Economics of the Self-Employed Musician
by Alex Cosper
Monday, October 12, 2015

Let's face it. Musicians were not put on this Earth to do boring corporate office work. That's why so many creative people refuse to even apply for a corporate job, where artistic freedom is limited and you have to follow what some stupid manager dictates that makes no logical sense. Most corporations add up to a dull environment that also fosters an unhealthy lifestyle. Educated musicians understand that the greed, stress, deception and synthetic surroundings that go along with the corporate world just isn't worth whatever it pays.

Building a Fanbase Outside the Culture of Brainwashed Mainstream Zombies

So how do you make a living if your calling is music? Well, that's a tricky question since our culture is warped on many levels when it comes to the economics of music. First of all, the masses tend to accept the corporate mainstream as the only legitimate form of music, while shunning local music on down to the bedroom singer/songwriter/producer. Unless your music is featured on MTV, the radio, a big concert festival, television or the movies, the sheeple who are programmed by big biz see your music as novice and irrelevant.

Luckily, however, there are pockets of people on a local level that do like to spend money on rising regional talent that isn't connected with big media. This group, however, is divided into factions. One faction is the "I was there first" cult, which are the diehard music junkies that insist they are smarter than society because they discover new music first. Another faction is the pure anti-corporate crowd that just automatically hates everything big biz spews out either because they oppose mass production of resources, entities that would never hire them or just hype.

Then there's the clique of local scene gatekeepers who want to be able to tell their friends they are the facilitators of the local scene, which sometimes goes on to feed the national picture. Another faction is the society of local musicians themselves, who want to be known by their peers as musicians for various reasons. Some people view musicianship as social status, while others recognize it as a sign of intelligence or compassion for the local community.

Perceptions of Local Music

Although these factions tend to represent small percentages of the population, almost everyone knows someone who plays an instrument, which is often equated to a favorable hobby. But when it comes to spending money, the media-programmed masses are conditioned to think of musical professionalism as divided into tiers. The top tier includes whoever happens to be massively popular in the media either currently or as legends. The medium tier includes the up and coming new artists of mass media or the big stars that are now on their way down. Then the lower tier is everyone else. These tiers are usually perceived subconsciously and haven't been explosed in our culture, until this article.

Again, not everyone thinks in terms of a musical hierarchy, but there's plenty of evidence that this is how most music followers prioritize their music purchasing. There will always be exceptions to this puzzle, though, which is another opportunity for local musicians. When Uncle Ernie or Cousin Carry finally puts out an album, they tend to be supported by family and friends. Or perhaps it's the other way around, as local musicians build their core followings by handing out free CDs to their friends and family.

But what about unsigned musicians that are 100 times more talented than the aritsts on the national pop charts? Well, sometimes that's who gets signed, sometimes it leads to consistent local gigs and sometimes it just becomes a big secret in the bedroom. It's important to remember that not every artist that does get signed to a major label deserves it and that the vast majority of signings will in fact be unsuccessful and never get mass exposure. It's been a fact for decades that over 90 percent of all CD releases do not return a profit.

Beating the Odds of Musical Challenges

So knowing what you're up against, how are you going to make a career out of being a musician? The most frequent way musicians make money is by playing lots of shows in their hometown. But getting gigs isn't always easy until you start to know club owners or their directors who book shows. Assuming you'll get gigs just because you're good doesn't always ring true, especially since everyone competing in the scene tends to rate themselves highly. Promoting yourself as a musician for certain niches, however, such as weddings and special events, can be much more lucrative, especially if you play cover songs that clients or their guests request.

Another way musicians can make a living is by teaching music. You can either find work with a store that sells musical instruments, a school that teaches music or promoting your own independent teaching services. Since more and more people are teaching themselves about music, thanks to the free training videos on YouTube, the number of musical teaching opportunities has narrowed in the new century. It is possible, however, to still fill up your schedule by promoting yourself on campus bulletin boards, online classifieds and word of mouth, especially if you are advanced enough to teach students of all levels.

There are other ways to make money at music, but outside the live show / teaching arenas you'll find the odds begin to stack much higher against you. There just aren't that many people in the market that want to spend a lot of money on music anymore, since so much of it can be found online for free. As the cost of living increases, many people would rather spend $20 on a bag of groceries, rather than a night of partying or a lesson on learning how to sing or play an instrument.

Operation: DIY Music

The overall economy has been tightening since the late eighties. The majority of the population increasingly has less disposable cash. So what are ways this depressing paradigm can radically change to favor independent do-it-yourself musicians?

First and foremost, use your creativity to imagine how you can create demand for your music. Think of the people in your circle and how you can entertain or educate them with music. You might know people with extra cash that may want to invest in your talent. Maybe you know videographers who need background music for their videos and don't want to deal with the complex copyright laws of big biz. Maybe you know local organizations that need a theme song to promote their causes. Getting to know prominent music bloggers and people who work in media can be helpful to your music career.

The key to making money at anything is to develop a niche that either meets or creates a demand. Good luck because the music world needs a lot of luck now that the internet is creating a world that lets anyone create their own musical environments at little or no cost. Last century songs and their creators were commodities. In this century music is no longer a habitual expense, but there will always be new ways to make money at crafting or performing music.

Perhaps there's an untapped goldmine in the collector community. There are many different types of music collectors. Some collect music that shows up on the charts whether they like it or not, as they simply want access to a library of hits. But beyond that, there are collectors who try to collect as much music as possible no matter what it sounds like or how underground it is. Then there are live DJs who are looking for unique tracks for their gigs that make them look special. There are also collectors of unique novelty records or songs for special occasions.

Explore the world of musical themes at Playlist Research to find out holes in the market where you can build a niche. But whatever you do, don't try to sound like what's already popular or you may get lost in the shuffle.

See also:

Example of a DIY Music Video
Satire on Corporate Press Releases
Principles of a Beatles-Based Business Model

© Alex Cosper. All rights reserved. See privacy notice.