I don’t claim to have all of the answers to being a successful local artist, but one thing I do have is experience — over 15 years in the midwest USA music scene. If you’re a young musician or struggling, hopefully this gives you some insight. To keep me honest, I interviewed members of four central Ohio-based bands, and a few are at the top of the local rock food chain.
For all its rewards, music is a constant struggle, and these are the 5 worst parts of the music scene:
#1 – Money
Unless you’re a selling machine, revenue sources usually come up short, covering expenses at best. Looking at this like a business — your music is your product and there is no demand until you create it. You simply can’t sell without demand, and that is a damn hard thing to generate.
Skekzi, my band, understands that unless we fill a venue, there’s not much money to be made (if any) on ticket sales. CD sales are plummeting quick as we push deeper into the digital age. Merch sales are hit or miss, depending on the show. We typically just want to rock out and cover expenses. We’re not under any delusion that there is money in gigging without devoting much more time than we have available as part-time musicians.
- Marco (Curse Icon): We’re lucky to make $100-$200 bucks in a night in Columbus. […] When we play [the] Newport selling tickets we’ve made steadily $600-$1000 between ticket sales and merch. […] I actually broke it down once to make a point to venue. I was being VERY generous in my time estimates, so it’s actually probably less, but I factored for one show it actually came out to being paid 25¢ an hour. That’s sweatshop wages. That doesn’t even factor in the price of making fliers and merchandise and actually doing the show, that’s just selling and dropping off tickets.
- Josh Money (Eyes Stained Black): To date, we have rarely, if ever, pulled a profit. Lately we have been actually getting paid pretty often, but it’s barely enough to cover gas. We typically pool whatever we make into a band fund, to pay for larger expenses such as merch. Gas, food, etc just comes out of pocket.
- David Adams (One Pretty Minute): […] absolutely not. [We] might have broken even this year – but no profit.
- Tom Cline (Noise Auction): Profit is an imaginary world in a working original band until you have some kind of success. If you’re asking if we/I get paid like a job then no. Do we generate money to put back into the business, then my answer would be sometimes. This is a grey area that causes a lot of grief and arguments in bands. Tom Cline, in particular, is a full-time musician and entertainer, who has found his niche moonlighting in a cover band and hosting events to pay the bills, which he also uses to propel his original band, Noise Auction.
So how do bands make it financially worthwhile? They don’t. They afford it by creating and selling merch to help spread the word and pay for expenses that would otherwise be out of pocket. Even then, out-of-pocket expenses are not uncommon.
#2 – Ticket Sales
Like it or not, ticket sales are a part of performing live. It’s not hard to get your friends and family to purchase the first couple times, but after you’ve exhausted your “fan base,” you have two choices – branch out or cut back. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a large urban area, I have found that it’s possible to section off promotions and ticket sales to the local show area to minimize fan “burn-out.”
- Tom Cline (NA): [We ticket] as much as possible. We look at ticket sales as a way of promoting. A lot of bands consider it “paying to play” but if you can sell the tickets then you aren’t spending a dime. Your fans are. You may not be making the money you may feel you deserve but technically you are not paying to play. Selling tickets hand to hand can be used to build a better relationship with the fans that love your band.
- David Adams (OPM): [Ticket sales are] kind of an ongoing thing. We’re always trying to sell. Some moments you try harder than others, but if the opportunity presents itself…
- Marco (CI): We spend a major amount of time promoting and dropping off tickets.
#3 – Venues & Promoters
There are some great promoters and venue owners out there, and I’d like to think that this is the majority. They are just as much interested in building the music community as they are turning a profit.
However, there are also those few wolves in sheep’s clothing. My current band has been cheated a few times. Whether error or dishonesty, I can’t say. Regardless, there is inherent danger in a business that operates on word alone, especially with inexperienced artists.
On top of that, most urban areas are flooded with bands these days, which agitates the issue. Over-saturation destroys a musician’s leverage in a business deal. There will always be someone hungry to perform if you refuse, and venues know this.
#4 – Health, Family, & Career Impact
Fun as it is, steady gigging is hard on your body, mind, and relationships. Moving equipment, hectic hours, unhealthy food, and regular social drinking takes its toll on your health.
Family and friends may view gigs as nothing more than an excuse to selfishly let loose and party…not that they are entirely incorrect. I don’t think it’s out of line to say that many musicians are self-involved by nature, but I believe that is a critical personality trait to have in this industry.
Depending on your goals, some form of touring may be beneficial, but it’s nearly impossible to keep a normal nine-to-five AND tour. This is a big stall-point for many musicians, and one that separates the full-timers from the weekend warriors.
#5 – Lack of Support / Fan base
In my 15+ years on the music scene, I’ve found that very few people are genuine fans of unsigned bands, and for good reason. Second-rate music and presence isn’t “wowing” anyone. Here’s what I mean:
- Skill, look, (pro) equipment, confidence, and genre sound need to all mix just right to jive with your audience. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never gotten excited watching a rock guitarist fumbling nervously on stage using amp that takes batteries.
- Songwriting & Entertainment are crucial. Some people can write memorable hooks and some just can’t. If your song doesn’t strike a chord with the audience (pun intended), it will not entertain. When performing for others, you are an entertainer first and foremost.
- Home-based studios can be an amazing money saver, but they often produce tracks that lack a professional edge. People WILL turn their nose at bad recordings, no matter how amazing that song may be.
- Value perception is huge. Promo photos shot with a cheap camera, a poor logo design, and unprofessional CD packaging all give a sense of low value. If you want to be taken seriously, spend more time and a few more dollars in this area.
- David Adams (OPM): I would love to be a full time musician. I work towards that, but I am realistic in the fact that I will probably not be a millionaire or the next big thing…regardless, I won’t stop playing or trying.
- Tom Cline (NA): I have been playing music professionally for 13 years. […] My professional goals are to be successful doing what I do. Any time I hit a stage I intend to entertain. I am an entertainer as well as an artist. […] I answer to no one but myself. If I don’t like a venue I am playing at I go to the one down the road. Instead of working a factory job or at a fast food joint where I have specific hours and someone telling me what to do I can be my own boss and still play music. I strive to be the best at what I do. My goal is to be happy with what I accomplished in life. Right now I can say that is the case.
- Josh Money (ESB): We like to treat the band as a professional entity, shooting at least for regional success. But, we’re trying to keep things in perspective as well. The majority of the band is over 30 years old, married, with kids and careers, so we’re likely not going to be rock stars any time soon. We play music because it’s a creative outlet, and not playing music would drive us insane. Basically, we do what we do, because we can’t not do it, if that makes sense.
The pros have to start somewhere, and who knows, maybe you’ll figure out the formula. Or hey, maybe you just like to jam out and don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. That’s a good reason too.
[NOTE: THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY POSTED IN 2012, AND WAS REFORMATTED AND REPOSTED IN 2014]