To attempt a career in music, one must be, at some baseline level, a sucker (in the best, most endearing way).
Signaling creative ambition of any kind slots you into the naive dreamer file in the eyes of some. But that begs the question, what place does serious creative ambition have in adult life? I’ve been on a few dates recently and I keep trying out different ways to answer the question, “So, what do you do? What do I do, or what do people give me money for?” I find myself explaining that I co-run an “inde-record-label-artist-collective-type-vibe” with some lifetime friends. Then I mention we grew up in Lake Oswego and from there the date is doomed. A good friend tells me I should just be coy, avoiding the fact that I am a serious musician altogether. “Sending that Spotify link to your Tinder match is assured mental distress,” he chides. But how can I avoid music? Music comprises so much of who I am. And I believe the effort toward creative pursuits should be celebrated. What do I do? As I would paraphrase to my Tinder date, I’m a 26-year-old singer and minor pentatonic shred-lord making tasty jams for a Portland-based indie whatever-you-wanna-call-it known as Sucker Lake Records.
I picked up guitar SERIOUSLY in high school as a tool to make “Wish You Were Here” happen at will. I liked the sound of my own voice enough to sing along, and eventually, I got a call from an elementary school buddy, Kyle Delfatti, looking to fill out a band with our other friend, Tim Jordan, who became our frontman. Kyle was always the mastermind engineer and multi-instrumentalist. 3 weeks later the three of us (and our friend, Sam) played two of my most personally cherished sets ever. Our first gig was at the Alberta Abbey, and we then went on to throw shows and play gigs around Clackamas and Multnomah Counties in the Portland area as the group “Kate’s Hat.” Like any legendary (high school) band, creative differences arose and we eventually parted ways around 2015. After years of playing around Portland in what I fondly refer to as “Dad Bands” (jamming with groups of guys in their 50s whom I met on Craigslist) I reconnected with Kyle and Tim in 2021.
They had just returned to Oregon after a few years spent in Los Angeles. Kyle had Big Plans and told me it was high time that I come to his home studio to record my own songs. Since I saw them last, Kyle and Tim had released a small catalog of songs under the moniker, One11Twenty, and gained about 10 million streams across platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music. When the pandemic started, they had just graduated from respective colleges in LA and were moving back to Oregon with some USC alumni creative partners. Kyle and I started working on the first songs that I would release as a solo artist. With Tim, we collaborated once again on how we could combine our dreams and make them a reality. In a few months, the first Max Bunster song and music video were released everywhere via our own make-shift label.
The name, Sucker Lake Records, came from my dad. Evidently, until 1913 Oswego Lake was known as Sucker Lake. Since Lake Oswego is where Kyle, Tim, and I met, the name fit. In a word, SLR is a collective of artists collaborating to produce and promote each other’s content. We pool together our assorted skills and abilities to direct, shoot and edit music videos for each other. We write and release music together. We model and design logos and graphics. We do killer photo shoots. We throw our own shows and events. We run in-house merchandise production, marketing, and back-end website management. We even recently reinforced a very shoddily constructed loft bed in an ancient apartment that our drummer is renting in downtown Portland. The goal is to help each other excel as artists in every way possible and foster inclusive community based around mutually beneficial effort. The concept is that artists own their masters, and are never signed to nefarious 360 deals. The goal of the relationship between SLR and the artist is always empowerment.
The core team is composed of myself, (I’m Max Bunster, head of Marketing and Promotion), Kyle Delfatti, (Head of Operations), Tim Jordan (Art and Production Lead), Zoé Cantú (Chief Design), and Phil Field (Executive Chief of Drums). Together we capped off 2022 with a December showcase event called The Maddhatter’s Tea Party. The event featured sets from three SLR artists as well as music from LA rapper, isMARCUSthere? and producer/songwriter Nick Smiley. SLR rented out a space downtown, hired security and bartenders, bought insurance, rented a sound system, built a stage out of dozens of plastic pallets and masonite, hired camera operators, and played a sold-out barn burner in front of 100+ fans from all over the west coast. It was awesome.
Renting a venue and throwing an entire show in-house came with a lot of extra work and headache. I have videos on my phone of us wearing headlamps rustling around in the dark trying to cut sheets of masonite to fit atop the plastic pallet platform we had arranged to make up our stage. We convinced more than 100 people something worth coming to was going to happen, and the hardest part to believe was that we didn’t let them down. When you do literally all of it yourself, you unlock far more control over how everything looks, feels, and sounds than you’re given at a typical bar show. I don’t claim to say it’s the only way, or even the right way to do it for everyone, but it makes sense for myself and for SLR.
