Tom McNichols: Today, I gave up NYC. It's been an incredible 12 years, but I surrender.
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
April 1st, 2020. Today, I gave up NYC. It's been an incredible 12 years, but I surrender.
My NYC story: Arts, Business and Craft August-September 2008. I’m 28 years old. After my Master’s at Peabody and 4 seasons in the vocal ensemble Cantus I’ve got $15k in my pocket. My Met Opera Competition success leads to an agent. I’m on top of the world as I drive a trailer from Minneapolis to NYC with all my possessions to my sister's place. I quickly learn, how fast $15k disappears in New York. Thanks to a friend, I land a reduced-rate room in the heights and In order to survive, I study for a real estate license. In late September, Lehman Brothers sells for $2 a share while I’m in class. Staying positive, only one way this can go is up.
2009: I pound the pavement harder than colleagues and earn “Rookie of the Year” for my real estate office, with the help of a lovely colleague/mentor. I also win a Real Estate Board of New York "Deal of the Year: Rental". The renter missed the first lease signing - he was struck by a car on his morning bike commute. The car was out of registration and driven by an intoxicated dancer, of the more risque type of dance. They sign a few days later. Likely a “funny story” win, but I’ve got a lovely glass trophy engraved to remind me nonetheless. Early 2010: Robert Lombardo and Associates keep me on their roster despite declining audition success. I promise to get back in the practice room once my real estate career stabilizes. It works. What a clear difference not to need every single audition, just sing and share. Alex Fletcher gives me my first "real" gig, in Monaco for $500 a performance. Lombardo isn’t too concerned with a cut of my $1500, but I’m amped! A premiere at Opera de Monte Carlo? Yes, please. Bringing my tux, for sure. Late 2010: I squander a romantic relationship by not knowing how a gig works; everyone else has their partners with them. Hotel ocean side, I quibble (unsuccessfully) with that ex about how romantic it is while the brilliant MIT team led by Tod Machover sets up the theatre for Death and the Powers. I win hundreds on the craps table night one and bank those profits for better food and wine than per diem covers. Super cool to do this show again in Chicago, Boston and Dallas in later years. In 2012, the show was a finalist for the Pulitzer for Music.
2013: On a roll with both careers, singing and real estate. I've done my own taxes forever, but with 1099's from six different states and two streams of income, this year, Turbo Tax doesn’t cut it. Patrick Frawley and Associates, CPA, take pity and navigate me into two S corps, one singing and one real estate. I’m now EIN’s. Goodbye self. See you post K-1’s; future loans be damned, I’m on fire.
2014: With proper financial documentation in place, I qualify for a rent-stabilized studio at 61/Lex on my own. No more three bed-share in “the man house” of Kips Bay. I helped a friend get this apartment in 2010. We had one handshake, I asked, "let me know first when you want to vacate." Now I’ve got a real lease, solo, in prime Manhattan. Living and working out of a studio is hard. Vicious at times. I wore a line in the floor finish with my usual pacing on calls, but it happened. My practice room was that same path from desk to window.
2014-2019: Five years of solid work. I sing and travel nationally a third of the year. I sell enough real estate to be happy and enjoy life throughout it. It’s working! While I’m singing Sarastro for Opera Omaha, I fall in love with the HUGE Bubinga Table in Jun Kineko's home. I geek out on wood work with he and his wife.
2014: Family matters get real. I raze and rebuild my parents’ home with an old friend/crew. The process takes me back to teenage years when I started really learning how to build things. I remain diligent to all things singing and real estate. My self-employed world gets REAL close to some hard outcomes, but survives.
2016: I sing a Sarastro, my calling card, at Portland Opera, and tour their amazing wood shop businesses. I mention my old woodwork love at the formal meet-and-greet with patrons. I get excited and work on a portfolio to apply to Portland’s master craftsmen at The Joinery. The position fills, so on a whim I look into costs to buy a fully outfitted wood shop. I find one for sale, still available, in Connecticut. I view it once I return and feel some radical ideas forming.
2017: I cut the second largest check of my life and buy ‘Architectural Innovations’ in Milford, CT. Plans to move it to Lake Placid, NY fall through as I'm packing the truck. I unload "temporarily" to a storage space in Keesville NY and ink a long lease on a handshake cause moving a shop is a really long experience. I spend six brutal months fixing up that shop. Still selling in the city, traveling back and forth like a mad man. 60k miles in the first 18 months of owning my truck. Real Estate, Singing, and Thewoodlab.com are working at full capacity and my income is fully middle class artist. Three EIN’s with total revenues less than the annual income of most of my clients.
2018: Top of the world. South Dakota Chorale nominated for a Grammy. I re-learn All is Calm, from a Dropbox file I improperly downloaded and the dozen listens while working at the lathe costs me over $500 in cellular streaming. Noted. Learning. Delivering projects south, selling plenty in the city, sawdust is abundant up north. I buy a duplex in my hometown, have lovely tenants and feel great. My side of the duplex is gutted and needs a new foundation. I spend the time and money to do it myself. I'm also asked to join the board of The Strand Center for the Arts. I oblige. Property remains under reno and it’s still otherwise biz as usual.
2019: My usual sales volume drops hard as do gigs for no reason more than, "it happens” in any biz cycle. 11 months ago, I debuted off Broadway as part of a Drama Desk/ award-winning show that I workshopped a decade earlier. What's a fella gotta do to be self-employed these days?
January 2020: Back on the hunt, singing and woodwork contracts have the year covered. Feeling great. Been better, but overall winning compared to 2019. March 2020: Enter Covid-19. Singing work gone. My real estate world is gone. Strand Theater presentations gone. Thewoodlab.com remains "essential", but this was a biz bolstered by real estate biz, so who knows. I do one show at the Strand, but the following day NY State shutters it. The feedback is still amazing. Folks are sheltered at home and need it. 5500 views in a small tri county region.. So. Many. Zoom. Calls. I need my machines running to create sawdust, but I also need to submit my EDIL disaster loan applications and pay attention to the new Soloist Coallition. I dream of installing solar, upgrading my sanding regiment to help with my carpel tunnel, finally building out that spray booth, and more if the EIDL programs clear. "Tomtopia," as one friend so aptly named it as we all chatted via text.
April 1, 2020: I let my lease go. Goodbye, NYC. With NY real estate and singing work gone overnight, it no longer serves any fathomable long term reason for me. I ask my brokerage to put my state license into furlough till further notice. I’ve got till December, 12 years long, to decide its final fate.
April 9, 2020: I need to vacate NYC. I’m having dreams of I am Legend planning the task. I’m just short of an Eagle Scout, prepping but scared at the same time. I don’t know what will come of my work, but I do know that I’m soon driving to the center of the storm with full provisions to go in and out of my apartment only once. I cry reading stories of front-line responders; I just need to move my possessions and get back to work.
Goodbye NYC. You're awesome, but I quit. Good luck to the next generation. There’s a nice studio available at 61st/Lex…
Tom McNichols was a 40 year old bass, woodworker and successful real estate agent in NYC.
Now Tom is an essential sole proprietor of thewoodlab.com, grateful to be busy, anxious to hear back about EIDL loans.