Bands and musicians: making money from your music in 2021
by Dan Coe
While there is undoubtedly less money to be made from physical music sales now compared to the golden age of the compact disc (where production costs were low and profits were high), there are still plenty of solid and evolving revenue streams out there in 2021. The key is to diversify your prospects to make money through your music, adapt to new trends and opportunities, and manage the money you do make well. Even live performances can bring in revenue, despite most of the world’s live music venues still closed due to lockdown measures.
Here are some of the more established as well as some relatively new ways that you can start making your music work for you.
Gigs, gigs, gigs!
In the age of widespread digital piracy and low returns for streaming (unless you’re in the top 1%), it is reassuring that there remains one thing that cannot be illegally downloaded or replaced by the convenience of instant streaming: the live performance. In the aftermath of Covid19 and a full year of not being able to go to gigs in any normal capacity, people will be champing at the bit to go and see bands with other fans, so there has never been a better time to hone your live performance and look to book as many shows as possible (when it actually becomes possible).
The two primary ways bands and solo musicians make money from gigs are: 1) taking a cut of ticket pre-sales and 2) taking a guaranteed fee. It is common to have one or the other agreed and whether you push for a cut of ticket sales or a guaranteed fee for playing will depend on the circumstances. For instance, if you are playing a gig in your hometown and can count on lots of local fans attending, it would be prudent to get a cut of ticket sales. If you are the headline (or only) artist, your cut should be high and reflect the fact that the vast majority of people are coming to see you (the venue will make plenty on the bar, don’t worry). If you are playing in a town you have never played before and you’re in the early stages of your career it might be wise to take a guaranteed fee, just to make sure you at least cover all your costs.
Booking private and corporate gigs can be another potentially lucrative revenue stream. Even the biggest bands and stars in the world do corporate and private gigs (with suitably astronomical fees, granted), from Beyoncé to The Rolling Stones. There is zero shame in it and it could help keep you afloat as a band or generate you more cash for the band kitty. You could keep things simple by having a single corporate rate or quote depending on the size of the gig. If you are just starting out, don’t be afraid to do the odd covers gig at a wedding or other function – it’s all good playing-together practice and can be very lucrative (just keep your eyes on the prize. You don’t want to still be playing Come On Eileen to drunk people with ties round their heads in 10 years’ time). Similarly, if you are a jazz musician or band or have strings amongst your line-up, you can make a sizeable amount of money playing jazz standards and down-the-aisle music for weddings.
Doing live performances online needn’t be solely reserved for times of global pandemic. Obviously times when attending live music concerts are actually prohibited by law are going to be when online shows really come into their own, but they can also be a fantastic way to monetize a global fanbase when a physical world tour is not on the cards. You may have small pockets of fans dotted around in countries all over the planet, but not enough to make touring in those countries viable. By playing virtual shows with virtual ticketing, a paywall, or even by passing a virtual hat round for tips at the end of (or during) the performance, you can give these fans a real taste of what it’s like to see you play live, bolster their support, gain new fans (when they get their friends to watch along), whilst simultaneously generating revenue with hardly any overheads.
Whether you broadcast the show from a traditional live venue you’ve hired, your rehearsal room, your living room, or some other unconventional space (let’s get quirky), you can set it up exactly how you want. Be creative with lighting, backdrops, costumes, or make it more rough and ready, like an informal, intimate jam session amongst friends – the choice is yours (or you could even survey your fans to help deliver the sort of show they want to see. Though this carries the risk of everyone in the band having to get naked or wear onesies).
Public or private?
Over the past 12 months or so, you will probably have noticed the huge increase in free and public livestreaming of music events on social and video platforms such as Instagram Live, Facebook Live, and YouTube. These kind of open-access online events are a superb way of showcasing your music and gaining new fans. Plus they come with other benefits such as being able to record your streamed performances for you to use as you see fit in the future.
However, unless you have private, paid access set up or secret link to the event that is only sent to people who have paid for a ticket, you could be limiting potential revenue (and even with a private link to, say, a YouTube Live event that is only sent out to ticketholders, there’s nothing o stop them from circulating the link to their friends. Which wouldn’t demonstrate great ‘fanning’, but people will be people. Even fans). You can, of course, put a link in in the video description to a virtual tip jar, such as PayPal.me, Venmo, Cashapp, Facebook Pay, or Buy Me A Coffee – even splash it across the page whilst you’re playing and mention it after every song – but people can be fickle, transient, and just have a low attention span, so you have to be prepared for people to dip in and out without dipping into their virtual wallets.
