Why Pomplamoose Made The Right Decision To Go On A Losing Tour

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“The tour, as much of a loss as it was financially, it was a success” – Nataly Dawn, Pomplamoose

I just left the webcast that Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn of Pomplamoose put on to answer any remaining questions about their (obscenely scrutinized) tour. Nearly 500 people tuned in, many of them Pomplamoose fans, and many of them indie artists trying to understand how a band as big as Pomplamoose (over 100 million YouTube views) could lose so much money on tour. Or really, SPEND so much money on tour.

If you’re just catching up, Jack Conte posted an essay explaining how his band Pomplamoose made over $100,000 in ticket sales, but still netted a loss of $11,819. He listed all income and expense figures. It was quickly picked up by bloggers and industry talking heads. Everyone came out of their dark corners to scrutinize this indie band’s every spending decision.

+This Band Just Finished a 28 Day Tour And Made How Much?!

Let me clear up a few things that Conte and Dawn revealed in their webcast. No, they didn’t go on tour to lose money. One commenter theorized that they intentionally lost money for tax purposes. Not true. When asked if they committed tax fraud Conte responded, “I don’t even know how one would do that.”

Commenters lambasted Pomplamoose for paying their band too much. Calling them “self-righteous.” One commenter said “salaries should be discussed at the end of the tour after you figure out what expenses need to be paid. It blows my mind that a band would set aside money for the members when they don’t even know if they were going to be profitable themselves.” Conte responded on the webcast, “we are not going to ask people to come out on the road with us for a month of shows and a week of rehearsals and then say ‘and we might pay you if we make money.’

We all remember what happened when Amanda Palmer didn’t pay volunteer musicians anything.

+Amanda Palmer Is Now Defending Her Solicitation Of Free Musicians…

Commenters condemned the band for spending so much on “Best Western level hotels.” They assailed “why didn’t they sleep on floors.” Conte explained during the webcast, “Pomplamoose is not a starving artist.” They make a good living from their music at home, so they didn’t make money on this tour. Oh well!

What most seemed to miss in Conte’s original article was the fact that he mentioned this tour was an investment into future tours: “We could have played a duo show instead of hiring six people to tour with us. That would have saved us over $50,000, but it was important at this stage in Pomplamoose’s career to put on a wild and crazy rock show. We wanted to be invited back to every venue, and we wanted our fans to bring their friends next time. The loss was an investment in future tours.”

I’m confused at how so many missed this. That statement makes perfect sense. It happens all the time in every other industry, so why when an entrepreneur in music (a band) takes this route he gets chastised? Businesses take initial losses by making investments into the future growth of their company. Tech startups typically aren’t profitable for years. But one losing tour and they’re deemed a failure? Even though the band’s annual bottom line stayed in the black?

Closing his essay, Conte explained “At the end of the day, Pomplamoose is just fine: our patrons give us $6,326 per video through our Patreon page. We sell about $5,000 of music per month through iTunes and Loudr. After all of our expenses (yes, making music videos professionally is expensive), Nataly and I each draw a salary of about $2,500 per month from Pomplamoose.” Bloggers and commenters called this a marketing stunt for Patreon. Gawker: “failing to disclose in your widely disseminated essay that you’re the CEO of the company you’re endorsing remains shady as hell.” Yes, Conte is the CEO and co-founder of Patreon. Although he didn’t mention that explicitly in his initial Medium article, it was mentioned at the start and end of the re-post on DMN and as someone who has followed Patreon’s rise since its inception, Conte has been incredibly transparent about being the CEO and an artist. Yes, Patreon raised $15 million this year in VC money. No, Conte does not take a salary from Patreon. He makes 100% of his income from his music. Was this a secretive marketing stunt to drum up more Patreon subscribers? I mean, he’s the CEO of Patreon, so nearly everything he does is through that lens. So that was probably part of it. But Conte claims the essay was meant for the fans of Pomplamoose to understand a bit more of their business model. Ironically, the more transparent Conte is about his business decisions, the more scrutiny he receives for lack of transparency.

+Time To Pay Attention: Creators On Patreon Now Receive Over $1,000,000 Per Month From Patrons

Conte mentioned that the initial post was inspired by a conversation he had with a blogger. The blogger told Conte to put it up on Medium and send it to him and he’ll repost. He never expected it to go viral.

Whenever someone reveals private business decisions it leaves them open to public scrutiny. But what is absent from the conversation are the voices who appreciate the band’s revelations. As an independent artist, I for one, very much appreciate his essay. It’s nice to see how other independent bands tour and how they deal with expenses and investment choices.

This tour didn’t exist in a vacuum.

