The Cloud Nothings model wasn’t set up for a pandemic. For eight months out of the year the Cleveland band would tour nonstop. It was one of the rare ways to make the economics of a four-piece band work in an industry that had become notoriously unkind to indie acts looking to survive outside the purview of massive conglomerates.
So when the bottom fell out of the touring industry when COVID-19 hit the states, so too did the main source of income for the band. And yet Dylan Baldi seems unfazed. The Cloud Nothings frontman doesn’t have all the answers, but if you speak with him long enough it’s clear he has more than most.
Since 2009, Baldi had seen Cloud Nothings grow from a one-man band that existed only on Myspace into a touring act with a cult following. They had weathered blog booms, the rise of social media, and the dawn of streaming. So when the music industry shut down, Cloud Nothings was prepared to pivot in whatever way they needed too.
Before the release of their ninth album, The Shadow I Remember, last Friday, Baldi sat down to discuss what it’s like releasing hundreds of songs to keep a band alive and how that might just be the future (or present) of the industry. That ended up including releasing dozens of live recordings, making several full-length albums, and, most notably, setting up a Netflix-like subscription service on Bandcamp where fans could access exclusive projects recorded in the past year.
What’s this year been like personally, and then on a more macro level, what’s it been like for the band?
I think those are actually probably similar things. They’ve been fairly depressing and demoralizing in a way. It’s just a lot of emailing things back and forth. It’s not like we’ve been seeing each other all the time, given everything going on anyway. But especially now that I’m an eight-hour drive away from them, yeah.
How did you have to rethink the way you and Cloud Nothings operated throughout the pandemic?
This band, over the last 10 years, had become our job. We made a living just touring constantly, and that was how we survived as people, but that was obviously taken away in the pandemic and with good reason, of course. But it still presented a challenge to people who were suddenly newly unemployed to try to figure out a way to replace touring with any other income from music. We had to flip modes pretty quickly and try to figure out what’s the quickest way to continue being a band, because selling records doesn’t do much.
So we’ve pivoted pretty quickly to just a Bandcamp model. Most people probably know Bandcamp. It’s a site where most of the revenue from the music goes to the actual people putting the music on the site, which is the bands and the artists. So we made a record. Me and our drummer made one just emailing each other files back and forth because that’s the only way we could think to do it. Then we started putting a record out every ... like a little EP every month and people could subscribe to that. So it’s kind of running like Netflix, but for a band.
You also put up 27 different live sets from different venues all across the U.S.
All across the world actually, yeah. There’s all sorts of stuff from all over the last 10 years. We put together everything we could and mixed it as well as we could and put them all out there for people, yeah.
Then we had seven monthly subscriber EPs, one subscriber LP, two new LPs (The Black Hole Understands, The Shadow I Remember), one reissue, and two Baldi and Gerycz LPs. That is a lot of music. That’s like Lil Wayne Mixtape Era amount of music.
When you take touring away from people who’ve only ever toured and were never home except to make music, what are they going to do? They’re going to sit at home and make music all day, every day. It’s what I used to do when I was a kid and didn’t want to go to school. I would just sit at home and not go to my classes in college and do this.
Could you break down the economics of releasing your music like this?
I think in general, the amount of money you’re going to get from Spotify is very minimal. It’s like 0.003 cents per stream of your song, and one stream is just one listen through to the song. [Ed. note: Spotify is the parent company of The Ringer.] If one person buys your song on Bandcamp, they pay whatever you have set the price at. Generally, Bandcamp takes a little. If someone uses PayPal, there’s another extra fee, so it [roughly] ends up they’ll have 25 percent and you get 75 percent of whatever it is. … Getting 75 cents versus three-hundredths of a penny or whatever is a big thing, especially as you scale it upward.
How have things changed for you guys as a band since you first broke in early 2010s? You’ve managed to stay successful, but I would say the margins have been shrinking for groups that aren’t your Drakes and your Post Malones of the world.
Well, there is a constant rich-get-richer scenario going on in music and in literally every part of society. That is something that is extremely visible, no matter where you are. I can walk outside and look at a condo. There’s a place down my street where someone built some weird-looking new home. It’s in a little area of row houses, and this guy has a glass garage and a Tesla in it, and it’s next to some places where you’re like, “Why? Why did you do this?” You could see the neighborhood so visibly changing. In a way, music has been heading that way.
I think the way you guys did it is smart, because I’m assuming the people who are paying for this subscription are your superfans who are like, “Yes, I want this content. I will pay a nominal fee for it to just be fed constantly.” What have you learned by targeting those people who are your die-hard fans?
I’ve learned I’m very grateful for them. Also that if you keep providing good, interesting things that you would want as a fan of a band or a fan of music, people will respond to it. People like getting exclusive EPs every month of brand-new music. Who wouldn’t like that from some band they like? It’s fun to make those things knowing they’re going to a community of people who are the most excited about it. It’d be one thing if I was just putting it out and it went to, I don’t even know who, someone who didn’t care. It’s nice to know that you’re doing these things for people who actually really love it and are very excited every time you put something out. It’s just like your people, you know?
It almost feels like to be a known quantity at this point, you have to just keep putting things out. It’s like advertising in a way, running your band like it truly is just like a business. “We have this thing, we have this thing out, here’s some news about it.”
That seems like what it’s like to be a journalist as well. It’s like, all right, you’ve got to have a Substack newsletter. You got to host a podcast. Oh, you need to do video now? Writing is just not enough.
I think everyone’s their own little entrepreneur at this point, or else you are just some cog and doing some other job in some machine.
What do you think the plan will be in 2021, 2022? I don’t know if any artists can go back to the way things were. Do you see a hybrid model where you’re still doing the Bandcamp stuff, but you’re also touring again?
I have no idea. I’ve talked to people who run venues and they seem to think that they’re not going to close, which is great. They’ll survive this whole thing. I don’t know the speed at which things will return. I don’t know what sold-out venues will look like. I don’t know if that’s half capacity for the next two years or something. The only thing you can do is keep adapting to things as they change as best as you can, I guess, or just get a different job.
My ideal society would be one where each community is more aware of their impact on things and lets little smaller communities grow, rather than focusing on international, unsustainable things. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it’ll try to just get back to normal as fast as it can.
Lastly, I think it’s actually a grand experiment of making and releasing a bunch of music during a pandemic. What have you noticed about that music that might be a little bit different from what you would normally do when you were recording an album maybe every two years?
In general, the stuff that I noticed is things that happen when we don’t actually play in a room together. We have a sense that, I guess, things just get louder naturally and are a little more intense when we’re playing together. When I’m just writing things alone, they tend to be a little floatier and poppier almost. There’s not that like anger or intensity in it because I’m just in my room with a guitar wearing headphones. I’m not even really making any sound. So a lot of the music we’ve released has tended toward the lighter, less heavy thing than we’ve been doing. I guess it’s because we’re not in the room. If I was in a room with a drummer playing loud, I would turn my amp up and be like, “Oh, this obnoxious guitar part actually sounds really cool.” But if I’m just playing alone in the room, I’m like, “I want to play a pretty thing,” I’ll do that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.