Therefore, if you want to increase your chances of making some money from your true fans (the generous one and those with a strong set of ethics), we would advise that you create a private livestream, only accessible via paywalled access directly through your chosen platform, or a secret link sent to those who have made a donation or bought a ticket. That said, if you made your show available to everyone across the globe for free and it went viral for some reason (you were all naked, for instance. Or just really good), a voluntary tip jar has the potential to bring in a small fortune. But it is a gamble. And that’s the last time I will mention getting naked.
If you have a Band Theme website you can sell tickets for your shows via the Bandsintown WordPress plugin which comes pre-installed with your website, that handles all things concert related, both real world and online.
Having a ticket for your online show lends itself to a different kind of experience for both parties. You will likely have fewer people watching than if it was a free for all, but those who stump up for a ticket will likely stay for the whole performance, and feel like they are part of something more intimate, more special. And by enabling comments for the performance, you can even generate a communal, gig chat room experience to allow your fans to interact during the show (“Would you mind watching my beer why I head to the bathroom?”).
Choosing a platform
There are many different options here, so take some time to choose one that fits your needs and those of your audience. Many artists and bands like Zoom as it’s something that people have become very familiar with over the past year, allows you to set up password-protected sessions and has a good range of audio options, but there are plenty of other paywalled options, such as Twitch, Crowdcast, Bandcamp Live, and of course the old veterans such as Facebook and YouTube.
Sponsorship / Endorsement
Sponsorship from brands is another way to generate money, or at least get free cymbals and drumsticks, especially if you have a decent social media following. The best way to solicit such sponsorship is to tag brands in your social posts. This will obviously be better received by fans if it’s just instrument brands to begin with, unless your drummer is always seen with a can of Red Bull in his hand. As your presence grows along with your followers, you may even start to have brands who have little or only tenuous links to music cold-calling you with offers and it will be up to you which to take up. But there are plenty of innocuous sectors which you may be happy to promote, such as cool clothing brands or craft beard oil distilleries (is beard oil distilled? Probably).
Every time you hear published music in a supermarket, lift or restaurant, the artist who made it is getting paid. In fact, almost every time you hear music played anywhere (out in public, on the radio, on TV etc) the artist/s who made the song are getting paid, each time that song is played. If you’re music has been published, either by you, your label or through a dedicated publisher, you should ensure the tracks are registered with the organisations that take care of royalties for artists.
And it’s not just when you’re published recordings are aired in public that you can cash in. If you’re playing published songs at your gigs, providing they are your songs, you can also make money from royalties. And the bigger the venue, the bigger the royalty. For instance, if you land a gig at a massive venue, even if you are 1st on the bill and playing to 10 people, you can still make a decent sum from the show.
To get paid though you must submit all the songs you have played to the appropriate royalty-collecting organisation/s in your country. Prior to this, you should ensure all your songs are registered with the same organisations. In the UK this is the PRS, whilst in the US there are 3 PROs (Performing Rights Organisations): the ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. In Canada it’s SOCAN (most major countries have their own collecting societies that take care of royalties for artists). Many artists, especially those without management, don’t think to do this. So make sure you do.
Mechanical royalties are a royalty paid to the writer of a piece of music whenever a copy of their tracks is made. For instance, whenever a record label or distributor presses a CD of your song, you are technically due a mechanical royalty. This is the short story. In reality, and in practical terms, it can be much more complex. Yes, there are mechanical royalties for streaming and video services like Spotify and YouTube, as well as for digital download sites like iTunes and Beatport. You can imagine where waters start to become muddied and need navigating by someone who knows what they’re doing.
The ways of handling mechanical royalties differ from country to country and there’s way too much disparate information to get into in detail here. There can also be many side deals between bands, labels, and publishers as to the rate of royalty and how the royalty will be paid, including whether royalties are paid out when copies or sold or just when they are made, and whether there are allowances for promotional copies for which mechanical royalties aren’t paid at all.
If you are a new upcoming artist, your mechanical royalty income will likely be markedly less than your performance income, but when you start shifting units (in any of their modern or traditional forms) mechanical royalties could become a serious revenue stream. Our advice, therefore, is to get on top of it now. Or delegate to someone who can. Take some time to learn more about mechanicals, register your released music with (and familiarise yourself with) The Harry Fox Agency (US) and the MCPS (UK) if it isn’t already, and for other countries, check this handy site for details of both mechanical and performing rights collection societies.
