FEATURE: Bands, the industry and that sweet, elusive money (Pt. 1)

Don’t be fooled, people: there is money in the music industry but, as a band, you will just have to work even harder and take advantage of more avenues than ever before to find this apparently strange and elusive thing called, ‘financial stability’.

Despite the frequent doom and gloom news that you will see polluting the web (like, sadly, The Venue Collective being dissolved, or the latest budget issues for the arts sector and the pitfalls of Australian touring festivals etc.), there are actual ways to cope within this industry and wallowing in it all ain’t gonna help shit. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, we gotta start from the beginning, which sadly, may have to include some wallowing.

Now, a few things have sparked this article’s creation from the depths of this writer’s questionably sane mind, which we’ll cover below, and also in a second part  – that will address what needs to be done and what the solutions can be explored – because unfortunately anything longer than a pamphlet doesn’t seem to resonate with kids these days. Cue Abe Simpson’s waving finger, “It’ll happen to you.”

Anyway – as a starting point – Behemoth’s bassist, Orion (real name Tomasz Wróblewski) raised an important discussion point regarding the practice of music venues taking merch cuts (view the video here). The bassist observed:

“Record sales nowadays, it’s not really a source of income for musicians. So the most money that we earn is from touring. It’s super important for us to bring our merchandise to the people. And they know that they can buy some unique stuff at the shows, which is much appreciated, ’cause this goes directly to us. And that’s great it’s happening. Some venues, they start charging bands for selling their merchandise, which causes bands rising prices of the merchandise. I was, three nights ago, counting everything that we need to leave in the venue; it was 42-percent altogether. So this is becoming a bad trend between the venue and us and everything. It’s becoming like a Mafia. People should be able to get whatever they want for the prices that are fair.”

Now, this was news to this writer at the time and we assume others aren’t aware of this either, and so we reached out to Melbourne-based manager Jayden Roy, who has worked on a significant amount of shows in his time, for greater clarification and insight.

“Over the years, I’ve definitely noticed the bigger venues (not all of them) that do this, for sure, and it’s the venues that do 800+. And it is normally 10-30% of [merch] profits, too. I think it’s really relevant to anything that generates big money, honestly,” Roy said.

“Of course, it hurts the bands, but when we live in an age where there’s no money in this industry anymore, because there is no value in purchasing music anymore from the general population, we all have to find new ways to get by. It’s inevitable now, sadly”, he added.

And Roy is right – it is inevitable, and it’s time that those within the music industry, bands or otherwise, look at different income avenues to keep overhead costs down and to maintain some sense of financial sustainability. Of course, physical CD’s are still selling – Deftones and Disturbed scored #1 with their new albums – it’s just that those sales are nowhere near as much as they used to be, say 10 or 15 years ago, as digital avenues (both legally and illegally) and cheap or even free streaming services take hold.

Now, let’s talk about another issue, this relating to Sydney’s Northlane, which was sparked when the band recently auctioned off items on eBay, writing at the time:

“We’ve just listed some more items in the eBay auction we’re currently running, including test presses, rare and out of print merch, and signature gear. While we’ve donated a lot to charity over time, the proceeds of this auction are going to go to the people in this band. We’ll be taking some time off touring this year to write the best new record we can. As touring is our only substantial source of income, this money will go towards ensuring we can cover our bills and make ends meet while we’re not on the road. We know you’ve heard it all before but understand that we really don’t make much money doing this as it is (well below minimum wage), we still need to put food on the table like anybody else.”

What was most shocking about the statement was that it was Northlane. NORTH. LANE!

See, this is why so many bands now – like the aforementioned and In Hearts Wake – have VIP tour bundles that cost two or three times the base entry cost; to give something extra back to the fans in return for the extra cash to help keep doing what they love and need to do – to tour and play their music. And these guys are on an international level, for Christ’s sake. This is, even more, ammunition against the Australian Liberal Government’s utterly laughable claim that most Aussie musicians make $300,000 per year, which is a great example of the government’s ignorant and downright misguided view of the local arts/music industry.

Of course, it can be argued that the guys in the North To The Lane just may need a second job on the side, or maybe more of their records just need to be sold? Better that, maybe both! What this scenario also reveals is that even after successful tours and winning an industry recognised award such as an ARIA for one of your albums, can mean jack shit in this day and age (financially that is).

Similarly, this trend permeates local upstart groups even more. Take Incentives. The Melbourne boys have just wrapped up recording their debut EP with Ocean Grove’s Sam Bassal (due out sometime later this year). Accordingly, the band makes a very good point that no matter what level your band is on, your music will always be found somewhere on the Internet. This is why the group always opts to use a ‘pay what you wish’ option when releasing new music – so that people can still get it for free.

