The Pomplamoose Problem: Artists Can't Survive as Saints and Martyrs

About a week ago, indie duo Pomplamoose posted a breakdown of the income and expenses of their recent tour. At first, it seemed as if their transparency was a welcome boon to artists who know that touring – unless you are a top-selling stadium act – is not a realistic substitute for the loss of album sales. But then Pomplamoose found itself the center of attacks from both sides of the current music industry debate over artist’s compensation. Consumers and supporters of the “music wants to be free” ethos picked apart the numbers and decided that Pomplamoose spent too much money on lights and on pay for their back-up band. Artists picked apart the numbers too, and as insinuated in this piece on Gawker, many decided that Pomplamoose member Jack Conte was just engaged in a cynical marketing ploy for his crowd-funding company, Patreon.

This explosion of vitriol illustrates the absurd standard America holds artists to. It’s a dangerous, impossible standard that is repressing self-expression and killing culture. It’s not dissimilar in impact to the political arguments that keep so many living in poverty by voting against their own interests for politicians who take away services that were at least intended to make the middle class accessible to all. The American artist is expected to be both a saint and a martyr. Operate outside the capitalist system and we’ll praise you for your creations, call your poverty a quaint kind of martyrdom that has nothing to do with us, and at the same time resent you for being holier than thou. Try to operate within the capitalist system and we’ll call you out as an imposter.

 If you look at Pomplamoose as a business instead of as a band, what’s the problem? When Jack Conte writes about Pomplamoose, he also endorses the company he co-founded, Patreon, because it is the tech savvy business model that allows them to go on tour and lose money. Patreon and Pomplamoose are both expressions of Conte, and they support each other. Even if Pomplamoose wrote their tour expense story with the sole purpose of introducing Patreon - a service that generates regular income for Pomplamoose from fans who subscribe in exchange for music videos -  what’s wrong with that? The point of their article is that this is their reality as a mid-level band in America. As Conte says, “We have not “made it.” We’re making it.” You have to be creative to survive in an environment where what artists do – namely, perform and record – requires income supplementation for just about anyone who isn’t independently wealthy or a pop star. Pomplamoose isn’t an imposter because they are using capitalist tech savvy models to promote their work – they are simply responding to our devaluing of music and finding a way of “making it”.

 It’s worth bringing Taylor Swift into the “imposter” discussion as well. A few weeks ago, when she removed her music from Spotify, Swift was vilified by some for making a business decision to break ties with a company that she felt didn’t value her music fairly. Lincoln Michael of Electric Literature did an excellent job of analyzing the backlash in his article, “Taylor Swift and the Myth of the Mean and Greedy Artist”. Instead of acting with business acumen, artists are supposed to be the ultimate saints and martyrs. “We love your music,” the public seems to be saying, “but we aren’t going to pay for it anymore. Of course, please keep making it – but you’ll have to find another way to do it. Sell more t-shirts, get corporate sponsors, run ads on your music on YouTube – but don’t speak up too loudly or treat your music like a business – because you do it for the love of it, right?”

 Pomplamoose was also skewered for paying their back-up band too much money. Why shouldn’t their back-up band do it for exposure and just crash in the van instead of at hotels? The reason it is ridiculous to suggest that is the same reason why contract workers everywhere get paid an hourly wage or contract amount for a project – they aren’t investors in the business and they can't be expected to assume the risk. Backing bands, engineers, and lighting and sound technicians are all a part of the infrastructure of the music industry. Pomplamoose is actually creating jobs here. Don’t we need more highly skilled jobs?

The reality is that we’ve reduced American culture to a system of arbitrary donations and pats on the head. That isn’t sustainable. Corporate and trust funded music will survive, but will its message represent the diversity of our culture? No. And resentment is building – a resentment that is quite clear with the level of anger generated by just one mid-level band publishing just one article about the difficulty of surviving in the music business.

This resentment is something we have to take a long hard look at. We might think it comes from the idea that a tiny percentage of artists can get famous and filthy rich, or that others - despite financial struggles - have interesting and exciting lives where they perform and create while we're stuck in a 9-5.  But really, this resentment comes from the fact that when we devalue the arts, we devalue our own creative impulse.

Repressing artists by making it impossible for them to survive as valued members of the working class represses our whole society. Every word of encouragement we got as a child when we drew a giraffe, or played the recorder, or made something unusual and different that expressed our personality seemed meaningless when we buried our own artistic dreams in cold hard financial reality. And every word of encouragement we give our children when they draw a monster, or play the guitar, or write a story that expresses their unique personality will become meaningless - when they see their parents close their wallets and their hearts to those who dare to take that dream into adulthood.