How to make a living in music

 4 January 2012

Digital recording studios, online music stores, on-demand streaming and webcasting. New technologies have greatly reduced the cost barriers to the creation, distribution and sale of music. So how do musicians generate income from these opportunities?

Scott Williams is an accounts payable clerk at Live Nation.
Scott Williams is an accounts payable clerk at Live Nation.

Never have the ways musicians earn their living been so diverse. The ratio among different income streams is likely to change as your career progresses, so using what skills, contacts and resources you have is a good start.

Persistence, hard work and the ability to take the odd knock is all part of making money in music.

1) Performance

If you gig regularly, submitting regular returns to the PRS can be quite lucrative.

Most musicians join a band or ensemble to make money from performances. Such performances could be in pubs, concert halls, festivals, weddings and busking.

Some DJs earn huge sums of money from performing in nightclubs. Such work takes place in the evenings, leaving musicians time in the day to work in other areas such as recording or teaching, or to take on non-musical work.

Music venues have a license to play music in a public place, whether that is performed live, by a DJ or on a jukebox. The Performing Rights Society collects the license fee then distributes that money to its members. Becoming a PRS member is free and submitting regular returns can be quite lucrative if you gig regularly.

For many musicians starting out, touring can be very expensive and should be seen as a way of promoting your music, building contacts and making new fans.

2) Recording contract

Gone are the days of scratching your signature on a record contract pressed against a van bonnet on a wet and windy winter’s night in a pub car park. Larger record companies have begun to offer '360 degree' deals offering an investment across a range of artists’ activities.

However, very few major record companies source and sign new talent, but increasingly support their signed artists with marketing and PR.

Traditionally, record companies can handle publishing advances, mechanical royalties, sheet music sales, and license the underlying composition for synchs, samples or ringtones.

Publishing is all about your songs as opposed to being a performer. So when your song is played, be it on the radio, in public by another artist or as a ringtone, you are entitled to a share of the license fee. Mechanical royalties come about from the reproduction of your songs on CD, mp3s, anything that plays your tunes.

3) Talent competitions

There are a number of schemes to help fund and showcase talented musicians

This route is incredibly competitive. We all know about the X-Factor and the Mercury Music Awards, but there are increasingly a number of schemes to help talented people, particularly young people.

Talent competitions such as In The City and the American SXSW showcase new bands. For talented instrumentalists and singers there are funding awards secured by audition.

Many talent recognition vehicles should be seen as a way to raise your profile with the general public rather than a reliable source of income.

4) Recording

Music technology has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years, so has its quality, affordability and size. Many musicians nowadays own a home recording studio that could fold away in to a broom cupboard capable of creating a DIY hit.

The next step is relatively easy to get your music on iTunes, Spotify and other digital rights management (DRM) music-streaming services. It costs, but at least you’re getting your music out there.

5) Radio

Getting radio airplay can be a small but potentially significant way of earning cash. The BBC Introducing scheme is an excellent way to get your music heard.

Local radio, especially your local BBC station, is a good avenue too. You need to ensure your tracks are registered with a collection body so you collect your mechanical royalties.

Radio airplay can be a small, but potentially significant, way of earning cash.

Specialist genre shows such as BBC 1Xtra and BBC Radio 3 may also offer good opportunities. There are various web-based shows, again these should be seen as a way of profiling your work.

Satellite radio is not that big in the UK, but with further de-regulation of the airwaves on the cards this may be another valuable income source.

6) Teaching

This is money earned from your knowledge of the craft. This includes earnings from teaching in schools and community settings. Many schools take visiting artists and peripatetic music teachers.

There are also music services in most local authority areas in the country that supply music teachers. Commercial colleges such as BIMM, ACM and ICMP are good places for professional performing musicians.

There are also further education colleges and conservatoires offering teaching work.

7) Grants

There are a number of grant-makers interested in supporting musicians. It is likely they will only support professional and very specific activity.

For example, Arts Council England can support touring and Help Musicians UK can support musicians who have fallen on hard times. Be aware that grants nearly always have conditions attached.

8) Commissions and licensing

Composers work on commissions to write pieces for particular ensembles, festivals or orchestras. Licensing can come about through sales of your songs for use in TV, film or adverts.

There are a number of music licensing websites who present your recorded music to media companies, for example, Music Dealers. The Bandit A&R newsletter researches and publishes all sorts of opportunities to get your music heard by music professionals around the world.

But don’t forget, copyright your recorded works.

9) Fan funding

Networking with other musicians and important people can tap you in to other existing networks.

Many musicians and bands promote themselves to the general public and businesses using websites and internet marketing.

Building up and maintaining a network of contacts is crucial in this area. Networking with other musicians and important people can tap you in to other existing networks.

Of course, word-of-mouth is the most effective way to get noticed, so don’t discount Facebook, Twitter and other social media. The key here is to identify those individuals who really like your work and with a little coercion would be happy to promote you to their contacts.

Fan or crowdfunding has become popular and is a good way to connect directly with your fans to fund your new album. Available websites include Kickstarter and Pledge.

10) Music business

Don’t rule out diversifying your skills and potential income streams. Always think about how you can make the most of your resources.

For example, you could promote your own events, hire out your PA system, studio or rehearsal space or use your contacts to manage other acts.


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