Making money and creating remarkable art are often seen as incompatible. In this episode of Pick Yourself, I’m trying to answer a simple question: Can you still make money from music and stay 100% true to your passion? Can you make a decent living in this industry while still creating remarkable art? Let me share with you the three essential factors that are going to make this possible.
There’s nothing wrong with making money from music
First of all, this is not an episode about “selling out”. If you have followed this blog and podcast for a while now, you know that this would be the exact opposite of what I stand for with my principles.
Making money from music is absolutely fine, as long as you don’t purely see your songs as a “product” and try to compromise your creative direction to make it more suitable for a specific market.
On the other hand I must admit that if you produce music that simply doesn’t appeal to anyone but yourself and an obscure niche at the size of 500 people worldwide, you cannot really expect to make a living from music.
So what does it take?
In my episode on art vs. capitalism, I’ve already talked about three strategies that help you focus on the right aspects:
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- Put your true heart and soul into your music
(increasing the emotional impact of your songs)
- Challenge the status quo
(pushing the boundaries of your genre)
- Provide context and orientation
(leading your tribe of true fans)
These factors refer mainly to the musical content and how you interact with your audience. But what about your own mindset? What about the music industry these days? Let’s now talk about what takes to make money from music.
Three factors that allow you to make a living from music
In this business, there’s no guarantee you’re ever going to “make it”. But that’s okay. If it was that easy, everyone who has this dream would go for it without hesitation.
In my research for this episode, I’ve come across a very honest and thoughtful blog post by Danny Barnes on how to make a living playing music. I don’t know him personally but he seems to think along the same lines as I do. So let me quote a short paragraph that I find very useful:
“Build your own audience. If you can sell your own records that you make yourself and do your own shows, you can attract the attention of industry folks and get your calls returned. Then you probably won’t need them unless you want them. That’s a better bargaining position for you. Work on your draw.
If you don’t have a draw, these are some likely things to look at: Where you are playing isn’t the right place. The music isn’t there yet. The time isn’t right” – Danny Barnes
Here’s what I love about this quote: Danny Barnes tells you to not wait until some magic moment of luck happens and Mr. Big-Ass Manager saves your artist career. In past episodes, I’ve talked at great length about growing your tribe and getting to 1000 true fans. You don’t need anyone but yourself to build an audience. Your music has to be remarkable and you should focus on building a strong artist brand. The most idiotic thing you could do is wait until you “get discovered”.
There’s a reason why this podcast and blog is called Pick Yourself.
Now that this is out of the way, let’s talk about the three factors that will enable you to make a living from music.
I’m sorry to bring this to you but there’s a big chance you’re constantly lying to yourself. You might enjoy the dream of playing big festivals and headline slots at well-known clubs. But are you truly committed to making it happen? Are you born to do this? Do you feel a true calling?
With a certain level of dedication, anything is possible. Without enough true dedication, you will most likely stumble and fall when the first real obstacles stand in your way. Making money from music is hard, especially when you’re aiming to make a full-time living.
Here are some of the things you probably overlook while you’re dreaming of a music-career:
- For many years, your lifestyle won’t look glamorous at all. You‘ll have to keep your expenses down to a minimum and make sure you don’t overspend on unnecessary things. Yep, even your NETFLIX subscription might be questionable at that point.
- You’ll have to have a side-hustle in the first years to make ends meet it’s hard to break free from it and go all-in at some point.
- Without proper time management, you simply won’t stand a chance. Balancing music, side-hustly, private life, and all the non creative aspects of a music career that need to get done, is hard.
- You’re going to hit walls, feel betrayed, lose momentum, and experience a lot of frustration. This requires a solid mindset and puts a lot of pressure on your mental health.
I don’t want to sound negative here. There’s a lot to gain, of course. But you can only get there if you’re truly dedicated to overcoming the struggles you’ll have to face. This is why “grit” is so important (and really appeals to professionals in the music industry).
The real secret to making money from music is to diversify your income streams. Sure, you can bet on landing a massive viral hit in your genre, but even that might not help you survive in the long run. Since the mission of this blog and podcast is to help you build a sustainable, meaningful artist-career, I’m going to show you how to make a living from music over the course of decades, not months.
First of all, let me show you what happens if you don’t diversify your income from music. Let’s say you’re an artist in 2020, the year of the big, global Covid-19 pandemic and your income relies 90% on playing live shows. Guess what: You’re screwed.
Believe me, I absolutely empathize with everyone who’s struggling financially because of the lack of live shows. But the sad truth is that in order to survive as an artist in such a crisis, you need to a) have some savings, b) be mentally prepared for it, and c) have the ability to ramp up other forms of income.
Music revenue streams
The DIY musician blog has put together a fantastic list of income streams for musicians. I’m condensing them and adding some of the ones I’ve found beyond that:
- Streaming revenue (Spotify, etc.)
- Download sales (Beatport, etc.)
