It used to be relatively simple to work out how successful musicians got paid, you signed to a record label, put out an album and toured in support of it. If you made a profit after paying back your advance and all associated costs you got paid. This is called recouping (most bands failed to do this though). Now things are less clear, many musicians make their living in far less conventional ways. In a recent blog on the Huffington Post, MC Lars (a successful rapper) explained how he made a living:
“47% of my income comes from merchandise, 40% from ticket sales, and 13% comes from iTunes, Spotify or other paid music services through the internet. I used a crowdsourced funding site called Kickstarter to produce my last album, with added bonuses of drawings and personalized songs to the highest contributors….. A primary means of distribution in 2011 was my USB robot, a two-gigabyte hard drive keychain that housed all of my albums digitally. I also sell t-shirts with cartoon characters I draw myself and I try to print on shirts manufactured domestically when I can.”
Notice only a small amount of the money came from iTunes sales. This is why record companies are now trying to get bands to sign away merchandising rights as part of the “360 record deal”. The more rights you can retain the more chance you have of actually making enough money to survive. So for MC Lars selling T-Shirts and live concerts are his principal income stream, playing live is now more important than ever. Where your income comes from will be different depending on who your fans are, how your music is exploited commercially and numerous other factors. Here are some other examples of how your band can earn a living these days:
- Give the music away free online, but make the money from gigs and merchandise – You can sell lots of different types of original and interesting items with your logo on if you put your mind to it, from the obvious to the weird. There a lots of ideas for merchandise here. To make this work you’ll need to tour really extensively for many years to build the audience. Be prepared to sleep on floors and not make a lot of money in the early days. Don’t forget to list your gigs on Live Unsigned and across your various social media channels.
- Charge for the music and play live for free – You charge a premium for the music and play live for free or for costs. You may have to think seriously about limited edition items to sell to your fans to make this work (box sets, live albums, vinyl etc)
- Licensing the music – If this works it’s great but licensing for TV and film is hard to get into. There is lots of info on licensing your music here.
- Having multiple projects – By playing in numerous bands (even covers bands) you have more chance of making a living, it does get really hard to juggle multiple projects. Make sure you are realistic and don’t take on too much and let people down.
- Teaching music on the side – Teaching private lessons can often give you a stable income in the early days of your musical career. The stability of having regular students can be very useful between gigs.
- Having a freelance career that you can work at when off the road – Many bands have another skill to fall back on. One very well known metal band are roofers while not on the road! A musician we spoke to highly recommend some sort of freelance trade such as plumbing or gas fitting as useful skills to have in case of a quiet time between gigs.
- Some bands work a day job and build their audience over time – By keeping the day job you can reinvest the money made back into the band, sometimes it is good to play the long game.
How you earn a living will most likely be a mix of the above or various other ways of paying the bills. It’s rarely as simple as just releasing your music and playing a few gigs, it takes real thought to be able to make a career as a musician. Try and get as many income streams as possible going and you will have more of a chance. It is not easy but it can be done.