Indie Rock Economics

If you listen to indie rock, you’re probably familiar with Grizzly Bear, a moderately successful musical act that has sold out shows at Radio City Music Hall, sold hundreds of thousands of albums, and has had their music featured in a Super Bowl commercial for Volkswagen and the Twilight soundtrack. Despite all this, the band members are having a difficult time earning a middle-income living, according to this week’s cover story in New York magazine.

For much of the late-twentieth century, you might have assumed that musicians with a top-twenty sales week and a Radio City show—say, the U2 tour in 1984, after The Unforgettable Fire—made at least as much as their dentists. Those days are long and irretrievably gone, but some of the mental habits linger. “People probably have an inflated idea of what we make,” says Droste. “Bands appear so much bigger than they really are now, because no one’s buying records. But they’ll go to giant shows.” Grizzly Bear tours for the bulk of its income, like most bands; licensing a song might provide each member with “a nice little ‘Yay, I don’t have to pay rent for two months.’ ” They don’t all have health insurance. Droste’s covered via his husband, Chad, an interior designer; they live in the same 450-square-foot Williamsburg apartment he occupied before Yellow House. When the band tours, it can afford a bus, an extra keyboard player, and sound and lighting engineers. (That U2 tour had a wardrobe manager.) After covering expenses like recording, publicity, and all the other machinery of a successful act (“Agents, lawyers, tour managers, the merch girl, the venues take a merch cut; Ticketmaster takes their cut; the manager gets a percentage; publishers get a percentage”), Grizzly Bear’s members bring home … well, they’d rather not get into it. “I just think it’s inappropriate,” says Droste. “Obviously we’re surviving. Some of us have health insurance, some of us don’t, we basically all live in the same places, no one’s renting private jets. Come to your own conclusions.”

Ed Droste lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg, which he and his husband have transformed into a very nice place to live thanks to Chad’s design skills. Droste says he’d like to stop renting and buy a house somewhere where he could raise a family one day, but says that’d only be financially feasible if he toured with Grizzly Bear for the rest of his life, which is unlikely. But he’s not complaining either, because he gets to do what he loves, and is making it work for now, which counts for a lot too.

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9 Comments / Post A Comment

Hasn’t anyone told Droste that for the money he pays in rent, he could afford a house almost anywhere else? I mean, granted, not a house decorated with high-end items from modernica and brooklyn kitchen, but…

MargaretMead (#2,229)

@Jake Reinhardt Seriously, he could be living in a third-tier midwestern city! With a sun porch!

Megano! (#124)

Wow, not even with commercial money? I find that a tad hard to believe.

deepomega (#22)

“Come to your own conclusions” + Apartment in Williamsburg = 6 figures, easy. Especially if we’re talking household income. Which is why New York should have an official motto: “Where the rich get to feel like they’re actually struggling to scrape by.”

deepomega (#22)

@deepomega My favorite thing is when people act like middle class is a fucking checklist of luxuries. “Well, we don’t have a three bedroom house, so we CAN’T be middle class!”

@deepomega did you see that balcony? There was room for a CHAIR, a CHAIR I tell you!!

EM (#1,012)

@deepomega Fair criticism, but I do think that this is interesting. Considering Grizzly Bear is more successful than 95-99% of indie bands and this is the very top tier of income in that profession, you’d think it would be higher.

I think it’s too bad that for creative professions there isn’t more transparency about what people can expect to earn, or how feasible it is without the support of a partner/parents/trust fund/etc. The music industry especially seems pretty weird and convoluted.

MargaretMead (#2,229)

I’ve observed that the commentariat have a tendency to become ‘lifestyle’ police in a lot of ways.
My takeaway from this article is that they are able to maintain a comfortable but in no ways extravagant existence living in the city that is the capital for their industry. Their income doesn’t really reflect the amount of time that they have invested in their careers.

P.J. Morse (#665)

@MargaretMead Indie rock won’t make you rich. But Grizzly Bear has done well in their chosen profession, so I don’t get why they wouldn’t make more money. I wonder if they had a lawyer on hand when they signed their contracts.

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