Bumblefoot: Musicians Now Are ’Traveling T-Shirt Salesmen,’ Record Deals Are ’Loan at 900% Interest Rate’

Ron Thal, guitar virtuoso known as Bumblefoot, reflected on some of the hardships that musicians face today in the industry. In fact, as he said on “The Heavy Hooks Show,” conventional record deals are far from a good deal, and touring isn’t as nearly as profitable as some may think, making artists effectively “t-shirt salesmen.”

When asked about the state of the music industry, particularly how the internet and online platforms and services affected musicians, Bumblefoot said (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):

“It has the good and the bad. It’s what we’ve always dreamed of. Anybody can release their music to the entire world for nothing. I guess in the old days, you had to hire a lawyer for God knows how much money because the labels don’t accept unsolicited material — so it’s got to come from someone — and then send it to them, then all the bullshit with that. And then if you do get signed, yeah, they’ll give you a lot of money.”

Ron Thal (Bumblefoot) interview (2023)

But apart from these positive sides, there are countless other problems that come with it. For instance, record deals are still as unfavorable to the artist as they were back in the day. He continued:

“But it’s basically just a loan at a 900% interest rate. And if you get on tour, maybe they’ll give you tour support too at a 900% interest rate, basically.”

“And you go to a good studio — and when I say a good studio, I don’t mean [laptops], I mean the old school place with 24-track two-inch tape machines and all that stuff. And you have to have a producer who is not going to be cheap, and the studio is not cheap.”

“So all the money that the label says they’re going to give you, they give it to you, but it all goes everywhere else. Everything is very expensive.”

On top of that, there’s also the distribution of your music:

“When you have a distributor — that the label has — if you want any visibility, you had to pay $500 a month for just one record store to put it in their little spinning thing in the front. So imagine doing that for 10,000 stores in the US.”

Bumblefoot Live in Newcastle - filmed in 4K!

In the end, the only actual profit a musician can make is merch sold at shows:

“And then you have the whole world. And there, it’s the only thing you can do to make any money — sell t-shirts, so you are a traveling t-shirt salesman.”

 When the interviewer mentioned that concert venues are also finding ways to take merch cuts these days, Bumblefoot replied:

“Yeah, ‘soft merch’, they call it, which is shirts. So I was thinking that I’m gonna make shirts out of wood, or something like that, or chainmail or something.”

Bumblefoot at Replay Guitar Exchange

Jokes aside, Ron further discussed the challenges that performing musicians face in today’s industry. And when asked to share advice with “an unsigned band that was struggling to climb the ladder of a very kind of turbulent 21st-century music industry,” he had a very straightforward answer: “Nothing.”

It may sound really pessimistic, but Ron clarified:

“The funny thing is that nothing has really changed from who you are to where you want to be. Those two points are the same, just the stuff in between has shifted a little bit.”

Bumblefoot w/ Sons Of Apollo live 'Raygun' guitar solo + Van Halen Mean Street - Stuttgart Oct 2018

“But in the end, you’re still a traveling t-shirt salesman,” he pointed out once again. “Just now, the labels don’t have a pot to piss in. I mean, a lot of them. Not all, but a lot of them, because nobody’s buying physical product, and that’s where they made their money.”

“So they can’t fund and support the band anymore. So the band is relying on other ways to make money, and they’re not getting it from Spotify, that’s for sh*t sure.”

Nonetheless, Ron added that there are still some ways to make money:

“So how does the band make money? Meet and greets and t-shirt sales. That is the only way a band can pay its bills on tour, and not getting rich. They just want to get out and play and not lose their house when they get home.”

Bumblefoot jams to Joe Satriani's "Gnaahh"

“So it’s about that. So you’re still a traveling t-shirt salesman. It’s just 30, 40 years ago, you had this big funding behind it, but everything was more expensive and had to be paid back. And now there’s no money being paid. [Laughs]”

But at the end of the day, Bumblefoot pointed out that it’s all about music and doing what you love. As long as you can make some sort of living from it — it’s great. He continued:

“But you know what? Fuck all that. It doesn’t matter. We don’t do this to get rich. If we did, we’d be doing something else. We do this because we fucking love music. That is the reward — when you play a show and people love it.”

Billy Sheehan + Bumblefoot (Sons of Apollo) Play Their Favorite Riffs

“When you hear from people who reach out and say that your music helped them through a hard time. And just the simple fact that, for whatever reason, you’ve been blessed and cursed with this thing where you’re just filled with music that you have to get out. Because someone did it to you — they inspired you so much with their music, that you felt like you needed to just do the same thing and be part of that cycle, be part of that community.”

“That’s why we do this shit. So as long as we can eat, and as long as you can take care of those that you’re taking care of, that’s enough. Yeah, it’s like, what is that you have to define? What is enough? Or what is success? What is it all about? Like, we measure it in really stupid ways.”

Photo: Ch Villa (Ron Thal 2013)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.