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It’s Nearly Impossible For Musicians To Survive Financially Anymore

It’s becoming extremely difficult for musicians to make a living these days —even successful and award-winning bands like Mastodon.

July 6, 2018

 

A recent survey of musicians determined the money they made from music-related activities in a year was $21.5k. Annually, as in not monthly!

The advice of Willie Nelson to mothers was don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys. Maybe he could change his words of wisdom to mama; don’t let your babies grow up to be musicians.

Mastodon’s guitarist, Bill Kelliher, recently gave an interview on the music podcast “Let There Be Talk,” where he explained how streaming services are killing music as we know it. And potentially putting promising bands out of business.

Kelliher puts a lot of blame on popular music streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify, who pay artists too little money. In Kelliher’s estimation, if this doesn’t change, some ‘successful’ musicians and bands will have to leave the business.

 

“I could live a thousand years, and Spotify plays [our music] all day long, and maybe I’ll just make a couple of thousand dollars. It’s very minuscule.”  – Bill Kelliher

 

Perhaps most shockingly, Kelliher further says that bands like his can no longer afford to make records.

During the interview, Kelliher detailed how records are produced from a financial perspective. While Mastodon and other top bands receive significant money in advance from record companies, the money goes almost entirely into making the record.

“We cannot afford to go out here — I mean, people who are listening — there are so many people behind those songs that you hear on the radio,” Kelliher stated. “When it comes down to us doing a record, sometimes those records cost half a million dollars.”

Read more: Pink Floyd, How an Album Cover Became an Icon

 

 

Mastodon Guitarist Bill Kelliher says, “We cannot afford to go out here — I mean, people who are listening — there are so many people behind those songs that you hear on the radio. When it comes down to us doing a record, sometimes those records cost half a million dollars.”

 

 

Furthermore, Kelliher notes that musicians make no additional money from these records until they first pay back their advance.

Inside the business, this is known as ‘recoupment;’ a contractual arrangement designed to protect a label’s initial investment. But, according to Kelliher, recoupment becomes extremely difficult because the streaming services, which is mainly how people listen to music these days, pay so little money.

Read more: How Playlists Take the Soul Out of Music

“That comes out of your pocket. The record company fronts you that money, they go, ‘here’s $600,00, you’re going to make a record that costs $575,000.’ You owe that money back to the record company, and they own your music.”

“Once it hits the internet, and it goes out there for free, where’s the money being generated to make that money back? There is no money to make it back. I could live a thousand years, and Spotify plays [our music] all day long, and maybe I’ll just make a couple of thousand dollars.  It’s very minuscule.”

“The only way to make any money is to get out on the road, and tour, tour, tour, constantly.”

 

Kelliher insists that the situation is so bad that it’s pretty much irrelevant how often Mastodon’s fans stream their music.

 

But the problem is touring is also costly, not just for fans, but for the musicians, too.

Part of the problem is venues take substantial cuts in the revenue. Which, according to him, can be anywhere from 20% to 30%. What’s more, this percentage is not just for tickets, but for everything that fans purchase during the show.

Kelliher uses a concert t-shirt as an example of how little musicians earn doing a show. He says that a t-shirt typically costs around $50, which many fans complain is too expensive. But Kelliher insists that the venue keeps about $20 from the sale of a shirt, which leaves $30 to be split among the musicians in a band and also its management.

“In reality, when we play these clubs, people always say ‘why are your t-shirts $50?’ Well, news flash: the venues take up to 20%, 25%, 30% right off the top of the merch that we sell.”

The band must then pay lawyers, accountants, and crew, and meet lots of other expenses. These additional expenses include the renting of a tour bus, which he says costs the band about $60,000 a month.  All of this leaves very little money for the group itself.

 

Things have gotten so sorry for musicians that Kelliher decided to take his case directly to the federal government.

 

He and Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor recently testified in front of Congress within the scope of their membership in The Recording Academy. There, they lobbied congressional members to pass the Music Modernization Act, which would change the way royalty payments are made to the musicians, songwriters, and other creatives in the digital age.

The bill unanimously passed the House of Representatives 415-0, and it has also made its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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But, despite some reform, it’s probably not going to change the revenue picture for bands like Mastodon. At best, things will improve slightly (though major publishers are positioned to make handsome windfalls).

Earlier this year, Mastodon won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance for their song “Sultan’s Curse,” which came from last year’s album Emperor Of Sand. The album itself was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Album.

 

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Also be sure to check out the weekly RTN feature “Lost Tracks.” We focus on deep cuts from rock’s royalty that never received the attention the song deserved, including the unlikely marriage of Heavy Metal and Hip-Hop in a song that gave the finger to the system.

 

The Grammy-winning ‘Sultan’s Curse’ by Mastodon.