Mastodon’s Guitarist Says It’s Nearly Impossible for Bands to Survive Financially Anymore

Mastodon on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (Bill Kelliher is second from right)

Mastodon on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (Bill Kelliher is second from right)

It’s becoming extremely difficult for musicians to make a living these days —even successful and award-winning bands like Mastodon.

Mastodon’s guitarist, Bill Kelliher, recently gave an interview on the music podcast “Let There Be Talk,” where he explained how streaming services are killing music as we know it.  And potentially putting promising bands out of business.

Kelliher puts a lot of blame on popular music streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify, who pay artists way too little money.  In Kelliher’s estimation, if this doesn’t change, a number of ‘successful’ artists and bands will have to leave the business.

Perhaps most shockingly, Kelliher further says that bands like his can no longer afford to make records.

During the interview, Kelliher detailed how records are produced from a financial perspective.  While Mastodon and other top bands receive significant money in advance from record companies, this money almost entirely goes into making the record.

“We cannot afford to go out here — I mean, people who are listening — there are so many people behind those songs that you hear on the radio,” Kelliher stated.  “When it comes down to us doing a record, sometimes those records cost half a million dollars.”

“I could live a thousand years, and Spotify plays [our music] all day long, and maybe I’ll just make a couple of thousand dollars.  It’s very miniscule.”  

Furthermore, Kelliher notes that bands make no additional money from these records until they first pay back their advance.  Inside the business, this is known as ‘recoupment,’ a contractual arrangement designed to protect a label’s initial investment.  But according to Kelliher, recoupment becomes extremely difficult because the streaming services — which is chiefly how people listen to music these days — pay such little money.

“That comes out of your pocket.  The record company fronts you that money, they go, ‘here’s $600,00, you’re going to make a record that costs $575,000.’  You owe that money back to the record company, and they own your music.”

“Once it hits the internet, and it goes out there for free, where’s the money being generated to make that money back?  There is no money to make it back.  I could live a thousand years, and Spotify plays [our music] all day long, and maybe I’ll just make a couple of thousand dollars.  It’s very miniscule.

“The only way to make any money is to get out on the road, and tour, tour, tour, constantly.”

Kelliher insists that the situation is so bad that it’s pretty much irrelevant how often Mastodon’s fans stream their music.

But the problem is that touring is also very expensive, not just for fans, but for the bands, too.

Part of the problem is that venues take hefty cuts of the revenue. Which, according to him, can be anywhere from 20% to 30%.  What’s more, this percentage is not just for tickets, but for everything that fans purchase during the show.

Kelliher uses a concert t-shirt as an example of how little his band earns doing a show.  He says that a t-shirt typically costs around $50, which many fans complain as being way too expensive.  But Kelliher insists that the venue keeps about $20 from the sale of a shirt, which leaves $30 to be split among the band and also its management.

“In reality, when we play these clubs, people always say ‘why are your t-shirts $50?’ Well, news flash: the venues take up to 20%, 25%, 30% right off the top off the merch that we sell.”

The band must then pay lawyers, accountants and crew, and meet lots of other expenses. These other expenses include the renting of a tour bus, which he says costs the band about $60,000 every month.  All of this leaves very little money for the band itself.

Things have gotten so bad for music artists like Mastodon that Kelliher decided to take his case directly to the federal government.

He and Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor recently testified in front of Congress within the scope of their membership in the The Recording Academy.  There, they lobbied congressional members to pass the the Music Modernization Act, which would change the way royalty payments are made to musicians, songwriters and other creatives in the modern digital age.

The bill already unanimously passed the House of Representatives 415-0, and it has also made its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee.  But despite some reform, it’s probably not going to change the revenue picture for bands like Mastodon.  At best, things will improve slightly (though major publishers are positioned to make handsome windfalls).

Earlier this year, Mastodon won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance for their song “Sultan’s Curse,” which came from last year’s album Emperor Of Sand.  The album itself was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Album.

Here’s the full interview.


13 Responses

  1. Kausmo

    Van tour, home recording, put on your own shows, diy your own merch, motel 6, dump the major label, own all your pub, use your fans for all promo. Fugazi did it like this for years…..

  2. Anonymous

    i remember when my fav bands were putting a new album out. ill telll, if they charged a thiusand dollars per album, i would have fucking saved uup and paid it.

  3. Tony lewis

    The answer is for bands to use the streaming services to purely promote their singles and sell the albums directly from their own sites. Not at at $10.99 but at $1.99.
    If great music was only available that way and at a really good price consumers will buy.
    People argue that consumers don’t want to leave their Spotify/Apple Music streaming platforms to access a download but I’m sure a synchchronous app could be created to make it all easy.
    Corporations will always follow the Artist

  4. J Rock

    What load of shit. Half a million to record an album? For Mastodon? And what fuckin your bus are you takin that cost 60 grand a month. Sounds like a bunch of crybabies to me. Another thing, I’ve played a lot of shows all over and I’ve never heard of a venue taking a percentage of merch sales. How would they even keep track of that? You’re telling me people from the venue are counting your shirts every time you sell one?

    • Andy I

      Bus costs are about right they probably tour 2 buses at that level – one for crew one for band about $1000 a day each, depending on company and mileage. What kind of venues have you been playing that you’ve never heard of a merch concession? Most mid-sized venues we’ve played do it – BB King, City winery, Belly Up, HOB, Boulder theatre, Park West, Warner, Yoshi’s, etc. All charge a concession fee on merchandise, rate dependent on whether you have your own seller, etc. His numbers look right on the money to me.

    • Phil McKrackin

      As a matter of fact… their costs are pretty much dead on. We are not talking a bar band here.. you are talking about a professional act… Go rent a bus.. there’s gas, drivers, insurance etc… Yes.. real venues take a percentage of everything. Go hire a lawyer for one hour… wait til you see that bill

      BOTTOM LINE – Society are a bunch of dicks… they won’t pay $10 for a song they have for life and listen to thousands of times… BUT .. they’ll pay $1500 for a stupid phone…. $200 for a pair of sneakers … designer this.. designer that…

  5. Curious

    When, where did they testify before Congress? House or Senate? Cannot locate a record of this, please clarify the claim.

  6. Alfred Hugecock

    Mastodon sucks!
    And who gives a shit what this bum has to say anyways?!??!

  7. Becky

    I’m sorry that other bands go through this but I can’t feel bad for The quality of living of bands when Troy lives in a big house on the beach front….

    I live in an apartment complex in a hole in the wall community that no one knows existed…

    Sorry Bill, you’re fighting the fight but Mastodon is waaayy better off than us normal schmos

  8. SaraSara

    Troy lives in a tiny bungalow 3 blocks from the beach. Don’t spread rumors about something you know nothing about. Even if you don’t like the band, they work hard and tour pretty consistently


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