Syncs / Placements
Syncs, sometimes called placements, refer to the music used in the various prevailing media forms like TV shows, movies, commercials (TV and online), and video games. Though individual fees may have dropped in recent years, the sheer number of different content platforms these days means there’s plenty of opportunities to make some serious cash trough syncs.
You can make your own arrangements and cut your own deals or, if you are signed, your publisher or record label (dual acting as publisher) will be able to strike such deals on your behalf. Placements are often arranged through in-house music supervisors or placement agents and use sound libraries to find music for their projects.
There are oodles of ‘ins’ here, with lots of companies acting as brokers and intermediaries between songwriters / rights owners and those looking to license music, but a good starting point is Versus Media. They put artists in touch with smaller TV and film projects that need music – plus it’s free to join. Pump Audio is also great for placements. To be ‘green lit’ you just must upload 2 tracks which are approved, then you can upload as much as you want to their library and wait for people to discover and licence your awesome music.
It’s not just glitzy TV, film and advertising entities that require music and the licensing thereof. There’s lots of potential for ‘micro-syncs’ which can all mean extra cash in your back pocket. These may include music used in podcasts, single social media posts, user-generated content on video streaming channels like YouTube, corporate videos (internal), and good ol’ fashioned wedding videos.
For these smaller jobs, cutting your own deals might be the way forward as your profit margins will be smaller. In terms of where to find the gigs, freelancer sites such as Fiverr, Upwork, and People Per Hour are good places to start.
Writing for other artists
Pop star careers may come and go, sometimes in the blink of an eye, but song writing careers can go on for decades. It’s worth remembering that many of today’s top artists and producers started out as songwriters with publishing deals, and quite a few transition from being pop stars to hit makers for other artists, and continue making substantial amounts of money from song writing long after their own time in the stage spotlight has passed. Take Cathy Dennis for instance, who went from being a pop star vocalist in her own right in the early 90s to writing and cowriting global smash hits for Kylie Minogue (‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’), Britney Spears (‘Toxic’), and Katy Perry (‘I Kissed A Girl’) in the noughties, resulting in Grammys, Billboard Music Awards, and no less than SIX Ivor Novello Awards.
Artists both upcoming and established will typically be passed songs from a wide array of sources, including their record label, manager, producers, music publishers, and peers in the music industry. With upcoming artists you’re much more likely to be able to approach and pitch them ideas directly. So, if you’re good at spotting talent before it properly emerges, this can be a great way to get a foot on the ladder and get noticed as a songwriter (you should maybe also thing about being an A&R!). For established artists, your best bet is to go through a music publisher. Before you start flinging songs their way though, study current hit songs and trends and make sure your songs are up to scratch and can realistically compete. Your demos don’t need to be the finished article production-wise, but the songs do need to be finished, catchy choruses and hooks fully on display.
You can find the contact info for the publishers of many of the songs in the charts by searching the repertoire at ASCAP.com and BMI.com for US artists and the PRS for UK registered releases. You can search by song title or artist and the results should include the music publisher’s contact information, but you can also look these up on the Music Publishers Association website (USA, free to use) or this guide from The Unsigned Guide.
However you feel about YouTube as a platform for music, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that it remains the number one music streaming service in the world. With 2 billion users streaming music videos on YouTube every month it is platform not to be ignored. As of the end of 2020, there are four artists who have songs which have racked up over 3 billion views. One of these as over 5 billion views (in case you’ve been living under a rock, it’s Despacito by Luis Fonsi feat. Daddy Yankee).
Put simply, if you upload your music to YouTube you could be getting paid for it. Conversely, if you do not upload your music to YouTube, you cannot get paid for it. You never know which of your songs has the potential to blow up, so it is always going to be worth putting your releases on there (or even your demos if they’re good enough, as it’s another way to get spotted by industry insiders).
A positive recent development is the ability to get paid from your music being used even if it wasn’t you who uploaded the video. YouTube has a system called Content ID that finds exactly where your song is being used on YouTube. If it finds your music somewhere and you are the copyright owner, you can then choose to monetise it by placing ads on the video. Cool, huh? Just let people use your music without asking permission. It is you who will be getting paid, thanks to Content ID.
Merch, merch, merch!
Whether it’s at your gigs or through your website and social channels, having cool merchandise to sell will always help bring some money in. Selling t-shirts, hoodies, hats, posters, signed artwork prints, and of course records, is a great potential way to bolster your band revenue.
