I think many parents do their kids a disservice when they encourage them to ‘pursue their passions’ or that they ‘can be anything, if they put their mind to it’. For 99% of the world this is fairytale advice for a brutally pragmatic world.
Once kids leave the protection of home, they have the same relentlessly boring bills as the rest of us. The gas, electric, water and phone companies don’t put your bills on hold while you pursue your dream of becoming a creative director at an advertising agency or fiction writer.
The trouble is, many kids are encouraged to pursue their dreams and end up trapped. They get to a point where the have to decide whether or not to abandon something they’ve believed in for years.
Here’s the trouble with pursuing your dreams:
- Most people have the same dreams, so the competition is fierce. What happens when supply (in this case labour supply) is high? Prices (e.g. wages) fall. While a select few might make it, most do not. Although Johnny Depp might make millions per movie, the median hourly wage for actors in America is just $20.
- Even if wages are fair, if the supply of labour in a given field is high companies will work staff to death. Don’t like it? There are dozens of other wannabes waiting to take your place. Video game developers find themselves in this predicament all the time.
People decide to abandon their dream job either because it doesn’t pay the bills or because it sucks up their entire life. For most, neither is a great way to live.
If you’re going to survive in this world you must find a job that pays decently, provides a good work-life balance and doesn’t come with the constant threat of redundancy. These kinds of jobs are usually highly skilled, appear boring and don’t attract a ton of interest.
I’m not suggesting you trade an ‘interesting’ career for a ‘boring’ career. Quite the opposite. Careers that are sold as ‘interesting’ – like advertising – can actually be quite disappointing in reality. Every industry has mundane tasks and BS politics. When there is an endless supply of 20-something year olds willing to do anything to enter an industry who do you think will be doing those mundane tasks?
In contrast, when you’re the only actuary within a 5 mile radius, you can be more picky about what you work on.
I used to take a lot of pictures. People often commented that I should get into photography professionally, and for a while I entertained the idea. I found it enjoyable and was reasonably good at it. Before making any irrational decisions, I conducted more research and discovered two things: 1) The top photographers earning a living from their craft are true masters. While my friends enjoyed my work, I was still far from being the crème of the photographer crop. 2) I noticed many top photographers also write books, teach courses, etc. Nobody gets into photography to teach. This means they’re doing this to supplement their income. If the top photographers can’t make a living strictly taking pictures, what hope is there for me? 3) Most professional photographers warn hobbiests that the business of photography is 50% sales, 25% administration and 25% actual photography. So if you truly love taking pictures, the business of photography might be wholly unsatisfying. Discovering all this was deflating. I felt like I found something I loved and was good at. But I was also realistic. I have bills to pay, mouths to feed and didn’t want to destroy a fun hobby. So I didn’t quit my day job.
I hate to be a downer but most people eventually realize that their dreams won’t come true. There are tons of charlatans willing to sell you a dream, but if these people could truly make dreams come true they wouldn’t be selling shitty courses. Everyone arrives at a point where they realize they can’t do what they really wanted. And whether you’re mid-career or just starting out, it’s never too late to have a backup plan.
But don’t take my word for it.
Below is a surgical breakdown of what happens to almost all rock bands, originally written by Steve Albini, the manager for Nirvana and Pixies:
There’s this band. They’re pretty ordinary, but they’re also pretty good, so they’ve attracted some attention. They’re signed to a moderate-sized “independent” label owned by a distribution company, and they have another two albums owed to the label.
They’re a little ambitious. They’d like to get signed by a major label so they can have some security—you know, get some good equipment, tour in a proper tour bus—nothing fancy, just a little reward for all the hard work.
To that end, they got a manager. He knows some of the label guys, and he can shop their next project to all the right people. He takes his cut, sure, but it’s only 15%, and if he can get them signed then it’s money well spent. Anyway, it doesn’t cost them anything if it doesn’t work. 15% of nothing isn’t much!
One day an A&R scout calls them, says he’s “been following them for a while now,” and when their manager mentioned them to him, it just “clicked.” Would they like to meet with him about the possibility of working out a deal with his label? Wow. Big Break time.
They meet the guy, and y’know what—he’s not what they expected from a label guy. He’s young and dresses pretty much like the band does. He knows all their favorite bands. He’s like one of them. He tells them he wants to go to bat for them, to try to get them everything they want. He says anything is possible with the right attitude. They conclude the evening by taking home a copy of a deal memo they wrote out and signed on the spot.
The A&R guy was full of great ideas, even talked about using a name producer. Butch Vig is out of the question—he wants 100 g’s and three points, but they can get Don Fleming for $30,000 plus three points. Even that’s a little steep, so maybe they’ll go with that guy who used to be in David Letterman’s band. He only wants three points. Or they can have just anybody record it (like Warton Tiers, maybe—cost you 5 or 10 grand) and have Andy Wallace remix it for 4 grand a track plus 2 points. It was a lot to think about.
Well, they like this guy and they trust him. Besides, they already signed the deal memo. He must have been serious about wanting them to sign. They break the news to their current label, and the label manager says he wants them to succeed, so they have his blessing. He will need to be compensated, of course, for the remaining albums left on their contract, but he’ll work it out with the label himself. Sub Pop made millions from selling off Nirvana, and Twin Tone hasn’t done bad either: 50 grand for the Babes and 60 grand for the Poster Children—without having to sell a single additional record. It’ll be something modest. The new label doesn’t mind, so long as it’s recoupable out of royalties.
