Six Tips To Avoid A Life Of Poverty As a Musician

Passenger busking
Arcade Photo

 

A common misperception about life as a musician, or even working in the music industry, is that no one ever makes any money. Or not enough to live on, anyway.

Not so. Well, there definitely are a LOT of people out there who aren’t making enough money from music, but that’s not for lack of opportunity. It’s because they are sticking to the old record label industry model. Write some songs > record them > release them > make a heap of merch to sell at shows > spend a heap of money on publicity & marketing > tour like crazy > burnout > do it all again > maybe pick up some licensing opportunities along the way. It’s a treadmill that rarely delivers the goods anymore.

The key to living the dream and growing a sustainable career in music in the digital era is income diversity.

Musicians and people working in this industry must develop a range of diverse income streams to guarantee a sustainable career. A lot of younger musicians aren’t aware of the plethora of opportunities available, and are bullishly (and fruitlessly) slogging through that aforementioned old model with little cash to show for it. Or, more likely as releasing music and touring is so pricey, they end up with negative funds and a sense of defeat.

But there are other ways to make money through music: session work, education, DJ gigs, event work, composing, songwriting for others, busking (The Pierce Brothers sold 30 000 CD’s busking in Melbourne!), corporate gigs and SO many more. There are people all across the industry who are making a living solely from music. Some you may have heard of, but some you probably haven’t. Each of them is a living testament to the fact that being a rockstar isn’t necessarily what it’s cracked up to be – and it definitely isn’t, generally speaking, where the money is. These are regular people, just like you or me, and they’ve waved goodbye to the day job for good in favour of music work across a range of diverse avenues.

That’s not to say that just signing yourself up for a few different odd jobs is going to keep you out of Mi Goreng-and-Vegemite-toast-country. To unpack what it takes to live off music alone, we asked our friends who are living that dream about how they got there.

1. YOUR ATTITUDE PROBABLY SUCKS, SO CHANGE IT

Skotty Fairclough, a musician who goes by the monikor Hey Skotty, lives the philosophy of income diversity: he’s also a tutor, an artist, he works on festivals, he rents sound & production gear… the list goes on. For Skotty, refusing to rely on that aforementioned “old model” is the only way he’s able to live solely off his music endeavours. The lynchpin of his approach is his attitude: Skotty sees every part of each kind of work that he does as being just as creatively fulfilling as working on his own tunes, and he encourages other artists to let go of their preconceived notions and do the same.

“If you are creative and that’s what you want to do, just do it or you will forever wonder what could have been. It’s not about the money, it’s about going for it and letting the unknown take you on a life long journey of freedom money could never buy,” he says.

“It’s about creating your own destiny, not having a boss, experiencing life’s extremes of highs and lows, living in cars, finding money when you have none, experiencing the generosity of strangers and channeling those moments back into your art. It’s the travel, the adventure, finding doorways only such a life of unknown certainty could open. Problem solving, overcoming adversity and reflecting how far you have come from where you began.”

If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, but I just wanna create my own music, maaaaan – I don’t wanna do things on someone else’s terms, then Fairclough has stern (but very sound) advice for you:

“Don’t avoid the hard tasks or ignore important business aspects of your career on the basis that ‘I just like being creative’. That’s the difference between music as a career and music as a hobby. You will waste a great deal of time and money with this attitude but it won’t be apparent until they are both gone. If you are hoping a record label is going to pluck you from obscurity, stop wasting your time and educate yourself enough to be that person. There are likely to be few people in this world whose dream is cleaning up your affairs whilst you just write songs and have fun. Of those who might hold those dreams, they would then have to specifically like your music and have the means to do what they say. In the instance you do find that someone who’s dream is to boost your career by looking after your affairs, respect them and work closely rather than leaving it all up to them! Should anything happen, you’ll be stuck with a career you never learned to manage yourself.”

The bottom line according to Fairclough? “Ask yourself what you really want for your life outside of music and set the course for both accordingly.”

