The Cost Of Independence: Economics And Labor In DIY Music

By David Combs

All that merch won't sell itself: Could labor be the most overlooked expense in DIY music scenes?
All that merch won't sell itself: Could labor be the most overlooked expense in DIY music scenes? Patrick Gruban

The final installment in a series by punk musician David Combs, formerly Spoonboy, about issues facing DIY musicians. Read Part 1, “These Are the Real Costs of Going on a DIY Tour,” and Part 2, “How Are Today’s Indie Bands Straddling The Line Between DIY And ‘Professional’?

DIY musicians work hard. A lot of time and effort goes into writing, recording, releasing records, planning tours and executing them. But when we talk about the economics of being a DIY artist — as I have in this series’ first two installments — how do we quantify musicians’ time and labor?

If we calculate the potential costs of a touring DIY musician, we can factor in hard expenses like gasoline, merchandise and food. And there are other expenses that some artists choose to take on, like hiring a publicist or booking agent.

But this other question of labor — the work artists put into making their music and booking tours, plus the time they spend on tour — is harder to talk about. It’s the least quantifiable expense, but it could have the greatest impact on DIY musicians’ day-to-day lives.

So why do musicians like myself rarely factor it into our economic picture? Is it because it brings up bigger, existential questions about how DIY musicians relate to our craft?

When we start to count the hours of unpaid labor musicians put into our work, and when we look at how intensely musicians structure our lives around accommodating those hours of unpaid labor, it raises the question: Doesn’t it seem strange that we should work so hard without compensation?

To shed light on these big questions, I talked to some of my musician friends about how they look at labor, the invisible expense.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Can’t tour with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.

In a music economy where even successful bands aren’t paying their bills from tours and record sales, most DIY musicians are working day (and night) jobs when they’re not on tour. Time away from work means money lost, and it’s a serious consideration for bands when calculating how much time they spend on the road.

Sam Cook-Parrott of Philadelphia’s Radiator Hospital tells me about a tour he wrapped up in October during which the band earned what they considered a decent profit.

“But was it as much as if we worked a s****y minimum wage job?” Cook-Parrott wonders. “Basically. And then we lost our s****y minimum wage jobs. So it’s complicated.”

Job security is tricky for touring musicians. Some are lucky to find the rare job that lets them work from the road, but the more common tale is that of the musician hustling between different service-industry jobs.

“If you want a job that’s good to you, then you can’t go on tour.” — Gabrielle Smith of Frankie Cosmos

Gabrielle Smith of New York indie bands Eskimeaux, Frankie Cosmos, Bellows and Told Slant finds herself on the road constantly. She tells me about a job she worked at a coffee shop that would let her return whenever she needed work, but had a high turnover rate due to unbearable conditions.

“They would have kept taking me back over and over again, but they were very, very awful to their employees, which I think is the trade-off I’ve been finding. If you want a job that’s good to you, then you can’t go on tour,” Smith says.

“At this point I can’t get a regular job. I play in four bands,” says Chris Moore of D.C. punk bands Coke Bust, Sick Fix, DOC and The Rememberables. “What job is going to allow someone to leave for four to six months out of the year? No one.”

Between the instability of losing jobs to go on tour and the fact that jobs with flexible schedules tend to pay less, many musicians structure their entire lives around reducing their expenses.

Cook-Parrott’s money-management plan involves living a certain low-cost lifestyle.

“I live in a house with five other people. I don’t have a car. I walk or ride my bike or take public transit everywhere,” Cook-Parrott says. “Who knows if I’m gonna get another paycheck or if I’ll have a job or something? So it’s like, get used to living cheaply.”

Especially for musicians living in an expensive city like Washington, D.C., living cheaply might be taken to further extremes. Group house full of musicians? Think twice about heat in the winter. Don’t have much money for food? Get creative.

“For a while I was scamming manufacturers’ coupons,” Moore says. “I was calling up every single company I loved food from, and I’d be like, ‘Uh, I got sick,’ and they’d say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll give you a coupon.’”

But when the coupons start running out, plenty of questions remain about how artists can sustain themselves while pursuing music.

Hobbyist vs. Professional

When do you cross the line?

“The only financial burden I’ve run into with music is when things are going well,” says Jeff Rosenstock, the New York songwriter formerly of Bomb the Music Industry. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s a common sentiment.

“You’re like, ‘Oh, OK. Now I want to chase this thing that’s doing well,'” Rosenstock says. “But then you’re not home for long enough to actually maintain a job and be able to pay your bills.”

Knowing when your music’s success is enough to warrant the leap into financial instability is increasingly tough these days.

Much ink has been spilled over the Internet’s supposed democratization of art and culture. One thing that rings true is that musicians who might not have found an audience before can do that online now. But how do they know when the success they’ve found among niche online audiences is worth chasing full-time?

