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Tegan and Sara: Only the Privileged Worry about Selling Out

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I think what people lose sight of when they’re like, “Oh my God, your tickets are $60!” is that 80% of that just goes away. That's our legal fees, management commission, marketing for the tour, reimbursements to the label, 30% withholding on tax. That’s wages for our band and crew, our accommodations, our flights, our freight shipping for all our equipment. People say, “I can’t believe you’re charging $50 for a hoodie!” and I’m like, I get that, but they should know we're working with a margin of 12% to 15%. We're definitely not complaining, but those are the numbers. That’s why we tour a lot. That’s why we work hard. The more we work, the more that number accumulates and there is a profit.

We grew up in the 90s — when I think being called a “sellout” just meant you were successful. We were 17 and there was already this narrative in the press about us. We were these high school students wearing punk rock clothes and writing our own songs and playing shows — but the story was that we were manufactured. Even though we didn’t have a record deal, didn’t even have an album and people were like, “Oh, these two girls, it's a record label’s dream!”

It's interesting — even then I felt shame about being noticed and feeling visible. The way we were talked about was crass, and I felt sexually harassed by the music industry in a way. Tegan and I really muted ourselves for a long time after that, because we felt embarrassed. When Neil Young’s manager signed us to his record label there was so much, “Why them? Oh, it must be because they’re two girls and they’re lesbians and everybody wants to fuck them.” That was the stuff that was said about us and written about us.

So for me it’s always been: “Head down. Work hard. We’re going to have to work ten times harder than a guy.” If a guy got signed to Neil Young’s record label it would be like, “He’s the next Neil Young! Let’s give him a Nobel Peace Prize!” When it happened to us, I had the thought: we're going to have to work really hard to prove that we deserved something that we'd gotten. But I’ll tell you this — it made me extremely defiant about this notion of selling out. Selling out is something that people who have some kind of weird privilege get to say. So, I’m not selling out. I’m working hard and I’m paying bills and I’m creating jobs for the people around me. If that makes people call me a sellout, then sign me up!

Our ethos in the band has always to been to be fully transparent and to understand the business that we're in. That started at 18, when we signed our first legal contract.

You have a decision to make when you're deciding how much you charge for tickets and merchandise. If you want to run a good business where people are happy and well paid and feel good, that’s expensive! We always say that we used to make more money when we were a small band. Our margin was different. There weren’t as many people, and we didn’t have to have production and lights and buses and whatever.

Because the truth is that the more successful you get, the more pressure there is to put on a different kind of show — and that kind of show costs more money. It's funny, we thrill at the idea of looking through budgets and saving any kind of money now. And we've become annoying! We'll be looking through the budgets for the rehearsals we’re doing right now and we’ll be like, “What is $300 for office supplies? What do you mean? I’ll bring some paper and some pencils! $300?! Who the hell is getting $300 worth of office supplies?” And our managers say, “That’s it? We're talking about a $300 line?"

When we launched The Tegan and Sara Foundation — which raises money to support LGBTQ girls and women — it required real investment on our part. That feels really fair to me. If we’re going to ask other people to donate, if we’re going after bigger donors and more substantial amounts of money, we wanted to make sure that we were donating on the same level. Our goal for the first couple of years was just to fund the administrative and managerial side of the foundation completely ourselves. That way, any of the money coming in from the public or from private donors, that stuff can go directly out to grants and funding and programming. And this is going to sound crazy, but I wanted to be able to make mistakes in this first year — I wanted to know we're not wasting other people’s money.

Tegan and I are uniquely, and deeply, involved in the running of our businesses. Our ethos in the band has always to been to be fully transparent and to understand the business that we're in. That started at 18, when we signed our first legal contract. We had a lawyer who was determined to make sure that Tegan and I understood everything we were doing, everything we were signing — he really emphasized the importance of that. In some ways I’ve always felt like I’m an artist second and a businesswoman first.

I think that work ethic was really bludgeoned into us. And our parents really made it clear: Never carry debt.

It’s also a value that our parents instilled in us. Our mom went back to school when I was an adolescent and she got student loans and she got a bachelor’s degree, but she also worked. She would go to school all day and then she would work at night and in the summers to pay back her student loans. That had an extremely positive impact on me: to see the rigorous discipline it took to raise us six days a week, go to school, have a job, keep food on the table and gas in the car.

And then our dad — he wasn’t raising us, but we would see him on the weekends — and even though we would see him only one day a week he often had to work even on that day. I think that work ethic was really bludgeoned into us. And our parents really made it clear: Never carry debt. I remember them talking about that since we were kids. I remember they were like, “Even if you have to live in a tent, if you can avoid debt, avoid it! It just gets this vice on you.”

I don’t own a car. I don’t have a driver’s license. I have a shitty smattering of instruments that I keep around. I didn’t put money into the things that people who suddenly have money put money into. The first thing I bought when I was 26 was a mortgage — I put a mortgage down on a studio apartment. I know, it’s so boring! Up until a few years ago, I lived like I was a college student. When I started dating my girlfriend she said, “You know, you are pathologically cheap and afraid that you’re not going to have money. You can afford nicer things.” And I started to branch out. It was around then that we took my mom to India with us, and we paid for the trip. And I remember thinking, “Oh my God, I can pay for people’s trips now!” It was around the time I was 30.

Right now, my goal is to be able to live in a way that is comfortable for me. We didn’t start flying business class until our last album. The first time I ever sat in business class was in 2010 — I flew to do a press trip. Tegan got sick and she couldn’t do the press trip and so I flew to do the press trip alone and the label said, “Since we’re only having to fly one of you over, we’ll get you a business class ticket.” I was so uncomfortable, and I thought it was such a tremendous waste of money! And then at some point another artist said to us, “You are going to spend your life touring and traveling. That’s your job! People drive a Honda Accord and then they get excited because they get to buy a Prius. Don’t feel ashamed about wanting to move up! Don’t feel ashamed about the fact you’ve become more successful and you can afford these things.”

As told to Abigail Lauren exclusively for Wealthsimple. Illustration by Jenny Mörtsell. We make smart investing simple and affordable.

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