The Lesson of Rockonomics:  There’s No Way to Get Off the Road

Ideas and Issues
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Milan  In recent years, I’ve found it harder and harder to reduce travel.  In fact, the trendline has been moving in the other direction, closer to 60% rather than the higher half-and-half, I’ve learned to live with.  Luckily, I’ve finally cajoled mi companera to travel and work with me more, so I’ve been able to cheat and keep my finger on the 50-50 scale.

I know it’s not something that just confronts organizers though, because as a radio station manger in a couple of locations and the email-answering proprietor of the Fair Grinds Coffeehouses in New Orleans, I am besieged on a daily basis by musicians.  Their promoters are relentless, but easy to ignore.  The musicians themselves, who are trying to break into radio play or land a gig on a tour to get their music heard, are heartbreakers though.  Many of them are trying to get some ears on a new song or album.  You can read in the strain of their sentences the hope and desire that is almost palpable.

When they want to play at Fair Grinds, they offer to put together a bill with other groups and make a claim of friends in the area and their ability to draw a crowd.  It took me a while, but I have a standard message, the email equivalent of a form letter, that I’ve developed over the last eight years, saying essentially, sure, glad to have you, look at our calendar and tell us what’s good, but it’s all busking and selling your swag, because we’re an old school coffeehouse, and we don’t pay.  My message evolved over the years from the euphemistic to the blunt about the money, because I know they are desperate to cover their costs or make a bit, but as a social enterprise, so are we.  Some would continue to plead, asking if I was sure or did I really mean that we would pay, or at least provide free food and drink.  It hurt to say no, but that was the only answer we could afford as well.  Radio is no different, except that I hear from even more aspiring musicians, desperate to build an audience, no matter the genre.  All of them attach links to Bandcamp or SoundCloud or send mp3s.  They all are begging for a helping hand or a bit of luck.  You want to help them all, but there’s no way to do so.

Reading Rockonomics: A Backstage Tour of What the Music Industry Can Teach Us About Economics and Life by the late economics rock star, Alan Krueger, confirmed all of my worst fears.  Only two of ten albums breakeven.  Musicians make almost all of their money on the road, if they make money at all since the average wage is hardly $20,000 a year for professionals.  The top 50 superstars make 85% or so of the money in a small industry with a limited market.

Krueger postulates the same for books, and as the publisher of Social Policy Press, I had come to the same sorry conclusion.  Unless the authors, whether me or others, are willing to go hard on the road to pump the books, they won’t get sold, and if they don’t get sold, they don’t get read.  Heavy on the road with Nuts and Bolts:  The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing, it went to a second printing.  No one on the road with Campaigns:  Lessons from the Field last year, a great book has still not broken even.  We published Ken Reardon’s new book, Building Bridges:  Community and University Partnerships in East St. Louis, this week, but only after I bargained him on the road to hawk the book before we agreed to publish.  As an organizer, I’m used to figuring the numbers, and I think it takes something like fifty, yes, 50, events by an author or authors to get the book out far and wide enough to have an impact and of course to breakeven.

It’s not all rock and roll, it’s organizing, and once you start, take it from me, there seems no way to get off the road if you want to make it work.

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Please enjoy Willie Nelson’s Have You Seen the Rain?

Thanks to KABF.