’t really. I have yet to find anything other than art that I’d want to commit time to and really struggle with the idea of doing something I’m not naturally drawn to as a career path.
But having said that, the amount of jobs and ways of bringing in income through music is practically endless. If I get sick of gigging 5 or 6 nights a week there is always studio session work to be hustled, teaching locally or over Skype, booking for local venues, hell I could study to do live sound, or just produce and record other artists… these are all very different careers, although they still fall under ‘Music.’ Ain’t it a beautiful thing!
Anyway, I haven’t yet reached the point where I’m seeking another avenue, but I’m aware there are options still within the music game that can keep my head afloat when I need.

How do you stay true to your creative vision, when “success” depends so heavily on how it’s received by the industry and public?

By stubbornly not giving a toss what people think! Well, thats what I tell myself. That’s the case most of the time at least, now that I’m a bit more sure of what my strengths are and how I’m unique as an artist.

My own perception of what ‘Success’ means is more important to me than anyone else’s.
The goal posts are always shifting as far as the industry goes, but its the individual that gets to set where their own personal goal posts are, not the industry or the public.
I feel if I’m aiming too high I might be constantly disappointed by the outcome, but if I’m aiming too low I might be too content with a lesser success than I could be pushing for. So I believe there’s a balance that exists somewhere in between bitter self doubt and basking in my own glory. Its taken me years to find and I still find myself swaying either to side of it from time to time.

To some artists perhaps a million streams or a sold out tour is the only thing that will make them feel successful, yet someone else in the same band might be happy with a random punter after a gig really appreciating what they do, or a random fan message on instagram asking about that riff or a specific lyric from a song….
But to me, success is defined by the eye of the beholder and since I’ve applied that to my way of thinking I’m much less disappointed when things don’t go as well as I’d hoped with a release, or ticket sales, or anything from an industry or statistical perspective… I know its good, I’m proud of it.. people will catch on, and they do.
If you do what do well enough for long enough, and keep growing, it will work.

The age old credo of ‘going with your gut instinct’ has served artists (or anyone in general) very well for centuries now and its integral to us remain what we are, true individual artists, each and every one of us.

So I’m going to hold my artistic and creative vision close and be assertive with the way I execute it… screw what anyone else thinks.

From the moment you wake till the moment you sleep, what does the day of a gig look like for you?

Like any other day… slightly disorganised and rushed, I’ll never learn.
If its a home town gig, I’m usually opening the guitar case right before going on and remembering I broke a string the night before, scrambling to find another one but realising each packet is missing the high E string, so I gotta stretch a B onto it, but we’re on in 5 minutes and I haven’t written a set list yet, and I really need to go to the toilet and I left my slide in the car and… ahhhhh! haha
Naaaah, I’m definitely getting better after all these years. That reminds me, I gotta pop past Derringers after this.

It depends what it is though. If its a tour show interstate our badass manager Sian has written us an itinerary and we know exactly what we’re doing at all times… she stops just short of assigning our toilet breaks.
I do have strings, freshly serviced pedal board, we’ve got our go to tour set list, a well oiled machine, bloody sorted mate. So the day usually involves sleeping in the car and eating those tiny cucumbers you can buy in packets from Woolworths.

I’m realising now that I definitely need to re-asses my gig day activities, at the very least to give a more interesting answer to the question next time its asked.

Life on the road can challenge us both mentally and physically. How do you stay anchored during times when you’re feeling emotionally or physically sub-par, or when your fundamental needs aren’t being met? E.g. sleep, food, schedule.

I’m pretty good at pushing through these kinds of things, we all are actually, in this band. I guess we’ve been touring so long now and practically the same level (the not so romantic one) that nothing tends to take us by surprise, even when it comes to things like “tonights gig finishes at 1am, tomorrows gig starts at 1pm and its a 10 hour drive away, *face palm.” (actually happened) but we just keep going. Usually theres a day off here and there and we try to make that a day to recoup the energy lost by our gig night selves who were hell bent on finishing the rider.

We also altered our touring style when I became a father. Now we fly more and take less leap of faith shows that are in whoop whoop in which we’ve gotta drive from Adelaide through China to get there. Now a 12 date tour might occur over 6 weekends.
For the mental and physical health and the general well being of everyone, this works really well for us. The obvious downfall is that we spend more money on flights and accommodation. But our guarantee for festivals and certain gigs has gone up over the years which helps a bit.
It also means we can still be home making money in between and not throw ourselves into too much dept, which lord knows can happen wayyy to easily.
To be honest, that’s probably the biggest stress. MONEYYYYY! That and missing my daughter.
Reaching the end of that 3 or 4 week tour… seeing her on facetime while I’m chowing down on the Migoreng Matt bought for me because there’s no money left in my bank account… that gets hard. I guess I just push through, then the silver lining is getting back home to her.

