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August 8, 2005 3:56 AM   Subscribe

how much do indie rock stars make on average?

I know income stream is very unstable in the music business. But bands like Sleater Kinney and Interpol obviously make enough money to live on their music (ok maybe Interpol is a bad example, lets say Yo La Tengo). But how much is that on average? Is it considered middle class? I'm talking about bands that aren't huge but have an established national fanbase with a steady stream of albums (Low is another good example). And on the other hand. Is there perhaps a correlation with how 'buzzworthy' a band is and how much they make? Do people in Arcade Fire live on a tight budget? Can Conor Oberst afford to buy a nice house with a pool in West Hollywood? Parade magazine should do a cover story on this.
posted by sammich to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You're right, this would make a great article. For me the biggest issue isn't how much they earn, but how long they earn it for. Making indie music is not a guaranteed pension, so a lot of indie musicians I know who once would have been seen as successful are now in normal jobs.

Conor Oberst I don't know about, because his operations are quite indie-fied and they probably have quite a few expenses to cover now. I would have thought the Arcade Fire would be making quite a bit of money after their recent successes - though they have a few members, so that will of course cut into their earnings. A band like Franz Ferdinand, having sold a couple of million records, will be doing well now too. It's then up to bands to invest their money, because it won't last forever.

The other bands - as long as they continue to release records that sell, they can eke out a reasonable living. From my experience knowing a lot of indie musicians here in the UK, I can say that it's a long way from the bling-bling lifestyle espoused by R&B stars on MTV Cribs. The ones I know don't all have flashy houses or big cars - many are sharing apartments with other people in London.

It's probably more than a lot of people earn, but it's not super-rich by any means. If you want to earn millions you're better off becoming a banker than an indie musician. Also, bear in mind that it's the songwriter/s who earn the real money. Sometimes bands split their publishing equally; sometimes the songwriter takes 50% and splits the rest with the band; sometimes (Oasis) the songwriter takes all the publishing money and just pays the band bonuses. Hence if you're not the one writing the songs you may find it much less easy to survive.

As for the "buzzworthy" question, a lot of the benefits of being in bands are the perks. You're getting free travel, which sometimes is of a business class standard. If you're in a buzz band you'll be getting free access to parties and concerts and often free clothes as well.
posted by skylar at 4:29 AM on August 8, 2005

"Also, bear in mind that it's the songwriter/s who earn the real money."

That is true only if a songwriter actually sell a lot of records and/or sells the rights to her songs in one big sum.

I know quite a few indie musicians that run the gamut in earnings: from those who literally earn nothing and work elsewhere for their livelihood (most), to a couple who own homes and do nothing but music for a living. Of the musicians I know who are "pro", one teaches guitar for extra money. Another musician I know owns a very nice Craftsman era home in one of the nicest neighborhoods of Portland, Oregon and seems to do well enough, though I haven't a clue what the actual earnings are.

Without exception, all the musicians I know make the bulk of their money through concerts and performances and not through "record deals" (the money in these is usually a loan against a recording's potential earnings and most end up "upside down" and owing the label money) or publishing.
posted by scottythebody at 4:54 AM on August 8, 2005

The Arcade Fire have said publically that they earn (at least for now) a "school-teacher's wages"). Keep in mind that, as skylar points out, that a bigger band results in far lower earnings (if things are split nearly equally). I also suspect that the Arcade Fire are currently earning much more in touring and sales revenues than "peer" bands like The Decemberists, Low or Yo La Tengo.
posted by Marquis at 5:09 AM on August 8, 2005

I know dozens of indie rock musicians (of all levels: some have had a half-dozen albums or been in a half-dozen bands; some can draw 20,000 fans overseas but only fill smaller clubs in NYC; others are still doing the day job while looking for a break) and I'd concur with what seems to be the consensus here: most still have to manage their money carefully like the rest of us, but they have to plan more than the rest of us, too, because continued sales and shows are never guaranteed. They're only as good as their last album.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:14 AM on August 8, 2005

In today's interview on Pitchfork, the Silver Jews' frontman/poet D.C. Berman (an indie rock mainstay) actually lays out all his earnings from the last few years. You just need to take into consideration that he rarely performs live (once or twice a year). Here's the excerpt:

Berman: Last year, I made about $16,000 from the four records that are in print. Drag City takes care of its own. Everybody who makes records for Drag City is getting the most money possible. The Silver Jews have never bought an ad. Ever. Well, once in Alternative Press in 1994, for The Arizona Record, but it was in the back and...

