Deconstructing: How Can Indie Musicians Break Even?
David Thomas, the singer of Pere Ubu, once said that “Rock music is mostly about moving big black boxes from one side of town to the other in the back of your car.”
I love this line because it perfectly captures the hours of unglamorous toil that stand behind every minute of recorded rock music. As a style, it’s both time-intensive and capital-intensive. Writing, arranging, and developing songs can eat up hours of your day and years of your life. Buying gear, renting practice space, booking studio time, and schlepping equipment to and fro can run up nasty bills.
For the past decade and change, the tactics that bands traditionally use to pay these costs — quitting day jobs, touring incessantly, recouping costs with CD/T-shirt sales, etcetera — have grown less effective to the point of futility. That rock’s financial model is broken has become received wisdom. Even big, popular bands are feeling the pressure (see the now-infamous New York Magazine article on Grizzly Bear’s struggles, or refer to the recent story regarding Cat Power’s money problems).
The big boys are suffering, but niche rock bands are in danger of being squeezed out of existence. Even before the rise of digital music, many a legendary group lived in squalor; check out the Wikipedia entry on Captain Beefheart’s legendary Trout Mask Replica if you ever want to feel wealthy. Today, with gas prices up and merch revenues down — while venue payouts to performers haven’t changed with inflation — even the slim costs of a modern recording session can overwhelm smaller bands.
For me, this is a serious problem because my tastes tend toward the obscure. But it’s also a serious problem if you care about the future of the genre. Rock has been experiencing a decline in popularity since the ’90s; The New York Times ran a soul-crushing piece about Fender’s declining sales back in September (sample quote: “Teenagers who once might have hankered after guitars now get by making music on laptops. It’s worth remembering that the accordion was once the most popular instrument in America”). Small- to mid-sized bands can inspire bigger acts that revitalize the style. We wouldn’t have the Ramones without the New York Dolls; we wouldn’t have Nirvana without Pixies.
The conversation around this issue has tended toward the negative. It’s easy to bemoan the current state of affairs or play the blame game. Various technological and music industry forces are the most popular culprits. (The argument that rock just isn’t as good as it used to be holds a distant third place. I submit that those who feel this way should revisit Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina’s ’70s work.)
But while it’s emotionally satisfying to curse digital piracy and predatory record labels, it’s not terribly useful. Diagnosing the malaise won’t cure it. It’s time to talk about treatments, even if they’re palliative.
Easier said than done, of course. I don’t know enough about the fiscal nuts and bolts of Grizzly Bear’s situation to tell them how to improve it. I do, however, know this: It is extremely frustrating to write and record music at a monetary loss. Lots of bands do it for a time, and lots of bands have broken up because they can’t afford to keep paying out of pocket to record. If such bands could find a way to at least break even on their recording costs, considerably fewer of them will prematurely throw in the towel. We’re not talking about tons of money here; my band recorded our (reasonably pro-sounding) first album for less than $5,000, all expenses included. That’s not a huge sum by traditional rock standards, but it’s a shitload of dough for twentysomethings who have to scrape just to pay the rent.
So here’s what I propose: let’s talk about ways for smaller rock bands to alleviate the financial pressures they face. I’ve written up some ideas and resources that bands have at their disposal for monetizing their music or decreasing the costs they get saddled with. I don’t think any of these ideas will do the trick on its own, but several of them in concert could help a lot of struggling bands get by. This list isn’t at all exhaustive — the question of how best to utilize social media to enhance an artist’s visibility isn’t even addressed; that’s a whole ‘nother Deconstruction. The technologies and strategies covered here have been discussed more and more, especially over the past year, so consider this an accessible compilation, sketching out the positives and negatives of each, and ideally, a conversation-starter, a jumping-off point for more.
That’s where you come in. I’d like you folks to post all of the (hopefully countless) money-making/cost-avoiding tactics I’ve missed here. It’d be great to hear about people’s experiences with the resources and ideas I describe below, too. How else can non-massive bands generate extra revenue, cut costs, and otherwise ease the crushing financial pressure that they face? (Think carefully; the future of rock music may depend on it.) Hopefully, we can turn this post into a repository of resources that small bands can use to firm up their finances, break even on their recording costs, and turn their focus away from the big black boxes and back towards making music.
I thought of Bandcamp first because I’ve had many positive experiences with it. It’s a popular service, and for good reason. If you’re not familiar with it, Bandcamp provides an expanded version of the pay-what-you-wish download model that Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails used to such great effect five years ago. For bands that aren’t dealing with recording contracts, it’s the best way to distribute your music digitally. You can sell your album for whatever price you like (or whatever price the customer wants to pay) in a variety of file formats, while simultaneously streaming it and giving listeners access to high-def art and lyrics. You can even sell physical merch through the site now.
