A Special Report is content that is edited and produced by the Special Reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report, but who do not have editorial control.

Your band is an SME

Rock ’n’ roll stardom has a business side

Indietronica band Columbia Mills got a business loan from their bank to finance their debut album.

Indietronica band Columbia Mills got a business loan from their bank to finance their debut album.


The music business ain’t like it used to be, and bands are finding out they can’t just sit around skulling Jack Daniel’s while a record-label lackey runs around doing all the hard work. They’re realising that not only do they need to come up with some good music, but they also need to know the business side of the equation. They need to understand how the process of making and marketing a record works, how to book gigs and organise tours, how to package their product and how to use social media to get their musical message across. They need to be able to negotiate distribution deals, licensing deals and synching deals, to give their songs the chance of reaching the widest possible audience.

Essentially, a band is a small to medium enterprise and it has to be run like one.

“It’s a very strange thing to look at it from a business point of view, you don’t start like that,” says Fiachra Treacy from Dublin indietronica band Columbia Mills. “You start off with a complete and utter love for music. You have a passion for it, it’s something that’s inside you, and you’ll do it regardless of whether you’re making a loss or a profit.”

Columbia Mills formed two years ago in Bray, Co Wicklow, and quickly realised they wouldn’t have the luxury of sitting around writing and recording songs all day while others did the donkey work of promotion and marketing. They put aside any money they earned from playing gigs and used it to finance their first two EPs, producing the records themselves with the help of a sound engineer friend.

“They weren’t too much of a burden financially, and they were good for helping us experiment with our sound and find out what we wanted to do as a band,” says Treacy.

When it came time to record their debut album, Columbia Mills knew they were going to have to up the ante. So they put on their best shirts, went to their local friendly bank and applied for a business loan to finance the album. Far from laughing the band right out of the building, the bank manager looked at their business plan and decided it was worth taking a punt on the band.

“We had to tell them how we were going to make the money back from the album, from streaming and from syncing. We talked to them about the music business and they were quite happy with what we had done. We all have a decent education and we are smart enough and we’re able to prove that to them.”

Armed with a bank loan, the band hired producer Rob Kirwan, whose credits include Hozier, U2 and Depeche Mode.

The debut album, A Safe Distance to Watch, was released in early November, but there was no resting on their laurels for Treacy and the band. With no record label, they had to get out there and plug the album themselves, arranging press interviews, radio and TV appearances, record-store gigs, updating the band’s social media, and even sort out the barcodes for the new record. At this stage, they must have envied those lucky bands who got their names on the dotted line before they even recorded a bassline.

“We’d love it if a label came along and said: ‘we’ll look after the business side for you – you just go and make music’. I’d love to be getting up in the morning and doing nothing more than spending the whole day just making music. We’re writing the second album now, and we’re also getting up every morning and trying to push this album.”

So far, everything’s going according to the business plan for Columbia Mills. On the same week the album was released, the band made the final repayment on their bank loan, and now have a clean balance sheet, and a highly acclaimed debut album, to get them started on the next stage of their career.

If Treacy has any business tips for young bands, it’s “get to know the music business and watch as it evolves, because it’s always changing. People don’t download music anymore – it’s all streaming. Look into your copyright and your streaming and publishing, because they are all little streams of income that’ll help you make your record.

“And stay in school.”

Willie Kelly plays with raucous folk-rock band Rackhouse Pilfer, but though the Sligo band may look like a raggle-taggle bunch of reprobates, they keep a close eye on the business side, because no one else is going to do it for them.

In the five years they’ve been together, Rackhouse Pilfer have racked up more than 200 gigs a year, including slots at Irish festivals such as Sea Sessions and Body & Soul, and major festivals across Europe. All the gigging has paid off – this year they were invited to perform on three stages at Glastonbury, and were invited into the studio to record a song with Tom Jones and Imelda May. In September, they released their new album, Solar Luna, showcasing a new, rockier sound.

More than a hobby

It was when making their first album that Kelly realised that the band had become more than a hobby – it was a business.

“We realised we had to really take it seriously if we were going to go down that road.”

So they signed up to a Leader scheme, run by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, to learn the nitty gritty of running a small business.

“There was a lot of help there, they really show you how to set up a business properly and run all kinds of workshops where they show you how to do your books, entrepreneurial workshops showing you how to run every aspect of the business. It’s all free information and it gets you thinking about things in a proper business sense.”

The band took what they learned in the Leader scheme and applied it to the business of running a band.

“At the end of the day we’re selling a product,” says Kelly. In Rackhouse Pilfer’s case, that’s “beer-flinging banjo rock”, and it’s gone down a treat with audiences around the world. “It’s no different than any other business and I think in a musical sense for any band out there it’s wise to treat it as a business.”

To finance their second album, the band turned to crowdfunding, which, says Kelly, has been a “godsend” for bands. “But I really feel you have to have the groundwork done and be out there playing and have a genuine fanbase that’s going to get behind you. You can’t be just relying on your family and friends to to finance your album.”

The band exceeded its funding target of €10,000 by €2,000, and put all the money made from album sales back into the pot. By the time it came to making their new album, they had enough resources to go shopping for their ideal producer.

Eventually, they got Gareth Jones, who’s no slouch behind a mixing desk. “All these guys offer independent rates if they like the project. If you’re set up well enough, and you have your stuff together, and you pitch it the right way, you can get these people. We didn’t have €100,000 to spend on an album, but if you have maybe €25,000 or €30,000 you can make a deal. One of the most important things you’ve got to look at is the budget because that will be the first question: what is your budget?

After five years of gigging, Rackhouse Pilfer are taking a break from touring to be with their families, and to work on other projects. Kelly is involved with the hugely successful Sligo Live festival, and he feels the experience he’s gained from running his band as a business will stand to him in future artistic endeavours.

“It’s almost like a college education we’ve given ourselves. I’ve learnt so much from looking after the management of the band, I can see myself managing other bands. Sligo is awash with amazing musical talent, and I would have the experience now to guide these bands to a more successful route.”

And Kelly’s business tips for young bands? “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek advice – there’s a lot of free advice out there. Take it seriously, because once you take it seriously, good things will start to happen.”