The Broke Musician Complex

There are a lot of expenses when it comes to being in a band.  Rehearsals, recording, gear, transport, stagewear, PR, artwork, marketing, lighting and sound guys…the list goes on.  

We all know that feeling of shelling out a chunk of dough that you feel like has had little to no return whatsoever. To spend years grinding away on a local level never feeling like your audience is growing and wondering why you’re not being offered any bigger opportunities like tour supports or management.

This feeling, especially when money comes into it, breaks up bands.  Makes people jaded. Builds the type of resentment that can apparently only be sufficiently communicated by a punk or rock guitarist through a cathartic post in a Music group on Facebook (we’ve all read these amiright?

Money. People are funny when it comes to money.  

But when you mix the intense burning and opinionated passion of being a musician with the limiting beliefs about money that most people have (money is evil, money doesn’t grow on trees, things are expensive, musicians don’t make money, managers will fuck you over), things can get hairy AF.  

These beliefs that a lot of the public hold are only perpetuated by something I like to call the ‘Broke Musician Complex.’

When I was younger I thought I HAD to be a broke musician in order to be a real artist.  So I moved into a studio apartment in Kings Cross when I was 21 with a bad boy from the scene, no job, and nothing to do all day but plan to be famous and commiserate together on how tough life is as a musician. #emokid

I didn’t realise until years later that this idea that I had to (poetically) suffer in order to create worthy art was a complete sham.  Trust me, there’s enough suffering going on in the world to draw inspiration from without needing to intentionally put ourselves in unhealthy situations. 

This Broke Musician Complex – which I guess is like the ‘Starving Artist’ thing but more specific to musicians – was a learned idea that had stemmed from years and years of reading rockstar biographies that glorified povery and being told by adults that people in the creative industries do not make any money.  Through therapy, a business coach and a shit ton of self-development, I have started to break through this limiting belief.  

After all, there are plenty of examples of musicians living the good life and people making money from music – hell, I have a whole business where my entire clientele is emerging bands that pay me to teach them things.  This proves that many bands are willing to pay for things they see value in. But many aren’t.

There are certain things that if we are pursuing a career in music, we must invest in.  We’ll get to these in a moment. But it’s understandable that with all the things a band needs to pay for, it’s hard to motivate 5 individuals with sometimes wavering commitment to the music industry, to all be on the same page when it comes to throwing coin at a band with no foreseeable guaranteed way to make a profit.

This tension around money is likely compounded by a lack of transparency about what other (rising) bands are investing in. The effect is that often bands skimp out on things that are actually essential.  Unfortunately skimping out on things like pro photos or aspects of actually promoting the music they’ve spent all this money to record, ends up costing them money (not to mention, time, energy and sanity) in the long term.

The thing is, people can tell when you’ve DYI’d something and in the age of social media, you never know who is watching. So if people see that you don’t believe in your music enough to invest in it, why should they invest in you either?

The bad impressions we make initially can sometimes haunt us for years.  I know I’ve been haunted by some poor decisions I’ve made in the past! But we all make mistakes and if like me, you’ve spent money on some of the no-nos I list further down, don’t fret, you haven’t blown it!

Through the course of my work, I’ve found that aside from this Broke Musician Complex and lack of transparency within the industry, many musicians are still confused when it comes to this magical invention called social media.  Since the Myspace days, social media has given artists a direct link to their fans. We no longer need the same gatekeepers like labels or booking agents to start building a fanbase and making headway in our careers. It’s fucking great!

But just because we now have this mostly free method to build a fanbase, does not mean that you will never have to spend money on getting more exposure.  It also does not override the fact that a band is a business. Like any business, you must spend money (wisely) to make money.  

Look, investing piles of money into something and not knowing when you’ll break even let alone see a return is one of the scariest things imaginable.  It’s how the music industry chews people up and spits them out. But this is where passion, integrity, faith, having non-monetary related goals, constantly learning and trying to have fun come into it.  These intentions and more help us all ride the wave of uncertainty that plagues any entrepreneurial venture (and I’m sorry to say, does not ever die down).