In this digital age, there is a lack of art and design which can be held and touched, something that used to come part and parcel with formats such as CDs and vinyl. Nowadays many fans crave something tangible and authentic that is associated with their favourite artist and their music.
Another potential income stream that gained more traction amid the global pandemic is Patreon. The potential for a consistent monthly income has attracted more musicians to the platform, with hopes of finding financial stability through these uncertain times.
Though there has been a little scepticism from some quarters about the ability to generate any substantial revenue on Patreon, it is certainly possible and well worth your consideration. The website lists that Patreon is for “Any creator who wants to share their work.”, which includes musicians.
It is essentially a Kickstarter-like service for creators to connect with (and earn money from) their fans. But instead of raising a bulk amount for one big project (like the aforementioned album), Patreon is for those who create on a regular basis – like YouTubers, prolific musicians, podcasters, journalists, and bloggers.
‘Patrons’ pledge different amounts as per the tiers of their membership, which are customised by you. With each tier, supporters choose a set monthly price, each coming with a specific set of benefits. These benefits or “rewards” might be early access to music, exclusive live streaming of performances, exclusive merch, bonus tracks, even secret gigs. It’s up to you, but here at the current top 10 rewards for Patreon musicians.
Pro tip: be sure to get input from your fans about what they want from their patronage. Starting simple allows you to incorporate their feedback so you can grow your Patreon around benefits which they are more likely to be excited about.
Whilst we cited the decline in physical format sales at the start of this article, we’re certainly not saying there’s no place for them when it comes to generating an income. Quite the opposite, in fact. Whilst only a small percentage of artists can get by on physical sales alone nowadays, they are still very much in the mix, as it were. And the good news is, with a Band Theme website you can sell all of the below formats straight to fans, whether we’re talking singles, EPs, albums, or even special edition boxsets.
Whilst compact disc sales continue to freefall (31.6m CD albums were sold in the US in 2020, accounting for less than 4% of music industry revenues), many bands, musicians, and orchestras can still count on them to bring in revenue, especially those active on the live circuit. They are relatively cheap to produce and so can be sold at a reasonable price, have great artwork, and represent something physical for fans to own and hold (and get signed at the merch table after the gig!).
Believe it or not, vinyl record sales in the UK reached a three-decade high in 2020, including 4.8m albums. This is likely to be in part due to the fact that legions of live music fans didn’t have any events to go to. But it is also indicative of a trend slowly building in recent years that is a clear reaction to the digital age, as older generations hark back to a more physically tangible age, while younger generations have flocked to the format for reasons of novelty, having grown up with mp3s, never experiencing the feeling of buying a record and holding it in their hands.
Say what now? Cassettes? As in tape cassettes? Surely people aren’t buying cassettes in 2021? You’d better believe it. In 2019, cassette tape sales were at a 10-year high. Then sales doubled, to reach 157,000 units in just one year to December 2020, with none other than Lady Gaga taking the spoils for the best-selling album on tape. So what’s the deal? It’s still a small fraction of total music sales but staggering nonetheless for such an obsolete format (cars haven’t had tape players installed for decades now). BPI boss Geoff Taylor puts it down to “the timeless appeal of collectable physical formats”. Sites such as Bandcamp have certainly contributed to the phenomenon, with many fans loving the throwback format and its often strong visual aesthetic, and some releases, even some labels, being cassette only. Who would have thought it?
If you sell digital downloads through your own website, as you can with Band Theme, a big bonus is that you get to keep all of the money. But you want to have visibility across as many digital download sites as is practical, because some people are stuck in their ways (sometimes with fair reason), and will always want to buy downloads from iTunes, or Beatport, or Bandcamp, or Juno, or even Amazon (heard of them? They’re going to be big one day, mark my words), so make sure your digital distribution is on point.
I some cases you will be able to strike a deal with a download site as an independent artist. Others will require you to be affiliated with a record label (even if it’s your own one-woman operation, whilst others still will only deal directly with established digital distributors. Beatport is one of the latter, so if you’re a budding dance or electronic music producer, you’ll certainly need to align with a digital distributor, or music aggregator as they’re also known, unless you get signed to a label who already has such a deal.
