Jon Wheelock has played music almost his whole life.
But it wasn’t until he was entering his teens when he first thought he
could make a career of it. There wasn’t necessarily a great epiphany, just a chance to help out his father.
As Wheelock recalls, he was probably 12 or 13 years old when his father’s band needed a drummer for a show. Having received his first drum kit when he was 5, Wheelock took to the stage and made his professional debut.
The $50 he was paid lit the spark that music could be more than just a passion.
“I was like ‘you can get paid for this?’” Wheelock recalls while sitting in the lobby of the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton, preparing for the first Concerts in the Courtyard performance of 2016. “Of course, I would later discover it was a business and there was a lot of work involved.”
For Wheelock, the journey has encompassed just about every paving stone on a long and winding road.
While he always played music, working with family, friends and other musicians around the region, he also tried to keep one foot on the traditional route to a career. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and even took what he described as “regular jobs.”
After trying to stay on the expected career track for a couple of years, Wheelock finally heeded his creative calling and pursued music as a full-time career.
“Holding down a regular job just wasn’t my path,” Wheelock says. “This can be a tough road, but I’ve had great family support and my bills are paid.”
Wheelock estimates he will make about $40,000 this year.
The Kaukauna-based musician played with several groups working the region, including a stint as the bassist for Kyle Megna and the Monsoons. However, he recently formed his own group, J-Council, and recorded his first album while working as the artist-in-residence at The Refuge, an Appleton venue created by Cory Chisel to support artists and creative projects.
Wheelock describes himself as the CEO of J-Council and says that contrary to popular perception, making a living as a performer is a full-time job and then some.
“Most people only see the one-hour performance,” Wheelock says. “What they don’t see is the two to three hours beforehand that we are there setting up and doing sound checks, or the writing that it takes to create the songs or the management part of the business.”
Indeed, working as a musician, or any other type of performer for that matter, takes a truly entrepreneurial approach, says Colleen Merrill, executive director of the Alta Resources Center for Entrepreneurship at UW-Oshkosh.
“There are a lot of components in play at any given time for them,” Merrill says. “It really requires a good plan for anyone going out on their own and they are going to want to make a profit and meet their goals. It’s really the core of small business entrepreneurialism.”
And Wheelock has certainly travelled that part of the road, from booking his own performance dates and negotiating with agents to hiring the performers who support him on stage. One of his latest milestones — one he is quite proud of — is that he is now making enough to hire a manager to handle the business side of performing.
For Wheelock, that means more time doing what he enjoys the most, writing and performing music.
“When you are doing it all yourself, you are pretty happy to hand that off,” Wheelock says.
Hiring a business manager has also allowed Wheelock to slim down his work week to a more manageable 50 to 60 hours. On a typical day, he is up at 7 a.m. and working on new songs until about noon. The afternoon and evening usually finds him in the studio, either working on his own projects or helping other musicians.
Of course, when Wheelock’s not in the studio, he’s either playing a gig or on his way to one.
His next business goal is to earn enough so that he can hire the musicians he plays with as salaried players rather than paying them on a per-gig basis. That will allow him to further focus on the core reason he chose music as his profession — his love of music.
“Writing the songs is where I really get to let go. It’s really the best form of self-therapy I know of,” Wheelock says. “I love being able to reach someone and help them change the way they are feeling.”