Saddle Creek | Cursive | Reviews


Mama, I'm Swollen

Author: Tim McMahan
12/10/2009 | Reader | | Feature
Ah, the life of a rock star.
Isn't it just like on MTV? Riding around in a tour bus waiting for your groupies to bring you drugs? Deciding whether you should add that second Jacuzzi to the Olympic-sized pool that you're building in your back yard?

The reality is starkly different.

The typical local rock band that's trying to break through with its own music generally struggles to get by. Touring means finding a van to squirrel away all your equipment (and all your band members) to drive across country (at 12 mpg, if you're lucky) to play a rock club that will pay less money than what it'll take to fill your gas tank. Maybe you can sell some extra T-shirts to cover your bar tab, but you'll never have enough to pay for a hotel.

If you're unsigned, the privilege of starving on the road comes after going deep in hock to pay for recording, mixing, mastering and pressing an album. Add equipment costs (those smashed guitars ain't cheap), practice space rent, and time taken away from having a real job or having a real family (or a real life), and the price for being a rock star is very expensive. And we haven't even gotten to the part about not being able to afford health insurance.

The Price of ROCK

When Omaha singer-songwriter Brad Hoshaw emailed the numbers for his band's last tour, he included a caveat: "I hope that the fact that we lost money on tour will be presented in a way that does not suggest 'failure.' In fact, I consider this tour a success, when I consider my ultimate goals."

Hoshaw and his band, The Seven Deadlies, set out on their first "real" tour in October. They traveled 4,335 miles from Omaha to Maine and back to perform nine shows in 11 days. When they got home, Hoshaw was $416.97 poorer than when he left.

To track tour expenses, Hoshaw created a detailed itinerary that broke out all the costs and time schedules for each day. From time on the road to whether the venue was providing food, to where they were going to sleep.

Example: on the second day, the band traveled 338 miles from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Sheboygan, Wisconsin. They'd budgeted 27 cents per mile or $91.26; the actual cost was $56. The venue provided free food and drinks, along with 80 percent of the $5 cover charge (after the soundman was paid). At the end of the day, Hoshaw and the band came out ahead, but barely. They weren't so lucky the rest of the tour. The final breakdown:


Total performance income: $662

Total Merchandise Sales: $347

Total Income: $1,009


Van rental: $300 (a great deal since they rented from a friend)
Gas: $926.40

Tolls: $68.95

Oil Change: $47.50

Lodging: $83.12 (Two nights in a hotel, the rest spent on fans' living room floors)
Meals (everyone paid their own): $0

Total Expenses: $1,425.97

Minus the income from the costs and you get that $416.97 deficit. It didn't start that way. Before the tour the band played two "going away" shows in Lincoln and Omaha that generated $150 in seed money, which was stuffed into a coffee can.

"All the money we made went into that can and every expense came out of it," Hoshaw said. "If the coffee can went empty, I put money into it from my personal account (drawn via ATM), with hopes that I could take it back. But that didn't happen."

Their performance income or guarantee was based on the number of paid attendees. To enhance that, they sold CDs and T-Shirts i.e., "merch." The merch sales: eight T-shirts (They only brought along 12) and 27 CDs.

"I would have hoped to sell more than that over nine shows, but people just aren't buying CDs anymore," Hoshaw said. "People don't value music as much because they think it's disposable."

In the end, he said it was Maine and taking a day off that crippled any hopes of a profit. With such a huge distance to drive between Burton, Michigan, and Biddeford, Maine, the band split the driving over two days and did not perform at the halfway point of Verona, New York.

"The day off killed us because we had to pay for gas and had no income," Hoshaw said. "The two-day total cost was $279.96, and we made only $20 at that gig in Maine I obviously expected more people to come to the show."

It all sounds kind of disappointing, so why was this tour a success?

"We played a couple of the best venues in the nation and they want us back," Hoshaw said. "We met people who had no idea who we were and fell in love with our music. Those people will remember us for the rest of our lives and will support us for as long as we're around."

Add to that the fact that they didn't get robbed or stranded somewhere, and that everyone in the band kept their jobs when they got back home.

"We accomplished a lot of good things without negative repercussion," Hoshaw said. "This is an investment in my dream."

Greg Edds, guitarist for Little Brazil, said every musician needs to go through the disappointments of a first tour to find out if they're willing to make the sacrifices demanded by the lifestyle. "For our first show we drove eight hours to earn $7," he said.

That was five years and 16 tours ago. These days, Little Brazil is breaking even or making money on the road, usually touring three weeks at a time.

"Every tour you learn something new," he said. "You learn to cut corners to make the most profit."

