The plight of the American punk rock band (part 1)

Crime In Stereo broke up this week, just months after releasing one of the most captivating albums of their career – and one of the best of 2010.

Rumors are swirling around whether or not singer Kristian Hallbert’s recent jaw infection had anything to do with the breakup – it’s also entirely possible that the band wasn’t making enough through album sales and touring to sustain themselves financially.  It’s a familiar story, but unfortunate nonetheless.

Crime In Stereo called it quits this week.

For a band, this breaking point seems inevitable.  There simply comes a point in time where, if you can only tread water, it doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense to keep plugging away.  With rock-bottom album sales and limited incentives for consumers to purchase a digital album as opposed to stealing it, how the hell is a band supposed to put gas in the tank to tour the country?  After all, punk rock is primarily a form of performance art.  Sure, there are indie-darling bands like Les Savvy Fav and Broken Bells that might only need to play festival lineups before returning to the studio to record another album – similar to a hip hop artist.  But for punk rock bands, the culture has always been centered around the basement shows and the VFW halls.

A common misconception is that – if albums aren’t flying off the shelves – bands can still sell enough merch to fill their tanks and their bellies.  Truth be told, I don’t know how much stock I put in that argument.  If you’re one of four bands on a show, you need to sell at least six or seven $10 t-shirts to fill your van’s tank and probably another five or six to feed yourselves for the day.  Now consider that every other band on the bill has to do roughly the same thing.  That’s close to 40 or 50 shirts a night.  On some nights, you might not even pack 50 people into a show.  Also consider that on bigger tours, more popular bands will raise the price of their merch and force opening bands to raise the minimum for their merch as well – most likely causing a drop in merch sales for the smaller bands.  Personally, I’m always disappointed when a band t-shirt is more than $15.  I don’t care if you chose to print your band name on the nicest American Apparel garments available – $18 -20 is too much.

Another thing to consider is that some venues actually take a cut of the merch sales from each band at the end of a show, which eats away at the amount of money bands are left with.  At the end of the day, there might just be too many hands in the coffers and not enough revenue to split.

Touring bands are often left with the sad realization that there just isn’t enough money to go around.  Harder still is the ability to build a rabid following from your desk chair.  Caught between a rock and a hard place is not exactly the “sex, drugs and rock-n-roll” lifestyle that budding musicians dream of.  Still – perhaps sleeping on floors, living off dollar-menus and touring the country’s finest DIY venues are all just rights of passage for artists who want to be remembered and revered for dedication to their craft.  When obligation creeps up and it’s time to get a real job – maybe it’s time to pass the torch on to the next young, starry-eyed punks.

As for Crime In Stereo, you guys will be missed.

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