Artist Spotlight

Why Indie Rock Doesn’t Pay

No Comments 5 October 2012

Why Indie Rock Doesn’t Pay

Grizzly Bear are one of the most successful bands in indie rock. Their breakout 2009 album Veckatimest launched them to No. 8 on the Billboard charts, selling 33,000 copies. Their new album Shields debuted at No. 7, selling 39,000. Last week they played a homecoming show at the 6,000-capacity Radio City Music Hall. Even if you don’t own any of their music, you’ve probably heard it in a car commercial.

Despite all this, Grizzly Bear are not living like rock stars. In fact, after riding a steady trajectory of success for more than half a decade, they’re living more or less the same way they were when they started. As Nitsuh Abebe notes in his excellent profile and cover story for the newest issue of New York magazine, many of them don’t have insurance. Band founder Ed Droste still lives with his husband in the same 450-square-foot Williamsburg apartment. Though they’re living comfortably for now, they haven’t earned any stability. Abebe identifies their joint musical venture as essentially “a risky small business,” and guitarist Daniel Rossen point out that when “your livelihood is in songwriting, you never know when that’s just gonna stop.”

To be clear, Grizzly Bear aren’t going out of their way to complain or ask for pity. As with any indie band, they know that they’re not supposed to be in it for the money. Instead they’re responding, with some reluctance, to Abebe’s probing into what it’s like to live near the top of indie’s small kingdom. And even today, they insist that they’re pretty happy with their career choice: They were always playing and writing for themselves, they say, and they still enjoy doing it.

But while Grizzly Bear fans surely won’t mind that their favorite musicians aren’t showing off their mansions on MTV Cribs—in fact, they might turn on them if they did—there’s perhaps still a sense that the band should be rich. That that’s what you deserve when you work hard to reach the top of your field. Or at least that you should have earned the stability of a middle class lifestyle. Droste says that revealing their finances would be “inappropriate.”* “Obviously we’re surviving,” he says. “Some of us have health insurance, some of us don’t, we basically all live in the same places, no one’s renting private jets. Come to your own conclusions.”

If you’re a fan of the band, it’s easy to feel disappointed by this. Everyone knows that the music industry is struggling and that it’s hard to be a musician, but hasn’t indie rock mythology trained many of its fans to expect more? If you believe in indie rock, you might do so in part because you expect that your band, while less commercially successful than major pop artists, is more relevant. That the underground is where the real innovation is. And that some day that underground is going to give birth to its Nevermind and become the next big thing.

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