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Actual Independent Musician Calls BS On Pomplamoose's Jack Conte

By Staff in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 2, 2014 8:00PM

A real touring machine, Rick MorVANis, photo by Hanksy

Much chatter has exploded over Jack Conte of Pomplamoose's blog post outlining how the band took in $135,983 during their last tour but ended up actually losing $11,819 since their expenses outstripped their profits. Many folks originally forwarded the blog post as proof of just how tough it is for successful indie rock bands to turn a profit touring today. People within the industry forwarded it while decrying the whole piece as a subtle piece of marketing for Conte's own platform for musicians to make money, Patreon, since it is held up as the surest way for Pomplamoose to reliably make money. Conte has since countered that claim, saying he's never hidden his involvement in Patreon, but even that defense neglected to mention that while he does usually highlight his ties to the service, he neglected to do so in a piece that was obviously aimed for realms outside his usual fans and followers, misdirecting a mainstream readership that at first fell for his subtle swindle.

So we've got that explanation out of the way. But let's say you still want to side with Conte and are willing to accept that he's allowed to subtly market a service he helped found while still helping shine a light on the plight of the independent touring musician; just how accurate is his outline of what it takes to mount a successful tour? We decided to find out the answer to that question from a musician who has spent more than his share of time crammed into smelly vans with bandmates for weeks on end in order to mount their own independent tours. How does Conte's depiction of touring life hold up against an actual band? — Jim Kopeny / Tankboy


A quick introduction. My name is Adam Melberth and I am (what I consider to be) an “indie musician” who plays bass in the Chicago band Archie Powell & The Exports.

I recently read Jack Conte of Pomplamoose’s article breaking down their tour profits (or lack thereof) for a 28-day tour. In the piece, Conte explains that they managed to lose around $11k on this tour that netted them nearly $136k in revenue.

I’m here to call bullshit.

I’ve been in bands of varying success (some having zero success at all) for over half of my life. I’ve never made anywhere close to $136k on a tour (and maybe that disqualifies me from this conversation completely) but I’ve never lost $11k on one either. So maybe I’m just more of a shit-muncher than Pomplamoose, but in my defense, maybe I know how to actually stretch a dollar.

One thing Conte got right is that “being in an indie band is running a never-ending, rewarding, scary, low-margin small business.” 100% true my friend, but if you’re going to state this as fact, then you should know that with the choice to be in this kind of business you have to make sacrifices.

So I’m here to help Pomplamoose “trim the fat” if you will.
Step by step.
Here we go.

[All the bold copy that follows is pulled directly from Conte's post detailing the money side of Pomplamoose's tour; Adam's responses follow each quote.]

Production expenses: equipment rental, lights, lighting board, van rental, trailer rental, road cases, backline.

So right off the bat you’re telling me that you don’t have the proper equipment to even go on tour. By equipment, I mean instruments. Bravo, you’re more ill-prepared to hit the road than Stephen Hawking is to win a dance contest.

Also, understand that constant and prolonged renting of equipment is a cost that continually grows every single time you go on the road. You could have bought this stuff and it would have paid for itself in time (with obvious upkeep expenses). How have you not purchased instruments and amps to even write your songs yet? This confuses me, but I’m going to let it slide.

Here are some things that I won’t.

My shitty van (Rick MorVANis) cost me $800 and I load my 5-person band plus our equipment into it. How much did a 28-day rental for both van and trailer cost you? That’s what I thought.

The venue has lights, and if they do, they have a lighting board to go with them. Sometimes they don’t. Who cares. Your awesome pink strobe light doesn’t change how the music sounds.

Archie Powell & the Exports playing at Schubas, a venue with its own lights. We wonder how Pomplamoose's rig looked on the same stage. Did it fit?

Hotels, and food. Two people per room, 4 rooms per night. Best Western level hotels, nothing fancy. 28 nights for the tour, plus a week of rehearsals.

Staying in a hotel on a tour is a luxury.

I can hear your collective gasp through my computer screen (which was not donated to me by Lenovo), so let me explain.

See those people in the audience watching your show? Those people are your friends or new friends waiting to happen (yes I said friends, not fans. Friends first, fans second). They have couches and floors you can crash on if you’re nice people, ask politely, and show endless amounts of gratitude. It’s a great way to make friends and fans for life. I highly recommend this to anyone touring the country.