The last year I made a record, 2001, I made $45,000 from Drag City. This upcoming year I hope it will go up to that level again. In addition, I read at colleges multiple times a year at $1,000 a shot. Various writing projects bring in money. Actual Air brings in $1,000 a year nowadays. I get a dollar a copy, and they've sold a goodly number. And Rob Bingham gave me a $10,000 advance to finish it.

BMI checks are a couple thousand a year. Another couple thousand from foreign licensees. I made a movie with the artist Jeremy Blake last year. There are a couple movies with [Silver Jews'] songs in them that keep playing on Scandinavian cable at 3 a.m., apparently for the last four years.

I've never gotten a grant. Well, that's not true. I had a fellowship to go to graduate school. I never had to pay for tuition while I was there and teaching paid your other living expenses. My father paid for my undergraduate tuition. There's this famous story in my family of when my father took me out to eat when I was 18. I had been too lazy to apply to college so he'd had his secretary apply for me late. To the University of Texas and the University of Virginia (because I romanticized Virginia as a kid).

Well, I got into both (Texas was automatic). The tuition difference was large. UT back then was $350 a semester. Virginia was, what $12,000 a year? My dad likes to make games of things. He told me he wanted me to go to UT so I'd be closer to home and said that if I went to UVA he'd pay my tuition but that would be it until death. And four years of health insurance, I guess. Instead, if I chose Texas he'd pay for that plus give me the difference between the two schools' tuitions to live on. I am frankly amazed I chose Virginia. I don't remember my reasoning.

I worked in the morgue at the UVA hospital all through college to pay my rent. In the 15 years since I've graduated he's loaned me $5,000 two times when I was in trouble. The first one in my 20s, which he kindly absolved, and a second one last year trying to get back on my feet. I still owe him that one and I hope this album will enable me to pay him back because he holds it over my head every single time we get into an argument.

I guess I should add that he did pay for my rehab, which I let him, figuring at the time it was his fucking idea, and what did I care? Also, when I got out, this organization called Music Cares at [The National Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences] helped me pay bills. It's a charity, and hopefully I'll be able to send some money back their way once America starts paying me a living wage. It probably goes without saying that I've got a credit card rotisserie system that would dazzle the ancients.

posted by themadjuggler at 7:25 AM on August 8, 2005

I don't know Marquis, I'd wager that The Decemberists are doing quite well at this point, better than bands like Low or Yo La Tengo, based on their album and concert sales and things the band members have said.

I recall James Mercer of The Shins saying that he bought a house from the success of Chutes Too Narrow, but I couldn't provide a citation for it. He also licensed a song for a McDonald's commercial. Things like that are good ways for an indie band to make money these days. (The Decemberists had a song in an HP commercial, too.)
posted by ludwig_van at 7:31 AM on August 8, 2005

ludwig_van - I'm not invested enough to have a real argument on this, but it's worth noting that this Jan/05 article suggests The Decemberists' 2003 album had (at that point) sold 40k in the US. Compare this with the Arcade Fire, who have sold something in the region of 200,000 units, since September 2004.

I also know that in terms of touring outside of the US, the Decemberists struggle to fill medium-sized clubs outside of major centres, whereas the Montrealers, uh, don't.

Your point about the HP commercial is well taken! From what I've heard, your basic "can we buy your song for a commercial" offer is about $30,000, but obviously this can spiral into the millions.
posted by Marquis at 8:09 AM on August 8, 2005

Years back, there was an article in the NY Times Magazing where the Apples in Stereo's Robert Schneider talked about being a telemarketer. That made me sigh. Loudly.
posted by armacy at 8:53 AM on August 8, 2005

Some other numbers to consider:

- The average royalty program gives an artist $1 or so per album sold (and, I suppose, around 10 cents per iTunes download).

- Artists receive anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $25,000 for a live performance. Biggish bands can earn $20K a pop on a college tour; smaller ones get a little as $250 and a portion of the door/bar receipts. D.C. Berman's numbers don't surprise me at all.

