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I’ve been in the music industry as an artist for nearly10 years now. In that decade I’ve achieved nearly all of my childhood music dreams, but I’ve also made just as many mistakes that run over my mind before I fall asleep each night. A wonderment of how a few different decisions, rerunning in hindsight, would work out in some alternate universe. This ever creeping determinism is a fallacy I’m quite aware of but one that I will never completely shake, though it’s these experiences I’ve learned the most valuable lessons. These are the things I’d like to share in a series of mini-blogs I call How to kill your band.
#2 – The $200 Hump
Deciding to go out and make a living as a musician is less a career decision and more a statement on your mental health. It’s never been more apparent how arduous it is for modern musicians to earn decent money from their craft. Album sales have been nosediving since 2000 (even digital sales decreased in 2013, the first time ever) and though paid streaming services are growing, they provide even less in terms of revenue to the actual composers. “Make your money touring”, has been the go-to answer over the past couple decades but as Oh, Sleeper’s Shane Blay so eloquently broke it down a couple years ago, even that has become a breakeven prospect, at best, for mid-level bands.
Is it still possible to make money touring? Definitely, but it’s harder and more competitive than ever. Never have there been more bands on the road battling for a relatively fixed amount of fan dollars and so to be successful you have to surpass this little thing I like to call “The $200 Hump”. If you can make it over this hump, there’s money making promise. But if not, you often end up in eternal band poordom where ending tours means less money to your name then when you started.
Why $200? This seems to be the per show guarantee a lower level signed touring act needs to pass in order to keep growing and I have a few good theories as to why. First, for local talent buyers there is an inherent value in booking even a smaller signed band. In most cases, these bands won’t even draw enough on their own to justify a $100 guarantee but it does give promoters a band to build a show around. Locals are smart and know who is signed to what label and sharing the stage is enough incentive to open a show and basically donate their friend’s ticket revenue to the touring act. Pretty much no matter what, even the freshest of signed acts can get $100-200 any night of tour and that is the just the value of investing in yourself enough to get a label deal.
Now that’s not going to come close to paying bills. That might cover gas (and tolls, I’m looking at you Long Island…) but that’s pretty much it. Everything else: breakfast, lunch, hygiene, etc are all coming out of your savings. At this level you cycle from saving money working while home and then quickly blasting through those reserves on tour. It’s not a sustainable way to live, but it does offer you the opportunity to do what you love and is a step towards more rewarding pastures.
To break this $200 barrier you have to do one thing – draw. No shit right? But in such a saturated market it’s a tremendously difficult thing to do – bringing 50+ people to your show on a nightly basis across the country is pretty damn impressive. The instant promoters see you can reliably deliver even just a few dozen in ticket sales, it becomes exponentially safer to offer you more money. Bands that can break this barrier usually have buzz gained from past touring, online celebrity, or just raw talent – these are things that tend to keep growing. Passing the $200 mark usually takes this level of significant draw which is based on more than just your associated label and so once you break the barrier, it’s much easier to keep it going.
That’s basically the difference, at some point you prove you can draw and it’s what makes or breaks your band. Further, as a mid-level band earning $300-700 per night, that increase can actually start becoming tangible profit for each member as long as you are smart on the road – something that’s not easy in itself. What I think my $200 theory ultimately suggest is the gap between a low-level and mid-level band is much bigger in reality than it may seem in dollar amount even if that difference is felt in your pocket. It marks clear the separation between the bands struggling to stay alive and the ones that have found their niche and can see the promise of perhaps, one day, maybe pay rent.
This column was contributed by Eric Morgan. Eric spent a number of years touring the world as part of the Victory Records band A Hero A Fake. He’s currently developing a new project,Bornstellar, which plans to release its first EP later this year. Click here to learn more about Eric’s time in music.