As a modern musician, working out how to make money from music will always be on your mind. This post isn’t intended as a roadmap to major-label deals, gleaming limousines and rivers of champagne (although there’s nothing wrong with aiming high). It’s about finding ways for working musicians to stay afloat and stay creative, helping you follow your passion while paying the bills.

Ask your peers on BandLab and you’ll be left in no doubt that musicians work hard for their money. In 2018, a survey found that the median salary for a US musician was under $25,000, while that same year, the average UK musician earned £23,059 (compared with the UK average of £29,832). But that doesn’t mean you should settle for a life of low-paying gigs. The pros agree that the best way to make money as a musician in the modern industry is to diversify – tapping into every income stream and building a profitable portfolio career.      

As the world’s favorite social music site, at BandLab we’re all about making connections, sharing advice and helping each other move forward. But to get you started here’s an introduction to 14 of the best ways to make money from your music.

Read more: Sync licensing: How to license your music for movies, TV, games and ads

1. Diversify your merch

With transactions growing 9.4% year-on-year and worth a cool $3.1 billion globally in 2016, the merch table can be a musician’s best friend. But to get your slice, you’ll need to merchandize smarter and stand out from the crowd of black t-shirts. Think quirky, personalized and limited edition. 

Canadian R&B star The Weeknd, for example, sells everything from a bobblehead keyring to a golden ashtray, while hot-tip UK rockers Massive Wagons and These Wicked Rivers kept profits ticking over during the pandemic with band-branded curry powder and teabags. Offer merch at every price point – from vinyl to bottle openers – and make sure your band logo and website appear prominently for a free marketing push. 

Merch is a tried and trusted way for musicians to boost their income – and the more you diversify, the better. UK rockers These Wicked Rivers came up with a Stay At Home bundle during lockdown, including a mug, coaster, tea bags and chocolates! Picture credit: Eloise Wyatt and Lewis Hutchinson

For now, Covid-19 might have killed face-to-face sales but don’t shut up shop: create a dedicated merch page on your website and nudge fans towards it using your social channels.

2. Get sync licensing royalties

Hearing your music on movies, TV shows, video games and commercials isn’t just an unbeatable buzz, it’s also a real money-spinner, with generous upfront sync fees and ongoing royalties. Matching the multimedia success of Pharrell Williams’ Happy might be ambitious, but you don’t have to be a global star, just capable of writing atmospheric material that will catch the ear of a sync agent or music supervisor. We recently posted an in-depth sync licensing feature on BandLab.

3. Negotiate fees for live gigs

Covid-19 might have shuttered the live circuit, but it’s still the cornerstone of a modern musician’s income. The key is to not undersell yourself. Calculate what you need to earn for a gig to be profitable (factoring in expenses, from fuel to insurance) and negotiate politely with the booker, showing evidence of your live fanbase and social following, along with testimonials from industry professionals and an up-to-date EPK. 

Officially the hardest working band in metal (or any other genre, for that matter), in 2019 Killswitch Engage played an ear-perforating 148 live gigs.  Picture credit: Travis Shinn

If a venue says the words ‘pay to play’, walk away. Most important is to follow the example of US metallers Killswitch Engage – the hardest-gigging band of 2019, playing 148 shows – and fill your diary.   

4. Use music streaming to gain fans

Since the pandemic, streaming rates for musicians have come under close scrutiny, with campaigns like Fix Streaming Now demanding a bigger slice of the major platforms’ profits. Unless you have a global hit, streaming alone is unlikely to sustain you – but don’t forget the knock-on benefits of casual fans sampling your music for free, becoming devotees, then actively seeking out paid-for offerings like shows and merch. You can’t afford to not be on there.   

5. Sell your music directly to your fans

Platforms like BandLab allow you as an artist or independent label to make money from your music and fully control your own content. Take BandLab’s Albums feature for example – it is completely free to upload an Album, LP, EP, Mixtape or Single to BandLab, and you can then decide how you want to charge for it. BandLab will not take a cut from your earnings.

