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    Wednesday, June 19, 2024

    What’s Going On: For FrankenPhil, gig economy means getting paid more than a song

    From left, bass guitarist Frank Wilson and lead singer Phil Newland, of the duo FrankenPhil stand in front of the Thames Club on State Street in New London. Photo by Lee Howard

    Navigating a career in music isn’t as simple as following a guitar chord chart.

    People in the music business may get into it to express themselves through their instruments and voices, but to stay in it for a long time they have to read their audience and understand the needs of clubs and restaurants that pay them to play.

    “Their thing is selling food and booze. So you're an add-on,” said Phil Newland, 72, one half of the local acoustic duo FrankenPhil. “It's key that you operate in a manner that doesn't interfere with their business.”

    Newland with musical partner Frank Wilson, 53, formed FrankenPhil more than a decade ago. And now they’re busier than ever appearing all over the area and into Massachusetts, playing favorites mostly from the 1970s and 1980s.

    “I actually like songs by the emotional content.” Newland said. “Stylistically. I mean, you can restrict yourself by saying you’re going to do this and that.”

    What’s the key to their harmonious musical partnership, which has lasted way longer than the Beatles? Two unassuming personalities and a sharp understanding of the business aspect of performing, they told me in an interview at Washington Street Coffee House in New London.

    “That's the side that a lot of musicians miss out on, right?” Newland, the more talkative member of duo and the lead vocalist, told me. “They don't realize the business side of it and they don't have the perspective of other people.”

    “The business side ... keeps us going, keeps us playing and keep us working,” added Wilson, who plays bass guitar and adds harmonies.

    Their business understanding comes partly from Newland’s 24 years working for Foxwoods on Stage setting up for shows at Fox Theater and building scenery. Wilson had experience as a dishwasher and prep chef at local restaurants, as well as helping out at Garde Arts Center events by loading and unloading equipment used for shows.

    They got together initially in 2013, but their gigs were limited because of Newland’s Foxwoods schedule, which required a lot of weekend work. When Newland retired in 2018, they picked up the pace of their playing but then in March 2020 the pandemic hit, and they went on hiatus for nine months, emerging finally by playing some gigs outside.

    “We came back strong,” Wilson said, citing June to October 2021 when they played 74 shows in five months. This June, they have 23 performance dates listed on their calendar.

    One of their keys to success is having developed “residencies” (at least monthly shows) within certain venues, such as the Spice Club in Niantic, where they play weekly. Playing regular gigs in places where they feel comfortable, including cafes, breweries, lounges and vineyards, allows them to spend less time finding new venues while also giving them a steady income they can rely on.

    It’s also allowed them to say “no” to venues that pay too little. They were tired of the “weekend warrior” routine at local bars where the music could get lost in the din of the crowd.

    “We don’t book singular shows anymore,” Wilson said. “Just between our residencies we have seven to 10 shows a month.”

    Both are now relying almost exclusively on their FrankenPhil performances, at both public spaces and the occasional private parties, to keep a roof over their heads (Newland lives in Ledyard and Wilson in New London). They say the average pay for a gig is about $400 for two hours, though that doesn’t include the time to set up equipment and break it down before and after a show.

    The duo also is able to dine at restaurants where they play and accept tips, which helps in covering extra costs.

    “We haven’t paid for gas money in years,” Wilson said.

    FrankenPhil comes with a set list to every gig, but they are open to requests so long as they know the tune and it fits their style.

    “If you get a request like Bon Jovi ... it’s kind of like, ‘No, you’re really don’t hear our style,’” Newland said. “We call it the wheelhouse, you know?”

    FrankenPhil has not yet produced an album, preferring so far to make their mark with live music. But they say an album could be in the offing even as they keep their eye on the next set list at a place where people take some time to listen.

    “Some nights are great, and some nights are difficult,” Newland said. “You live for that one night when everything is perfect.”

    Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor. To reach him, email l.howard@theday.com.

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