Monetization for Creative Musicians

part 1: How bad is it? 

This started with a Facebook post:”Let me ask a loaded question: Is it the artists responsibility to create his own audience, or to serve an theoretically pre-existing audience? As an addendum, is it the artists responsibility to monetize his or her art (music), or should there be a useful societal scaffolding for that already in place?”

It is interesting to note that, the ensuing conversation over facebook did not seek to answer either of these questions. The question itself provoked strong feeling for everyone, and as usual  the conversation spun toward “Should creative musicians care about money?”

The reason I asked the questions, is that I have been doing my best to keep my head above water with both a rigorous artistic life, and a day job that can pay my bills. I’m doing well enough, but many of my friends aren’t. I want to develop an awareness that things don’t have to be this way. That if we band together and develop superior business practices, a higher number of can lead a successful life in the arts.

However, to be able to do that, we must ask some tough questions about the current paradigm, and make some quick definitions about what it means to be a professional musician. For the purposes of this discussion, I will assume that it is in the best interest of an artist to have free time to pursue his or her art, and that some amount of funding also helps just about anyone’s artistic life. Short story: Money should be good for artists.

In the old paradigm, artists sought to exploit an existing market via an existing societal scaffolding. That is to say, a jazz musician knew there was a Jazz public, and would ply his trade at a Jazz venue, receiving funds for his work because “what else would you do?” Artists expected payment, and while some were reticent to pay them, society knew it was expected that they pay. There was little question that being a “working” musician was an attainable vocation, just a risky low paying one.

This is why, to this very day, musicians are taught a very special set of vocational skills in music schools. They are (generally) taught things about being on time to gigs, hanging out with musicians after the gig, and working on “doubling” instruments. The idea being to collect valuable “pick up” and studio gigs. If you are good enough, the system will reward and sustain you via word of mouth in the musical elite.

Meanwhile, “popular” musicians learn a totally different set of skills related to touring, self promotion, and releasing albums. If a pop act is popular enough, the act will be able to make enough money on ticket sales to survive, and sustain the popularity through album releases. The idea was to exploit popular sentiment, sustaining your sales through widespread knowledge of your music.

Notice that neither of these groups receives training regarding being an business person or entrepreneur.

The question is, should musicians expect to sustain either or these into the future? If the answer is yes, then musicians should be doing everything they can to fix these systems and the attitudes that drive both of them. This is because both are undeniably broken.

Of course, given the attitudes, and status of our industry this is hard to demonstrate with concrete numbers. Since musicians make money in such a variety of ways, and since the fortunes of  musicians working in the “underground” and “working” music industry are so vastly different than the pop stars we know, it is difficult to get meaningful numbers. I did some searching around for a few things, which sadly I was not able to find. Those of you who read this are welcomed to fill in the details:

  • Wages of Orchestra musicians over the last 100 years
  • Record sales over the history of the recording industry
  • Average album price over the history of the recording industry
  • Wages of Unionized studio musicians over the history of music unions.
  • Wages of T.V and film composers over the history of T.V and film.

Another thing that stands in the way of our understanding is hope. You see, very many of us would like to see hope in the numbers that are published. Hope that we too can make a living plying our craft (and what a humble hope that is.) The sad fact is that we accept numbers that are frankly, not so good, with inappropriate  joy.

Take a gander at this site:

It is a list of several professional musicians, and how they are making a living at their music. While on the surface, the fact that these musicians are making a living is hopeful, we should not jump to conclusions so fast. Young musicians might be excited by a “salary” of $35-50k, but we should not jump to conclusions so fast. Look at how many things these musicians are doing with their time. They are doing what could be 3 middle class jobs worth of work to receive compensation that is on the cusp of poverty. With $35k you would be making less than a NYC school teacher. The more horrifying idea, is that it is likely that most musicians would not be able to sustain the level of popularity that these artist show. Some of the folks on this blog have thousands of dedicated fans. This might very well be the upper 1% of “underground” musicians, making their $50k. If the best of us are riding the poverty line, what about the rest of us?

Worse yet, the value of $35k is rapidly degrading, while these “wages” are not increasing. In my fathers time $35k might have been able to sustain a family. Many musicians I know have chosen to forgo family life because they simply cannot afford children.

