The Music Industry Doesn’t Know What to Do With The Bobby Lees

Hollywood A-lister Jason Momoa believes in the punk band from Woodstock. So, why can’t they afford to keep making music?

Music Features The Bobby Lees
The Music Industry Doesn’t Know What to Do With The Bobby Lees

In repose within the bowels of the Bowery Ballroom sit the Bobby Lees, the Woodstock-bred punk band composed of vocalist and guitarist Sam Quartin, bassist Kendall Wind, drummer Macky Bowman and guitarist Nick Casa. Their set will soon begin, and sounds of their casual chit-chat can be heard from around every corner of the place. By now, one would think pre-show rituals would be well underway. Instead, they’re keen to keep talking—and not just about the gluten-free doughnuts someone thought to bring. For New Yorkers, this is just another Wednesday—the last before the Christmas holiday. For the Bobby Lees, it could very well be the last time they play this venue. There’s a lot to say.

One month earlier, the Bobby Lees shared a sobering announcement via the band’s Instagram account: They had come to the conclusion that, after years of making music, touring and promoting (both largely on their own), they had no choice but to take a hiatus—one that’s potentially indefinite. The yeses had far surpassed the nos and the industry, it seemed, didn’t know quite what to do with the band—even despite sold out shows, and an impressive fan base that spans from upstate New York to the Hollywood Hills.

The news arrived as a shock not just to those that love them, but peers (Amy Helm, Dead Tooth, Amanda Palmer etc.), too. How could a band that’s been working steadily since 2018—three records and multiple tours, to be exact—find themselves at an impasse? According to the post: Streaming’s varied effects on the industry had made sustaining a band an economic impossibility. “It’s wild most people are comfortable spending three to five bucks on a cup of coffee today, but they no longer want to spend that same amount on an album they listen to—often because streaming has set a shitty standard most of us have accepted,” their caption read. “Bands our size barely make anything from Spotify payouts. Worse off, they’ve made algorithms and streaming numbers become more important than how something makes you feel.”

In truth, the decision to step away, they told me before their last show, is actually due to a collection of internal crises. Unbeknownst to their supporters, that post had been a long time coming for the Bobby Lees. Without the backing of a big label, they’ve paid for all three albums and mapped out every tour on their own. For all intents and purposes, they’ve done everything artists can to succeed—working alongside producers who’ve elevated Chris Stapleton and Jack White, creating a critically-acclaimed discography, selling out domestic and international shows, and making fans out of even the most surprising of people, Keanu Reeves and Juliette Lewis, to name a few. Even still, they’re not breaking even and in fact, have been hemorrhaging money.

“To everybody it seems like a blind side because on Instagram and social media everything looks so amazing all the time,” Casa says. “The reality isn’t shown. So, to all our fans and all the people around us, they’re like, ‘this doesn’t make sense. You guys are doing so well.’” “After doing three albums and paying for them ourselves, we’re just kind of like, ‘really? there’s not one label that will give us a record?’” Quartin adds of the band’s most persistent thought.

Of course, the Bobby Lees’ statement is far from the first time an artist has spoken out about an archaic streaming model that allows for major labels to maximize their revenue while an overwhelming number of musicians bleed themselves dry just to make minimum wage. In the last decade, Nile Rodgers, Nadine Shah, Kate Nash, David Byrne, Beck, the Black Keys and more have been vocal about how the current system would, inevitably, lead to the very fate of the Bobby Lees. Regardless, the system has functioned as is, and perhaps fallen even further to the predation of corporate greed veiled as the protection of artists (see: Universal Music Group vs. TikTok).

Now, shameless self-promotion is all musicians like the Bobby Lees can rely on to ensure their audience (and their bank account) is growing. Contrary to the removal of countless song catalogs from TikTok, several industry executives have advised that achieving a TikTok “moment” is crucial to the band’s growth in recent years. Winning the viral lottery, according to them, is as much a priority as making worthy music. The Bobby Lees, however, disagree; their plight, they understand, reflects a larger issue for mid-level artists—those on the cusp of a breakthrough or breakdown. “The point of revealing behind the curtain is because I think it’s wrong that everyone thinks we can keep listening for free on Spotify and then people think that the band’s succeeding, but they’re not,” Quartin says. “It’s just a facade. No one’s making money. I got contacted by a couple of slightly bigger bands that said they’re not making money.”

It hasn’t helped matters that the band has struggled to secure the right management, too. Even despite their success, some managers have insisted they were still in the “DIY stage” even until last year. They cite their final U.S. tour in early 2023 as an example. “Going into that tour, me and Sam had been saying, ‘this is the last thing we can do to try and elevate the level that we’re at, otherwise we don’t know what else we can do with the help we have,” Wind explains. “ So, we did that tour and it was amazing. Then, we finished, and everything just went silent.” “One of our managers had said ‘you’re still in the stage where you have to rough it’ and we didn’t agree with that,” Quartin says. “It just seemed like we had no help and there was no path forward for us to make another album because recording is so expensive now, too.”

After their November Instagram post, some unlikely help did arrive from a longtime supporter of the band: Jason Momoa. He’s since offered to finance a new album, featured them on his Max series, On The Roam, and popped up at a few of their final gigs. “Things that professionals we had hired in the industry couldn’t do for us, this guy who liked our music did in a week,” Casa tells me of Momoa’s support. “There is music that helps me, and the Bobby Lees have been there for me,” Momoa writes in an email. “I wanted to use my voice and platform to help in any way possible. Bands like this should be all over the world. They are amazing artists, and they deserve our support.”

The Bobby Lees’ final shows, they tell me, all sold out. At every gig, hundreds crammed themselves into bars and clubs across New York and California. Such is yet another bittersweet underscoring how strange it is that they’re in this position at all. “That was, for me, at least the biggest point of disconnect where I was like, ‘we’re playing to crowds more consistently that feel really invested and this feels awesome,” Bowman says. “Like, it’s working,” Quartin added. “Something’s working. We’re not just playing to 10 people.”

That December night at the Bowery confirmed as much, as no song went unsung by the audience—a striking amalgam of young and old. Weeks later, I speak to Quartin again, who says that, though the band is hopeful to one day make more music, they’ve all returned to more lucrative side hustles. Quartin is writing on another project. Wind and Bowman will soon tour with John Spencer. For now, Quartin says their circumstances can’t change unless the industry does. “It’s way bigger than just our band. The problem feels really simple and the solution feels really simple.”

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