The 4 Hidden Downsides of Life in a Rock Band
Yeah, so, I play in a band. You've never heard of us; I won't bore you with the details. Just imagine the band from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, except four members instead of three, and none as pretty as Michael Cera. Conventional wisdom goes that only 1 percent of all musicians in the music industry do well enough to actually make a living off of it, and only 1 percent of that 1 percent end up getting rich. That places us comfortably in the 999th percentile. Or something like that. Math is stupid.
Anyone can guess what the fun part of being in a band entails. The pain-in-the-ass part, on the other hand, is more unknown. In particular, four specific things you should know if you've ever thought about doing it yourself.
Everyone Will Think of You as a Child
The world grew up around you, and everyone in it now has full-time jobs, and withering mortgages, and car payments, and lingering student loan debts, and living, breathing kids who cost money to make sure they continue doing both of those things. To most of those people, the idea of diddling around with a drum kit looks like some Peter Pan whimsy in comparison.
Today's schedule: nap, diaper change, bang out St. Anger fills, diaper change, cry, nap.
If anything, telling someone you play in a band affects an implicitly negative connotation. Once you pass a certain age range (24 ... 25 ... 26), the whole idea gets dismissed as some obvious compensation for other social obligations you must be currently failing to uphold, like marriage, or parenthood, or wearing pants. Since you have time to practice and play music, you must not being doing anything else too important with your life, right?
Because of that, if you join a band thinking women will funnel toward you like geese following the warm season, you're sorely, sadly, laughably mistaken. But that's the cliche, right? It's an axiom that transcends culture. A purely human phenomenon where one simply causes the other. Guitar = Sex. Not mathematically proven, but evidenced throughout history by otherwise ugly assholes like Gene Simmons collecting over 4,000 scalps for his mantelpiece. And he plays bass. It's not even a real guitar.
Nice tongue. Overcompensating much?
So you're finally in a band, and a month goes by. Then a year. Played a few gigs here and there, which was novel and, I don't know, kind of exhilarating. But by now you're probably asking yourself, "Well, where the fuck is my Penny Lane?" After all, you're now almost famous yourself. Assuming you're single, you've probably by now introduced your newfound musical prowess to every social circle you can think of to leave no potential vagina unturned, repeating a variation of the same gambit over and over:
"Did I mention I'm in a band? You should come see us play." Cue the laws of nature.
We live in a lawless society.
And that's when it hits you. Something you should've already known. It's not about the music. It's about the money. Or, more specifically, the security that money promises. Security that playing in half-empty dive bars and local lounges doesn't project. Without it, you are still viewed as just a teenager dicking around with false hopes of fame and fortune, regardless of your actual age or ambitions. The guitar is ultimately meaningless. It's a totem that supposes the actual attraction: power. Penny Lane exists only in a special realm populated by famous people with money. She says it herself: "Famous people are just more interesting." Simmons is Derek Jeter is JFK is Hugh Hefner is Fidel Castro.
As it stands, there's a whole ocean of luck, talent, circumstance, and hard labor separating you and them. Maybe if you keep your head down and keep playing, you'll get there someday and laugh about that time you whined that you couldn't get laid. But that day ain't today. Today you got other things on your mind, like finances, because ...
It Costs You More Money Than It Makes You
There are four main revenue streams through which your low-level band can turn a profit:
The sales paradigm of the music industry has changed so dramatically over the last two decades that those first three sound archaic to a modern audience, like worshiping the sun or drilling holes in a person's skull to release the headache demons. Today you'd assume it's all Spotify and Pandora. It costs you zilch to lease your music to these sites, and all you have to do is sit back and collect royalties on a per-stream metric. Fans get greater access, musicians get broader exposure. It's a win-win.
But there's a big problem with this exchange. The royalties are so low -- between $0.006 and $0.0084 per play in Spotify's case, and Pandora pays even less -- that only artists with an established mega-popularity and advertising base can conceivably provide enough traffic to make a meaningful profit. That's also assuming the majority of money earned from each song isn't then unfairly hoarded between one of its myriad other contracted interest holders, like the publisher, distributor, and record company. Oh, that's right. Did I mention that as a musician you have to be signed by a label first before you can even use Spotify or Pandora? That's the kind of irony that makes my butthole hurt.
