in Blog Crap

The Music Industry is a Fucking Pit

It seems to be common knowledge that musicians do not make money. For the latest high-profile artist to inspire this discussion, see this article about Cat Power. It’s not really worth getting into why this is the case, but I do think it is worth some discussion about who actually is making money since the artists aren’t. I am going to do my best to share at least my narrow perspective on the money pit that is the life of an independent musician.

As a musician, you are paying for what you do every step of the way. Literally everything you do requires you to pay in some way or another; if you are not paying out of pocket, someone else is paying and they expect you to pay them back one way or another. These are universal rules of commerce; after all, nothing is free, everything comes from somewhere else. What makes the musician different, though, is the unbelievably disproportionate rate at which costs increase but profits do not. All general statements, all philosophizing — let’s talk facts.

You buy gear and no matter what you have, things are always breaking and needing repairs. If you have a lot of it, you have it insured. $$$.
You pay for a rehearsal space.
You pay to record. A fucking ton.
Want to sell shirts and records? You pay for those, too. A lot.
If you’re playing a show, you’re paying someone for gas to get there. If it’s out of town, you’re paying way more, plus tolls. You’re eating like shit, either fast food or Subway or lots of nuts and cold beans, or you’re using the money you made from shows or that the label lent you… which means you have less left over at the end. (Of course, paying for food is something we all do, but when you are on the road, you usually don’t have the opportunity to cook and save money. It drains your wallet.) If you’re travelling a lot, you’re buying a van that you are either making payments on or, if you bought it outright for $$$, you’re paying for upkeep. Gas on those things will fucking kill you. There’s insurance.
Is someone booking your tours? They’re taking a cut of your guarantee. PR people? They’re probably trying to make sure people Like you on Facebook cause everyone knows that this translates directly into record sales.
Maybe you’ve reached a point that someone is paying for travel expenses — maybe you’re playing a fest, maybe your label is helping you out. No matter what, that “help” comes with a price: you are going to get paid less cash, so you are going to have less to live on while you’re there, less to live on when you’re home, less to put into all of the aforementioned expenses.

Are you on a record label? Read Steve Albini’s brilliant article about how major labels just want to fuck you until you die. In fact, stop reading this right now and just go read that.
Are you in a full-time touring band? There will be extra mouths to feed. At a minimum, you are going to have one person on the road with you to sell merch and help out. You’ll probably also have a driver for your vehicle. If you give a shit about how you sound when you play, you have a sound person with you and if you’re conscious about your band’s brand, since that is unfortunately something that professional bands have to consider at some point, you might have a photographer with you, too. Your five-piece just became a nine-piece.

Label sign you? Killer distribution deal? Big advance? Congratulations! Everything they do for you has to be repaid, PLUS you now have less control over your music. Sell 10,000 records? That usually doesn’t happen without someone doing some work and they expect to be paid. The bigger your band, the more money the label has given you, the more they have spent on advertising you, their expenses go up and they have to make a profit, so that means there is left for you. A band signed to a record label is the product as much as the music being sold. This is not necessarily a predatory relationship, as there are innumerable individuals running record labels who love their bands and want to help music reach those who want to love it, too; however, record labels assume great financial risk, earning them greater financial reward, or at least the guarantee that they will not go broke and will continue to do what they want to do. In other words, the label pays themselves before they pay the band, and why shouldn’t they? They put up the money. They funded the operation. Such is the contract. (For the record, I’m pleased with the independent labels I’ve dealt with. I’ve been careful to not get too big, I guess.)

The record label is in a unique position, though, because they can limit their exposure. They can release an album and decide how deep they want to go and they have a relatively clearcut idea of how and when they will make profit. Materials cost A, time costs B, promotion costs C, etc,… Sell record for X, after Y copies are sold, label makes Z. They also probably don’t put all their eggs in one basket, as the professional musician does. We can say this for everyone else, every step of the way. As a producer, I know how much my gear costs, how much my space costs, how much my time is worth, so I know that I need to record for so many hours a month to not starve… which is why I don’t produce full-time, though that’s another story.  If you are a screen printer selling to bands, you know what your shirts, ink, and so on cost. People making instruments, the same. That isn’t to say that any of these things are guaranteed. A screen printer’s margins are low and a few bad weeks can kill them; a label assumes a record will sell and when something flops, they can take a bath; an engineer can have a key piece of gear break or go out of fashion or move to a city where they can’t afford a space (Bitter? Me? Of course not!) and be out of business. These, I’d argue, are easier to calculate and easier to limit risk. A label can sign more bands or sign better bands. A recording engineer can work with better bands, do better work. Same with a screen printer. They can work part-time elsewhere. They can limit their expenses, limit their exposure, but still do what they do.

