Editor’s note: in 2017, I came across Iapetus, a promising progressive death metal which had just released their debut full length album, The Long Road Home. The album was excellent but, like most other people I sent its way, the production was clearly executed by the musicians itself and was, at times, challenging. However, it’s still one of my favorite albums from that year and a virtual friendship formed between me and Matthew Cerami, who is one half of the project.
When Matthew posted on Facebook that the band’s next album would be produced by Jamie King but that this feat was going to cost both members a sizable sum of their savings (due to the fact that they needed to travel there, take breaks from their work in order to record, and pay King himself for his services) I had conflicted feelings. On one hand, I was highly expecting a new release and one with professional sound production promised to be amazing. On the other, this person I considered my friend was clearly going through a challenging time, involving plenty of risk.
So, I reached out to Matthew and offered him to use our platform to communicate the unique and stressful situation he was in. What resulted was the article below, shedding some light on what it means to be a musician today and ending with an emphatic call for more business oriented discussions within the musical community. Heavy Blog, on our podcast and in articles, has been calling for such a discussion for a while now; it gives me great pleasure that we can now add the voice of an unsigned musician to this call.
Read on below for Matthew’s take on what being in a band and trying to make a living looks like today. Remember: our struggles appear unique and insurmontable when we face them alone. Together, we have hope to make our lives, and the lives of the musicians we love, better.
“Be Yourself” – On the Paucity of Advice
You want to be an accountant? Sure; go to school, do some research, become an accountant. Want to be a plumber? Sure; learn the trade, do some research, be a plumber. Want to make a living playing music? Go fuck yourself, figure it out, good luck, and prepare to be destroyed.
That seems to be the extent of public discussion on full-time musicianship—that, and a whole frenzied horde of articles, videos, and listicles determined to drown you in a sea of vapid clichés—“be yourself,” “promote your music,” “network!” and “work hard.” Of course, just like the others, “work hard” is a meaningless phrase when devoid of context; it doesn’t matter much that you’re digging a tunnel if you’re digging in the wrong direction.
So, what is the right direction? I have absolutely no idea. That’s the point of this post. There is a monumental lack of transparency in this industry—the metal/underground industry in particular—and no musician, ever, anywhere, seems to be discussing their personal finances, or the economic model of the industry at large. There is a veritable black hole of information on the subject; there’s no roadmap for aspiring musicians, no instructions on developing a viable long-term financial plan, no numbers by which any serious adult can chart the course of their lives. In literal hours of searching, I found one, single article that contained numerical figures (estimates, though they may be), and it was written by a band manager; i.e. a dude whose livelihood depends on selling a dream to people like me.
Playing music full-time is one thing, playing metal full-time is another thing—it’s a profound leap of faith in either case, but it doesn’t have to be a blind one, and it shouldn’t leave us destitute. A band is a business. Music is a product. We should be talking about numbers. We should be talking about monetization. We should be completely honest, completely transparent, and completely open. Those rare metal musicians who making a living at it—if they even exist—should be letting the rest of us know how things work. How much money do you make? How do you make it? Do you have another job? How do you balance that job with touring? What is your daily routine like? What goes on behind the scenes?
We need to know, first and foremost, if living off music is even a remotely achievable goal.
I’ll be honest—it doesn’t seem that way. Whenever I imagine the numbers behind the metal industry, the reality is always somehow, unbelievably, violently worse.
I recently read that Devin Townsendis essentially living month-to-month, with no financial security whatsoever. Devin-fucking-Townsend. Misha Mansoor seems to be on camera every five minutes, excoriating the music industry, stating emphatically and repeatedly that there is no money to be made. Andy Gillion—guitarist for Mors Principium Est—recently wrote a parody song in which he sings that “everyone’ll make money but us,” and that being in a band is “the worst financial decision you’ll ever see.” Tim Charles of Ne Obliviscaris has mentioned that several (ostensibly successful) tours left each of his band members tens of thousands of dollars in debt. And, of course, who could forget the infamous resignation of CJ McMahon, vocalist of the immensely popular Thy Art Is Murder. His yearly salary—according to him—was a paltry, unsustainable $16k-$18k a year.
If these people can’t “make it,” (and by “make it,” I mean simply living above the poverty line), then who the fuck can? Is there any hope for the rest of us? Is this a dream that’s even worth pursuing? I didn’t start a progressive melodeath band for the money, trust me; I don’t need a fancy house, or more than one car—but, ideally, I would like to eat food, and sleep under a roof, while dedicating my life to the thing that I love. Is this a reasonable goal?
Committing full-time to music—especially metal—is a scary, dangerous, risky, and arguably stupid affair. We need people talking. We need to be well-informed. The more well-informed we are, the better our odds; and what is the point of this community if we don’t help each other succeed?
