The first time I saw Austin multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Mobley was in July 2016. It was the middle of the week at a Chicago venue that usually booked metal acts, and the turnout was somewhere between small and nonexistent. If you counted folks over at the bar there were maybe 10 people. When Mobley sang a personal favorite—the soaring, jittery, keyboard-anchored, should-be pop hit “Tell Me“—it had a painfully melancholy feel. “Whoooah … tell me where you want me to be!” has an edge when you sing it to an empty room.
If this were a film script, a sparse gig like this might be the initial setting for a story about a tortured artist, whose music is so real and authentic that he is ignored by the public and consigned to poverty. Mobley scoffs at the idea. “There’s this mentality that as an artist I have to have this purity of motive. I can’t be allowed to have it tainted by petty concerns like the rent,” he said. “I knew so many artists in my early 20s, and I was among them to a certain degree, who felt like that as an artist suffering would prove redemptive in and of itself. Which is just not at all true.”
Mobley knows suffering isn’t redemptive in part because his early career was, in his words, “absolutely miserable.” His father was a Marine, his mother a teacher and homemaker; he was only able to pay for college because of an academic scholarship. While at the University of North Carolina, he became interested in music and taught himself to play and write by sneaking into the music department after hours. He started playing gigs after graduation in 2005, touring with a band and doing web development work to make ends meet. That meant he was essentially working all the time.
Juggling web dev deadlines while on tour, Mobley says, “I would wake up at maybe 7:30 or 8 in the morning and start coding before anyone else in the band woke up. Then we would all get in the van, I would be coding in the back seat. We would drive to the city I was playing, find a Starbucks, code there for another five or six hours, go to the venue, play the show—which itself would take, like, five hours. And it’s not some glamorous show. We would be playing for five or six people in Cleveland in the middle of winter. And then if we had made enough money to find a Motel 6 I would code until I fell asleep and get up and do it again.”
If the band didn’t have the funds for a room, they’d sleep in the van.
Mobley notes that this story is pretty typical for young touring musicians. But he wishes it was less so—and that he’d known starting out that being a musician didn’t have to mean suffering for your art. You can make a day-to-day living at it, if you’re willing to exchange dreams of purity for some flexibility and imagination.
Mobley, who calls his style “post-genre pop,” still tours a lot; he plays around 300 shows a year—most of them with crowds dwarfing the audience numbers at that Chicago gig. The bulk of his income still comes from performing, but more from merchandise than ticket sales. “I always say that I’m a really inefficient T-shirt salesman,” he said.
Mobley does make some money from streaming and download sales, too. But his biggest other source of income is songwriting and licensing. He’s written songs for Dallas electro-pop singer-songwriter LEV and produced and co-written a song with hip-hop group Riders Against the Storm. He’s also placed his own tracks on television and film. One of his songs was on True Blood, and another appeared on a trailer for a movie he can’t remember (successful licensing means not being able to recall who bought your music.)
On the worst days, Mobley says, work-for-hire writing is “like any other job. You show up and you do the work because you know how to do the work and they’re paying you to do it. On the best days, it can serve as a real laboratory for techniques and ideas that I end up channeling back to my own work.”
In fact, Mobley wrote the intro track for a song cycle, a series of songs meant to be played in sequence, while he was in a motel room on the road, pitching a jingle for Marriott. They didn’t want to the track, but “it ended up defining this whole direction that I went in musically. So I’ve been trying to really approach it that way—to make something I like that I think they could also use, as opposed to trying to be someone else entirely.”
The song cycle itself is scheduled to be released in April, and Mobley’s going to start putting out singles in January. He was uncertain how he was going to pay for the marketing, but this month he won a major $18,000 grant from Black Fret, an organization that funds Austin musicians.
Before Mobley got into music, he didn’t realize it was possible to be a musician somewhere between penury and super-wealth.
“The middle-class musician is really, really underrepresented in popular depictions of what is possible in the industry,” he told me. “I absolutely wish I had had a clearer idea of that being a possibility earlier on. It really matches my values and aspirations in a lot of ways.”
Mobley wants as many people to hear his music as possible; if he could play stadiums, he’d play stadiums. But he isn’t interested in being personally famous or getting written up in gossip columns. “At shows, people who like my music and are wishing me well, say, ‘Oh, I can’t wait until you’re famous.’ They never say, ‘I hope you can buy a comfortable house.’ Which is the modest aspiration I have. I wish there was a broader conversation about that, and about making that a reality for more people.”
That show in Chicago I saw was a bad day—but everyone has bad days on the job. And Mobley didn’t treat it as a bad day. Instead, he put on an amazing show. He set up a drumset on the floor in front of the stage, and the small audience gathered around to provide the beat as he switched from keyboard to guitars to vocals, drums and back again. He didn’t have a stadium-sized audience, but he was working and getting paid. That’s a way to be a successful musician, too.