Give the Gift of Prog This Christmas

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Our Fractal Mirror transatlantic musical experience and our attempt to land a deal have been an education on recording economics and the commercial appeal of prog.  As part of our discussions with several labels we have been able to see sales on some well-known and respected artists.  It is amazing that many of the CDs we know well sell less than a few thousand units, and it is typical for the smaller bands to be in the 500-1,000 range.  Re-releases and live vintage recordings might sell less than 500 units.  The implications for the artist are:

  • record cheap or at home or self fund or all of the above (like we did-self recorded, paid for studio for drums, self funded mixing/mastering with well-known engineer/producer)
  • have fans sponsor the recording
  • don’t expect heavy promotion-use social media
  • don’t quit your day job.

Bands often make more touring-if they can find the gigs, selling t-shirts and CDs at the shows, than they make from Amazon/iTunes.  While we are spoiled with great music, especially in 2013, the CD sales don’t justify the number of bands and offerings and it is only the new economics of digital recordings and distribution and the artist’s love of the music that makes all this possible.

As a basis of comparison, I have 2 nephews active in the Philadelphia music scene ages 26 and 30:

Bacio is an indie shoe gazer band-their friends in some of the more successful bands in the Philly/Lehigh Valley have recording budgets of $10-$40k, and are selling thousands of each CD.  He likes some of the prog I play for him but it is a bit too busy for him. Shoe gazer/teen/twenty something bands get bigger budgets on average and sell more. 

Psychic Teens-post punk (think New Order/Doors) was just named one of Spin’s top 5 up and coming bands, they were named best new band in Philly by U of Penn’s WXPN, and their CD received numerous accolades.  The new CD “COME took 2 year to record as funded 50% with a small label in PA, publicity all word of mouth, live shows and social media, and they have sold out on their first vinyl pressing.  (Punk and post punk music stores are a huge draw, especially with vinyl).  They have played 2 short tours to fund the recording of their next CD.  But they play between Richmond, DC, NY and Boston on weekends so it is a young man’s game to hold FT jobs and play on weekends like that.  The band used to love prog, but have shifted to more of a wall of noise, heavy sound after becoming disenchanted with the instrumental prowess of prog. 

Big Big Train, Glass Hammer and a few other popular bands have figured out the new economics quite well.  They are thrifty, keep their day jobs, invest in the right recording equipment and bring in good people as needed to compliment their sound.  Self-funding with extended distribution relationships, a strong ground force and positive press reviews helps them realize more money on each sale than a typical band signed to a traditional label.  Earnings go back into better recording technology and new projects.  They might not be getting rich but have ‘earned’ the right to bigger and better productions through their business model. 

There are also a number of new labels such as BEM and Third Contact that are more ‘cooperatives’ that facilitate distribution, share the costs with the band, and enable more dollars per sale to reach the band.  This trend will likely continue to grow in popularity with smaller bands who are not likely to become the next big commercial hit.

 It is clear that (almost) no one is getting ‘rich’ on prog and most bands need to keep their day jobs, limiting their touring time and ability to produce new music. Sadly the audience is aging along with the bands.  Since much of the prog crowd is looking like grey haired men (self portrait)  with X-Large being the preferred t-shirt size I worry about the longevity of the audience.  This is especially true if it is not at least break even for the labels if the band is lucky enough to be signed, or if it a cost out of their pocket for the band.  There are years that personal investments in time and expense are not possible as families grow and wives tire of hearing about the next music production.  Logistics are a challenge as band members relocate.  In summary, it takes a ton of work to produce an album and distribute it, often with little or no recognition.  I have definite concerns for the future of the genre, but there are more bands than ever producing great music so maybe there will be increased sales in the near future and the new economics will allow this trend to continue.  

Thank goodness these artists love their music!  So if you think 2013 has been an excellent year for prog, give your favorite artists a great Christmas, give the gift of prog this holiday!  They will appreciate it, and hopefully they sell enough to make more great music in the future!

 (Deck the Halls image by Brian Watson)

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Best of CD list by David Elliott/The European Perspective.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Give the Gift of Prog This Christmas

  1. Frank, you’ve learned a lot in a short time and have a good “grasp” of what it is today to be in a prog band that can be “known” to many on line within the “prog world” but far from selling out entire orders of CDs and even farther from the domain of trashed hotel rooms and sniffing blow off strippers bellies. 😉 You say many bands we know (and I’d imagine like or at least admire) sell less than “a few thousand units”. I’d venture to say we know many bands that we think are great and even sell less than that first 1000 CDs. Your bullet points? Right on-except possibly the fans sponsoring the recording. Some people have a bad reaction to it but we (3RDegree) did ok with crowd-funding our mastering/manufacturing after we finished the final mixes and were ready to release. And we didn’t even use Kickstarter or PledgeMusic-just went on trust with our fan base which was nice. We do project studio (self) recording on every instrument except drums at a medium sized studio and would mix ourselves too (if it wasn’t for those meddling kids!) if any of us possessed such skills. So, we “outsource” mixing, mastering and drums recording. Ditto on “the not getting rich on Prog” and more importantly -day jobs limiting touring time, etc. We were asked very recently to open for Thank You Scientist (ProgDay 2013, ROSfest 2014) at a “non-Prog” local venue two months from now. As we are getting together bi-weekly with our drummer to go over 8 songs we want to record on drums in the middle of February, we had to figure out if we can do a show at a decent quality level AND be ready with those songs’ drum arrangements. Some members of the band are a bit more into playing live, some paint a rosier picture of our ability to do both but ultimately because of “lives getting in the way” we know now that in 2 months, we would not be able to pull both things off and I’ve sadly had to say “no” to an advantageous concert pairing with a band that draws a pretty good “prog-loving” audience. Fractal Mirror and 3RDegree also have in common-one member thousands of miles away as one of our guitarists/writers is in Los Angeles with the rest of the band in NJ and CT. The work of getting the album “out there” is time consuming and full of homework and lots of babysitting. This work oftentimes falls on the one savvy guy in the band who doesn’t mind doing lots of “non-musical” work. Part of the reason that we signed to a label is that I wanted to do less of this sort of work and focus more on the music.

    But if I had anything else to dispense it’s to look at what we did. We sort of came out of nowhere in ’08/’09 and spent an entire album cycle DIY-style getting our name out there, our CD to reviewers, setting up all the website presence, and landing ProgDay ’09. Although we could have signed with a label if we looked hard enough (I guess), we put out a follow-up album DIY-style again in ’12 and further grew our fan base although no festival appearance. So although we did the right things getting the album out and pre-funding in ’12, we found ourselves lacking in the live concert area late in the year and had to regroup in ’13 by adding another guitarist and then signed with a label for back catalog but mainly next year’s studio release-our 5th overall.

    Looks like you’re on the right track and understand what you’ve gotten yourselves into. I look forward to hearing your album!

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  2. Frank Urbaniak

    Thanks Robert. I guess patience and persistence is the key-but at 61 I don’t have too many years to do this before arthritis takes over so I am probably not as patient as I need to be!

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