NPR

Band Tries to Make It Big Without Going Broke

Amanda Palmer is a full-time musician. She doesn't wait tables or work a day job. She's the lead singer for the Dresden Dolls. It's a band out of Boston that definitely has a signature sound.

Palmer plays keyboards. Brian Viglione, her partner, plays guitar and drums. And that's it. Many of the songs just have piano and drums, which might not sound like enough instruments, but it actually works for a range of songs – from quiet melodic to harder-edged indie rock to some more cabaret, theatrical-style tunes.

Viglione first heard Palmer playing piano at a party. He was a frustrated drummer playing bass in somebody else's band. Palmer remembers that he came up and said he'd like to play with her sometime.

"A few days later, we jammed together in a practice space and we just knew," Palmer says. "I have had few moments in my life that were as clear as that moment when we first played together, and we looked at each other, and we said, 'This is it. We're going to start a band and take over the world.'"

Close, But No Big Paycheck

The Dresden Dolls are a band on the verge of making it. Unless, of course, they don't. They've been touring almost full time for years, playing to ever-larger crowds and opening for some big-name bands. They've toured with Nine Inch Nails. But even at that level, it's very tough for a band to make enough money to survive. Just renting a tour bus costs $1,000 a day, including the cost of gas and a driver.

So like many other musicians, Palmer has been finding out that before you can take over the world, you have to learn how to survive. You can't play for beer money. Bands have to scramble, be entrepreneurial and make money in some unexpected ways. And you need to draw large crowds to buy tickets to your shows.

Palmer says that outside of some short reviews, the band hasn't received much coverage in music magazines to help them attract crowds. But she says despite that, "a band like us can play to 2,000 people in Boston, New York, Sydney, London and Berlin."

Attracting a Crowd

One thing in the band's favor is that Palmer's voice clearly falls into the gifted category --whether she's being quiet and melodic or nearly screaming. Viglione is a talented drummer, who makes you wish more bands still did drum solos.

Early on, the band mates started wearing burlesque-style costumes and white face paint, and they invited artists to hang work on the walls at their shows. That created some buzz.

Palmer and Viglione reached out to anybody they knew, of any age or walk of life, to come hear them play. And as the crowds grew, they managed to get signed a good-sized record label — which sounds good, but Palmer says it doesn't pay much.

"We make almost no money off our recordings themselves," she says.

Money-Losing Exposure

Like many bands, the Dresden Dolls get a royalty that works out to about $1 per CD. But before a band gets to see any of that, it has to sell enough CDs to cover all of the label's production expenses, which can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most bands never sell enough CDs to dig out of that hole. So even as bands get bigger, they have to tour constantly to earn all they can from ticket sales.

Sitting at his drum set before a show, Viglione says that last year, the band went on tour in February and didn't get back until November.

"I couldn't even tell you how many cities we did," he says. "We went to Europe three or four times, hit Japan, Australia, New Zealand twice."

Palmer and Viglione might be budding rock stars, but they're still pretty broke. They have to pay their road crew three to four times what they pay themselves — which is a modest $1,500 a month. Remember, this a band that has toured with Nine Inch Nails.

"In order to go on that tour, we had to lose money," Palmer says. "Just because we're up on a giant stage, playing in front of 5,000 people, doesn't mean any money in our pocket."

That's because the headliner band takes about half of the gross ticket sales at a big, sold-out show. The venue and the promoter take almost all the rest. Deals vary greatly, but an opening band that wants the exposure might be paid a few hundred dollars to $1,000 a night. The Dresden Dolls' expenses are twice that: They have to pay their sound techs, manager and other support crew, and rent the bus.

Relying on Side Shows and Merchandising

To beef up their earnings, when they're on tour as an opening band, the Dresden Dolls play extra shows on off nights.

Recently, the band has been holding a series of shows at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. It's a sort of hybrid rock concert, with stage actors performing monologues and scenes between songs. After each show, Palmer heads to the "merch table" in the lobby to sell T-shirts, posters, CDs and — for $10 — black Dresden Dolls underwear.

At bigger shows, the Dresden Dolls can take in more than $1,000 a night selling merchandise, which makes the "merch table" a major source of income whey they're on the road. Of course, venues try to take as big a cut of that as they can. Palmer says that leads to regular screaming matches between bands and venue managers.

