On Creative Businesses That Sometimes Lose Money, or “The Pomplamoose Thing”

Over the next month, probably the next two months, I’m going to be talking to different creative people about how they manage the business aspect of their art. I was planning on introducing this topic after I had completed my first interview, but then the Pomplamoose thing happened, and people started asking me if I was going to write about Pomplamoose on The Billfold, so here we go.

What you need to know: Pomplamoose is a band that was founded by Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn in 2008. They immediately began pushing the boundaries of “how to create homebrew music videos on YouTube,” and because of their innovative style — both musically and visually — they went viral and built up an audience. (“Going viral” and “finding an audience” are two separate things, incidentally. More on this later. Like, later this month.)

Last Monday, Jack Conte published a piece on Medium titled Pomplamoose 2014 Tour Profits (Or Lack Thereof), and a certain section of the internet got very angry.

Why were they angry? It boiled down to about three distinct reasons:

— Because Conte described Pomplamoose’s tour as a positive, important step in the band’s career, even though they lost money on their tour.

— Because Conte itemized the tour expenses, which included paying the musicians, sleeping in beds, and giving out per diem — and some people thought the musicians should have worked for free, slept in the van, and eaten gas station beef jerky.

— Because Jack Conte is also the founder of Patreon, which led readers to assume that Conte could run Pomplamoose at a loss because he already had all the income he needed from his other business venture — although Conte never states or implies this himself, and in fact writes a follow-up explaining “I’m still not taking a salary as [Patreon] CEO even after our $15 million round in venture financing, but rather I’m living off of my income as an artist.”

What are the actual numbers involved? Well, as Conte writes:

Add it up, and that’s $135,983 in total income for our tour. And we had $147,802 in expenses.

We lost $11,819.

And when I saw that, I solidarity fist-bumped with my heart, because losing $11 grand on a creative project is nothing. I mean, me saying $11,000 is “nothing” is a bit cavalier, but it’s true. I went around $3,000 in debt to finish my Kickstarter. I regularly lose money when I travel to conventions to play shows — and the people who run those conventions sometimes operate the conventions at a loss, too.

I know so many people with creative careers who sometimes lose money on a project to support the career. Musicians often lose money on tours, and writers and publishing houses often lose money on book tours (traveling is expensive). It’s not a big deal. If you’re doing good work and building your audience, the money tends to come back, or you find a way of making it work.

The “you find a way of making it work” piece is also why I’m using the word “career” instead of “business” in this case: because there are some people who have a creative career but also earn money in other ways, and there are other people who run their creative career as a small business and derive their sole income from it. In both cases, taking a loss on one project can help out the career/business as a whole.

“But Nicole,” you’ll say, “shouldn’t artists get paid for their work?” ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY, and that was why I sent mental glares to all the commenters who told Conte that he shouldn’t have paid his band. If you are doing creative work for someone else, that person should pay you. If you are taking a loss on a project you have chosen to create, well, that’s on you. And sometimes it’s the cost of doing business.

Anyway. That’s a start to what I hope will be a longer conversation about how people with creative careers and businesses do money.

Photo credit: Brian J. Geiger

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.