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Making Sense of Pomplamoose – Professor Simon Frith


Making Sense of Pomplamoose – Professor Simon Frith

Towards the close of 2014, Pompaloose’s Jack Conte posted a detailed breakdown of their 23 date US tour income and costs, and provoked a lively blogosphere debate. With the dust settled, Live Music Exchange’s Professor Simon Frith discusses what can be learned from the post and the spectrum of perspectives it mobilised. 

Back in December (2014) the Californian musical duo, Pomplamoose, caused a brief stir in the blogosphere when the band’s Jack Conte posted the financial details of their recently completed US tour (23 cities, 24 shows; total ticket sales of nearly $100,000) under the headline, ‘Pomplamoose 2014 Tour Profits (or Lack Thereof)’. The bottom line was this: income $135,983; expenditure $147,802; loss $11,819.

The post was immediately picked up and passed on, initially by sympathetic commentators.  It was, John Biggs suggested in Techcrunch, “a surprising display of transparency”.

Conte’s data is fascinating. As an artifact of the touring process it is amazingly valuable. You could use his post as a blueprint to musical success, following it step-by-step in order to plan, implement, and sell a tour. As an artifact of the Indie thought process, whose message is that we no longer need large actors to smooth out the risk of the creative process, the post is inspiring and impressive. And, as a feel good story, it’s great to know that even though they lost money, Conte and Dawn actually make a monthly income from the band, something any artist would love to claim.

Other bloggers were less sympathetic and, indeed, seemed particularly aggrieved by the positive responses. As Bob Lefsetz put it: “I don’t hate Jack Conte. I hate the people who are forwarding me this blog.”

These negative commentators can be divided into three types. First there were people (musicians or ex-musicians) who suggested that Pomplamoose’s tour finances revealed not the usually hidden reality of touring but, rather, the incompetence and self-delusion of the duo itself. In Pitchfork, for example, Santos Montano (from the band, Old Man Gloom) suggested that what one could conclude from Pomplamoose’s numbers is that “these young people are horrible with money, and/or really, really bad at booking and planning a tour”.  For Nick Wood (from the band, Direct Hit), writing in Noisy, it was “obvious to most touring musicians who read it [Conte’s post] that there was a ton of excess that could have been avoided…”

Both these writers, like the musicians commenting under Bob Lefsetz’s Pomplamoose post, seemed particularly irritated by the false impression people were getting from Jack Conte that touring didn’t/couldn’t pay.  Gnarled old-timers lined up to list the ways in which Pomplamoose’s expenses were foolish (too much money spent on hotels, transport, equipment, lighting, crew etc., etc.), and to preach the virtue of bands living within their means.  Other critics suggested that Pomplamoose’s poor decision-making reflected the lack of input and advice from proper live music professionals.

A second kind of critique came from journalists rather than musicians, from commentators cynical about both the Pomplamoose data and Jack Conte’s reasons for making them public. One suggestion here was that the post was just a way of getting publicity, the band’s supposed ‘losses’ a way of manipulating the figures in order to get headlines.  Another suggestion, in Gawker, for example, was that what was being sold here was not Pomplamoose but Conte’s crowd-funding business, Patreon.

Someone called Andy summed up this argument on Bob Lefsetz’s site:

If you read the article carefully, it’s a well-designed advertisement that states that you can’t make money on tour, but you make more money on this one site Patreon than you can on iTunes and Loudr. Pomplamoose even has a page on this one site Patreon that they provide a link to.

But Jack Conte is a cofounder of Patreon – and in fact – while he’s complaining about not making money on tour – his company Patreon has raised over 17 MILLION dollars from angel investors and other investors over the past year. He doesn’t disclose this in the article – because the article is facially an article “letting his fans who asked him questions about what its like to have ‘made it'” know how his touring expenses are.

Meanwhile, in the article, he’s selling a lifestyle of the starving artist – an artist who can make money by producing comics, coding, music and the like – all services that Patreon supplies crowdfunding for.

Pretty devious, eh?

Third, bloggers suggested that Pomplamoose should stop wingeing and understand capitalism, a view, as ever, most pithily expressed by Bob Lefsetz himself:

What don’t you get about capitalism?  The law of supply and demand? … Music is a business. And if you’re not getting rich, give up or change … if you’re not a successful artist it’s your fault. 

So that’s that then!  End of story. Well maybe. Pomplamoose probably have had their moment in the digital spotlight.  But I’m also sure that the debate they started is more interesting than Bob Lefsetz suggests, a point also made in the most thoughtful commentaries on Jack Conte’s original posting: Ari Herstand, in Digital Music News; Annie Lowrey, in New York Magazine; Nicole Dieker, in The Billfold and Jeremy on the Cleartone site.

What’s instructive about this story, in short, is not whether or not touring bands like Pomplamoose can or do make a profit from live performance, but why and how this question came to be discussed so intensely.

To begin with, why did people get so excited about a performing band releasing detailed figures of its revenue and expenditure?  Aren’t such figures widely enough known already?  Think about all those musicians out there touring and drawing up their own balance sheets.  As far as I could tell, working musicians made up the majority of the people writing about Pomplamoose and some of these (Santos Montana and Nick Wood, for example) were quick to make public their own contrasting tour statistics.  And while I can that understand academics like me find it very useful to get the numbers on a plate, as it were, surely even we have easy enough access to working musicians who could tell us precisely what they spend and earn.

