With Spotify, Bandcamp, iTunes, Facebook, YouTube, and personal blogs, it has never been easier to make music and get it out to the public. The flip side of that is this: It has never been harder to make money off that music. Ask any working rock & roll band. PKM’s Harrison Connery did just that.
Andrew Moore, 25, is at an impasse facing many up-and-coming rock & roll musicians. Becoming a full-time touring musician has been his dream since he first picked up drumsticks at age nine, but the state of the music industry has forced him to split his time between music and a more traditional career.
“I have a full-time day job. I do weekend touring here and there,” said Moore, who pounds the skins for the Connecticut-based band Tier. “Music is the dream job.”
The age of the internet and the decline of record labels have created a dichotomy in the music industry: it’s never been easier to make your music public, but it’s never been harder to make money off that music.
Moore spends his days at an architecture firm in Middletown, Conn., restoring historical buildings. But after work he trades in his blueprints for a cymbal and snare and heads to practice with the other members of Tier, a post-rock grunge band gaining traction at local venues.
“Basically, you treat it like a job,” he said. “Keep Mondays free because Mondays are for rehearsal.”
Rock & roll used seem like a glamorous calling. In its halcyon days, rock music provided an unparalleled path of upward mobility for musicians and bands of diverse origins. Rock stars were iconoclasts who used their music to affect social and political change, set style, shape language.
But the days of Beatlemania and drug-fueled recording sessions in mansions on the French Riviera are long gone, and aside from a few notable exceptions, so have musicians whose work is assigned a higher meaning.
“It’s almost like the economy — there’s a vanishing middle class,” said Parke Puterbaugh, music journalist and professor of rock history at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. “I think things really started to go south for musicians in general with the onset of Napster and peer to peer file sharing that made it possible to obtain music without paying for music.”
Today’s musicians are working class stiffs like the rest of us. The age of the internet, streaming services and cable TV have given rise to a cacophony of mediocrity that’s drowning out music’s middle class and clogging avenues to stardom, said Puterbaugh.
“Music has lost an awful amount of ground in recent decades,” he said. “Look at cable T.V., how many of 1000s of cable channels are there out there? Look at the internet, how many millions of apps are out there? There’s so much out there competing for people’s attention.”
The advent of iTunes, Spotify and other streaming services have not only made the industry considerably less lucrative for musicians, they also destroyed the industry’s label-centric model. While far from perfect, labels used to offer their musicians recording funds, advances, royalties and help developing their records.
“There were record companies that would develop an artist. Neil Young wasn’t a hit right off the bat, it took a few poor-selling albums for him to begin to build an audience and to become the icon that he is,” said Puterbaugh. “Recording companies such as they are today just don’t have that kind of patience or interest in artist development. They just want generic quick hit stuff that’s more or less here today, gone tomorrow.”
Rob Kellner, keyboardist for New Orleans-based funk band Miss Mojo, said bands have to meet a high standard to get agencies to take a risk on them.
“I talked to the manager for a number of successful bands in New Orleans who I’ve been working with and asked him, similarly, what would it take for Miss Mojo to get the attention of a booking agency or management company like yours?” said Kellner. “Basically what he said is that the music has to be so good, and your live performance has to be so good that everybody in the room has to have no doubt that this band is going to go on to do great things.”
That standard doesn’t exist on the internet where anybody can put their music on Bandcamp or Spotify, something which Puterbaugh says does nothing to help the quality of the music we hear.
“Pretty much everybody can make an album at home using software and a laptop, so they do, and as a result there’s almost too much music,” he said. “How do you find a needle in a haystack these days? The haystack is too big and there’s an awful lot of mediocrity.”
Miss Mojo has played festivals, appeared on morning news segments and was featured in a promotion by the Chicago Bulls. That, paired with a handful of tours through the Northeast, has provided them with nearly 100,000 streams on Spotify; which, at 0.6 cents per stream, has netted them $400.
“To put that in perspective that’s what it costs for half a day in the studio,” said Kellner.
The retrenchment of record labels and the decline of album sales have forced bands to stake their revenue on touring with less support than previous generations.
Moore said that in addition to finding enough time off to travel, getting Tier on tour requires hours of leg work. First, the band has to design a press package — a digital folder with photos of past gigs, reviews and song samples. Then, copies are sent en masse to venues in the hopes of hearing back from a tiny percentage of bookers.
“It’s so much about knowing people,” said Moore. “Bookers are getting so many emails that if they don’t know what your band is about within the first few sentences of the email they don’t give a shit. They’re going to gloss over it and never get back to you.”
Moore said networking with other bands is critical to developing a following in other markets and making industry contacts; developing a relationship with a band signed to a major label could get Tier signed to the same company.
But touring is grueling work. Kellner said financial constraints force Miss Mojo to plan gigs in the Northeast.
“Those are particularly feasible because North Carolina and above we have nice Jewish families we can stay with along the way who will feed us bagels and take care of us and it’s a really amazing thing,” he said. “We’re so grateful for that.”
Touring the Northeast three times has allowed them to build a small regional following, but it presents logistical issues: Kellner is the only full-time musician of the six core members. There are eight band members in all.
“With equipment, that usually means three cars,” said Kellner. “If you’re doing 2,000 miles it’s not feasible–having a van, or eventually if you’re successful enough, a bus or RV is a big, big thing. We’re lucky to have — we’re super privileged in this — we have a connection with a limo and van rental company out of Milwaukee that has basically lent us a van. For the last tour we went on we rented my buddy’s van that is a little bit older and a little cramped and not all the doors open so we all had to climb in through the passenger door.”
For all that trouble Miss Mojo can make up to “a few thousand dollars” for a one-and-a-half hour set, which is then divided among the band members and a band fund. Kellner said between touring with Miss Mojo and singer Maggie Koerner and filling in for other acts around New Orleans, his yearly income still works out to under $20,000.
Puterbaugh said the days of rock artists as Learjet owners are probably over.
“There’s a lot of really talented musicians who are struggling and who deserve to make a living at it,” he said.
Kellner and Moore suffer no illusions about the state of the industry.
“That would be a goal –to say that I’m doing this original project full time and everything else is what I do for me,” said Kellner. “It’s cool to see them do that and see what it looks like and know its feasible.”
Moore doesn’t anticipate being a millionaire either, although, he notes, “with music the sky’s the limit.”
“How you define success is relative,” he said. “I just want to be able to make a comfortable living doing music. My life goals would be achieved if I could do full-time touring or recording and living with the same comfort as I do now.”