In the wake of recent future-of-music discussions—Louis CK’s direct-ticketing move, which may indeed revolutionize touring for artists with that large of an audience, and the Emily White/All Songs Considered/David Lowery thing—I’ve been having arguments about record labels and money.
I was kind of shocked that few people knew the ground-level math, the nuts-and-bolts inconvenient truth: the diminishment of labels means there’s little money to fund the initial touring costs of new bands.
It’s called tour support. Paying for a van/bus, gas, sound person, per diems (meals), motels, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s vital start-up money, it’s the impetus of scores of bands’ careers, and it’s not really available anymore—certainly not to the extent it was when there was more money in music.
This means that there will be fewer bands.
In fact, most of the most interesting bands that began in the 90s wouldn’t exist.
I can’t prove that there’d otherwise be amazing bands that you would be deeply compelled by, and engaged with, that don’t exist—we’re talking Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life here. But I think this is our reality.
I’m not wagging fingers, or wringing my hands. I just think it’d be better for people to know what the deal is.
A guy tweeted: With sympathy, ‘end of labels’ support’ will chnge how we discver & support bands, not deprive.
Alas, that’s untrue.
There will be fewer bands.
Less money to make movies would mean fewer movies. Less money to fund the start-up of bands means fewer bands.
Think of successful rock bands from the 90s, and imagine that they lacked the funds to circle North America and Europe four or five times within a couple of years. Without that funding, without the essential groundwork of developing an audience, most of the successful 90s bands just wouldn’t be around.
An example I used was Radiohead. No tour support in the early 90s = no Radiohead. This made a few people kinda mad.
(This is a heartbreaking time for Radiohead, after the recent stage collapse. I don’t mean to pick on them. I’m bringing them up because they’re beloved, they’ve made a career pushing themselves, creatively, and they’ve been making album after album, year after year—and, of course, they’re huge)
For a band of Radiohead’s ilk—five people, each an equal member, who need to make a living, after covering huge transportation, personnel (sound guy, tour manager) and production expenses—to put album after album out, year after year, for almost two decades, you need a sizable touring base.
I estimate that it costs $3,000 to $6,000 a week for a bare-bones tour—yes, very bare-bones. You need to be out hustling on the road maybe 20 to 30 weeks per year, and it takes two or three or four years to develop a viable touring base. (I hate that kind of music-biz jargon, I avoid it whenever I can—please forgive me for not having more elegant terms)
Averaging those numbers, an absolutely new band needs about $280,000—for very scrappy, uncomfortable touring.
With this budget, you’ll still need a job when you get home. One that doesn’t mind you only working a month at a time, then vanishing for seven weeks, then returning—repeatedly. For years. By nature, that’ll probably be a shitty job.
Does anybody remember the part of Anvil! The Story of Anvil where the singer/guitarist is, in his fifties, working a minimum-wage food-service job, while his siblings are dentists and lawyers?
This imaginary version of Radiohead doesn’t have the benefit of historical hindsight. How do you tell girlfriends and parents that pretty long-term poverty, well into adulthood—as your fellow former members of the high school chess club graduate from medical school—will result in making an extremely nice living, not to mention important work?
Let’s say that “Creep” could’ve been a hit record without a generous promotional fund.
A song on the radio will not pack clubs instantly—and packed clubs, even theaters, are unlikely to be enough to tour without taking tour support from a label. Bands with hit songs still have to circle the country for a couple of years to build an audience, and, from there, a real career. Some people come because they love the single, and, if the show’s great, a live fanbase develops.
"Creep" was not such a gigantic hit that there was an immediate, overwhelming explosion of cash, such that Radiohead could’ve immediately toured, within 2 years of their first album, without money from the label.
That might sound absurd to you. Talk to any professional manager of 90s major-label bands: you may have hit it out of the park, but you’d still be taking tour support—you could’ve probably gotten the label to up the budget, you could’ve gotten stage techs, you could’ve been on an extremely nice bus, you could’ve gotten your own—not shared—rooms on days off, but you’d still be operating on the label’s dime.
No tour support = no Radiohead.
Their pay-what-you-wish experiment was noble. It absolutely would not have worked if they weren’t a huge band.
(I’m freestyling this—I didn’t call up their manager-circa-1994 and investigate numbers. I would be very surprised if Radiohead didn’t rely heavily on tour support for at least three to four years—possibly five to six)
When my first band, Soul Coughing, put out its first album on Slash/Warner Bros., they paid for basics, but no more. We shared rooms. We were crammed into a single van with our gear. It was extremely uncomfortable. We were resentful that we couldn’t get money for a second van.
We were just scraping by—but we didn’t need jobs for our off-tour lives.
Today, any left-of-center band would be insanely lucky to get that. Radiohead would be an extreme longshot to get that. Soul Coughing wouldn’t have a chance in hell.
