Arts Desk

Ted Leo Inching Toward Retirement? On the Difficulties of Middle-Class Indie Rocking


UPDATE | 1:04 P.M.: He ain't retiring—just doing what he's been saying he'd eventually be doing for a while: cooling it. Leo writes on the Pharmacists' website: "One thing I don’t want to have happen, is to wake up turning 50, and have to just be starting this conversation then. I’m looking at things realistically, I’m looking ahead, I’m telling the truth about it, and I’m hoping to find the right way forward. Oh, and I’ve got plenty of better songs to come…"

Original post:

In a recent issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal's Velocity section, D.C. expat Ted Leo says he'll scale back from constant touring and record-making by next year. It's not online yet, but Buzzgrinder has an excerpt:

I’m going to be totally honest with you. By next year, there’s no way I’m going to be able to be on tour like I have been these last few years. There’s no way I’m going to be able to keep writing and recording and playing music.

I'm curious to read the rest of the Q&A, but the difficulty of making an honest living as a middle-class indie rocker is something that Leo, one of the hardest-touring guys in the biz, has lamented before, on Arts Desk and at the Village Voice and elsewhere. The VV piece gets at one of the probs—that below a certain level of record sales, you're only breaking even, even if you're always on the road:

Do things even really flop anymore, because it's hard to tell with the way sales are. Nothing sells very much. What would a flop be–bad reviews or something?

No, a flop would be... at the level that I'm at, it's like this weird middle-class of musicians. So when you're selling, say, a relatively small number–less than 5,000 or something–you're not living your life around your music at that point. And I can say that from experience, because I spent the first 15 years of my music-playing life doing much less than that. But it starts to become this potentially self-sustainable thing when you get into the next bracket, which is a sales bracket in which you're not like putting money in the bank, you're not buying new cars or houses or anything, but you're covering the expenses of doing what you do. So it becomes a non-losing proposition at that point, which opens up the door for the possibility of it becoming an actual viable job and life. And then just like with the other actual wage earners in other areas of America, it's not until you really leapfrog into the 99th percentile that you actually start earning serious money. For the rest of the lower-middle class of people who are where I'm at, record sales actually still matter quite a bit, because again it's the difference between it being a self-sustaining thing or not. And when you're pushing 40 that matters more than when you're pushing 20 or even 30.

When you examine that top percentile of what's loosely considered indie rock, it's not that much easier: Carl Newman of the New Pornographers told me recently that he's got a comfortable middle-class life, but he's not earning buckets. That he's licensed songs (and had one featured in the video game Rock Band) has made a huge difference.

Not that the business of indie rock has ever been easy or lucrative. At least in the past, it seems, you didn't have to deal with as much business.

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