"The reason the shirts are sold for $25 and $35 is that the venue takes a giant, whopping percentage," she says. "Sometimes, they'll try to take a larger percentage than what's in the contract, and you have to whip out the contract and get into these arguments."

But every once in a while, easy money can come in out of nowhere.

Somehow, a jam and jelly company in Austria recently decided it wanted to use the song "Coin-Operated Boy" for a TV ad. The song has nothing to do with spreadable fruit. But the band has earned about $40,000 over two years for licensing the song — a windfall Brian Viglione says was fantastic.

He describes the commercial: "It showed this woman kind of bounding about through her house, and experimenting with different ways of using this spread and playing, along to the 'Coin-Operated Boy' song. And both of us thought it was hilarious and harmless."

But the band has turned down other licensing offers – such as one for a horror-film soundtrack.

A Much-Needed Break

Right now, the Dresden Dolls are taking a short break from touring. Palmer says she's just been on the road so much in recent years that she hasn't had any time to do what she set out to do: write songs.

"I haven't been writing. I've been promoting and e-mailing and phone calling," she says. "I haven't felt like an artist; I've felt like a businessman. I made that deliberate choice — looking at my computer and looking at the piano and saying, 'I'm going to e-mail.' Whereas the piano just looks like this amorphous, terrifying blob after a while, where you don't know what's going to happen when you sit down at it."

Palmer should get at least a few months to reconnect with her piano and her songwriting. When she landed her record deal, she bought a nice Yamaha piano and managed to crane it into her Boston apartment. So fans might look forward to some new songs soon. But come summer, she and Viglione will be back on the road.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The Dresden Dolls is a band on the verge of making it, unless, of course, it doesn't. Like many indie bands around the country, the Dresden Dolls is touring nearly full-time, playing to growing crowds and opening for some big name bands. But even at that level, it's tough for a band to make enough money to survive. Just renting a tour bus costs 1,000 bucks a day by the time you pay for gas and a driver.

So bands have to scramble. They have to be entrepreneurial. They have to make money in some unexpected ways. Over the coming months, we'll look at how people in various occupations make ends meet.

Today, NPR's Chris Arnold reports on life in a traveling band.

CHRIS ARNOLD: Amanda Palmer is a full-time musician. She doesn't wait tables or work a day job. She's the lead singer for the Dresden Dolls. It's a band out of Boston that definitely has it's own sound.

Palmer plays keyboards. Brian Viglione, her partner, plays guitar and drums. And that's it. A lot of songs just have piano and drums, which might not sound like enough instruments, but it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACKSTABBER")

AMANDA PALMER: He told me he was a frustrated drummer playing bass in somebody else's band and would love to play with me. And a few days later, we jammed together in a practice space, and we just knew. I have had few moments in my life that were as clear as that moment when we played together and we both looked at each other and we said, this is it. We're going to start a band and we're going to take over the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACKSTABBER")

DRESDEN DOLLS: (Singing) Now you're going to have to shut your mouth and fight me, oh, backstabber, backstabber, you're all alone.

ARNOLD: One thing that helps the band is that Amanda Palmer's voice clearly falls into the gifted category, whether she's being quiet and melodic or nearly screaming. This song is called "Backstabber."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACKSTABBER")

DOLLS: (Singing) Backstabber, oh, backstabber, oh.

ARNOLD: The band got started six years ago and like a lot of other musicians, Palmer's been finding out that before you can take over the world, you have to learn how to survive. You can't be playing for beer money. You need to get a lot of people to come to shows and buy tickets.

PALMER: A band like us can play to 2,000 people in Boston, 2,000 people in L.A., in Sydney, Australia, and in London, and in Berlin. And we've never been written about in Rolling Stone magazine or in Spin magazine. And yet, when we go those cities, thousands of people show up. How do we do it?

ARNOLD: The Internet helps. Also early on, they started wearing burlesque costumes and white face paints and inviting artists to hang their work on the walls at their shows. That created some buzz. They reached out to anybody they knew of any age or walk of life to come hear them play. And as the crowds grew, they managed to get signed by a pretty good-sized label, which sounds good.

