What Does 'Making It' Look Like for an Indie Band in 2014?

Even though musicians’ financial tell-alls are making the question easier to answer, it isn’t the right one to ask.

Nataly Dawn of the band Pomplamoose, who recently disclosed the financial details of their recent tour (Pomplamoose/YouTube)

A popular new sub-genre among indie musicians today isn’t “post-dubstep” or “trap” or “witch house”—it’s financial disclosure. Ben Berry recently divulged the royalties his band Moke Hill has earned from Spotify, and other artists as diverse as the rock band Galaxie 500 and the R&B singer Aloe Blacc have put out their own numbers as evidence of the streaming service’s dismal payouts.

Whether in favor of the new music economy or against it, any musician who writes about making money agrees to the hallmarks of the genre: frequent assertions that they aren't asking for pity; dutiful acknowledgements that making a living from music "has never been easy"; and, most important, the elimination of any whiff of having sold out. Even though repetition has beaten each of these traditions down into platitudes, musicians' discussions of money haven't become any less disconcerting to read. However, their tonal similarity is concealing the possibility that “making it” shouldn’t have a static definition that applies to every musician.

Indie artists' financial tell-alls owe their existence to two events in the past half-decade. One is the U.S. launch of Spotify in 2011, which mainstreamed the idea of subscription streaming and led many musicians to fear that their already-small earnings would only dissolve further. The other is the publication, in 2012, of a feature in New York magazine that detailed how members of the big-name indie band Grizzly Bear could on one hand sell out Radio City Music Hall, and, on the other, still not have health insurance. While not told in the first-person, it was the first widely-read digital-era testament to the hollowing-out of indie music's middle class.

The latest financial data-drop came last week from Jack Conte of the conventionally successful San Francisco-based duo Pomplamoose, who laid out the revenues and expenses from their last tour.  (In keeping with convention, Conte insisted that "this isn't a sob story" and that he feels "so fortunate to be making music for a living.") Between 24 shows' worth of ticket sales, revenue from merchandise, and a not-insignificant corporate sponsorship, the band brought in about $135,000. But that didn't cover expenses. It's not cheap to rent lights and equipment, pay parking for a 42-foot van, stay in a hotel, and pay out salaries to a crew of six. All told, Pomplamoose lost roughly $11,000.

Even though Conte spun this tour as an investment in converting a wider fan base, it would appear that "making it" is very, very difficult these days. But, as is customary when any indie musician dares to complain about money, the band has been accused of spending too much and appreciating too little. Most online responses, from both established musicians and modestly successful ones, agreed that Pomplamoose should have slept in their van, fired their crew, and ditched the fancy rented lights. The rapper Hoodie Allen reportedly went further, suggesting (respectfully) that the band could have done a better job negotiating their crew's salaries and their venues' nightly payouts.

Santos Montano, the drummer for the metal band Old Man Gloom, wrote an op-ed for the music-review website Pitchfork explaining why he found Pomplamoose's financials off-putting. He said that by typical indie standards—Pomplamoose has played shows to a thousand people at a time—they're quite successful. "You want to make art, and you want to do that for a living, guess what: you’re currently doing it. You just don’t seem to think this is what it’s like to be successful," he wrote.

But even if Pomplamoose's spending behavior seems lavish, naive, or ill-informed, their line-item breakdown is a useful example of what a no-expense-spared indie tour could look like—which might be of value to a musician worried about a tour budget or to fans who are curious about the financial side of music.

(Now, a week after Conte published these numbers, the Pomplamoose conversation has drifted to Patreon, a crowdfunding website he mentioned in passing in his post without disclosing that he is its CEO. Given that Conte chooses not to receive a salary from the company, his unacknowledged affiliation seems more relevant to the music economy the more of a conspiracy theorist you are; even if Conte was hyping his company, the reported balance sheet of his band’s tour still stands.)

Ultimately, the relative transparency of Pomplamoose's tour figures is helpful. Essays in which musicians disclose their income come from a place of anxiety, and providing information to the world might make that anxiety less grounded in irrational abstraction. The problem of making a living while making art appears more solvable as the vague "Musicians have it hard these days" morphs into the more concrete "Aloe Blacc made less than $4,000 from co-writing an Avicii song." An SEC-style earnings disclosure from every musician would be overkill, but as long as data is scant, having more of it helps.

It's important not to lose sight of the fact that every musician has a different business model and a different goal; to me, "making it" might mean sleeping in a van, but to you, it might mean having a light show. As Conte put it, a band is like a "low-margin small business." Some indie purists might find his commercial framing offensive, but the individual acts that make up the indie-music world are as fantastically diverse as the companies in any industry—there are technology-friendly bands, Luddite bands, big bands, small bands, solo acts.

From this angle, Conte's version of "making it" and Montano's version of "making it" can be reconciled. We want there to be a yardstick of financial success, if only for us to make sure our favorite, authentic bands measure up, and then to tell ourselves that we live in a world where art can be made without much commercial compromise. But there isn't such a yardstick. The meaning of "making it" is more subjective than that, and the new realities of the music economy must be worked out not once and for all, but band-by-band.