Kitten Forever had just finished playing a show when a supportive record store owner offered what he thought was the DIY Holy Grail: gas money.
It's a nice gesture, but Kitten Forever's Corrie Harrigan says that mindset doesn't adjust for inflation. Or treat bands like legitimate artists.
"Paying bands for gas is everyone's mentality when it comes to paying the DIY touring band — ‘Man, I just want to get you gas to get to the next city,'" she says. "You're not at all interested in paying me for the art I'm providing."
Despite a vinyl resurgence and the rise of music-streaming services, total U.S. music sales have plummeted from around $12 billion in 2006 to around $7 billion in 2015, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Whether you're in a band, working on a solo project, or running a record label, entering the music business has never seemed so financially daunting.
So how do bands earn income beyond "gas money"? We asked Twin Cities music-makers at different stages of their careers for some insight.
Harrigan, Laura Larson, and Liz Elton formed Kitten Forever in 2006. Modeling their band after their favorite punk three-pieces — Sleater-Kinney, Nirvana, Yeah Yeah Yeahs — the trio steadily honed their ferocious, cheer-squad punk through consistent, self-booked touring.
For their latest record, March's 7 Hearts, the band generated buzz in Entertainment Weekly and Bust, and even went on tour opening for Babes in Toyland. It's easily been their biggest year yet.
So it's easy to understand why, after a fan recognized Larson at the Seward Cafe, they were incredulous to find out that all three Kittens have day jobs.
"[The fan] said to her, 'I can't believe you have a job!' I think about that all the time," Harrigan remembers. "Say all of my wildest dreams came true as a musician. What do I feel is the highest point that I could feasibly reach? When I think about that, I think about Tacocat."
Kitten Forever met the members of Tacocat, a Seattle-based feminist rock band, in 2007. Since then, both bands have graduated beyond the house-show circuit.
Tacocat blew up in April with new album Lost Time and a subsequent headlining tour. The band has 24,000 Facebook fans compared to Kitten Forever's 3,000, but that doesn't mean they're much closer to making it as full-time musicians.
"There's this weird gap in bands now, where you hit the level of a band like Tacocat, Screaming Females, Waxahatchee, and then there's the steps that lead up to that, and then there's a giant fucking step that's just empty between that and being Miley Cyrus," Harrigan says. "Where are the bands in the middle of that?"
Even if you’re not at that Miley Cyrus level, the industry moves fast. Last fall, Kitten Forever invited their friend, Royal Brat’s Clara Salyer, along as a roadie for a festival date. A few weeks before heading out, Salyer was asked to join Babes in Toyland.
Kitten Forever scrapped the festival appearance. Instead, they opted to open a reunion show in North Carolina for seminal ‘90s riot-gothers Jack Off Jill. After that gig, Babes and Jill each asked Kitten Forever to open on their respective — and unfortunately coinciding — tours.
The trio decided to join Babes, knowing their friend Salyer would be around and that the Babes trek would earn them more money. The October tour marked a first for Kitten Forever: For once, they had a $150-$250 guaranteed income average for every show.
Kitten Forever hit the road again this past spring in support of 7 Hearts. After opening for Babes, however, the DIY touring grind proved especially tough.
“It’s a dramatic difference between being on your own tour and being on a big tour like that,” Harrigan reports. “You get treated so differently — we’re guests of this respected band that everyone is excited about. In the other context, it’s so much about having to be overly polite to prove yourself to strangers all the time. And not having any idea how much you’re going to get paid.”
So when you’ve been around 10 years and you still don’t know how much you’ll get paid on tour, "gas money" is a small consolation prize. But Kitten Forever still finds touring to be worthwhile.
“At the end of the day, I don’t give a fuck what we get paid. I just went on a two-and-a-half-week vacation,” Harrigan says. “Does Katie [Crutchfield] from Waxahatchee have a job? I think she does. And if she does, and the girls in Tacocat do, then we will all have jobs, forever.”
Plus, stopping now doesn’t make much sense.
“I’ve been putting off grad school for years basically because of Kitten Forever,” Harrigan says. “You can go to grad school any time, but you take two years off your band, your band is over.”
Business Isn't Booming
Sitting on a bright blue chair in his backyard, Tom Loftus gazes out over his one-hole mini-golf course while he breaks down the cost of producing vinyl records. He's been running Modern Radio Record Label since 1999, but despite the local indie label’s longevity, the record business has never been profitable.
"The overwhelming majority of people who put out records do it at break-even or loss, and it's been like that for a long time," Loftus says. "The people that are putting out records are doing it because they love it. It's a terrible business idea."
Modern Radio releases vinyl editions of most of its records, but it's a gamble for the label each time it choose to press a batch. Best-case scenario? The label nets around $7 per LP if they sell directly to the consumer.
