Music Marketing

Artist Revenue Opportunities Without Playing Live

This guest post is by Bobby Owsinski. Triangle Exception, a winner of the Hypebot Hit Song Contest got to pose two questions to him as their prize.*

image from In most cases, recorded music has always been somewhat of a promotion for the live show. It’s a little known fact that most musical artists have always made as much as 95% of their income from playing live, if we take publishing out of the equation. Even artists that were selling millions of albums during recorded music’s heyday from the 70’s through the 90’s weren’t making as much on record or CD sales as you might think.

It’s still true today that most income for an artist comes from touring, so what’s an artist to do if touring isn’t an option? That’s the main question that two of the artist’s who submitted songs to Hypebot’s Hit Song Contest had.

In their own words:

“Given that we are purely a studio act – are there any good models or strategies for turning the exposure generated from freely distributed music into profit that do not involve playing live?”

“Given the geographical separation between Steve and I, we don’t get to play in the same room much, let alone tour. What are the most effective strategies for bands who are strictly studio acts?”

The answer is the same for both of these questions. Assuming that you already have developed your own “tribe,” or core group of fans, you need some products to sell. Let’s take a look at a few additional income streams that an artist can cultivate:

1) Increase online sales. Let’s look at your music first. Because online music is mostly a commodity these days, it’s best to think of it as primarily a promotional tool, but not exclusively.

You give it away for free on your website, and you make it available for sale on all of the popular distribution platforms like iTunes and Amazon. Although it may seem counterintuitive, there’s a lot of empirical evidence that the more your music can be found for free, the more it sells. In reality, this is the same way that the music industry has always done business, since before the age of Music 3.0 came to pass in 2002 with the introduction of iTunes, you’d give away your music with radio airplay to order to generate sales of physical product. The more it was available free on the radio, the more it sold (usually).

It’s the same thing today, only you’re giving it away on the same medium that you’re actually selling it. That being said, even though you may get an increase in sales, don’t expect it to be a huge amount without a huge audience, and don’t expect it to happen overnight. For most artists, this takes some time to ramp up.

2) Physical Product. Although it may be against the popular wisdom of the day, it’s important to have some physical product like CDs available. People still buy them, especially if you’re active in certain musical genres like country, christian and even metal where CDs are still preferred to digital downloads. You can have them made and even drop-shipped at for $1.75 each (1 to 100,000 copies have the same unit cost) so you won’t have any upfront costs or inventory to worry about. It’s worth having CD’s from another standpoint in that it’s easier to get reviewed when you have a physical product, even by bloggers. Reviewers still feel that you’re more legit if they receive a product that they can hold in their hands. Bottom line, you may not sell a lot of physical product, but it is another possible income stream.

3) Alternative packages . Once again coming back to the world of physical products, vinyl releases and even cassettes ( read more about this retro trend here) can become another income stream even when your fans aren’t interested in purchasing a CD. That being said, even a CD can be an alternative package. Sometimes calling it a “special edition” and numbering them (for example, “#35 of 500”) will entice a fan to buy a product in the hopes of having something scarce and collectible. Likewise, having a “limited edition” CD in a Digipack with lyrics, extra pictures, and lots of information can sometimes be attractive to the fan as well. The downside for any of these packages are that they’ll be a custom item so you’ll have to shell out money up front and carry inventory.

4) Merch . Another thing I’d look into would be branded merchandise like T-shirts, hats, hoodies, mugs and other popular merch items. This only works if you have a strong brand with a great logo, which is easier said than done. Sometimes a cool looking logo on a t-shirt will make people buy an item even they don’t like the music. Once again, thanks companies to Cafe Press and Zazzle, you no longer have to worry about inventory or fulfillment. Just upload your logo, select your product, and they do the rest.

5) Bundles . If neither physical product or merch is selling, then a bundle of both together might prove more attractive. You offer a package of a CD and merch item, or two different merch items, two different physical medium items (vinyl and a CD), or any other combination you can think of. Tip: Don’t use the “Buy this and get that free” technique because it sometimes feels less like a deal than a package of items.

