The Economics of Indie Rock

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Sloan has a storied history and could be described as the godfather of modern Canadian indie rock bands, which many prominent artists are more than happy to point out. This is their 20th anniversary, and by all that is fair and just a band of this import should easily sell out Rock and Roll Hotel, regardless of which night of the week they perform. In fact, they shouldn’t be playing anywhere smaller than 9:30 Club given their incredible and prolific body of work.  I don’t know that there is an exact parallel in the States to the role they’ve played in Canadian music, but there might be a little bit of Sonic Youth and a bit of Pavement, not in terms of their sound but in terms of the influence their oeuvre and D.I.Y. attitude carries to this day in the Great White North.

The other night I saw Sloan yet again, and yet again it was a quality show. But at the start something was just a bit off of their habitually riproarin’ intensity, as there was when I saw them at Jumpin’ Java in late June. The crowd was probably twice the size of that earlier show, but again the pond was not fully stocked. Both shows were on Monday nights, traditionally the toughest night of the week to fill a room, and a night crowds are normally less boisterous, regardless of size. An obvious contrast is with the show I witnessed at T.T. the Bear’s Place in Cambridge, MA the night after the Jumpin’ Java show; that show was off-the-charts-awesome and packed to the gills.  You know how athletes often say how they feed off a roaring home crowd, and how difficult it can be to play in a sterile or hostile environment?  Well, it seems logical that musical artists are not immune from psychology and a resulting drop in their intensity when they’re not getting the love they need from the crowd.


We all love those cliches about “being a professional,” and, “bringing your A-game every day,” but we also know these to be more aspirational than truth for most people.  You and me….we aren’t any different…sometimes stuff happens…things aren’t going as swimmingly.  And, despite how “professional” we may wish to be or even think we are being, it’s often reflected in one’s work, their relationships with friends, and their ability to convince potential romantic partners that one is, in fact, a worthy partner.  I’ve both witnessed this and have been guilty of this more times than I’d like to admit.  Let’s stipulate that this just is the way things are for most people. People that include the members of Sloan, who were so clearly frustrated at the beginning of their show that they had the temerity to insult the city / audience in a manner that clearly was less jocular and more biting than acceptable. In short, professional decorum escaped them for a few minutes.

Post-show, I had the opportunity to speak with a couple of members of the band: touring keyboardist Greg MacDonald and the inimitable and comedic Chris Murphy.  MacDonald had a look of frustration on his face, and it quickly removed my post-show afterglow (while the show had started a bit slowly, it picked up the pace, threw in some deep cuts, and ended strongly in full crescendo). He spoke of the wives and kids and mortgages the band had back in Toronto, the difficulty of being away and living that rock and roll life when loved ones are waiting at home.  The difficulty of paying that mortgage with uncertain revenue streams, and the cost of touring.  I was shocked to learn that it basically costs them, all-in, about $15,000 to travel and put on a show. Each show. For one of the first times, I thought a bit more about the rough economics that can face an indie band as they ply their trade.

Chris seemed quite frustrated at the lackluster attendance, and equally unaware about some the potential promotional things that are required to get attention from the kids in DC.  I got the sense that this was something that has been building, and wasn’t a one-night thing. It’s not that they don’t do their share of marketing, it’s that it’s contained in the bubble comprised of Sloan fans.  They use social media actively, they post videos…they are certainly putting in the old college try in a modernistic fashion.  The rules have shifted, though, in the 20 years that they have been kicking out their jams. Today, people get their information from different sources — even beyond Facebook and twitter — and their attention span for older proven acts is often subjugated to their time for the newest, latest, and greatest thing….which quite often is the latest but not the greatest thing.

So, do web sites like brightest young things, DCist, and others-that-the-kids-dig pay attention to a tried-and-true indie pop band of Sloan’s proportions, or do they focus so much upon the latest/greatest and the zeitgeist of new-wave/electro-pop that they miss diamonds not even obscured in the rough?  Well, here’s what they chose to cover that night. Now, don’t get me wrong.  I like the Japandroids, but they’re toiling in the East Coast Hockey League and Sloan is an NHL division champion. Hipster chic wins out over once-upon-a-time hipster substance, I guess. So, it’s a mutual thing.  The newish promotional vehicles are run by the young and hip for the young and wanna-be-hip, and accomplished hipsters like the guys in Sloan are unaware of these newish media outlets that have become essential to each local scene. The days of ‘zines are over, and even legendary hipsters have trouble keeping up with the kids these days.

Now, clearly, their touring costs are substantially related to not operating ascetically as a young band traveling in a cramped-up van.  They have the sort of tour bus that an act playing 9:30 Club might have: if they’re more established and financially secure.  I’m sure the economics of that bus and the three / four accompanying roadies and sound guys are a big expense, and also a reflection of one of my all time favorite lyrics, courtesy of Mr. Tim Booth: “If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor.”

The economics of selling indie tunes isn’t necessarily that great these days either, unless you’re a blockbuster band.  The economics of this bus and crew probably work out quite well when playing bigger venues in Canada of selected cities Stateside, but a half-full venue like Rock and Roll Hotel clearly does not support this relatively luxurious travel.  Here’s the rub….they’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’m sure it’s come to the point where they’re either going to do it in some modicum of comfort, or they’re not going to do it at all.  Selfishly, I badly want them to keep playing.  Logically, I’m not sure if the prevailing economics will grant me another chance to do so.

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.