10 Ways To Make Money From Your Music

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There’s an old joke that gets bandied about the artistic professions that goes something like this:

What’s the difference between a musician and a park bench?

A park bench can support a family of four.

I was 18 and studying music when I first heard that joke, and honestly, it gutted me. As a man, we tend to intrinsically see ourselves as providers, even when we don’t have a family yet. And to have my entire 18-year-old identity summed up (in joke format) as incongruous with the ability to ever provide for a family cut me really deep. And that gave me some doubts. About half of the other music students around me were also taking teaching, choosing the safe route. But I didn’t want that.

Sure, I could teach one-on-one or a handful at a time, or maybe even lecture to an entire hall (which didn’t sound too far off from performing on stage), but I didn’t want a classroom of 25-30 teenagers, simultaneously not listening and paying me too much attention, if you know what I mean, day in and day out. I wanted the freedom to be creative. To be able to make money from my own creative labors and efforts.

And, by and large, I have. I still take some private students in my home, but for the most part I’ve been pretty successful in not having to rely on those students as my primary source of income. It’s more of a means to pass on my knowledge and experience to students who are serious about practicing and getting to an elite/advanced level.

But as rewarding as all that is, my main joy, my main buzz, my main purpose, comes from the creative expenditure of my labor, and seeing other people engage with and enjoy it. And I know a lot of good musicians who just default to teaching because it’s safer. Well, I don’t want you to have to make the same decision. If you want to be a teacher because you’re passionate about bringing music to the next generation. Great. Teach. But you shouldn’t be forced to because you can’t manage to support yourself from your music.

So, here are 10 other ways besides teaching that you can make money as a musician. Some might be obvious, or obviously not for you per se, but the more of these things you can effectively do, the more chances you have of making money as a musician/songwriter.

1. Record Deal.

Okay, yes, pretty obvious and somewhat rare, but worth putting up there first and foremost. A record deal is still what most musicians default to when they think of actually making money as musician. They see a big company like EMI (or one of its subsidiaries) signing a contract to record, publish and market their music.

Usually, there is some sort of signing bonus, and the rest of the value of the deal/downpayment is broken up between different records for the life of the contract. It might be a 3-, 4- or 5-album deal with smaller payments upon delivery/publishing of each completed record. Also, in most cases, those downpayments are advances on future royalties. This is generally meant to incentivise you as the star to earn the record company as much of their money back as possible so that you can continue to earn more money of royalties.

There are other pros and cons to record deals, but we might save some of those specifics for another time. For now, it’s worth knowing that they’re generally more likely to bring you success more quickly in the short term than you’d be able to generate for yourself, because of their large marketing departments. Obviously, if they can get your song into Transformers VIII or something for you, you have a higher chance of exposure and jumping up the charts.

2. Royalties.

Royalties are small fees paid to authors, musicians, composers, filmmakers, etc. on an ongoing basis every time their art is viewed/listened to. These are generally collected by record labels and licensing/royalty groups, such as ASCAP (US), BMI (US), MCPS (UK), and APRA (Australia), and paid to the artist in 2-4 lump sums per year. There are essentially two main types of royalties musicians deal with: Mechanical royalties and Performance Rights royalties.

Mechanical Royalties are digital royalties. You receive these from all album and singles sold, and anything streamed on streaming platforms such as iTunes, Spotify, etc. Unless you are self-produced, a significant portion of this money goes to the record label who own the digital copies of your music, under the contract you signed, in exchange for their studio equipment, sound engineers and other professionals. As such they will typically take receipt of all such royalties and (after any advances) pay you your percentage of the royalties as outlined in the contract. If you were merely a key performer and not the songwriter, depending on the contract you signed, you may or may not be entitled to any ongoing royalties for your playing/singing on the recording.

