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Wednesday
Mar092011

How To Actually Make $50,000 a Year As a Musician

One of the reasons we started MusicianWages.com was because of the huge reservoir of unqualified career advice that was being served to musicians online. I usually keep quiet about the charlatanry tips I find online, but I just can’t pass this one up. It displays the characteristics of bad career advice so acutely that I just have to point it out.

The Busking Alchemist

This article dropped onto my reading list this past weekend. Want To Make $50,000 a Year In Music? Start With One Dollar a Day. There’s a pair of sentences early in this article that are particularly telling. One of the things that mystifies me about this article is why it continues after this:

How does a musician make money? Honestly, I don’t know for certain.

The article goes on to explain how daily busking, YouTube videos, Adsense ads and CD sales could net a musician $5 to $10 a day and ends with the epitaph:

What else? Do you have ideas on what can generate money on a daily basis? I think my ideas above could get an artist up to $10,000 a year. What would push it to $50,000?

The difference between $10k and $50k is a BIG difference - especially when you’re already spending 7 days a week busking on the street for $5. I can’t imagine how anyone would turn that janky business model into a $50k/year career. Telling musicians to busk 365 days a year is terrible career advice, but the inconsistencies in the article (namely, the huge discrepancy between the title and the content) are not really my point here.

Bad Advice

Every day my RSS reader gives me pages and pages of what I think is lousy advice and useless data. What is the deal?

Here’s what I think. For about 100 years there was this economic bubble in the musician industry. We called it the “Recording Industry” and it made a ton of money. Some people made money hand-over-fist. (Most of that money, though, went to the people that ran the business and not to the musicians, but that’s another story.)

The problem was that the whole industry was dependent on a closed distribution system built on limited technology. Eventually some smart people created a way to circumvent that distribution route with computers and the whole house of cards collapsed.

100 years. It’s really not that long. Humans have been on Earth for about a half a million years, so the record industry era represented just a tiny percentage of our history. Beethoven made a living as a musician, as did many of the musicians that played in his orchestras and operas. They never sold a record. So what’s the big deal?

I think the 100 years of the record industry created a set of unrealistic expectations and entitlements in the musician business, and we’re still having trouble getting past it. Selling recorded music used to make a lot of money - quickly - and we want it back. When we can’t get it back we try make up substitute business models that might bring in quick money just as easily.

So what kind of content do we see being served to musicians these days? Articles about the collapse of our beloved recording industry. Articles claiming to give advice on how to make quick money again. Articles about mega-stars that are still making quick money.

It’s all nonsense.

Good Advice

You know how you make money as a musician? The same way everyone else makes money - get a job and go to work. Or start a business and make it grow.

There are plenty of jobs in the musician business - at schools, tours, churches, theaters, the military - we talk about them all the time here at MusicianWages.com. We have a whole jobs board full of them.

Can’t find a job where you are? Move to a place where you can find work. You don’t see fishermen complaining that they can’t find a job in Oklahoma.

Musicians start businesses all the time - your private studio is a business. Your band is a business. Your solo career is a business. Make it grow and expect it to be difficult.

That’s good advice.

How to Really Make $50,000 a Year

  1. Get a church job (3 services a week @ $100/service) = $15,600
  2. Start a teaching studio (12 students @ $50/lesson) = $31,200
  3. Play background music once a month (@ $250/gig) = $3,000
  4. Play in a band twice a month (@ $50/gig) = $1,200

That’s $51k a year. That’s how it’s really done. 

_____________________

David J. Hahn is a music director, pianist and songwriter in New York City.  He is the co-founder of MusicianWages.com, a career website for working musicians, where this article originally appeared.

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (19)

Brilliant! and as i mentioned in another blog, this is real world advice. Anything you do with the intent to earn revenue is in fact a business. You cannot grow without income. I've been an independent musician who has found numerous ways to survive and make money in music. It's not easy, but there is growth and getting a job to support your business unless you have massive funding is necessary.