Of course, Bandcamp takes a cut of your sales, and since the site pays you through Paypal, you end up taking a second small hit from them, too. But the deductions aren’t exorbitant, and you can still end up with a big chunk of change afterward. The experimental cellist Zoë Keating’s 2010 album Into the Trees debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard classical charts, based solely on its Bandcamp sales. Bandcamp’s primary drawback — and it’s a big one — is that it provides only a platform for artists to distribute their music, not opportunities for them to gain exposure. Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead benefited from years of work done by their respective major label’s publicity machines before succeeding in the Bandcamp format. Without those machines in place, how will new bands bring eyes and ears (and dollars) to their own Bandcamp pages?
The most challenging fiscal task that most bands face is rustling up the cash to record in a competent studio. It’s the rare independent musician who has several thousand dollars lying around. Kickstarter provides a platform for pre-studio (or pre-touring, or pre-building a pyrotechnics rig) fundraising, directly from your fans.
Most of us have been solicited for money via Kickstarter before, and some of us have done the soliciting, too. In case you haven’t done either? It works like this: You (the artist hoping to fund a project) make a video in which you pitch your idea to your fans. Your fans then donate a sum of their choosing towards your album/tour/Zodiac-themed stage costumes. If your funding reaches its pre-set goal by the project’s deadline, Kickstarter charges your donors’ credit cards and give you the money. (If your project doesn’t receive enough donations, your donors don’t get charged.) The site gives you the option of incentivizing donations by offering prizes in return—copies of your album, signed pieces of memorabilia, free concert tickets, a night of passion with your bassist, and so forth.
Lots of bands and other folks have had great experiences with Kickstarter, but it has its fair share of disadvantages. The site takes 10 percent off the top of every project; between their cut and the cost of following through with all of your incentive gifts, you can lose a sizeable percentage of your funds. (That’s if you follow through with your incentives at all. More than one musician has flaked out, as Animal Collective’s Josh Dibb did when he raised money via Kickstarter for an activist trip to Mali. Runaway success can cause problems, too. Amanda Palmer blew her own public-relations foot off when she mismanaged her record-high $1.2 million Kickstarter haul and then asked her fans to act as unpaid backing instrumentalists. Non-musicians have run into the same problem; Wired ran a great piece this past summer about five Kickstarter projects that collapsed when they found themselves glutted with too much funding.
In short, Kickstarter can be a great resource, but only if you’re well-organized enough to handle its demands on your time and attention. If you’re methodical enough, you can circumvent Kickstarter’s drawbacks by running your own donation drive using Paypal’s Donate function.
STREAMING SERVICES (SPOTIFY, PANDORA, RDIO, ETC.)
Described in brief, these services sound great. Each one gives its users access to a massive library streaming music for free (or for cheap, in return for a small subscription fee) in any country willing to allow it. They pay artists a small royalty every time their music is played. Users get access to oodles of streaming music, and artists get paid instead of ripped off. Everybody wins, right?
Yes, technically. Musicians don’t win much, though. Streaming service royalty models vary considerably, depending on the service and the artist’s legal relationship with his work. Few non-huge artists end up making much of anything from streaming services. Zoë Keating, the cellist who hit the Billboard charts with her Bandcamp debut, revealed in June that she earned less than $300 from almost 73,000 Spotify plays. Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 piled on in a widely circulated Pitchfork article this November; he claims that his band earned just $0.21 for almost 8,000 Spotify plays. David Macias, the president of the label services company 30 Tigers, contradicted Krukowski’s math in a Hypebot editorial a few weeks later. Still, it remains clear that only artists popular enough to score hundreds of thousands of plays will ever make any money from such services. (Macias’s Matisyahu example is not likely to comfort many underground bands.) Streaming may even about to become even less profitable, thanks to the Internet Radio Fairness Act.
But even if streaming services pay out very little, they offer artists the same bonus that traditional radio stations do: exposure, for whatever it’s worth. There’s also apparently weak (but still extant!) evidence suggesting that the presence of streaming services in a given country will suppress music piracy.
MAKE WEIRDER MERCH
It seems clear at this juncture that CD sales won’t rebound any time soon. Vinyl sales, on the other hand, have been climbing for five years; they’re projected to grow by 16 percent this year alone. People aren’t keen to buy plastic, but other formats are doing OK.