Performance Rights Royalties are paid for all live performances, which include live playings of the recording, such as all radio play and music played in shopping centres and individual stores, etc. You generally receive this money from your membership in one of the above-named royalties organizations. Again, this is primarily to the actual songwriter. Some bands have mitigated this effect by divvying royalties evenly (or unevenly) between themselves, by naming each of them as co-writers despite having a clear main songwriter among them. A solid #1 hit in the US or UK can usually deliver enough ongoing royalties (due to continued private and public radio play) to provide a reasonable secondary or even primary income for the rest of your life.

3. Performing.

Besides the royalties you can receive from performing your own songs, you also generally get the added benefit of being paid for gigs by the owner/organiser of the venue/event. While you may initially choose to do certain gigs pro bono “for the exposure”, or it’s all for charity, or they’ve agreed to let you do a live recording with their sound system in exchange for a free performance, generally you should never do a free gig. Because there will always be someone trying to get some free performance out of you and if you’re a professional, you’re worth more than that.

For instance, a major Chinese university in Shanghai asked me to come and perform my own songs at their big Open Day and Arts Extravaganza back in 2014. It was not paid for in cash, per se, but they were willing to reimburse me the full price of my return ticket to China, take care of my visa, and put me up in one of their visitor dormitories for a week. So I was basically given an all-expenses paid week-long trip to Shanghai in lieu of payment. I thought it was a pretty great deal, to be honest.

On a completely separate occasion, I was asked to do a half-hour performance on a local radio station, with a shorter accompanying interview. Again, not paid, but I had the time in my schedule for it and it was fantastic PR. After all, other performers and bands do them all the time. They’re great sources for self-promotion.

In both of these cases, the gains were a good enough trade-off for not getting paid. But almost every other gig I can think of, except “battle-of-the-bands”-style competitions, I was getting paid a fair rate. Weddings, restaurants, cafes, bars, a number of other privately organized functions and themed line-ups. Sometimes I could do all my own material. Sometimes it was basically all covers. But all in all, a decent, likeable musician with a good collection of both covers and original material can get a lot of regular performance work if they’re serious about it pursuing it. I’ve moved on somewhat now that I have family responsibilities, but I still have a number of close friends who continue to support themselves solely on consistent gigging around the country.

4. Merchandise.

There’s an old saying in the creative fields that: all you really need to succeed is 1,000 true fans. The idea being that if you have 1,000 true fans that will eat up (purchase) everything you produce, and you can produce $50-$100 of content per year, well, now you’ve got a 50-to-100-thousand-dollar-a-year income. It’s that easy. You just need a thousand hardcore fans.

Now, if you’re an up-and-coming musician, supporting yourself mainly through gigging and some YouTube Adsource revenue or crowdfunding support, merchandise can be your best friend and a great source of income. Not only do you want to have CDs ready to sell, but limited edition T-shirts are a must. Look into hats, buttons, pins, even socks. I’ve even seen musicians take a bunch of their song lyrics over a few years and make small books of poetry (which actually kill when you’re playing cafes and libraries and such).

There are businesses everywhere, including online that will do merchandise for you. And if you have an established fanbase, you can hold a fan competition to have them design the logo for your next T-shirt, baseball cap, button, etc. What’s more, you can set up pre-orders through Paypal and use whatever revenue you can bring in early to cover most of the funds of having them made, and make as many as you think you can sell. That way all your costs are covered upfront and everything you sell above that becomes immediate profit. A savvy musician can do a lot with a little bit of small business know-how.

5. Streaming/ad revenue.

YouTube and Twitch are two of the biggest live video streaming services you can get into online. This can be a great way to grow your fanbase. If you have a few consistent times a week that you can stream your practice sessions, warm-ups, soundchecks, even random things like visits to music shops, travel stuff, talking through your process for learning and writing new songs, answering fan questions, etc. There’s a huge growing internet culture in which people are tuning into creators they like and supporting them with their cash.

