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Making a living from art, it’s what every musician wants. A difficult task, that often takes a long time.
Becoming successful in the music industry is a marathon, not a sprint.
It’s often said that an artist needs about a thousand true fans in order to make ends meet. Thousand hard core fans; that will buy your merchandise, come to every show and be the first to pre-order all your upcoming releases. Once you’ve built that group, you are on your way to success. And you’ll be able to make rent.
The trick is in getting by until you reach that tipping point. And to accelerate getting there.
Early in your career, income from record sales and live performances is probably insufficient. You’ll need some other form of income to sustain yourself. But you do presumably have talent, an extraordinary skill set and musical repertoire. Those are all things that can be leveraged into more.
Building upon my earlier article about music copyright and publishing, we’re going to talk about generating alternative income, by doing what you love most – music. These methods not only generate funds, but will also help grow your audience and network. All contributing to a quicker journey to success.
Through this article I want to inform you about alternative opportunities out there for musicians to make money. Ways to leverage your existing skill set into more; whether that’s singing, playing an instrument, producing tunes or engineering.
I’m going to run you through a plethora of alternative music income ideas, covering things like audio engineering services, maximizing your publishing income, alternative live performance ideas and more. Some of these are wholly new ventures that you can undertake, others can be used to create more revenue from your existing repertoire. Act upon the ones that draw your attention naturally, and make sure you’re getting the most out of what you already have.
Mixing, mastering and studio work:
Many of my readers will include electronic music producers and audio engineers. Audio techies in other words. If you are, pay attention.
If you are capable of confidently mixing and mastering music to sound great, then you have a very valuable skill. A skill that many EDM producers have without realizing it. It’s so valuable because all commercially distributed music needs to be well mixed and mastered, if it wants to have a shot at success in this saturated market. That means bands, choirs, electronic music, everything.
The more reputed and skillful the engineer, the higher the price he can charge. They are typically paid either per project, or paid by the hour for when they’re operating a live studio. Some engineers offer exclusively mixing, mastering or recording services, others offer it all. Cases for work can range from recording a live band in the studio to mixing down a set of stems, to mastering an already mixed track.
To get started as an engineer, the start-up costs are low; set up a website, add a decent portfolio, determine per-project rates for mixing (depending on the amount of stems you’ll have to mix) and mastering, and set a per-hour rate for when people want to hire you. Offer discounted or free ‘get started’ mixdowns and masters to your friend-musicians and labels, post about your services on online marketplaces and place and respond to freelance ads on sites like Elance and Freelancer. Alternatively, contact local studios to see whether they are in need of (assisting) audio engineers. If necessary, offer to work for free at the start – to prove your worth.
With these kind of jobs, getting work leads to more work. Focus on building a relationship with your customers, and be prepared to make many last-minute alterations to create something that’s exactly to their wishes. If you can pull that off successfully, then they will come back for more. Even if you’re not the cheapest option.
Creating songs and sounds
Songwriting, composition and lyricism are absolutely valuable skills too. There’s multiple ways to leverage them.
Let’s start off with songwriting for other people… also called ‘ghost writing’ in the EDM scene. As some of you probably know, most of the chart topping pop hits are written by committee – meaning that multiple songwriters are responsible for making that single track. Also many of the biggest DJs in the world do not produce their own music, take Tiesto for example. If you’re still doubtful about what I’m saying, you should check out Max Martin. This guy wrote more #1 chart topping hits than Michael Jackson… not kidding.
Songwriting can be incredibly lucrative as it can entitle you to royalties for public performances and sales of a track you wrote. Otherwise flat fee buyouts can become huge amounts once you develop some clout as a songwriter.
To get started making money as a songwriter, there’s multiple roads. You can co-write tracks with others, or write full tracks by yourself. Or you could deliver just the lyrics, where someone else does the composition. Find opportunities by either signing with a publisher that will connect you to artists in search of songs and other songwriters, or by connecting with musicians with whom you think you’d hit it off or that are perfectly suited for the songs you write.
Make sure to be registered with a performance rights and mechanical rights society when songwriting, as a large chunk of your income is going to come in via there. More about that here.
