Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Five Degrees of Separation in Music Income

After reading too many posts by non-musicians about how musicians should give their recorded music away for free and then make their money selling something else, I decided to create a "degrees of separation" chart. If you create music and also have an income stream from something, you are likely to fall somewhere along this continuum.

At one end, you make music and profit directly from it. And at the other end, you make music and don't make any money from it. Both of those options, and everything that falls in-between, are acceptable.

If you look at your two goals (to make music and to make enough money to pay your bills), you can combine them into a variety of different ways. Ask yourself (1) what allows you the most time to make the music you want to make and (2) what allows you to make the most money. What mix of skills can you bring to your career planning which will provide you the optimum level of creative activity and income?

And if you have a spouse and kids, you've also got to factor in those obligations. Maybe you would love to travel the country to expand your fan base, but if you aren't making enough money to take your family along, you may find the sacrifice is too great. So between music, income, and personal goals, you've got to combine them in some mix that works best for you. More than likely, you'll compromise somewhere, but that's what this blog post is about. It's okay to compromise. Most people do.

Here's my chart:

No degree of separation: Sell your music.
This includes selling your recorded music, performing live, working as a studio musician, and so on. You are being paid directly as a musician.

One degree of separation: Sell stuff related to your music.
A lot of people talk about this as a way to make a living in today's music environment. The idea is that your music will make you a brand. Then you'll use that brand to sell goods and services around your music. If you are popular enough and good enough at marketing, this might work for you.

Here are two examples:
  • Jimmy Buffett’s Business Empire
  • Sammy Hagar's Tequila Dreams

  • Two degrees of separation: Use your existing music to sell other people's stuff.
    Using your music for marketing doesn't have to be limited to items you're selling directly to fans. After all, a lot of musicians don't want to bother with developing a line of products to sell. An alternative can be letting your music sell another company's product. Often what happens is that you have a song already out, the company likes it, and you make a deal. But you could also approach a company and work out a partnership where you provide the music and they provide the goods and services to sell.

    This level of music income covers everything from licensing your music to having corporate sponsors. But in each case, you've already written the music for your own use and then you use it to market someone else's goods and services.

    Some examples:
  • Olympics GM Commerical with Brandi Carlile
  • "Bacardi approached us and, we found out later, they had tried so many songs for that commerical. A slew of tons, and songs, and knew 'Daylight' was the one which stood out and worked more than any others." "Interview: Matt and Kim," Alter The Press! 2/6/09.
  • More stories of bands whose songs have been used in commercials: Selling Out to Survive.

  • Three degrees of separation: Write music specifically to sell other people's stuff.
    While people have gotten used to artists having their music licensed for ads, it's still not as common for artists to write music specifically for commercials. Of course, there have always been people who do this for a living (one of the more famous musicians who was also a jingle writer was Barry Manilow) but it's not nearly as common as just having a pre-written song in a commercial.

    Two examples:
  • Robert Schneider, singer/songwriter for The Apples in Stereo, also does commercial work-for-hire.
    For Schneider, who's worked both sides of the fence, he relishes the opportunity to release his inner Tin Pan Alley songsmith and write on demand. "It's like, 'Oh, now I have to write a song about having fun in a new pair of shoes!'" he laughs. "To me, that's a legitimate song topic. Fun in the sun? I'd write a song about that anyway.""Songs that sell," 'boards, 6/01/08.
  • Recently the band Franz Ferdinard was commissioned to write a song for an elaborate promotional campaign by Dior.

  • Four degrees of separation: Play music. Use your visibility as a musician as a way to promote your real profession.
    Now we are into the grey areas of new music business models. Some of the examples being used to illustrate how musicians can make a living are stretching the connection between music and income rather thin. I mentioned some of them here. Musicians are auctioning off their possessions, selling lunch dates, and so on.

    Basically the concept is to use music as a way to generate attention and relationships, but then sell non-music goods and services to fans. Given that concept, why stop at selling your time as a lunch date or selling stuff out of your closet? A lot of goods and services are fair game. If you have skills as a lawyer, or a plumber, or a caterer, you can use your music as your positioning and then sell services and items that people want to purchase anyway. Instead of just being a singer, or just being a plumber, you become the singing plumber. Plumbing, after all, is something people need more than having lunch with you or getting an extra t-shirt. This way you are selling something of real value, and making it more distinctive because it is coming from you, the popular musician.

  • A musical doctor.
    Carl Ellenberger, who has managed to combine a successful medical career (as a neurologist) with enough musical skill to have been principal flutist in several orchestras, beginning when he was preparing for medical school. As a student of Joseph Mariano at Eastman School of Music, Ellenberger never thought of giving up flute for medicine or vice versa. Medicine, he says, allowed him to avoid teaching music to “indifferent students” (among other things musicians do to pay the bills). And music helped him survive the stress of medical school.

    In addition, he has told me, “As a tenderfoot doctor at the bottom of the medical hierarchy, when the vast universe of medicine seemed overwhelming, regular calls for my services as a professional musician did wonders for my self-confidence.” "Musicians with two careers: Pro or con?" Broad Street Review, 12/22/09.
  • A musical priest. "Baton and Sacrament, Tools of Dual Career"
  • Blair Tindall, who interviewed a number of dual career musicians, points out, for example, that "mathematics and proportion learned through musical form may plug directly into another field, such as architecture or computing. Other musicians find more abstract uses for their musical training, citing the competitive nature of performing, the discipline of practicing and flexibility learned from irregular scheduling as among their professional assets."
    "Counseling is much like playing a symphony," says Rae Ann Goldberg, a Bay Area violinist who is also a certified marriage and family therapist in Oakland's Early Childhood Mental Health Program. "There's a rhythm. There are silences. Intensity and release."

    Goldberg completed her master's degree at the California Institute of Integral Studies after her orchestra, the Sacramento Symphony, folded in 1996. With a full schedule and increased income, she now cherry-picks only the gigs she really wants instead of accepting everything in order to survive. "Musicians add second careers to their repertoires," Los Angeles Times, 1/11/09.
  • Five degrees of separation: Play music. Don't mix it with any money-earning activity. Keep your hobby and your income-generating activities totally separate.
    This is what many "amateur" musicians do. They don't play music for income. Just for fun. And there's a lot to be said for this approach. If you don't play music for income, you don't make decisions about music based on money. Which also means, you may be more realistic about your day job, too, if that's your sole means of financial support.

    The reason I want this discussion out in the open is to get us past the idea that today's musician needs to concentrate on fan purchases for financial support. It's certainly one way to survive as a musician, but not the only way. If you can find a non-music day job that pays well, it may be far more time and cost-effective to do that than to jump through hoops looking for music-related projects you can do. Don't assume that being a musician means everything you do for money somehow has to point back to your music.

    To illustrate where I am coming from when talking about the "new music business model," let me point you to some comments I made on this MediaFuturist blog post, "Content 2.0: New Ways to Monetize," which was looking at ways to make money if you are giving away your content (which, for musicians, is usually recorded music).
    I have several thoughts in regards to music:

    1. Labels are in the content business because they already own content. But for individual musicians, it isn't really about the content business anymore.

    2. Musicians are in a relationship or service business these days. While they can sell merchandise, all the emphasis on social media plays up their relationships with fans. However, lots of other people (the vast majority of them non-musicians) are also in the relationship business and can deliver many of the same services (e.g., community).

    3. Music is a powerful force and the people who make it have something to offer. But as we pull away from selling the music directly, that means other companies can grab on to that music and link it to what they are selling. Unless there is some special reason for the fans to connect directly with the music creators, then they can have access to exactly the music they want and exactly the "reasons to buy" that they want, but not necessarily coming from the same sources.
    In essence, what I am trying to say is this:

    Just as it is possible to couple your music with non-music goods and services to generate income, it is also to possible to decouple your music from non-music sources of income.

    And this means that while you can bundle your music with t-shirts or online fan communities, so, too, can non-musicians bundle your music with their t-shirts and communities. (Even if they don't have an agreement with you, there are multiple ways to tie your music to their stuff, which most musicians like anyway as a way to get extra exposure.)

    In other words, there's no rule that says a musician's music is going to automatically be linked with the musician's source of income. They can, and often are, two entirely different worlds. And sometimes it makes financial sense to approach it this way. Don't get so caught up in what you can do to make money from your music that you fail to see what you can do to make money from any source. Don't let people convince you that if you aren't making your living from your music, you aren't a REAL musician. Do what you have to do to survive.