"You can have your share when you pry it from my cold, dead hands ...
Just kidding; we are legion. We can never die."
So most bands still end up having to do the first three on that list, just like their vinyl forebearers. You can't perform live without equipment, right? Personally, I was in the hole $600 before I was ever even close to stepping onto a real stage. Most of that tag due to a combo amp that looked like it had been pulled from the briny deep after a thousand years collecting ocean moss unknown to modern science. And by "real stage," I mean a show whose house split was actually lucrative enough to cover the cost of gas money and maybe a free bar towel to dry your tears of shame.
"Get any sopped-up booze in your mouth and I'm putting the whole glass on your tab."
If you're serious about getting signed, the logical end point of these "real" shows is taking it on the road and going on tour. Which means you pay for transportation, food, and lodging just so you can play more shows. And there's no guarantee these shows will sell, either. At this point, you're not big enough to draw a crowd and sell tickets in places you haven't been. Not to mention all the days, weeks, and months you took off work, where you're making actual money, to go on tour in the first place.
Eventually, you'll find out that merchandise is the only facet of your band's existence that's autonomously lucrative. Shirts, beanies, hoodies, bracelets, chains, lanyards, stickers, scrims, buttons -- if we could get away with stamping our logo on some random dude's sandwich, we'd do it. The democratization of manufacturing (CafePress, Bands on a Budget, etc.) has made it way easier to buy for a nickel and sell for a dime.
Eventually, though, you'll need the most important thing of all: the album. For low-level bands, there's still genuine value in the physicality of the album. You can't hand someone an iTunes track after a show. I know -- I've tried, and it looks ridiculous.
Especially if you accidentally throw in some of your porn absolutely free.
You have the choice of either mixing it yourself or having it professionally done. If it's the latter, Jesus God get ready to hate yourself. First you pay per day to rent the studio. Then you pay per hour to rent the studio's engineer. Then you pay for more hours of separate mixing and mastering. Hours upon hours upon hours spaced out over the course of many months, because you can't all just take the same six days off in a row and record from dawn 'til dusk. If you make it through that, you still have expenses like printing, pressing, photography, and album art to cover. All told, you're looking at $5,000 easy. At that point, even ramen noodles become a luxury.
Water bill not included.
If you feel like complaining at this point, you won't get any sympathy, because ...
You Abide by the Same Lie Everybody Else Does
Imagine you're a medieval peasant living in a small town whose economy is totally dependent on a church. Not because the church owns the means of production but because they exact social and spiritual dominion over those who do. You might be the world's best poop collector, but you're not getting a job cleaning outhouses unless you curry the church's favor. All the townsfolk know this as the unspoken rule: making friends and establishing relationships wholly within the church network is your only real chance at achieving upward socioeconomic mobility. You may not like it, but you have no choice.
You'll never get the chance to even see the crapper that your dream job is going down.
All the while, the church doesn't ever actually, physically, directly give anything back to you for your support. Not money. Not food on the table. Not clothes on your back. Oh, and also there are no priests at this church. Or deacons. Or nuns. No facilitators of any kind. No authority or hierarchy whatsoever. There's not even a building for it. It's completely invisible and, inversely, totally reliant on the people working under its pretense to maintain its presence.
Skip back to present day. This church, more or less, is "The Scene." The Scene is the local live-music subculture continually inhabiting your area. The Scene can be a million different things at once. It can be up. It can be down. It can be happy. It can be quiet. It can be hip-hop or country or Japan, where anything is anything. It's totally abstract but spoken of as if it's a living, breathing organism with a mind of its own and a sanctity that must be nurtured and respected at all times. Do not taunt The Scene, for it is all-knowing and its wrath is merciless.
Its hands are in the air, and you better fucking care.
Inside The Scene, club owners, promoters, and other local bands are the relationships you try to cultivate for your band's own goals of eventually eating more than just day-old corn dogs from the gas station. Once you do your part to appease The Scene, you become completely beholden to its esoteric manifestations. Theoretically, the bigger The Scene, the more everybody benefits. So it's inevitable that sacrifices are suggested in its name.