Stephanie Linsdell, of Quintessential Doll, also stresses the importance of having a clear-cut, positive attitude in order to manoeuvre around the world of income diversity. “One mindset shift that I have deliberately made over the past couple of years is to think of my music career as my MAIN hustle, and my other [music-related] jobs as my SIDE hustles (even though those jobs bring more $$$). This has kept me motivated to keep working on my music career.”

Of course, when we talk about musicians and the way they view their own careers and finances, we have to remember these decisions are rarely made in a social vacuum. It can be tempting for those in bands, or acts with other members in them, to prioritise the group. While admirable, it’s important not to let this overshadow your own plans for long-term stability, Fairclough asserts.

“If you form a band, have united goals but keep in perspective your careers in the long run are all separate of each other and you should take care of your own first and foremost. Be open to multiple streams of income and use your natural talents in other areas (such as art, in my case) to help your cause be it financially or in forwarding opportunities.”

Brett Gadenne from electro/world outfit Dubarray agrees. “You have to be versatile. If you choose to only head down one stream of the career eg. write a CD and tour on it, sometimes it may not be enough unless you get maximum radio support. If there is something else you have a passion for, and you can integrate music within this to make an income, give it a try. When we became full time musicians it was more work than I thought. To live your dream, you tend to work harder then a normal 9 to 5 job. I have never worked harder in my life – but I also have never been happier.”

Joe Hanson, bassist for iconic Aussie band Grinspoon, counts himself one of the lucky few whose income from performing, recording & touring makes up the bulk of his income and has for some time now. But even he knows that what served him well in the past can’t cut the mustard anymore, and has taken up working in production & stage management across national and NZ festivals: “Musicians need to be adaptable (and not too precious) if they want to have a sustainable career. Jumping on the other side of the fence like I have with the festival work has been an eye opener, and things like teaching can be rewarding- identify your strengths and diversify- you probably have more skills and talents as a muso than you realise!”

Saia Hanlon, of popular Gold Coast hip-hop/soul/jazz act the Hanlon Brothers, also has a kick up the butt for aspiring full-time musos. “Work hard – and smart! I know musicians have a tendency to be lazy, but you need to work on your product in a way that’s going to aid your success. Our father was an 8 hour a day practice guy and he was hands down one of Australia’s greatest drummers at the time. But he always struggled with getting gigs – because he had an old mind set, that if you work hard on your craft people the work will come. It’s not true. We now see that as working hard, but not smart. My brothers and I took his work dedication though and made it work for us. We split the hours into practice/bookwork/playing/promoting and all the rest.”

While it’s true that income diversity has many upsides, it’s prudent to remember that some income streams may have a very specific shelf life. “For me personally, it’s been really important to try new things out and not limit myself to only doing one thing at a time,” says Kristy Lee Peters aka KLP, who hosts House Party weekly on triple j as well as being a producer and DJ in her own right. “Some income stream areas have an expiry date and run their course, but if you’re ok with being flexible then there is always a new venture that you can explore.” [See KLP’s mentor videos here]

2. BE A MATE, BUT STAY FOCUSED

In such a “small world” industry – the kind where everyone knows everyone – it’s important to stay involved, connected, and friendly across all your pursuits. Or, as Fairclough puts it, “Don’t be a dick… repeat… don’t be a dick. The arse you kick today WILL absolutely be the arse you kiss tomorrow. In this business, being easy to be around is a huge advantage, more so than being talented. Be a person of their word and maintain an upbeat optimism if even only as a business strategy. A good vibe in itself spreads and returns opportunities ten fold. Remember names and don’t stuff around; Everybody likes hearing their own name – it personalises the relationship and the less you screw people around turning up late, or acting like a diva, the more people on all levels of the music industry will take you seriously.”

Julz Parker, of the band Hussy Hicks, has lived off her income from musical endeavours since she was a teenager, and knows the value of a healthy reputation. “Make friends with other people in the industry. It’s better for everyone, and Australia isn’t that big of an industry so you’ll probably be in each others lives for a long time. It’s amazing how many of these friends keep at whatever they’re doing and after a few years you’ll be surrounded by friends who are kicking ass and you’ll have a great time working together.” Ross McLennan agrees, encouraging those who dream of living off music full time to “share a house, office, or carpool” with other industry folk to help forge these connections.

