Today’s music industry—the “new” music industry—is an interesting and exciting place for musicians. Old barriers have vanished thanks to new technology, and the playing field that was once one-sided now is more level than perhaps ever before. Of course, while change solves problems, it can also create new ones, and that certainly holds true for today’s music industry. Here are three of the biggest obstacles musicians complain about today:
The expenses of touring: Ask just about anyone how musicians make their money these days, and they will say, “live music.” In fact, ask anyone who never pays for recorded music how they support the musicians they love, and they’ll say, “I go to their shows.”
Now, that’s all well and good. And, it’s true—live music is where it’s at these days financially for musicians. However, there’s one major disconnect—playing live costs musicians money. A lot of money. Yes, even more than that. Sure, going down to play your local venue for the 80th time is a piece of cake financially, but that a music career does not make. To really build an audience, a band has to go out on the road.
In the past, musicians were able to offset the cost of touring by selling recorded music and selling merch. That CD you bought would help your tour-support free musician travel to the next gig. With that avenue all but gone, just how can a musician pay for touring? Let’s review some options that people often say:
- Day Jobs – Sure…but does your boss let you repeatedly take extended vacations from your job so you can pursue outside interests? No?
- Merch Sales – OK. But remember, someone had to pay for that merch up front, and that for an up and coming band, selling 10 shirts is a good night.
- Money Earned at the Show – Stop laughing, musicians. There tends to be some real misunderstanding of how much money up and coming musicians can make at their shows. Often, they get a cut of the door after the venue and promoter expenses, which may be very, very little or nothing at all. Even if your fav local band nets thousands at the home show, they’ll be starting from scratch in new markets. Making good money at shows is a process. It’s a tough position to be in, but it’s not insurmountable. Musicians are taking weekend warrior approaches to touring so they can work during the weeks and build an audience during the weekend. They are also sharing costs by heading out with other bands, looking for sponsors, and yes, even signing deals with labels to help them meet the costs.
Internet Famous: Everyone touts the idea of social media saving the broke musician from the marketing efforts of the major labels. And ok, social media is a big deal for musicians and really well managed social media accounts can launch music careers. It’s been done, but how often?
The flip side of connecting with fans via social media is the concept of becoming internet famous. That means that you build up a really strong social media following, that people are talking about you and you’re not making a single penny from your music. The sad reality is that just because people are sharing your viral video does not mean that they are buying tickets to your shows. Nor does having 500,000 Facebook fans mean that you’ll sell 500,000 concert tickets or that having 1,200 people accept your event invite means you’ll have that kind of turnout.
It’s so important for musicians to remember that man and woman cannot live by the internet alone and that managing social media promotion is about more than trying to get a lot of followers. Musicians are battling the trap of becoming internet famous by pursuing offline promotion as well and by leveraging the audiences who actually attend the shows.
The team concept: It’s a beautiful thing that musicians can make a viable living making music without having to sign with a record label these days. However, remember that that doesn’t make the work that labels do obsolete. It simply means that you can hand-select the people who do that work for you. In other words, you can pick your own team, including managers, PR, agents, and more.
There are two little rubs up and coming musicians are running into with this new-found freedom, however. One is that when you’re unknown, it’s not always easy to attract attention from the team members you want. In fact, it’s just as hard as getting record label attention ever was. The second is that these people want to be paid. For PR, you have to pay for your campaign before any results come in and you don’t get a reduced rate if the campaign doesn’t work. For other team members, they want a cut of your earnings. And why shouldn’t they? They’re working for you.
One way around is that musicians giving friends a chance to build their own music business careers by taking on some of the work. The other option is to go completely DIY (doing it on your own). Of course, that takes you away from your music, but it can be a good stop gap if you have enough time to devote to managing your own career until you can attract bigger attention and become a headliner.
As a tour manager working with headliners for over 40 years, here is an average income and expense summary in 2017.
|Avg per ticket
|Cost of talent
|Venue & production
|Promoter Gross Net
As you can see, being a headliner solves many of the money issues, but with it comes an onslaught of new issues. I once had a major artist tell me that they spent their life time getting to the place that they have enough money to be “comfortable,” now their problem is trying to hold onto that money.
Like life in general, at the end of the day, we all have to ask ourselves – did we make a difference in anyone’s life with the gifts that have been given us?
Credit goes to Heather McDonald of music careers for excerpts in this post.