- Commercial money is lucrative. Yo La Tengo recorded a little ditty for Coca-Cola; the Apples in Stereo, as noted above, were quoted in the New York Times as receiving (if memory serves) $40,000 to license one of their songs for an ad. With TV ads and video games constantly trying to be innovative, indie artists can realize a nice revenue stream with a bit of rationalizing.
posted by werty at 9:05 AM on August 8, 2005

And as always, here's a link to Steve Albini's often cited, much debated, rant: The Problem with Music.
posted by safetyfork at 9:15 AM on August 8, 2005

On average I would guess an Indie Rock Star, at least those who would identify as such, once you account for expenses, is essentially zero. Lots of people want to be stars, and most never make a nickel at it.
posted by Doohickie at 9:17 AM on August 8, 2005

I've heard from a fairly popular indie rock band that the problem with indie rock is that sales are a magnatude less than popular music, despite a band's popularity. There's a well-known problem in the industry of the "100k sales wall".

The most popular indie rock bands that play for small labels rarely sell more than 100,000 albums. That amount is considered a failure for an industry label, but doing pretty good for indie rock. And from what I've heard most indie rockers make $25k-50k a year with steady new album releases every two years and a good bit of touring.
posted by mathowie at 9:19 AM on August 8, 2005

Taking into account things like practicing and the time spent learning your instrument, and even if you "make it big" everything works out to something like $6 an hour or less.
posted by dial-tone at 9:24 AM on August 8, 2005

Aah, yes. Rehab. The tax people should make that a deductible for bands.
posted by blag at 9:34 AM on August 8, 2005

See also, some earlier threads: the brief 9065, and the more extensive 14733 which includes the fun link Rock Stars Who Went Back to Work, as well as the tangentally related bad boy band, bad contract and the how much to release a pre-recorded record threads.
posted by safetyfork at 9:35 AM on August 8, 2005

The Decemberists talked about money on NPR's show Marketplace.

listen here

The economics of successful rock 'n' roll

You now have less than a month to file your taxes. And, for many of you, your taxes will be more complicated this year. Well, ever since the band The Decembrists started getting popular, selling albums and touring the country, a rock and roll tax reality has taken over. The success has allowed the band members to quit their jobs and, with help from an accountant, set up a limited liability corporation. Each band member is an executive, drawing a yearly salary and paying taxes on it. So far, they haven't blown their modest wealth on private jets or solid gold guitars.
Reporter: David Welch
posted by mildred-pitt at 9:40 AM on August 8, 2005

If the Decemberists are of "modest wealth," I can't help but think that a band like Yo La Tengo, which has a very dedicated fan base and years worth of back albums, should be at least as financially successful. Plus, YLT has only three members (two of which are married to one another), which makes the income splits more advantageous.

What would interest me is knowing what kind of financials a band like Sonic Youth, with their legendary status and cult-like following, can generate. They would seem to be the perfect example of Indie rock royalty and might serve as a pretty good test case in regards to the upper limits of financial success in the field.
posted by Chrischris at 10:03 AM on August 8, 2005

Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea album has sold about 141,000 copies according to this article. Cult classic indeed.

BTW, I am so sick of that Steve Albini article. I know it's on topic to post it here, but still, I'm just sick of hearing about it. Albini makes it sound like any self respecting musician should just pack his instrument up in the closet as opposed to trying to find a way to get paid for what he/she loves to do. Hey, Steve, I also hear that painters seem to have a rough time financially. Fucking art galleries...
posted by fletchmuy at 10:06 AM on August 8, 2005

scottythebody sounds right on to me. the truly indie bands that seem to be able to live on what they earn seem to have a common thread of touring just about every year or at least being known as having amazing shows (the bands you mentioned fall into this category, and gbv did too). it's not only straight up revenue, it's pr and probably the most effective way to sell records when you don't care to be on mtv. you have to be willing to tour and put on a great show every concert season, not just occasionally.
posted by ifjuly at 10:10 AM on August 8, 2005

they have a "modest wealth" not becuase they dont gots lots of monies, but because it aint cool to be loaded.
posted by Satapher at 10:26 AM on August 8, 2005

fletchmuy, I agree. I like to say he leaves the love of doing it out of the equation. How someone would translate the 'love of doing it' into X amount of dollars I don't know. I'm not sure any one person should try to quantify that for everyone. I don't know if that's his position on why he'd leave that out (I'd wager his position on that has more a measure of being cranky than anything). I do think his rant is worth pointing to for people to consider some of the hidden costs of operation and, of course, not all costs he lists apply for everyone either. In other words, I point to it to add to the discussion, not settle it. I did a better job of contextualizing the link previously. I wish I'd done it here as well (because I don't want to be mistaken for agreeing with his position wholesale).
posted by safetyfork at 10:49 AM on August 8, 2005

