U.S. Girls' Meg Remy breaks down the budgetary struggle of a touring musician, even in normal times
Before her current tour was cancelled, Remy walked Art, Death & Taxes through the challenges of two past tours
Art, Death & Taxes unpacks the art world's greatest taboo: money. Nine acclaimed artists explore the economics of their practice, peeling back the curtain on all the work that goes into the work. Stream the full series now on CBC Gem.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic and before her latest tour was cancelled as a result, Meg Remy of the band U.S. Girls sat down for our new series Art, Death & Taxes to detail the financial realities of being a touring musician. It's a challenging situation even in normal times as they attempt to turn a profit while always being on the edge of not making ends meet or going into debt. In the episode, Remy describes the impact a regular event like a snowstorm can have in throwing off the budget of a tour. As artists around the world now face an event so much larger than a snowstorm and all at once, it is a moment that shakes the foundations of the entire music industry. Stream Meg Remy's episode and the full season of Art, Death & Taxes to learn more about the difficult situation for musicians and other artists trying to make the money work out. CBC Arts has also published a guide of resources for artists now facing difficult times.
As contrasting examples, Remy describes two very different tours that both carried significant financial risk: one solo tour early in her career where she was scraping by show to show on cash alone, and a more recent tour with a full band across Europe paid for in advance on credit.
The early tour started as a venture to sell records — another aspect of the music industry that always teeters on the edge of being non-viable. "I had a record that I had made that someone put out 300 copies of," she recalls. "It was a really big deal that someone was going to pay money to press my record. So I felt that I owed it to them to sell all 300 copies."
But at this stage in her career, Remy had no structural support behind her. "I didn't have any infrastructure at the time."
To make it work, she did the tour solo across the continent by bus, travelling long distances to make small amounts of money. "In terms of the travel, everywhere you're going is taking to or three times longer. I took a bus, a Greyhound, from L.A. to Portland, Oregon once and that's like a 24-hour ride — to get somewhere and do a 20-minute set and maybe make $50. It was something I could have only done being the age I was. I didn't know any better. It seemed great to me, even though it was difficult. I wanted to be free at that time."
This tour was strictly a cash-only venture — no credit — which had its positives and negatives. "Needing to operate in cash meant that I always needed cash, with no credit card to just pay off later. That would have been a lot easier and I probably would have gone into massive debt," Remy laughs, "because I would have just gotten hotel rooms when I didn't like the person who was the option I could stay with or something like that."
But living so close to the edge of her resources, the situation was always very risky since without making money from the shows, she would soon run out. "Every day when there was a show, I needed to make sure I was making something. And when I didn't have a show I had to make sure I was spending as little as possible. I did a lot of walking, carrying all the bags, the reel [a reel-to-reel tape deck Remy uses in her music], the records. I tried to not spend much money on food."
I don't think you can make a living in this world without business. It's all wrapped up in everything, so I definitely have a business. I've struggled with admitting it. It's kind of icky because business is icky, but it's all about how you act within it.- Meg Remy of U.S. Girls
More recently, as her career has grown, her ability to level up her touring operation has come with both new opportunities and new — and bigger — risks.
"Touring recently on a larger scale with this large band that we did on the Poem tour, you have to put everything on a credit card in advance — so eight or nine flights when we're going to Europe, a backline [the sound system equipment required to put on a concert] from the European backline company, all the hotels and things are held [in advance]."
"It's a big risk because you'll put, say, $20,000 on your credit card."
Remy says that this budgeting can often look like it's going to work out in advance and leave you with a little bit of money at the end to pay yourself, but it is subject to falling apart depending on events. "When you're working with door deals, where what you get is based on how many people come, you can't really control that. What if there's some sort of crazy snowstorm or something? Then you're out that money."
"So you're taking this massive risk. It's gambling, basically. The two different ways that I operated — the cash-based and the credit-based — are so different, and this new way is a very privileged way but it also feels far more insane to me than the cash way," she says, laughing at the unsteady ground these operations rest on.
And beyond risking her own livelihood, Remy is now very conscious of how now touring with a band she is responsible for the livelihoods of others. "I was basically employing seven or eight people for two years. That's a whole other level of responsibility. I'm the one who's benefiting the most from these people doing this thing, and I get all of the cultural currency from it."
Echoing a subject raised in other episodes of Art, Death & Taxes, Remy wishes these business aspects didn't have to be part of being a musician — but they are necessary, and she's learned to take them seriously. "I don't think you can make a living in this world without business. It's all wrapped up in everything, so I definitely have a business. I've struggled with admitting it. It's kind of icky because business is icky, but it's all about how you act within it."