Pomplamoose Prove Artists Need to Rethink How They Fund Their Art
If you care about music and you use the internet, you've no doubt read (or read about) the recent essay in which Pomplamoose co-founder Jack Conte opened a window into his band's finances -- specifically, all the ways in which they lost nearly $12,000 while going on a 28-day, 24-show, 23-city tour.
Conte's a talented writer, and he broke the numbers down cleanly without making his post a tale of woe. He basically boiled the tour down to a loss-leader -- "an investment in future tours" -- and painted a bright picture of "a new paradigm for professional artistry" in which "the space between 'starving artist' and 'rich and famous' is beginning to collapse." Now, plenty of people would argue that the space is collapsing because the entire creative economy is caving in, but without arguing Conte's perspective on opportunities for artists to support themselves in the digital era, it's still an interesting example of how difficult it can be to make a go of it as a touring musician -- even after you've had your songs featured in car commercials.
When Conte's essay first made the rounds, it was presented as a sobering, informative glimpse at the economic realities of the road in the 21st century, and Pomplamoose as a couple of plucky can-do kids forging a brave path into the bright binary unknown. But because you can't have anything go the slightest bit viral without someone stepping in and saying, "Well, actually, no, this is all a bunch of garbage," that first wave was followed by a backlash that presented Conte as a dishonest fraud.
The gist of the primary complaint against the article is that it doesn't explicitly delineate the connection between Conte and Patreon, the burgeoning crowd-funding company he founded. The essay mentions Patreon in passing, as one of several revenue streams for the band, but it leaves out the part about the company recently securing $15 million in funding. To some, this was a dishonest omission -- an attempt by Conte to present himself as one of the little guys when he's really riding high on the venture-capitalist hog.
Other complaints focused on the list of expenses Conte wrote up for the tour -- expenses like a crew, hotel rooms, and vehicle rental, any one (or all) of which would go right out the window for any number of indie acts plotting a run of dates. To some, they seemed frivolous for a band at Pomplamoose's level, and a number of seemingly smart individuals have accused the group of wasting money and trying to gin up sympathy for it after the fact.
Jack Conte seems like a sharp guy, and he no doubt understands that he's only come under fire for all this because something he wrote happened to catch a little internet air -- and that it all only helps the band in the end anyway -- but this post is here to point out that while you can certainly criticize Pomplamoose for all sorts of things (starting with that name), none of the arguments leveled against his essay are terribly new or substantive.
First, the "wasting money" argument. As the brilliant songwriter Mike Errico pointed out, that's totally beside the point -- Conte never said Pomplamoose did everything they could to slash overhead and still weren't able to turn a profit. He laid out their costs -- which, by the by, strike a number of road vets as totally reasonable -- as a way of pointing out how hard it can be to make money as a medium-sized band.
It's a meaningful illustration, and not just because most people don't have access to this kind of data. As Conte points out, the model his band (and a growing number of artists) operate under requires largely self-generated and fan-sustained patronage; put another way, there's no label footing the bill and tossing out a few extra hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to try and break an act into a larger market. In the music industry's heyday, labels threw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what stuck, and the biggest successes subsidized smaller signings and riskier gambits. These days, a lot of artists are just throwing themselves, and the odds of financial bruising are high.
Without taking those gambles, though -- without those "investments in future tours" -- it's difficult to reach the level of consumer awareness that Pomplamoose are clearly trying to achieve. It's an easy distinction to miss, because in these days of infinite niche audiences, a lot of creative types are content to focus their efforts on finding their 1,000 true fans (which is, by the way, a totally valid approach) instead of trying to build their audience on a wider level. That's the kind of thing a label/studio/publishing house is supposed to do.
Bands have increasingly taken to pursuing brand outreach -- and shoring up their bottom lines -- by other means.
Problem is, they aren't doing it so much anymore, and bands have increasingly taken to pursuing brand outreach -- and shoring up their bottom lines -- by other means. The most popular one is pretty old-fashioned: Sponsorship deals, which, as the Los Angeles Times recently pointed out, are more deeply embedded in artists' touring and promotional efforts than ever before. To those of us who are old enough to remember when taking money from corporations was enough to earn the scorn of Neil Young, this might seem like a step back, but it's really no different than it's ever been.
While Young was busy mocking his peers for shilling for Coke, Pepsi and Miller, he was cashing advance checks from Reprise Records -- a subsidiary of Warner Bros., owned by Warner Communications, which also owned a long list of assets that included DC Comics and Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment, which in turn owned MTV and Nickelodeon. And that's pretty much the story of the modern creative arts, really; when Jack White rescued the Paramount Records catalog from the dustbin of history, he was reviving the long-dormant assets of a label that was started as a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company, whose owners wanted to give consumers something to stuff in their line of record cabinets.
We like to think of art as pure, in other words, but money is the fuel that speeds its journey from artist to audience, and ever has it been thus. You can snark on Jack Conte for not explicitly pointing out that he helped found a company that's feeding into his band's bottom line, but owning a stake in Patreon doesn't make him any less "pure" as an artist than taking money from Hyundai did, and allegedly using his post as a "branded content" promotional stunt for the company doesn't invalidate the numbers in his essay; in fact, it only reinforces its broader point, which is that artists need to take a holistic approach to funding their art. A recording act can no longer depend on (or even really dream of) having its lifestyle subsidized by one multinational mega-corporation that happens to be in the business of promoting and distributing music -- they need to attract the attention of as many sponsors as possible, and directly sell their self-released records to as many fans as possible in the bargain.
What the essay's viraldom and backlash might illustrate most clearly is that there's no one right way of accomplishing those goals anymore, and that no two bands are going to face the same reaction to their efforts. For every Patreon-style hue and cry, there's another corporate/rock marriage that doesn't raise an eyebrow, like North Face's new My Morning Jacket-soundtracked ad campaign.
Deals like these have always been the price of a ticket to the mainstream -- there are more of them now, and sometimes they're easier to forget, but they serve the same essential function they always have, furthering the long, occasionally clumsy and/or bitter union between art and commerce. Worrying about who's signing the checks is useful enough, in its way; still, rather than hunting down supposed fakes and sellouts, we might be better off considering what would happen if conglomerates and venture capitalists stopped throwing money at our favorite artists.