The Economics of the Polyphonic Spree

A good friend and I were discussing this — the music “collective”/cult (depending on your outlook) Polyphonic Spree had to create a nightmare scenario when they toured. At times, the group numbered more than 25. Admittedly, their song “Light and Day (Reach for the Sun)” was awesome, and worth seeing live, I bet. But the sheer logistics of:

  • Finding transportation for 25+ players to get from city to city;
  • Creating a fair share of album, ticket and merch revenue between players — ones who actually played instruments/sang and others who sort of hung out and played “tambourine” (their current members’ list features more than a half-dozen “choir” members);
  • Dry cleaning those robes.

 

This quote from a 2004 SFGate piece may sum it up best:

THE POLYPHONIC SPREE IS AS POOR AS DIRT. Taking more than two dozen people out on the road isn’t cheap — just think of the toilet paper costs alone. Even though the Polyphonic Spree’s 2002 debut, a demo recorded in just two days called “The Beginning Stages Of,” has sold exceptionally well in Europe and had songs plucked from it for Volkswagen and iPod commercials, as well as the new Jim Carrey movie, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” DeLaughter and his band mates still have to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon. “It’s fine,” he says. “We’re making it. We just bunk up with each other and do what we have to do. We’ve gotten very resourceful.”

(Now mind you, this was written before PBR was hip. It was just … cheap).

So apparently we weren’t alone (our solution: “OK, everyone who plays an actual instrument, step forward. Everyone else, please see HR on your way out and thank you for your years of loyal service) in thinking about this. From a 2013 Radio Times piece, “The Polyphonic Spree – the biggest group in the world… almost”:

They must be the biggest pop music act in the world. When I say “the biggest”, I mean in numbers: they have over 100 former members and currently around 25 regular choir singers and musicians in their ranks. The highest number of group members to appear on stage at any one time is 30 …

In this global recession, operating as a 30-piece pop group travelling the world is precarious. Flights, hotels, food, the replenishment of new robes, a beer after the show, all adds up.

Tim (DeLaugher, the group’s founder/leader) talks economics, “The logistics are pretty crazy. The biggest thing is the financial hurdle. We get paid as a five-piece band and there can be as many as 30 members on stage.” You do the math.

“We permanently walk a financial tightrope. To witness this band live is a gift because it’s so costly for us to be able to navigate our way around the globe. I have to be extremely frugal and we are in debt a lot.” Then surely the obvious option is to scale things back?

“It would make my life easier if I could scale this thing down and use samples, but it’s just a wonderful exchange of energy and feeling that is quite addictive when you have that many people on stage. Cutting back is not an option.”

S0 basically, they suck it up and figure it out. In today’s prefab pop music world, good for them. And while I admit I haven’t listened to them in 14 years, perhaps I will soon. Maybe I’ll buy a robe.

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