Sample packs and jingles:
These are snippets, loops and tunes that are sold for people for people to use in other musical works and media. They are usually offered via online marketplaces and webshops, where they are offered as ‘royalty free’ products, meaning that a single purchase entitles you to use it without having to make any future payments for its use. Forms include sample packs for electronic music production such as dubstep sample packs, whilst others are individual jingles that companies can add behind videos where their logo swooshes by.
Whether you make music electronically, sing or play in a band, there’s opportunity for you here. Start up costs are virtually non-existent and if you research which samples and jingles are in high demand, it’s not hard to quickly start building a catalog that will generate passive income.
There are many online marketplaces where you can register and start selling for free. Reputed sites include Audiojungle, Audiosocket and Smartsound. Make sure to research the most popular sounds and to visually brand your product nicely.
Another angle is to contact independent sample webshops directly to offer them your samples, in exchange for a royalty rate or flat fee buyout. Most of these are niche sites, focusing on electronic music production or things like ‘explosion’ or ‘nature’ sounds for visual media.
Foley is the reproduction of all kinds of sound for use in media, usually added in post production. In other words, it’s the act of recording sounds for ‘things’, which can then be added to movies and film. In every Hollywood movie you watch, you hear a ton of foley sounds – without even realizing it. From the crackling of a newspaper opened by an actor on screen, to the sounds of grain brushing against each other in the background. Foley sounds are used to enhance the ‘experience’ of the viewer, whilst compensating for the inability to record all ambient sounds during the shooting of a movie.
To record foley sounds all you need is to have a good recording environment and equipment. Foley artists make their money by either working directly with production houses and studios, in which case they make sounds on demand, or by making sounds on their own initiative and licensing these to studios or stock music libraries. In the latter case, you could also make ‘sample packs’ for specific sounds and sell these via online marketplaces or your own webshop. As said before, there’s a big demand for niche sounds such as ‘water drops’ or ‘animal sounds’ for use in film.
If you play an instrument, sing or DJ, you can offer your services as a session musician, playing a supportive role for other artists. Many singers need instrumentalists to guide them, whilst rappers have DJs and bands often need back-up performers in case of someone falling ill. Sometimes acts already have a full line-up of performers, whilst others simply might not have thought about the possibility of adding someone like a DJ or guiding guitarist to their show.
In order to successfully fulfill this supportive role, you need to be acquainted with the repertoire of the act that you’ll be supporting. So reach out to them, offer your services, either as guiding musician or as back-up, and be willing to study and practice their material to prove your worth. You will then be much more attractive as a back-up than someone who isn’t familiar with their songs or set-list.
Events / Weddings / Drive-ins:
There’s a surprising amount of work available for musicians that constitutes performing, but not in the regular form that you’ve come to expect. Instead of playing a traditional gig as ‘Band X’ or ‘DJ X’, have you ever thought about simply providing the music for someone’s wedding and marketing those services? Or by being a guitarist or violin player for a romantic home or restaurant dinner? Bet you haven’t.
There is good demand for these jobs. Online marketplaces and sites with classified ads such as Craigslist have plenty of well reviewed offerings of musicians that are for hire and cater specifically to romantic events like dinners or weddings. Many DJs also offer complete drive-in shows, where they not only facilitate the music but also bring a full range of equipment such as mixers, speakers, disco lights and smoke machines. This is both a great way to earn an extra buck and to get more live experience.
Stage Hand / Sound Technician:
If you’re acquainted with setting up instruments and performing equipment for bands, or know your way around a master mixing table, you could be fit to work as a stage hand or sound technician. Most venues larger than bars, starting from small pop-stages and clubs, will employ a stage / sound technician for the nights that they have live music on. Some have one sound guy that does both the stage and the sound, others have multiple people. Often depends on the night and workload.
Sound techs are typically independents that work flexible hours. Venues don’t employ them via contract, but simply pay them for hours worked on specific nights. The best sound guys are flawless and quick with setting up the stage and make the performers sound as good as possible.
A good way to get started finding work like this is to reach out to club owners and floor managers. Bonus points if you’re already acquainted with them. If necessary, offer them to work a night for free to show your skills. Be flexible, quick to respond and pro-active whenever you work. Make friends with the people in charge and the performers. Always discuss the performer’s plans and wishes before the show to prevent errors. That’s all it takes to get going.
If you have mastered a skill up to a certain level, then you can teach it to other people. Whether you play instruments, know how to read notes, get musical theory, can sing (classical, jazz or any other style), produce music, know intellectual property law or get the music biz, these are all skills that people want to learn. The fact that you’re reading this article proves the point.
There’s many ways to you can sell music education;
Give lessons from home, or at people’s home, selling your services via online marketplaces such as Craigslist. Or you could reach out to music schools and offer to teach for them, taking from their customer pool. Another angle would be to place ads at elementary and high-schools, and any other places where you’d find children and other prospective customers.
If you have really mastered a specific skill, or have deep knowledge of a niche, then you could give workshops or seminars to groups that focus on that skill. For example, a masterful Flamenco guitarist could give amazing lessons to a group of guitar students at a music school. Or someone that’s got a great understanding of live-recording bands could give workshops to independent bands or audio enthusiasts.
These are high return on investment and probably the most lucrative form of music education. To pull this off, you need to either find a niche-market that is hardly tapped, or to be absolutely certain that you can outperform the products in an existing market (in both content and marketing). You could write an e-book about mixing or mastering that you sell via your own site, or make a package of video tutorials where you teach people how to sing, selling that via sites like Lynda.com. Or write paid articles for music education websites. Or whatever other value adding proposition you can come up with.
When launching an educational product, the marketing and launch are crucial to it’s success. Read up on it and build a schedule and a ‘release plan’. Mimic how other successful products have been launched. For great reading about product launches and design, check out Nathan Barry.
As you’ve surely noticed, crowd funding has become a big trend. It’s basically when a group of people collectively finance a project, in return receiving a reward of some sort; sometimes shares, production credits or an early version of a product. Many musicians have used crowd funding to raise money for recording their new album or shooting a new video clip. Popular crowd funding sites are Kickstarter, Pledgemusic and IndieGoGo. The latter seems to be taking off for musicians recently.
A good example of a strong crowd funding campaign is that of Amanda Palmer, whose goal was to raise $100.000 and instead gathered over $1.100.000. Key to a successful crowd funding campaign is having a great cause, an active and committed audience to promote it to and engaging and interactive rewards. People are much more enticed by being able to attend one of your shows, or getting a live at-your-house performance, than they are to receive a signed CD. And about that audience, it doesn’t need to be huge. Recently a friend of mine launched a crowd funding campaign with very little notoriety, but with the help of a supportive group of about 25 friends, she reached her goal and is now recording her album.
Subsidies and grants:
Subsidies and grants are funds that come from government and non-profit organizations to help promote activity in a certain sector. There’s many of these to promote the arts. From state arts councils that promote cultural or musical activity by giving out cash to great initiatives, to non-profit foundations that provide scholarships to talented musicians.
What funds are available to you is mostly dependent upon your location. If you have a great cultural initiative, or a project that you think will add value to the community or is a great ‘musical’ or ‘artistic’ cause, then it can be worthwhile to research what opportunities are out there. A great starting place is to get in touch with your local government’s art departments or foundation centre. Another list for initiatives in the USA can be found here. Applications have strict regulations and you will need to have a strong plan and vision put on paper.
This is the most vital, complicated and misunderstood income stream for musicians. Publishing income far exceeds any ‘alternative’ income stream and for most it will constitute the majority of their income. We’re talking about royalties from record sales, from public performances on television, radio, satellite and digital transmissions. Income from YouTube and Spotify plays and residual income from home copy funds. And that’s not even all of it.
Initially I intended to write a single article covering all imaginable income streams for musicians, but publishing is such a dense subject that it deserved its own post. Any musician hoping to make it in the business just has to have a proper grasp of music copyright and publishing, and combined with the ideas in this article here you’ll have a good sense of all the possible ways to make a buck. Read the previous article here, and take notes.
I hope that I’ve opened your eyes to the countless ways that you can make money from music, and to show to you that it’s very possible, even if you’re not a big star yet.