Of course, in a perfect world, such connections would solely be made in the pursuit of friendship and niceties – but it’s important to view each new relationship for what it really is: a business opportunity, says Fairclough. “See every chance meeting as a potential stepping stone toward the next opportunity. Set goals and have intention; read motivational books to boost your aspirations and keep a diary of goals close by to routinely reaffirm what you want and why you want it. Find good mentors and study their success, but don’t measure your own success’s against theirs – success and the pathway to it varies dramatically from individual to individual.”

 

3. STAY IN SCHOOL, KIDS

They say that those that can’t teach do, but “they” couldn’t be more wrong. Bill Palmer is a guitarist, musician, composer, producer and educator who has lived entirely off income from music since 2000, and is currently clocking six figures a year. For him and many others, music education is the most dependable income stream, making up roughly 85% of his revenue.

“Music education and live music performance are the two areas that have been ultra-dependable for me and have allowed me to pay my way through life – including purchasing a home, cars, starting and funding my own business enterprises, recording expenses etc,” says Palmer.

For Ross McLennan, education also makes up in excess of 80% of his music-only income. McLennan is so dedicated to income diversity that he even has different revenue streams within the generalised umbrella of education: he teaches in the University of Canberra music degree running at TAFE’s Brisbane campus, writes course units for the degree, hosts guest lectures, won an academic research award, is co-developing a MOOC on song-writing, and privately tutors one production student per week. “Teaching [is] by far the most lucrative thing for me, then composition, then course writing, MOOC development, research then royalties, then way down at the bottom, CD and downloads and gigging.”

Similarly, Stephanie Linsdell teaches music as an employee in schools as well as running her own music teaching business, and has become an expert at juggling her education work with her own music projects through lots of planning and strategizing. “I’ve found a way to make this work for me,” she asserts. “I start by figuring out how much money I need to make to live and make music, and then work out how much time I need to spend each week teaching to make the income. Over the years the amount has changed, as I’ve adjusted accordingly to life events and project ambitions.

“In my current situation, I need to work the equivalent of a full-time working week but I also know that I also need enough time in the week to work on my own music. The teaching jobs are draining and it takes discipline to get up early and work on my music on the days I’m not teaching. Some weeks are harder than others, and I do allow myself the occasional days off – or else I wouldn’t be able to cope! I think the trick to making this work is a shift of mindset – I still consider the days that I’m not teaching as work days. I try to create a to do list to make sure I spend those days productively, instead of just going down the YouTube rabbit hole.”

Independent contemporary artist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and educator Francesca De Valence also asserts that teaching is her most lucrative stream. Last year, she limited her teaching hours in order to focus on her I Heart Songwriting Club, a global online support platform and community for songwriters of all levels around the world based on weekly songwriting tasks – and found that her income varied significantly with this change. “After expenses, last year’s taxable income was less than half what I’d earnt the year before; the figure dropped drastically as I dropped my teaching hours significantly to make room for creative work and project building.” This is not to say that focusing on passion projects is a bad idea – not even slightly – simply that it’s prudent to be financially aware and prepared for fluctuations in income when you make this decision.

If you possess a level of knowledge & experience high enough, you might consider becoming a mentor as another source of income. However, it may not be a sufficient one. “Mentoring pays well but isn’t as consistent as private tuition,” says Fairclough. “At a guess I’d say I’m making money from 75% tuition, 25% other. I could live a tight existence off of music tuition alone with the opportunity to play live and raise more income, but live work is hard on the mind and body after too much time on the road so the additional branding jobs are a nice change and fund a comfy lifestyle.”

Brisbane singer/songwriter Emma Bosworth’s approach to music education is more relaxed. Half her music-related income comes from “explorative music lessons” that she gives to a private class of three sisters each Saturday morning. “The girls already get formal music lessons (cello, piano etc) so their parents wanted me to come and show them how to have “fun” with the formal training they were having,” Bosworth explains. “So I’ve taught them how to transcribe contemporary songs and play them on cello, we’ve created music portfolio books together, taken promo photos, shown them how to photo edit, we write songs together – I teach them about choruses and rhyming, we explore simple home recording systems, and occasionally attempt to play in a band together…. ALL THE RAD STUFF! I I’d love to start working with more families if it can fit in with my own family’s needs (I have a little one too), it reminds me to keep having fun with music too.”

