Jun 042012

These days I make a point of not talking about my salary, but my time as a vital member of the rockonomy is so long gone that I don’t think I’m going to risk anything by discussing our band’s once-extremely modest take in the local rock scene.

In 1986, when my band first started getting decent gigs with guaranteed pay we would be offered what seemed like a decent amount of $100. Triple figures! (Were you in a local band in your early 20s, in the mid-’80s or earlier? What did you consider your first decent-paying gig?)

A few months later, as our audience built and our first EP started getting better press than we realistically could have hoped for, we could make as much as $150 for a show. Guaranteed! When you’re 23 years old, working a shitty job, and you and your bandmates have agreed to save every penny you ever make playing out to pay for your next 24-track studio recording session (probably the one that will launch your band into the next level) a 50% increase is significant.

Ornamental Wigwam at that beloved burnt-out hippie bar.

A few months after that, as we built more momentum, a burnt-out hippie bar at a then-still hippiefied block of South Street let us book our own bills, splitting the door with our opening band as we saw fit. Even after the doorman and the local junkies took their cut and we paid our opening act a fair share, we might clear $225/night.

In 1987 through the middle of 1988, when we released our second record to more solid local press, we were reaping as much as $250 for headlining bills while maintaining our $150 fee for opening shows for national touring acts. We’d also play out of town club shows for as much as $150/night. Pretty cool considering maybe 10 people knew who we were at any out-of-town club, and 6 of those people were our cronies who traveled with us. (What do you think, those of you who played local shows in the late-’80s? A decent night at the office? Come on, it’s safe to chat. The IRS isn’t going to come after us. We’ve moved on, haven’t we?)

By the time we’d been getting our share of high-paying college shows. We played some college in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for instance, where we made $800: $100 for each of the 8 people in attendance. At this rate we could save for our version of Sgt. Pepper’s. In 1988, we pooled our increased performance fees and began the 2-stage recording process that led to our Sgt. Pepper’s, or tremendous, band-breaking, unreleased flop as it turned out. We never recovered from that, and the next few years found our guaranteed fees for performing plummeting back to 1986 levels.

The drop-off in guaranteed money was deserved. You don’t pack fannies into a club, you don’t get paid. We eventually took a 7-year hiatus from playing. When we decided to play again we actually had lives and good jobs. We would forever be playing “for the love of the game.”


  13 Responses to “$200 a Day Plus Expenses: An Examination of the Local Music Rockonomy”

  1. I don’t have any real input into this thread except to say that as a business type and a numbers person (actuary) I’ve always been curious about the business end of music. I frequently look back and think that with a love of music but no musical talent I should have gotten into the business end of music instead of actuarial science and insurance. But then I convince myself that I would have ended up hating music if I did that…

    I can understand Mr. Mod and company playing the game for the pennies they did. I often wonder about others. How does, for example, Dave Alvin tour with a band and play in a 200 seat club (the Iron Horse in Northampton MA) that’s not nearly full? Not why but how, how can it possibly make any fiscal sense. Just filling in an empty hole on the schedule? Doesn’t appear that way from the clubs he plays. And it’s not like he’s selling much merch at these gigs. So at 150 people and $15-$20 a ticket, how can it work to be on the road? And for Dave Alvin you can substitute plenty of other names.

  2. hrrundivbakshi

    What I want to know is: what was the 1988 magnum opus that nearly killed your band?

  3. Guess there are more 50-year-old musicians around here with something to lose than I thought.

  4. Well played!

    For anyone not looking to be bored by the details of our band’s personal trail of failures, move along. I was referring to, first, a set of demos we made in Baltimore with the “Full-Tilt Nixon’s Head Boogie Band,” involving orginal guitarist Mike Fingeroff, his replacement Jim McMahon, and new addition keyboardist Dave Sollenberger. We excitedly sent these recordings out to some labels that were interested in us. One indie label owner who had been a longtime supporter called me and said, “What happened? You guys sound like the fucking Grateful Dead!”

    Then we lost McMahon and “moved Andy to the front office” for a batch of recordings done at our place in Rockville, MD under the “Frankenslade” banner. Within 2 months we quickly lost all momentum and hope, people started moving away, and we decided it was more important to “just be friends” for the next 7 years.