I know a Boston based band who is gaining in popularity recently and their method of making sure that they have money is to simply not stop touring. They're planning on taking a break in the next few months to make the new album...after that? Back on the road. When they are home, one of the members lives in a group house and I'm not sure about the other. So, they're definitely not rich, but they don't have to work other jobs either.
posted by amandaudoff at 12:14 PM on August 8, 2005

I read something somewhere (New Yorker?) about They Might Be Giants saying these guys are millionaires. This doesn't surprise me. They have a very dedicated fan base. They've been around since the 1980s. There are only two principal members. They market themselves in very smart ways -- Internet-only albums, Dial-a-Song, etc. They wrote the theme song to "Malcolm in the Middle" and their music's been in TV ads. They have a successful music CD for children. All this, and at least one of them still lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn! Saw him once talking away on his cellphone, business-like. Of course, you might not consider them indie anymore...
posted by timnyc at 1:42 PM on August 8, 2005


That article was written before the release of Picaresque, which, though I don't have the numbers on hand, seems to have been the band's biggest success yet. Stuff like the HP commercial and sold out tours started happening only after that albums release, although they have been playing slightly larger clubs on each successive tour. And I looked through their message board archives a bit and found a post from lead guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk saying that he recently bought a house.

The reason it seemed to me like they'd be wealthier than a band like Yo La Tengo, despite the latter's longer career, is that The Decemberists seem to be on the edge of mainstream crossover success, the likes of which have been achieved in recent years by bands like Modest Mouse, The Shins, and Death Cab For Cutie. Neutral Milk Hotel, on the other hand, despite being well-loved, has never reached that level, as pointed out above.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:18 PM on August 8, 2005

I got a somewhat better idea of what musicians are paid when I was on the music committee at my college...we were given money to book bands with. Not a ton of money, but we still got a fair amount of decent shows that were free to anyone. Anyway...any of the "indie rockstar" bands talked about here (Arcade Fire, Decemberists, etc.) were simply not affordable for us. We could get people like Mates of State ($800 for a 2 person band about 2 years ago), who I think are fairly "big" in the indie sense. When I thought about that, I'm like...hmm, that's not bad money at all. But I also remember reading something about Mates of State paying for a super expensive apartment in San Fran that they weren't even living in while they were on tour and just starting out.

Okay, I'm rambling. That's one end. There's also the super poor unknown artists who make nearly nothing. Little Wings (if you haven't heard of him that just proves the point) played here and went around to nearly everyone in the audience asking them to buy stuff, saying he was just trying to "make his bread".

And then there were tons of crap bands that I thought were horrible but could draw good crowds, and they were paid $1500 or so.

Someone was talking about Yo La Tengo..we booked them at one point. I had already graduated so I don't know exactly what they were paid, but knowing the committee's budget it probably wasn't more than $3,000. $5,000 max. But they could have been taking a pay cut, too.

(i'm sorry this doesn't give any sort of real answer...)
posted by jetskiaccidents at 2:29 PM on August 8, 2005

I've always read that Albini article as a caution against falling into major label A&R chicanery--not against making a go at it with self-release or some kind of smaller, artist-focused indie label (then again, it's been a while since I last read it). I've read it as being smart about selling your work and yourself, and not at all about giving up and packing it in. At least, Albini seems to be doing a-ok for himself...

The Decemberists and Yo La Tengo sell out comparably sized venues in all the places I've lived. Same with Sonic Youth. I wonder how the constituent parts of Pavement are doing these days?
posted by hototogisu at 2:33 PM on August 8, 2005

The question is how much do they make 'on average'. And Doohickie gets it right by saying zero. Except it's probably more like minus several hundred or even thousand dollars at any one time.

The average indie rocker plays their music because they want or need to, pays to put out their own releases (or gets someone else to if they're lucky), and pays for equipment rental, gas, etc. to play shows. These examples of [insert popular 'indie rock band' here] earning whatever are worse than meaningless. They create an expectation that that sort of money is a real possibility. The truth is that it's not.

