Money & Music (and The Avett Brothers)

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar Max Socol
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    says:

    These guys got their start about 20 minutes outside my hometown in NC, and I used to go out and catch them playing little radio shows at some of the colleges and clubs around the city. It’s been very gratifying to watch them rise, especially considering what nice people they are in person.Report

  2. Avatar JosephFM
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    says:

    I’m not sure how much I believe this. It’s certainly an idea that is pretty critically disfavored nowadays, oddly enough. But I can name lots of bands that fell victim to this kind of thing without much success. Most of the best music seems to come in that middle range.Report

  3. Avatar Sam M
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    says:

    Is it clear that money is what makes the difference? I think a lot of what ails albums that come later in a band’s career is the fact that they came… later. Inspiration and creativity are not bottomless pits. They run out.

    Also, I think we need to consider the fact that listeners (us) are pretty fickle. We like newness. A person’s voice and person’s style intrigue us at first. And then we tire of it.

    For instance, I remember the first time I heard Primus. I mean… wow. In the context of the time and the place and all the rest, it was an earth-shattering experience. Same when I saw them live.

    Would I buy a new album from them today? Would I go see them live? Probably not. But I don’t think that’s because THEY started sucking. Or sold out. Or whatever. I still like them, but in a nostalgic sort of way. They spoke to that time and place. If they don’t think to this time and place for me, I guess that might be the fault of riches and fat living on their part. But I suspect not.

    I guess some people start to suck after a while. Although I might be interested to hear which artists you think are guily of this. Are you a fan of Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, for instance, but hate everything after the Black Album? Or you think all Modest Mouse has sucked since Moon and Antarctica? (In the latter case, that happened to be their major label debut.)

    Just curious.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Sam M
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      says:

      @Sam M, Possibly. But I’ve seen bands make this shift between their first and second album – and the only difference was the fame and fortune. They were still “new” when they lost whatever it was they had. The Avett Brothers have like nine albums and are just getting better.Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Sam M
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      says:

      @Sam M, I’m one of those that was really into Metallica early on. I think the Creeping Death EP was the last good thing they ever did.
      I bought On through the Night by Def Leppard within a week after it was released in the US. And they did maybe three good songs after High n’ Dry.
      On the other hand, there are bands, like Saxon, Accept, and the Scorpions, that weren’t very good early on, became great, then sucked even worse after they had hit their peak.
      It’s not really about how long the band has been together. It’s about the dynamics within the band.
      Online distribution has its good points and bad points, but at least the industry is moving away from the hit video model that undermined tour support and created a lot of bands that stayed together for only 2 to 3 years.Report

  4. Avatar William Brafford
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    says:

    Erik,

    What’s weird about this post is that the Avett Brothers used the traditional model I’ve been defending. They made money through a combination of touring and selling records through small independent labels, and now they’re on a major label. Did they use free online distribution as anything more than an afterthought? I don’t think so, but let me know if I’m wrong.

    I’m all for the idea of rock’n’roll without superstars. I agree with you that celebrity is bad for artistry. But I do like the idea that a working musician might be able to support a family, and actually be with that family rather than spending 225 days a year on the road. And then maybe the musician can write songs about those struggles, rather than just songs about being poor and in love.

    -wrbReport

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to William Brafford
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      says:

      @William Brafford, Yes and no. The point I’d make is that they did this during the age of online distribution. I’ve never said bands should only distribute their music online – or that they should always give it away – only that the new panoply of choices for distribution and consumption can help a band thrive especially if they are good at touring and live performances. The Avett Brothers, far from sticking to a traditional modus operandi, eschewed signing on to a big label for years. Sure they sold records – but they did it on their own terms and carved out a fan base in an age of online music. If it hadn’t been for the online factor (Rhapsody in this case) I wouldn’t have heard of them, or gone to their show. So I think touring and selling records is wonderful, and I think this new age of music empowers bands to do that successfully while not giving them quite the same chance at ridiculous wealth or superfame.Report

      • Avatar William Brafford in reply to E.D. Kain
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        says:

        @E.D. Kain, what the Avett Brothers have done isn’t that different from what indie rockers have been doing for decades.

        My argument is that as we go forward, the new panoply of distribution choices is going to undermine the traditional model and fewer people will be able to make livings as full-time musicians. Almost certainly, there will still be plenty of folks who manage it, so examples of successful bands don’t do much to overturn the argument. Instead, one has to look at the amount of money people are paying for music, and how much of that money is ending up in the pockets of the musicians. Absent the actual relevant facts and figures, I’m not sure we can go much farther in this argument.Report

        • Avatar Will in reply to William Brafford
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          says:

          @William Brafford, Musicians have always made their money from performance.
          To my knowledge (which is somewhat dated, granted), the standard recording contract pays the band (to divvy up however they want) 5% for the recording (performance) and 5% for the songwriting. This is from profits from total sales. Total sales is really about half of what is actually sold, because there’s all sorts of ways that the company can make exclusions (breakage being the big one).
          So, on a low-budget recording with a $25,000 total budget, at an avg price of $10/CD, they would have to sell 100,000 copies to collect anything beyond the initial advance (that $25,000 is really an advance): 5% of $10 = $0.50; $25,000 / $0.50 x 2 = 100,000.
          If the band wrote all their own songs, they could break even at 50,000.
          Concerts are usually at a set fee, and rehearsals are at the top end. It’s accrual-based accounting, so over-runs and under-runs are figured in over a period of time.
          At one level, $1200 a night is top pay (it’s probably more now), and at another level $8000 is good for an opener. A lot of that goes into expenses, and the band members get about 10 to 15% of that apiece.
          That’s the trade-off. The record companies want their product sold, and the best way to do it (legally) is with a successful tour. Paying a program manager to play your song works well too, but it’s not strictly legal, even though the practice is widespread.
          The band wants to make money. Too much off time and not enough money are both really bad for holding a band together. Once they get to where they’re the big fish in the little pond, they need the record company to bring them into a bigger pond where they’re a lot smaller fish. They need the money to do that, and they need the contacts.
          Record companies aren’t all evil. These are people that really love music, or they wouldn’t be doing it.Report

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