No Money, Mo’ Problems: Why even successful bands struggle financially

Recently, ACE ENDERS announced that due to financial constraints, he would likely not be able to continue touring, and the album he’s working on now may very well be his last. Since Enders revealed this, he’s received a massive outpouring of support. Fans have sold T-shirts and wristbands to benefit Enders, his wife and young child. Supporters have solicited donations to help the musician continue being, well, a musician. The response has not been entirely positive, however. Some people think that if you’re a famous musician (or at least relatively well-known) you shouldn’t need or accept financial support. The circling question seems to be: If musicians sell records and merch and get paid for playing shows, why don’t they have any money?

The idea that musicians—even well-known musicians who sell out large club shows—have money is a misconception for the most part. Financial concerns and viability obviously vary from artist to artist; no two musicians are exactly the same when it comes to money and how it’s made and spent. But what most fans fail to realize is how much it costs to be a musician and how much more it costs to be a musician on the road. 

THURSDAY vocalist GEOFF RICKLY is fully willing to admit that his personal income last year was less than $10,000. Rickly spent months of 2010 working a retail job in Brooklyn to make ends meet;  and thanks partly to living in New York City, he hasn’t owned a car in seven years. If that surprises you, you’re not alone. “I saw something online once that said, ‘Oh those Thursday guys don’t care, they’re driving their fancy cars and living in their big houses,’” Rickly says. “I thought that was so funny. In our biggest year, when we were all over the radio and on TV, I made less than anyone with a desk job makes. It’s a weird misconception. But I remember when I was a kid, I saw Snapcase; and they were the biggest hardcore band I’d ever seen at the time. They had a thousand kids piling on the stage, everyone was buying T-shirts and I thought, ‘These guys must be loaded!’ I think about [that now], and it’s really funny.”

While your assumption that someone like Lady Gaga is probably not hurting for funds is likely correct, the truth is that most of your favorite bands struggle, even at their peak. MIKE MURPHY, bassist for HASTE THE DAY—who recently announced they’re calling it quits after a two-month farewell tour this spring—describes his band’s early years as very difficult. “We toured our first year or so playing venues to five kids,” Murphy says. “We played one show to nobody, literally. We used to take band money and buy peanut butter and jelly. We survived for a long time on Ramen noodles. You buy a big thing of Ramen, go into a gas station, use hot water from their coffee maker and put it in a Styrofoam cup. Sometimes they charge you 89 cents for the cup. That was a big deal back then, so you tried not to get charged 89 cents or you bring your own cup. It’s hard to get paid when no one comes to your shows when you’re a band starting out. But we got lucky and got support later.”

Although Murphy says money is only a small factor in Haste The Day’s breakup, it’s hard to imagine wanting to spend more than a few months of your life living on that kind of diet. But it seems like every band has stories like Murphy’s, some more recent in their careers than others. THE SWELLERS’ guitarist/singer NICK DIENER describes a time when the band slept on a “concealed shelf in the middle of a 24-hour Walmart just to avoid getting a hotel.” His bandmate and drummerJONATHAN DIENER adds, “Our first few years of tours, I would eat at Taco Bell twice a day and only spend one dollar on a bean burrito, then try to eat protein bars to hold me over until the next day. We would go to places like Cici’s Pizza Buffet and eat 10 plates of food for $5 because we thought it was a good deal.”

Almost every touring band advocates the dollar menu at McDonald’s,  and JONATHAN DEVOTO, frontman of BIRD BY BIRD and formerly of THE MATCHES says, “I’ve definitely gotten food poisoning on multiple occasions from eating food that was a little past its expiration point. It’s incredibly difficult to justify throwing away perfectly good food—rotten, mind you—when you only have $2 left in your wallet.”

So why is everyone so broke and living off rotten food? Aren’t fans spending their hard-earned money to buy these artists’ CDs, T-shirts and concert tickets? Where does that money go? Let’s break down each piece of that puzzle, bearing in mind that there are exceptions to every rule and each artist does things slightly differently.

First: CDs. What happens if you hop over to Best Buy and pick up a new record by your favorite band? Say you pay $10 for the album. Depending on whether the band are signed, what sort of label they’re signed to and what kind of distribution deal that label has, the store will likely keep about $5. The remaining half goes to the record label. If the band are signed, the label uses that “profit” to pay back the money that was used to make the record—both creatively (including costs for producers, studio time and equipment) and constructively (album packaging, distribution costs, etc.). In the end, the band probably will not see any of that money you spent minus a small portion for mechanical royalties.

If you buy the CD from the band’s merch table at a show, they’ve probably already bought that box of their own album from the record label at a wholesale cost. If they’re lucky, they may earn a few bucks on each one. “It’s even hard to sell CDs at shows now because they cost so much for the band to even get them wholesale,” says THIS IS HELL guitarist RICK JIMINEZ. “For a while, it was a recurring thing to see $5 CDs at merch tables, but most labels charge their bands at least that much just to sell them.”

Second: T-shirts and other merch. This too can vary, but as Rickly says, “For some reason, that’s the piece of the industry that bands control the biggest piece of.” But merch still incurs costs. Rickly explains if there’s a Thursday shirt on sale for $15, the band end up with $4 or $5 profit. The venue takes about 20 percent, depending on its size and policies. It costs $3 to $4 to make a shirt, depending on which brand the band use; and a band’s merch company takes about 20 percent. Still, as Rickly puts it, “I can say without a doubt that if you want to put money in a band’s pocket, buy a T-shirt [at a show].”

