Glitter and poverty: a little more about how modern musicians make their living

We are completing our short cycle of articles on how the digital revolution has influenced the earnings of musicians, and what to do with it now – what are the alternative sources of income.

Today we will talk about three ways to make money and give examples from the industry.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin / Unsplash

So, once again we note for those who have just joined us. We began the cycle of materials about the earnings of musicians with a review of the situation as a whole and tried to speculate on what the digital revolution led to in terms of real opportunities for earning money on music.

This material caused an active reaction and discussion in the comments, so we decided to continue the story. But already with a much larger number of examples of who among real musicians finds alternative ways to improve their financial condition – from “normal” work to tours and side projects. Next – expand this list.

Operate your brand

With the advent of the Internet and streaming platforms, albums have become much more accessible – in every sense of the word. There is an opinion that modern music should not be expensive and be the main “product” of music groups. The brand that the group develops is much more important and easier to monetize. This is how production projects bring profit, which in the first place is a reality show for fans, and the second is a musical product.

People go crazy with Korean boy bands, and sweep goods off the shelves where their name can be found. They are so popular that famous brands from the world of fashion are fighting for the right to associate with their music. In total, fans of such groups spend over one hundred million dollars on licensed souvenirs annually. They literally pay for the right to carry advertising on their bodies. This is an absolutely win-win situation.

We can recall about a dozen groups, which many know about the existence of only through t-shirts and other branded products. One of them is the Norwegian project Burzum. Difficult for perception album Filosofem became part of popular culture, because the T-shirts with its cover were at one time popular among teenagers.

To make money on T-shirts, you need to invest a lot of money in the cultivation of a commercially attractive image. Group members should be the subject of interest of the media. Sometimes interest can be very negative – for example, Burzum vocalist became “famous” for setting fire to churches and killing a colleague. But this is an extreme situation.

Most likely, the musician will have to spend money on professional media production and content marketing. Creating a celebrity "from scratch" so that an interest in an individual is shown independently of her creative contribution is not an easy task. In the end, it can be even more difficult than just “spin up” the music.


If you really need money, you can always ask them directly from the fans. With the advent of platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, this has become more convenient than ever. Even well-known musicians resort to crowdfunding just to pay back the recording of the album.

Photo by Melissa Walker Horn / Unsplash
Hip-hop legends of the 90s De La Soul collected 600 thousand dollars in this way. To attract funds, they also had to use their brand – the fans who supported the group received a variety of souvenirs and even the opportunity to meet with the performers personally.

You can also, bypassing the crowdfunding platforms, open the pre-orders of the album a year before its release, and use the proceeds to pay for the recording and production.

However, no crowdfunding is likely to help the beginning group. To gather an audience capable of providing financial support, it will take a lot of money, effort and time.

Fifteen thousand people pay "salary" to Amanda Palmer with the help of Patreon service – but these people probably would not have known about her if it were not for the success of her previous work.

Commercial music

The easiest way to write music and get money for it is to arrange payment in advance. This is possible when you write music for advertising and movies.

Many musicians in their free time are busy doing just such a job. Evgeny Fedorov from the Tequillajazz group makes a living by creating soundtracks for TV shows about police officers. Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood has become a respected film composer – his work has been nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes. Of course, not all musicians have a talent for writing film music. It may be easier for them to try their hand at advertising.

Music in advertising is, as a rule, ready-made tracks sold for advertising purposes. Such music rarely surprises or makes a deep emotional impression. Its role is to create a positive context for the presentation of the product to the audience. Therefore, with rare exceptions, promotional songs are so similar to each other.

If you write easy, digestible indie pop, and do not touch on serious, emotional topics – you should try to get into advertising. But know that you have a lot of competitors. In an attempt to popularize their work and start earning on it, many spread the music with an open license for commercial use. In our blog on Habré, we just recently talked about the whole range of such sites:

  • Where to get audio samples for your projects: a selection of 9 thematic resources
  • Music for your projects: 12 resources with tracks under Creative Commons license

The situation with the intensified struggle of musicians for the attention of brands is wonderfully illustrated by the Canadian comedian John Lajois's parody number entitled “Please use this song”.

In Japan, the situation with advertising music is slightly different: new advertising songs are written on purpose, and even popular performers do it. Siina Ringo – a singer who began collecting stadiums twenty years ago, and most likely does not need financial support, has released a lot of branded songs over the past few years.

Some served as “introductions” to television programs, and specifically this one was written for the opening of a new shopping center in Ginza. The company logo is even on the cover of the single. Such a model is sometimes copied in the West: for example, Britney Spears once released a song to advertise Pepsi. But it remains a rarity.

Now there are many ways to make money on music, but most of them are open only to accomplished musicians. It remains to hope that with time the situation will change, and professional performers will be able to spend more time on art, and less on trying to feed themselves.

What we recommend reading at the weekend:

Receivers from the USSR: a brief history of audio systems in Soviet cars
Russian radio plays: from “Baby Monitor” to “Solaris”
“Not shot”: audio projects in which something went wrong
What started and how did the record turntable history for cars end

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