    @slainson on Twitter

    UPDATE, 2/17/10
    I wanted to move one of my comments from the comments section into the blog post itself to further explain my reason for writing "Five Degrees of Separation."
    Some of what is being called Music 2.0 isn't really about music. When Amanda Palmer auctions off her personal possessions, it isn't any more about music than having a day job selling stuff on eBay. True, music has made Palmer a celebrity, but what she is doing to generate income can be done by anyone, in any profession, who has a degree of fame.

    So I'm trying to explain that in situations like this we aren't talking about music, we are talking about marketing and celebrity. Getting a spot on reality TV is probably a faster route to celebrity than doing music. That's the reason for the "degrees of separation." At each stage you get further and further from earning your living directly from music. So at some point it makes sense to accept that the money isn't coming from music and quit trying to pretend that it is.
    UPDATE, 3/9/10
    While owning a restaurant might not necessarily be a more profitable side business than music, here are some people who are doing that.
    Ten Musician-Owned Restaurants


    1. I love this article! Your chart is very important to think about for many artists who should make up their minds. Understanding where YOU want your money to come from can make your marketing efforts that much more effective.

      I enjoy making money from my music. The process of thinking for me changed when I looked back at an outdated business plan and wondered how can my music work for me. No degree of separation was nice making money in regards to studio work. Then Two degrees of separation felt very relevant as well.

      I enjoyed direct and indirect methods of promotion. My band site was more for album promotion, exploring sponsorships. My other web sites promoted music indirectly with a larger focus on affiliate promotion. Defining the distinct differences and testing different methods of promotion allowed me to create plans and achieve the specific goal I wanted.

      I am a total believer in "Don't let people convince you that if you aren't making your living from your music, you aren't a REAL musician. Do what you have to do to survive."

      I was able to find a nice blend and uncover different passions I had by experimenting with different web projects. Creating and Marketing music online is my passion. I'm seeing music being sought out in a more small niche fashion and enjoy the fact of how easy it is to be a "startup" and gain relevance very quickly.

      Nice article Suzanne.

    2. great post - there's a lot of content out there about the music industry, this is quality.

    3. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



    4. I enjoyed your blog post. It is too informative!!


    5. It's an interesting point of view, as always, but I think it goes just a wee bit too far to be helpful.

      Seriously, very few musicians actually have to be told that they can pursue music as an unpaid hobby - that's what the majority of us have been doing all our lives. What we're looking for is ways to make money making music.

      I'll try and put my point of view across in a more detailed fashion over at my blog. My main niggle isn't with the main body of the post, but with its conclusions.

    6. I wrote it because some folks (mostly those who aren't actually in music) are saying that the death of the major label system has resulted in so many opportunities for musicians.

      There are many opportunities to record and distribute music, but given that so many people are doing it, the available fan money is getting sliced up into smaller and smaller pieces. So the environment hasn't changed for most musicians.

      Rather than telling people how to make money with their music, I'm telling them to continue to look beyond music for income. It's I point I think needs to be made to keep people's expectations realistic.

      I know that people who have lived this already know all of the above. But unfortunately a lot of people who are new to this think that if they do a lot of interaction with their fans, everything will fall into place for them.

      The level of competition in music makes the "1000 fans," modest though it is, difficult to achieve for most.

    7. love this article!

    8. Also, I should add that some of what is being called Music 2.0 isn't really about music. When Amanda Palmer auctions off her personal possessions, it isn't any more about music than having a day job selling stuff on eBay. True, music has made Palmer a celebrity, but what she is doing to generate income can be done by anyone, in any profession, who has a degree of fame.

      So I'm trying to explain that in situations like this we aren't talking about music, we are talking about marketing and celebrity. Getting a spot on reality TV is probably a faster route to celebrity than doing music. That's the reason for the "degrees of separation." At each stage you get further and further from earning your living directly from music. So at some point it makes sense to accept that the money isn't coming from music and quit trying to pretend that it is.

    9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    10. Is there any way I can earn extra income with music, like by playing in commercials or something?

    11. Doing music for commercials is possible. You can either get your already written songs to companies that might use them or you can write music specifically for advertising. But getting connected to the right people can be a challenge. If you want to compose for commercials, you might start by looking for companies or studios that do that kind of work.

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    13. i like "four degreee of separation the most of all.
      nice post on music philosphy :)
      best regards:

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