Despite being potentially and occasionally gruelling, stepping into the role of a music educator is incredibly creatively fulfilling for Fairclough (and many others). “Seeing another musician discover who they really are, what their imagination looks and sounds like and seeing them then grow to offer the world more musical pleasure; albeit with the characteristics of your own sound incorporated as their teacher… It’s being influential not just as a musician but as a human who chases their dreams when so many bury them out of fear of failure,” he says.

4. DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE CORPORATE GIG

Despite how lucrative education can be, let’s not forget the humble gig – or rather, the not-so-humble gig. Corporate gigs, covers gigs and corporate songwriting & production signal “selling out” to some, but that attitude is dying quickly for the simple reason that it’s not that relevant anymore.

Graham Moes no longer fears the idea of “selling out”. “Playing bars isn’t always the most fun thing in the world, but there are plenty of venues and booking agents to choose from, so you can choose the gigs that feel good to you. It’s a fantastic way to hone your craft and test new music in a (mostly) low-pressure environment. I do a lot of vocal looping, so it’s quite easy to lay down a groove, play DJ and just make good-vibe loops and even invent songs as you go.

“That’s apart from all the useful business / social / life skills that come from managing your own sole-trader business. And finally, of course, the pay is much better than what you earn at Woollies. You get to do the thing you love and make money from it? People commonly go their whole lives without having that opportunity!”

The Hanlon Brothers, local to the Gold Coast, separate their income from live gigs into three different stems: corporate (including private gigs, weddings, galas and more), originals performances, and resident weekly performances, with a set largely made up of covers. For Saia Hanlon, the most lucrative income stream overall comes from corporate gigs and residencies – totalling almost 70% of his total revenue. “You don’t have to be Beyonce, Jay Z or Coldplay to make a living off music. We’ve made a living on the Gold Coast – a place people like to say the most uncultured city in the country.”

Dubbaray also named corporate gigs as being their biggest cash cow, as does electro-soul artist Graham Moes: “Covers gigs, specifically corporate functions and weddings are the most lucrative, especially if you can claim a niche. For example, maybe you play upbeat soul music on a cello, or you’re a vocal looping soul / pop / reggae singer – something a little apart from the majority.”

It’s important to note that all acts mentioned here maintain a highly respected profile in their scenes – proving that going corporate isn’t necessarily going to create a black mark against your credibility.

Singer/songwriter Andrea Kirwin encourages aspiring artists not to turn their nose up at opportunities like café and bar gigs, because of the exposure and potential opportunities it can lead to – but only if it fits your branding. “I continue to play at cafes and bars to promote my music because it is not the kind of music that gets commercial radio play. I am my own radio station. Often, playing the smaller bar shows leads to playing private shows. Last New Year’s, I played a 5 hour private show and earnt my biggest pay check of the year. So it pays to play the smaller shows and be open to connecting with people.”

That’s not to say you should ever undercut yourself or allow yourself to be exploited in any way. “The vibe of a venue and the friendliness of the staff have a direct impact on how much I enjoy a gig,” Kirwin says. “And if they offer food to the musicians or not. My favourite shows are the ones where I feel valued. If I don’t feel valued, I don’t return to the venue. I play at over 30 venues just on the Sunshine Coast alone.” And if you’re going to engage in the world of corporate dollars, be sure you know your worth and avoid screwing yourself over. “Don’t be scared to raise your price yearly,” notes Hanlon. “Remember, your prices also reflect the industry we’re all in. We may never meet personally but we’re in a sense working for the same ‘boss’.”

“People come to you and ask how much you charge,” Moes adds. “That can be scary for some but consider the speciality of what you do, the quality of how you do it, and all the time involved with the gig (preparation, driving, loading/setting up). It’s quite common for musicians to undervalue the work they do, but when you become aware you can earn a very decent sum for these gigs.”

