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The financial reality of touring indie musicians


After two long years of the COVID pandemic, summer music festivals are back on. Fans are thrilled to have them back, and there have already been some standout performances that have generated a lot of excitement. Looking at you, Harry Styles. But it turns out for a lot of musicians, maybe even most, the decision to play at festivals can be complicated. For up and coming artists, playing at a festival can involve a lot more than just a performance, and the costs don't always add up. Our own Michel Martin spoke with Zach Schonfeld about this. He recently wrote a piece for Stereogum titled, "Why Are Musicians Expected To Be Miserable On Tour Just To Break Even?"

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Thanks so much for joining us.

ZACH SCHONFELD: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So you wrote this piece after an indie band shared their experience of playing at the very well-known music festival South by Southwest. Could you just tell us a little bit about what happened?

SCHONFELD: Sure. The piece was inspired by an ongoing discourse that's been happening in the music community, particularly in indie rock and independent music in general. There's this indie rock band called Wednesday. They're from Asheville, N.C. They've released a few very good albums over the past few years. They've garnered some critical acclaim and a small but passionate fan base. And in late March of this year, they posted a thread on Twitter basically sharing their expenses and income pertaining to a tour through the American South, which culminated with a series of shows at South by Southwest in Austin. And what was surprising about the numbers that they shared was that they actually didn't make a profit on this tour. Their net profit was -$98.39. So they actually lost money overall on this tour. And they also - I think several members of their touring party ended up getting COVID at some point as a result of the tour.

So this was kind of a bleak state of affairs for music fans and for fellow musicians to find out that this relatively successful and kind of buzzy indie band wasn't even able to break even, you know, on this tour. And it sparked a lot of discourse about just, you know, the general indignities that bands are expected to endure just, you know, in order to go on the road and perform music for people. A lot of people who have never toward really romanticize, you know, this, you know, idea of musicians just kind of slumming it and saving money wherever possible. And that's not sustainable for touring musicians.

MARTIN: Well, what role do festivals play in their careers? Is it the idea that festivals are great for fans, but they're terrible for the people playing in them unless you're the headliner?

SCHONFELD: So in the course of reporting this story, I was a little bit stunned to learn how little money bands get paid for performing at South by Southwest showcase performances. I was told that showcase artists are offered a registration package which gives them access to the conference, showcases and artist-only areas, and domestic artists are given the option to receive a cash payment, which is only $100 for a solo act or $250 for bands. And that's just a laughably small sum of money for bands who've traveled a long distance to perform at South by Southwest. That's not nearly enough money for it to make financial sense. You know, bands aren't traveling South by Southwest because it makes financial sense for them. They're traveling because of the hope of being a breakout act and attracting a new audience or a manager.

MARTIN: But if it does that, hasn't it done its job? Are you saying that it actually doesn't do that anymore?

SCHONFELD: I would argue that a very small percentage - a very small percentage of the bands who perform at South by Southwest might, you know, get the kind of exposure that would make their performance worth it. But that's an old, antiquated - I think, you know, this very notion of exposure is an old, antiquated trope that has been used for generations to kind of justify underpaying not just musicians, but, you know, any kind of artist in a capitalist structure.

MARTIN: OK. I think some people would argue, well, being an artist in this kind of culture is hard. It's always been hard. It's a blue-collar job, frankly. You know, people may think it's glamorous because they have - these days, you know, a lot of musicians, not all, but a lot of musicians, like, they're big in fashion, and they have their own, you know, perfume lines or they're into, you know, all these other side hustles that are really the business. But at its core, it's a blue-collar job. The question I think some people would have is like - forgive me; here it comes - why should we care?

SCHONFELD: You know, I think what you're saying, that it's a blue-collar job, that's an interesting way of putting it, because I think that the net result of the precarity of touring is that the bands and the musicians that are able to endure this precarity, you know, the bands that are able to go on the road and tour are mostly bands from a wealthy background, you know, bands who have family money or some kind of, you know, secondary source of income. I think the musicians who are actually from blue-collar or working-class backgrounds, they're not able to make it work anymore because they have to, you know, work a full-time job. And it's hard to leave a full-time job for three months at a time to go on the road.

MARTIN: Is it affecting the music? Do you think it's affecting the kinds of music, the variety of music that we're getting?

SCHONFELD: You know, I don't know. That's interesting because, you know, on one hand, it's so difficult to make a living on the road in this day and age. But at the same time, it's also so easy to record your music at home and distribute it online at a low cost. And, you know, you're most likely not going to make a living from it. You're not going to make any money from it. But people have always been drawn to creating music, you know, because it's what they need to do, because it's what they're passionate about. And so the barriers to recording music and self-distributing your music online are lower than ever before, and that's certainly a good thing. But the ability of professional musicians to actually, you know, generate income and make a living from their art is more difficult than it's ever been. And that's the sad thing.

MARTIN: I assume you've talked about this with other people in the field, like music writers. Do you mind if I ask you, what are some of those conversations like? Do you consider it now - I don't even know how to put it - something, like, of an ethical dilemma, whether you go to these festivals or not?

SCHONFELD: That's an interesting question. I think music journalists are very passionate about supporting the artists that that we love. And sometimes the way to support the music is to go to a festival. And sometimes the way to support the music is to go to a concert, you know, that's happening in a local club with a crowd of, you know, 18 people and, you know, maybe write about the show, maybe tweet about the show, maybe buy a lot of merch and buy records and CDs from the band to support them directly. There are a lot of different ways to support musicians, and I think music fans need to be engaged with supporting the musicians that they love as directly as possible.

MARTIN: That was freelance music writer and editor Zach Schonfeld. Zach, thanks so much for talking to us.

SCHONFELD: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.