They didn’t go on tour to make their income for the year like other bands do. Other bands don’t sell anything online and make all their money on the road. Pomplamoose is not one of them. They make over $5,000 a month in download sales. So instead of blasting them for their lack of tour income why not praise them as being one of the few bands who are still able to make a living selling their music online – without touring? They get paid (directly by their fans via Patreon) over $6,000 for every video they put up (for free) on YouTube. Why not praise them for figuring this out? YouTube ad revenue is a joke. They went around it.

Pomplamoose’s tour numbers do not represent the independent world of touring. They represent Pomplamoose’s latest tour. That’s it.

They made a decision to take an 8 person crew out on the road playing to 300-500 people a night. I wouldn’t have done that. But they weren’t wrong for doing that. They made a decision to take lights out. I wouldn’t have done that either. They admitted in the webcast that they could have been better at selling their merch. I’m a stickler for merch sales – it’s how I double my tour revenue. But who are we to judge? They’re doing what’s right for them. Not us.

+10 Ways To Sell More Merch At Shows

One of the best Medium responses I read was by Mike Ericco: “Flaming Lips could go out as “Wayne Coyne: Solo,” too. Pink Floyd could have saved plenty by not building a friggin’ wall on stage. Gwar doesn’t need a blood cannon. There are plenty of examples to support your financial choices. ”

But what’s the real issue here? Why were so many up in arms?

Why did this surprise so many people, aside from the fact that there seemed to be a few expenses that were a bit high? It’s that the old guard is losing their power and prominence. They feel tall standing on these indie bands’ shoulders, chastising them, explaining how they could have done it better. But the thing is, Pomplamoose, and every other band growing up in the digital era, doesn’t need to be told how to ‘do it better.’ They’re figuring out what works for them. And what works for them won’t work for anyone else. Every band’s situation is personal and specific.

The real problem is, the major label system has a very cookie cutter formula for launching a career. They believe it takes at least $500,000 to break an artist. And when anyone challenges this formula (and actually starts to see some success) the old guard gets scared. However, the major label failure rate is 98%. Sure, the 2% become superstars, but what about the others? Instead of going for the lottery, craft a career that sustains. That makes sense for you.

Pomplamoose doesn’t need your approval. They and are making a fine, middle class income. They don’t need to be superstars to call themselves a success.

“Even though we came out a slight financial loss the gain was tremendous” – Jack Conte, Pomplamoose

28 Responses

  1. FarePlay

    Touring is about connecting with your audience and meeting them in person. The pay off was seeling their recorded music, which has dwindle from paid song downloads to streaming revenue.

    Musicians will have to re-set the scene by limiting free access to their music and getting their fans used to paying for music. Without the sale of recorded music, there is no record business for most musicians. This is why we lost half of our full time musicians from 2002-2012.

  2. Chuck Hughes

    The tour was essentially break-even. They got a lot of advertising for their sweat equity, and demonstrated to the world that they were not just a Youtube phenomenon, but could bring it live. It was a very worthwhile project. They are already making money, they don’t need every gig to cashflow positive. They boosted their credibility. AND, all their hired guns got paid fair and square.

  3. Element

    I’m really glad you wrote about this, Ari. I was absolutely disgusted by 95% of the comments on the Medium article Conte wrote. It was insane seeing both non-musician fans and alleged seasoned musicians chastising Pomplamoose for hiring a backing band. “They should have toured without them.” Seriously? Would you want to see Nine Inch Nails with just playback and Trent Reznor singing and playing a guitar and keyboard? Guess what – Trent did that for a few months when the band was starting up, then played as a three piece, and it wasn’t until Lollapalooza that the band started including more touring members and, what a coincidence, they put on better shows!

    Another thing that really bugged me was how a lot of musicians claimed they should “Sleep on the floor” and “Eat at gas station convenience stores.” As Conte mentioned, Pomplamoose is not a starving artist. I don’t see anything wrong with them staying in hotels. How can ANYONE who legitimately works in the music business tell a band hiring backing musicians that aren’t kids who can barely play their instruments that they shouldn’t pay them a salary. In what other profession can you argue you have to figure out what the expenses are before you can pay your employees? Who would find that acceptable? I for one, think it was extremely intelligent that the two members of Pomplamoose also paid themselves a salary. People forget that bands are businesses and legally and otherwise, are treated as so. Thus, even if the tour did lose money, at least they came home with money in their pockets and as Ari mentioned, are still in the black for the rest of the fiscal year.