If the rationale for the question is: should I do this, I would say sure. But the odds are overwhelmingly against you even being able to pay rent on what you'll 'earn' and the sooner you realise this and accept it, the more fun you'll have playing & the less time you'll spend being frustrated.

I've been in bands for about 15 years now BTW. If making money were the goal, I'd have been better off scratching lottery tickets.
posted by stinkycheese at 3:54 PM on August 8, 2005

The question is how much do they make 'on average'.

Yeah, but how good is the music made by the "average" independent musician? Pretty shitty, I'd wager. Anybody can be an indie musician, and these days, everybody is one. So one has to take that into account.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:53 PM on August 8, 2005

He said "indie rock stars, on average", not musicians.

Conor Oberst is also making money as a label owner and studio landlord (and producer?), so he's an exception.

Folks like Aimee Mann and Michael Penn (indie pop, okay) seem to be able to make a living doing nothing but put out records. Mann, of course, gets some sweet movie placements; Penn helped produce Liz Phair's last LP. Mann went self-produced with Bachelor No. 2 and proved you could actually sell records, over the internet, for money! She wasn't the first but she was a big enough name that to go off-label was a big deal.

I think the Steve Albini (or Courtney Love) article is increasingly outdated, with MP3 distribution (paid or free), movie and ad placements (which have been critical tipping points for some bands), and the disappearance of radio (at least for indie rock, it's a null factor). The average band, it's been said, makes only 5-10% of its income from record sales anymore; most of the rest comes from concert income, and after that, merchandise. Bands that can generate income in non-traditional ways depend even less on overall sales.

So anyway, I think the basic answer is that an indie rock "star" going by your own examples can afford a middle-class house and a middle-class car, but ain't filthy rich, except in comparison to when they weren't rich yet -- because then they were flat broke.

blag: drug addiction treatment is a deductible medical expense, after total medical expenses exceed 7.5% of your AGI.

Picaresque is Amazon's "#129 in Music" right now, putting it not so far behind the Dukes of Hazzard soundtrack and Shania Twain: Greatest Hits. In indie terms, that's pretty solid, if you ask me.
posted by dhartung at 12:52 AM on August 9, 2005

Sorry, I was kind of ticked off by the time I read all these tales of They Might Be Giants or Yo La Tango or whoever. OK, fair enough, indie rock 'stars'. I still feel that's kind of like saying sidewalk painting 'stars'. There's probably some people who can afford to live off their sidewalk paintings, but what real relevance does it have to the majority of sidewalk artists?

I too know some people you might consider 'stars' and they usually go through a very nice period where they make the covers of weeklies or whatever, and may make some serious cash. But within a year or two it's usually been either friviously spent or reinvested in their music (ie. some equipment or maybe even a studio). As skylar pointed out above, you're not likely to see an Indie Rock episode of Cribs any time soon. This money does not keep flooding in, year after year. It is usually a one-shot 'winfall'. Indie rock and disposable income are pretty incongrous things.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:25 AM on August 9, 2005

A few days late, but what the hell, for anyone who finds this in search. My friend's band had a gold record (500K plus units) that started in the alternative/college rock arena. They toured a hell of a lot for a year or two, ate some fine meals, flew first class occasionally.

Their record company pretty much dropped their second album in the dirt, releasing it probably a year later than they should have to catch the momentum from the first. They finally broke up/went on hiatus for a few years.

I don't think any of them went particularly crazy with their money (though my friend has many more guitars then when he started out), but now all of them have day jobs.

As other's have noted, a typical label deal might get the artist $1/CD sold. An indy artist who sells most of their music direct to fans and music stores (eliminating labels and distributors) might see considerably more than that, though likely over a much smaller volume.

Selling a song for a commercial has promotional value in addition to any money tendered.

Touring can be a money maker, though my impression is that most of that comes from the merchandise.

Merchandise, in general, can be a big money maker. Dave Matthew's band did, if I'm remembering right, 10s of millions of dollars in merch in a year that they didn't even release an album, but I guess you can't count them as exactly indy Still, I'm pretty sure hipsters buy printed tees too.
posted by Good Brain at 11:58 PM on August 12, 2005

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