- Physical sales (Selling Vinyl or CDs in record stores, on tour, or online)
- Performance fees (a club or festival books you to play a gig)
- Performance royalties (money you get from a performing rights organization for when your songs are being played)
- Mechanical royalties (money you get from a performing rights organization for when your songs are being physically or digitally “duplicated”)
- Sync royalties (money you get for licensing your songs to TV, ads, games)
- YouTube and social media video monetization
- Money from neighboring rights like non-interactive streaming royalties (Pandora online radio for example)
- Merch sales
- Revenue from studio/ session work, production, arrangement, remixing
- Income from events you organize
- Income from running your own label
I could come up with even more items for this list but you get the idea here: There are far more music revenue streams than you think. And we should try to exploit as many of these as possible.
In the end, it comes down to your strengths. Some of these income streams might only bring in a few bucks each months, others several thousands. It’s also normal that 80% of your music revenue comes from only 20% of your income streams. But this still means that you are diversified and can ramp up one source of income if another one suddenly disappears.
I know this is hard. Making money from music won’t happen overnight. For sure not if your plan is to make a full-time living from music. Rarely have I seen examples of artists that started their career and went full-time in less than three years. It’s more likely going to take five to ten years of dedication, diversification, and patience.
But hey, that’s still okay. It’s a life worth living and a path worth exploring. Here’s my honest opinion: I believe that if you “make it” too early in your career (let’s say within 1-2 years), you’re setting yourself up for failure in the long run. It’s the obstacles on our way that help us build up the necessary grit.
It’s the slow growth that lets us become wise and stay relevant in the long run. Most importantly: It’s good to give yourself the time to explore, experiment, and find out what truly resonates with you.
The typical income journey of an artist
Making money from music happens in steps. At the beginning of your music career, you invest way more than you earn. Then, slowly, you start seeing a bit of return on your investment. You get booked, the fees at least cover the cost of your trip, and some people actually buy your tracks online or get your physical products.
Then you hit a plateau, and that’s where most artists give up. They simply don’t have the grit and patience to move beyond that stage. But if you stick with your vision and keep working towards making a full-time income from music, you will soon overcome this plateau and that’s when the big shift happens.
Not only will your fees rise significantly, you’ll also notice that your audience of true fans has grown to a size that actually makes a difference to your bottom line. They want physical products from you, they’re setting up showcases in their hometown just to see you play, they buy your stuff on Bandcamp instead of Beatport because they know it serves you better.
Apart from that’t, you will get more and more remix-, production-, or session-work requests. You will suddenly feel “in demand”. A nice feeling! But then you’re facing the next plateau. Your style of music goes out of fashion, you’re feeling burned-out and lose the joy of producing and playing music… and that’s the moment where, again, many artists give up.
Success in the long run
Very few artists manage to overcome this second big plateau. But the ones that do will remain relevant for the rest of their career. Making a living from music in this last phase feels way more relaxed because you will have experienced many ups and downs.
In essence, it’s the phase of constant re-invention. If want to hear this first-hand, go check out my conversation with Chris Jarman aka. Kamikaze Space Programme.
Conclusion: If you want to make money from music, be strategic
It’s difficult but not impossible to make a living from music. If you can hold your horses and be strategic about the steps you need to take, you’re already on the right track.
My biggest recommendation is to never walk alone on this journey. Go find people like yourself and start collaborating. This way, you can speed up your growth and expand your professional network in a natural way.
Our free Pick Yourself community on Facebook might be a great starting point. The people inside this private group are helpful, kind, and have the right mindset. Some of them are going to succeed, I’m fully convinced of that. It could as well be you!
Putting it into action: Making money from music the right way
Now that you’ve learned what it takes to make a living from music in the long run, it’s time to look at what you can do right now. As always, I’m giving you three dedicated action steps that will help you get started.
1. Analyze your level of dedication
- Are you truly committed to making a living from music in the next years?
- It’s totally okay if you’re happy with doing it only on the side, but it’s good to clarify this for yourself and adjust your strategy accordingly.
- Good signs of the right level of dedication are: You constantly invest in learning (not only in gear), you make decisions in favor of music, not other aspects of your life, you have clear goals and actions for every year, month, week, and day.
2. Add at least one new income stream this month
- Please take this seriously! You need to explore new income streams as soon as possible if you want to reach a good level of diversification.
- Start putting together an overview of your music income and expenses. A simple excel-sheet/ spreadsheet is fine.
3. Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint
- It’s important to calm yourself down, again and again. Patience is the key to longterm success in the music industry.
- It helps to do some written visualization of how the next years are going to unfold. Include some serious obstacles and downfalls, plateaus and problems. This helps you gain a realistic but positive outlook.
Alright, that’s it for this episode. Now I’d love to hear from you: Are you already making money from music? What is your most important source of income? And if you’re still in the early phase: Which revenue streams are you most interested in?
Let me know in the comments, I read everything.