Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her — confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.
We're a Chicago-based indie folk duo called Elk and big fans of your column. We have a question that we feel lucky to be asking. After several years making music together, we decided to get more serious. We just released our debut EP and it's doing well. Family, friends and fans are paying more than we expected for the download, and we've got a little band nest egg on our hands. It isn't a lot of money, a few hundred bucks after our first weekend of sales and we expect it'll keep growing, but it still brings up a strategic question. What's the wisest way for us to invest money that the band earns? We don't need to pay ourselves right now. Should we pay some creative friends to help us make a cool-looking music video, or get some better press photographs? Should we just save it for gas money when we tour? (We haven't toured yet but would like to start.) Should we be saving up for engineer costs of a full-length record? What about investing in merch which could, in turn, help us make more money when touring?
Thanks so much for your advice!
Congratulations on the success of your release. Making money on anything as a band is a minor miracle and it is smart to consider your options before just running out to Crazy Horse and making it rain or paying your ComEd bill.
Let's start by crossing a few things off the list. For a video to impact your career, it has to be something people will go “Oh shit!” and start sharing with people. I can't think of anyone in recent years outside of Lana Del Rey who has made a no-budget video and had it do much for them. For $500 you might be able to get an ambitious SAIC kid to take it on as their final project, but still just get a vid that is more “Oh, that's nice.” And maybe your parents will watch it twice. Which is to say that is not your next step.
I appreciate what you are going for in your press photos. The Hipstamatic-looking portraits are nice, but the one where you guy are approximately 45 feet away from whomever is taking the picture, not so much. But you do not need, like, Dry Cleaner's wall-grade head shots–so just ask a friend to take your pictures with a camera and not their phone. In exchange for two entire beers. Your total budget for that should not exceed the cost of an upmarket six-pack, to be shared by all.
Given that Elk does not play a ton of shows, investing in merch–or at least anything beyond buttons–is a little premature. How about wade into those waters with a 100 1″ buttons, which going by the Busy Beaver site is going to run you around $40. If you sell 40 for $1, then you have made the investment back and you can give them away to people who sign up on your mailing list at shows. It's a small and reasonable outlet. Everyone loves buttons!
The rest I think you should keep as a nest egg and not touch, get a little savings account at the bank or wee bank for your dresser. Being an acoustic two piece you can tour cheaply and easily and the remaining $448 of your nest egg could go pretty far on a 10-date midwestern car tour; it's good to have that gas money cushion when you are getting $20 in Des Moines on a Monday. You have this new EP, work on promoting that this year and road-testing the material a little before going all in on a full-length. Touring a little and playing around all around Chicago will hone your sound, give you understanding about what works and doesn't in your songwriting–which is valuable knowledge to have before you commit to recording an album.
Best of luck,