  5. As a fan:
    I don’t go to big stadium shows anymore so the biggest expense is probably cocktails. Over the years, I’ve been drinking less but the quality of the drinks has increased so my bar tabs have gone down but there is still some room for improvement.

    As a bandmember:
    For the longest time I never really thought about the money too much because it wasn’t enough to let me quit my day job so it was just like lucking into some beer money.

    At a certain point, my current rock band decided to just take any money we earned and dump it into the recording fund. This still didn’t come close to covering the recording costs for our plan to release 10 cds in 5 years (we only made it halfway there before we decided that we couldn’t afford to keep it up). We eventually decided to write off any debt that the band owed to the individual band members and just divide the night’s haul.

    Oddly, the ukulele orchestra that I started with a few friends as kind of a goof is the only band that I’ve ever played in that operates in the black, although all money goes into the band fund for recording and expenses. But at the end of the day, the uke orchestra is still just a cover band and cover bands get all the good paying gigs.

    Mod, as a non-drinker, you might not be aware that in addition to money being siphoned off the top to pay for sound guys, etc, bars often qualify what you can get with your drink tickets. For instance, you can often just get well liquor or domestic beer with your drink tickets. Some places have said the drink ticket is worth $3 towards your drink.

    I also want to note that I am a big Jim Rockford fan from back in the day. He’s the first tv detective that I can remember who was imperfect and would routinely get the crap kicked out of him.

  6. mockcarr

    I hate to be the one to sing this in a reedy Ben Folds voice ” You think Rockford Files is cool, but there are some things that you would change if it were up to you”.

    What you fellows needed was a patron.

  7. First some housekeeping: Always liked Columbo and McMillan and Wife, but couldn’t get into Rockford (or McCloud). Garner and Clint Eastwood always put me off a little with their giant heads and right-leaning U-S-A, U-S-A politics.

    Bandmates know I have this enormous sense of non-entitlement when it comes to making money from music. It’s really hard to get a desirable gig on a Thursday-Saturday night at a club. The fact that any club is willing to allow me to play on their stage, and wants to charge people money for the honor of hearing it just blows me away.

    For them to bestow that trust in any band I’ve been in makes the money secondary. (like everyone else, day jobs pay the bills, not music) I know this is a very unproductive attitude, and I am the enemy of “real” musicians who would never give their hard worked craft away for free. I just never got over the wide-eyed wonder of having a club want me on their stage. It never felt like I was actually “working”. That’s why I’ve never sold out, Man!

    I do expect a generous drink ticket allotment though. That’s just the honorable thing for a club to do. Getting a free meal from a club is like getting a Grammy to me.

  8. I agree that a free meal is awesome, probably better than getting paid. Maxwell’s actually had good food to boot.

    To be clear, my attempt here was not really to bitch about not making much money from shows but to see if anyone else has experienced the extremely slow – and possibly diminishing – fees for playing out. I was hoping some members of slightly younger bands whose peak “earning” years may have been in the ’90s would have stepped forward to share what they were making and how that changed over time. My one bitch at the end was over the fact that bands don’t get guarantees as often as they used to, at least the bands we’ve been on bills with the last 10 years. If the doorman is guaranteed a flat fee from the money collected at the door for the bands, why shouldn’t the bands be guaranteed a flat fee for their efforts, even if it’s a $50 guarantee and anything above that is icing on the cake. The itemized printout showing where the money went is great, in some ways, but painful in others.

  9. BigSteve

    This isn’t about local rockonomy, but it may be an interesting sidelight to this discussion:


    It’s a very long presentation by David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker) about the discouraging economics of rock.

  10. We got a house gig at a Charlotte hotel and played six nights a week and practiced at night after the gig for $40/week each. Plus a room. We did it for 3 1/2 months. We survived on happy hour or’derves and girlfriends. But we got tight!

    It got much better over the years but nowadays small gigs with small productions are the norm. 15-20 years ago most local bands had a lightman, these days not so much.

  11. Now that’s a good rockonomy story, gregg! Thank you.

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