I cite one instance in particular in my city, where two metal bands drew outrage from another band of their ilk and the local fan circuit by having the gall to schedule their own shows at two different venues on the same night. The criticism here being that they weakened The Scene by splitting the potential revenue and fandom. As if one of them greedily shirked the obligation to cancel their own show -- for which they had already sacrificed their own money and valuable time -- because there was another show happening concurrently.
"Come on; they're better anyway."
It's moments like these that pull back the curtain on the great and powerful Scene and reveal a whole layer of hypocrisy. Or "The Lie," if you will. The Lie insists that good music is everyone's ultimate goal. It's not. Behind every such proclamation is the greater, secret hope of money, fame, and lots more sex. It's human nature. The Lie insists that you're NOT actually in competition with the same bands you pretend to support unconditionally. You are. You're all fighting over the same amount of exposure you end up coordinating together. The Lie insists that you pay homage or else it will turn on you and cast you out of Valhalla.
It won't. Because it's not real. Just like that EDM bullshit. Oh, that reminds me ...
You Inevitably End Up Hating EDM
That's electronic dance music. Except it's not really referred to as "electronic dance music." It's always E-D-M. Always acronymized. Past convenience, that alone should tell you a lot.
If EDM had a face, it would invariably look like some kind of bro-hipster millennial crossbreed that's just begging you to punch it. It's that synth-droning you heard last time your friends dragged you into one of those clubs that was an abandoned warehouse a decade ago. It's everywhere the cool kids are. The cool kids in this case being that same bro-hipster millennial anathema begging you to put one in their suckhole.
EDM is the incarnation of the 1 percent's version of a youth culture. They're the only ones who can afford to go to those asinine festivals and VIP club raves where EDM thrives. They listen to music that says nothing because they have nothing to say. Literally nothing to say, because they're all too busy staring at a screen synced to Deadmau5's dick.
I knew Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse was a friend of mine. You, sir, are no Mickey Mouse.
The proliferation of social media and the diversification of computerized self-publishing platforms allowed the kind of EDM we all think of to surge in popularity in the last decade or so as the ultimate do-it-yourself genre. Which is to say, it allowed anyone with a computer the chance to be a god, so long as they understood how to sidechain a compressor and stream a soundboard with a giant BASS button on it:
To clarify: it ain't easy being anti-EDM. It makes you sound old. And part of you can't help but wonder whether the hate is because of the music itself or the success of the music. You might hate Deadmau5, but can you really, honestly say that you wouldn't trade places with him right now? I know I can't. And it's not like the arguments against EDM can't be applied to other genres too:
"It takes no talent!" Yeah, and the genius of Sid Vicious is just misunderstood, right?
"It all sounds the same!" Listen to this. Now listen to this. One of those is Killswitch Engage. The other is Devil You Know. Blindfolded, would you have known these two songs are from two different bands if nobody told you?
"You need drugs to enjoy it!" Grow up, Count Chocula. Everything is better on ecstasy.
Especially Count Chocula.
But alas, you will hate it. You'll hate it because it's the antithesis of what you claim to represent. It's all beats and files and syncs, bang, bang, bang. Eeh-eeh-eeh-eeh. Fucking digits, kick, kick, kick, all very acidic above-the-shoulders mustard shit. A strobe wrapped in a drop hit. A thumping, faceless, bro-step ethos that's stealing the demographic that decides what's cool and what's not. What makes money and what doesn't. And, again, the introspection that maybe what you really hate is the possibility that what you do is a dying art form, and what Deadmau5 does is simply the appropriate evolution of music following the overall digitization of society in lockstep. A future that's now, except when you hold that guitar, you might be lost in time.
"Are you ready to get off my lawwwwnnn?!"
So, why be in a band, exactly? Because it's there the same way Everest is. The same way Helen of Troy is waiting for you at the altar, but first you have to get your ass out of bed and hazard all sanity. You die in the end the same way you die in life, but the highs you had were sonic booms. A band is there because you want to rock instead of throw a punch to know everything there is to know about yourself. And it will be there to tell you.
For more from on rocking out, check out The 7 Most Impossible Rock Stars to Deal With. And then check out 23 Insane True Stories Behind Famous Musician Stage Names.
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