I spend so much time reading others’ thoughts about the music business that some folks might consider it a waste of time. That’s neither what this post is about nor do I think I’m wasting my time doing this kind of reading. Neither is this about all the time not doing music in service of music career (e.g. travel, set-up/break-down, networking); nor am I talking about the endless hours doing inefficient rehearsals or practicing.
This post is about the actual musical activities musicians do that tend to be a waste of time. And here, by “waste of time,” I mean that these are things that will have a low Return On Investment (ROI).
I talked about recordings in a previous post, and actually had a discussion with one of my bandmates in one of my many bands about the dismal return on most recordings. This was something I’d written about back in 2013 during the Emily White debacle. But here’s the most relevant snippet:
Of the 75,000 albums released in 2010 only 2,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. Only 1,000 sold more than 10,000 copies. Without going into details, 10,000 albums is about the point where independent artists begin to go into the black on professional album production, marketing and promotion. – David Lowery
but the weakest sellers took up a smaller share of new release sales. The 60,000 titles that sold from 1 to 100 units represented 0.7% of all sales from titles released in 2010. In 2009, 0.9% of sales came from the 80,000 titles that sold from 1 to 100 units. So there were quite a few new albums that sold fewer than ten units.
Put another way, the 60,000 new releases that sold 100 or fewer units averaged just 13.3 units per title. – Glenn Peoples
And as I mentioned in the previous post, even for those musicians for which songwriting is a significant portion of income, albums barely generate a fifth of the total revenue earned–and that’s for a musician that primarily identifies as being a songwriter, something most of us are not.
I was just realizing as I wrote this post that I haven’t actually released a full length albm since I wrote about recording revenue back in 2013. I’ve only been involved on one full length album as a member of a group since then (in 2014), but only contributed cello, drum, and some vocal lines. As I said, “since I’ve started playing out regularly again for the past 13 years, I’ve managed to more than quintuple my gross revenue–and recordings have been an increasingly smaller proportion of that.” Thing is, since 2014, I’ve had my biggest surge in annual revenue for music, and that was in a time when I did the least amount of recording.
Now, there are plenty of good reasons to release an album, not the least of which are artistic ones; this doesn’t mean there aren’t ways of minimizing the financial risk involved with an album to create a steady, but modest, revenue stream. As a source of revenue, though, albums are probably one of the poorest investments most musicians can make.
This is related to a manner of gigging that album culture has helped to foster, namely, building a cycle of touring or gigging around an album release.
One of the simplest ways to create a program is to perform and tour an entire album. You don’t have to worry about building a new program as the program is contained in the album, and you automatically have merch that’s intimately tied to the show. The idea is that folks who love your songs will want to buy the album, or that folks who’ve heard the songs or have the album will want to go see the live show. In an ideal world, anyway.
Many bands that do original music and have a certain level of drive will tour an album. By “tour” I don’t necessarily mean actually go on the road (though that is sometimes the case). It’s a simple and elegant idea, and one that became something of a standard when the Music Industry started using it as a way for bands to advertise the label’s product (i.e. the album). Thing is, touring is a risky business and as Zoe Keating said–needs to be done by the young:
And for the majority of artists, even moderately successful Indie acts, once all the expenses are factored in, more often than not, the tour ends up in the red. This was dramatically demonstrated when Pomplamoose broke down their expenses and revenue from a month long tour back in 2014. Even after pulling in $97,519 in ticket sales, $29,714 in merch sales and $8,750 in sponsorship from the Chinese computer manufacturer Lenovo they were not able to cover the $147,802 in expenses for the tour. They took a loss of $11,819.
For those bands that can’t tour, or do shorter tour stints in a smaller region, the expenses are obviously smaller, but given the declining venue climate and the increasing income gap between top artists and the bottom 99%, there’s more of the in the red for all acts around.
Does this mean musicians shouldn’t tour or play out. Of course not. Just as I said regarding albums, there are many other reasons to perform that have nothing to do with revenue or making a living. It’s just nice to not be in a position where those are the only types of gigs I have to take.
This is related to touring above, but this has more to do with the actual live show as a stand alone entity–e.g. an event; happening; themed concert. I’ve put together dozens of various presentations and have probably played hundreds of them with various groups over the years. Sometimes these were simply benefits or fundraisers for various causes. I can’t even count how many Bellydance, Burlesque, Ballet, Opera, Plays, or Musical Theater productions I’ve performed.
In most of those cases, there was relatively little revenue involved–often barely enough to cover expenses (if even that). The biggest problem with events is the cost of producing and marketing them, as well as labor costs (since a number of these types of events will take place in venues with strong unions for stage hands/lighting/sound). As I’ve written about in the past, many big name pop stars regularly lose money on their biggest productions.
And this doesn’t even touch on the star-up costs for a new presentation. Arranging music; finding players; developing a show; and rehearsing–these are time intensive things to do and while it may seem necessary in some sense, again there’s little ROI. The past few years I’ve only focused on developing projects of of things not normally heard. Whether it’s my interactive video/cello project, or my latest world music group, or my Hanuman: The Monkey King kids show, or various new music groups-I’m focusing on music and cultures that aren’t normally given a voice. These projects are exploratory, experimental, and focus on underserved audiences. There’s more than enough Pop/Rock and Classical Music out there to be hard by more than enough musicians. I don’t feel like I need to contribute to the glut.
The thing is, these projects are obviously not (yet) big revenue earners, though most of them are still in the initial stages. This means I can’t take too much time out of my more lucrative musical projects though trying to balance that is always tricky as I related in a previous post. I’ve known far too many musicians and artists constantly creating new shows, events, and/or productions. Few of them are doing their art full-time, so there’s little need to worry as much about the revenue side of things and thus no need to weigh the costs and benefits of doing those things versus more lucrative things in their artistic field. Again, the caveat being that there are other good reasons for…you get the idea.
I’m not even going to get into Merch (and we could consider albums to be in this category) as this isn’t strictly a music activity, but this old Metal Injection piece I’ve linked to in the past can give you an idea about the actual profit that can be made from merch. Unless you’re in that top tier of artists, merch sales are of then a losing bet. Blah, blah, blah…and there are good reasons for doing these things and all that jazz.
This may seems like a pessimistic post, but really it isn’t. Maybe a little nostalgic as I’ve seen so much of myself in all these situations at some point in my musical career. And no, that doesn’t mean I’m by any means a “big name” artist and no longer prey to these behaviors. Rather, it simply means I’ve found other ways to create a living as a musician that are a bit more efficient, and have a higher ROI than things I’ve done in the past. I still have much to learn as I constantly learn to juggle things better, and who knows–maybe some day I’ll find a good monetary reason to do the things above, but that day is not today.