How Do Musicians Really Earn Their Living? [CASE STUDIES]

Screen shot 2012-03-26 at 12.06.16 AMThe Future of Music Coalition has released data from its Artist Revenue Streams research project, where financial case studies drawing from 4-12 years of accounting data provide information about how musicians are making a living today. These five case studies provide a financial profile of different types of full-time musicians. Each case study graphs and explains the musician-based sources of income over time, and the results tell a lot about the state of today’s music industry.

(click on chart above to enlarge)

The case studies reflect the working lives and income streams of five different types of full-time musicians:

  1. Jazz Bandleader-Composer
  2. Indie Rock Composer-Performer
  3. Jazz Sideman-Bandleader
  4. Professional Orchestra Player
  5. Contemporary Chamber Ensemble

The reports include annual revenue pies, a look at income versus expenses, and net profit over time. Some case studies also include more detailed breakdowns, such as PRO royalties by territory, or session work by bandleader. Using data compiled from individual artists' tax returns, Quicken files and PRO royalty statements, the case studies offer a deep look into how real musicians and composers earn their living.

Key Findings

For musicians that perform (which the majority of those studied consisted of), live performance is the essential revenue stream. In nearly every instance, a performing musician's annual income is highly dependent on the number of shows they played. Live performance is not only important because it is a creative choice (all of the subjects indicated that they enjoy playing music for live audiences), but because it is also a controllable source of income.

That income, however, comes with significant expenses attached, as touring expenses can often exceed touring income. Moreover, these expenses are not scalable, and as the more active a band becomes, the more money must be spent on travel, promotion, sidemen, etc… Other revenue streams that the case studies incorporate, such as teaching and session work, appear much more stable in the sense that they have fewer expenses attached.

Another finding was that label advances and grants do not indicate direct revenue. Two of the case study artists have received significant grants or advances related to recording projects. In both of those cases, all of the money was spent to make their records. Some of the records even cost more than the advances or grants provided, meaning that the artist needed to invest income earned through other means to complete the recording project.

More findings showed that performers leverage their performances to earn money in other ways. With live performances being the main platform for artists, all of the case study artists who make recordings sell their CDs to audiences after their shows. For the indie rock composer-sideman for instance, selling CDs on the road was nine percent of his income in 2010, and 22 percent in 2011.

One more significant finding was that some revenue streams are time delayed, but pay off year after year. Unlike live performance fees that are incurred typically right away, income earned by compositions pay off over time. For instance, the indie rock composer-sideman earned public performance royalties for songs he composed with MainBand #1 steadily, even four or five years after the recordings were released. The jazz sideman has continued to receive PRO royalties for a song he composed for a film in 2001. Compositions have a life of their own and once it's published, it can be licensed or performed repeatedly all over the world, resulting in income over time.

Why Study Musician Revenue?

These studies are significant because they help paint a “real world” picture of what it is like to earn a living as a musician in an industry dramatically transformed from what it once was only a decade ago. While technological breakthroughs such as the emergence of the digital music store, the rise of social media, and music streaming services have certainly made it easier for musicians to distribute their music and connect with their fans, sources of revenue have seemed to funnel to only a select few key areas.

For aspiring musicians, it’s important that they get a firm financial understanding of what it really means to make a living in today's music business, and to plan accordingly. The information can help tomorrow's artists get a clearer idea of what they will have to do, the lifestyles they need to plan ahead for, and the sacrifices they need to endure in order to make ends meet through their music. For more seasoned musicians, these case studies can only affirm how the industry has changed in regards to primary revenue sources, and how they must continue to adapt in order to not be left behind.

This post is by regular Hypebot contributor and independent music business professional & musicianHisham Dahud (@HishamDahud)

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  1. I’m not sure that we can look at this study as representative for the music industry industry overall due to the skewing of data by the high number of Jazz and Classical musicians which make up a small percentage of the overall population, and honestly being a niche, have very different career experiences than the “average” musician.

  2. Ok, what’s an “average” musician? I’m a professional musician, and in my experience… well, those five categories make up a pretty good overview of the kind of people you’ll meet whose main income is music?

  3. My jazz musician friends seem to work more in music than my rock/pop musician friends. The jazz musicians are often gigging four times a week (playing in multiple groups), giving private lessons, and sometimes also teaching at the college level.

  4. I think it’s hard to define an “average” musician. Through this research we’ve interviewed or collected data from all types — composers who don’t perform, performers who don’t write their own music, session players, platinum-selling rock bands, hired gun bass players. There are a few common themes that we’ve identified, but we’ve resisted the effort to make sweeping generalizations about musicians because, as the commenters below point out, music creators working in different genres or roles can have substantially different sources of income.
    There are many, many different types of legitimate, full-time musicians and composers in the US. Learning how orchestra players make a living, or how film and TV composers work may not fit within the indie rocker’s wheelhouse specifically, but it’s interesting nonetheless. And I think it makes for a stronger musician community if we have a sense of its size, diversity and the mechanics of compensation for different roles.
    If folks are interested, we have about 12 other research memos and reports posted at http://money.futureofmusic.org, based on data pulled from interviews, case studies and a huge online survey, with more to be released between now and the end of June. And we have 4 more case studies on the way.
    Thanks for your interest!
    Kristin Thomson
    co-director, Artist Revenue Streams project

  5. Hi Suzanne
    We’ve certainly seen this in our data. We have a report coming out about “roles” soon that will dissect this a bit.
    Also, in case you haven’t seen it, the charts for the jazz sideman’s gigs are pretty amazing. From 2004 to 2010, he played 369 engagements with 81 different ensembles as a sideman. 49 of the engagements were one-time sideman gigs. The remaining 320 engagements were spread out amongst 32 ensembles, with 65% of the engagements coming from six bandleaders.

  6. According to me there are many, many different types of legitimate, full-time musicians and composers in the US. Learning how orchestra players make a living..

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