Vice published this letter I wrote, in response to a young musician’s pessimistic article, about how being a professional touring musician is still possible:
Summary: be solo, or a duo, because a full band is financially untenable; work much, much harder, under much more stressful conditions, than bands of earlier generations had to. Be very young, or have the ability to take the broke-ness, the physical and emotional knock-around, that very young people can.
My favorite New York band is called Moon Hooch: three super-fierce dudes in their early 20s. I think they’ll pull it off, and become a successful touring band, because they’re so young, so fiery, and so committed. They will commit to sleeping on floors repeatedly. They opened for me on a month’s worth of shows last year; I came to them kind of embarrassed, like, this is gonna be rough going, you guys in a car, us in a bus, hugely long drives, and the promoters aren’t gonna pay you well. They did it, and they killed it. They are extremely impressive in their warrior ethos.
Kids in punk rock bands will still be around. The Warped Tour will be in good shape.
But can people over 25 do that? For that matter, can people under 25, who are, like me, let’s say, drama-club kids?
One guy I know—super talented, younger musician with tremendous potential—did some touring by Greyhound, which is common these days. He said, “Interstate bus travel will kill your spirit.”
I don’t think he’s done it since. I know I wouldn’t be able to hack it.
I know ten or twelve young artists, equally as talented and promising, in the same boat.
I think Radiohead upgraded from a van to a tour bus pretty early in their touring life. Would they have slept on floors, traveled by Greyhound, lived on $10 a day?
For two years? Or three?
It’s no dis to say that I don’t think they could—I couldn’t either.
I remember reading their press coverage in the 90s. Much of it focused on how they were worn down by a grueling touring life. Meeting People Is Easy was basically an extended essay on the topic. This may or may not actually be the case—music writers often gravitate to a small part of a band’s story and magnify it, and it accumulates to a tipping point where that story becomes the conventional wisdom—but the impression I got, repeatedly, was that they were tired, and irritated by touring.
(I read a comment along the lines of, “Press coverage is 100% free.” No. Press coverage means somebody was paid money to make phonecalls for two months, cajoling writers into listening, and hopefully reviewing. There are examples of bands that took off like a shot with press by sheer momentum. They are in the extreme minority. Nearly everybody else needs to hire somebody to chase press. You can say to hell with it, but that’ll probably mean that all the other people who shelled out for a publicist will get that press instead. Maybe we’ll get lucky, and at some point nobody hires publicists, and then press becomes 100% free)
No tour support = no Radiohead.
I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m doing great. I make a nice living playing music that I’m fiercely engaged with. I have a fantastic, passionate audience. The Future is working out pretty OK for me.
The kind of things available to an artist of Louis CK’s size are available to artists of my size, on a much, much lower level. I benefit a lot from having a direct connection to my audience—though Louis’ excellent new move probably isn’t in my near future. I don’t come with such a guaranteed profitable audience that rock clubs’ promoters will tell Ticketmaster to buzz off on my behalf.
I tour cheaply—mostly as a duo, or solo, and about once every three years with a full band, on a tour bus—and, in that case, as stingily as I can. This kind of budgetary vigilance means I make pretty good money.
But this wouldn’t be possible at all, at all, without having had the initial investment of a record company. My career is founded on a few years spent circling the country on tour support from Warner Bros.
I’m a pragmatist. Nobody’s going to cajole Emily White into spending money. We are where we are. People younger than me will spend money on gear, and wi-fi, but not on music. It’s a shame.
Short of the law intervening and imposing a mandatory royalty that huge companies implicitly benefiting from the new cultural landscape—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Optimum Cable, Spotify—must pay—which, of course, they wouldn’t just eat, they’d pass on to the consumer—the truth is that songs are a radically devalued commodity.
Musicians: we must adapt, and make our lives work.
Lowery got shit for bringing up Mark Linkous and Vic Chesnutt, but it’s honestly not off the mark to interpret some Lane-on-Mad-Men desperation. Money is absolutely not worth taking your own life over, but many, many people, in all professions, do it.
Musicians, we need to know more about our financial ins-and-outs than musicians in the past. One reason it sucks is that we tend to be exceptionally not-good at this—we relied on hopefully-trustworthy business managers and accountants, whom most of us can no longer afford—and, full disclosure, I still have one, because I was wretchedly hopeless doing it on my own, and it’s an expense I wish I didn’t have to deal with.
Listeners, understand what’s happening—not what’s going to happen, but what is happening.
There will be fewer people making a living playing music.
There will be fewer bands.
There will probably never be a band of the same species as Radiohead. There would be no Radiohead if they’d started today.
I’m surprised—and saddened—that everybody didn’t, by now, fully understand this.
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