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How Most Successful Indie Music Artists I Know Make a Living

I know a lot of independent music artists – rappers, singers, people in bands, DJs. I know artists that do nothing but music for a living. I know artists with day jobs and side jobs. I know artists that make a really good living. I know artists that make a decent middle-class to lower-middle-class living. I know artists that are basically homeless. I know a lot of artists all over the spectrum.
It’s 2014. The ultimate goal of most indie artists I know isn’t necessarily a major record deal. The goal of most indie artists I know is making a decent middle-class living doing what they love – making music. If they have a day job, it’s only because they have to. This doesn’t have to be their end goal. They can still aim to be rich and famous, either independently or on a major label. But if they were independent or on an indie label and making a comfortable middle-class living they’d probably be happy, even if they’re still reaching for the stars.
I know a few artists that have hit that “happy” place most artists I know envy. That “middle-class living doing what you love while still working towards something even bigger” place. A lot of times I see the artists in this place looked up to more than the superstars. Maybe it’s because idolizing them and chasing their lifestyle seems more attainable and realistic. Maybe because that place is actually a thing in 2014, and isn’t a one in a million shot like making a living off of music used to be. People are there. People are doing it. It’s still a small percentage, it’s still a lot more work than most careers, but it can happen now. So how does it happen?
There’s no set method or system that works universally. Which I think is a good thing. I like the fact that you have to figure out your own lane. But there’s always best practices and common threads, and the best way to find them is case studies.
First, let me share what criteria I used to define artists in this “happy” place. I tried to keep it a wide net, because really this place is personal and sacred and different for every artist. But I’m willing to bet your happy place falls somewhere along:
  • Making more than a full-time minimum wage job to making 80k net annually
  • Being able to tour and perform for crowds between 50 and 1,500 people
  • A few thousand to a few tens of thousands of fans
  • Doing what you love for a living
  • Having your own merch and albums to sell online and at shows
  • Being viewed as a peer by artists you look up to and who inspired you
Am I close? Is yours somewhere in there? Or does that whole range sound good? Then keep reading. I took a deep look at a handful of artists I actually know who have landed somewhere in this happy-place-range. I wanted to focus on artists I know personally because they were easier to analyze. I’ve followed their careers closely for a while. I’ve had real conversations and real business interactions with them. I might have even picked their brain a little bit to get the inside scoop on what’s worked for them.
I noticed two main common threads that they all shared. I’ll list them both then dig into each one:
1.  They have an extra trade (or more than one) besides their main musical craft
2. They have a strategy to diversify the income their music makes
They have an extra trade (or more than one) besides their main musical craft
They have at least one more trade that isn’t rapping, singing, playing guitar, or whatever it is they do best and love the most. The extra trade isn’t their ultimate passion, but for the most part they actually enjoy doing it. This trade gives them freedom to create their own schedule, one that works around their music career. They make money from doing this trade (more than it cost them). Although it isn’t their main musical craft, it’s tied to it in a way that just doing this work creates opportunities for their music career. It’s often a trade they picked up to use for their own career so they didn’t have to pay someone else to do it. Then somewhere along the way they figured out that other people do pay someone else to do it. Like producing their own beats because they couldn’t afford them. Or booking their own shows because no promoters would book them. Or designing their own artwork because they couldn’t afford a designer. Or doing their own PR work because they can’t afford a publicist. What about music videos? Photography? Guess what. People pay for all of those things.
For the most part artists can’t afford to outsource it all, nor are they capable of effectively doing it all. So they learn how do to some of it, the stuff they’re naturally better at and more interested in – and they outsource the rest. That stuff they picked, other artists didn’t. And they’ve built a big enough network by this stage in the game that they can find the people who need what they offer.
They have a strategy to diversify the income their music makes
They don’t make all of their money playing shows. They don’t make all of their money off of iTunes or Bandcamp. They don’t make all of their money from physical album sales. They make some of their money from all of them. They are on every digital retailer and subscription service you can think of from iTunes to Spotify. They are affiliated with a Performing Rights Organization and collecting performance royalties. They are looking for sync placements for their music in movies, commercials, video ads, TV shows, games, anywhere that doesn’t compromise their brand identity. They are selling their music and merch online and at shows. They have varied packaging and pricing options for different levels of fans. They are launching fan funding campaigns. They are playing or throwing shows that make them money. Some of these things bring in more money than others, but none of them bring in a lot of money all by themselves, not at this level in the game.
Having a good strategy is important. Do you want to make it to, or past the level of these artists? Having a plan for diversifying your revenue is an important component of your strategy to get you there. Not doing this is like trying to get rich off of pennies for your thoughts. Because at this stage that’s all anyone will pay you for art that could someday be priceless. Pennies. Pennies for your streams. Pennies for your downloads. Pennies to access your audience. Pennies for your performance. But your expenses come in dollars. If you want to keep the machine moving, I suggest getting pennies from as many places as possible. When those pennies turn into dollars you’ll thank me.
A few extra points and final thoughts
I think it’s important to note that these artists also have their basics covered, the foundational stuff. They’ve worked hard to master their craft and create remarkable art and quality content. They know who their target market is. They’ve built a brand identity that connects with that market. They grow and nurture relationships with fans online and at shows. They’ve networked important industry contacts. They’ve put together a killer team. They are constantly and strategically marketing and promoting. You need to understand and practice all of these things before figuring about how you’re going to push your career to that next level where you can live off of it. So if you’re still on square one, hold onto that day job if it’s keeping you afloat, until you’re ready. If you’ve got the basics covered and you’re actively doing and refining all of these things but are still having a hard time figuring out the next step, I hope this article provided some insight.
Disclaimer: Not every artist on the planet who has successfully navigated to this happy range makes money doing a second trade or has a diversified revenue strategy. Most of them do, though. And the one’s that don’t? The one’s who made it there just doing their own music with a narrow revenue strategy? They usually either had a big financial handout or they have some crazy hustle and grind story. I mean like they were pushing CDs for 14 hours a day in the streets broke for 3 years. I’m not knocking that route. It’s just not the one I want to take. Honestly it’s an insane amount of work no matter what path you take to get there and only the most passionate and dedicated can handle it.
One more thing. It’s also worth mentioning that most artists who make it to this “happy place” thing I’ve been trying to define aren’t happy about being there. They still aren’t satisfied. They still feel hungry. They still don’t feel successful. They still don’t feel live they’ve “made it”. That might sound ridiculous to you. You might be thinking, “No way. If I ever get there I won’t feel like that. I’ll appreciate it, I’ll be happy.” But you won’t. 5 years before they got there that’s how they thought, too. But they worked hard to get there. Really hard. They feel it hasn’t paid off enough yet. How unattainable the goal used to feel has been forgotten because they got there slowly. Like how you don’t notice yourself growing up day-by-day, but if a family member sees you for the first time in years they freak out by how much you’ve grown. Asking these artists to feel the way you feel is like asking an adult to feel the same way about being an adult as they did when they were a child. They feel like they should have really made it big by now. They probably hate Macklemore. Because they’re just as good and worked just as hard for just as long, just to barely make a middle-class living and they feel short-changed. You will too. Because that’s the attitude that got them there. That’s the attitude that will get you there. And that’s the attitude that gets to the next level.
This article was originally written by TJ Bear, a Visual Designer & Consultant at Mind Under Mohawk. View the original article here. TJ is also an independent hip hop artist and self-proclaimed “zombie killer” under the alias Saint Warhead. Follow TJ on Twitter: @mindundermohawk @saintwarhead