“The only financial burden I’ve run into with music is when things are going well.” —Jeff Rosenstock

“In a way, the newer machinery of how music is distributed has given us a way to quantify success,” says Daoud Tyler-Ameen of D.C. indie-pop project Art Sorority for Girls. “You can look at your retweets and check your premium Soundcloud stats and maybe there will be a spike and you’ll feel a little bit more validated that day.”

But numbers can paint an incomplete picture. Fans connect to music in intense ways, some of which can’t be measured by analytics.

“A deep connection to one person as opposed to a superficial connection to thousands of people can be more important and more meaningful, and even lead to greater success,” Tyler-Ameen says, “but there isn’t a way to quantify it.”

Musicians might find themselves receiving daily messages from fans. They might get glowing reviews on blogs or requests for performances from all over the world. But that doesn’t guarantee a sustainable career in music. So how do musicians calculate when the risk is worth taking?

And when does the term “hobby” not quite fit reality? When DIY musicians are suffering through day jobs they aren’t invested in to make ends meet, while they put as much — if not more — work into their craft for which there is palpable demand, it’s hard to call it a hobby.

“I work in a restaurant. That’s where I spend most of my time,” said Priests vocalist Katie Alice Greer, onstage with author Astra Taylor at the Future of Music Policy Summit last fall. “I’m not sitting in the restaurant wondering how I’m going to become a famous star. I’m wondering, ‘How am I going to live a life where I can actually get paid for the work that I want to create and not waste away in this industry that I don’t care about, serving food?’”

Cultural Value of Music

Do we think musicians should be paid?

The $5 punk show is the five cent Coca-Cola of the 21st century. That low door fee was set by consensus in the 1980s as a way to keep punk and indie concerts affordable and accessible. Thirty years later, it’s still the standard fee at house shows across the country. Prices for just about everything else — food, rent, gas — have soared since then. Yet musicians are getting compensated at the same rate they were 30 years ago.

There are plenty of reasons to keep DIY shows cheap. Technology has enabled a saturation of the music scene that wasn’t possible in the 1980s. Showgoers who are often low-income themselves are paying more for living expenses with less disposable income. But the $5 show model doesn’t account for touring bands’ costs.

“I wish we lived in a world where $5 was enough to sustain a touring band,” says Erica Freas of Olympia, Washington, punk band RVIVR. “But instead of doing something to change that, we just act like it’s already changed.”

It’s a nice idea that bands shouldn’t have to worry about money. Sometimes DIY communities act as though things already are that way and ignore unavoidable economic realities. Freas calls it “a dystopic discordance with reality.”

Beyond DIY politics, though, there just seems to be a universal expectation now that music should be as cheap as possible, if not free. When even the Platinum-selling anomaly Taylor Swift can’t sell tickets to her concerts at market value because fans expect a lower price from musicians, what does that say?

“If your concept of your musician is Led Zeppelin in a Jacuzzi full of money, it’s easier to excuse the whole music economy from having to figure out a way to compensate people sustainably.” —Daoud Tyler-Ameen of Art Sorority For Girls

Some DIY musicians tell me creative labor should be valued just as highly as “regular” work. “Making money off music would allow me to play more music, and that’s what I care about,” Freas says. Greer agrees. “I absolutely think musicians should be able to live off their work,” she writes.

But some musicians — like many consumers — hesitate to assign monetary value to musical labor.

“I put more energy into [booking shows and tours] than I do my actual job,” Amanda Bartley of Columbus, Ohio, band All Dogs says. “But I don’t really view it as labor. It’s just something I enjoy doing.”

Why is it so easy to devalue or dismiss this particular type of labor? The same expectation doesn’t seem to apply to most other work. Is it because of a cultural expectation that you shouldn’t enjoy the work that you do?

Maybe. Tyler-Ameen also thinks it could have something to do with an antiquated cultural understanding of who musicians are.

“If your concept of your musician is Led Zeppelin in a Jacuzzi full of money,” Tyler-Ameen says, “it’s a little easier to excuse yourself or excuse the whole music economy from having to figure out a way to compensate people sustainably.”

There’s also a sense that artists are more authentic if their work is untainted by an expectation of compensation.

“We don’t analyze or think critically about the arts as an industry in the United States,” Greer writes in an email. “Artists themselves expect to be poor to authenticate their work.”

Rosenstock maintains that making music can — and perhaps should — be its own reward. But he says there are other factors that artists have to be realistic about.

“Obviously, the reason you’re doing it is because you’re reaching people, and that’s awesome,” Rosenstock says. “But reaching people doesn’t pay for your rent or get you enough gas to go to the next city.”

New Models For Getting By

Do sponsorships and crowdfunding make sense for DIY musicians?

As the music economy shifts, much has been made of new models that could help musicians survive on their music, but little of it seems to have resonated among the touring DIY musicians I’ve known over the last decade.