The band, however? All of the above costs fluctuate and never stop and when the members are doing it professionally, their options to make additional money are limited. Their ability to make money with their craft is extremely limited: sell shit, play shows. Selling shit, if that shit is music, is pretty much guaranteed to not go well enough to fund things, which is pretty hilarious when we consider that making music is what a musician DOES. They can play shows, but there are so many costs associated with them that it’s almost impossible to live off of it without being careful or on a superstar level. Make money elsewhere? A professional band is expected to tour, limiting their income to things they can do from the road and things that will make them a lot of money for short periods of time between tours, or a wealthy significant other, inheritance, lottery, drug dealing, or good old-fashioned poverty. The bigger your band gets, the more time you give up, the more money you spend, but your return on investment goes down, down, down because the investment goes up, up, up. A small band that wants to do a US tour is paying more in gas, more in merch, having a harder time keeping jobs back home, but their guarantees are not going up enough to support them as adults. God help them if they have families. To quote a popular line lately, “the math doesn’t add up.”

As a musician, you pay the people who make your instruments, provide your rehearsal space, record your music, produce your merch, put gas in your vehicle, provide your vehicle one way or another, drive your vehicle. You make money for all of these people plus others along the way: the distributors who sell your records and merch, the LiveNation or venue selling your tickets, the bar selling beers at your shows, the people hosting your website. These people can control their exposure, they can calculate their risks and scale things back and still survive. They can work with multiple bands, they can essentially have their hands in different pots and be everywhere at once. You, as a musician? You have your time, you have your ability. You sure as hell don’t have money, so you have your connections. Everyone around you takes and takes and takes. Your fans steal your music and then bitch about it on the internet, then act shocked when you don’t tour or when your show costs too much or when Scion offers you a big check for absolutely nothing and you take it because you couldn’t exist otherwise. As you get bigger, you become more of a product and everyone knows it. You work harder but you give up more control and as a result, you make less.

The music industry, as it has existed to date, is a fucking pit. It is a dead-end. Anyone who expects to play rock music in 2012, follow all the old rules about touring full time and signing with a label and all that shit, AND live off of it is living in a dreamworld because by the time the purse floats down to the bottom of the river, everyone along the way has reached in and taken their share. There is nothing left for you.

I think that there are solutions. Cut your expenses to the bare minimum: cut personell; make sure everyone in the band can play their instruments and learn to love natural, lo-fi recordings so the recording process is cheap; focus on small regional tours in cities where guarantees are high and cities are close, booking cheap flights and travelling with one other band instead of wasting gas driving across the country. Release DIY, where you control as many steps of the process as possible. Make your own merch, do your own art, do your own recordings, book your own tours. Cut out every fucking leech along the way, because they are everywhere.

More than anything else, get a goddamn job and be realistic. Get rid of your credit cards, pay off your car, drink at fewer bars, trade your skills for more tattoos. Boost your savings, be good at what you do, and tour when you can afford to take a loss. Encourage the people around you to stop using BitTorrent and start buying records. Stop expecting rock music to pay your bills and then when it doesn’t, you won’t be surprised and you won’t complain. It sucks that things are like this but wanting things to be different is not enough to change them.

This shit makes me sick. Fuck you.

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  1. Hard to argue with the man, he makes some very valid points. I can see why Neurosis practically manage themselves.

    Music is still something I love to do and I still want to write it with my band, release an album or two and do some shows, but I now know why touring extensively all the time is a mistake. Then again though it didn’t seem to be all fun and games in the first place. Too much time away from home and family playing a genre of music that won’t generate a mainstream audience, among the other things mentioned in the article. Also, wouldn’t limiting your live performances in a way make them more special and significant, encouraging more fans to come out to them? (Considering that you wouldn’t be back for a while)

  2. Ryan, good point regarding limiting live shows. If you play in front of the same audience every weekend then you’re not tapping into new markets. Bands only have so much merch than can sell to their friends.

    • @Darren cowan
      Yeah I guess you’re right, but I guess you have to learn how to market your band properly as well as proper management so that you can effectively cut out all of the middle men, and still reach new audiences. I know a program at Seneca that teaches exactly that, and goes into depth on recording as well.