Great article.

March 9 | Unregistered CommenterMike Borgia

Thank you, that article bugged me as well and didn't even mention the top five for musicians.

March 9 | Unregistered CommenterSteve B

my favorite line was

"the 100 years of the record industry created a set of unrealistic expectations and entitlements in the musician business, and we’re still having trouble getting past it."

oh how that sense of entitlement astounds me and its so true!!!

March 9 | Unregistered Commentercraig

Good advice, and a dose of reality.

Yet I am afraid that what most musicians on these sorts of forums really want to know is:

"How can I become a *well-known, well-paid, well-admired, music star"?

March 9 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Galen

Thanks again for the rebuttal, Dave. My post was more of a thought experiment, where yours takes real world musicians making real money.

"Eventually some smart people created a way to circumvent that distribution route with computers and the whole house of cards collapsed."

Some of those people were in the industry as well, "creatively accounting" (new verb!) ways to skim even more money off the top of the less than 1% of successful people who worked for them. But all in, the whole thing was (is! it lives on) a typical example of the 'meikan dream: Give the suckers the illusion that "anybody"can make it big and rich, especially if they come from the "little people" segment of the populace. step right up.

Thanks for writing this rebuttal to yet another bs filled creme sangwich of "advice" . One obvious way to make money in the music biddness these days is to write a post about how to make money in the music biddness these days. Have you ever noticed that the giveaway tip for these is in the author's bio, which usually states she's been a "music industry professional' with 'extensive experience" in bla di di bla? maybe has her own 'consulting agency' preferably in LA or NYC (at least the phone number has the right area code.)

my advice to people who want to make the big bux (because idol amerikan "proves", YOU CAN STILL REACH THE DREAM!!) is to sit you down with an ink pen and write a sentence..each and every day..about how you can make money in the music biddness..then, at the end of the year, you'll have 365 sentences! Now, and this is the tricky part, find someone to publish them ..Distribution will be covered in my next Music Biddness seminar..

March 10 | Unregistered Commenterjp

You'd need a lot more than 12 students to make 31k a year teaching. I know. I have 12 students.

I do charge $50 per/hour, but people, especially beginners expect with a 1/2 hour to 45 minute lesson (especially kids!). And cancellations due to illness, vacations, etc. mean you don't always have a full schedule. This is all assuming you are a good teacher and can keep your students, too!

I'd estimate that to make that much 31k teaching, you would need at least 3 - 4 times that many students. At least.

Just wanted to point that out since the backbone of your plan seems to be "become a teacher."

March 10 | Unregistered CommenterJP

I'm beginning to realise there are two separate industries that co-exist but which have confusingly been lumped together for fifty-odd years.

There are musicians. Then there is the pop industry.

The article above reads like it could have been written as a response to Little Richard's first national hit record. Or perhaps written during the international disaster for orchestral musos that was the arrival of the Mellotron.

Churches? Teaching? Background music???!!!

I'd rather my pop stars starved.

If there was a bubble, it was a time when charisma, attitude, an innate understanding of the zeitgeist, good hair and lots of luck enabled young people to see themselves on the telly, on the stage, instead of some slick haired dicky bow wearing lackey, knocking out some bargain basement muzak approved by men who looked like their fathers.

Now it really is their fathers, knocking out endless professional rock and confusing themselves with Frank Black at 'rock schools', who can blame teenagers if they are, gradually, strangling the teen concept, killing it with indifference?

It will be as if the last fifty years never happened and I predict that Bosa Nova will be the next dance craze.

March 10 | Unregistered CommenterTim London

It does all come down to simple economics doesn't it.

Let's say you are attempting to sell your music on CD's or downloads.

Pull out your calculator and you will soon realize that you can not earn $50.000 a year
by selling 1 dollar downloads if you are NOT selling "137" one dollar downloads per day.

