#Jack_Conte, one-half of the indie duo #Pomplamoose, is confronting this paradox the hard way in the wake of his recent post on Medium in which he lays bare the nuts, bolts, nets and grosses of his group’s 24-show American tour. Pomplamoose decided to pull out most of the stops and hire a full crew (sound, lights, tour manager, merch person), spare few expenses (buying new lights and road cases for their gear), and they freely admitted to considering the undertaking an investment in their future as a touring band. They lost about $12,000 after grossing a total of $136,000. I looked at that and barely blinked.
Metaphorically, the band didn’t even fly first class, but that didn’t stop armchair critics from complaining that Pomplamoose didn’t deserve to get on the plane to begin with, those plane-taking wankers. And there are those angry at Pomplamoose’s abilty to absorb a #loss-leading #tour because they’re making enough #sustainable #income through their #pledge-per-song system on #Patreon (a platform Conte started 2 years ago, because no #online system existed for #YouTube-star bands to convert millions of views into actual revenue). But he could afford to the lose the money! some musicians complained. This isn’t a fair representation of middle class touring at all!, others wrote. The indie bands who’d toured in vans, slept on floors, and had nothing but chips and salsa on their riders said things like These guys spent their money like idiots!
The critics are partially correct: Conte’s accounting is not how they’ve toured, or might tour if given the same budget. But it is how Pomplamoose chose to tour: at a loss, and as an investment. If there was any naiveté in Jack’s post, it wasn’t in how the band spent their money but rather in his assumption that a compassionate universe was ready to accept his transparency as an important contribution to the music information economy instead of a mercenary gimmick promoting his own cause.
But losing money on a mid-level tour is more common than anyone apparently thinks – it’s just that there are few artists masochistic enough to put the information transparently into the public domain.
When The Dresden Dolls were invited to open up for Nine Inch Nails’ summer tour in 2005, we were ecstatic. We were offered $500 per show to perform about six shows a week. We had to hire a tour bus and driver (no amount of sleeping-in-the-van or cheap flights could match the speed of the NIN caravan), and we had to hire our own sound guy. I have not, until now, written about the huge loss we took on that tour, nor would I ever criticize Trent Reznor for not offering us a “living wage”. He made the offer; we didn’t have to take it. To this day, I still meet people who discovered my music because of that tour: they became fans, they supported my Kickstarter, they come to my shows, they bought my book. We figured we’d make it back when we went back on our own tour as headliners. And …we did.
Risk-based investing exists everywhere but the arts (and, one could argue, in the non-profit world), where it is considered absolutely déclassé. In the tech industry – and the restaurant industry, or any industry, really – it is considered necessary to spend, experiment, fail, struggle, borrow capital and ultimately find a healthy balance between expenditure and income. Wired’s Erika Hall recently even wrote of the tech world that “Somewhere along the way, it got to be uncool to reduce one’s risk of failure.”
Perhaps the stickiest problem when comparing art and business is that the definition of “success” becomes muddied when you opt for a career in music. On the one hand, you’re told you haven’t “made it” until you’re a megastar – making a living at your art isn’t enough – and, on the other hand, musicians aren’t supposed to be concerned with profits if they’re “real” artists – Didn’t you get into this job just for the love of it?
I launched my now-infamous #Kickstarter for my own album, tour and art book in 2012 and, while it grossed over $1.2m, it netted – when all was said and done – close to zero. I actually chose to run the Kickstarter as a loss leader: I wanted to impress my fans, and the critics of crowdfunding who I knew were going to judge and criticize me - and the project - no matter what. I deliberately used high-end, expensive packages when manufacturing the CD-books, the vinyl, the hand-painted record players and art-books I’d convinced 25,000 people to #pre-purchase. I even wound up chronicling my projected budget. Why? Because there was a bizarre impression that I’d somehow been handed a million-dollar check and was going to spend my year languishing in a swimming pool filled with hundred dollar bills. But I hadn’t: like a shoe store, or a restaurant, I was running a business with the obligatory expenses, like a full staff on payroll, a shop to rent, and a million dollars worth of pre-ordered shoes to design, inspect, manufacture and mail out to my customers.
Meanwhile, even as I was only breaking even on the Kickstarter with an optimistic vision of future earnings (which did eventually manifest as a larger fanbase, more profitable tours, and a book advance), I got widely raked over the coals in the media for not paying fans who’d volunteered to come to my show and play with me and the band for two or three songs in exchange for tickets, backstage beers and hugs. This wasn’t my salaried band or crew we’re talking about – these were local sax and violin players showing up for an impromptu jam session that lasted one evening. I’d been doing these sorts of trades for years and they’d worked out just fine for everyone, until people got the sense that I was a millionaire (or, at least the wife of one) running a rock’n’roll sweat shop.
The irony? Some of the exact same journalists and bloggers are now lambasting Jack Conte for paying the professional musicians he hired to toured with Pomplamoose (which is usually a two-person band that use loops to fill out their sound). Will Stevenson, a band manager himself, asked in the Alternative Press: “But why would the rest of you and your band need salaries? If you aren’t making the money, why would you pay it out to people?”
The backlash (Amanda, pay your volunteers! Jack, don’t pay your band!) is laughable, but it speaks volumes about the double standards with which the world tackles the #music_industry: you’re damned if you play by the rules, and you’re damned if you find a creative way to thwart them. We – Taylor Swift, Trent Reznor, Zoe Keating, Pomplamoose, U2, Radiohead, me – are all just trying to find a way to create and monetize our creations at the same time.
And if there are going to be a million new paths to sustainability for a million different artists, we’d best stop bickering amongst ourselves about the validity of each and every path these artists are stumbling down – or at least step out of the way if we can’t lend a hand.
• This article was amended on 14 December 2014 to clarify that Mick Jagger attended, but did not graduate from, the London School Of Economics.