How Unsigned Musicians Can Make Money from Music

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If there’s one question that musicians ask me all the time, it’s ‘how do I start earning money from my music?’ This a huge topic of debate in the music industry and nobody has a clear answer. With the advent of streaming, people are buying CDs and downloads less and less. Spotify pays unsigned artists $0.001 per stream, so you’re not going to get rich through streaming, but if people can’t hear you on Spotify, soundcloud, YouTube etc., how are they going to know your music exists?

The basic answer to ‘where does money come from’ is that money comes from people. People can listen to you for free, so in order to get them to pay to hear you, whether live or via your recordings, you have to offer them something of value, something they believe enhances their lives in some way. In marketing terms that is called your Unique Selling Point (USP). I can’t tell you what that is… before we go any further I suggest you think hard about identifying your USP. Maybe it’s that you write particularly strong melodies, or songs that resonate very strongly with a specific group, let’s say lone parents. Maybe you have an unusual musical skill, like playing the harp or being able to sing 5 octaves. Basically, what do you have that makes your sound worth paying for?

 With that in mind, let’s look at some income streams you may be able to tap into. Most people who earn a living from music, like me, have several concurrent streams of revenue, e.g. publishing, teaching and performing. At certain times one of these streams will do better than others and some are more dependable than others.

 

Live Performance

If you are going to play live, be sure to join a royalty collection agency such as PRS or IMRO. You might make only about £4 for a 20 minute slot, but that’s still your £4 and it all adds up over the year. Don’t play venues that don’t have a PRS license as they’re ripping you off in essence.

Unfortunately, the way the infrastructure in Northern Ireland is most gigs don’t pay, especially for original music. There are, however, some ways of making money from live performance. Asking for a residency in a local bar of restaurant can be a solid income stream. My students who do this make between £60 and £120 for a 2 hour set, showing the variation in pay out there. There doesn’t seem to be a standard rate. It’s also a good idea to sign up with an agent and try to find work at weddings and corporate events. These pay between £800 and £1500 for a full band. Bear in mind there will be start up costs, such as investing in sound equipment and a professional looking website so cost everything out before you advertise your services.

If you decide to play at free gigs such as open mics, try selling CDs and merchandise. This usually doesn’t make a lot of money, but at least you’re earning something. Having said that, if you want to be professional or semi professional it’s not advisable to work for free. Often venues will argue that it will increase your fanbase or you’ll get more work out of it. Would you say to a plumber, ‘I need my toilet fixed. I’m not going to pay you but you might get to fix 3 sinks next week’?

Here are the Musician’s Union guidelines regarding free performances:

 

work for free

 

Another possible income stream is from busking. When I lived in Bath it was possible to make £200 from busking. In Belfast it’s more like £40 but you get to refine your performance skills and see which songs grab attention.

 

Session Work

You could try contacting recording studios to try and secure work as a session musician. The producers themselves are likely to play guitar, piano and bass but if you happen to play specialist instruments such as violin (string samples often suck!!) or Hammond organ or to specialise in a certain style e.g. Flamenco it’s well worth a try. Musicians Union rates for session players are £31 per hour. You should also join PPL (PPL is to performers what PRS is to writers, i.e. they collect and distribute royalties) to be sure to collect your royalties should the tracks you play on receive airplay. In a lot of cases session musicians will be paid an upfront fee only and waive the right to royalties. Make sure you are happy with the terms and conditions before agreeing to play.

 

Teaching

If you’re thinking that teaching music is simple cash in hand, think again. Only consider this as an income stream if you are ready to be a small business owner, because that’s what private music teachers (like myself) are. You need to have some training in teaching, then you need to register with HMRC and keep spreadsheets of your income and outgoings and all your receipts. Don’t think you can just take cash in hand and not declare it. A criminal record for financial dishonesty won’t do you any favours. You also need to invest in a decent website and work on your Search Engine Optimisation etc. It can take quite a while to find enough students to make a living so don’t give up your current job until you can do this. Also, you must have public liability insurance which the Musicians Union offer as part of your annual membership fee.

You might want to send a CV round to local music schools. If you do decide to teach with a private music school, get the Musicians Union to read the contract before you sign it. Some of the terms and conditions being offered are very exploitative, for example charging students for a month in advance and keeping the money for a lesson if the student cancels, but not paying the teacher. This is bit like working on a zero hours contract as if enough students don’t show up, you’ve lost valuable time and earned no money. I’ve also heard of music schools which offer Groupon deals to students and pay the teachers only £4 an hour for teaching students who come via Groupon. Be careful what you get yourself into! Ofcourse, there are some very reputable schools out there, too. You can also keep an eye on your local Education and Library Board website for vacancies for peripatetic music teachers in schools. This is quite a stable source of income.

The Musicians Union rate for music teachers is £31. If you feel people in your area would be unwilling to pay this, consider resetting your prices. I charge £25 for one hour lessons and £12.50 for half hour lessons.

 

Music Licensing

Music licensing is a good source of income to consider. It is when music is placed in advertisements, TV and film. It can pay anything from a few hundred pounds for a local radio ad, £15000 for a TV ad up to $100,000 for a film trailer. A lot of licensing companies and catalogues will allow you to sign non exclusive contracts so you can place your music with several of these catalogues and increase your chances of getting a placement. Catalogue companies simply upload your music to their catalogue for purchasers to browse. Other companies actively go out there and try to find clients to buy your music. They take 50% of the fee but they have to go to a lot of expense travelling to meet clients and promoting their services and your music. Resonant Music Licensing are my sync (synchronisation, e.g. music to moving image) agents and I am happy with the job they do.

In order to submit music for licensing, it must be produced to broadcast standard and have been professionally mastered. Listen to some advertisements the next time you are watching TV. Does your music stack up with what you are hearing? How would it sound through Imax speakers?

 

There are probably a few more ideas I haven’t thought of… If you have any comments or queries about anything in this article let me know via the box below. If you would like to receive regular articles like this along with news and events, you can join the mailing list here.

 

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