Recently, the New York Times published an article about the high price some bands will pay to be heard in a world already choked with sound. More specifically, it spoke of the inequalities of the South by Southwest festival. I agreed with the overall idea behind the story — SXSW generates a ridiculous amount of money on the backs of unpaid or barely paid bands who scramble over each other for attention. The Times spotlighted two bands to show the truly heroic amount of ambition, resolve and free space on a credit card that it takes to be a part of this lottery of “success.” The people they chose to speak with were so unlike any musician I’ve encountered in the past 20 years that I’m left wondering, where do they find the sources for these stories? Is this your realtor’s son’s band? Did the famous movie director you spoke with for your last interview have a daughter who recently recorded a demo?
I’ve only seen distant glimpses of the high-finance, spend-money-to-make-money world the media have chosen to present as the typical struggling artist’s path to a Grammy, immortality or whatever other nonsense they want to hold up as every musician’s ultimate goal. It seems as though they write their story first and then find an artist to fit it.
The first band the Times spoke with outlined their expenses: van rental and gas from New York, roughly $4,000. A tour manager, $1,500. Lodging on the way to Texas, $500. Accommodations during the festival, $2,500. Overall, close to $10,000. This was backed up with a comment from the manager saying this is essential for a band that wants to get signed. (“Signed” is a whole other minefield I won’t walk into. I can’t believe anyone still has hope that a rep from Chrysalis will be so blown away that they’ll spit out their free tacos onto the black satin jacket of a rep from DreamWorks and sign the band on the spot.)
To be sure that the financial black hole the first band encountered was typical, the Times interviewed one other band. And surprise, what did they say? Basically, “OK, let me check my Visa Platinum Card statement… Yep. $10,000. That’s what I have here… Oh wait, no, that was the sushi bill from the record-release party. Here it is, yeah: SXSW, $10,000.” For the Times, at least, the story checked out.
You want to talk inequality? Talk to the band that drove a friend’s van with expired tags to the festival, slept in it and played some makeshift hole in the wall because it’s just insane and (can be) fun to do it. Trust me, they’re probably not thinking, the festival should have paid us more money. But yeah, the festival should have paid them more money. Someone should have. Odds are, most people would view that band as a bunch of deadbeats because they have no manager and no business model — obviously, they have no ambition. And that’s a story no one wants to hear. Their sacrifice can’t be laid out on an Excel spreadsheet. Sure, they spent all the money they had, but all the money they had was only $200, so they actually did OK, right?
Whenever something is corporate it’s probably going to take advantage of someone, somewhere. That part of SXSW is no surprise, and yes, I think it should change. I take issue with the media presenting these tales of “necessary” financial woe to demonstrate this because I worry about the effect it may have on young musicians. It portrays obstacles that for the most part, these bands impose on themselves. That’s not how you have to do it.
I had the same worry when the infamous “Pomplamoose 2014 Tour Profits (or Lack Thereof)” popped up all over the place a few months ago. The band posted its accounting to show how much money they lost on a tour that was admittedly set up in a way that they knew was going to lose money. If it went exactly as they planned then it sounds successful to me — mission accomplished! What shocked me about that stunt was the overwhelming amount of support and sympathy the band received, although it seemed to come mainly from non-musicians. These supporters are likely the same people who are impressed by how much yelling someone will endure to follow their passion and improve as a musician. (See: the movie Whiplash.)
There’s no single way to operate as a band. I’m writing this to give a little information about the way Deerhoof operates, just to show there are different paths for different musicians. I want to stress that in no way do I feel anything negative about the bands in the articles mentioned above. As I said, there’s no one way to do anything. I just feel that the world I live and work in is being acknowledged less and less. When kids ask me for advice at shows, they’re shocked by how we work. But it’s encouraging that they’re always also very excited. They see that we’re not as far away from them as they thought. This article is for the people who keep hearing that the costs of accomplishing anything are so high that they should be reluctant to try.
Deerhoof has existed for over 20 years, and the band has been our sole source of income for over a decade. The bulk of our income comes from playing shows; we’re on the road four to six months a year. We survive by not further dividing an already tiny pie into even tinier, more ridiculously unsatisfying pieces. We have no manager. Each of us in the band takes on specific duties. I book hotels and find the cheapest, cleanest places. Each of us has spent over a decade sleeping on people’s floors; hotels are part of how we stay healthy, so we can tour as much as we do. Our guitarist John books rental vehicles, drives and calls venues before shows to check that everything is going as planned. Our drummer Greg makes sure the club’s lighting is done how we’d like and is the front line for correspondence with the public and our label. Our singer-bassist Satomi books flights and does the accounting. The many other jobs we handle as a team. We often record, mix and master ourselves, getting better at it year after year. But we finally reached the point where we could afford to have someone do certain jobs better than we can ourselves. So we have a booking agent, an independent label and a publicist. We bring a soundperson to make sure the show experience is what we want it to be. Our relationships with these people span many years and we are close to all of them.
We tour in a minivan carrying the band, a soundperson, equipment and merchandise. We wanted to use a small vehicle so we sculpted our gear around that idea. John and I bring one guitar each. We use single-speaker guitar cabinets and Greg plays a tiny drum set. We rarely pay airline baggage fees. People are still shocked when they see us working our own merch table.
Our SXSW story is boring. When we decided to play the festival, a tour was planned around it. We rented a minivan for three weeks for $1,600. When we knew what dates we were playing I booked a good Austin hotel back in December when they were still less than $80 a room. We were in Texas, so we ate tacos. If you didn’t eat tacos you made a mistake — it’s Texas! Including our five shows in Austin we played 21 shows in 20 days. The logistics are dull but the shows themselves will be tales of glory passed from generation to generation.
Does this snoozefest of a SXSW tale mean we haven’t struggled? Not by a long shot. But our struggles are what led us to this point. We do the best we can with what we have. This keeps us going so we can eat tacos and share the music we love with as many people as possible.
You decide what your goals are and plan around that. The bands highlighted in the articles I’ve mentioned may want something different from what our band wants, which is fine, obviously. Just know that if you have dreams of getting your art out into the world, don’t let bad credit or a minimum-wage life stop you. You find your way.
And once you’re on your way, if you find a great place to play — let everyone know. If the promoter disappears without paying you — warn other bands about them. But if you spent too much money because you didn’t know how to spend less — maybe keep that to yourself.