YouTube has Adsense revenue, but that only starts to get really good if you can garner some big attention. You can do this slowly with solid covers, but it can be even better if you cleverly take the opportunity to play on existing, established fanbases, like doing a quirky cover of the Game of Thrones theme song or something. YouTube also has the option of something called Super Chats for live-streaming. If you live-stream regularly to build that fan interaction, fans can send donations called Super Chats which are colored and stick to the top of the chat for a minute or so, to make sure you see and answer their questions.

Twitch began more as a video-game streaming platform, but is rapidly expanding to music. Many musicians are there 3-7 times a week, and fans tune in and many will pay their support if they like your content. They have something similar to the Super Chat feature on YouTube, but you also have a cool distinction between followers and subscribers. Anyone can follow you, but subscribers agree to support you monthly in exchange for your continued content. Now, maybe it’s $1/month, maybe it’s $5/month, maybe it’s $20/month. But if you can build up 1,000 subscribers (1,000 true fans?) willing to support you monthly, and they are averaging $5/month, you’re making $60,000/year of that alone without anything else. It can be a big time investment initially for very little pay-off, which is why you don’t want to pin your hopes on it as your primary source of income, but after 6-12 months, you can establish a decent base of supporters, and it gives you a go-to list of people who are already invested in you and your merchandise.

Now, YouTube has its own built-in streaming software, but Twitch actually requires you to get a streaming program like OBS on your computer to stream. The really cool thing about having to do that is that it actually enables you to stream on multiple platforms at once. So you can stream on your YouTube, Twitch and Facebook fanpage all at once and reach more fans every time. And then the more videos you amass on YouTube, the greater chance you have of more people finding you, watching your videos and creating Adsense revenue for you.

6. Cross-media collaboration.

There’s a lot of need for composers/songwriters in other artistic mediums such as performance art, theatre, and film and television. I’ve been able to get a number of free audio recordings and music videos by networking with up-and-coming producers and film-and-television students in final-year university courses. They need someone to record. And without you, they’ll just ask people they know. Not only can you give them a more professional performer/song, but the technology now is at such a high standard that you can make really quality products through collaborative efforts. They want a good project. Their grade depends on it. And you want a decent recording without having to pay exorbitant fees.

What’s more, though, is that as you establish these contacts across all the media formats and platforms, you open yourself up to greater opportunities in the future. Like when that talented young woman who recorded your music video five years ago is now working on a new television show for kids and they’re looking for composers/songwriters to do a bunch of new kids songs, or change and even maybe perform new fun versions of old nursery rhymes, and they will pay good professional rates for your professional songwriting skills. Or you suddenly have established contacts at a number of smaller independent (or even major) recording studios.

Long story short, cross-media collaborations may not pay anything initially, but the networking benefits alone can make humongous differences in the trajectory of your future career. People are always going to need good musicians and composers, and more often than not, getting your name out there as much as possible is the biggest thing you can do to help yourself long-term.

7. Freelance Websites.

Now, thanks to the internet, you can even do a lot of those cross-media collaborations through freelancing websites which pay you in various ways, all while building your repertoire and professional portfolio.

Soundbetter is a freelancing website that specifically focuses on music professionals for hire; singers, songwriters, mixing & mastering engineers, studio quality musicians, etc., all available at competitive rates, across the world. As a professional musician, you can sign up to freelance through their website, building up to more and more prestigious, well-paying jobs.

Fiverr and Upwork are similar freelancing platforms that are less music-specific, but work on a similar basis. Creative professionals of various disciplines and calibers congregate at these sorts of websites to vie over jobs that appear suited to their particular skillset. They can also be great platforms for newer professionals who may not necessarily be as experienced to compete at the top levels of their field.

Pond5 is a rather unique website that works on a very different level than the websites above. Instead of being hired here and there for different projects, you create your own musical riffs, backing tracks, game music, whatever, and put it up for royalty-free use for a small fee. A lot of internet creators, game designers and documentary and independent filmmakers go to this website to purchase the right to use music without paying any further future royalties in their video/film/game/etc. An old friend of mine who no longer gigs anymore and owns and runs a coffee shop with his partner, actually makes a full half of his income passively through game music he creates and uploads to Pond5. If you’ve taken my previous challenge to compose something every day, this can be a great way to recycle musical ideas you’ve had that you didn’t want to use for one of your own songs.

