"We make almost no money off our recordings themselves."
There's an interesting interview at NPR about the Boston's Dresden Dolls, the leading purveyors of "Brechtian Punk Cabaret." If you aren't familiar with the group, watch the delightful Coin-Operated Boy or the more recent Sing. Anywho, the band had some interesting things to say about the economics of being an indie-rock band.
The Dresden Dolls are a band on the verge of making it. Unless, of course, they don't. They've been touring almost full time for years, playing to ever-larger crowds and opening for some big-name bands. They've toured with Nine Inch Nails. But even at that level, it's very tough for a band to make enough money to survive. Just renting a tour bus costs $1,000 a day, including the cost of gas and a driver. ... And as the crowds grew, they managed to get signed a good-sized record label — which sounds good, but Palmer says it doesn't pay much.
"We make almost no money off our recordings themselves," she says. ... Like many bands, the Dresden Dolls get a royalty that works out to about $1 per CD. But before a band gets to see any of that, it has to sell enough CDs to cover all of the label's production expenses, which can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most bands never sell enough CDs to dig out of that hole. So even as bands get bigger, they have to tour constantly to earn all they can from ticket sales. ... Palmer and Viglione might be budding rock stars, but they're still pretty broke. They have to pay their road crew three to four times what they pay themselves — which is a modest $1,500 a month. Remember, this a band that has toured with Nine Inch Nails. ... At bigger shows, the Dresden Dolls can take in more than $1,000 a night selling merchandise, which makes the "merch table" a major source of income whey they're on the road. Of course, venues try to take as big a cut of that as they can. Palmer says that leads to regular screaming matches between bands and venue managers.
"The reason the shirts are sold for $25 and $35 is that the venue takes a giant, whopping percentage," she says. "Sometimes, they'll try to take a larger percentage than what's in the contract, and you have to whip out the contract and get into these arguments."
Interesting stuff. Moral of the story - if you want to support your favorite bands, go see live shows and buy some merchandise. Or better yet, buy some merchandise straight from the artist via their own website.