Perhaps, but maybe the value of Jack Conte’s posting was not its ‘transparent’ account of tour finances, but as a reminder that tour finances are not the sorts of thing that can be transparent.   Live music events involve a variety of payments by and to a variety of people; the live music economy involves trust relations (which may or may not take contractual form) between people who, on the whole, don’t really trust each other.  There is long and well-documented history, for example, of bands and their mangers doubting, with good reason, promoters’ and venues’ ticket sales figures.  Even now, particularly at the lower levels of the business, there are numerous cash transactions that may or may not appear in anyone’s accounts.  Those commentators who seemed to start with the assumption Conte’s numbers weren’t to be trusted, that they didn’t ‘add up’ were simply expressing a commonplace suspicion of all figures in live music accounting.

Which is to lead into another point: we’re anyway not talking raw statistics here but accounting decisions, the ways in which figures are grouped on one side of the balance sheet or the other.  The money Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn pay themselves, for example, could come under either the expenditure or the income heading.  And there’s an even bigger issue in accounting terms: the time scale.  If tour funding is treated not as a self-contained financial entity but as part of a longer term calculus of expenditure and return then what is described here as a ‘loss’ is actually an investment, which may or may not be offset by returns still to come.

The Pomplamoose figures, in other words, were interesting for contradictory reasons, as both facts that are not usually available and for making clear (in the subsequent online discussions) that such facts are in themselves ideological constructs, to be interpreted according to different notions of what musicians are worth.  The question became: what, really, were Pomplamoose’s necessary costs?

In the end, then, the Pomplamoose debate was not about how tour costs do work but how they should work.  The question, as Nicole Dieker put it, became “how comfortably does your band deserve to tour?” [my italics]   A leathery array of macho musicians rose up to remember sleeping one atop another in their minivans, living off the fastest of fast food, putting up with rickety dressing rooms and even ricketier sound systems and, of course, using no fancy lighting at all!  Hence the suggestion that Pomplamoose, in budgeting for decent hotel rooms and meals, had a misplaced sense of ‘entitlement’.

[As an aside, I was struck by the fact that the best ripostes to these diatribes were written by female bloggers.  Women musicians have long pointed out in interviews that one explanation for the continued lack of women in rock is that they are less likely than men to put up with the squalor, junk food and minimal concern for personal hygiene celebrated in autobiographical accounts of how famous rock stars ‘paid their dues’.]

Equally telling in these homilies about what musicians should expect on tour was the more or less explicit distinction between those people involved in staging live music who should expect to be paid properly (essentially those people not actually making the music) and those people who should not (the musicians).  I have blogged here already about the problem of playing-for-nothing but I was, nevertheless, amazed by how many musicians criticised Jack Conte for paying his band a decent salary—he had only himself to blame if he subsequently toured at a loss!

I was also surprised that the Pomplamoose post so obviously touched a nerve of what one might call professional amour propre.  Jack Conte is, in this respect, just the latest in a long line of DIY musician/entrepreneurs accused by the musical establishment of ignorance, naivety, arrogance, etc.   But this was to miss the point of his argument.  Conte was not moaning about losing money on a tour or implying that Pomplamoose somehow deserved to make money from their music. Rather, he was showing that, for a band that has used digital business opportunities rather well, live music is not a solution to the problem of the inadequate financial return from downloads, YouTube viewings, etc.  And this is an important point to make when gig income is being posited as a replacement for the money that would once have come from record sales (and remember we are not talking major groups or major sales here, but the financial rewards for bands with the kind of cult following which would once been enough to enable its members to make a living from their music).

In digital terms Pomplamoose could be said to be a successful band.  Wikipedia credits them with 100,000 songs downloaded in 2009, with 429,000 subscribers to their You Tube channel and 100 million viewers by August 2014.  One reason they could set out on a 23 city tour was their confidence that they had the necessary fan base.  But digital success at this level does not translate into significant income—and it is not the basis for significant income from live performance either.  I don’t think Conte was complaining about this.  Rather he was showing that making money from music in a world without record company (or any other corporate) investment needs a new kind of financial structure, and Pomplamoose, in an old-fashioned way, duly got some sponsorship for their tour, sold merchandise, get paid for car ads, and, in a new-fashioned way, tie in their music-making enterprise with, Patreon, their successful crowd funding platform.  It’s odd, indeed, that Conte should be accused of not understanding capitalism–at the same time as being denounced for both being unwilling to suffer for his art and sneakily using a blog to market his music and his crowd funding company!

What should be remembered here is that the live music economy has never been explicable in the simple terms of supply and demand or by the suggestion that if you can’t sell ‘enough’ tickets at the ‘right’ price then you should give up.  The fact is that most live music concerts are not profitable according to that model of market forces.  At most concerts, ticket sale income is supplanted by subsidy (whether from the state or record and other media companies), sponsorship, advertising, the sales of merchandise and alcohol, parking fees, licensing fees, etc.  And, similarly, the living musicians make from live performance is necessarily supplemented (made up to a living wage) by other musical activities, whether making, selling and licensing songs and records or providing other kinds of musical service.

As what were once a significant part of this mix, actual (or potential) record sales, provide an ever-shrinking income, which returns from downloads, streaming, etc. do little to supplement, artists have to adapt.  What I learnt from Jack Conte’s post and the subsequent discussion was that these days the key investment decisions are being made by musicians themselves and not by traditional industry ‘experts’ and ‘experience’.   I would guess that when people read this online debate in ten years time, when it will indeed be a valuable archive of how people were thinking in 2014, it won’t be Pomplamoose who will seem to have misunderstood the music business. But then I’m also sure that in ten years time few people will have heard of Pomplamoose anyway. This is Conte’s own point really: musical careers just don’t work that good ole slow-build, trickle-down investment rock way anymore, whether you like a band’s music or not.

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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