For anyone with talent, making money in the music industry used to be simple. Artists signed with a record label and created albums that were sold to consumers. In exchange, fans had unlimited access to songs.
The system worked, leading to an outpouring of recorded music that today is a $23.1-billion industry. The only drawback was that, until recently, recorded materials weren’t portable. Apart from live performances, as far back as the 1920s music could be played on record players, followed by 8 Track tape players, cassettes, and compact discs, or CDs.
Today, though, the economic dynamics of the recording industry are shaped around devices. People can make playlists on Spotify or YouTube, often at no cost, in lieu of buying an album that contains the exact same songs in the exact same order. Whether entertainers make as much money in the digital age is another matter.
New realities have forced all kinds of adjustments that have been especially challenging for older bands. Take The Romantics. The Detroit-based quartet first burst on the scene in 1977 and started to get attention in 1980 with the emergence of their single, “What I Like About You,” which just missed the Top 40 on the U.S. Billboard charts.
Rising to national prominence in 1983 with the album “In Heat,” The Romantics earned gold record status while jumping to No. 14 on the U.S. album chart. Their single from that album, “Talking in Your Sleep,” made it to No. 3 on the singles chart.
While the follow-up single, “One in a Million,” broke the Top 40, The Romantics never again reached the level of success they enjoyed with “In Heat.” Original members Wally Palmar, Jimmy Marino, Rich Cole, and Mike Skill (replaced in 1980 by guitarist Coz Canler) had risen from their Detroit-area roots to establish a national network of fans, along with regular radio airplay across the country.
They had made it, and they were getting paid. But few bands remain at the top of their field over long periods of time. Life intervenes. Members come and go. Musical tastes change.
For The Romantics, the last 10 years of the music business has brought on considerable shifts in the strategies designed to keep them viable as a band and allow the group to earn a living.
But recent advances have changed the revenue layout. He cites several revenue streams artists can tap in the current environment, including:
- Sales from record labels.
Revenue from publishing for songwriters, once the songs they’ve written are licensed.
Royalties from radio airplay, which come through the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
- Sound Exchange, which collects licensing fees from digital music services and pays them to artists for:
- Licensing the use of songs for films or commercial uses.
- Touring and festival appearances.
- Merchandise sales.
ASCAP is a membership organization that monitors the public use of its members’ music and collects fees from those users to pay ASCAP members. It’s a massive job, with more than 750,000 members and more than 10 million pieces of work to monitor. According to its annual report, ASCAP collected nearly $1.3 billion in revenue in 2019, and distributed close to $1.2 billion of that amount to its members..
Sound Exchange plays a similar role, but interacts with digital music services like Pandora and Spotify. Artists who register with Sound Exchange receive money when their songs are played over digital platforms. Songwriters and even record companies can be compensated through the Sound Exchange system.
There are other ways for artists to monetize the digital playing of their music, but it takes a lot of volume to make much money. According to FreeYourMusic.com, the most popular streaming platforms pay only fractions of a cent per stream to artists, including:
- $0.00437 per stream on Spotify
- $0.00783 per stream on Apple Music
- $0.00402 per stream on Amazon
- $0.00133 on Pandora
- $0.002 on YouTube
Put in perspective, it would take 500 streams on YouTube to earn $1 — and 500,000 streams to make $1,000.
For a band that came up in the age of record sales and concert tickets, there’s a lot to learn. And The Romantics are doing so without the benefit of a manager, which hasn’t always been the case. The band has had managers at different points in its history, but for now The Romantics are relying on specialized help for specific scenarios, while handling much of their own day-to-day business. “We’ve worked with different managers before,” Palmar says. “Right now I have advisers, so to speak. I have a good bookkeeper. I try to keep a good attorney.”
Palmar cites the longtime relationship of Bob Seger with his manager, Punch Andrews, as a rarity in the business. Most bands, he says, don’t maintain relationships with managers that last that long. The modern-day Romantics draw on their decades of experience in the business, as well as the advisers they keep on hand. Palmar acknowledges, though, it only goes so far.