Even if you sell full albums at lets say $10.00 each,
you would still need to sell 13.7 albums per day.

That means that based on realistic conversion rates,
you would need to be able to target and attract "allot" of visitors to your sites, etc,
since only a tiny percentage of them will buy from you.

Most indie artists do not have that amount of "raving fan" traffic rushing to their buy now buttons.

Either way, you need to sell $137 worth of products, "or your total fee's for services" per day
to put you just over $50.000.

Is it possible? sure.

Is it possible to earn even more than that per year? Sure.

Obviously it is. There's proof all around you.
(see successful musicians and businesses with a real business plan and proper execution)

Something to think about.

overall a good article. much closer to reality than many others out there. good article indeed.

However, please dont send hundreds and possibly thousands of muso's to church looking for music careers and fame!!! i think the church is focused on other more important things such as salvation etc than sustaining some muso's while they transition from unknown to rock star. respect the institution and advise those who are that way committed or inclined to go there - not just everyone! speaking on behalf of the church I can tell you there are too many rock stars singing in those choirs and not enough committed Christians. don't worry i wont preach on here, but i would like for people to stop treating the church choir as a pit stop on the road to a music career or fame.

my advice for musicians however, is that looking at the new industry and what is happening right at the top, you are seeing less and lesss of the "one trick pony" artists making it. endorsements, acting, cross branding/promotion is rampant in the highest places of the industry and until a 'normalisation' occurs or semblance of a new viable industry appears, then that is where the opportunities are right now. so what does that mean to johny come lately? ofcourse McDonalds wont pick up your song as their new jingle right? so why approach them...? are there no cafe's or take aways/ mom and pops stores in your local neighbouhood that you know personally or have access to introducing yourself personally to in order to discuss maybe doing something in conjunction with them to start you off? why not go to your local favourite book store and ask to record an acoustic easy listening cd of original music for you to brand with them and get them to give away as value add to first 500 people buying certain books that are hot at the moment? it may not be perfect, but its an idea... its a start... do the numbers and see if it works for you. maybe give an access code for free digital album download if pressing cd's is out of budget.... long and short of it - think of creative ways to get your creative wears out there!

the truth is, trying to always find out what someone else is doing to be successful is quite possibly one of the many reasons you wont be! there is no harm in learning from others yes, but that must be balanced by your own innovations so that you have the chance of breaking through on your own ideas and being the first of something than the "also ran" or immitator of other things....

For younger musicians, teaching, church and lounge/bar gigs are equally unrealistic; The church pays the choirmaster and maybe the organist/bandleader; (a pittance, usually) everybody else is expected to donate their time. As noted above, you'd need way more than a dozen students to make anything approaching a living, and they're a massive time suck, if you're doing it right, so don't expect to pursue any part-time dreams. Teaching, like composing, is a whole 'nother set of skills beyond music; a dual career that takes twice as long to learn, but a worthwhile pursuit, if you're totally committed and hopefully independently wealthy. Otherwise, my advice is to marry well. The live music business is riddled with pitfalls, especially if you're good at it; your job is to sell booze and lead the party, and you'll likely succumb to drug/alcohol abuse, especially if you have the stamina for it. This is not to say that there aren't opportunities in the music industry, just that it's no way to get rich; you want rich, build an app or go work for Goldman Sachs. The honest truth is that maybe ten percent of otherwise-qualified musicians have the ability to develop the skills to make an okay living in the music industry, (hint; many, if not most of those skills don't involve music at all, they're additional skills, like time management, networking and sales) and only the top tenth of one percent will work/train hard enough to develop those skills to a level that will earn them significant scratch. You really have to do it for love, or because you'd simply have to off yourself if you had to be/do anything else; it has to be a matter of life or death, or you're not motivated enough.Good luck.

