Today's story is about what happens when a genY musician-cum-entrepreneur gets his wires a bit crossed whilst earnestly trying to do good work, and how marginally bad things can come from smart, generally nice people acting without (much) malice.
First, let me get that out of the way : I'm a bit of a fan of Pomplamoose as an art act. I randomly stumbled upon Nataly Dawn singing her take on Louise Labé's Baise m'encor sometime in 2009, which led me to her Pomplamoose duo act along Jack Conte.
I dig their music and stagecraft/videos, I also like what Conte's trying to do with Patreon, and the pair of them is generally representative of the reasons why I'll try to give the benefit of the doubt even to hipster-looking types, as long as they're working at getting shit done.
[In the interest of full disclosure, I'll state for the record I have zero stake in the economic success of Pomplamoose, Patreon or any of the individuals and companies mentioned here, beyond personal well-wishing.]
Louise Labé is in da house, or something.
Now, in case you're coming at this without prior knowledge, here's the backstory :
- Pomplamoose debuted in '08 and has seen growing popularity online since, thanks to their music and visual work, with their very active online presence in the form of vlogs and side projects not to be discounted. 6 years is a long time, you come to realize, when you find Pomplamoose has a friggin myspace page !
- Then Patreon was launched last year by Jack Conte and partner Sam Yam.
In a nutshell, Patreon is a subscription-style crowdfunding platform, which enables fans to act as patrons of the arts for their favorite bands, comic-book artists, podcasters, yni. People can either commit to a monthly fixed donation of their choice, staggered grant style, or pledge an amount of money towards any new work created / released by the artist(s) on a recurring basis (with a monthly cap). Patreon takes a reasonable (by today's standards) 5% cut on that.
- This fall, Pomplamoose went on a month-long US tour of 24 shows across 23 cities, which by standard metrics for an indie band tour qualified as a success : they sold a lot of tickets and merch, filled their venues, and the audience seemed to generally be happy with the shows.
- On Nov 24, Jack Conte went out and released some of the financial details of the whole operation in the context of a postmortem / expose about the difficulties of running a "mom and pop corner store" music act.
…and the shit hit the fan.
- Bob Lefsetz, a much-listened to (and rambunctious) voice in the music biz published a scalding commentary on the lacking economics of the Pomplamoose tour in his Nov 26 Leftsetz Letter on Encore, annexing to it some comments from the many readers who apparently pushed Conte's postmortem his way.
- This prompted a number of other people in and around the biz to chime in with their own take on how Pomplamoose could fail to end in the black after a successful tour, but perhaps most critically, some saw the whole financial disclosure stunt as a manipulative marketing ploy by Jack Conte to drive business to Patreon, accusing him of hiding his personal stake as CEO and co-founder of Patreon when he explains how hard it is for a band to make a living by touring.
- Conte was not happy about that last part, and op-ed'ed his rebuttal to accusations of dishonesty the next day on the same platform he used to release his original post-mortem.
Not just covers, either.
I find myself largely agreeing with Bob Lefsetz and others to question Jack Conte's conclusions about Pomplamoose's tour ending in the red, namely that it's proof it's too hard to make it as a middle-tier artist on the road : in a nutshell, this tour could, and presumably should have turned a healthy profit without the need for the band and crew to sleep in vans and survive on ramen, and the fact it reportedly lost 12 grand out of 136K income is simply evidence of poor business management, not impossibly challenging economics.
Having watched a number of their videos, and knowing how much care and work they put in their visuals, I would nitpick on some of the criticisms made about the unnecessary expenses on lighting equipment, but some videos are out that make clear the stagecraft on their tour wasn't anything your average live music club couldn't handle with in-house gear or would demand a special lighting setup.
True fact : some Pomplamoose songs are not in French !
I don't think Jack Conte tanked the finances of his Pomplamoose tour on purpose to make a point, or that he cooked the numbers to prove the only path to monetary salvation for struggling indie bands was to enroll in Patreon.
Nonetheless, accusations of Conte's dishonesty and supposed attempts to hide his personal take in Patreon are worth taking a minute to discuss.
Conte's argument (in his rebuttal) that he didn't do anything to hide his involvement as not-just-a-user of Patreon kinda works for me : it's there for everyone to see on his personal public profiles, he's done promotion for Patreon and given plenty of interviews about it – Andy Cush was either lazy or disingenuous in his failure to do the homework for his Gawker piece (he since sorta acknowledged the fact in an article update) and that's plain bad journalism.
I also don't see malice in Conte not adding a full disclosure about his co-founder role in Patreon in the post-mortem : the financials tour breakdown was written from the perspective of Pomplamoose-the-band, not Jack Conte the Patreon co-founder, who had no investment in the tour's profitability (or lack thereof).
Either he overlooked pointing his interest in Patreon as self-evident (the intended readership of his postmortem presumably being reasonably educated about who Conte is), or he considered it, then figured bringing it up may muddy the waters when he's been going out of his way to keep the two separate – as pointed in his rebuttal, when he indicates taking zero salary from Patreon and instead being intent on making a living on his artist income alone (at this stage).
With that said, I don't think Conte is beyond criticism, here. My guess is he tried to make the best of a bad situation and it went somewhat poorly.
Do that on stage, nobody will gripe about the extra lights…
Finding his operation down 12 grand after a month of successful touring, with the main financial salvation for his band coming from his other venture (Patreon) may simply have reinforced Conte's belief that Patreon is a great idea (which it is) and is the only credible way for an indie band to make a buck besides iTunes sales and YouTube ads, since touring is doomed to be done at a net loss (which it doesn't have to be).
Coming to a wrong conclusion because it saves oneself self-criticism (Jack sucks at finance) and reinforces established prejudices (Patreon is the way to go) is not exactly unheard of, especially when you throw in the cookie of making a case for something you strongly hope to see succeed (people should see that Patreon is the way to go).
On a personal note, his rebuttal rubbed me the wrong way by not linking to the source of the Bob Lefsetz piece he was responding to (on Encore), and phrasing it in such a way as to imply Lefsetz endorsed the accusations of cooking the numbers in the service of a marketing ploy (which he didn't). It's hard to read that as anything but a kneejerk attempt at damning-by-association the valid criticisms made by Leftsetz (among others).
So yeah, possibly, Conte spun his yarn in a way that portrayed touring as financially more grim than he would have if he didn't have an alternative on hand, and certainly he does a disservice to aspiring live artists by failing to take away the proper lesson from his experience : a band can't make a buck from shows without being a bit careful with budget.
He also should have put a full disclosure about Patreon in his piece, and it would not even have been out of place to plug it in there if he had.
If anything, his biggest mistake may have been to post this way too early after the tour, as that's the sort of stuff one should take notes on while it's hot, then let cool down before the actual writeup.
That he failed to address any of the substantial critique about money management in his rebuttal is telling of Conte's state of mind at the time : while he clearly took offense at the attacks on his moral integrity, he didn't seem to take issue with the challenges raised against his tour management acumen, which were much more damning to the substance of his original thesis.
It may be a hint that the truth about this is dawning on him.