6. Try crowdfunding to finance an album

From first-timers to legends like The Libertines and Public Enemy, inviting fans to finance your album can be a smart way to bypass the traditional industry. But there’s plenty to get wrong with crowdfunding. First off, do your sums, calculating projected costs that factor in everything from gear to the 5% cut taken by sites like Kickstarter

To get noticed, you’ll need a great pitch with a killer angle, plus a smart promo strategy that offers one-offs like online guitar lessons or a guerrilla gig in a fan’s house. You’ll stand a far better chance of success with a shareable video and photos and when it comes to marketing go fast and hard – aiming to take the campaign from start to finish in a month.   

7. Join a music royalties company

For musicians with portfolio careers, there are more royalties out there than you might realize, from mechanical and sync to public performance. You can’t claim royalties direct – and wouldn’t have time to chase down what you’re owed anyway – so it’s vital to join the relevant music royalties companies. These societies collect royalties on your behalf and pay you the money you’re due. In the States, that means ASCAP, BMI and, by invitation-only, SESAC. In the UK it’s PRS, MCPS and PPL. Don’t flinch at the one-off joining fee – if you’re set on a career in music, it’ll pay you back many times over.

8. Street performances can build your brand

It was good enough for a pre-fame Ed Sheeran and Mexican acoustic duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela, and street performance is a great impromptu money-maker – not to mention an invaluable apprenticeship in handling a rowdy crowd. Make sure you sort the paperwork (in the UK, for example, the minimum age is 14, and you’ll often need a permit from the local council, plus a PRS licence). Find a good pitch, be considerate of local shopkeepers – and boost your day’s takings by bringing along your merchandise.   

9. Teaching expands your revenue streams

There are good reasons why many pro musicians combine their artistic endeavours with tutoring. It’s easy to fit daytime lessons around evening commitments, and can be a steady income stream in uncertain times, with upwards of $39/£30 per hour a reasonable ballpark fee. If you investigate this route, bear in mind, too, that by investing in a high-quality webcam you can save time and cut transport costs by offering lessons over Skype or Zoom.

10. Get Sponsored

Companies are always looking to align their brand with next-big-things, and they’ll pay handsomely if you fit the bill – just look at Stormzy’s recent hook-up with Adidas. But sponsorship deals are a two-way street. You can expect any brand to be extremely picky, asking you to prove you’re a special prospect with unstoppable momentum. Likewise, you need to be selective about who you approach for sponsorship: get tied in with an evil corporate bloodsucker whose name is mud on the music scene and it’ll hurt you in the long run.

11. Hustle for session work 

Home recording has shrunk the session world since the golden age of LA’s Wrecking Crew, but for the best players there’s still money to be made – the MU suggests a three-hour session should command at least $172/£130. If you haven’t got a reputation yet, get out there to industry events and jam nights in your city, putting yourself in front of every promoter, booker, studio boss and venue manager. Remember that virtuosity is fine, but your phone will ring more if you can play any genre, ace any session and never make a mistake.  

12. Make money as a party band

It might not have the kudos of a club gig, but working as a band for hire can fill the holes in your diary and offer steady year-round earnings when the festival season cools off. The MU gig rate suggests $222/£170 for a four-hour set at events like weddings (plus $82/£63 per hour for overtime), but remember that you can, and should, charge more for corporate gigs. The key to scoring repeat bookings is to be punctual, professional, well-rehearsed and equally able to nail the old favorites and modern hits that don’t feature analog instruments. 

13. Earn as a MI Trade Show Demonstrator

Not on the agenda until the world gets back to normal, but once the trade shows start rolling again, if you’re good with the public, a solid player and comfortable with the nuts and bolts of music equipment, you could make a valuable income from the trade show circuit. MI firms are often looking for musicians to demonstrate their latest equipment, whether that’s at the NAMM show in California or the annual Musik Messe in Frankfurt. Kick off by searching LinkedIn for artist relations contacts at your favorite gear companies, drop them a message outlining your pitch and your credentials and see where it leads.   

14. Apply for funding

No musician wants to live on handouts but in these difficult times there’s no shame in applying for grants and hardship funds – that’s what they’re there for. In the States, look out for opportunities from organizations like New Music USA, The Alice M. Ditson Fund and The Foundation For Contemporary Arts, while UK artists can use Help Musicians’ handy Funding Wizard and check out the MU’s Funding Advice

And there you have it. Making money from music isn’t easy but the 13 routes we’ve pinpointed will give you a fighting chance, so try them all and keep plugging away – because once you’ve made a success of one of these methods, chances are the trickle effect of more will follow. 

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