The age-old question: how can I make money off of my music? It’s a loaded question, no doubt, and to be completely honest, it might take some letting go of expectations on your part.
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Being a musician, despite all the folks that make it look easy, is an insanely difficult career path to justify. Even if you’ve “made-it”, so to speak, often your lived experience will look immensely different from what fans see from a distance.
Take for example, Big Mama Thornton. She was the first to sing “Hound Dog,” the iconic song that would eventually be given to Elvis Presley a few years later. The song was a huge success and its popularity led to some mild hysteria amongst the American youth, which is exactly why it was slightly rewritten and given to Elvis.
However, despite the lawsuits and litigations between the two artist’s respective labels, Elvis came out as Elvis (worth a few billion dollars), and Thornton only earned $500 for the song and died in poverty.
Now, this isn’t meant to deter you from trying, but it’s important to keep reality in check. All of that “Hound Dog” drama happened nearly 70 years ago, and while racial prejudice, egregious amounts of exploitation and a drastically different economic landscape were all at play – the truth is that not much has truly changed. You just have a bit more agency as to how you get screwed.
A single play of your song on Spotify will earn you roughly $0.005. Labels are not interested in you unless you already have something resembling a substantial following, and even if they are interested, you best be wary of whatever contract they lay out in front of you.
So, if you’re dead set on making money as a musician, power to you. Buckle in for a bumpy ride, stay focused, and be open to things not looking how you always envisioned they would.
Just remind yourself that the name of the game is networking. If you have the ability to introduce yourself, shake a few hands, and get people to like you and want to work with you, you’ll have a better chance at succeeding than most.
Alright. I’ll stop being so bleak. Let’s go through a number of different angles and methods for you to consider.
Here’re 10 actionable ways you can make money as a musician:
- Play live shows
- Sell merchandise
- License your music
- Become a session musician
- Become a mix engineer
- Become a mastering engineer
- Become a live sound engineer
- Consider becoming a repair technician
- Teach lessons
- Make money off your knowledge
1. Play live shows
Why discard the most traditional way of making money as a musician? If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, it’s that people will always pay to hear live music.
There are a million different avenues to take with this one. You can try to book shows at venues, restaurants, bars, festivals, corporate events, weddings, non-profit events, record stores, house shows, strip clubs, fundraisers, etc.
Being part of a wedding band in particular is a rather notorious way to make easy money as a musician – especially if the group is good.
If you’re not too proud, busking is also a rather lucrative way to make some extra cash depending on the location you set up in.
Although, take a look at your city’s legal guide first. Some cities require a permit to perform in specific areas and at specific times, the details of which will inevitably vary depending on where you are in the world.
2. Sell merchandise
If you’re playing a show, it’ll be in your best interest to come with some physical goods to be able to sell. You can sell t-shirts, hoodies, hats, stickers, and mugs. You should also definitely consider selling hard copies of your music on CDs, cassettes, or vinyl.
Beyond that, there are a million different things you can sell at a show or off your website or bandcamp, etc.
What’s even more important about this angle, is that whoever buys your t-shirt will effectively become a walking flier for you. Their friends can ask them where they got the shirt, who you are, and so on and so forth. This can potentially grow your fanbase and network.
3. License your music
If your music has any potential of being used in a TV show, film, commercial, YouTube video, or whatever else, licensing your music can ensure that you’re able to collect royalties off of its use.
Do some research for yourself to determine which one you’re best suited towards. They all have slightly different fees, rates, turnaround times, etc.
4. Become a session musician
If you’re more a player than a writer or engineer, you can try to become a session musician. As long as you’re proficient on your instrument and solid on your theory, you have what it takes.
You can consider trying to pick up more skills like engineering or learning other instruments to help heighten your value.
To be sure, however, you’ll have to be somewhat exceptional at networking. Dive into your local scene, post fliers, hang around at gigs and try to talk with the performers, build your portfolio, etc.
5. Become a mix engineer
Conversely, if you’re more skilled behind the desk than in front of the mic, becoming a mix engineer is another great option for making money.
Normally, when folks are starting down on this path, they’ll lowball their rates to build their portfolio. Sure, it may take a few months to a few years to get to a point where business just flows in, but stick your nose to the ground and power through.
6. Become a mastering engineer
This piggybacks off the last point, but it’s just as crucial as a skill to have in the industry. The path looks the same as a mix engineer, you’ll just be the end of the line of production. Network, build your portfolio, godspeed.
7. Become a live sound engineer
In the beginning of the article we spoke about playing shows, but who is that person in the front of house dressed in all black, sporting a ponytail and a bad attitude? Well, that’ll be your sound guy for the night.
Back in the day, you probably used to have to get your degree in electrical engineering to have the pleasure of operating a board, but these days, opportunity is a little bit more accessible.
Try to Google to see if there are any entry level positions as an AV tech in your area. If you land a gig, go in, do your job quickly, be personable, don’t talk too much, and they’ll most likely call you back in. Once you’re in, follow the breadcrumb trail.
8. Consider becoming a repair technician
If you’ve had your skin in the game for some time, and you have experience and know-how when it comes to audio equipment, mics, guitars, amps, whatever, then you most likely have what it takes to make it a repair tech.
A surprising amount of musicians have no idea how their gear works, and are willing to pay more than they should to have it fixed. You can be that person that earns $60 for taking five minutes to solder the wire that disconnected from their guitar’s output jack.
9. Teach lessons
You can teach anything you know how to do. Whether that’s playing guitar, mixing, writing a song, production, the list goes on.
You can post fliers with your number around your area, post a listing on Facebook or Craigslist, and if you’re really committed to the cause, you can consider whether or not going to college to earn an Educator’s degree is worth it to you.
10. Make money off your knowledge
Surprising as it may be, a real person wrote this article. Do I know everything? No. Am I intimately familiar with every singular facet of the music industry? No. Am I making money off of telling you what I do know? Yes.
Writing articles and reviews is an extremely valid path when it comes to being a musician. It might not be as fun as performing live or running my studio, but I get paid to talk about what I love while potentially helping folks like you who stick around to read it – and that’s good enough for me.
Alright, I know this article started off on a bit of a down note, but I hope things feel a bit better now that the dust has settled.
If there’s any main takeaway, I’d just like to mention that success as a musician can come in a wide variety of ways. The ultimate recipe for “making it”, is a personalized concoction of persistence, adaptability, stubbornness, and faith in what it is you do.
Many of you (including myself), will need to have a number of different sources of income to sustain yourself, but be open to possibility and don’t forget that the reason you do it at all is simply because you love it.