In a scene from the biopic Ray, Ray Charles, played by Jamie Foxx, was renegotiating his contract with Atlantic Records. He wanted to keep the rights to his masters. The record execs gave that idea a hard no. He pressed it, reminding them of something they’d told him when he first signed: “You told me if I think pennies, I get pennies.” Then he added: “I’m thinking dollars, man.”
This scene captured the fundamental truth of the music business: it’s part musical talent and part practical business.
If you’re in the business—whether as a classically trained clarinetist, conductor, teacher, or garage band rock n’roller—are you thinking pennies? Dimes? Dollars?
Here are a few tried-and-true ways to use your talent to make money … maybe not the kind Ray Charles hauled in, but at least enough to say you are in the business of music.
1. Learn to Repair Instruments.
Music teachers, how many times have you heard a student complain that the instrument just won’t play? Often that’s an “operator” error, but just as often there is something wrong with it. As an artist, you know better than others that there comes a time in every instrument’s life that will go out of tune, the valves will stick, and the mouthpiece will crack. Knowing all of that and being on the front line of music, it makes sense to develop expertise in fixing instruments.
Pro tip: Periodic check-ups are essential to keep instruments in top shape, and that can create a steady income stream.
2. Share your passion with a broader audience.
Blog about it. Write about your zeal, how you developed your talent and style, and how others can follow the path you took to proficiency. If it’s of interest to you, it’s of interest to all the aficionados of your genre. Podcasts are effective for building a following as well. Invite other musicians to join you, include clips of performances or lessons; again, be imaginative. Blogs and podcasts are not direct money makers unless you gain enough followers to make them attractive to advertisers. But they are ideal for promoting yourself. Done well, they can attract people who will buy tickets to your performances, buy and download your music, buy lessons, and buy your merch.
Pro tip: Cross-promote your blog and/or podcast through social media. When you get good at that, you are good at content marketing, and that is among the best ways to reach and build your audience.
3. Produce and sell CDs.
CD sales have been on a steady decline since they peaked 20 years ago, according to Digital Music News. And they crashed when the government closed live performances in its attempt to control the spread of COVID-19. Now that the scare is over, venues are open, and people are flocking back to hear live music. And the merch table following a performance can be a profit center for selling CDs. A personalized autograph on the cover will be a memento your audience will cherish.
Pro tip: It takes time and effort, but try recording your performance and dupe CDs of it for sale right after the show. If the “tapers” at Grateful Dead concerts could figure it out, you can too.
4. Record and sell vinyl.
Vinyl record sales went up last year, overtaking the revenue generated by CDs for the first time in more than three decades. Audiophiles want the depth and clarity that compressed digital music can’t deliver. Producing an old-school record could be a great way to earn extra bucks. Record stores can’t find enough new products to keep in stock.
Pro tip: Once you get started pressing records, find a local record shop that caters to audiophiles and ask them to promote your music.
5. Don’t forget digital.
Much like CDs, digital downloads are still a dependable source of income for many independent musicians.
Pro tip: Adding an e-commerce merch table to your website is a viable revenue source. That’s why artists ranging from local tribute bands to Beyonce do it.
6. Stream your talent.
Streaming live music emerged as the only way artists could keep their music in front of their audiences during the COVID-19 era. Streams started as freebies but musicians soon began monetizing them. Now, musicians at all levels are live streaming their performances and earning money from fans who’d rather watch at home and go through the rigmarole of getting to the recital hall or stadium. Those streamed performances are also recorded performances and can be sold separately (depending on contract obligations.)
Pro tip: Scale live streaming to suit yourself. Promote a solo session in your studio across your social media, charge a reasonable price to log on to it, and see what it generates.
7. Make merch a live-show standard.
COVID is over and the music is back on. