Hey everyone, in this week’s post I wanted to talk to you guys about how I make a living with music.
Including my different sources of income and how I set myself up for success.
There’s still so much mystery surrounding how musicians are able to make a living. Especially ones like myself who mostly exist online, because it’s not exactly the most conventional career path!
People are often curious how I’m able to make a living doing this, and not just my audience but also by my own friends and family!
There’s just not a lot of good info out there about this. It took me a lot of digging when I first got my start to learn about these different sources of income. So I wanted to share all of this here with you guys.
Just for a quick background reference about myself, I didn’t set out to make music my career after graduating from college. The only options I saw to make a living with music was from teaching or playing in an orchestra.
How I Make a Living with Multiple Income Streams
After learning there were a lot of other ways to earn an income with it, that’s when I started down this whole path. I quit my day job, and thankfully was able to make this my full time career.
So I just want to quickly walk you through the ways that I currently earn income. As well as how some of my friends and other people I know who do this for a living earn theirs. The cool thing about this career is how many different options there are to earn income with music. Some of the other musicians I know have completely different sources of income than I do.
So for me, my main sources of income are:
- Digital Downloads, so album and single sales from iTunes, Amazon, etc
- Streaming, so that would be income from sites like Spotify, Pandora, etc
- Physical Album Sales
- Merchandise, so for me those are other physical products like t-shirts, posters, etc
- YouTube Video Advertising Revenue
- Sheet Music Sales
- Live Performances
- Brand Deals and Sponsorships
- My online educational program Musician of All Trades
- And most recently the sample library Cinesamples and I released together
Some of these are a lot more meaningful than others. When I first started digital downloads were my largest source of income. Now it’s streaming, and then a lot of the other categories fluctuate based on the year and projects I’m working on.
But some of my friends have totally different income streams than I do.
My good friend Lara de Wit currently streams on Twitch and so a large portion of her earnings come from her subscribers on Twitch.
I have friends who teach lessons online and that’s where they earn the majority of their income. Also some who earn most of their income on Patreon, it really just depends on how you set things up.
The point is, there are a lot more ways to earn a living with music than a lot of people think or even know about.
Now one thing I do want to point out is YouTube. A lot of people see that I have millions of subscribers and think “oh that must mean she’s a millionaire” and that’s not the case for me.
Still to this day, what I earn from YouTube alone wouldn’t be enough to cover my personal bills, let alone everything else I spend to make my music videos and run my overall business.
YouTube keeps 45% of your ad revenue to begin with. Since I do so many cover songs, publishers also keep an additional 15-25% of my revenue from cover songs. So if you’re monetizing those, you’re really not making much money even if you’re getting millions of views on your videos. I also release original music and the rates are a little better on those. Even though my original songs perform well on my channel, they still don’t perform as well as a lot of popular cover songs. Releasing cover songs gives you a lot of advantages for being discovered. So it’s still good to release those alongside originals even though they don’t bring in much YouTube ad revenue.
How I set up my business
My business was set up so that I’ve never have to rely only on YouTube ad revenue to support myself. I always invest that back into my business. This is why my Patreon supporters were so vital especially early on when I was building everything and had just started doing the fancier music videos.
I just want to mention all of that because I think a lot of people now go into YouTube thinking they’ll make a ton of money if they can get a certain amount of views or subscribers. And at least as a musician, that’s just not a realistic way to look at it. There are a few musicians on YouTube who are making quite a bit of money from advertising revenue on their videos. But it’s rare that it could be your only source of income.
That being said, YouTube has been an incredible platform for building my overall career. Even though it’s not brought in the most money, it’s absolutely what helped me be discovered by people who were ready to supporting me in other ways. They find me on Patreon, come to a live show, buy or stream my music elsewhere on platforms that do actually pay better, etc, so I’m obviously super grateful for it still and it’s worked for me in the way I’ve set up my business.
And that’s something else I wanted to touch on.
My Best Advice
As a piece of advice, I think most musicians nowadays need to have more than 1 source of income to make a good living. The cool thing here is that the more different sources of income you build, the more stable your career will feel.
Having more than 1 source of income, especially if it’s passive income, will give you stability in your career. Your earnings can’t all just disappear overnight.
I think it’s funny that so many people still think of being a musician as some unstable and kind of irresponsible career choice. There are a lot of things about this career that can be more stable than a traditional 9-5 job. Being an independent musician nowadays is basically like you’re running your own business as an entrepreneur.
And I know I’m saying this from the standpoint of having millions of subscribers and however many other followers on other sites. But it’s actually a small percentage of my overall audience who actually supports what I do in a financial way. That’s how it’s been ever since I started down this path years ago, and that’s how it is for pretty much everyone else earning a living from something creative online. At a certain point, the numbers are social currency vs. actual income. I just want to point that out since I know it sometimes discourages people if they think they need to have millions of people watching to make a living.
Back in 2010, I started building my audience on YouTube when I had a day job. I was also teaching violin lessons locally on the side. I quit my day job at the very end of 2011, and at that point still hadn’t made anything from YouTube. When I made my first album Gaming Fantasy in May of 2012 thankfully it got enough support to where I felt like I could keep going with music full time.
I wasn’t making much more than what I had been making at my day job at first, but it was thrilling to be making anything with music. It was an amazing feeling. Since then, I continue to build on that and now almost a decade since I started my channel I have 10 different albums out, over 30 singles, and tons of different products. It just takes time and a lot of hard work to build your career, but it’s totally doable.
My point is that you can still be making a living even if you don’t have a huge following. I didn’t have millions of followers when I first started out (and even now, just remember that millions of followers doesn’t translate into millions of supporters) but I was still able to make a good living. What I’ve been able to earn has just increased over the years as I’ve expanded my business and grown my audience, but it’s still just about the same relative percentage of my overall audience who actually directly supports my music in some way.
It is very realistic to make a living with music without having a large following. There’s a great article called “1000 True Fans” by Kevin Kelly that covers this topic in more detail. I definitely recommend checking that out because it’ll give you a whole different perspective of how many fans you actually need to make a good living doing almost anything online. If you want to read that article, just click HERE.
The last thing I want to touch on is the fact that I know a lot of artists (myself included) sometimes struggle with asking their audience to support them in some way. Sometimes they view wanting to be paid for their art as “selling out” or think that it’s somehow insincere to charge for what they’re creating. I know it can be tough to get over this mindset, but it’s absolutely critical to get out of this way of thinking if you want to earn a living with your music! Just remember that your time has real value, and if people enjoy what you’re creating, you deserve to be paid for your work.
I think if you’re self motivated, are willing to work hard, are patient and have a strong business plan for yourself, then there should be no reason why you can’t make this work.
This definitely isn’t a get rich quick kind of career. Anyone who feels like music is their calling shouldn’t go into it with money as the only motivator. If that’s the only reason they’re doing it, they’re going to burn out way before they can get to their “riches”. Being an independent musician is a lot of hard work and it takes time to build a solid career.
Anyway I hope this helped shed some light on the subject. If you are looking for some next steps for how to get started with a career as an independent musician make sure you check out my other blog with my best tips for standing out as an independent musician here.
Talk to you guys again soon!