    I believe people are mistaking Pomplamoose for another Warped Tour band of kids who just graduated from high school and don’t know how to play and want to “experience touring.” Pomplamoose is beyond that – they’ve taken it to the next level. They are a small business, not a bunch of dudes in a van who are sharing a fucking Happy Meal. If you don’t take your band seriously – and therefore your business – then how can anyone else take you seriously? I think most of the people who commented are bitter because they didn’t take the time to learn about the business, about being an entrepreneur, and taking their band seriously, thus they had to sleep on the floor. It’s not to say that it’s not hard at first and bands won’t have to do that, but it doesn’t have to be this huge gulf between major label stardom and a poor independent band anymore.

  4. Chris H

    Just a lot of walking it back. The disclosure failure was more than a bit of an “oopsie”, as I guess we are going to try to make it out to be now. The rest of it, how he conducts his business, is his business. If he wants to conduct in a way that loses money, that’s his decision to make.

  5. DNog

    The way the original article was headlined was definitely made out to be a “shock” to how a touring band can do a well selling tour and still lose money. So why would it surprise anyone that comments bashed them for the way they spent money when the whole article was focused on that besides like two lines saying “hey we’re okay with that and btw we make $2,500 a month at our other job.” That whole article was directed towards touring musicians in a completely unrelated situation for 95% of them. Most touring musicians do their music only full time so to break down how you lost money on a successful tour is basically showing what not to do. If you are a band living off your music and touring only like most touring artist that are full time then that tour was a financial failure and that’s the bottom line.

      • Adam

        Or, instead of noting how Pomplamoose’s business model doesn’t apply to them, that 95% could take it as a lesson for all independent musicians. Diversify your revenue streams.

  6. Seth Keller

    I agree that people got up in arms about this unnecessarily. I only have an observer’s knowledge of the band and its history, but even to a casual observer, it’s pretty evident they are not a touring act and aren’t planning on extensive, consistent touring any time soon. They make their money in another space and that should be OK with everyone, as you stated, Ari.

    Even if they had the same costs for musicians/crew, hotels, gas and food, they would have made money if they owned their van, trailer and gear and had insurance policies that covered them for touring for the year. If you don’t tour regularly or only go out for 30 dates once every year or so, it makes more sense to rent than own.

    Jack’s post was educational for artists that have never toured so they could see what potential costs there may be, but for touring artists or artists with experienced management, the piece wasn’t that viable as a “how-to” or indicative of most club tours.

  7. JakeConstantine

    Thanks for taking up this story Ari. When I read those comments on the original medium post, I was ashamed for my fellow musicians. It all came across as bitter backbiting.

    Musicians should spend more time encouraging and supporting each another – not tearing each other down.

    You and the other commenters appear to be setting the story straight. 🙂

    RE: the failing to disclose about Patreon. Yeah, it was a significant oversight, but it wasn’t as if the post was a thinly-veiled marketing ploy. The post read like an honest disclosure about the costs of touring. The whole Patreon angle was an aside.

  8. Paul Resnikoff

    I’m struggling to understand the deeper reasons for the massive backlash and ‘backbiting’ to the original post. I think one is the utter shock that Pomplamoose, a DIY archetype of sorts, one of the post-label winners, could struggle like that on the road. Even after having such a massive following online and a strong core following.

    Weren’t they supposed to MAKE $111,000, after all? We’ve been told that touring makes up for all the crappy payouts from everything else: YouTube, Spotify, iTunes… BitTorrent.

    Except for the part that maybe it doesn’t.

    • GGG

      I wondered that too, and I think it was just his approach. Since you can’t read correct tone of the author necessarily, I think it came off to a lot of people as whining as opposed to a somewhat light-hearted or at least rational explanation of what they were doing and why. So it makes sense that people latched onto scrutinizing every dollar since 90% of the article was that, with one sentence being “we’re cool with this!”

      And it was also framed by reposts in a way that didn’t help the situation, be it calling them out or with click bait headlines like yours. So the bottom line is that almost nobody went into that thing with a remotely positive mindset.

      • blahblahblah

        I think you’re right. People read it, or partially read it, as yet another pathetic musician complaining that he isn’t able to make a living from his craft. These artists who keep posting how so many streams got them so few dollars are just shooting themselves, and all recording artists, in the foot. Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.

    • Ari Herstand

      Well, the thing is, touring isn’t the answer. Sales isn’t the answer. Merch isn’t the answer. Streaming isn’t the answer. Patreon, Kickstarter, PledgeMusic aren’t the answer. Want to know what the answer is? There is no single answer. Every band has to figure out for themselves what works for them. Pomplamoose chose to lose money on the road in lieu of the bigger picture. I (and thousands of other artists) choose to make money on the road in lieu of working the YouTube angle. Pomplamoose is making it. Just maybe not by everyone else’s standards. They (we) want what everyone else wants: to make enough to support the kind of lifestyle we’d like to have doing something we love. If that’s not success, I don’t know what is.