Jonathan Diener agrees. “Ordering merch before a tour is one of the biggest hits you’ll take, depending on the size of the shows.” Devoto adds, “I suppose the two best ways to make money are creative merch items that people actually want, combined with endless badgering. Talk to every person in the crowd and trick them into buying your merch. No shame.”

But what about ticket sales? You might pay up to $40 to go to some shows, so why should you have to buy a shirt to make sure your favorite artist has enough gas to make it to the next city? Again, the income has to measure up to the costs. Enders describes the impetus for his recent decision as a struggle to survive on the road. “It’s become really hard to survive as a musician or any type of artist,  because the funding is not there,” he says. “I can’t afford to do it, is what it comes down to. It takes a toll on everybody—my family, friends, my connections to people over the years have diminished.” Because touring costs so much money, Enders, who is currently unsigned, says, “You come away from a tour mostly hoping to break even, for an artist like myself. If you break even, that’s a successful tour.”

To put it in perspective, just look at what an average mid-level band have to pay for on tour: booking agents, managers, lawyers, business managers or accountants, buying or renting a van or tour bus, buying or renting a trailer, fuel, vehicle repairs, driver (if on a bus), hotel rooms, hotel rooms during the day for the tour bus driver, vehicle insurance, tolls, food, guitar picks, drum sticks, drum heads, instrument repairs, touring crew members, per diems for the band and crew members, merchandise, lighting, onstage production, wardrobe, taxes and, in some cases, medical bills.

Most bands set their per diem (which is basically an allowance everyone on tour gets each day to make sure they can eat) at $10, although some newer bands get $5 per day and some larger bands get more. Bands also have to pay taxes in every state they perform. Rickly explains that about 50 percent of a total tour profit is withheld to pay taxes, which he supports because Thursday rely on the roads to get from city to city and the local fire and police departments to be available if an emergency arises at a show.

SHERRI DuPREE BEMIS, vocalist/guitarist of EISLEY, says, “At this stage for Eisley, headlining tours mean we will get paid a little something at the end of the day, and support tours mean we only cover our costs of touring. A few years ago, labels could usually afford some form of tour support for bands, which basically is a loan of sorts. But now that album sale revenue has kind of dried up, it makes it harder to do that.” Her solution—and that of her husband, Say Anything’s Max Bemis—is to find creative ways to make money as an artist, which is similar to what Devoto mentioned about making innovative band merch. (Remember when the Matches sold homemade soap during the 2008 AP Tour?)

“[We] are always coming up with ways to make extra income to pay bills and make house payments when we’re not on tour,” DuPree Bemis says. “[Max] created something called ‘Song Shop’ and has been writing and selling custom songs for fans about anything they want or are going through for the last couple of years, and the revenue that has generated has been really helpful. Plus it’s fulfilling as an artist to always be creating. Likewise, I’m an artist and I design custom artwork and tattoos for people, or make, sign and sell my own prints when I’m at home. We wouldn’t be able to keep doing these things if it weren’t for our fans, though. They are everything, and you can’t ever take them for granted in this career. Without someone to create for, you can’t create.”

Which brings us back to Enders. A month ago, he says, he was ready to quit, walk away and join the real world. But the outpouring of support from his fans, from whom he never asked for donations or help, has now caused Enders to reconsider his options. He and his wife Jenn, who has also been very vocal about their family’s situation on her blog, are using the donated funds to start an internship program of sorts. Enders hopes to create a community of music fans who can help spread the idea that music is about commonality not trends. They hope it will help produce art and music events in their towns or at their colleges. It’s slightly unclear exactly how the program will work, but Enders is passionate about reviving a love for music not based on commodity.

“I lost that feeling for so long because I got so consumed by the business of trying to survive,” he says. “I didn’t realize that people still look at my music like that. It opened my eyes. So a month ago I would have said, ‘I wash my hands of it; I had a good run.’ But seeing how everyone made shirts and wristbands for donations and sent the donation money to us, the plan now is to go back to that grassroots feel of music. Basically, what we’re going to try and do is this intern program where we interview people and make a group of people—not like a street team, but a community of people to help put the idea back in people’s head that music is more than a fad that’s ‘in’ right now. It’s taking away the barrier between artist and supporter.”

Enders also says his statement that his next album could be his last might not actually be true anymore. “I don’t want anyone to read too much into that,” he says. “If I make this record and it allows me to make another, then great. If not, I have to sit there and decide what I need to do to support my family.”

Why create music if it’s not a reliable means of supporting oneself or one’s family? Unfortunately, money makes the world go ’round and money and art have been forced into a tenuous, sometimes needy relationship. “Not to reduce the music industry down to money, but that’s how artists make their living and what makes it possible for them to be able to create,” Murphy says. “Money allows the artist to concentrate on their art so they don’t have to go home and get a job. So that money that you support them with really makes a huge difference in them being able to communicate their art with you more effectively.”

Bottom line: If you want to help a band, see them in concert and buy a T-shirt at their show. Consider buying a physical album instead of downloading it, and purchase it directly from the band instead of a mass retailer. And next time you call a band a “sellout,” it’s worth considering why they agreed to license a song to a commercial hocking beer or clothing. “If you can put your music in a car commercial, put it in the car commercial,” Rickly says. “I have so many friends that are in underground punk bands that never, ever do commercials. They’re viewed as these Holy Grail bands that never sell out—and their day job is writing jingles for commercials. It’s the same thing. People can call us sellouts all they want. I just wish we could sell out more. I’d have more free time to write music.” alt

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