Pomplamoose: A Band At The Unholy Crossroads Of Art And Capitalism [UPDATED]

Indie band Pomplamoose shared their recent tour’s financial information with their fans last week, and, um, it was … Not so good. They’d like everyone to believe that it was good, but it was not good.

The band took in $97,519 in ticket sales for a 28-day tour, which is insane. That is a lot of money for a month-long tour for an indie band. They also made $29,714 in merch sales and had a $8,750 sponsorship from Lenovo. All together, that’s $135,983 for one month of touring, which is practically unheard-of, especially for a band’s second tour.

Of course, tours come with a lot of overhead. They laid out their expenses:

  • $26,450: Production expenses: equipment rental, lights, lighting board, van rental, trailer rental, road cases, backline.

  • $17,589: 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.

  • $11,816: Gas, airfare, parking tolls. Holy shit, parking a 42-foot van is expensive.

  • $5445: Insurance. In case we break someone’s face while crowdsurfing.

  • $48,094: 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.

  • $21,945: Manufacturing merchandise, publicity (a radio ad in SF, Facebook ads, venue specific advertising), supplies, shipping.

  • $16,463: 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.

In other words, they wound up $11,819 in debt and calling it “an investment in future tours.”

Before I go on, a little of my background: I spent most of the middle portion of my life believing that I was going to go into entertainment management, so I studied music management, entertainment law, and production for the first several years of my higher education. My mom was a blues manager in the 80s and a business manager later. I’ve done work in music journalism, tour booking, and production. So when I go on to roundly criticize this expense list, know that I’m not deep into the music industry today, but it’s not coming from nowhere.

What killed their budgeting was that they rented everything, including musicians. I’m sure that because they hired musicians, they felt obligated to ensure their comfort, go all-out and get a 42-foot bus, give everyone a $20 per diem plus food from that second item, in which they talk about renting four hotel rooms a night. And by the way, renting four hotel rooms a night on an indie tour is ridiculous. Neither I nor any of the musicians or music journalists I know would have it even occur to us to book that many hotel rooms on a tour like this. Take out either the bus or the hotel rooms or both, cut back drastically on the per diems and tell everyone they can buy cheap food at grocery stores (bread, bananas, and peanut butter is $5 for breakfast for a week), ask for more hand-outs, and you could cut back on rental and living costs as well as fees to the tune of probably around $12,000 and at least break even. Cut out all the extra musicians, and you’re making money. Probably a lot of money.

The minimalist in me — the very bad minimalist, but minimalist nonetheless — looks at this expense list with wide eyes and goes “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat.” My heart starts pounding and my blood pressure increases. I start thinking, “Waste, waste, waste, waste,” and rocking back and forth, holding my knees to my chest. It’s not that I care about Conte and Dawn’s financial situation; it’s their money to burn. I just care about the lies you have to tell yourself to be OK with this kind of spending.

The lie that they’re telling themselves is, “This is an investment in future tours.” I’m sure that the crowd had a great time and the venues will want to invite them back, but then again, could they have accomplished it with less? That’s the question I would refuse to gloss over, were I in their position. Matt and Kim tour with two musicians and put on a hell of a show. The first time I saw Diamond Rings, he played all the instruments himself and ran sequences to fill in the gaps so that he could also sing, dance, and interact with the crowd. For that matter, Streetlight Manifesto tours with seven or eight people at a time and crowd into vans to get it done. Amanda Palmer has written a whole book about depending on the kindness of strangers not only to get you through as an artist, but as a creative act. So yes, Pomplamoose could get it done with less. If this expense was an investment, it was a bad investment.

Billboard wrote this up and called Pomplamoose a “middle-class band” in their title, but then didn’t mention that statement or explain it in the content of the article. I think that’s close, but that “bougie” (as in “bourgeoisie,” a sometimes-pejorative for middle-class people whose main priority is conspicuous consumption) is closer. They don’t need four hotel rooms a night to make good music or put on a good show. They don’t need a 42-foot van to make good music or put on a good show. If the lie was that it was an investment, the truth is that, as people, they like sleeping on comfortable beds in rooms with an average level of privacy and eating at restaurants and weren’t willing to give it up for a month.

