Shortly before the 2015 holiday season began, the lead vocalist of the popular deathcore band Thy Art is Murder called it quits and made a very personal statement online as to why he did so. The story went viral across all the various social media platforms.
What separated this statement from every other departing member statement we tend to see on a weekly basis is that CJ McMahon dropped the bombshell that he quit because there was no money to be made from being in a band. I quote, “to put the finances into perspective for you, I/we have earned between $16k-$18k each over 6-7 years.”
Depending on how you read that statement, (and I surely hope that I am reading this right), this boils down to about $3,000.00 per member per year. If you were to equate this to an hourly salary for full time job (40 hours per week for 52 weeks) that would come out to about $1.44 an hour, which surely gives the impression that if you are in a moderately successful international touring metal band with hundreds of thousands of fans, you stand to make less than a 12-year-old with a paper route.
Once that statement came out I imagined the crushed dreams of those same 12-year-old paperboys who were diligently saving up their minuscule earnings to buy some gear in hopes of becoming a “rockstar” when they get older. More so, I thought about the actual guys and gals who have been in bands for some time, worked hard at their craft, earned somewhat of a name and were eventually rewarded with a label deal to help further their career, all the meanwhile putting off college or other prospective job opportunities. I can only imagine them saying, “What the fuck am I doing with my life!” after reading McMahon’s statement.
This particular statement also brought about a lot of debate, at least on my Facebook feed, of the current status of the music industry (“the music business is dead!”) and how artists can’t make any money due to streaming or illegal downloads. Some were using this statement to proclaim that “fans should go to their local Best Buy and buy a CD to support their favorite artist,” This is all well and good and the sentiment is sincere, but I am here to say this:
THE MUSIC INDUSTRY HAS CHANGED AND STREAMING IS HERE TO STAY. Artists must take this into consideration and adapt, ESPECIALLY in the metal genre. Most of the consistent money that mid-level metal bands will make will come from touring and merchandise sales. Period. Metal bands will never be Adele or Bieber.
At this point you might ask who the fuck am I to be saying all of this, and that’s fine to ask. I have worked primarily in the metal/rock music industry for a good part of 10 years and currently manage clients that range from death metal to alternative. I manage bands that grace the covers of some of the most popular music magazines and headline festivals, and at the same time I have new bands that have recently signed to labels but have just started touring for the first time. I also have bands that are somewhere in between all of that, but all of them are continuously on the incline and have the potential to become the best at their game. I have a strong, working, first-hand knowledge of how the touring industry runs in metal and rock.
I have the luxury of seeing all types of touring budget scenarios, and while some can get pretty ugly, I can absolutely say that bands that are equivalent in size and popularity to Thy Art is Murder (based on album, merch and ticket sales) can definitely make a living on their music… more than the alleged $3,000 per year McMahon is quoting, for sure. I am going to demonstrate for you just how that happens based on a typical tour budget.
Before I begin I want to make it clear that I have never worked for Thy Art is Murder. I really don’t know how much they get paid, what they sell in merch or how they spend their money. I don’t really know them at all. So this isn’t a dig on them by any means. In fact I give them props for building their brand as far as they have (and they haven’t even reached their prime). I also give their former vocalist respect for coming out with a statement that I felt was very personal and detailed. He didn’t owe that to anyone. If he felt that he could make a better life for himself and his family by NOT touring on a full time basis, then more power to him and best of luck with everything he can accomplish in the future.
What follows is a basic synopsis of a touring budget.
This is an actual tour budget from 2015 I that I have personally overseen and put together. I feel it is a good representation of what is going on out there, but I want to give a few bullet points first before you dive in.
• Some numbers might fluctuate slightly at any given time (hotels, gas, etc.).
• These numbers are based on a typical guarantee of a touring band in the metal world that sells approximately 500 tickets at mid-size clubs. I also factored in a low-end conservative estimate of merch sales from each show, along with the typical rate that crew members would expect.
• I am running this budget with a 15-passenger van and trailer that is RENTED from a company. Because I don’t expect my clients to sleep on the floor of a van every night (that is their choice entirely if they want) I have included cheap hotels nightly into the budget as well.
• This is a 32 day tour; 30 of those days performing along with one-day driving to start and one day driving home.
Here we go…
$2,000.00 per night show guarantee (30 dates)= $60,000.00
$750.00 per night in gross merch sales (30 dates)= $22,500.00
TOTAL INCOME GROSS= $82,500.00
Estimated merch expense (cost of goods, venue fees, shipping )= -$9,000.00
Management commissions of guarantee (15% gross) = -$9,000.00
Agent commissions of guarantee (10% gross) = -$6,000.00
Management commissions of NET sales of merch= -$2,025.00
Total commissions: $26,025.00
Crew Expenses: (weekly salary per week for 4 weeks)
TM/FOH $1,000.00 per week = -$4000.00
Merch seller $650.00 per week= -$2600.00
Driver $600.00 per week = -$2400.00
Stage tech $450.00 per week= -$1800.00
Total crew cost: $10,800.00
Vehicle and Travel expenses:
Estimated cost for 32 days van rent w/ trailer= -$5200.00
Estimated cost of fuel for full US tour at 12,660 miles ($2.50 gallon/10MPG) = -$3150.00
Estimated cost of tolls/parking= -$500.00
Hotels (25 nights x $100.00 per night [double bed, cots, band brings air mattress]) = -$2500.00
Total vehicle/travel cost= $11,350.00
Small light rig/fog machine/strobe rental = -$2,000.00
Misc. costs (gear, taxis, uber, incidentals) = -$1,500.00
Total Production cost s= $3,500.00
Band/Crew Per Diems:
$10.00 per day for 5 members/4 crew/ $90.00 per day total for 32 days = -$2,880.00
Total per diem cost= $2,880.00
TOTAL ESTIMATED COST OF EXPENSES: $52,060.00
GROSS INCOME = $82,500.00
Subtract EXPENSES- $54,555.00
Remaining Profit = $27,945.00
Amount that each of the five band members receives: $5,589.00 for the month-long tour.
