When independent musicians are just starting out, the road can get pretty bumpy. Digging for change in the crux of your band’s van to come up with enough gas money to make it to your gig one town over might sound bad, but when your equipment gets stolen after the show and your bandmates leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere, you might begin to second guess your career choice.
No one said that the life of a struggling musician would be glamorous, but for those with passion, talent, and an insatiable drive to succeed that keeps them practicing their latest song until the sun comes up, the payout is even more real than the struggle it took to get there.
Unfortunately, the hard truth is that too many musicians are wasting their time and energy trying to make money doing things that simply don’t move the needle. So, let’s set the record straight here and now. These may be a bit hard to swallow, but it will make you a better musician at the end of it.
The Worst Ways for Independent Musicians to Make Money
First, let’s have a look at the worst ways for independent musicians to make money. If you’re guilty of some of these, don’t fret. Share your worst money making story in the comments below so that other independent musicians can learn from your experiences.
Sites like CD Baby, YouTube, ITunes, Spotify, SoundCloud and many others cropping up everywhere will pay you a few cents when someone downloads your music. Understanding that digital sales are a volume game can help your overall strategy to make money as a musician. Still, these sites should be used more for distribution than to book your next studio session.
Revenue: $0-$1 per download.
Bottom Line: With digital sales, you may make a few cents off of each download, which is great for music hobbyists but not a serious income to support a professional musician. Understand that everyone wants to be a bestselling musician, but you’re not Jay Z, DJ Mustard, or Image Dragons. These artists fought hard for the ability to put their name so that their fans can pay a lot of money for it, and so must independent musicians prove themselves to music consumers. I have no doubt that many of the talented musicians performing at Youbloom will one day become bestselling musicians, however, a better long-term game plan for independent musicians is to give their music away for free in order to increase their fan base. More people will hear it, it will win new fans, sell more tickets to shows, and ultimately giving away music for free is the only thing that allows independent musicians to sell merch at their shows in the first place.
Similar to busting down, hustling CD is when a musician stands on a busy sidewalk with a pair of headphones, CD player and crate of burned CDs while trying to stop people as they pass by to listen to their music. There is one major flaw in this plan – in 2016, hardly anyone owns a CD player. Now is the age of music streaming and gone are the days of lugging around archaic machinery to play your music for you. Most major automobile manufacturers have already stopped making new cars with CD players in them because people prefer Sirius XM, Spotify and SoundCloud. I certainly don’t own a CD player, and I don’t know why people still send me CD samples in the mail!
Bottom Line: Hustling CDs is absolutely one of the worst ways for independent musicians to make money. If people aren’t willing to pay to download your album, what makes you think they will pay for a CD – a medium which is all but extinct. They would rather stream your music for free online. Don’t be disappointed when you realize that the people you sell CDs to on the street are only buying them out of pity and there is a good chance that they will never be used for more than a coaster.
The Best Ways for Independent Musicians to Make Money
If you’re serious about making money in your music career, the following methods are a much better use of your time and should be implemented as part of any independent artist’s long-term strategy. Here are some of the best ways for independent musicians to make money:
During a conversation with an executive for Sony Music Japan, he told me the shocking secret to making money at a Japanese concert. Towels. That’s right, towels with the artist’s name, logo, even with their entire face printed on a giant bath towel. They almost always sell out at nearly every concert in Japan. The going rate for a towel with the artist’s face printed on it? The equivalent of $ 35 USD.
Revenue: $5 (buttons) to $1,000 (guitar after the set).
Bottom Line: Selling artist merchandise is an art. If all of the elements line up just right, any musician can make ridiculous amounts of money. Artist merchandise is also one of the few oddities that defies the basic economic principle of supply and demand. Sure, if you have a lot of fans, sometimes that will translate into merch sales, but then again, sometimes it won’t. If you’re merchandise consist of fun, creative, cool, cute, sexy or weird stuff, you have yourself a novelty, and novelties almost always sell well. Almost anything can be sold at the merch booth, so get creative, get weird, and have fun with your merchandise.
Production companies who want to use your music in a film, video game, television show, or commercials will pay big bucks to license it. Licensing should always be a consideration when writing, recording or publishing music and musicians should always have the stems or an instrumental version ready of each track. Making friends and networking with people who work with production studios will certainly help your chances, and so will making your music readily available for stream. If you feel like a particular song of yours is a perfect fit for a particular TV series, it won’t kill you to get a copy of that song into the hands of the producers.
Revenue: Depending on the budget of the production and your intrinsic level of value as a musician (read: fame), licensing could net you anywhere between $20 to $200,000.
Bottom Line: Licensing your music is where the big bucks are at and is one of the best ways for independent musicians to make money on this list. The difficult part is finding someone who will pay said big bucks to use your music for a film, video game, television or commercial. Some musicians are able to grab the attention of decision-making executives by creating videos with their music cued to a trailer for an upcoming show and mailing them out to networks. Try it, and you might be surprised at how effective this is.
And there you have it, the worst and best ways for independent musicians to make money with their music. Which of these methods have worked best for you in the past? I there anything that you think should be added to the list? Comment below and share your experience.