Unlike the unsigned Hoshaw, Little Brazil gets publicity help from its record label, Anodyne Records out of Kansas City, which released their third full-length album, Son, this past spring.

Little Brazil sold more than 500 copies of Son in three and a-half months of touring, less than the band hoped.

"The consensus from other touring bands we've talked to is that CDs aren't selling anymore," Edds said. "In addition, they're getting cheaper. Ours usually sells for $10 or less. I'm dreading the day when CDs are under the $5 mark. The only thing you can do is adapt on the road."

"Our goal is to make sure we make up the cost of getting to the performance," he said. "We want to make sure we match our show money with merch sales, so if we have a $200 guarantee, we'll sell $200 in merch. We use our show money for gas and everything else is padding. And as soon as we start showing a profit on the road, we begin to divide the money."

Like Hoshaw, Edds said Little Brazil books its own tours, something that's easier to do after years of making contacts on the road.

"It doesn't make sense to outsource 15 percent of your income to do something you can do for yourself," he said, but added that booking agents are essential to secure spots on festivals or to get on a tour with a strong headlining band.

Matt Maginn, bass player for Cursive, had a different take on booking agents. Easily one of Omaha's most successful bands, Cursive has sold hundreds of thousands of albums and has been touring since 1997.

"Booking agents are huge," Maginn said. "For years I've been saying that it's easier to get a label than a good booking agent, and I think it's still true. We didn't have one until 2000. Once you can get one that can break you through to higher guarantees, it's worth it."

For Cursive, touring is where the money is in fact, it's the only place where the money is. Maginn said that just a few years ago, income from touring and royalties were about equal.

"But now there's no album royalties," he said. "It's touring and licensing, which we don't do much of. That's about it."

He said the entire record industry has turned upside down in the past decade.

"There's so many facets now when you talk about album sales," he said. "Early on for Cursive, Bright Eyes and The Faint, album budgets were so small but we lucked out and got enough attention to drive sales. You didn't have to spend as much money to get people to pay attention to a band. Budgets were lower, costs were lower and sales were greater, so there was a higher amount of profit."

A few years ago, CD sales began to drop across the board for all bands. But more bands than ever are releasing albums. Maginn said only about 35,000 albums were released in 2002 industry-wide; last year there were 108,000 albums released.

"So now budgets are sort of bloated, and they have to be," he said. "There's this push to have to do everything you can because no one is buying now so the budget is five times higher for a successful record."

As a label executive at Team Love Records, Maginn said he tells young, up-and-coming bands that it's all about being smart and careful with budgets.

"Our catchphrase is 'Manage expectations,'" he said. "It's tough. It used to be that you could put anything out with decent quality and people would buy a few thousand copies. Today, selling 500 to 800 is considered good."

It sounds like a small number, but everyone starts somewhere. When told about Hoshaw's $400 tour loss, Maginn just laughed.

"I guarantee we lost more than that easily on our first tours," he said. "We would literally tell ourselves that it was our vacation. We had no crew and for better or worse, the cheapest van we could find, and then tried to get by with what little we got paid and what we saved for the road. We didn't make money until the summer of 2000. We didn't really comprehend that anyone would pay us to play. And it didn't bother us."

Over the years, Maginn said one cost of being a musician is the time spent away from home.

"But if I had to do a job that required traveling as much as I have, it would have to be in music. There are a lot of rewards," he said. "These days, times are tough and labels are losing money and bands are losing money, but it hasn't changed our spirit toward touring and music."

Edds agreed.

"Individually, everyone has some type of costs for being a musician," he said. "There are certain things we all pass up, whether it's an opportunity to play with another musician, missing family functions and birthdays, it takes a toll on you emotionally. But we're close to our 30s now and still feel like it was worth it.

"'We all have certain expectations," Edds said. "First and foremost is to want to pursue music the rest of our lives despite financial concerns. We play music because we have to do it, but if you start focusing on success or making it big, you'll lose that thing that drove you to do it in the first place."

Hoshaw knows that any profit may be far off. As an unsigned performer, he's swallowing all the costs associated with recording and releasing his CDs, which means thousands of dollars. Needless to say, when the books are closed on 2009, he'll have lost money being a musician.

"I'm not making a profit yet, but I'm building an identity," he said. "It's like any other young business, it'll take three or four years until I'm profiting, and I only really started in 2008.

"Back in '07, I had to decide whether I should give up music and get an office job and make a living and raise a family. When I searched within myself, I realized that I've always been a musician that loved writing original material. So I said that I could never really give up that part of me. It's a lot more fulfilling than pushing myself into someone else's idea of what a 30-year-old man should be." ,
Mama, I'm Swollen

Mama, I'm Swollen

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