The Internet is in shock after The New Yorker posted their latest cover story touting an incredibly well-written story about indie darlings Grizzly Bear selling out the 6,000 capacity Radio City Music Hall. Yet despite their success, they live like every other struggling New Yorker instead of rockstars. Articles like this seem to happen relatively often and can often have a soul-crushing effect on musicians, especially if my Facebook and Twitter feed are the barometer.
There is a missing detail that is often misunderstood about why the band is making no money – it’s not taking advantage of what the music business has to offer. Through out the article the group is portrayed as a frugal machine that travels light and even has done it’s own tour managing, which I applaud them for. But there is something missing.
As I scanned the band’s website and their label Warp‘s (one of my all time favorite label’s so any criticism should be noted that it is done with the utmost respect), I notice that nowhere is their info for pre-order packages that could help increase profits and capitalise on super fans of the group. These pre-order packages can often help escalate the recouping of a record, especially one slaved over for months on end, by taking advantage of fan enthusiasm and making a profit from fans who would happily pay for higher priced items from the group. Rather than just MP3s, CDs and vinyl.
As I get to the band’s website, there is no merch to speak of, so not only are they not taking pre-orders, they have no real way of selling their rabid fanbase anything except their music. That destroys what is often the most profitable avenue for many musicians to make money through. I have only attended one show from the band and I saw no merch there (but I could have missed it). This means they are already at a HUGE financial disadvantage to other musicians, who are constantly working to maximise this extremely profitable avenue. Just as bad, their website places little emphasis on retaining and keeping in touch with their fans, in order to sign up for their mailing list you need to dig deep into the website. This shows they put very little emphasis on maximizing a relationship with their fans that can keep them up to date and buying the things that fund a musician’s career in 2012.
The group is signed to Warp and despite being on their fourth record and having a large fanbase, they are also still beholden to splitting profits with their label. While we have no idea of knowing what percentage their label, lawyer, booking agent, publisher and manager take, we have all heard the horror stories of when this leaves a band near broke by the end of everyone take their 5-15% for each team member. Often times even taking one team member’s percentage out of that equation can be the difference of a few thousand dollars per month into the band’s pocket. From what I saw on their site, there is no attempt to sell direct-to-fan (Warp, has their own store that deals direct, but not the band’s website) and instead are at the mercy of iTunes taking 33% of their profits and the label taking their cut (as they should).
When I look at Grizzly Bear I see a band playing by the old rules of indie rock bands. Not taking advantage of fan relationships, direct-to-fan and the ability to upsell merch to their biggest fans. Their promotions are centered around making a jaw dropping video and playing the late night talk shows aka the old music industry. But, I can’t say this makes me lose any hope in musicians being able to make a good living from their music. To me this is a sad tale of a band who could be doing so much more, but simply has not taken advantage of all the great tools available in the new music business and are living worse off than they should.