Weezer laughed off an offer of $10 million to break up, but would it really cost that much?
It helped that it was a slow week, but there was an unusual amount of press attention last Wednesday when Seattle man James Burns boldly offered rock band Weezer $10 million to stop making music.
The concept of paying musicians to retire isn’t exactly a new one, but in this case it reflected a real long-held view among part of the band’s fanbase that, well, maybe retirement wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world. Having spent much of the ’90s and early ’00s as a solid ‘album every two or three years’ band, Weezer have released four in the past five years and the dramatic slide in quality has been noticed by all but the most easily-amused fan.
Whether the petition was intended as a joke or a genuine expression of frustration – more than likely both – the band were quick to laugh it off, with drummer Patrick Wilson joking that “if they can make it 20, we’ll do the ‘deluxe breakup’!” Frontman Rivers Cuomo rather missed the point entirely, reassuring fans that “no petition and no amount of money will stop us from being together!” In any case, spoilsport Burns has since shut the petition down.
It’s a pity – it would have been nice if Weezer had at least have pretended to entertain the offer – but would it really have taken the full $10 million to crack them? The evidence suggests not by a long shot.
First of all, let’s look at the offer that was put on the table: $10 million, presumably in the form of a lump sum, payable to all four members of the band in exchange for a promise to keep it in their pants next time. Hardly an unreasonable amount of money, but certainly not a huge amount more than they could anticipate making from sales and touring over the next decade or so.
But let’s look a little more closely at the group. With a few minor exceptions – guest writers on the new album included Ryan Adams, Desmond Child and Linda Perry – Rivers Cuomo writes all of the band’s music and lyrics. While Weezer probably do split mechanical rights (i.e. the performer’s cut of sales revenue) evenly among the four members, album sales have continued to decline steeply in recent years, even for niche groups like Weezer: 2009’s Raditude sold little over half as many copies as the previous year’s Red Album.
More importantly, Cuomo almost certainly runs away with the lion’s share of the publishing rights, which is swiftly becoming the most profitable area of the music business. The biggest potential loser in absolute monetary terms, should a split come to pass, would be Rivers as he could never hope to replicate the band’s commercial success as a solo artist, even if he does have lots and lots of famous friends.
The main earner for all parties, presumably, is touring and performance income and it’s here that the band can reasonably expect to put away a few hundred grand per year provided they stick to their schedule of an album every 18 months. Small change to Rivers, perhaps, but it’s the kind of steady income that will help put the other three members’ kids through college.
The forthcoming Pinkerton tour will provide a financial windfall, but presumably that will be completed before the full hypothetical amount is raised (barring a multi-million dollar donation from a philantropist like John Mayer or Bruce Willis). Similarly, it remains to be seen whether there is residual value in the commercial tie-in with sportswear company Hurley (after which the album is named, not Jorge Garcia’s serial character as the cover suggests).
The large disparity in earning potential between Rivers, on the one hand, and his bandmates on the other points to a rather obvious plan of action: divide and conquer. Burns should simply have excluded Rivers from the original offer. His earning potential is so much greater than the other three that any attempt to include the frontman can only have the effect of driving up the asking price, and significantly so.
What Burns should have done was to make the offer to Patrick Wilson, Brian Bell and Scott Shriner – or, more optimistically, any two of the above. As Rivers has already pointed out, no amount of money could persuade him to give up his cushy career. He’d only be tempted by something completely mad, like Bono’s head on a pike or a hit single that wasn’t totally awful. And neither of those is even remotely plausible.
Without casting mine own eyes over Weezer’s accounts, it’s impossible to know just how much each member makes in a year, but a conservative guess would be that each member might make an average of $200,000 a year in “new” income, i.e. revenue from the most recently-released album and the year’s touring revenue.
$200,000 x 3 x 5 years (reasonable estimate of continued popularity) = $3 million
Add in some punitive costs for the emotional heartbreak inherent in breaking up the band and never talking to Rivers again (hey, accidents happen), and it’s reasonable to suggest the three would accept around-about $3.5 million in exchange for screwing over their bandmate. It’s a dog eat dog world. A more risky bet would be to restrict the offer to just Wilson and Shriner: in that case, a little over $2 million could be enough to break up the band for good.
Now doesn’t that sound a heck of a lot more manageable than $10 million?