“I find myself more, every time I think I know quite a bit, turning around and asking just as many questions as before,” Palmar says. “People specialize in what they do, and that’s why they’re in the positions they’re in. I wouldn’t ask my bookkeeper to help me write a song. I figure, after all these years, I do what I do best.”
In some ways, rock bands have a lot in common with traditional businesses. One example is personnel turnover. A company founded in 1977 probably doesn’t have the same employees today, yet people can get upset when their favorite bands go through personnel changes.
For a band like The Romantics, such changes have been par for the course.
“The Romantics is a totally different situation because there are a lot of moving parts — parts that have come in and gone out,” Palmar says. “For us to still function as a group and still perform and do shows after 40 years, I think is still quite unique. Especially when all the guys from the original album are still alive, thank God, and health-wise, everyone is still doing well. But we’re not the same band, even though they’ve all been in and out of The Romantics.”
The current incarnation of The Romantics — by design — is the lineup that put out the 2003 album “61/49.” That’s because the band is now promoting a re-release of the album on vinyl, which has re-emerged in recent years as a nostalgia item. Some in the industry think vinyl records could still have potential as a revenue-generator.
According to the Music Business Worldwide website, vinyl records outsold CDs in 2020. It’s the first time that’s happened since 1986. While the trend largely reflects the growing obsolescence of CDs, it also suggests there’s a loyal constituency for vinyl records. “For every artist that comes out at this point, there’s always some form of vinyl,” Palmar says.
He cited Detroit musician and singer Jack White, a member of White Stripes in Detroit, and later, the Raconteurs. White, who grew up in southwest Detroit, founded Third Man Records in 2001 and added in-store vinyl record-pressing technology to his operations in 2017.
White may be on to something. Just as Music Business Worldwide showed vinyl outselling CDs in 2020, Billboard reports vinyl record sales in the first half of 2021 came in at 19.2 million in volume. That generated revenue of $232.1 million.
But does the market for vinyl records hold enough capacity to make it more than a novelty sales item? According to Statista, around 75,000 turntables were sold in the U.S. in 2020, compared with 72,000 in 2019. In a nation of more than 320 million people, it’s still a limited market.
Bands today, especially those that have been around awhile, need every revenue stream they can get. And it’s not just about paying the bills or the mortgage. Some things people take for granted at mainstream companies are harder to come by in the music business.
“There’s no common health insurance for these guys in their 40s, 50s, or 60s,” Palmar says. “The only thing that comes close is your Social Security. You have to pay for everything. If you’re a successful songwriter and you’ve got money coming in to fund your projects, you can rely on that. But there are some guys that aren’t the songwriters of a band, so for them it’s very important to go out and play.”
In addition to the money bands earn from ticket sales or festival performance fees, they also see live performances as an opportunity to earn money selling CDs, records, and merchandise.
And because artists need to rely on so many streams to make money, many are attracted to what’s called a 360 deal. A 360 deal gives certain artists an instant taste of viability — or, in some cases, revives the fortunes of older artists who can no longer generate substantial revenue based on their own recordings or shows.
While such deals have been around since the 1990s, they’ve taken on new importance in the cur-rent economic environment for bands. The basic idea is a company with deep pockets provides various forms of financial support to the artist — not only direct compensation, but also support for promotions and even touring expenses. In exchange, the company receives a substantial share of the artist’s take from writing, recording, and performing.
But there are downsides.
“When we were starting out, we wanted to get signed to a deal because then you’re able to get an advance of some money, so that would help you out — get you out of the hole,” Palmar says. “Before that, you’re working with managers or somebody who’s funding you to go out on the road. You’re throwing six people around the country or checking into a hotel and trying to pack four people into one room.”
The company providing the funding under the 360 deal might tell the band to go out on tour and play 200 dates. If they want to keep their funding stream alive, the band has little choice. Young, up-and-coming bands might welcome the opportunity to perform live so relentlessly. An older band that’s been on the road for decades might prefer the option of saying no, or at least scaling back.