Well, they get the final contract, and it’s not quite what they expected. They figure it’s better to be safe than sorry and they turn it over to a lawyer—one who says he’s experienced in entertainment law—and he hammers out a few bugs. They’re still not sure about it, but the lawyer says he’s seen a lot of contracts, and theirs is pretty good. They’ll be getting a great royalty: 13% (less a 10% packaging deduction). Wasn’t it Buffalo Tom that were only getting 12% less 10? Whatever.
The old label only wants 50 grand, and no points. Hell, Sub Pop got 3 points when they let Nirvana go. They’re signed for four years, with options on each year, for a total of over a million dollars! That’s a lot of money in any man’s english. The first year’s advance alone is $250,000. Just think about it, a quarter-million, just for being in a rock band!
Their manager thinks it’s a great deal, especially the large advance. Besides, he knows a publishing company that will take the band on if they get signed, and even give them an advance of 20 grand, so they’ll be making that money too. The manager says publishing is pretty mysterious, and nobody really knows where all the money comes from, but the lawyer can look that contract over too. Hell, it’s free.
Their booking agent is excited about the band signing to a major. He says they can maybe average $1,000 or $2,000 a night from now on. That’s enough to justify a five week tour, and with tour support, they can use a proper crew, buy some good equipment and even get a tour bus! Buses are pretty expensive, but if you figure in the price of a hotel room for everybody in the band and crew, they’re actually about the same cost. Some bands (like Therapy? and Sloan and Stereolab) use buses on their tours even when they’re getting paid only a couple hundred bucks a night, and this tour should earn at least a grand or two every night. It’ll be worth it. The band will be more comfortable and will play better.
The agent says a band on a major label can get a merchandising company to pay them an advance on t-shirt sales! Ridiculous! There’s a gold mine here! The lawyer should look over the merchandising contract, just to be safe.
They decided to go with the producer who used to be in Letterman’s band. He had these technicians come in and tune the drums for them and tweak their amps and guitars. He had a guy bring in a slew of expensive old “vintage” microphones. Boy, were they “warm.” He even had a guy come in and check the phase of all the equipment in the control room! Boy, was he professional. He used a bunch of equipment on them and by the end of it, they all agreed that it sounded very “punchy,” yet “warm.”
All that hard work paid off. With the help of a video, the album went like hotcakes! They sold a quarter million copies!
Here is the math that will explain just how fucked they are:
These figures are representative of amounts that appear in record contracts daily. There’s no need to skew the figures to make the scenario look bad, since real-life examples more than abound. Income is underlined, expenses are not.
Manager’s cut: $37,500
Legal fees: $10,000
Recording Budget: $150,000 Producer’s advance: $50,000 Studio fee: $52,500 Drum, Amp, Mic and Phase “Doctors”: $3,000 Recording tape: $8,000 Equipment rental: $5,000 Cartage and Transportation: $5,000 Lodgings while in studio: $10,000 Catering: $3,000 Mastering: $10,000 Tape copies, reference CD’s, shipping tapes, misc expenses: $2,000
Video budget: $30,000 Cameras: $8,000 Crew: $5,000 Processing and transfers: $3,000 Offline: $2,000 Online editing: $3,000 Catering: $1,000 Stage and construction: $3,000 Copies, couriers, transportation: $2,000 Director’s fee: $3,000
Album Artwork: $5,000 Promotional photo shoot and duplication: $2,000
Band fund: $15,000 New fancy professional drum kit: $5,000 New fancy professional guitars (2): $3,000 New fancy professional guitar amp rigs (2): $4,000 New fancy potato-shaped bass guitar: $1,000 New fancy rack of lights bass amp: $1,000 Rehearsal space rental: $500 Big blowout party for their friends: $500
Tour expense (5 weeks): $50,875 Bus: $25,000 Crew (3): $7,500 Food and per diems: $7,875 Fuel: $3,000 Consumable supplies: $3,500 Wardrobe: $1,000 Promotion: $3,000
Tour gross income: $50,000 Agent’s cut: $7,500 Manager’s cut: $7,500
Merchandising advance: $20,000 Manager’s cut: $3,000 Lawyer’s fee: $1,000 Publishing advance: $20,000 Manager’s cut: $3,000 Lawyer’s fee: $1,000
Record sales: 250,000 @ $12 = $3,000,000 gross retail revenue Royalty (13% of 90% of retail): $351,000 less advance: $250,000 Producer’s points: (3% less $50,000 advance) $40,000 Promotional budget: $25,000 Recoupable buyout from previous label: $50,000 Net royalty: (-$14,000)
Record company income: Record wholesale price $6,50 x 250,000 = $1,625,000 gross income Artist Royalties: $351,000 Deficit from royalties: $14,000 Manufacturing, packaging and distribution @ $2.20 per record: $550,000 Gross profit: $710,000
THE BALANCE SHEET This is how much each player got paid at the end of the game. Record company: $710,000 Producer: $90,000 Manager: $51,000 Studio: $52,500 Previous label: $50,000 Agent: $7,500 Lawyer: $12,000
Band member net income each: $4,031.25
The band is now 1/4 of the way through its contract, has made the music industry more than 3 million dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on royalties. The band members have each earned about 1/3 as much as they would working at a 7-11, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month.
The next album will be about the same, except that the record company will insist they spend more time and money on it. Since the previous one never “recouped,” the band will have no leverage, and will oblige.
The next tour will be about the same, except the merchandising advance will have already been paid, and the band, strangely enough, won’t have earned any royalties from their t-shirts yet. Maybe the t-shirt guys have figured out how to count money like record company guys.
Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.