First, read this: http://www.vulture.com/2012/09/grizzly-bear-shields.html
Now, some thoughts.
First, I don’t think the members of Grizzly Bear are as broke as the piece hints at. The health insurance thing is a bit of a red herring — you can get a plan (albeit a pretty crappy one) for a few hundred bucks a month through the freelancers union, and I’m pretty sure most of those guys have that lying around somewhere. The size of Ed Droste’s apartment is another red herring — I’ve seen pictures and it’s a stunning, if small, place — my guess is that they continue to live there because of the amount of sweat equity he and his partner put in to the place.
My educated guess (and given the time I spent at Billboard and the number of P&L sheets I dug through, it’s fairly educated) is that they are probably bringing home around $100k a year each. The songwriters probably get a little more because of the way publishing works, but not all that much. $100k in Brooklyn isn’t nothing, but it isn’t a lot, either. But if these guys were in another creative profession (advertising, running a gallery space, design) they’d probably be making right around the same.
Of course, there are perks to being in a band that you don’t get being a creative at Ogilvy or Carrot or McCann. World travel, fame (on some level), a degree of flexibility — for these guys, it’s probably a break even in terms of money with some good benefits. Very few people who are in cool bands would otherwise be at Goldman Sachs.
But all that aside, this article really raises a bigger question — do rock bands make financial sense any more? Let’s break it down.
A rock band is, for sake of argument, four people. Each of those people needs a lot of equipment. All that equipment needs to be moved from place to place when they tour, along with all four people, and a crew. At minimum you need a tour manager, as you get bigger you need sound people, merch people, and other staff. All those people need food, beds, seats in a van/on a bus/on a plane. Then when you have to record an album, you have to lug everything to a studio, maybe hire a producer, hire a mixer, put everyone up for however many days it takes, etc. This takes a lot of time. It can be done on the cheap — basement studios, self-production — but this generally only gets you so far.
Now, look at the costs associated with a DJ. A DJ is one person. A DJ needs a laptop and some software and maybe some money for samples or vocals. A DJ can just take the bus on tour, maybe taking along a soundguy and a manager. A DJ can write a song on a flight from New York to LA and still maybe see part of the in-flight movie (David Guetta told me this). A DJ splits the money with his or her manager and that’s about it.
So does it make economic sense to be in a band? One on level, the economics don’t matter and this isn’t a rational decision — if you love playing music with your friends, you’re going to start a band, regardless. But in terms of the broader music industry — not really. Rock bands were almost never big moneymakers — and now they seem to make less sense than ever.
thought experiment: imagine a union set up like that of the building trades for young, non-managerial staffers in Dem/prog electoral politics. construction is also seasonal work, but employers agree to use the union as their hiring agency and pay a set…
This cannot come too soon. I always say I was priced out of professional feminism — I started interning at NARAL in high school, worked hours and hours and hours for free through high school and college, and then couldn’t find anyone to pay me. I wound up working for a female candidate with labor endorsements and was told I would be fired unless I worked 12 hour days, while being paid $1500 a month. I come from a middle class family and my parents couldn’t pay for me to do work for free (or almost free). So I quit working in politics and went to work for the man.
I was always driven insane by the fact that most progressive organizations were so badly managed. You can be ethical and run a professional shop with decent wages and good organization.
It was recently announced that Portland would play host for six hundred and twenty thousandth season of the Real World, that MTV show that doesn’t feature teen girls having ill-advised babies. I managed to get a sneak preview:
Tyffany, a 21-year-old student with some fake major at some obscure state school, enters: ”Woo, let’s hit the hot tub! Party!”
Mike, a secretly gay frat bro dealing with identity issues, responds: “Can’t. It’s raining.”
Tyffany: “It’s been raining for days. And I can’t even get drink. Every time I go to the bar and order a rum swizzle, the bartender just laughs at me and gives me a local microbrew. And I’m actually starting to like them. Last night I got in to a heated debate with a bike messenger about Deschutes versus Rogue.”
Annie, a hippie whose dad is a VP at Morgan Stanley enters, screaming: “Someone used my vegan pan to cook an egg. An egg! That was a baby chicken! I feel so violated.”
Mike: “Chill, sister.”
Annie: “I can’t! I have to run out to the vegan grocery store and buy dinner now!”
Tyffany: “Which vegan grocery store are you going to? The one down the block, the one two blocks away, or the one connected to the lesbian feminist cooperative? And can you get me some tofutti cuties there?”
Tim, who has a trendy, teachable disease (bird flu?) comes in: “Guys, we’re going to be late for the shift at Voodoo Donuts.”
Mike: “Can we go see Missy at Union Jacks before the shift?”
Missy, who has a PhD in some nebulous thing from Columbia, enters: “No, you may not. I just defended my dissertation and I’m not going to defend my right to take my clothes off for money. Besides, I have to go see my friend’s band at the Doug Fir — it’s him and a drum machine and he plays kazoo and sets himself on fire. Portland Mercury loved it.”
The crew at Doug Fir, drinking PBR and watching some guy with a beard flop around onstage and scream.
Mike: “This is boring. Let’s go to the last African-American owned business on Alberta St and have a drink there.”
Annie: “Can’t. It’s a vegan gastropub run by twenty something trust funders now.”
Mike: “Eh, whatever. Put a bird on it!”
Coming up on NARM, it’s easy to poke fun at the old guys who like to hang out at the hotel and complain about those young digital whippersnappers putting them out of business. But the fact is, in music, physical retail is often much more progressive than digital retail in one very key way — the number of outlets that sell the same product.