If you’re worried about having no one at your show (which sucks, but it happens), then there are a million other services like Couchsurfer who have nice people who don’t even need to listen to your shitty music to let you stay in their homes. Put them on the guest list and watch them bring two of their friends who pay. Go back to their house where you can swim in their pool and play with their huge dog with a head the size of a T-Rex. True story.

If you don’t have the fortitude to ask a complete stranger for some kindness, then sleep in your van. Yeah maybe your singer snores, your back is pressed against the bass drum, and it smells like feet, but it’s free. That fills the gas tank in the morning.

Don’t have the stomach for that? Fine. Book a hotel room. A hotel room. Not four. One. Pile in, share beds, ask for an extra cot/pillows, and sleep sweet for a fourth of the cost.

A week of rehearsals? We will cover that in the next section.

Salaries and per diems. Per diems are twenty dollar payments to each bandmate and crew member each day for food while we’re out. Think mechanized petty cash.

You know why you had to pay for a week of rehearsals? Because those guys you had to teach your songs are not in your band. They’re jobbers. I don’t pay my bandmates to come to rehearsal. It’s something we do every week because it’s part of being in a band. Those guys are not in your band. You can’t perform without them? Then you’re not a band yet either.

Here’s a sad fact. My band doesn’t pay for my food on the road. Sometimes if we make $20 at a house show we will blow it all on dumb blue margaritas at Chili's or The Bee’s for a morale boost, but as far as sustenance on the road goes, you’re on your own. I don’t make a salary from this, that’s what my day job is for.

Tour manager? That's what we call the GPS. Do everything else yourself. You can wipe your own ass, so that means you can get your own damn water and ask for your money at the end of the night.

Sound guys are like lights. Venues usually have them. If not, you’ve booked the wrong venue and now you know not to go back. Plug in, turn up, rock out.

Commissions. Our awesome booking agency, High Road Touring, takes a commission for booking the tour. They deserve every penny and more: booking a four week tour is a huge job. Our business management takes a commission as well to do payroll, keep our finances in order, and produce the awesome report that lead to this analysis. Our lawyer, Kia Kamran, declined his commission because he knew how much the tour was costing us. Kia is the man.

Look, I will not bash any of these people. I’ve had booking agents, managers, PR agents and they have all done awesome things. But there is an alternative to all these people (and I think you are probably seeing the developing theme here): You could do it your damn self.

I’ve booked for years and have dealt with every kind of promoter from a kid at a house show to huge sold-out festivals. You can do it too. You’ll make some mistakes along the way, fine, but then you won’t have to pay $16k to anyone else but yourself. By yourself, I mean your band (I don’t take a salary, remember?).

A band doesn’t have a payroll if they don’t have jobbers to pay because they’re already in the band. There, I just fired your business manager. Take a Quickbooks class (seriously, ask my drummer, he's our accountant).

A lawyer turned down a fee? That’s awesome. Or, again, don’t have a lawyer until you absolutely need one. Most bands don’t and it will become super apparent when you need one (it’s when there is another lawyer in the room with a pen and paper).

The author in the center, playing onstage.

Gas, airfare, parking tolls. Holy shit, parking a 42-foot van is expensive.

Gas. True.
Tolls. True.
Parking. True.

Airfare. Who the hell is flying to the shows? Everyone in the van by 10 a.m. or your ass is left in Cleveland.

Manufacturing merchandise, publicity (a radio ad in SF, Facebook ads, venue specific advertising), supplies, shipping.

I get all this. Things you do to promote your band. Some spend more than others (this is a lot more) and get different results.

Insurance. In case we break someone’s face while crowd surfing.

This is usually included in the venue’s production fee and comes out of your take. Maybe it’s different if you play the Fillmore. Cool.

Maybe all this comes down to what people consider the word “indie” means. I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion, but my opinion is that $136k isn’t as “indie” as my buddy who walks everywhere during Chicago winters so he can have enough money to fix his guitar and get back on the road.

That’s my two cents and they aren’t going to be spent on a damn light board.

Guest post by: Adam Melberth