“Our music will always be up for free streaming, though, whether it is on YouTube, Bandcamp, Spotify, etc…so, if you don’t feel like making a purchase you can still access our stuff,” the band comments.

With so many avenues accessible through the Internet now, there is no excuse for a band or artist to not have their main social media platforms covered (the holy trinity – Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) and to have their music available through iTunes, Bandcamp, YouTube, and Spotify, even Soundcloud or Snapchat if you think it’ll work!

Now, you can argue that maybe this quintet, as a local band on the up, should charge something for their music, but Incentives want to leave that solely in the hands of their listeners, AKA their consumers. That’s the risky and tricky spot that smaller groups can find themselves in – offering music for free or under a ‘pay what you wish’ option may allow you to then maybe bring in the people who are flat broke or are very, very conservative with their money. Because the alternative is, if you charge for your music (whatever the cost) you may push away those two aforementioned groups that may have really loved your work. It’s a shitty situation, but the band has a pretty neutral and well-rounded perspective.

“Prior to this release, the band hasn’t had a great deal of expense, so free music has been a no brainer. But with the EP, we will more than likely offer a pay what you wish kind of situation, as that way if you really dig it and want to support us in a financial sense you can do so. We’ve put a lot of money and effort into the release and any kind of financial income really helps us continue to do cool stuff. But at the end of the day, all we really want is for lots of people to hear and enjoy our music, as cliché as that sounds,” Incentives add.

That last part sums up the sentiments of 95% of bands today – they just want people to enjoy and hear their music, and yes, while cliché, it really is about the art coming first and the money in second, and the experiences and memories that stem from that, even if you’ve got to deal with the occasional bit of shite, as these guys have.

“Very early on we played a show at Musicland [Melbourne] where after our set we were told we would have to pay a fee as we didn’t bring the required amount of people, bearing in mind we had no idea we had to bring said amount to the other side of Melbourne prior to the demand. We were young and new on the block so we didn’t kick up a fuss, but in hindsight, we got dogged hard.”

That “pay to play” framework is a bit dodgy when dropped on new bands all of a sudden but the flip side is that promoters and venues often need that pay from the band or the crowd to cover their own hides and if not, that may fall back on the band(s). Despite being a hard stepping stone for newcomer bands, is not uncommon in local scenes, and not just here in Australia, either. It’s not just bands under the pump either.

There are a lot of bands on the cusp of being national touring acts. With the right album and the right playing of their cards, Melbourne’s Earth Caller could do that and so much more. Vocalist Josh Collard tends to agree that you need to respect your band’s music and worth (within reason, of course) before anyone else can, and not take shows just for the sake of them, saying, “Fortunately, we have rarely – if ever – had to compromise on that stance,” the singer says.

Now, you remember The Dark Knight? Sure you do, it’s a fantastic film. In that film, Heath Ledger, as The Joker, states to a somewhat ethnically diverse group of criminals that, “if you’re good at something, never do it for free“, which is definitely something that some band’s and even audio engineers and mixers need to understand. At the very least, don’t take a gig for what is basically next to being free. But while that sounds good on paper, it’s hard to pull off in practicality. After all, Saviour frontman, Bryant Best, told us in our most recent Aussie Feature that playing gigs for a mere $100 is what added to the issues Saviour used to have, and thus why they broke up in early 2014. It goes without saying that you’ve got to respect your craft first before anyone else will.

As you’re probably tired of hearing these days, touring IS where so many bands make their income. But plane tickets just don’t grow on trees, and as Sam Crocker of Antagonist A.D. told us, going from New Zealand to other countries – Australia included – is always hard.

“Being a band from Australia is hard enough; getting all the flights booked, a van, accommodation, and once you leave the country, there are all these other costs involved. So coming from New Zealand to Australia, those costs are already there, and to go even further costs more,” said the singer.

Interestingly enough, for the American bands, it’s perhaps not quite as difficult to come out here for tours as it is in the reverse, for an Australian band to go to America. It’s still fucking expensive, mind you, and as James ‘Buddy’ Nielsen of Senses Fail told us last year during a similar interview, “You guys are right at the top of the list, for sure.”

What’s that list, you ask? The list of most expensive places to tour, that’s what! Back in 2014, former Killyourstereo.com writer Matty Sievers interviewed You Me At Six frontman Josh Franceschi, who outright confirmed that they weren’t going to make any money from their 2014 headline tour with Tonight Alive. While he states in the interview (found here) that he loves his band and his career, it does come with pros and cons. We point that out just so no one misinterprets the following extract as him simply being a greedy Brit.

