Despite being the head of a five-piece Americana band based in Milwaukee, Zach Pietrini's musical output has spanned everything from rock to indie and production music. As an artist who's toured across the US, playing both small venues and festival stages, he's carved out a place for himself amidst recent years' root music revival.
We talked with Zach about his journey up to this point, the struggles he went through before moving to Milwaukee, and the kinds of placements his production music work has earned him.
Hi Zach. It's a pleasure to be speaking. You were active with music as a teenager, but when did you decide to pursue a career in this field?
Something clicked after having a conversation with my dad. I played in bands and at church throughout my teen years and decided to make an album in my parent's basement at 19. During that time, my dad said, "These songs are pretty good. You should consider this as more than just a hobby." That marked a fundamental shift in my life, and it's when I decided to throw myself into music more seriously.
You moved from Chicago to Milwaukee six years ago as a last resort. Why was it a last resort?
It was due to different things. I was recently married and living in a church, so I had to figure out how to do music and work café jobs on the side, which became too expensive. Chicago is great for many things, but community-building within a massive scene isn't one of them. It can be competitive and cutthroat, and I'm not interested in that. I want to write songs that connect with people and earn my living off that. So, the nature of the scene was damaging to my creativity, and I got tired of it. I also traveled to Nashville to work on my third album, which took a lot of effort. I tried making things work there too, but it didn't shape out, so I hit pause on the album, and it got stuck in post-production.
My wife had contacts in Wisconsin, so we moved to Milwaukee. I took a few years off from music, but things seemed easier when I returned to it. In Chicago, I was always three steps removed from the right person, be it a booking agent or a label executive, but in Wisconsin, I could reach out to them directly or get their contact info, which changed everything.
You've said in the past that one of your first shows in Milwaukee was at a 200-person venue, but the show got oversold, and 280 people showed up.
Yes, that's true. I'd released some EPs before 2017 and finally decided to make an album. The release show was in Milwaukee, and I still needed to read my contract with the venue, which said I had to bring my own person to work the door. Luckily, I had a friend in attendance who agreed to be the door attendant, but he kept letting people in even when we were full, to the point where the venue had to lock the door to keep people out (laughs). So that helped kick things off.
Does your success in Milwaukee speak to the career you can build outside of a major city?
It does. We make money by skipping some of the major cities to focus on small towns. I can't tell you how many times major markets leave you with hardly any money, even when you pull in a crowd. You book a show and split the bill with some bands, but the venue's rent is so expensive that they take percentages off the door and make you pay for sound and stuffing. By the time you receive your $200 cut and divide it among the bands, it's a miracle if you make any money. So, we found an alternate strategy: fifty to a hundred miles away from every metropolis is a smaller city or town, and those have been some of our better-paid shows. So, it made less sense to focus on bigger markets unless you're a band that can pack out a huge theater.
Your name often gets brought up in connection with the Americana resurgence of the 2010s. What are your thoughts on building a career in that genre?
A few years ago, I was talking to someone about taking my career to the next level, which often requires you to spend more money, and the guy said, "Luckily for you, Americana is like a cheap date, so you won't have to spend too much to raise your profile." I thought about that a lot. This is a genre where you can do a lot with little because it's writing-centric and is about storytelling. It's less important how you present it, and more about having a good story, which is what I do well. Also, Americana encompasses a lot of Roots music like Blues, Folk, and Country, so there's latitude to move around, which I like.
What are the prospects for commercial success in a genre that the masses don't view as mainstream? Have you found yourself pigeonholed?
Though I'm not too worried about it, my records won't sell like those of a Top 100 artist, but I'm not necessarily interested in that. I don't know anyone who makes money off record sales, and the ones having success with streaming are those whose major labels put money behind them. I only know people who make money off live shows or licensing placements through a company like APM. So, I don't have any illusion that top ten radio will pick up my stuff when most people don't even know that Americana exists as a Grammy category. It's more important for me to meet people through my shows and write what I want.
You've played at several festivals and conferences like Summerfest and SXSW. What was your inroad into that world?
The Summerfest booking came through a radio station that curated a stage there and wanted us to play it. The SXSW booking came from a guy playing one of the showcases. I think a friend recommended it to me, so he said," I don't want to bring my band to the show, so can you open for me and be my backing band afterward?". So those shows came about through random relationships. For example, an organization in Kansas City called the Midwest Music Foundation does a stage every year at SXSW. I'd been doing many shows in Kansas City through a local booking agent that was connected to them, so he recommended them, and I got several SXSW bookings from that.
As someone who's toured a lot, do you book your own shows? And how widespread has your touring been?
After booking all my shows for the last seven years, I've just started talking to local agencies, which has become tiring. I'm also talking to someone about helping with national bookings, so we'll see how that goes.
Regarding regions, we play shows as far north as Minneapolis and as far south as Destin, Florida. We play straight down the middle of the US through the Midwest and the South. I want to do more gigs in the East, but it hasn't happened yet.
What's the biggest crowd you've played for?
My keyboard player and I got to open for Huey Lewis and the News several years ago in front of 5000 people. We don't pull those kinds of numbers on our own tours, so it was a fun experience.
How did you get involved in production music?
My releases through APM came from Summerfest when they compiled an album of Milwaukee bands who'd played at SXSW. I wanted to track drums for a record and met a guy named Kyle, who owned a studio and helped me do it. During the process, he said, "I license music for a living. Would you like to put these recordings in a production music catalog?", and I said, "This is meant for album release, but I'd love to talk about making other stuff for production music catalogs". That was in 2018, and we began writing music for different spots the following year.
Do you have any hopes for the future of your production music endeavors?
I plan to continue doing it. I've found a lane for myself since I'm good at writing and arranging in specific styles, so I want to build on that. I hope to end up with 100 songs in different libraries, which I'll carry out this year, and I hope to make more money doing it too.
Thanks for the chat, Zach. It's been great to learn about your work. What's next for you for the rest of the year?
We're in festival season now, so I'm playing some shows, and I'll be doing more of that in the fall too. I'm also working on my next solo album, and I play drums and keys in another band, plus bass in another group. So, I'll keep creating and staying busy.