One of those proposed models: corporate sponsorships for indie bands.

“The only way we can make a living off our creative work, it seems, is to do the bidding of a larger corporate business,” Greer writes. “That, for me, is typically an inconsistent reality with the themes of my work. Musicians shouldn’t have to degrade themselves to taking money from sources that make them feel uncomfortable in order for this to happen.”

Other new-school models like crowdfunding have gained some traction, but ultimately don’t come across as a sustainable solution.

“If you’re the kind of person who can make a Kickstarter video where you look totally natural and not uncomfortable, you’re more likely to find something sustainable [now],” Tyler-Ameen says. “A lot of people feel like they don’t know necessarily how to compete in that world and still feel and sound like themselves.”

“Musicians shouldn’t have to degrade themselves to taking money from sources that make them feel uncomfortable.” –Katie Alice Greer of Priests

Freas says she didn’t find the amount of work involved in crowdfunding to be worth the trouble after her band RVIVR funded a relatively cheap trip to Europe on Kickstarter in 2011.

“The amount of [blowback] we got from the DIY community in balance with how much work it was to fulfill the Kickstarter rewards made us wish we just bought the tickets on a credit card and saved ourselves the hassle and the attention,” Freas says. “It’s one skill to write music, and it’s another skill to manage a hustle that can even come close to being sustainable while holding on to your values.”

Musicians who don’t thrive on those new earning models can face a particular kind of crisis.

“There’s a kind of emotional dysphoria that a lot of creators feel in this economy because they are told over and over again that all they have to do is be really good,” Tyler-Ameen says. “It’s a really lonely, miserable place to be to be told that all you have to do is be good, and then you do your best to be good and you can’t make a dent in anything. You just sort of assume you must not be any good.”

For most bands, the only viable pathway toward making a career out of music is to simply never stop touring. If tour sustains musicians — and keeping a job in the interim is too difficult — just stay on the road. But that lifestyle can be exhausting, and it certainly isn’t for everyone.

“I don’t think I would want to be traveling all the time for much more than a year or so,” Bartley says.

“Personally,” Freas echoes, “I don’t think being on the road all the time is good for my mental health.”

Our Identity

Are we musicians first?

When I talk to musicians about the value of their creative labor, the idea that loving one’s work invalidates it as “work” comes up again and again. What I hear across the board from musicians is that music is what they love, and they’ll find a way to do it, whether or not it’s validated by outside sources.

But even musicians who believe their work is valuable — and worthy of fair compensation — are not necessarily ready to call themselves professional musicians.

“Up till this day, if somebody asks me what I do for a living, I tell them I’m a graphic designer. I still don’t tell people I’m a musician,” Rosenstock says, even after he points out he earns more from music. “Playing music is a thing I have to do. A thing I love doing.”

Even musicians who believe their work is valuable — and worthy of fair compensation — are not necessarily ready to call themselves professional musicians.

Plenty of musicians aspire to make music the center of their lives, but that doesn’t mean they call it their job.

“Maybe it’s sad to say, but I never really had any professional aspirations outside of playing music,” says Moore. “I never really had an aspiration to play music professionally, either.”

Is it possible that, on a subconscious level, music consumers know that the Chris Moores of the world will keep pumping out blast beats whether or not they’re getting paid for it? And could that contribute to the idea that musicians’ labor isn’t worth paying for — among consumers and musicians alike?

“It’s a weird thing, I think, for us as humans to take such a natural, pure impulse as opening up your mouth and singing and try and make it into money,” Cook-Parrott says.

When there’s a pairing of money and music, cognitive dissonance comes into play for both musicians and fans.

For now, though, Cook-Parrott is trying not to worry about it.

“Most people have s****y jobs for their entire life and then they die. If that’s my alternative to playing music, then I’m going to f*****g play music and go to weird towns and barely make any money and have fun doing it and then leave a good-looking corpse,” Cook-Parrott says. “That’s the plan.”

Photo by Flickr user Patrick Gruban used under a Creative Commons license.

  • Ross Kerr

    I enjoyed this article. Some great points made here by people who I know put their entire being into what they do. It doesn’t point to easy conclusions. There are none. Regardless of what route is chosen to share music, it is tough.

  • Andrew Gordon Aylward

    Thank you for this important and thoughtful discussion.

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  • RS

    No harm in wanting to make money from creating music. Beethoven for instance, as evidenced in his published letters, was very good at business, and always personally chased down the money he was owed. Not wanting to make money plays right into the hands of record companies, and now streaming companies like Spotify, who will be working very hard to give you as little of your hard won income as they can.

  • This article exemplifies the main reason why WE as musicians and bands should NOT give our music away for FREE!!! This trend needs to stop. Free kills any market, it doesn’t matter what the product is!!!

    We need to start a Revolution!!! Revolt I say, REVOLT!!!