Some of the bigger bands have that luxury. The British band Genesis (which has had the same manager, Tony Smith, since 1973) toured last fall for the first time in 14 years — picking its own dates and venues, and funding its own touring expenses. Having sold more than 150 million albums over the course of a 50-plus-year career, Genesis can tour when it wants and rest when it wants.
But most memorable bands from a certain era are more like The Romantics. They had their years in the sun, but they didn’t make so much money that they can rest on their laurels today. They must play, and they must be more creative than they were in the past about finding people who will pay them to do so.
If a band’s name and reputation don’t carry the cache to support a traditional tour, there’s always the festival route, which is favored by many younger bands. Festivals like Lollapalooza and South by Southwest will pay handsome fees for the kinds of bands that appeal to their attendees. Meanwhile, older bands like The Guess Who and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (as well as some not-so-old bands like Stone Temple Pilots) have been recent headliners at Royal Oak’s annual Arts, Beats & Eats festival.
It’s a simpler proposition for the bands, who book festivals for an agreed-upon fee. Venues and ticket sales are someone else’s problem. To avoid the consideration of ticket sales entirely, bands can pursue opportunities to play corporate events. It’s a simple matter of negotiating a fee and collecting it from the company putting on the show.
“They’re in a position to hire you,” Palmar says. “There are different events. They could be private events for their company, and those actually pay very well if you get asked to come in and perform a set at their company’s annual party or something. That’s one way to do it.”
The Romantics have also gotten involved with another revenue-earner they believe has potential. Under the leadership of promoter Richard Blade, the band has joined the lineup of Lost ’80s Live, which is exactly what the name suggests: A festival featuring the likes of Naked Eyes, Glass Tiger, A Flock of Seagulls, Missing Persons, and even former members of Oingo Boingo.
Lost ’80s Live was born in 2007 and has been presented in a variety of venues around the country. The most recent Lost ’80s Live took place at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Sept. 3, 2021, where 7,000 tickets were sold.
“God bless (Blade), he has all the belief in these bands from the ’80s,” Palmar says. “Certain bands don’t want to get tied into it because maybe they feel embarrassed by it, or they’re big enough that they don’t need to lean on it. But what we did was kind of cool.”
The Romantics played a 15-minute set consisting of four songs, then gave way to nearly a dozen other bands who did the same. The result for those in the audience was a live nostalgia trip designed to appeal to their good feelings about an unforgettable decade.
“You get the best of what the artists have to offer,” Palmar says. “You’re paying pretty good money for a ticket, but you’re going to know all the songs and walk away from it thinking, Wow, that was pretty cool.”
The Romantics’ current touring lineup includes Palmar on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Coz Canler on lead guitar, Bruce Witkin on bass, and Clem Burke (best known for playing with Blondie) on drums. Of course, for any musician, opportunities to perform and earn money don’t have to be limited to one band or any other situation. Palmar experienced a high-profile example of that when he was contacted by representatives of Ringo Starr.
Palmar toured with Starr’s band in 2010 and 2011, and had the opportunity to perform “What I Like About You” and “Talking in Your Sleep” as part of the set. This was a high-profile opportunity to expose The Romantics’ best-known songs to a different audience. Palmar also formed a new band with Clem Burke, called The Empty Hearts. The band has released two albums, and featured Ringo Starr on one of its songs.
All this may serve as a cautionary tale for those pursuing big dreams of music stardom. Some per-formers get on top and stay there for decades — putting themselves in a position where they can retire on royalties from their back catalog, or tour if they feel like it. For most, however, the time at the top will be brief, and can be followed by decades of scrambling for ways to keep monetizing their legacy.
Is it worth it? The Romantics are still at it. Musicians who have played their entire lives can naturally be expected to look for ways to keep doing it, even if it’s become far more complicated to earn a living from inside a recording studio or out on a stage.
Those who enjoy jamming out to songs by The Romantics or any other artist might want to keep this in mind as they’re tapping their feet to the beat: Most people have no idea how hard the artists had to work just to produce that music — let alone make a dime from it.