The art of making money as a musician

A musician shrugging between money and a question mark. CREDIT: NINA HEPPLEWHITE
The music industry is very volatile and as a musician, you probably want nothing more than to enjoy the process and stay energetic along the way.

The music industry has been notoriously and historically super difficult to survive in.

“The reason why it’s hard to make a living as a musician is because you are faced with a plethora of challenges in the beginning,” described Quora user Christopher S.

It’s why many budding musicians avoid going professional even if they have loads of talent. Having a profitable music career never comes easy, but having the desire to be involved with music and immersed in it is often the first step towards a fruitful musical career. So, what are your sources of revenue if you want to survive working in the music industry?

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1. You’re probably going to need a day job

Even extremely talented musicians struggle to get enough work to pay off their expenses. Many of them work jobs that specifically help them have time for their musical endeavours. These are generally jobs with flexible schedules and steady incomes. Some examples are: freelance writers, Uber drivers, music teachers, music store clerks, sound technicians, piano tuners, and virtual assistants. However, any job that helps you stay afloat and still have time for your music will work. Avoid time-sucking jobs, like jobs that have long days, long commutes, lots of overtime.

“Making money in the music industry only happens when you have established your value by developing your skillset,” said Mike Roth, artist development professor in the music industry arts (MIA) program.

“To demand [money] before experience rarely happens, so early in your career it’s important to say yes to opportunities in order to have a track record of experiences that can lead to you deserving to be paid. Early on, your career opportunities and experience is your pay.”

2. Selling your music

Digital downloads and streaming services provide an easy form of distribution to get your music out there and heard by the masses. There are a lot of platforms to choose from and most early career musicians distribute their music through independent distributors like Distrokid, CDBaby, or Emubands to get their music on apps like Spotify, Apple Music, iHeartRadio, and Deezer. SoundCloud and YouTube are also popular platforms where people release their music. Soundcloud has a high number of indie artists while YouTube’s strong discovery features as well as visual storytelling opportunities help promote music even more. All of those streaming platforms provide some payment for streams of your music so it can be a form of passive income as long as you market your work well.

A lot of musicians collaborate on music and if you do this, you should communicate some general guidelines before you work for the revenue split especially if you’re with a band. Some music producers sell their beats for a flat rate and no credit – many working professionals would advise against that. If one song hits it big, you’ll regret not receiving a royalty.

3. Using your musical skills and running a business

“The approach to making money is to treat it as a matter of fact,” said Matthew Grady, an MIA professor and local musician, engineer, and producer. “You have to have a minimum value for your time, below which no one can access your unique skill set. That time is better spent practicing, writing, recording, editing, and mixing your own material than on someone who does not see value in what you do.”

Live shows are a big opportunity to gain experience as a musician. It could start at an open mic night playing original songs or covers. Eventually, you can perform sets of your music at music venues close to you, being part of the night’s rotation or opening for other major acts. If your audience for your music grows to a big enough size, there may be some value in selling some merch. Selling a piece of branded clothing at a show can retain some of the most loyal fans who love to listen to your music and many who’d love to come back to one of your shows.

The music industry is very volatile and as a musician, you probably want nothing more than to enjoy the process and stay energetic along the way. It can be tough and it takes a lot of time and effort. Even long-time music professionals like Grady have struggled getting work in the industry.

“I don’t actually know how difficult it is to make it in the industry because I am still applying the bulk of my energy trying just to make ends meet in this industry. I don’t think there’s a day that will come when I feel I’ve ‘made it.’ There have been many moments of joy along the way, which is one of my measures of success, but there’s always another plateau. When you elevate your craft and your life into a higher spot, take a look around. There’s always someone above you, doing better in one way or another. Stay humble.”