I do feel quite lethargic after a tour though. Then I get the post tour woes after a few weeks of settling back into Adelaide’s rhythm. I’ve been watching your stuff though Nathan, so I’ll be hitting you up for some fitness tour tips next time I see you!

How much of an influence does money have over the means in which you create and release? Do you choose to invest as if it’s your last creation? Or do you invest in a way that is sustainable long term?

The latter. What works best for us, we’ve found, is touring. I’d rather spend the money touring. We’ve got a great team here of talented muso’s, the studio guys we work with… everyone really believes in what we do and everyone is way too talented for their own good. Which means we’ve been able to produce a sound that (I believe) can compete on the world stage, both with performance and recording quality, for quite cheap actually. We get our desired result without breaking bank. Then we’ll spend a certain amount on PR… but we’ve changed that too. Instead of spending it on radio plugging, which didn’t seem to serve us very well, we put more effort into pitching to the streaming services for play-listing. It goes out through AMRAP to all the community radio stations around the country anyway, and I believe our name is out there enough for many of them to click the link and check it out. So that’s saved us thousands.
The main thing is tour PR. But I feel un qualified for giving a proper low down on all this stuff. Sian (mgmt) is all over it to such a point where I rarely have to ask too many questions.

Have you ever experienced anxiety, depression or nervousness around a tour? If so, what were the triggers and how did you manage it?

It depends how prepared I feel. Sometimes we can barely pull a rehearsal together before a tour and the first couple of shows are big festivals or some kind’ve showcase performances, in that instance I will feel quite anxious and nervous. But fortunately I have a thought process that kicks in and says ‘well, what can ya do? just gotta get up and kill it regardless.’ and I’ve often found over the years that those shows, when I’m sh***ing my pants and nervous as hell, usually end up being the best, where as the ones we’ve over prepared for are often the ones we make all the mistakes at. Classic Murphys law.
I just try to remind myself of that when I feel a little worried.
Post your depression is a bit of a thing, but just gotta dive into some work and get moving on the next thing.

Can you trace your current successes back to any big risks or leaps? If so, what were they?

I grew up in Aldinga SA, about an hour or so down the South Coast from Glenelg and back then before the freeway, about an hour and a half from Adelaide.
In 2002 while I was in year 7, after my mum mentioned to me for about the 100th time that I should “bring the bloody school newsletter home”, I finally did.
Almost serendipitously that very newsletter contained an ad in it for ‘Special Interest Music Auditions’ at Brighton Secondary school. Me bringing that newsletter home was a hugely pivotal moment.
Its not a risk or a leap as such, but its what I can trace everything back to.
I didn’t even want to do it… haha. I wanted to go to a local high school nearby that all my friends would attend.
Hell I’m glad she made me audition because I aced it, met all my early musical comrades and was thrust very swiftly into my career path. That school changed everything for me.
I could really elaborate on this… but perhaps another time, my finger tips are already sore!

From a business point of view, today, what is the one thing that every independent artist needs in order to give their music the best chance of being heard? Assuming the artist and songs translate. 

The marriage of their sound, look, marketing strategy and most importantly… good f**king songs! But I feel, especially in 2019, a good song alone isn’t enough. When all these elements come together and all angles have been thought about as meticulously as the song/EP/Album/Tour/Live Show its self, then it will give the artist the best possible chance at finding their audience.
So one thing and artist can do to give themselves the best chance of being heard in 2019 is NOT RUSH. Don’t rush any part of the process. Get everything in line, work out your market, work out the strategy and not until all the ducks are lined up do you launch. Then at least you’ll know you’ve given it the best shot.
If it doesn’t take, go again next time. Can guarantee doing it this way will never cause a step backwards or feel like a waste.
Some unique, strategic PR plans never go astray either, and they don’t have to cost an arm and a leg. We’re in the social media age after all.

If you were to wave a magic wand, how would you like to spend your time in the future?

Touring for a year or so, then having a year off to do what ever. Rinse repeat.
I’d also like to own a studio one day and make records for all my friends.

On a light note… Can you name one guilty pleasure?

I’m a lover of classic lollies. Chomps, Curly Wurleys. Fizzers…. anything you’d find in a cheap show bag really.

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