Some distributors such as Ditto allow you to keep all of your royalties, with just a yearly fee to pay for an unlimited number of releases, whilst others, such as CD Baby (who don’t actually distribute to Beatport, so avoid if you’re a dance music producer) take a 9% cut of your royalties. There are plenty of music aggregators to choose from, all of which have slightly different offerings, deals, and stipulations. The one that is right for you will be the one that best fits your needs: your style of music, frequency of releases, target audience, and longer-term goals. So do a bit of research and make a considered decision.
Some other companies offering digital distribution to check out: RouteNote, Tunecore, ONErpm, and AWAL. It’s also worth noting that many of these aggregators handle distribution to streaming sites such as Spotify, Tidal, and Deezer as well as digital download sites.
Music grants and funding
Right now there is a myriad of funding opportunities for musicians all around the globe. Some are charity based, some run by musicians’ unions and societies, and music artists in some countries are even lucky enough to have the full financial backing of their governments (UK government? Not so much, surprisingly).
There are funds available for specific projects; for individuals, bands and orchestras;; general support grants to help low-paid professional musicians weather the pandemic; artist residencies; and competitions with prize money, for your consideration The best way to find opportunities in your country is to just get Googling.
Here’s a roundup of some of the current opportunities in the UK as collated by the British Council. If you’re in the USA, a great place to start searching for music grants is New Music USA. For Australians, your government has your back, and you can explore various contemporary music funding projects here. Happy fund hunting!
Offer music lessons
In the age of Zoom video meetings, you no longer even have to visit a students house (or let them come to yours) in order to give music lessons, though in person is probably preferable for the majority of students.
If you’re a competent instrumentalist of any description and looking for a side hustle whilst awaiting a call back from Universal Music with that 7 album deal, music tutoring is an often lucrative option. Music tutors are paid well (in a recent survey, the Incorporated Society of Musicians in the UK found the average rate for music tuition in London in 2020 was £40 per hour).
And it’s not just traditional instruments that need be the focus of the tuition. There are always people looking for electronic music production tutoring and DJ skills workshops.
Again, where to find this work will depend on the country you reside in. For UK readers, the Musicians Union have put together this guide to help you on your quest. If you’re in the US, a good place to start is Hey Tutor, where you can register your services and people can search for specific music tutors in their local area, whilst online prospects can be found on sites like Preply.
Similarly, if you’re good enough to confidently offer music tuition, you may well be good enough to offer your services as a session musician. Not everyone will be at the level where you’ll be popping up on Jools Holland every other week, providing some live sonic backbone and musicianship to the latest studio project pop sensation, but one thing’s for sure: there will always be session work for great freelance musicians. But be warned: the market can be competitive, depending on your instrument.
Whether you’re a violinist, guitarist, percussionist, or scratch DJ, the best way to get work as a session musician is to put yourself out there and network, both online and off. Don’t be shy. Be bold. Reach out to recording studios in your local area. Say you’re available for whatever projects they have going on. Ideally, you should be able to point them to an online portfolio that can be easily referenced. If you have a band website, you could point them to that, but ideally you should have a separate site for your session work, with embedded Soundcloud, Vimeo, or YouTube streams of your best playing. Our very own Band Theme is the perfect tool for creating a professional session musician portfolio site, with loads of different theme designs to complement your style of playing, which you can both optimise for Google searches and use as a calling card and showreel to market yourself to potential clients and collaborators.
Make a sample pack
Sample packs are big business. The explosion in electronic music production and the ubiquity of sample use across all genres, not just electronic dance music and hip hop, means there is an ever-growing demand for new talent (and new sounds) in the sample pack game.
Whether you fancy going it alone and setting up your own sample pack label (as many have done and made a great success of) or look to work with an established sample pack company (such as Loopmasters, Samplephonics, or Prime Loops to name just three of many hundreds), if you’re a studio whizz and have the time, creating sample packs can provide a terrific passive income.
You should note, however, that most sample pack companies treat signing a sample pack producer with the same level of consideration and oversight that record labels demonstrate when signing artists, as you can see from the application procedure here for CR2 Sample Tools.
Hopefully this has given you some encouragement and demonstrated that there is plenty of money out there in music land, you just need to have the right knowledge, tools and skills to grab it.
We would also like to remind you to invest money in yourself as musicians and recording artists. It’s no good spending what money you have made making loads of t-shirts and other merch if your music isn’t up to scratch.
So, get that right first! Get the right kit. Really learn your craft. Then invest in good recording and mixing (and if you are self-releasing, good mastering). Aside from anything else it’s actually a great investment. If your music is substandard, you will have to spend a hell of a lot more money on PR and generally buying publicity to get people to take notice.