They’ve sold countless records, toured the world and appeared on the cover of just about every rock magazine you can think of. Meet Rock Sound’s top secret band insider…
What's it like trying to pay bills and make a normal living you spend your life writing music and touring the world? The Secret Rock Star has some things to get off their chest.
I don’t want to give you a sob story here, but being in a band is hard sometimes.
It really can be tough to survive a lot of the time, even for medium-sized bands. And it’s getting worse by the day. It’s tougher and tougher for bands to just be bands and increasingly - you’ll have seen this yourself a lot over the past couple of years - bands are trying to make ends meet in a lot of different ways. They drive and sell merch for other bands, they sell guitar strings, drum sticks, meet and greets, fan experiences… it all helps. People complain about that kind of thing sometimes, but nobody has to buy it.
If you’re going to do something away from your band, the trick is to find something you can do remotely from the road or in the small amount of time you’re home, like web or merch design.
Another big earner for bands is DJ sets. You get to go and play songs that you like, get a room dancing (or get heckled) and get paid more for doing three hours of work there than a full week in your band. That’s wild.
You have to be really resourceful, know a lot of people and put yourself out there. It’s not like showing up to an office, working for eight hours and then going home. You have to be a businessperson. For years I didn’t see that. I was just going out and having fun and not giving a fuck, then after a while you start to see that maybe you should be looking at this a little more seriously. A lot of people bring out merch lines. They have good ideas for it and it’s a total cash cow because they’re able to buy in T-shirts for, say, $7 and sell them for $25, so that’s $18 of profit per shirt. I guess that’s why a lot of people do it.
It’s kind of upsetting to think that something you do as a sideline earns more money than the thing you love - creating music and touring - but that’s just a glimpse at the amount of money that’s available for mid-sized touring bands. I remember speaking to a friend about it and he was telling me that somebody he knew put some super-limited merch on sale, sold all 400 items in seven days and made more in that single week than he would have done in three or four months in his band.
If that isn’t proof that something in this whole system is a little broken, I don’t know what is. But the problem here is… being in a band is amazing. I’ve known of bands who’ve done very well for themselves, but then become less popular. Instead of calling it a day, they’ve moved in with their parents, got summer or Christmas jobs, done anything that they can to stay in a band and keep creating the art that they love. The only thing you really need money for on tour is to buy new underwear, after all. We live on a bus, we don’t have any worldly possessions, we just need toothpaste, a toothbrush and that’s it.
The only thing that stops these bands sometimes is when members have children and realise they can live on a shoestring and tour for three quarters of the year, but a couple of hundred dollars a month isn’t enough to feed a family. If it gets to the point where having a child can be career-ruining for some people, something has gone wrong.
Sometimes I sit there and think, ‘In the ’80s we’d have been rich’. Your band can bringing 1,500 people a night to shows for two, three, four weeks, and a guitar tech can have a chance of being paid more than the band. They’ve brought nobody to the show. It blows my mind. I wish I was my own tech, because you can often earn more money being a tech than you can being in a band, which is insane.
I was at a show once, and somebody came up to me and asked if I was rich now. I said, ‘What?!’ and he said, ‘I heard every time your song gets played on radio, you get $500’. I said, ‘Our song’s been played five times today, so that’s $2,500 I would’ve made’. And he was like, ‘Oh! You are rich then?’ And I was like, ‘Bro, it is not $500. After our label and manager takes their cut, we get about 20 cents to share between the entire band.’”
Everyone has been that kid who thinks, ‘I can grow up and be in a band and be a superstar and make lots of money’. I think everybody who starts a band hopes for that. They think, ‘This will be my only job, I’ll make a lot of money and music will be my life’. Sadly, that isn’t the case.
Increasingly, bands are getting smarter and becoming businessmen. People like Bring Me The Horizon do amazing things with Horizon Supply and you see so many bands using Patreon and Kickstarter-style sites to help sustain a career rather than just handing over 15 or 20 per cent of everything they earn over to their management, who are often only interested in money.
You often have people telling you how massive your band is going to be and how much you’re going to love being a superstar, but some managers only see dollar signs.
Then when some bands do split up, they’re often just abandoned. I’ve seen good friends’ bands fail and their management just dump them. Then that band have to figure out how to live in the real world after five, 10, maybe even 15 years living outside of it. They’re lost, they have no idea what to do and according to their resume they’ve just been missing for the past however many years.
People think people in bands are so spoiled and having the time of their lives that they think they don’t need looking out for, but I just wonder what people are going to do when their bands fall flat. What is everyone going to do? It’s tough. I think managers and record labels should do more for bands, but they’re only willing to be there for the good times, they’re not willing to help out when it’s bad.
But ultimately, it’s proof that very few people do this for money. I make some money, but I don’t need the money because I tour in a bus with some of my best friends playing music to people who enjoy it (or hate it). The vast majority of bands do what they can to survive, do what they can to be happy and make music and bring joy into other people’s lives.
And that’s worth a hell of a lot more than a healthy bank account.