Here’s how the math breaks down for Modern Radio vinyl, according to Loftus:
For direct, label-to-consumer record sales:
- Issue amount: 200-500 records
- Price to press vinyl, per record: $8-$10
- Retail price per record on Modern Radio’s site: $15
- Modern Radio’s profit: Around $3-$7
So let’s break down that label-to-band model:
- Price to press vinyl, per record: $8
- Price to sell an artist’s record back to them: $8-$9
- Modern Radio’s profit: $0-$1
- Price to press vinyl, per record: $8
- Price to sell a record to a store: $10
- Store’s retail price per record: $15
- Modern Radio’s profit: $2
But there are other channels, right? What about distributors? Working with distributors can put your record in more stores, but the profit margins are rail-thin. Here's how it shakes out:
- Price to press vinyl, per record: $8
- Price to a sell record to a distributor: $10
- Price per record distributor sells to record store: $11
- Store’s retail price per record: $16-$20
- Modern Radio’s profit: Around $2
He says music-streaming outlets like Spotify, Apple Music, and Google Play aren't offering salvation, either. With their royalty-based payment methods, streaming services pay artists fractions of a penny per play. And they're quickly becoming the dominant way people consume music.
"We see as much on one sale of an album on iTunes as we see in a thousand spins on any streaming service," Loftus says. "It's a super shitty deal for artists, and the money just doesn’t trickle down. You're lucky if you get $13 a month [for your entire catalog]."
Everything Is Alright
Even over the phone, Justin Pierre can't contain his gratitude. Calling from a tour stop in Omaha, the everydude Motion City Soundtrack frontman realizes his band's success story is rare.
"I've won the lottery," Pierre says as MCS wind down their 19-year career. "I have an awesome life, and I can afford it. I made it."
Though the Minneapolis pop-punk/emo band hit the music middle-class with their Mark Hoppus-produced 2005 album Commit This to Memory and its hit single "Everything is Alright," the early years weren't easy.
"Basically, we'd quit our jobs, go on tour, come back broke, get new jobs, work a while, go back on tour, come back broke," Pierre says. "We just did that for several years until we came back once with $1,000."
That $1,000 helped them record their debut album, 2002's I Am the Movie. Though a deal with big-time indie label Epitaph in 2003 eventually led to another deal with the major label Columbia in 2010, Motion City Soundtrack spent their career as a band in that middle spot, the elusive tier between Waxahatchee and Miley Cyrus.
So how did they succeed professionally in ways others can't now? Gigs and timing. MCS have toured the entire world, and they played the Warped Tour in 2005, the year mainstream emo-ish rock was at its peak.
"We're the working actor equivalent of a band," Pierre says. "We're able to do this for a living and not get other jobs. That's the dream."
With her new band Lunch Duchess, Twin Cities musician Katharine Seggerman has earned more money from selling cassettes than from Spotify royalties.
"We call it 'lunch money,'" Seggerman says with a smile. It's lunch money that's helping Seggerman recoup the cost of recording the debut Lunch Duchess EP, last month's My Mom Says I Have a Rich Inner Life. The self-released, four-track EP cost her $550 to record. In her mind, there's no real point to working with a label in today's indie music economy.
"A lot of these labels are so small that they're not making money," says Seggerman, who started making music with the band BOYF in 2013. "It’s not like the 'Good Old Days,’ where you get a record deal and that means you’re rich now. If you're not making Top 40, you're not making money."
To help offset the cost of producing music as Lunch Duchess, Seggerman moonlights as a pop music songwriter for commercials. Through other musician friends, she discovered music licensing companies like Black Label and In the Groove, boutique firms that offer catalogs for corporations to soundtrack ads.
"There are so few opportunities to make money in a stable way in music," Seggerman says, dismissing tired "sell out" arguments. "That's one thing that we somehow have figured out how to do: Corporations will pay money for quality music."
Seggerman’s family sometimes suggests she hire a manager, but they have a vague grasp on what's best for the careers of musicians in 2016. Turns out that's true of just about everyone, musicians included.
“[My family] a vision of music being more structured as a career path than it actually is,” Seggerman says. “I’m trying to explain to them, but I don’t even know how it works, either. And the musicians that I know who are older than me also don’t know what the best strategy is.”
What Do We Do?
In the robust Twin Cities music scene, a DIY attitude can't compensate for the fact that it's almost impossible to make money creating music.
While Seggerman, Loftus, and Harrigan continue searching for new ways to operate as independently as possible, Loftus suggests music fans can do more for artists than offering them "gas money."
"If you want nice things, you have to spend money on them," Loftus says. "Even if they list pay what you want, pay something. Something over a dollar. Pay $5 or $6. Money goes in someone's pocket, and you got something."