We learned a lot of lessons in December and will apply them to our upcoming May and July events. Producing these events will be a major keystone of what SLR does. The benefits of organizing every aspect of the event yourself allows you to mold how the environment looks, feels, and sounds. I envision fans attaching familiarity to what a SLR presented event looks like. You see a lot of major bands stacking bills together just to make the touring margins economically viable. A SLR event can manifest more like a miniature festival than a regular concert, thus upping the incentive to attend and adding increased value for event-specific and or exclusive/limited merch designs.
I’ve never lived in any other major city, but one hears tales of the trials of attempting a career as a professional creative in Los Angeles, Nashville, New York etc. While I’m not opposed to a reality where my career pulls me away, Portland is my home. It’s not perfect, but everywhere else doesn’t feel right the way Portland does. I’ve played around a fair number of bars and small clubs. I’m no Portland music scene vet, but I’ve had a taste. In the last six years, I’ve spent time promoting bands I’ve been a part of, but never directly promoting myself as a solo artist. I’m incredibly lucky to be surrounded by friends and self-doubt-deniers. I wouldn’t have fathomed attempting to put anything serious out as a solo act without them. Portland has fostered an environment where those connections thrived.
Even still though, promotion doesn’t come naturally when it’s only about me. I have an easier time pushing the creative endeavors of the whole team. I had convinced myself for many years that I didn’t possess whatever magical X factor I had thought was required to be a solo artist. I told myself I would only ever be successful as a part of a band; I didn’t have good enough ideas to fill a discography of my own or sustain a solo career. I think this community and the people I’ve met here have played a large part in my growth as an artist to reverse that thinking, and in fostering the ever-continuous development of a wide array of skills. Every person I’ve met and played music with here, every audience member that has offered me praise after a performance, every friend I’ve made that’s shown support for my art and every venue that has agreed to pay me to play have played a role in my development as a musician and artist. I’m getting better at promoting myself and believing I have something to offer, and every cool person I’ve met in Portland on this path of making music has furthered that progress. When I talk about SLR or The Maddhatter’s Tea Party, people in Portland express genuine hype. I’m only the millionth person to do a cool thing here, but no one gives off any energy that reads “yeah big deal” (aforementioned tinder matches excluded). Portland feels like a place where a ton of cool art and music is being made, and the people are here to enjoy it without the jaded expectations that may come with a town more known as a creative professional destination.
I think a lot these days about the distinction between making a life and making a living with music. I always have, but as I grow older and steps toward both respective goals stack up under my belt, I realize there’s so many tools at my disposal. I’m constantly pulled in different directions in the effort to establish as many different content mediums as possible. Grow a YouTube channel, build a Patreon, stream music on Twitch, populate all your social platforms with consistent but substantial posts. That’s just half of it. It’s often overwhelming to think about how to utilize everything available, and not every piece of information out there is helpful. There’s a strange ecosystem of advice/tutorial content on these various platforms targeted at independent artists trying to establish a career or monetize their craft. Creatives find themselves surrounded by content that preaches different and often contrasting methods to find success. In areas from the way music is released, to the promotion of your music and everything in between, there’s a content creator offering their evidently sage advice. Do you have an album coming out? Waterfall eighty percent of it as single releases if you want to get streams. If you play a show, film it and get ready to cut each performance into 30 different vertical short form clips for Youtube Shorts, Instagram Reels/Stories and TikTok. Artists have monetized telling other artists what to do on a larger scale than ever. TikTok is full of musicians or music industry folks reacting to and criticizing or reinforcing their claims in search of their own clout and attention. The worst elements of social media promotion are indicative of the misinformation and lack of consensus regarding what an artist should do to be taken seriously.
Of course not everything is about promotion or algorithm tricks. In spite of oversaturation, the best thing anyone can do is to make something truly cool. Make as many cool things as you can. Tons of stuff gets noticed for being good. Keep improving and mastering your craft and believe people will notice. That’s been my plan anyway. I personally get more joy from playing on stage or working on something incredible and creative with the people I love than anything else in life. I want to be playing shows, attending shows, writing songs, listening to songs, shooting videos and shooting the shit with the other people involved until I collapse. I’ve decided to base most of my available productive energy and effort into doing just so. Doing something with the expectation of nothing in return but the intrinsic value of the activity might make me a sucker. But it might make me a musician. And I’ve accepted the likely possibility that the distinction isn’t all too important.