Last week I opened a funny looking email from CD Baby, a music distributor for DIY musicians. “CD Baby Has Sent You a Payment,” the subtitle read. It took me longer than it should have to realize that this was a payment—a royalty check—for a band I was in nearly five years ago. CD Baby, you see, helps place your music on Pandora, iTunes, iHeartRadio, etc. I had forgotten all about it, to be honest. Staring at my computer screen, I realized that there very well could be people out there listening to my music. You hear stories. What if I was big in Korea and didn’t know it?
In my old band, the Function, I was the singer, songwriter and foremost expert of angst-ridden emo rock. The band lasted under a year, though in that time we churned out a studio EP and a “rarities” EP. I was in college, burning scholarship money on a reissued Fender Blues Deluxe 40-watt 1×12 amp and leftover federal grant money on a Fender Telecaster Deluxe guitar, the reproduction of the ’72 model with walnut wood and double humbuckers.
Then came the out-of-pocket expenses. Studio time ($600). Printing ($300). Press kits ($50). Posters ($30). Gas to gigs, and so on. Like any startup we believed in our product, and we were fast and loose with our wallets because of it.
So here I was five years later—no longer a practicing musician but a practicing music journalist—opening an email that’s going to detail how much money all this effort earned me.
$8.05, split four ways.
“Large bills, please,” said my former bassist, Keith, when I told him.
“And I just did my taxes,” said Kendall, my former lead guitarist.
There’s no getting around it—launching a career in music is probably the worst financial decision one can make. Especially in today’s industry. It’s like building a home on quicksand: the frame solid, but the house sinking. Most bands will never make it out of the red, finishing their careers in financial debt and cursing the opportunity costs they ignored along the way.
So why do they do it?
Why do they spend the most youthful years of their lives stuck in crowded vans, driving endless hours, burping up the essence of gas station hot dogs, parking and unpacking and loading and testing levels and playing 30 minutes to an indifferent crowd, before loading back up and doing it all over again?
Split four ways.
Five years later.
Two nights ago I was on a plane, coming home from vacation. A familiar-looking man took the center seat. We looked at each other, and we both smiled. I sensed that I was familiar to him as well. “We’ve met before,” I said, reaching over to shake his hand. “Kevin.”
“Patrick,” he said.
“Remind me, how do we know each other?”
“You used to work at that natural foods store downtown, right?”
“That’s it!” I replied. “You used to come in the produce section.”
“Yeah,” he said, “You’re a musician too, right? I still have your album.”
Now, I’m not telling you this story to toot my own horn. I live in a small town, and the album in question isn’t exactly Kid A. It’s not like the guy had listened to it recently, or anything. The point, however, is that my music, while short lived, made an impact on someone else. Suddenly the hours spent practicing, the long drives, the indifferent crowd—was all worth it. In this light, then, the $2000 spent making $8 was no longer a poor financial decision, but an investment in my community.
Art imprints society.
And music is permanent.
Even the little local bands scraping together just enough money to record an EP can impact their communities.
This is why we make music. This is why we talk about music. It’s important.
Behind the Setlist is entering its second month of existence. The month of April, the month of Kurt Cobain’s death. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished here on our humble publication—covering local, DIY, medium and major acts, profiling industry players, and offering commentary and perspectives you cannot find anywhere else. As publications go, however, we cannot afford to look back too long and must continue forward.
In April, Grant Mickelson, the hired gun known for playing guitar on Taylor Swift’s first four tours, is back with part two of his interview. Sims talks to Jonathan Bautts about the process of collaborative hip-hop and the nature of solo albums. Aaron Sprinkle discusses his prolific producing credits with Tooth & Nail Records that defined a generation of indie music consumers.
Much more is coming. Stay tuned. We have a newsletter, by the way, so do like the cool kids and opt in.
Take it from me. You never know what you’ll find in an email.