Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Popconomics: the real cost of being in a band

As most acts know, keeping the profit and loss account balanced is tricky, especially when everyone thinks bands are quids in

Avril Lavinge meets the fans in Brazil

Thu, May 8, 2014, 09:16


When it comes to bands and musicians, there is a notion that they’re all loaded. It comes up in interviews and casual chats with musicians a lot, this idea that people have about bands who are touring and releasing music and doing interviews and getting played on the radio and appearing on TV shows. Many casual observers look at that list of activities and, based on what they know about the music business from the media, reckon the acts are quids in. The perception created by shows like The Voice and The X Factor as well as those totally outlandish and unfounded stories of “one million quid record deals” have a lot to answer for.

The truth, as anyone who knows the popconomics of being in a band knows only too well, is a whole lot different. Most acts at every level below the megastar grade struggle financially. If you’re a new act starting out, every cent is an investment to get to the next step on the ladder and all those cents come from your own pocket. You need to spend cash to attract attention, to show that you’re self-sufficient, to demonstrate enough of that self-starter vim and ingenuity to persuade a manager or label or agent to take a chance on you. You’re probably not making a bean.

It’s just as bleak on the next step on the ladder. Many acts who have a few releases under their oxter, are touring a bit and have a label of some ilk in their corner are still struggling. The revenue streams which were once reliable bankers are no more so an act are tapping every possible source and many new ones.

But move on up the ranks and it’s still dismal. You’d Lily Allen bemoaning her lot when she got £8,000 for an ad, while Avril Lavinge’s facial expressions at a recent meet-and-greet session with fans in Brazil (who’d played $400 a head to stand awkwardly beside the “Sk8er Boi” singer) sums up her feelings at what she now has to do to make cash. Of course, Lavinge is still doing meet-and-greets at every opportunity because it’s easy money.

Indeed, Allen had plenty to say to interviewer Eva Wiseman about the stuff which an act now has to do to make some cash. She talked about performing at a birthday party for “some rich kid in Russia” and turning up at “snobby launches of a new water at Claridges” where “we all turn up because we get paid to be there”. Turning up at those launches means loads of photos in the following day’s papers and online publications so everyone involved is a winner. Yet you can be sure that Allen is not the only pop star who is sniffy in this way about what they have to do to make a living – acts want to make music not paid appearances for “a new water”.

It’s not just glitzy, mouthy pop stars like Allen who are subject to the slings and arrows of modern popconomics. Many readers will remember the interest around this feature on Grizzly Bear from 2012 which showed another side to being in a critically acclaimed indie band who were releasing records on a respected indie label and playing big-ish shows around the world. As Nitsuh Abebe noted in the piece, “you might have assumed that musicians with a top-twenty sales week and a Radio City show — say, the U2 tour in 1984, after The Unforgettable Fire — made at least as much as their dentists.” Not so any more as the band made clear in the piece.

This week, you had Jehnny Beth from Savages talking about the economics of being in a band and the everyday problems over housing and money. “The economy of the band isn’t bad. We have enough money to survive and make a second record exactly the way we want to. We are lucky, yes, but I mean for example this job doesn’t give us the possibility to buy a house if we wanted to, or to start a family if we wanted to, to do what people you know do, when they have a life and their work is successful. Recognition doesn’t bring money.”

Indeed, some have worked out the real bottom line when it comes to starting and maintaining a band. Brothers Abner and Harper Willis are frontmen in New York-based band Two Lights and they reckon it costs a cool $100,000 to get an indie band on the road. “It turns out that breaking into the world of rock and roll is like launching any career in a field with high barriers to entry: It’s expensive. And unlike law school or medical school, the school of rock doesn’t offer financial aid (not even loans).”

Of course, many acts feel that such moans and groans are totally unbecoming. As Merrill Garbus from tUnE-yArDs said in last week’s interview with The Ticket while talking about the pressures and strains of being a modern musician, “I didn’t want to be the whine, woe-is-me, poor indie rock star. You know the type and I’m tired of that cliche.”

Yet it’s worthwhile reminding fans of what the band they go to see play in a club or theatre face when it comes to paying the bills. The curtailment on traditional revenue sources – and that applies as much to live revenue as income from recorded music sales – means the real costs of being in a band are on a rise, while there’s a serious squeeze on the money coming in. The next time you reckon a band are making out like bandits, think again.