6) Unique items. Once again, this only works if you already have a fan base, but unique items like CDs, DVDs or downloads of alternative mixes, rehearsals, demos, outtakes and in-studio videos can be cherished by superfans and can command premium prices.

7) Publishing and Music Licensing . The real money in recorded music has always been in publishing. For decades songwriters have made more money than most performers (unless they were the songwriters as well) because they were paid for a song’s performances on radio, television and the movies as well as the mechanical royalty on sales of physical product (where they didn’t have to worry about the record label recouping recording costs and advances). There are two areas of publishing that directly apply to an artist that wants to expand his revenue streams – have your songs covered by other artists, or have your existing recorded music licensed.

If you think that you write songs that others might want to cover, then start pitching your songs to publishers, managers, producers and the artists who might find your songs appropriate. For a list of publishers, start with the Music Publishers Registry. For managers, producers and artists, try one of the pitch sheets like Row Fax or The Pitch List to find out who’s looking for songs and how to get one to them.

If you think your music might work for commercials, television or movies, then send your stuff to a specialty publisher like ArtistsFirst Music. There are more cable channels than ever before, and while you may not make much up front, the royalty checks that appear quarterly in your mailbox from your favorite performance rights organization (BMI or ASCAP) can be really nice if you get a song that’s used a lot somewhere in the broadcast universe.

Bottom line, if you don’t already have a core of manic fans for your music, you’re better off spending your time developing publishing contacts and licensing deals until your audience increases. If you have a fan base already, you’re going to need as many of the above income streams as you can get since all may be small in themselves, but can add up to something significant in total. Keep in mind that any of the above opportunities takes additional time and effort that goes way beyond simply making the music in the first place. Being in the music “business” these days is not a passive activity and requires considerable elbow grease, especially if your situation eliminates a possible income source or two.


What are other artist revenue opportunities without playing live?

*Please tell Doug and Steve in the comments below.

If you have a longer and more compelling anwser and would like to share it with the Hypebot community, please contact Kyle at kyle.bylin(AT)


Bobby Owsinski is a producer, engineer, and author of 13 books on music, music business and recording including Music 3.0: A Survival Guide For Making Music In The Internet Age. His music industry blog is music3point0, and his Big Picture production blog is bobbyowsinski.

Share on:


  1. Great article! I just posted it to twitter.
    As for other opportunities, I would add these two:
    1) Sponsorships
    Might be a bit tougher to get a sponsorship from a company/brand without playing live, but not impossible, especially if you have a great online presence.
    2) Fan Club subscriptions
    Indie artist Matthew Ebel is great example for fan club subscriptions:
    Dave Cool
    “What is INDIE? A Look into the World of Independent Musicians”
    Twitter: @dave_cool

  2. There also isn’t much revenue in playing live these days. The new bands doing the club scene make between $150.00 – $500.00 per night. It can cost a 3 to 5 piece band between $750.00 and $1500.00 per day to stay on the road ( flights, hotel, gear rentals, food, gas, commissions, road crew, management, indie promotion etc…
    The clubs take between 15% and 30% of merch sales.
    95% of the new bands touring are doing so at a financial loss and will have to for at least 2-3 years before they can see any real return.
    The club owners and promoters are the real winners.

  3. Another way to generate more income and exposure to your music (freely distributed or not) is by choosing several cover songs to perform and upload to YouTube. The group Pomplamoose has done this with great success. People find them through their unique and interesting use of popular cover songs (people search out the popular artists song on YouTube and find Pomplamooses’ cover version.. thanks GoogleJuice!) After they get excited about the cover song they listen to Pomplamooses’ originals and end up purchasing thes… not to mention you can use this to attract people to your email list subscription which is a great and effective way to stay in touch with fans and develop that community of people who purchase and promote everything you create. You can find some cool DIY podcasts on where they talk about making it without touring. Check out episode #96, 12, 55, & 85. They all have interesting and powerful examples of using the web to build a fan base and create income without touring… I have found them quite helpful.

Comments are closed.