But the reality is that doesn't pay them very much.

PALMER: We make almost no money off of the recordings themselves.

ARNOLD: Like many bands, the Dresden Dolls get a royalty that works out to around a dollar a CD. But before a band gets to see any of that it has to sell enough CDs to cover all the label's costs, which can be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Most bands never sell enough CDs to dig out of that hole. So even as you get bigger, you have to tour constantly to make all you can on ticket sales. Sitting at his drum set before a show, Brian Viglione says this past year, the Dresden Dolls went on tour in February and didn't get back until November.

BRIAN VIGLIONE: I couldn't even tell you exactly how many cities we did, but went to Europe three or four times, hit Japan, Australia, and New Zealand twice.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRESDEN DOLLS CONCERT)

PALMER: Thank you everyone. Love you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

VIGLIONE: We are the Dresden Dolls.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ARNOLD: Palmer and Viglione may be the budding rock stars, but they're still pretty broke. They have to pay their road crew three to four times what they pay themselves.

PALMER: As a band, we're paying ourselves, still, this very modest salary. And -

ARNOLD: Can I ask how much that is?

PALMER: Yeah, we pay ourselves $1,500 a month.

ARNOLD: And you opened for Nine Inch Nails?

PALMER: Yes. Oh, well, I was going to say when we opened up for Nine Inch Nails - I mean, in order to go on that tour, we had to lose money.

ARNOLD: That's because the headliner band takes about half the gross ticket sales at a big sold-out show. The venue and the promoter take almost all the rest. Deals vary a lot, but the opening band that wants the exposure might get a few hundred or a $1,000 a night.

The Dresden Dolls expenses are twice that just to pay their sound techs, manager and other support crew and rent the bus. So to make some extra money, when they're on tour as an opening band, the Dresden Dolls play extra shows on off nights.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi.

PALMER: Hi.

BLOCK: Can I buy your newest CD please?

PALMER: Yes, you can.

Woman #1: Thank you.

PALMER: Fifteen.

ARNOLD: Recently the Dresden Dolls have been doing a series of shows at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. In the theater lobby, Amanda Palmer has set up a table where she's got shirts, CDs, posters and all kinds of other stuff.

Unidentified Woman #2: And a pair of underwear.

PALMER: The new album and a pair of underwear.

ARNOLD: At bigger shows, the Dresden Dolls can take in more than $1,000 a night selling merchandise. Of course, venues try to take as big a cut of that as they can. That leads to regular screaming matches between bands and venue managers.

PALMER: The reason that the shirts are sold for $25 and $35 is that the venue takes a giant, whopping percentage. Sometimes they'll try to take a larger percentage than what's in the contract, and you've got to whip out the contract and get into these arguments.

ARNOLD: But every once in a while, some easy money can come in out of nowhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COIN-OPERATED BOY")

DOLLS: (Singing) Coin-operated boy sitting on the shelf he is just a toy -

ARNOLD: That's the song "Coin-Operated Boy," somehow a jam and jelly company in Austria decided it wanted that for a T.V. ad. The song's got nothing to do with spreadable fruit, but the band has gotten about $40,000 over two years for licensing the song.

A windfall Brian Viglione says was fantastic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COIN-OPERATED BOY")

DOLLS: (Singing) Who could ever ever ask for more. Love without complications galore.

ARNOLD: Right now, the Dresden Dolls are taking a short break from touring. Amanda Palmer says she's just been on the road so much in recent years that she hasn't had any time to do what she's out to do: write songs.

PALMER: I haven't been writing. I've been promoting and e-mailing and phone calling. I haven't felt like an artist. I've felt like a businessman. I've sort of made that choice, I made that deliberate choice, looking at my computer, looking at the piano and saying I'm going to e-mail, whereas the piano just looks like this amorphous, terrifying blob for a while.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING")

DOLLS: (Singing) Sing for the bartender, sing for the janitor, sing.

ARNOLD: The current break from touring should give Palmer some time to reconnect with her piano and her songwriting, but come summer, she and Viglione will be back on the road.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

DOLLS: (Singing) Sing for the children shooting children, sing.

NORRIS: There is music from the Dresden Dolls, including a studio session recorded live at npr.org.

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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