      • Jamie St Clair

        Ari, nice article – again. First, you are the ONLY (yes all caps) blogger/company/advice giver I’ve signed on for newsletters, who I read every article from. In my life. I would LOVE to do what Pomplamoose did. So satisfying! OK, better to make money than loose it, but it’s surprising that DIY musicians can’t see the value in what they did.

        Also, what does it actually mean when someone making less money than me yearly in the same business criticizes my business choices? It took some guts to do a tour like that without the experience to make it easy. Congratulations are in order to Pomplamoose. Bravo. I bet that experience informs their music in every recording they make in future….

    • Hippydog

      I think the idea of it just scared some people..
      Everyone has been saying an artist cant make money (unless they are t swift) selling music..
      Merch and touring is the only way left to make a dollar.. (make ends meet)
      and along comes these artists who lose money on tour.. (someone with isnt really broken out, but DO have a ‘name’ in the industry)
      First thought for many was probably “OMG we cant make money touring either!!”

  9. Willis

    It’s called CPA. How many fans did they connect with? How many new fans did they gain? For the amount of their loss, what was the per head cost for a new fan and how will they monetize that fan in the future, and for what amount? I say that this “loss” was an investment in future revenue.

  10. Hippydog

    I dont agree that losing money on this tour was a “good investment”.. Its their business they can do what they want of course, I just think it doesnt make a lot of sense to go on ANY venture without a clear budget and plan..
    It kinda seems they went into this without really knowing how they would end up..
    Selling at ‘cost’ is a valid startup idea (if your primary goal is to gain more customers and word of mouth)
    but they are past they newbie stage, and should at least should have planned for some sort of ‘markup’..

    Does anyone know how many “tours” they have done before? I think I read this was their first ‘major’ one with full production, but I have to assume they have hit the road a few times before?

    • Erik Ostrom

      My understanding is that they had a plan, including merch sales expectations based on previous tours. But those tours were different, and their sales were good, but not as high per audience member. They also had some unexpected equipment problems.

      So they had a plan, but it was flawed. These things happen. They also had a larger plan not to be dependent on this tour to make a profit. So that part worked out, I guess.

  11. Kevin Haughton

    what this article accomplished (aside from the bands’ intentions in writing it-whatever that may have been), was to have a huge component of inexperienced bands/artists, loose their minds over the fear of the ‘business’ not being viable. This band toured as they did and made and or lost money as they did…big f’n deal. This isn’t a new story….just their version. There are so many differing dynamics in each and every tour commensurate with the ‘level’ of band/artist…the level in which they find themselves presents its own unique realizations of income loss and earnings structure….just as other levels do. What it also accomplished was to direct a huge amount of exposure in many ways to this band…furthermore, it got people discussing (all be it sometimes nonsensical dribble), it got ‘up and coming’ bands/artists thinking.

    That all being said, the way to sum it up was as the band member himself said: “Even though we came out a slight financial loss the gain was tremendous”…..

  12. Stacey

    I thought Jack’s article was insightful and very generous to post. As a business owner myself, I am often asked by new business owners how things work and how I financially structure things. I view it as pay-it-forward information. I like to be transparent with potential owners about the good, bad and ugly of business in hopes that that transparency helps someone avoid a mistake I may have made. Jack and Nataly have been such generous musicians — and humans! It’s disappointing backlash for giving people.

    No good deed goes unpunished.

  13. Geordie Korper

    I saw them in DC and brought 3 other people who were not really familiar with Pomplamoose. We all agreed it was one of the best shows we had every seen. Putting on that kind of show is expensive but it is what they wanted to do.

    More to the point even if we ignore the great marketing investment this was (and even more exposure due to the kerfuffle) if next time they keep the costs similar and get an extra ~$1 revenue per audience member they will make a profit.

  14. jim

    I have to be honest, I’m not feeling it. I don’t think people are blasting Pomplamoose for their lack of earnings, they are blasting them for their spending.

    There have been many interesting articles from metal band’s responding to the Pomplamoose essay, and in turn revealing their own tour breakdowns. Below is an Op-Ed from a band “Old Man Gloom”
    In it, the member reveals his band toured for 1 week, playing venues of 350 people max, and they each walked away with $2500. They even sleep in hotels each night.

    The author has an interesting take on “investing for future tours…”
    He says: “The point is, in my opinion, Pomplamoose should be living within the moment they exist. A band should absolutely ride their momentum, but don’t do everything assuming that things will only get bigger and better. It kinda says you’re not satisfied with how awesome things are right now.”

    Old Man Gloom Op Ed: