The stereotype of the “starving artist” has pervaded our public consciousness to the point where people believe that it’s impossible to make money with music.
This is simply not true.
You may believe it to be true (I did), especially if you grew up in a smaller city. You may not see many examples of people making their living with music around you.
If you move to a larger city center with a better scene, however, you will soon find yourself surrounded by people making music at a high level, and making money doing it besides.
How do these singers make their money? Here are 10 ways many singers and musicians support themselves:
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1. Live Shows
These days, the vast majority of money to be made is through live performance. People buy tickets, you get paid. Or, you get hired for a flat fee and collect your paycheck.
Now, within this category, there are dozens of subcategories – all different kinds of gigs. I'll share a few with you here.
Artists who sing their original music can end up making a great deal of money selling tickets to their shows, so long as they have the draw.
Getting to this place in your career is not easy. It takes years of hard work and it takes a lot more than just setting up a show and playing.
Most of the time, original shows will net a few hundred dollars at a time (at most).
But if you are touring and moving around frequently, you can make a respectable income playing shows around the country, even if they don’t pay well.
So, for the vast majority of us, we make our money in other ways.
If you’re a singer who can accompany yourself, you should be cashing in on restaurant background gigs.
Generally, you need two to three sets of covers, with a few originals mixed in if you wish. They should either be well-known songs or a curated selection of songs (all ragtime pieces, jazz pieces, etc.).
These gigs pay between $100 and $300, generally speaking, and are often available on any night of the week.
It can help if you have your own small sound system, as you can sometimes charge a little more if you bring your own rig.
Cover Bands & Wedding Gigs
If you can sing or play, you can be in a cover or wedding band.
People love hearing songs they already know. It barely even matters if they like the song – if you whip out a great set of songs that people know, you’ll get gigs.
As a cover band, pay can vary quite a bit.
In a given city, you’ll have cover bands playing for a few hundred bucks at a local dive bar, and you’ll have professional cover bands playing for thousands of dollars at weddings and corporate functions.
When you’re involved with top-tier cover groups, you must be a complete professional. You need to know how to read charts, improvise and play to a metronome. Plus, need to have great gear, great tone and a great attitude.
All that said, top-tier cover gigs often pay as much as $500/person.
Being A Hired Gun
There are lots of opportunities to play in other people’s original or cover projects – whether you’re subbing in for a member who can’t be there or getting hired to beef up a band’s sound.
These gigs also require a high degree of professionalism. Being able to learn songs quickly, memorize them, and fit in with a group of musicians is a learned skill and takes time and practice to develop.
Busking, House Concerts & Other Gigs
There are many, many ways to make money as a performer.
If you’re in a pinch, you can busk on the street. There is a long tradition of busking and there is nothing wrong with making money this way.
House concerts can be a rewarding intimate experience, and can net you some respectable cash if they’re well-attended.
Services like Stageit and Concert Window allow you to broadcast live shows for tips and donations.
Playing festivals and private events at colleges takes a certain caliber of artist, but can be a great paycheck and a fun gig too.
2. How Do Singers Make Money – Via Merchandise
Second to live sales, artists make their income on merchandise.
Merch sales are generally driven by live performance. The more you’re playing live, the more merch you will sell.
People want to take home a piece of a concert they enjoyed, and having shirts, CDs, buttons, and other merch items allows them to do this. Sometimes, fans just want to buy things to support you!
Beyond physical items at your shows, you can be selling digital merch items.
To start with, your music should be made available for purchase on a variety of online stores, including iTunes, Amazon and other smaller stores like Bandcamp.
Some artists have special fan clubs that require a continuous subscription to be a part of. There, you are selling exclusive photos, special recordings, videos and so on.
To me, CDs, vinyl, cassettes, and other physical media is all part of merchandise.
Physical sales of vinyl have gone up considerably in the last several years, and should be looked at as a possible merch item depending on your fan base.
3. Teaching Lessons
Besides live shows and merch, music lessons are a common way to make money in music.
Often, musicians who are teaching a lot are not making as much money from live shows, and vice versa.
It can be hard to maintain a busy teaching schedule and gigging schedule, as the two responsibilities generally overlap and conflict with each other.
Music lessons pay well, starting at about $30/hour. You can either work for someone else’s studio or work out of your own studio and run your own practice.
Some people find teaching draining and others get a great amount of fulfillment and enjoyment out of it.
If you find in person singing lesson teaching tiresome, maybe try creating online lessons.
You can see an example of online lessons here and you could do something similar.
Teaching can also give you opportunities to hone your skills, refine your knowledge of theory and basics, and learn valuable lessons about interacting with all sorts of people.
4. Singers Also Earn Money Through Royalties
If you write your own songs, you can make money through royalties. There are several types of royalties, and as your career progresses, you need to make sure you’re accessing all of them. A lot of artists leave money on the table because they’re too busy to claim it.
First off, you should be signed up with a Performing Rights Organization like ASCAP, BMI, SOCAN, or whatever your country’s equivalent is. These organizations collect publishing royalties on your behalf. This includes royalties from radio, TV, mechanical sales, and sync royalties.
You need to have an account with SoundExchange as well – they collect royalties from digital music services like SiriusXM, Pandora, etc.
You should also be collecting live performance royalties. Any time you play a live performance of your original music, the venue needs to pay your royalties for this performance.
You don’t collect these royalties from venues directly, you need to submit your setlist to your PRO (Performing Rights Organization) and then they will pay you out of royalties they’ve collected from venues.
Spend an afternoon getting all of your royalty channels set up. It will pay dividends for years to come.
5. Session Work/Songwriting/Composing
Doing work for other artists and/or doing commissioned work for television and film can yield some of the best paychecks for artists.
As your career moves ahead, there are lots of ways to make money working on other people’s art.
If you’re building a home studio, you can do a lot of work on the side.
You can make demos for people, record lo-fi EPs, work on production and pre-production with artists that look up to you, get into mixing or mastering – etc.
The world of production is becoming more accessible as software and hardware continue to improve. You can build yourself a basic home studio for under $500 and can build a killer home studio for a few thousand dollars.
As you become a better engineer and more comfortable working with DAW software, a whole bunch of musical grunt work becomes available: editing drums and other performances, tuning vocals, prepping files – all of this work needs to be done and pays fairly well.
Of course, if you are a talented musician who brings something to the table on a recording, you will likely start to get session work too.
Well-paid session work is somewhat hard to come by, as it’s usually a few key players in a scene that get all the work. But there is always room for a scrappy, talented player.
Start by playing in a bunch of live bands, and you’ll eventually get to play on people’s demos, and then on their recordings.
Being a good session player is an art, and if you get good, you’ll get work.
If you’re mainly a songwriter, you should start co-writing with people in your community.
Co-writing is a great exercise for your creative brain. It can also be a great way to make a little extra cash on your royalty check.
If you write a song with someone, and they end up putting that song on a record or play it live a bunch of times, you’ll start to collect royalties on it.
People who do this professionally have publishing deals, and make a salary from a publishing company, who then pitches their songs to artists and film/television.
6. Sponsorship / Ads Help Singers Make Money
As your career grows, so too will your social media following.
At some point, you’ll have to decide if you want to tap into advertising and sponsorships.
Companies love associating themselves with cool artists that share their target audience. A good partnership can be a real win for both the artist and the company.
Generally, artists get paid in cash, free products, free gear, or discounts on specialty gear.
Sometimes, a boutique guitar company will give an artist a guitar to play, just so that their guitar is being seen with that artist.
In my opinion, artists should be careful and discerning when associating themselves with other brands.
Most people these days are fairly aware of branding partnerships and are able to tell when somebody is promoting a product. Sometimes, it can ruin an image.
On the other hand, some of my favorite side musicians have a ton of sponsorships from gear companies, and that seems cool to me.
The drummer in my band has a stick sponsorship, which is great. He gets free sticks, they get free promotion on social media every once in a while.
You can also make money running ads before your content.
YouTube is the prime example of this – if your video has an ad running before it, you should be collecting a portion of that advertising money from YouTube. Make sure to sign up for Audiam or a similar service that makes sure you’re not leaving YouTube money on the table.
Again – be sure that you’re not losing views for the sake of a few ad dollars. YouTube does not pay well enough for me to risk losing people to a long, weird ad.
Crowdfunding is all the rage these days.
People use crowdfunding sites to raise money for tours, albums, videos, etc.
Sometimes, this money is pure profit, other times it’s more of a concerted effort to pre-sell CDs and merch before making the investment out of pocket.
Either way, if you’re strapped for cash, there is no shame in using a crowdfunding service. People want to support you, and you are giving them a way to do that.
There has also been a resurgence in benefactors supporting artists.
Hundreds of years ago, rich people and royalty would pay musicians and writers to create music and present for both them and the public.
This model died out, but is experiencing a resurgence.
Don’t ask me how to track down a wealthy person that wants to give money to a musician though, because I do not know.
8. Grants Are Another Revenue Stream For Singers
If you are making original music, you would be remiss not to explore various granting agencies in your area.
Depending on your location, you may be able to access arts funding for sound recordings, touring, videos, marketing and more.
Grants are not always “income” per se, because they often have to be paid back.
But they are a very real way to supplement your income and offset the many costs associated with creating art.