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Reflections on a Failed Music Career: Making Money from Music

By Wil Forbis


Read the complete Reflections on a Failed Music Career!

My intent when I initially titled this series "Reflections on a Failed Music Career" was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I don't particularly feel like a failure because the archetypical music career --- the stadium lights, limousines and fancy broads --- always had a pie in the sky sense of improbability. And the few people who reach that level of success don't really have a music "career." Rather they might enjoy five years or so years of the limelight, and then end up selling real estate at age 45. (In fact, I once rented a room in a house owned by indie rock musician Calvin Johnson (of K-Records fame), and the real estate agent who finally sold the house was Chuck Carroll of local Seattle rock stars the Young Fresh Fellows. Super nice guy.)

Surveying the Wreckage
So, if one puts away their dreams of rock 'n roll stardom, what are the odds of making a living making music, particularly original music? Frankly, not good, and getting worse all the time. Consider the following...

  • Ian Rogers, founder of music service website Topspin notes that "There are fewer than 50,000 artists whose main gig is their music."

  • 97.9% of CDs released in 2009 sold less than 5000 copies. If you do some quick general accounting here and presume that CDs are sold for 10 bucks, and cost around five to produce, you're looking at around a max of $25,000 to be split amongst four or five band members (assuming a fairly democratic band structure.) You'd have to be releasing a lot of albums in a year to live off that.

  • What about live music? I've heard through word of mouth commentary from touring acts that I know that many original rock bands --- no longer making money off their albums --- are touring more aggressively and frequently. The result being that the competition for audience members is getting more intense. Think about it from the audience's viewpoint: if there's only one show you really want to see a month, that's easy on the pocketbook. If six great acts appear in the space of 30 days, you have to start choosing.

  • Some musicians talk about licensing their music to television, movies and Web video as an alternate source of revenue. But the ever-growing number of creative commons music databases (like this one), where many professional or weekend warrior musicians offer their product for free, seems to imply that that may soon be a dead end as well.

My suspicion is that the rules of supply and demand are tilted heavily against musicians right now. A music career still has a lot of glamour associated with it, and thus there are plenty of musicians producing musical product. But less and less people are willing to pay for music, especially in this era of easy piracy, and a new generation being trained on the idea that recorded music should be free.

But wait! Before you pull the trigger of the shotgun perched in your mouth, let's take a moment to explore some new possibilities engendered by modern technology that could allow musicians to make a profit.

However, I first want to reiterate some of my beliefs about the reasons people seek out (and sometimes purchase) music or music experiences. I base a lot of my argument on theories and assumptions not everyone will agree with, so you should be aware of them upfront.

Why Do People Listen to the Music They Do?
Conventional, perhaps na´ve, wisdom often spouted by musicians is that the product being sold in the music industry is music itself --- either in the form of recorded music or live performances. By this logic, the proverbial better mouse trap should always win out against inferior product. However I think the psychology of why we choose to buy a particular musical product is more complex, and influenced by...
  • Cultural context --- we seek out music that maps to our cultural environment. This environment is defined by elements of our race, our political philosophy, our class. There are innumerable exceptions to this, of course, but it works as a general rule.

  • Self-definition --- we use music to define ourselves. If we consider ourselves to be nihilistic, we might listen to punk or metal. If we're avid surfers, we'll have some familiarity with surf music. If we consider ourselves to be sophisticated and classy we might listen to classical music or smooth jazz (for reasons that baffle me.)

  • Social interaction --- our music tastes have a lot of control over the kinds of people we will meet. We might be drawn to popular bands in our local music scene, not so much because we like them, but because their shows are where the party is. If we're attracted to a particular person, we might steer our music tastes to match to theirs, if only to provide conversation material.

All right, now let's consider some recent ideas in regards to making a living off music in the free music era.

1000 True Fans
Journalist Kevin Kelly recently theorized that what musicians (or artists or filmmakers or writers etc.) need to survive is to earn 1000 "true fans." A true fan is essentially a person dedicated to a particular artist's output. In a blog post written on the topic, Kelly crunches the numbers.

Assume conservatively that your True Fans will each spend one day's wages per year in support of what you do. That "one-day-wage" is an average, because of course your truest fans will spend a lot more than that. Let's peg that per diem each True Fan spends at $100 per year. If you have 1,000 fans that sums up to $100,000 per year, which minus some modest expenses, is a living for most folks.
Right out of the gate, I have several issues with this premise. I've long argued that what record companies brought to the game during the relatively stable years of the music industry was marketing. This meant a budget for marketing, and having the existing relationships with the media to facilitate getting a musician or band name out there. Despite all the excitement about Internet enabled viral marketing, I think a marketing budget is still required to build a successful brand name, and that budget can eat a significant chunk of that hundred thousand dollars per year.

Secondly, I just think getting a thousand true fans, or even one true fan, is more difficult than Kelly presumes. If I muse on my own life, I come to the conclusion that I've never been a true fan for any band. Devo has been my favorite band for over 20 years now, but I can't think of a single year where I spent anything close to $100 on them. (In my early teenage years of Devo worship, I mainly bought their cassettes secondhand, so they weren't even profiting off that.)

And, as a musician and writer myself, I don't think I've ever earned a true fan. It's possible that I just suck and don't deserve any fans, but a cursory mental survey of many of my friends and fellow musicians would seem to indicate that they are lacking in the true fan department as well, and I don't think they're all talentless morons.

Crowd Funding
Another concept being thrown around is the idea of crowd funding. One of the great unexpected successes of the Internet has been the idea of crowd sourcing. This concept is built on the realization that lots of people are willing to donate some amount of their time and expertise towards a project (often a software application or website) they believe in. The premier example of this would be Wikipedia which is largely maintained by unpaid contributors. Various versions of the Linux operating system were created in a similar manner.

Can this model be applied to artistic projects like a sound recording or independent film? The idea behind crowd funding is that even if people don't have the expertise to contribute, they can contribute cash. The Sellaband website operates on this premise, as does Rockethub.

I suspect this idea has some merits, but how well it will function remains to be seen. I, ever the cynic, am skeptical about ideas that are dependent on the inherent goodness of humans. Even if people are willing to donate cash to support art, I think they'll want some kind of recognition in return. (I'm always frustrated when I tip a barista and realize they didn't notice it.) Maybe this would just come in the form of a printed thank you on a CD jacket, but that itself could limit donors -- being one of 4000 people is meaningless. Additionally, if you're going to be giving to charity there are a lot more worthwhile causes --- starving children, preserving wildlife --- than the local speed metal band.

I, for one, Welcome Our New Corporate Overlords
What about corporate sponsorship? The idea is anathema to many musicians, but consider how musicians made a living before the era of recorded music. In the days of Mozart, musicians were dependent on a royal patronage. To some degree this still exists in the form of government grants, but if the means for musicians to make a living become slimmer, perhaps corporations or rich families will step in and provide an art budget. Maybe Green Day's hit in the year 2016 will be a remake of "I'd like to Buy the World a Coke."

None of the ideas considered above seem incredibly promising, though perhaps by employing some combination of all of them, fruits could be farmed. I find myself standing by the conclusion I have voiced in other articles: the music industry is going to continue to shrink and the number of practicing musicians will shrink with it. Only when this number gets down to an amount that can actually make a living off the pieces of pie available, will things start to look up.

Of course, I've only been considering making money off "original" music. For experienced musicians, there's still money to be made playing covers. Playing "Moondance" for the 15,000th time is not anyone's idea of rock 'n roll stardom, but it can be living. And the skills perfected in a cover band can certainly be applied to the creation and performance of original music.

Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email -

Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.



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