Reader Comments (5)

Great article. Thanks. I make a living as a "French" singer songwriter in the USA. I can connect to many of these points. I think flexibility is key. Especially being a small LLC helps to change direction easily if need be. And adapt + having several sources of income.
Thanks again for your input.

December 22 | Unregistered CommenterEric John Kaiser

Great post

January 2 | Unregistered Commenterjon

Great post

January 2 | Unregistered Commenterjon

On one hand as an artists you are taught that you have to know at least one person in your network who is able to do the "extra trade" things for free or a discount, and on the other hand you are told to exploit the trades you are better at to try and monetize them to the same people who are trying to get it for free.

March 18 | Unregistered CommenterSonny Brooks

This is very thought provoking and it makes me smile when I read that last point, that you will still want to go further when you get there it's so true.

I have only been in music for 5 years, I couldn't play the guitar about 5 years back (in my 30's) and surely didn't sing professionally full-time, I ran my own marketing company with ridiculous hours.

Then I fell ill with Leukaemia and had only 3 weeks to live with a 50-50 chance of survival and thats when things changed and after my full remission (a miracle in itself) I fell into my full-time career of music.

Well, that "full-time" career kind of took 4 years to create, but I did it, not singing on the big stage to sold out arenas but doing 2 to 3 shows a day at between $80 to $150 for 1 hour shows at nursing homes, retirement villages and local clubs for seniors and it's VERY lucrative.

The seniors marketplace, whilst it may not be your main genre of music, is a captive market and every city, town and place in the world has nursing homes that need and want entertainers (some expecting volunteers only, others pay a little and others top hourly rates).

So at the same time as releasing my album to air (my main genre is modern country) I started singing rock n roll, crooning and easy listening at these places along with my original country songs and it stuck.

Lots and LOTS of work, but laser focus as outlined in the article above will see success... I LOVE it and it's surely something I "pinch" myself everyday in surprise to be able to make old people happy and also sell my albums to staff, retiree's and get sponsorship's from local aligned businesses in the seniors niche for doing it!

This formula could also be used for special needs facilities which we also are now branching into as well as the kiddies market, pre-schools music is VERY lucrative also (parents spend any amount to make their kids happy, as opposed to children spending on their elderly parents... Sad but true most of the time)!

August 23 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Price

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