MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now, the story of musicians who were rock stars, once at least. It's part of our series on how artists make money.

The Posies were barely out of their teens in the late 1980s when they got a deal with a major label, but it's been a while since one of their songs hit the charts.

NPR's Neda Ulaby checked in with them to find out how they're making a living now.

NEDA ULABY: It might have been really hard, a decade or so ago, to imagine the two musicians, who are The Posies, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, hawking their own CDs behind a table before a show, but that's what they're doing now, surrounded by fans at a cavernous Brooklyn warehouse-turned-nightclub.

(Soundbite of crowd)

These fans, like the musicians, are approaching middle age. They tenderly recall favorite albums and shows. One pulls out an incredibly ratty Posies T-shirt for the musicians to autograph.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) falling apart.

ULABY: That relic dates from an era defined by the music of Kurt Cobain, from the days when major labels raided Washington State's nightclubs in search of the next Nirvana. The Posies were snapped up by Geffen and scored a sweetly melancholy hit.

(Soundbite of song, "Dream All Day")

THE POSIES: (Singing) I could dream all day. I could dream all day. I could dream all day…

ULABY: Back in 1993, you could buy that album, "Frosting on the Beater," in record stores around the country. The Posies have songs in two definitive '90s movies: "Reality Bites" and "The Basketball Diaries," says singer and songwriter Jon Auer.

Mr. JON AUER (Vocals, The Posies): I think we had a $250,000 publishing advance, and I think just off of those two movies, we managed to recoup that entire advance and make money on top of that.

ULABY: But the band still owes Geffen money. At the time, Auer says, he was having too much fun being a rock star to pay attention to all of the expenses label reps charged to the band's account.

Mr. AUER: If you look at what they send you eventually, you know, these amazing itemized statements, you're going to find every hotel room they ever stayed at. I mean, if someone went and bought some baseball cards, you know, and they were your A&R guy, they probably put it on your account. I mean, just crazy stuff like that. It was amazing to actually sit down and look at it and realize that it was all on your dime, basically.

ULABY: The Posies left their major label in the late 1990s, not over money, but over a lack of promotion. They went back to the small independent label where they've started. They released a record they made very cheaply.

(Soundbite of song, "You're The Beautiful One")

Compared with "Frosting on the Beater," which the band says sold about 200,000 copies, this new one moved only about 25,000, Auer says.

Mr. AUER: I actually saw a check from that record that went in my pocket. I never saw a check from the sales of any of the records on the major labels.

(Soundbite of song, "You're The Beautiful One")

THE POSIES: (Singing) There's no kiss, no kiss I'd trade for you.

ULABY: The band broke up. Income from the sale of their albums was not enough to live on. To this day, the money from sales from those Geffen recordings goes right back to the label. The band does get some performance royalties when the two movies with their songs screen on TV.

Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow had to support themselves by diversifying. They became producers, recording engineers and backup musicians for other bands. Stringfellow played with R.E.M., among many others.

Mr. KEN STRINGFELLOW (Vocals, The Posies): I've played on so many records, it's crazy. I have no idea how many.

ULABY: Like a hundred?

Mr. STRINGFELLOW: A couple hundred, probably.

ULABY: When you ask Stringfellow how much money he makes today, he says it's complicated. He lives in Paris now, and these days, he's mostly paid in euros.

Mr. STRINGFELLOW: He pulls out a calculator. He types in a number. Hold on here, folks. What's the euro right now, 1.3? Yeah, it means I make about $100,000 a year.

ULABY: Much of Stringfellow's income, he says, comes from his work with bands in Belgium, Holland and Norway. He plays with them, but that's just the tip of - forgive me - the iceberg.

Mr. STRINGFELLOW: I'm the tour accountant and tour manager and travel agent and all that stuff, all the time, for all of these bands. It's so insane.

ULABY: Those bands include The Posies. They reunited four years ago with an album that pleased both critics and old fans.

(Soundbite of song, "Who To Blame")

THE POSIES: (Singing) But you don't know who to blame.

ULABY: You'll rarely hear The Posies on the radio, though. They never produce the kind of song that gets played on classic rock or used in commercials, the kind of tune that sends a stream of songwriting royalties back their way. So their lives are a blur of work: producing, managing and, of course, performing.

Jon Auer estimates the three-stop tour they're on now will net each musician about $500 a day.

Mr. AUER: We don't tour with a bus these days. We don't have four-star hotel rooms. We're not above rooming with each other if we have to.

ULABY: And they're not above exploiting social media. Ken Stringfellow basically runs a cottage industry for Posies fans from his laptop.

Mr. STRINGFELLOW: I log in to Facebook, and in, like, 30 seconds, I have, like, 50 people in my chat window, and I answer their questions and, oh, yeah, you want to get that record? I've got a couple of those in stock.

ULABY: The Posies are signed now to a mid-size label owned by Warner Music. But to a large degree, The Posies have cut out the middleman. They sell their own recordings, manage their own tours. They have more control. That sense of freedom comes out when they play.

(Soundbite of music)

When they take the stage, The Posies are soon jumping around like the couple of teenagers they once were, dripping with sweat and ecstatic.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. AUER: I love what I do, and I get to do what I love. So this may all be about money, but that's amazing currency in my estimation.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Dream All Day")

THE POSIES: (Singing) I could dream all day. I could dream all day. I could dream all day.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.