Could the Mount Eerie Model for Success in the Music Business Work for Other Bands?
Any way you look at it, the situation seems dire for the mid-level musician making a go of it in 2015. Traditional sources of income -- selling records and touring chief among them -- aren't bringing in sustainable wages for lots of musicians. The proliferation of music streaming and the attendant shabby royalties together with impossibly-costly models for touring comprise a pretty bleak landscape for bands putting their livelihoods on the line to make music.
The future is far from certain. As the old music business models crumble, it's the ideal time for someone -- businessperson or musician -- to come along with a more sustainable model.
I think it might look something like what Phil Elverum does.
Elverum records and releases meditative indie folk under the name Mount Eerie, coming up in the DIY haven of Olympia, Wash., the wellspring of K Records and Sub Pop and the ethos that gave rise to indie culture as we all know it. He creates, produces and records his albums himself -- including last month's wandering, beautiful Sauna -- at home in Anacortes, Washington. He creates the album art. He releases his music under the imprint P.W. Elverum and Sun, a record label in name only, started by Elverum in 2004 as a convenient way for him to put out his own music and the music of a few friends. He foots all production costs himself and distributes physical copies around the globe with the part-time help of a few friends in Anacortes.
And he's happy.
"It's definitely working for me," Elverum says. "I like it a lot." No one wants to say they've found the answer for the endemic problems of an entire industry (because, of course, no one has), but we both agree we haven't seen another model that allows artists this kind of creative freedom and a fairer share of profit to boot. "I would recommend it, I guess. Just skip all the complications of labels and distributors and start simple and build from there."
Elverum's much happier without a label. "Labels existed to manufacture things and distribute them and send them around and collect the money and send the money back to the artist" -- all things Elverum does on his own now.
"Labels traditionally would have a publicist who would hype up [new releases], but that's kind of the responsibility of the artists now." Artists can hire their own PR people who work independently, and those artists who have a natural gift for hyping their own work might not even need to do that.
'I wouldn't encourage any up and coming artist to seek a label, because a label is effectively a parasite.'
"I wouldn't encourage any up and coming artist to seek a label, because a label is effectively a parasite. It's just more people requiring a split of your money for doing work that is questionably necessary. It more comes down to an artist's thirst or their willingness to figure out those details, of how to make a cool website or make nice merch and take it on tour. Nobody's going to do that for you. And that was true before the internet."
Elverum concedes, however, that many artists have neither the desire nor the time to sweat the endless details that comprise releasing and distributing an album on your own. "It is absurd for me personally, how in the pie graph of my life, the part that is taken up by non-creative things. Actually writing and recording songs is a small percentage of what goes into this stuff. So much is about navigating the U.S. Postal [Service] website and figuring out customs forms and details." For artists of Mount Eerie's size and stature, it's either find a way to deal with the administrative tedium, or pay a label to handle it.
Elverum's clearly in his element creating album covers and packaging albums like he's bundling cassettes in 1983, but the digital realm is a lot less comfortable. That's not just because Elverum is gifted at making physical things, which obviously don't translate to the digital world. (I think of my own stupid delight at first ripping open 'Clear Moon' after a Mount Eerie show at a scrappy space in 2012 -- the way the letters glowed on the cover, the bright transparent vinyl.) Streaming services like Rhapsody and Spotify just don't provide what Elverum (rightly) considers a fair profit margin. "It is definitely corrupt and broken, and it's a symptom of this bigger thing that the internet has put into the minds of young people, which is the corrosion of the idea of value and the idea that creative work has monetary value, or value of any kind really." Elverum hopes new laws will come along that mandate a shelf for royalty rates, keeping them above a living wage.
Until then, a DIY spirit may help Elverum move along on his own when it comes to selling the physical thing, but he struggles against the streaming beast just like everyone else. Could removing his music from these services boost his profits, if he sold digital versions of his music directly online, like Louis CK does with his standup specials? For now, Elverum hasn't removed his music from Spotify, where it does bring in some revenue.
Where Elverum's approach is the most striking is his approach to touring. This is where it all sort of comes together -- where he's able to show his music to fans in person, and where they can support him directly. Elverum says he stays profitable -- avoiding the kinds of tours that will lose you $12,000 -- by booking his own U.S. tours, traveling light, and avoiding standard rock venues as a general rule.
Elverum says, "Most mainstream regular rock club venues ... make a ton a money on alcohol, and then they take a cut of your merch sales, and then they have crazy built-in promotional fees to make posters that look ugly, that no one looks at. Don't go on tours like that. Go use your cheap car, and use cheap gear, and go to places that cost very little money and play in front of people who are interested.
"I typically don't even play at venues, to put it bluntly. I work with people, and people email me and say, 'Hey, are you going on tour? Are you coming to Columbus, Ohio?' I set up shows at different places from here, and then I'll enter into an email conversation with them. 'Oh, we can rent out an old Knights of Columbus Hall? How much is that? Do you know anyone with a PA?' That is awesome, and profitable, and actually fun. I have played in plenty of venues in towns where that is the option, but it's always worse -- it's always financially worse, and emotionally worse. It's much more satisfying, having that interaction with the person in each town and showing up and saying, 'Hi, nice to meet you, thanks for all your work.'"
Elverum's model is custom-fit for what he does, and developed after years of dubbing tapes in the back of the record store where he worked in Anacortes and selling them in the front, and later recording at an indie label and slugging it out on the road.
"And then gradually the internet made things weird," he says. "And free. And omnipresent. I've found myself going backward, and making a valuable souvenir for people. I don't know if that will work for everyone."
If I'm in a small band and I want to make a big leap and I want to make money so I can dedicate more time and resources to my art, can I apply the Mount Eerie model? Elverum isn't so sure -- he describes the music industry today as "hopeless," "cluttered" and "corrupt"; he's turned off by the corporate sponsorships and online advertising some bands use to raise funds, a far cry from dubbing tapes in the back room of a record store.
The idea of an unknown band doing exactly what Elverum does might not be too farfetched.
But the idea of an unknown band doing exactly what he does -- recording and releasing their own music, putting together great and lucrative live shows, and communicating well with music site editors and show promoters and other bands to generate buzz -- doesn't seem farfetched. And they might even be able to do it without putting their music on a streaming service.