Independent bands stand to do better sales-wise by coming up with novel ways to package their music. Sometimes it’s enough to press your tunes to a nicely turned slab of wax, or onto a cassette tape. At other times, sticking a CD in a novel container will do the trick. Such creative packaging can pose daunting logistical challenges for DIY bands, as designing and manufacturing clever containers ain’t cheap. But those challenges aren’t insurmountable. Philadelphia’s the Extraordinaires, for instance, tuck their discs inside of little hardback books, complete with faux library cards and handwritten lyrics. Fiona Apple did something similar with her most recent album. The legendary proto-industrial group COIL mastered this tactic, pressing limited-run vinyl with such accoutrements as drops of the band members’ blood. Collectors still pursue them.
There are more novel ways to escape the confines of traditional CDs-and-shirts merchandise. Jack White has turned unusual merch into a cottage industry; at this point, he could probably make a living just selling White Stripes Triple Inchophones on eBay.
Touring has been a cornerstone of the rock business model for so long that it’s become a commandment: If thou art in a band, thou shalt tour. It routinely gets trotted out as the way for independent bands to make money, especially now that physical product has become obsolete.
Touring can be a useful tool, but like a clawhammer or circular saw, it can also maul the hand of an inexperienced or inept user. Vehicle rentals, gas, food, lodging, equipment repair, and other road expenses add up, and it’s pretty hard to hold a paying day job when you spend most of your time zipping around the country in a cargo van. If your tour doesn’t perform well, you can find yourself maxing out your credit card to get the band from Boise to Twin Falls. Countless small bands — and quite a few big ones — have gone into debt because of poorly attended, poorly promoted, poorly routed tours. Some of those bands have broken up in the aftermath of their shitty road experiences.
The best way for a small band to avoid getting wiped out by a disastrous tour is to exercise some common sense. If you have never toured before, do not try to book a month-long nationwide jaunt by yourself. Do a few weekend mini-tours first. Try to hop on a tour with a more popular and experienced band. Don’t plan on staying in hotels every night. Don’t agree to play shows on consecutive nights in cities that are 500 miles apart. Most importantly, don’t rush into a situation where you don’t know what you’re doing.
David Thomas, the Pere Ubu singer, once expressed his band’s unwillingness to “sleep on floors or tour endlessly.” He was joking about Pere Ubu’s perpetual commercial failure, but they’ve nonetheless survived as an underground band for almost 40 years. That’s longevity that any artist can aspire to.
Again, this is an incomplete list. Various other strategies have been proposed and used, some with considerable success. Outside of the United States, many governments offer arts grants; some rock bands, like Denmark’s the Figurines, have benefited from their home nations’ largesse. Others have done well for themselves by licensing their music for use in movies, TV shows, and commercials. (Of course, success in this vein requires both commercially viable music and advanced networking skills.)
Some proposals are more extreme. Some analysts have proposed the idea of a musicians’ strike designed to force reform on the current payment model. Musicians’ strikes are common in the heavily unionized world of classical performance — just this year, symphony orchestra unions have walked out in Atlanta, Chicago, and Spokane. I’m not sure what a musicians’ strike would look like in the decentralized rock landscape, but if anyone has ideas, I’d love to hear them.
The search for a single, comprehensive replacement for the old model is stifling the conversation right now. Everyone’s looking for a magic bullet, and understandably so — rock music earned its keep via the comparatively simple physical-sales-plus-touring model for five decades. But those days are gone, and no amount of sentimentalizing them (or bemoaning the current technology, however myopically) is going to bring them back. No single service or tactic is likely to turn around a given band’s finances. However, a combination of services and tactics can make a huge difference. The new financial model for independent rock bands, to the extent that one exists, is a modular one. Different approaches will suit different bands. (The more we can compile here, the better.) Combine enough of the right ingredients with common sense and elbow grease, and you no longer have to sell your kidney to pay the mastering engineer. Maybe. It’s a marginal existence, but it’s a lot better than nothing.
The days of professional rock bands that make their livings off music may be coming to an end. That’s OK with me. As I’ve said here before, music has historically been an avocation more often than it’s been a vocation, and we’re moving back in the avocation direction now. For the foreseeable future, it will be challenging and complicated for independent rock bands to do their thing without committing financial suicide. That’s a bitter pill, but even the angriest discontents of the current state of affairs would likely agree that it’s worth swallowing. Rock music has always involved its share of moving big black boxes across town in the back of your car. With the right set of tools, independent musicians can continue to do what they must to survive.
[Along with being a Stereogum contributor, Doug Moore is in the NYC metal band Pyrrhon. You can check them out -- and buy their music! -- here.]