This whole issue applies to the general public because that’s why college students take out private loans and wind up spending them on nice TVs and the Whole Foods salad bar, and living in private apartments instead of dorms. That’s why people start their marriages in debt after weddings with all the accoutrements of fairy tales. That’s why middle-class Americans buy giant houses they can’t afford and get foreclosed. Making well over $100,000 on a tour for a band comprised of two people and winding up $12,000 in debt is, bottom line, living above your means. And really, it’s just not an investment: How much better on a future tour could they possibly do than $135,000 in a month?

But then there’s also the issue of who you are beholden to. What struck me as downright bizarre was that Conte wrote about Pomplamoose’s finances as if it was an annual financial report, in which a business states overhead and income and makes projections for the future. My hunch in that regard is that Pomplamoose is based out of San Francisco, which has gentrified all the queer, Black, and Hispanic into Oakland and beyond in order to accommodate the tech industry. Even creative fields have been fashioned into “upstarts” – think app development, or game development. Why not music?

Pomplamoose depends on Patreon for income, so they are beholden in some way to their patrons to produce quality music and music videos. But by talking about the way they spend money as an “investment,” they’re confusing a patron and an investor. An investor expects a return on the money they put into a business, whereas a patron gives money to an artist expecting that the artist will use it to facilitate their creating quality work that will last into the future. Patrons don’t generally expect to actually get money from the artist, so a financial report is irrelevant.

And, I don’t know, I admire the fact that Pomplamoose apparently manages to make a solid $30K per person every year through Patreon and iTunes. I appreciate the fact that they work as hard as they do. I have no illusions that if you make art for a living, you have to be able to live on it. But since when do we hold artists to the exact same expectations to which we hold businesses, and what would art lose if artists had to spend money in a way that pleased their audience? And then I come back to the idea of minimalism: If having a lot of money that other people gave you makes you feel beholden to those people to do as they wish and answer to them, perhaps you should function in such a way that you can have a greater measure of independence.

Unless you’re happy being a band that releases financial statements! In that case, go right on ahead, I guess. Call me sentimental, but that makes me very, very sad.

UPDATE: Well, as it turns out, my cynicism was founded – I wrote this post not understanding that Jack Conte is a co-founder of Patreon. As Aux notes, that means that Conte’s Medium post was, essentially, branded content, especially in his closing passages:

The point of publishing all the scary stats is not to dissuade people from being professional musicians. It’s simply an attempt to shine light on a new paradigm for professional artistry.

We’re entering a new era in history: the space between “starving artist” and “rich and famous” is beginning to collapse. YouTube has signed up over a million partners (people who agree to run ads over their videos to make money from their content). The “creative class” is no longer emerging: it’s here, now.

We, the creative class, are finding ways to make a living making music, drawing webcomics, writing articles, coding games, recording podcasts. Most people don’t know our names or faces. We are not on magazine covers at the grocery store. We are not rich, and we are not famous.

That “new paradigm” is one from which Conte personally profits: Patreon takes 5% of all patron donations. Conte isn’t just earning $6,326 twice a month from the donations Pomplamoose receives in order to make their music videos; he’s also taking a share of the $333-ish that Patreon siphons off for their expenses. And no, they don’t devote all their time to Pomplamoose; Conte devotes at least some of his time to Patreon as well.

This was an advertisement to creative types for Patreon’s services. In light of that fact, I have to clarify that I didn’t actually think that Conte himself was confused about the difference between a patron and an investor, but I will assert that he is intentionally confusing those terms because he wants to create a way of life for artists that mirrors the way of life for, say, web developers and tech startups. And I assert that there’s still something lost there, that there’s something sad about the idea of having to answer to investors as an artist.

This was a thoroughly dishonest thing to do, for Conte to write this without any disclosure that he profits from the service and the lifestyle he endorses in his post. That disclosure – just a “Full disclosure: I am a co-founder of Patreon” – would have been enough for the reader to be able to consider his argument in context. It would have been informative as to how Pomplamoose is able to survive with $17,000 credit card bills and $12,000 losses. Without that disclosure, Conte presented a lifestyle that, in fact, is much less attainable for other artists than it is for him – and a lifestyle which would make money for Conte, were another artist to try to adopt it after getting the wrong impression from his post.

[Medium]

[Billboard]

[Image via Instagram/Shutterstock]

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