Well, what about orchestra musicians? lists some wages.

New York Philharmonic: $134,940
Kansas City Symphony: $45,822
Louisville Orchestra: $34,225
San Francisco Opera: $78,445 – See more at:
While 80k a year might seem decent enough, one must remember something about this numbers. Only the upper 1% of all musicians ever get the chance to work in an orchestra. Orchestra members are often employed for life, and orchestra sizes are actively shrinking. This means that the most elite musicians on earth can expect payment similar to a middling computer programmer.,-NY.html
In NYC the middle income for a software Engineer is $117,000. These guys are not the best software engineers in the world. I have heard of recent graduates being paid far in excess of that.


Well, What about a music teacher?

The average income for a music teacher is about $27,000 a year. In NYC this is significantly below the poverty line. A music teacher might even be able to collect food stamp benefits. This is a little galling for someone who might have spent 4-6 years in the conservatory honing their skills.


Well, What about album sales?

Of course, everyone knows album sales have been tricky since the dawn of the napster age, but let me show just how scary things are. Don’t get me wrong, I would never encourage you to be negative, but the numbers are intimidating.

The standard price for a .mp3 is 0.99 USD. Let us round that up to a dollar for simplicity, and ignore the fact that most merchants (like i-Tunes, and will take a cut of your earnings. What would it take to make a living selling .mp3s? Easy! You’d have to sell about 30,000 of them a year (at least) to survive well. If you wanted to cut things down to the U.S minimum wage you could sell as few as 16,000 of them, but let’s assume that you’d like to make enough money to have your own place, and to invest back into your music business. I think 30,000 is a reasonable goal. This ignores taxes, and the cut that your merchant will take, and operating expenses of course.

How many folks would we have to reach to get that done? Most marketing folks say that a good “conversion rate” (the number of people who you reach who actually buy the product) is about 30%. I would suspect that in music situations it is far, far lower.

If somehow 90,000 folks see your album you might conceivably maybe break the poverty line.  I hope your shows are packed.

This brings up a good point. What about albums? Shouldn’t some folks be buying my music $10 at a time.  How does that affect the numbers? (and ignore the fact that most people buy singles these days.)

Sure. You’d have to sell a paltry 3,000 albums (or so) to make a living, reaching only 9,000 folks. That’s like, just one show at the palladium. You are so set.


What about touring?

Now, a lot of people will say that touring is the answer, and that live music will fix the ills of the piracy laden online music market. Let us examine that for a moment.

If you are musician, I want you to take a moment to remember how many dollars you make on a show each time you play one. How much did you make? Your band? There aren’t useful averages for this sort of thing, but we can do some careful thinking to see exactly what it would take to make a living at this.

Let us imagine, that we are running a band of 3 people. This is a sensible minimum, and is common for rock groups. How many shows would we have to play in order to make a living off the door? How much would we have to charge? How many people would show up?

If we are to provide a good living for our three folks, we need to rake in $90,000 a year in concert revenue. How many concerts can we play a year? Let us assume that we are super human, and can play concerts 365 days a year. In that situation, we would need to only pull about $250 a concert. If concert tickets are the (very common) price of $10, we would only need to attract 25 people to a concert. Every night of the year.

In reality, a concert series of 100 shows a year is considered to be somewhat extreme. In that case we need to make $900 a show, convincing 90 people to throw us $10. That means we need to sell these tickets to 9,000 people, and reach at least 27,000 people in our ad campaign. This all assumes that we are receiving 100% of our revenue, and are paying no taxes.

Now some of you might say that “well, that’s doable at least”, but to me this sounds like a ridiculous level of success to be having to only be just making ends meet. You might want to meditate on whether $10 is a fair price for a concert these days, or whether or not concerts are even a viable institution any more.

How many concerts do you go to a week?

How much did you pay?

How many other people were there?

I am willing to bet the answers to those questions were “less than 10″, “less than 10″, and “less than 10.”

There’s more

This time we gave a realistic indication of how bad things are, next time we will talk about what it would mean for us to create our own audience, or rectify the behavior of the current music audience / music industry system.

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