Despite the horrible press that accompanied the birth of Spotify and the decline of major labels, life has actually never been better for an independent musician looking to stand on their own two feet.
While its true that sales of physical media (CDs, vinyl, erm… cassettes??) have dropped since their peak in the 90s, the internet has given us access to a whole new world of revenue streams.
If you’re not sure how to make money from music without going the “traditional route” – ie signing yourself up to a major label, releasing albums and touring – here are a few other ideas…
1) Record Sales
Ah – the tried and tested method. First on the list because it’s the one everyone thinks of. For the purposes of this article, I’m including physical AND digital record sales because they amount to the same thing – you write a record, you release it via a distributor, and then you expect someone to pay to own a single copy of it, to have and to hold, and hopefully to play over and over, etc.
While this is still a viable source of income for many major artists shifting 1000s of units, for many independent artists this is rarely enough to quit the day job in and of itself.
At $1.29 per iTunes download, once the seller (iTunes), your distributor, your label, and any co-writers / producers have taken their share, you won’t be left with much per sale.
Similar to record sales, online streaming is the “new” record sale. Sitting somewhere between radio and purchase, you receive a few tenths of a penny every time a listener streams your music on a streaming platform.
While the widely advertised rates seem tiny per play compare to per purchase (currently around $0.0038 per play) remember that your potential audience on Spotify is huge. 1 million plays of a song, will net you around $4k.
Looking at the major players, Ariana Grande has 23 million listeners per month, so earns around $92k per month from Spotify plays alone.
At the other end of the scale, to replace a minimum wage job at $7.25 / hour (approx $14k / year based on a 40 hour week) would only require around 300k plays per month. Yes, it might take a bit of work to get there, but it certainly beats standing on your feet in Starbucks for 8 hours a day…
Another fairly obvious route for musicians is money from performing. This is another lucrative money spinner for the top dogs, but can be a hard slog for up and coming artists. However, if you plan to make a career as an artist in the music industry, it’s well worth cutting your teeth on the smaller gigs and honing your craft as a performer, before some major label picks you up and parachutes you into a stadium support slot!
A much overlooked revenue stream for smaller artists is merchandise. If you play regular gigs of your own material, you have a captive audience with an interest in your music. Offering them T-shirts, CDs, Vinyl, Posters and such as mementos of your performance is like shooting fish in a barrell.
It also serves the dual purpose (in the case of T-shirts especially) of providing free advertising for you when your fans take your merch out and about with them.
Now we get into the slightly less well understood revenue streams.
Publishing is not the dark art that many think it is – it’s simply the collection of royalties on your behalf. If your music is played on the radio, or streamed on the internet, or sold in any fashion, covered by another artist, or used in TV or radio, whoever uses your music has to pay a small license fee in order to do so.
These fees are gathered together by the various publising rights organisations (PROs) around the world, and distributed to those who have registered their music with them.
I’ll cover this in more detail in a future article, but put simply, if you have music out there in the world, it should be registered with a PRO so that you can collect your royalties on it.
If you are signed up with a publishing company, they will do this on your behalf (and usually take a sizeable cut for the privilege!) but if you’re an independent musician, it would serve you well to check out your local PROs and sign up with one.
6) Sync Licensing
Another huge revenue stream which has been blown wide open by the internet is Synchronisation Licensing – basically, setting music to video.
There are millions of people in the world who need music for projects large and small, from wedding videographers to Hollywood film producers, from advertising agencies to independent video game designers, from Youtube channels to local TV networks.
Not all of these people want to pay the exorbitant rates charged by major labels, and some wouldn’t want their music anyway. (Nicki Minaj on your wedding video? Erm… probably not the right look!)
There are hundreds of music libraries on the internet who act as the middle-man for people looking for music. You grant them rights to place your music where they see fit, and they do the hard part of finding places where it will work. In return, you split any royalties and or advance fees that are generated by the use of your music.
Many independent artists can earn tens of thousands per year in royalty revenue from Sync Licensing.
Another avenue that the internet has gifted independent artists looking to sustain a career in music is the boom in fundraising websites such as IndieGogo and Kickstarter.
Once you’ve built a reasonable following, you can use these platforms to ask your fans to fund you ahead of creating a new album, to give you enough money to pay for studio time, artwork, advertising, distribution, and general life expenses while you take time create your art.
For many musicians, having a job on the side is a reality. So why not teach what you love. This gives you two advantages – first, teaching the basics really helps you solidify your own skills. It’s impossible to be a good teacher without really understanding your instrument, whether that’s your voice, your guitar, your kazoo or your bagpipes!
Secondly, you get to give the gift of music to someone else. I know this sounds cheesy, but don’t understimate the pride of seeing a student master a new song.
9) Selling Your Skills
You can also work as a musician-for-hire – there is a large market for talented songwriters, session musicians, studio engineers and producers out there, both at a local level and over the internet.
Define what your best skills are, and find a way to market them to people who need them, and you’ll not only earn a few extra quid, but also have a way to practice and refine the skills you’ll need in your own musical career while being paid for it!
Not every musician will do all of the above, but you should be able to see how you can quickly build up a reasonable living from a few compatible revenue streams.
As an artist, releasing music, touring, selling merchandise and finding sync licensing opportunities all work hand in hand.
As a songwriter, focusing on publishing and sync licensing, with bit of session work and / or teaching on the side, can really give you an above average standard of living while avoiding the dreaded “day-job”.
And best of all, these are all within grasp of any competent musician – none of this depends on the lottery ticket of being the next pop superstar.