Every kid who has picked up an instrument has always had this dream: to be a real rock star. From jamming in the garage to playing in small clubs in the underground scene to getting discovered by a major label and eventually trashing big shows and cashing in on sold out concerts. The life of a rockstar is always pictured as owning fancy cars and big mansions ala MTV Cribs. But in reality, for the majority of gigging musicians, the line stops at playing in small clubs. As much as many musicians would really like to push through with living a life of music, after a certain point, adulting kicks in. Working in a job, getting married, and having kids don’t seem to sit well with late-night gigs, collecting gear, and hours of rehearsal time. At least not when there’s no monetary gain. The reality is that keeping up with the lifestyle of a gigging musician is a privilege left for those who can shell out their own cash to continue such a pursuit. It’s really more expensive to maintain the lifestyle than what it earns if it even earns any. So for most musicians who don’t have the luxury of disposable income to pursue mere passion, there eventually comes a time to throw in the towel and call it quits.
It’s a reality that any adult with financial responsibilities has to face. And it can be frustrating to see other artists in the mainstream who don’t have half the skill or artistry but are garnering huge support from major labels and are the ones living the dream of a rockstar life.
There’s so much activity in the underground music scene and it’s filled with really great independent musicians. Gigs are everywhere, and great songs are always out on streaming apps. But with all these going on, still, most, if not all these musicians can’t even buy a decent instrument from proceeds out of their music. Gigs usually don’t pay, and if they do, it wouldn’t even be enough to cover for gas when you split it among a band of 5. So why are so many gigging musicians not making money?
Here are 5 realities to look into:
As much as the underground music scene is filled with incredible artists producing music that’s always pushing the boundaries of the artistic norm, the vast majority of listeners are simply not open for these types of artistic expressions. These artistic expressions usually alienate the common listener which is why many underground musicians appeal only to certain niches. Sure a lot of effort is put into making songs that would require a certain degree of skill to play such as irregular time signatures and high-level callisthenics, or simply melodies that are non-typical. But the vast majority of listeners will always prefer familiar chord progressions, steady time signatures, and very predictable melodies. Although every now and then some artists can get away with a game-changing sound which sets a new norm in musical tastes, those are very rare occasions.
IT ALWAYS BOILS DOWN TO BUSINESS
In as much as there’s clamour about how much of the independent music scene is not getting support from those big corporate backers and how the industries’ bigwigs prefer profitability over real art, this is already a reality that should be accepted. It takes money to promote, and investing in artists can be expensive. It is just but natural and logical for someone spending so much to expect a return on investment.
This goes back to the issue of artistic marketability. Labels usually get the flack for not supporting underground artists, but in reality, the real issue has more to do with the market rather than the labels. Labels won’t sell something that the market won’t buy, and it’s just logical. Just setting up a show is already expensive with the cost of the venue, sound equipment, promotional activities, etc. Promotions can always get some mileage for artists, but it would still be artistic marketability that makes people buy tickets for the shows.
EVENT ORGANIZERS ARE UNABLE TO GIVE GATE SHARE
Anyone who has been active in the underground music scene knows that there are gigs everywhere. Gig organizers, or prods, hold a lot of events and charge tickets to guests. But artists getting proceeds from gigs remains a rare occasion. One of the reasons why artists rarely get a cut is that prods don’t always meet the venue’s bar guarantee. The bar guarantee is the sales quota each venue, usually a bar, sets that the prods have to meet for every event. In cases when the total sales fall below the bar’s requirements, the prod will have to fill in that gap. This will consume any ticket sales, and if that’s still not enough, the prod will have no choice but shell out from their own pockets, leaving nothing for the prod, all the more nothing for the artists.
One of the reasons why prods don’t always meet the bar guarantee is that gig-goers just don’t buy enough from the venue. Some gig-goers just choose to eat and drink elsewhere before going to the event. Either because it’s cheaper somewhere else, or they just don’t like the food served at the gig venue. The ideal setting where guests come to watch artists and also want to eat at the same venue is not usually the case. So even if some events look jam-packed with people, it’s not always in tangent with good bar sales.
THERE ARE TOO MANY ARTISTS ON A GIVEN TIME SLOT
Just like how many gigs there are in one night, some prods also have too many artists in one gig. For a typical gig that starts 8 PM and ends at 1 PM, 4 to 6 bands should just be enough to give each band a good set time and also for the audience to digest, appreciate, and have a good recall of each performer. But some prods push the numbers further by having around 15 or so bands in a 6-hour event. While this gives more artists a chance to be heard, this setup is just not conducive for good audience-artist recall. At the end of the event, it’s easy to forget who played what and who’s who. The extended hours needed to accommodate that many artists is also not a delightful idea for those who have work the following morning.
Another thing is that almost a majority of the audience in these band-packed nights are just the same people who will be playing. Band members outnumber total ticket-buying guests so ticket sales won’t be enough to generate significant gate share.
EVENT ORGANIZERS JUST DON’T WANT TO GIVE GATE SHARE
This is a bit controversial as this is one that can be controlled the most. Some prods hold events for their own personal gain. Sure they keep the music scene alive by making events here and there. But some are really just doing it to make a living at the expense of the artists. We all know that artists just really want to play, hence the “play for exposure” is being exploited. These prods usually just pay certain VIP artists per event, while the rest of the bands who aren’t known enough are paid with the benefit of just getting an audience.
The underground music community is definitely alive and well. It’s filled with brimming talent and overflowing with artistry. But the conditions set by either natural or human factors certainly do put a fence between financial gains and most musicians. The question of playing for free or for fee will always remain a dilemma for many, especially for the veterans in the scene who have already come to struggle with financial responsibilities. It’s simply a matter of finding whether a life of music is something worth the expense, or just a phase in life that can be graduated from.