March 13 | Unregistered CommenterMojo Bone

The bottom line with anything involving making a living in music is that it will take time, work, energy, and a lot of dedication. For those of you who question the validity and ability to make an income from teaching music, working as a music director, or playing solo gigs, it might be worth noting that 'there is more than one way to skin a cat.'

The simple truth of the matter is that we all have different goals when it comes to our music careers. Teaching music, being a music director, a pit musician, a cruise musician, or what have you all boils down to the same thing, and they are no less viable or realistic goals as wanting to be an artist and making a living from your original music.

To say that any of these things is out of reach for a musician does a disservice to those who want to enter the profession. Rather than tell them how difficult it is to make it work, our time (as professionals) would be better spent providing real, concrete of examples of how it CAN work, and I applaud David for doing that.

If you want to be an independent artist and record and sell your own music, look at what others are doing, assimilate some of their tactics, and try some of your own. Need some examples of how people are making it work? Check YouTube and Twitter.

If you want to teach music, practice your instrument, hang out your shingle, make phone calls, advertise, and build a studio. Need some examples? Check out a few local studios in your area of the country and see what they're doing right and wrong.

Want to lead a church's music activities (which involves a LOT more than just directing a choir every Sunday) then learn about what you need to know. Music theory, arranging, conducting, keyboard and vocal skills, not to mention diplomacy skills are ALL part of the package.

Mojo mentioned the need to have other skills aside from musical ability to succeed in the music industry (time management, networking, sales, etc) but these sort of skills are ubiquitous to ANY profession.

It doesn't matter if I'm a lawyer, plumber, or musician, if I can't manage my time, network, and connect with people who need my services, I'll starve, or need to find a line of work which requires very little thinking.

And no, I don't think everyone who visits sites like this are looking for quick, easy ways to 'make it' in the music industry. We just want answers to the questions which pertain to the type of music career we want to have. For some of us, that will mean wanting to be independent artist/performers, for others composers. For some it will mean teaching, and for some it may mean arranging, orchestrating..

The POINT is that there is room for all of this in a career as a musician, because when it all comes down to it, it's really about the MUSIC and what you do with it in your life. If you want to make it your career, the only thing stopping you is you.

March 13 | Unregistered CommenterHeath Vercher

Great article, musicians need a boost of reality now and again. Make money like everyone else- treat it like a business and work hard.

March 14 | Unregistered CommenterJay Jolley

Excellent,Tels it like it is. most musicians these days have many jobs in order to keep them doing what they love.

March 15 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Alexander

"Excellent,Tels it like it is. most musicians these days have many jobs in order to keep them doing what they love."

JA, when I read this the first time, I thought you wrote "Excellent...... most musicians these days have many jobs in order to keep them from NOT doing what they love."

Glass is empty. etc

March 15 | Unregistered Commenterjp

Well said...and thank you for the response.

March 16 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Here are quite a few more comments on this topic.

How to make $50,000 a year as a musician

Some ways I've made a living as a musician for the last thirty years (OK, twenty, my wife supported us largely for 10 of those years)

Working in a Guitar Store
Working in a Record Store
Teaching Private Lessons
Teaching Clinics
Teaching a Class at USC
Copy Work (doing charts)
Playing Jazz Gigs
Playing Top 40 Gigs
Playing Weddings (classical guitar)
Playing Rock Gigs
Playing in Cover Bands
Playing in Original Bands
Playing in a Pit Band
Playing in Worship Bands
Leading Worship
Writing Worship Songs
Writing Rock Songs
Writing Classical Songs
Writing Pop Songs
Writing Music for Television
Writing Music for Film
Being a Music Director
Being a Contractor
Playing on Records/CD's
Playing on Commercials
Playing on Movies
Playing on TV Shows
Sidelining in TV Shows (on camera appearances)*
Producing Records
Developing Artists

April 7 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Its not about how much much you make, if you love it you would do it for free. I have not had any acting jobs for a while, but ill keep going..

July 17 | Registered Commentermar men

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