Conventional wisdom says it's extremely difficult for anyone not named Beyonce or Taylor Swift to make a real living in the music business, especially since streaming generates billions in revenue for record labels but only a fraction of that money trickles down to the artists.
Which is why smart artists do the same thing as smart entrepreneurs: Work tirelessly to build a loyal fan base, cut costs that don't touch the customer, and constantly seek new revenue streams.
That's definitely the Steel Panther model. Steel Panther are a combination of hairspray, spandex, totally non-PC lyrics, catchy tunes, exceptional musicianship, and wild (and wildly entertaining) stage shows... they're equal opportunity offenders whose favorite targets are themselves.
So I talked with drummer Stix Zadinia (say the name fast) to learn more about how a successful band stays successful.
You keep most band management functions in-house, but not booking tour dates. Why not?
We manage ourselves: We handle our merchandise, we own our records, we self-fund our operations... but we do need an attorney to make sure we don't screw ourselves (laughs), and we use UTA as our booking agent.
Booking a band is half science and half art. It takes years for a booking assistant to become a junior agent, and then to become an agent... you need a huge amount of experience to do that job well. So we leave that to the professionals.
You have a new album coming out later this year. I've talked to musicians who no longer make new music because they don't feel the expense generates enough return.
The music is done. Our singer will go into the studio soon. We had to take a little break between recording the music and the vocals since the band really never stops touring. We'll loop vocals, mix it, master it, and put the package together. The game plan is to have a record out before the end of the year.
Why make new music? One, we're musicians. We write songs. We make music. That's what we do.
Two, it used to be that bands put out an album and toured in order to support album sales. Now new music is like a reset button for touring and ticket sales. New music gives you a reason to go out again.
That's even more true for bands that don't have the type of show we have; we could do an all-covers show and people will want to come to the party.
But still, touring a new record gives people yet another reason to come out and see us.
So even with recording costs being so high and per-stream rates so low, a new album isn't just a loss leader for touring?
Nope. There's a positive return. Even when you factor in recording costs and promotion and marketing costs -- which is not an easy thing to do since the incentive for musicians has gotten so low.
That's especially true if you're a new artist. A buddy of mine told me his new band was putting their music on Spotify. I said, "That's great... but how would I ever have heard about that unless you had told me?"
If you're a new band you need a marketing and promotion plan. And you need the funds for it. You can't spend every penny on recording. You have to have a budget for targeted marketing.
Putting new music out there is really easy, but getting that music heard -- especially if you're unknown -- is really, really hard.
Say I put together a band. What advice would you give me where putting out new music is concerned?
Don't record a full-length album. Pick your two or three best songs and track those. Then use the rest of your money to do promotion and marketing. Put together a targeted advertising plan so you can at least try to get your stuff heard.
Then keep writing, and do it again. The key is to record and release smaller chunks more often.
Granted, we're in a record formula. Our fans expect and want albums from us. But for most artists, it's now a world of singles.
Which is why touring is so important.
Not only does playing live make you a better musician and performer, it's usually the only way most new bands can make any money.
Work hard at getting on local tours. Or to be guests at a local show. Do whatever you can to play for any audience, anywhere.
I went to your show in Lynchburg, VA and you had two opening acts. How does that work?
We usually take a band that tours with us in their own vehicle to get from show to show. Other times it might be a local band that was found through local radio stations. Or they're bands the promoter feels is a good fit.
Ultimately, we approve all the bands that open for us. From a service standpoint, the people who come to our shows need to think, "Wow... that was amazing." Not, "Wow... we had to sit through that BS before Steel Panther came out?"
It's easy to think the only part of the show that matters is you... but the entire show matters. Everything reflects on you.
Like all entrepreneurs, you also have to be smart about cost control. Isn't that hard when you go on short tours?
Actually, it can be easier. Say you post up for a series of three nights at a venue. Same venue, same hotel, no bus costs, no fuel costs, no driver...
So short hops can turn out to be much cheaper, especially when you don't have to lug gear, do multiple sound checks. Typically they're more lucrative.
Or say we're doing a three-day run. We could get a bus -- or we could get a couple of vans and stay in hotels. Make three-day runs drivable by van and you can save serious money. And sleep in a bed instead of a bus. (Laughs.)
In the end it's all a balancing act. Say there's a 5-hour drive between big-city gigs. Instead of getting a room after a show in, say, Charlotte, we could drive halfway to D.C., stay in a small town, and then drive the rest of the way the following day. That cuts hotel costs in half and once you're in the room... after all, a Marriott in Lynchburg is the same as a Marriott in Charlotte. (Laughs.) And a lot cheaper.
It's a cool thing to be pampered, but if you're focused on business, at a certain point a bed is a bed is a bed.
Last time we talked, Satchel's first guitar pedal had taken off. Now you have another one in the works.
Satchel's Poontang Boomerang (named after a Steel Panther song) is a new delay pedal that is selling really well as a pre-order and will start shipping in mid-July.
The pedals have become a legitimate source of income for us. We'll likely do another one in the future.
In a way, the pedals are an extension of doing our own merch(endise). We do a lot of print-on-demand... but then there's the live merch segment where items have to be inventoried, drop-shipped, sold... all things that as a drummer I thought I would never need to know about. (Laughs.)
For example, when we played Vancouver we had merch produced in Canada so we didn't have to export from the U.S. We estimated what we thought we could sell, had it shipped to the Commodore Ballroom, worked with the venue to handle sales and ship back any merch that didn't sell...
That's another tentacle of the business. While we were initially concerned about managing it all ourselves, we're really glad we did.
Since you're self-funding, if you over-estimate sales you could be left with a lot of product...
Which is why you obviously need to be thoughtful about your designs. Get too specific with a graphic and if some merch gets returned... it may not be salable anywhere else.
A good thing about having done this for so long is that we have plenty of data to help us make good decisions.
Tell me about the strategy behind your different video series. (Or as Lexxi might say, serieseses.) Like "Science Panther."
They're really fun to make, and because of the kind of band we are, we feel we can entertain on more than just a musical level. The videos are cool stuff to put out there and keep people engaged while they wait for new music. And they showcase a side of our band you don't get from hearing a song.
It's also a great way to connect with people. You can tell how much fun we have doing them.
To be able to do and say the things we do and say... I feel really lucky. But you only get to a place like that by engaging with people on multiple levels and through multiple mediums.
Which in a way has made Steel Panther the Charles Barkley of music. People just smile and say, "That's Steel Panther. That's what they do."
And we'll keep on doing it. I'm really psyched about the future. I've never been more excited to release a record that for the one that's coming up.
We're doing this till we die.