“… we’re headlining big rooms and the shows will be great, but I never really like filling in the fans as to how much it costs to do what we do as it’s not about that for us. It’s about the music. And I know for a fact because I was in a meeting about it yesterday, that we aren’t making a single cent from this tour; we aren’t making a single dollar as it’s costing us that amount of money. All the flights, hotels, the transport on the ground, rental gear, lights, and wages…before you know it what seems like a successful payday on paper turns out to be, “Can we literally break even?” I don’t even think we’re doing that. But you know what? We don’t care. It’s not about that. We are here for the fans of the band and to play music to them. We make our money in other ways if we can’t make it from a tour but not making a profit has never put us off doing something. We’ve always thought about the bigger picture and the bigger world.”

It’s worth mentioning that multiple dates of that 2014 tour sold out and these were some good-sized venues, too!

One may argue that touring is almost circumstantial to where you are on this planet. “As an American band compared to here, it’s actually pretty easy to do”, says Belle Haven‘s Christopher Vernon, speaking about touring in the US. These local lads wrapped up a rather extensive American tour alongside Norma Jean and Sleepwave, among others, last year.

“The price of petrol comes to about half of ours, prices of merch and show payments are similar to Australia, travel between shows is sometimes two to four times less travel time, and there are so many more places to play. So, as a US band, it’s probably two to three times as easy as here, financially. But as an international band in the States, you have to get flights covered, which is actually quite a decent dint in a tour budget. Probably about 40% of our US tour expenses were spent on just getting to and from the States. As a smaller international band, we obviously didn’t get paid as much money as we would get paid in Australia for a tour of the same size,” Vernon said.

That was the first international tour that Belle Haven has done, and for Incentives, similarly, the first ever tour they went on was over in New Zealand, with Hand Of Mercy. The band was kind enough to give us some expense figures.

“It was about $1K each, which we definitely did not make back. We had no expectation of making our money back, and we all just looked at it as a holiday with friends whilst playing some shows along the way. Overall, it was a good first tour experience for the band.”

So, that’s the cost estimate (that’s the keyword – estimate) just to get over to New Zealand, a close neighbour of ours, and that cost the lads quite a bit each buuuuuuuuuuut, they’ll never forget that tour, despite not making any money from it. However, adhering to this Alan Watts-like philosophy of rejecting the material world and the need for money in spite of spiritual and emotional fulfillment can only get one so far, especially in this industry. Likewise with overall income, Vernon broke it down for us in terms of how Belle Haven’s income from you know, playing in an actual band, netted them. While no specific figures were given to us, you’ll get the general gist of what he’s saying.

“Luckily for us, since being back from the states, we haven’t lost any money (also haven’t profited any money) on shows, tours or merch and that has just become ‘recycled’ money. But there are still bigger things outside of those basics that cost a bunch of money that’s probably been about 35% band income and 65% personal income,” Vernon explained.

So, that’s the touring and general income…but what about going and recording your music with a renowned producer or engineer? Vernon presented a great comparison between Australian and national producers/engineers, saying:

“Our friends in Ocean Grove released a really incredible record, ‘Black Label’, last year that was DIY engineered by their drummer Sam Bassal, and it sounds incredible. It perfectly captures the vibe they were going for. Obviously, for what we were going for with Everything Ablaze, we couldn’t have achieved that right vibe if we had recorded with someone like Bassal, that’s just not his area, in our personal opinion.

“If we had done our record with Bassal versus the international engineers/producers we used, it would have roughly cost us 6 times less than what we paid for. So for some people, that’s not cheap. Although for us, considering some of our favourite records have budgets that exceed 4-5 times as much as what we paid for Everything Ablaze, I think it all boils down to your understanding of the music industry and what product you want in the end.”

And knowing what you want out of something can save oneself a lot of time and money; it helps if you’re in a relationship, and if you’re in a band – huh, funny how that works. And as they say (i.e. me), “time is money, money is time, so don’t go wasting my time or my money”. Will Putney, the man who makes everyone from Thy Art Is Murder, Gideon, The Amity Affliction, and countless other metalcore bands sound damn good basically says the same thing in this Metal Injection special from last year. Take note, people.

Keep your eyes peeled for part two in this series, as we look at further trends, solutions and discuss the options for bands and artists in today’s music industry.

*Main photo credit: Ben Clement.

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