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The finances of working as an indie musician were recently delved into in a piece for Vulture by Uproxx contributor Larry Fitzmaurice. The piece interviewed 17 musicians, ranging from the internet-famous indie lifer Cass McCombs to the backing players in emo luminaries American Football, and they paint a picture of financial struggle in the name of art. “We don’t make enough money to afford an apartment,” McCombs noted, adding, “I know pretty much half of the musicians in existence have a side job of some sort.”
The story surprised some and felt obvious to others, especially when it comes to many of the bands that aren’t regulars in the glossy digital pages of music websites. Responses included the band Mannequin Pussy, who asked whether many bands, particularly ones still finding their audience, even deserved the status of being full-time musicians.
Mannequin Pussy emphasized the fact that for struggling bands, uh, struggle is hardly news. For people who have followed the indie scene closely, it’s a story that’s been told time and time again, with projects that were getting good reviews, attracting solid turnouts at small shows, getting booked in the small print at festivals, and even landing the occasional sync or branded opportunity still falling by the wayside. On the recent podcast Coffee & Flowers, The National revealed that even after the relative success of their third album Alligator, they were of the mind that if their fourth record Boxer didn’t find them taking the next step, that would probably be the death of the band, noting that groups generally don’t have four unsuccessful albums and keep going.
As a fan of aughts indie rock, it was something I’d seen happen to bands like San Francisco’s Beulah (who, coincidentally, released four career albums without ever making a huge commercial dent) and Modesto’s Grandaddy. The former went as far to name their final album Yoko and title a documentary about their run A Good Band Is Easy To Kill (when the release that is pegged to be your breakthrough comes out on September 11, 2001, maybe you were doomed from the start), while the latter openly commented that their eventual demise hinged on the commercial aspirations of some band members never quite being met. Success for many indie bands is not measured in blog posts and 7.0+ Pitchfork reviews. Critical acclaim can rarely pay the rent.