Now, this isn’t going to be enough money to buy your dream house in the Hollywood Hills BUT it is pretty comparable to a decent “9-5” job. Plus you have the perks of traveling the world, meeting fans, performing the art that you created each night for 45 minutes on stage and the profound social aspects that come with being a “rockstar.” Most bands on a new album cycle tour 6-9 months following that release… so you do the math as to what you could possibly make in a year if the business is there. This doesn’t even include what you COULD make from online merch sales, pub advances, royalties, sync licenses, etc. — so when you consider ALL of the potential income that could be derived from a moderately successful band… all is not lost (at all).
I know full well that there will be some “experts” that come back on this article and say, “But you didn’t include the cost of this and you forgot to include the cost of that. I know there might be flights for band members and crew, visa costs, vehicle breakdowns, missed shows, broken equipment, medical emergencies, etc. but I also didn’t include additional income that one might get from VIP sales, above average merch nights, sell out bonuses, or even label tour support that a band could get before hand to offset any of those expenses.
Each touring entity is different. Maybe there are only four people in your band, maybe you don’t need a driver or a tech, hell, you might even OWN your van or RV. You might also have a vast network of friends across the country that let you stay at their houses, cutting out hotel costs. The above is just a boilerplate synopsis of a budget for a typical band that is established enough to sell the tickets warranting a guarantee of $2,000.00 a night. I will say this: it DOES takes TIME to get to that level. Nothing comes overnight… being in a successful, profitable band REQUIRES very hard work, patience and dedication. Whenever you start a new business, regardless of what it is, you need investors to get through the early, lean times, and the investor is most likely you. Your band is an investment in yourself and your art. A new band making $100.00 a night on a tour will 99.9% lose money on that tour. As a new band you will probably lose money on your first 5-6 tours (maybe even longer than that). If you decide to commit and make this your career, be completely prepared to spend your own money to cover the touring deficit you will have. If you have a label, or even a parent, that will come in early and invest in your band to help offset these costs then CONGRATS… there is no shame in that. But in order for your band to get noticed you HAVE to tour and that is a reality. The money to allow you to do so has to come from somewhere.
You may also notice that the management/agent commissions account for a chunk expenses as well. YES, it is typical and expected for a reputable manager to get a 15-20% commission. Don’t ever let a manager charge you an upfront fee for services; we earn money when you start making money. An agent typically gets 10% from shows… they play a huge role in the artist’s career and development. Unless you are totally DIY and you have the ability to handle EVERYTHING while writing GREAT music and touring all at the same time, then this is how your band is going to REALLY get things done and grow to the next level. We are your partners in this whole thing 24/7 and we are here to help you make the best decisions possible, protect you from any evil wrongdoing and ultimately provide you with further opportunities… so you can MAKE MONEY.
With that being said, even the biggest bands out there have the best intentions on putting on the greatest show for their fans, and this causes them to get sacked with additional expenses that cut into their profit margin. Books can be written on this subject (and probably have) but here are a few pointers that come to mind:
- Keep the crew to only what is necessary for you based on the reality of where your band is at the moment and try not to hire crew that isn’t absolutely needed or too costly. You might not need the sound guy that did Metallica seven years ago who wants $3,000.00 per week — there is surely someone that is more fitting for your band at $750.00 per week.
- Make sure your management (or you) handles all the proper paperwork in advance and on time (visas, work permits, invoices, flights, etc.). Nothing screws up tour finances more than paperwork that hasn’t been properly handled.
- Don’t rent a vehicle that you can’t afford. If you are drawing 200 people you don’t need a bus to yourself. Come on… a van will do. This should actually be the number one rule on the list. You should only look at a bus if you are making at least $3,500.00 per night in guarantees.
- Spending too much money on production — this is a tough one. I agree with the sentiment that you want to look great on stage and give your ticket-buying fans a show they wont forget, but if I can quote Jamey Jasta from his podcast, “Your fans don’t walk away humming your light show” — especially if you are playing a 500 capacity room. Keep shit real. If anything, make sure your sound guy is adequate. It’s the sound that really matters.
- Keep track of every dollar that is made and spent on the road every day. Every day.
- Don’t give away your merch to needy fans or someone you find attractive — or to friends that promise that they will advertise your band to all their IG followers. Unless it’s Miley Cyrus, a Kardashian or someone like that.
- Don’t buy a lot of cocaine.
I will also be the first to admit that I have bands come back from a tour with much less than they expected (or in the hole), even if thorough budgets have been laid out before hand. There can be a list of reasons that can cause this to happen, but it comes with the territory. This is the type of business to where I always find myself saying, “Well, I thought I’ve seen everything, but THIS takes the cake.” This could have very well be the case with Thy Art Is Murder as well. Again, I don’t know what other factors may have come into play for them. But I do know that this is the exception and not the rule when you plan ahead.
This should hopefully give you some idea and positive insight of what to expect as a new band (or even better, a band that is at the level of this type of touring). My main purpose is to show that while the music industry is definitely facing financial challenges with each new advance in technology — which forever changes the music buyer’s habit — there will ALWAYS be a need for bands to create new music, entertain fans across the world with their performances and money to be made. Plus, they still haven’t figured out a way to stream band merch.
Derek Brewer is an artist manager working with Outerloop Management representing artists like Dying Fetus, Veil of Maya, Crown the Empire, Volumes among others. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.