Are Metal Musicians Doomed to a Life of Poverty?

Street Musician

This is a subject I meant to address a few months back when Thy Art Is Murder vocalist, CJ McMahon, quit the band due to claims of horrific financial living conditions that he could no longer accept. He claimed to only have made “$16k-$18k each over 6-7 years”. It was not made clear if that is in US dollars or Australian dollars, or if he meant $16,000-$18,000 per year or the total amount earned over a 6-7 year period. It’s worded in a way to insinuate that he was only making $2,200-$2,500 per year, which seems a bit far-fetched, but I’ll push forward with the notion that whether he made $18,000 per year or $2,200, either amount was insufficient for leading an independent adult lifestyle.

The first thing that baffled me by the online reaction to this story was the surprise from non-musicians that extreme metal bands might not make a lot of money. When I started with God Forbid in the late ‘90s, I didn’t know you could even make a living doing extreme music. In that time, an assumption has grown that metal musicians should or deserve to make a living solely from making albums and touring. I don’t know exactly where that assumption came from, but it just strikes me as an odd, if not overly idealistic stance.

I am glad that I didn’t write a reaction piece right away, because there has been some additional input, with regard to this story, that is worth commenting on and adds to the broader narrative. There was a follow-up piece written by Outerloop Manager (Dying Fetus, Veil of Maya), Derek Brewer, which details how a band could adequately budget a tour so that the band could actually come home with money that is something equivalent to a middle class income. In the budget laid out by Brewer, each band member comes home from a month-long tour with around $6,000. Sounds pretty good, huh?

I really appreciate the spirit of the article because it’s encouraging, fairly detailed, and runs counter to CJ McMahon’s “woe is me” story. Unfortunately, there are some glaring holes that need to be addressed. Many people who aren’t in the record industry will take an article like this as gospel, because it comes from a reputable source. I have to point out some of these issues.

The article’s budget is based on the size of a band that draws 500 people per show, makes $2,000 per show as a guarantee, and grosses $750 per show in merchandise sales. Coincidentally, that is right around the size God Forbid was at our peak. We never got paid $2,000 per show on a tour or drew 500 people per night, but we got pretty close. Here are some big points the article does not address:

  • Most bands will never get anywhere near as successful as the numbers in the business model. The tone of the article suggests this level (which is considered mid-level amongst all professional, working bands) is either fairly easy to attain or somehow just the next step in the ladder. This “mid-level” is an impressive success story, and puts you in an elite club. I will use my non-scientific figure of 1% to surmise that only about 1% of amateur bands will ever get to the point of profitability. Only about 1% of the bands that become profitable to the point of being professional ever get to the point of making a decent, middle-class living just from music. Only 1% (if that) of those bands will ever make it to U2, Metallica, and Pearl Jam status. It’s analogous to a sports funnel. The best high school players get to play in college. The best college players go to the pros. Staying in the pros for a career, becoming a star is even more rare. Despite my made-up percentages, the odds that you will become an artist that makes $2,000 per night and draws 500 people is slim to none.
  • The budget also doesn’t account for certain things like international touring. One of the biggest problems with bands from Australia like Thy Art Is Murder is they have additional flight fees, payment for working visas, and extra costs like renting gear because they can’t bring all of their own equipment on the flight. A UK manager friend of mine told me it costs $3,000-$5,000 for all of the visa fees to bring a British band to the US. Depending where you are going and how many people you have, flights can be $2,000-$10,000. If you are starting every tour in a $10,000-$15,000 hole, that can make profitability at a mid-level next to impossible.
  • The assumption that a band that makes $2,000 per night and draws 500 people will want to consistently want to tour in a van is a bit laughable. There are successful bands that do van tours all the time like Everytime I Die or Converge, but this cannot be assumed. Usually, the years and effort it takes to build up to a level where you can successfully headline and make money also takes a real physical and mental toll on you. Those years spent in that van, sleeping on floors, eating Taco Bell, are often endured with the hope that you will eventually graduate out of that level. When you’ve been grinding for that long, believe me that many bands will want to try to share a tour bus, or try some more comfortable options like an RV or Bandwagon. This is especially true for bands that didn’t come up in gritty hardcore and punk scenes with expectations of “roughing it”. The fiscally responsible thing to do is go in a van, but it doesn’t always happen.
  • The music business is not static, and the numbers presented will fluctuate like the stock market. This formula works in a vacuum, but does not account for that fact that you may hit this peak, or even go past it, but there is also a strong possibility that your guarantee and merch sales will decrease based on the tour you are on, how well your last album sold, and just the up and down nature of the music business. You may make $2,000 on your headline tour, but to get a support slot on a bigger tour, you often have to take a huge pay cut. The merch numbers might go up, but they could also go down depending on the tour. When God Forbid was at it’s peak, we would make $1,700 on some tours, and $750 on others. Maybe that was our fault for taking less money, but it happens. If you have consistently high paying guarantees and merch sales across many global territories, you are in an exclusive subset of successful acts.
  • What do you do when you aren’t on tour, and how often should you be on the road? Let’s say you get to this level, and have $6,000 in your pocket at the end of the tour. How often are you expected to tour to maintain a decent lifestyle? 3 months out of the year? 6 months? 9 months? One thing that is rarely talked about is that being a mid-level band means becoming a slave to the road. You HAVE to go out for 8 months a year or you can’t keep the lights on. Being on the road constantly can have some serious negative effects to your physical and mental health, especially when you do it too often.