Because do you know what’s scarier?  Waking up at 75 years old and regretting that you didn’t believe in yourself enough to fully back your dreams.

What sparked this article was the below tweet from a friend in the industry combined with some financial planning I did with my own band.

“But I’m all about the music man.”  This is a phrase I’ve heard a lot and I get it.  But if you’re all about the music bro, how come you aren’t doing everything in your power to ensure you can turn your band into a viable business?  It’s a contradictory statement in my eyes.  

I realise as artists, not everyone is naturally savvy or interested when it comes to business or marketing.  But these are skills you can and must learn if you want to have any sort of success. You can also employ a team around you to take care of many of these aspects as well.

So, to fully clarify the situation, here are some things that are worth the investment that your band absolutely MUST invest in if you want to grow and have a chance at success.

Good ways to spend your money:

  • A producer to help you with your songs 
  • Good production 
  • Pro album artwork
  • Amazing video clip
  • Pro band photos
  • PR
  • Marketing i.e. Facebook and Spotify Ads
  • Cool merch designs
  • Applying to play a genuine showcase like Bigsound
  • A consultant to help you strategise so you spend your money wisely
  • Courses and books that will teach you how to do all of the above professionally and effectively to save you time and money in the longterm.

I’m not saying to go overboard on these things. Shop around, do your research. I would never recommend a band spend over 5k on a video when they’re first starting out, for example.

Bad ways to spend your money:

  • Renting a van/flying to tour to a different city where you’re not sure what the turnout will be like at the show
  • Not to mention petrol/food/accom for the above
  • Facebook ads for music with poor album art or that is poorly recorded
  • Making an album too early in your career (even signed bands aren’t doing albums with their labels)
  • Band comps/showcases that have no proven track record of giving bands a leg up
  • Music degrees if you think you’ll get a job out of it
  • Hiring a friend with a camera to shoot a music video/do your band photos (most of the time)
  • Managers that do things that you can do yourself
  • Labels that you have to pay up front for some reason (i.e. instead of recouping)
  • A 4th guitar
  • Weekend benders

…and I’m sure there are many more things I can add to both these lists that I’ve missed. If you can think of any I’d love for you to share in the comments as this will help the rest of the community.

Here are a few final thoughts when it comes to your band and it’s finances:  

  • Budget for more than you think.  That way if you’re under, it’s a bonus!
  • Calling yourself a “broke musician” perpetuates the problem of not feeling worthy enough to be paid properly or receive financial compensation for your work.  This, in turn, supports the public’s perception that music or art isn’t worth paying for and Judith will continue to post in the Brunswick Musicians Facebook Group that she is looking for a band to play at insert shitty bar here in exchange for “exposure.” **
  • Spending money is a lot easier when you’re releasing music you’re so incredibly proud of and so excited about that you will do anything to get it out there
  • Every time you invest in your band, try to feel excited that you are one step closer to your goals.  Your mindset is key.
  • Make sure you’re splitting the finances evenly between all band members – ensure everyone is equally invested literally and figuratively 
  • Band members are more likely to quit right before you invest a chunk-o-change into something like a video
  • Other bands are investing in themselves and you will be right beside them on Spotify
  • Get advice/help from someone you trust to navigate the business side of your band

If you reached the end of this article, well kudos to you as I know its long. My goal is never to throw shade but simply empower musicians and in this case, empower them to invest in themselves! Peace!

*Judith is not a real person and as far as I know there is no Brunswick Musicians Facebook Group.

P.S. One of the things I highly recommend investing in is PR. It really takes a band to the next level in terms of traction and credibility not to mention all the interviews and radio play coming through make for great content. If you cant hire a pro, make sure you check out my PR course, PR Made Simple here.