Samantha Morris, editor and founder of Gold Coast street press Blank GC, is an incredibly active member of the music community and has noticed an uptick in musicians who are willing to take on corporate gigs. “I think [musicians have] come to realise that it’s one thing to be purist when it comes to your music, but it’s an entirely different thing to be actively turning down high-paying gigs. Some of those corporate gigs pay four or five times the amount a small venue or cafe will pay.

5. THE ICING ON THE CAKE – BEYOND MUSIC SALES

Yep, you read that right. While many budding musos might dream of making bank from song royalties, it’s often the hardest way to make any kind of real coin. “My original music sales have been more of an ‘icing on the cake’ type income and while it’s nice to have, I don’t depend on it,” says Bill Palmer. “If I was relying on this exclusively, I wouldn’t be able to make a realistic income at all.”

Of course, if you diversify the kinds of music you’re writing – and who you’re writing for – that can change things. Among his many other teaching and music pursuits, Ross McLennan also composes music for a company called Whistling Wolf that creates ads and branded content for companies, ultimately making up 10% of his total income.

That number can be much higher when you sign synchronization (with film, TV, ads etc) deals for your music, according to The Sound Pound’s Tyler McLouglin. “Just a really rough idea, in terms of independent artists, a 12 month advertising campaign across maybe TV, radio, cinema, online, could be anywhere from $15k to $70k,” she told triple j’s Hack last year. “It’s not just a cash grab [though], you’ve got to be able to make sure it’s actually going to work for you as an artist.” [See Tyler’s mentor video’s here]

There’s much to be said for creativity when it comes to income diversity: there could be ways to combine your own personal skills with music to generate revenue that you might never have considered. Take Perth performer/artist Bowzer Destroyer of Worlds for example, who found a unique way to generate royalties by performing male stripping routines to his own music. Though the revenue generated isn’t all that much, at 5% of his total income it’s nothing to be sneezed at – and it’s hard not to admire the ingenious industriousness of it all.

6. LET’S GET FISCAL – MANAGING YOUR FINANCES

Of course, on your way to becoming a For Real Full Time Musician, there are going to be financial road-bumps and things to watch out for on the way. It takes a savvy, organized mind with a knack for saving to get there. We have a very helpful Tax and Book-Keeping Course to help you with that!

If you’re not wired to think in numbers and spreadsheets and forward projections, there’s still hope: you just have to remember that you’re running a business and act accordingly. Save for the future and keep your personal and professional finances separate.

Says Stephanie Linsdell, “Every business needs financial investment, so I also budget how much I invest from the income I get from my teaching jobs into my music career. It’ll be really nice if royalties/gigs were enough to pay for the cost of making art, but I’m not at that stage, so I have a specific amount that I put into a separate savings account each month. Any costs incurred in the music career will have to come out of that specific savings account; I think it’s good to separate that from my “normal life” bank account.

Lindsell also warns against the (albeit very tempting) credit card. “Very early in my career I made the mistake of getting into credit card debt in my attempts at creating music; when I finally cleared the debt I learnt my lesson. Now I budget first – make sure there is income invested in the project – and then spend.”

So how do you get motivated to start acting all business-like if that’s not really you? “START RIGHT NOW!” says Fairclough. “Pay more attention in maths if you’re still in school. Do a small business course. Learn about money, managing and don’t be deterred by those who tell you pursuing music is a waste of time; they are just made differently to you. No matter what you chose to be you will never be it without consciously working on it so you might as well focus on what you really want. Starting anything in life is the hardest part, and only once you take that step can the path reveal itself one piece at a time. Take the leap and make it work no matter what, believe it, have the will, find a way and leverage the life long consequences of not pursuing your passion.”

Another financial consideration it’s important to keep in mind – especially if you’re looking to clock out of the 9 to 5 setup permanently – is the Great Music Industry Drought. That’s a name I just made up for the hellishly quiet and barren stretch of time in the music industry from December to March each year. Radio programmers, presenters, industry and record label types, musicians bloggers – they all go on holidays within this period, effectively hindering their own (and each other’s) ability to create revenue from music. “Save money for the quiet spell – ouch, it’s still hurting,” De Valence notes. She does take pains to mention, though, that lack of funds should not limit your drive or ambition: “[But] don’t be too frightened of not having enough money – it may limit any risks you might take to be apart of something soul-filling.”

All around the country, artists are finding ways to save money, ultimately giving them more power over the creative process. “We spent close to $20k on our last studio album,” says Saia Hanlon, a cost so steep it motivated The Hanlon Brothers to take matters into their own hands.

“We built our own recording/rehearsing studio after that. We thought, why not invest in our own studio and then we can record and rehearse for free? We also teach from that studio, each band member has a space to teach from, which pays for the studio and puts money into each member’s pocket as well. We also record other artists and sessions on their albums too.”

It’s a great idea, but for most, unachievable without practicing some old-fashioned scrimping by first. “I think the most important thing is keeping your base living expense low and learning to live within your means,” says Julz Parker. “Enjoy the experiences you get on the road but also enjoy your home time. Catch up with friends at home, or in parks – not in bars – this can save you thousands a year – lets face it – we’re out so often.”

Graham Moes agrees. “While you’re earning your way with music it’s important to still be smart about your earnings. Save up, invest in good equipment, spend some time learning about the financial world. Think about investing, doing the scary capitalist stuff. You absolutely can be the monk archetype and the business-man/woman archetype at the same time. There’s nothing evil about money, it’s about how you use it. Playing music can be a gift for others. Having money means you can spread your unique flavour to more people. You can give back, even spend some money on the genuine not-for-profit organisations that help the world. Be the healer, but be the lucrative trader so you can grow your gift and your message.”

_________

Above all else, it’s important to remember that building a lucrative, sustainable career in any industry takes time. Bill Palmer credits his philosophy of consistent self-improvement with getting him to where he is today. “Nobody wants to hear this these days, but [it could take] 10 years to get really good. There’s nothing wrong with that. There are many dreamers/delusional types in this business and the best way to set yourself apart is to be the best at what you do. Quality will speak for itself.”

If the thought of waiting another decade before you’re a full time muso makes you recoil in horror, take a little bit of wisdom from legendary artist Jewel, who entirely on the back of her own ambition and persistence went from being a homeless fifteen year old girl to a superstar. “I began to develop mindfulness exercises in an attempt to have a better relationship with showing up now. Because fear’s a thief, and it takes the past and projects it onto the future, and it robs you of the only opportunity you have to create change.” Through that mindset, she turned what began as a regular five hour set at a struggling coffee shop in front of two, four, seven people into a song in the Top 10 countdown of 91X FM and multiple record deal offers. We’re not saying that’s going to happen to you, but you don’t have to be Jewel to have that same hustle, that same drive to simply engage with music on any level available to you. And hey, if all the people in this article can make their living solely from music, why can’t you?

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4 thoughts on “Six Tips To Avoid A Life Of Poverty As a Musician”

  1. These are great tips you got here. I used to play with my friends on the street. We were not asking for money but playing in public is so much fun, people jamming with our band and sometimes join us singing. But life gets really hard and we have to stop so I hope these young musicians will take note of your tips here.

  2. Robert Casement

    ‘He rents sound & production gear’ is your first example of a musician. 99.9% now have to work day jobs and are NOT MUSICIANS. They are hobbyists and there is a huge difference between a Professional musician and a hobbyist. When people can’t support themselves with music they have to go get a DAY JOB. Does this affect the quality of music nowadays? Of course it does. I have many friends in the Beatles camp who know that working full time on music makes a huge difference in how good the music is. Can you imagine John as a Plumber, Paul as a cab driver and George as a gradener making Sgt. Pepper on no budget up in Ringo’s bedroom using a drum machine? How good would that be? Time for the people to wake up and realize that FREE MUSIC and not paying the artist anything for his work is the reason why we have such dreadful music nowadays. The fans have only themselves to blame for this!

  3. Ralph Newcome

    Wow!!!
    This is some of the BEST and most realistic advise for ANYONE interested in music as a career or a sideline, although I’m on the long-toothed side for making a realistic living at it , this is hands down Awesome advise and writing.
    Thanks to ALL involved , great work! 👍

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