But entertainers and artists don’t like to talk about money. I get it. Maybe they want to maintain some façade of success (entertainment is glamorous, right?)—or maybe, if they are successful, they don’t want to seem arrogant. Maybe their ego won’t allow them to admit failure. Maybe they don’t want to be seen as sell-outs. Perhaps they’re holding onto the absurd Gen-X notion that discussing finances is the ultimate sin. Or maybe they’re just embarrassed that they’re going broke.
Behind the Curtain – A Detailed Breakdown
I am concerned with none of those things, so for the sake of the aforementioned transparency and disclosure, I’ll give you a very detailed peak behind my particular curtain.
I run a relatively (completely) unknown two-man prog/melodeath studio project (imagine splitting a cost between five band members—for a two-man band, the financial blow of everything is even worse). We’ve got 1,000 followers on Facebook, 45 on Twitter, and 192 on Instagram. We don’ t tour, we’re not signed, and we pay all of our expenses out of pocket. We both have full-time jobs with mid-to-low yearly salaries. We’ve been making music for 5+ years, but our first official full-length wasn’t released until 2017—so we can start counting numbers from there.
Our best bet for exposure was to release our debut entirely for free. We just wanted people to hear the music. This also extended to the first pressing of physical copies, which we shipped worldwide at our own expense. Pressing 100 CDs and shipping them internationally—just getting ears on our record—cost us $1000. The digital copy of our album is still free, and will remain so forever. Truthfully, I believe our 1800+ Bandcamp downloads would be cut by 3/4th if people were forced to pay. That’s just the reality. The negligible increase in revenue would not be worth alienating potential fans. For the first few months, we wouldn’t enable the “name your own price” option, for fear that the additional step of having to type $0.00 would make people mad.
Since then, we’ve also printed hundreds of cheap CD Jackets, which I hand out, for free, to unsuspecting fans at metal shows in NYC. There goes another $500 with no chance of return. The price of promotion for an unknown band.
The rest of the record—from creation to launch—was a completely DIY, lowest-possible-cost affair. We produced only what would sell, paid for only what we couldn’t do ourselves, and spent just enough for a presentable product. Still, between cover art, production, CD duplication, merchandise, marketing, social media ads, and all extraneous costs, the record ran us $4,089 to make, release, and promote. Two years later—through every source of revenue we have—including all streaming/Spotify revenue ($40), all physical CD sales ($145), all merch sales ($192), and all name-your-price donations ($353.70), we have made exactly $730.70. That is all the money we have ever made as a band.
Maintaining absolute, bare-bones, essential internet tools—Bandcamp Pro, website hosting, Dropbox Pro, WeTransfer accounts, webstores, etc… costs us about $500/yr. The costs of upgrading our gear to basic professional levels has so far, in two years, run us about $7500.
Our second record is coming out later this year, and we’ve decided, against all financial logic, to take everything to the next level; full, best-in-the-industry production job, professional artwork and CD layout (I’ve so far designed all layouts and graphics myself), more merch than we’ve ever had, and a professional session drummer (we formerly programmed drums to avoid recording costs). I won’t give any specific numbers, for ethical reasons, and out of respect for the people doing the work, but just making this album—just creating a fully professional, industry-standard, respectable product— is going to cost us $12,000. That’s before marketing expenses, promotional expenses, duplication expenses, distribution expenses, and touring expenses—which is something we’ve just started to seriously consider. We’re dying to get in front of an audience, and we’ve got to do so with the full knowledge that it will cost us thousands. My bandmate has a wife and a house. It is not an easy choice to make.
Shine a Light – A Call for New Discourse
To summarize: considering all possible costs—including smaller, every day costs that I’m not mentioning—we have spent roughly $20k-$30k just to exist and release two albums at a professional level. Are we spending too much on all of this? Again, I have no idea. There is no collective, openly-discussed standard by which I can compare our expenses; no reliable source against which I can gauge myself.
This isn’t a desperate plea for money. I’m not asking or looking for pity. My bandmate and I were aware of what this project would cost us, we accepted it, and we made sacrifices, because we live for making music, we’re proud of what we make, and we wouldn’t spend our money on anything less.
What I want from this, above all, is for you to tell me that I’m stupid. Tell me that I’m spending too much money. Share your ideas, share your own paths, models, plans, commiserate with each other, build a consensus around what it takes to make it in this industry, and fill it with real figures, real numbers, and real, meaningful advice. It’s 2019—we’re all miserable, searching for purpose, and desperate to make it; let’s consign the “starving artist” ideal to the wastebin of history; let’s consider it something to avoid, not something of which to aspire. We need to dismantle the stigma that prevents artists from discussing money. We’re not sell-outs, we’re just people who want to live.
Someday, I’d like to live a life completely dedicated to the art that I create. That first step is a nightmarish one, though, and it’s made even more difficult when the road ahead is shrouded in darkness. Let’s shine a little light for each other.
Let’s help each other see.