I’m biased here because I’m working with Gumroad, a great new startup that allows creators to sell to fans via social media. It has competitive rates (better than iTunes and Amazon in many cases) and gives sellers email data; it is well funded, secure, and a totally legit company. And while there have been a great handful of labels and artists that have used the service so far, it’s been a bit of a hard sell for some others — and the fact that I have to sell it at all is even weirder.
If I was feeling particularly insane today, I could walk out of my house, rent a storefront, and open a record store. I wouldn’t need to hustle and cajole to get product — I would just register with distributors and get moving. They would vet me to make sure I wasn’t a con artist, of course, but as long as everything looked like it was in order I’d be in business, selling the same Santigold album that’s at Best Buy, Target, Sound Fix, Other Music, etc etc.
The barrier to entry is much higher in the digital space — so much so that it’s basically the equivalent of labels declaring that they will now only sell to Best Buy and Walmart and forget everyone else. You’ve got iTunes, you’ve got Amazon (and I guess I can throw eMusic in here, too), and that’s it.
What I honestly don’t understand is why labels wouldn’t want to use Gumroad. In fact, considering the rates and the data, I don’t understand why they wouldn’t prefer Gumroad. It gives people one more option to buy music. How can that not be a good thing? It’s like the labels are the baby that doesn’t want more cash in the Jimmy Fallon credit card ad.
It’s annoying, and totally perplexing.
Or, don’t just tweet about your tour dates.
Or, seriously, you have to do social media. You just have to. Just like flossing your teeth, except tweeting is more fun. OK, if you’re, like, Bruce Springsteen, you don’t need a twitter. Guess what? You’re not Bruce Springsteen.
Or, don’t give me that “I don’t have time, because I’m an artist and I create all day” excuse. No you don’t. I know a lot of artists. You play video games and smoke pot and honestly, you’re probably farting around online right now. Lots of busy artists have great social media profiles. You think you’re busier than Lady Gaga, or Kanye West? You’re not.
I’ll stop with this trope but you get the general idea. If you’re an artist, you need to do social media, and you need to do it in an authentic way. People know more about musicians than ever before, and guess what — if you have the personality of wet cardboard, no one is going to pay attention. But chances are, if you can create cool things, you have a pretty cool personality. So just show it off. Say funny shit and post cool pictures. Don’t overthink it.
Have opinions. Depending on who you are, wading in to really controversial topics might not be smart; but then again, look at Ted Nugent. But be sincere and don’t just do the same “watch the Kony video” nonsense everyone else is doing. If you love your cat, tweet about that and how great animal shelters are. If you’re a young lady indie rocker, tweet about Planned Parenthood, cause who else is going to bail you out when you run out of birth control in the middle of a tour?
Live the rock star life and embrace it. You know when you shouldn’t talk about flying in a private jet? When you are a car executive going to DC for a bailout? You know when you should? Every other time you get to, because holy crap, those things are awesome. Embrace the Kanye. Maybe you’re not in a jet, but maybe you’re in a cool place or meeting cool people — be sincere and tweet about that. I love Trouble Andrew’s Instagram account because he goes really cool places and always posts amazing photos, and damn, I wish I could go snowboarding in Russia or whatever it is he’s doing. He cultivates this nice mix of “hey, I’m just a dude with a board and a guitar” and “I’m a dude with a board and a guitar who gets flown all over and here’s my new sunglasses line.” It’s that mix of reality and aspiration that works well.
Get in where you fit in. Maybe you’re not pithy and great at twitter, but you have a great sense of style, or you write awesome essays. Pinterest, Tumblr, boom. Or take awesome pictures and kill it on Instagram. And don’t just make it about music. Talk about the news of the day, or what you think of “Girls,” or the books you’re reading on tour. Just don’t sound like a “buy tickets to my show” bot.
I was joking that I wanted to make an “it gets better” video for the cast of the new HBO series “Girls” (perhaps you have heard of it), then I realized, they know it gets better. That’s the whole point.
All the girls on that show, and most of the twenty-something Williamsburgers with boring jobs and artful haircuts I see every day, they know it gets better. They know that in 10 or 15 years, they’ll sit on the roof of their luxury condo building with their spouse and discuss careers and real estate and ugh, do you believe how high our taxes were this year, and remember how much fun it was when we were young and broke. It’s a phase, like loving Barbies or horses, and it is something one grows out of. I look back at my early twenties and I had a series of crappy jobs and terrible men and lived in a house with a pirate radio station in the laundry room and paid $300 a month in rent. I had a permanent PBR hangover and opinions on relevant noise bands and knew which friend worked which shift at which Stumptown so I could go get free espresso.
But I knew the entire time I would grow out of it, as do the girls on Girls. When the lead character’s parents threaten to cut her off, they mean that they’ll stop subsidizing her lifestyle, not that she’ll be out in the street. None of these girls would be out in the street, when it came down to it.
I watch Girls, and then I watch Teen Mom, and for those girls poverty isn’t a phase. There’s no charm, no “I’m only doing this to spice up the memoir I will eventually pen.” Things won’t get better. Terrible small towns will remain terrible, crappy jobs will remain crappy, and babies are cute so what the hell, might as well have one.
I’m not the first person to worry that those of us who had “glamour poverty” phases are conflating our experiences with people that live in actual poverty. But something about the easy, breezy entitlement of Girls feels very wrong to me, even though I lived it and got the tattoos to prove it. If HBO really wanted to be transgressive, it would show people for whom poverty isn’t a temporary inconvenience but an actual life, that keeping a roof over your head and food on your kids plate is the only endgame. But then, who wants to watch that?