Mastodon Guitarist Talks Going on Unemployment, Economic Realities of Band Life
Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher recently joined me on The Quarantinecast and was startlingly forthcoming about the economic realities of being in a band — even one at Mastodon’s level — not only during this pandemic, but even during the best of times. Kelliher spoke about how his investments in real estate have kept him afloat despite the band not having worked since their tour with Coheed & Cambria ended in July of 2019, and how it’s been difficult to make ends meet even with that additional revenue stream.
Before we go any further, I want to be very clear: being in a band means signing up for a difficult and unstable life, even for members of bands like Mastodon we think of as super successful. MetalSucks is in no way, shape or form, shaming Bill, or anyone, for taking unemployment, especially during a pandemic that has ravaged several industries, live performances among them. Got it? OK, good.
That out of the way, here’s what Bill said:
“If it weren’t for my wife and her stable job for the past 20 years, I don’t know how well off I’d be. We’ve been lucky and we’ve been smart, we didn’t waste money; we put money into buying houses in our neighborhood and being landlords. But still, that’s a whole other job, that’s half the things I do in the daytime — mowing peoples lawns that are my tenants and fixing leaky roofs and trying to get to the bottom of strange smells coming out of the toilet or whatever. [laughs] That’s reality. I’ve always done that though, so it’s not like a new thing. I’ve always been like, well, this is kind of what people do, you gotta have investments. I’ve learned from people that are older than me and I always listen to them, especially when it comes to dealing with money and what you do.
“Because I’m not going to be able to do Mastodon for the rest of my life and I knew that at an early age. It’s like, this is going to run out at one point, something is going to happen. Hopefully we can do it as long as we can, but I haven’t worked in over a year. There’s no money coming in. There’s not big royalty checks that just come in every month. And that’s the truth… because people don’t buy the music. I mean, there’s a little bit of residuals from publishing and stuff but it’s peanuts. It’s nothing. It’s quarterly payouts of a couple thousand dollars… if we’re lucky. And it’s all taxable money, just like everybody else.
“Just say to yourself, imagine if you couldn’t work for over a year. I mean, I’m on unemployment. Because I own a few businesses. Mastodon is a business and we have employees. We’re all out of work. And we had the option to apply for unemployment; we pay into it [through corporate unemployment taxes], [so we] might as well use it if it’s there because if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t have ANY income at all.
Kelliher elaborated, outlining the financial difficulties that all bands will face even when touring does come back in some capacity:
“We’re not selling records, we’re not touring. That’s where all our income comes from, getting up everyday and going up on stage and playing for an hour and doing it over and over and over all over the world. We can’t do that right now and I don’t know if we ever will be able to do that again. In some capacity [we will be able to play live again], but even if they can get everybody’s shit together as far as promoters and booking agents and venues and all that stuff, it’s going to be like two years [from now]. And when they do, if they’re even still open, how are people going to pay their rent on a club that they own [during the down time]? If no one’s going there for a year, two years, I mean, these places live paycheck to paycheck, I know they do. They’re not just owned outright by the promoter or whatever, it’s a whole network of people.
“[Even] by the time COVID is under control, hopefully, fingers crossed, promoters [will still] have to pay all these bands in advance. But they’re not going to have that money to pay bands in advance at least 50% — that’s what we ask for so that we can guarantee we’re going to show up, to guarantee we’re going to play — and then they pay us the rest, the other 50%. That’s what it is everyday: you get one band in and you’re waiting to pay them until the next band comes in and makes your money, so that’s going to fuck everything up and you’re going to see a lot of these cool venues going under. The big places like Live Nation, even they’re hurting. If they’re hurting then the little guys gotta be completely dying.
“And I can just see that when it comes around time for us to do another tour, Live Nation will have been hurting so long, they’re going to be like, ‘Well, we can’t pay you what you normally are worth. Because we need to recoup our money.’ And it’s like, yeah… OK, well, where do we start with that? We all need to recoup. We’ve all been unemployed. All of us are hurting. We all have businesses, we all have mouths to feed.
You can listen to our full chat with below here or below.