My goal is not to destroy Brewer’s article, but just to add some caveats that tell a more realistic and nuanced version of the truth. My version of the truth is not meant to be a Debbie Downer or to optimistically sugar coat things. I would like to communicate as realistic a depiction of making it in heavy music as is possible.

The answer is that for the overwhelming majority of those attempting to make a living only from being in an extreme band, you will NOT make a lot of money. If you can get to the level of drawing 1,000 plus people per night, and get your guarantees in the $3,000-$5,000 range and above, and those merchandise numbers are closer to $5,000 per night, then you can actually make a very nice living from touring. The odds your band will ever get to that level are minuscule, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. When it comes to extreme music, there are only a handful of bands at this level: Behemoth, Hatebreed, Amon Amarth, Dimmu Borgir, Cannibal Corpse, Suicide Silence, etc. (By no means do I assert to know exactly what these bands make per show, but these are some of the top dogs).

I recently came across a Metalsucks Podcast interview with Steve “Stevic’ MacKay, guitarist of Twelve Foot Ninja. This particular talk was jarring in that Stevic was extremely candid in expressing his reservations for continuing to pursue a full-time career in Twelve Foot Ninja. By all accounts, they are a fairly new, but successful band. He went on to explain how they often come home from their tours in debt, let alone making money. If it wasn’t for he and other band member’s other jobs at home, they wouldn’t be able to supplement their band. This lack of financial reward to show for all of their hard work has created a constant state of anxiety and stress around the prospect of making the band a priority as an adult who wants to live a respectable life. I can wholeheartedly identify with this anxiety, as these factors weighed into my decisions surrounding leaving God Forbid in 2013.

One of his major points was that we, as performing musicians, are expected by the industry and fans alike to commit our lives to music, and the energy and connection of a live show should be payment enough. You often hear musicians say, “that one hour on stage makes the other shitty, boring 23 hours worth it”. Stevic plainly says that experience is not enough reward. I respect him immensely for admitting that, but his only problem is that…he is normal. He wants stability, a home, to be healthy, meaningful relationships, and to be paid fairly for his work, talent, and sacrifice. He actually does deserve it. He is in a great band that happens to be very commercially viable. Twelve Foot Ninja could still break to a much bigger and more profitable level with a great album, a great song, patience, and a little luck. They also aren’t really an extreme band.

But you have to be slightly fucked up to be wired for the rock n roll lifestyle. It has to be everything to you. You have to be obsessed. Compelled. I was for a long time, and I still love it, but not at ANY cost. I realized that life has much more to offer than sex, drugs, and rock n roll…even if that stuff is pretty amazing.

Are you destined to be poor playing metal? You are if you don’t get your head out of your ass. If you only make $2,500 per year for several years in a row doing music as a full-time job, and you keep doing it without any forward momentum or progress, that is your fault for doing the same thing over and over and expecting difference results. Insanity defined.

It may be that these are unique examples because Thy Art Is Murder and Twelve Foot Ninja are both Australian, thus have the biggest financial hurdle for international touring. If they relocated to Europe or the US, they could have an easier path, but that is asking a lot. I know people in top-level bands that make a great living, so it can be done, but expecting that with out the numbers adding up is not sensible. Don’t force your band to be full-time until you are ready to be full-time. A band like Converge is a great example, because they’ve never been full-time, but are successful in their measure of how Converge fits into their daily lives. So many of the people and bands I grew up with in the hardcore scene are personally successful because almost no one had delusions of grandeur. They didn’t think they would get a Bentley from the 7” that Revelation Records just released.

Do it for the right reasons. Stop blaming the industry and people downloading records. Do your math – know what’s coming in, and what’s going out. And like I said, get your head out of your ass.

6 Replies to “Are Metal Musicians Doomed to a Life of Poverty?”

  1. Great article, though its pretty bad that I read it thinking to myself I’m really glad I took that reliable shitty day job. Ne Obliviscaris have set up a patreon model which guarantees an annual income, but even as a success, its still premised on unreasonable financial sacrifice,.

  2. Excellent read. I enjoy reading all of your articles because they make sense and you NEVER sugar coat anything. For anyone to even assume you’d do that, is like calling you Willie Wonka, and that’s plain stupid.

    Good job, Doc!

  3. I grew up listening to 80s rock and rock will always be my #1 fave music genre. You hit on so many points that it’s so deep, I need time to digest it all. While lately my favorite band isn’t rock or metal, I think everyone out there in the world needs to take a look at this because it puts so much into perspective. I saw this from my FB friend Jazmin.

    Great article Doc.

  4. Another great read. I always thought GF was one of the best and most talented bands around and one that should have move up to that higher level. It was sad that you disbanded after what I feel was your best record, but I definitely understand. This sheds light on a lot things. Glad you’re still rockin’ but on your terms.

    Tut

  5. Cool write up. Raising money will continue to be a bitch I’m sure. The lack of money in the low-mid end of the industry has had knock on effects that will stunt many acts before they even get the chance to develop themselves. Less venues/promoters, less opportunities for acts considered alternative or risky.
    My band ‘Zedi Forder’ has recently started a patron campaign on the sites ‘patreon and ‘bandcamp. I would love to see patronage light up for as many bands as possible.

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