8. Grants.

A lot of smaller community government arts boards will offer cash grants to help fund local performance art, music and dance projects. They tend to work very similarly to scholarships but with projects that involve the community somehow and are connected inseparably to the town/city/land and local culture. For instance, if you live in an area that has a particular old heritage that it wants to celebrate, you might be able to propose an album of locally-inspired songs that you’re going to perform at such-and-such a local festival in 3 months’ time, or that they can professionally record and use as a promotional/tourism tool during tourist season. It might sound a bit odd, but sometimes you can get really significant grants.

I met a dance instructor a couple of years back who managed to get grants from two neighboring communities and a state grant, totalling $80,000, to put on a choreographed dance/light parade during their local festival. She had 3 assistants whom she paid, but everything else was organized through local schools and community arts groups and ensembles. They got everyone to make their own costumes with simple color combinations and styling, and everything took about 10 weeks to throw together. She paid her assistants something like $1,000-$1,500/week depending on how much choreography they contributed, and there was some public liability performance insurance or something, but she ended up walking away with about $40,000 in her own pocket. For 10 weeks’ work.

But just think about it. If a local government group is willing to give you $10,000 to provide them with an album’s worth of locally-inspired songs. Your pay rate is entirely dependent upon your own productivity at that point. If you’re a professional, and you know what you’re doing, and you can write a song a day for two weeks, and 10 or 12 or all of them are good enough for the album, because they capture a diverse but focused picture of the community, you’ve just made $10,000 in two weeks. And if it takes you 10 weeks, you’ve made a $1,000/week for 10 weeks. And maybe you can organize with the local high school to train up a band of the best musicians they’ve got to perform them with you. There’s a tonne of options, if you’ll just be creative and actually apply for stuff.

9. Crowdfunding.

This, we’ve already touched on a little bit above, but it really deserved its own category. Crowdfunding is an awesome phenomenon that has cropped up in the last decade online through websites like Patreon, GoFundMe and Subscribestar in which fans can make one-off or monthly contributions to creators and causes they like and want to support with their own money. The best way to establish a crowdfunding base is to plug it constantly and offer cool bonuses to your supporters for different levels of support.

One band I know has done it just for their last 3 albums, raising the $30,000 to hire the studio time and lead audio engineer and produce themselves without being captive to a record label trying to force a more “pop” sound out of them. Each time their top bonus was dinner and an evening at the Seattle Needle with the whole band, for the $10,000 donation option. As far as I know, they got someone each time to give them that $10,000 in support.

10. Sheet Music.

Finally, and maybe this is more for the composer/songwriter who understands how to read and write music (but hey, you could always hire someone else with the know-how to write it all out for you through one of those freelancing websites we mentioned earlier), but sheet music is actually a big seller among musicians and band/ensemble leaders. There are actually vast digital music score libraries online, like Scribd and Musescore, with monthly and yearly membership options.

If you’ve got songs with decent streaming and radioplay, offering proper sheet for them is only going to add to your potential revenue schemes. And if you don’t have that level of prominence, but you know your music theory and composition techniques, you could create unique or different instrument arrangements of older, copyright-free music and folk songs and publish them on these sorts of websites. Or, if you do achieve a significant level of success, publish your own website where fans can buy digital and print copies of both individual songs and an album songbook of your sheet music, specifically for the fans who want to learn to sing and play your songs.

Anyway, so that was 10 ways you can make a living from your music that doesn’t involve teaching. Hopefully, you can see that there’s a lot more options for a good musician and songwriter out there than just taking students or teaching music in a school somewhere. In this age of affluence, hard-working people recognize other hard-working people and want to support them in what they do, especially if it brings them the sort of joy that only music can.

So go, be creative, show ingenuity and get to work living your dream.

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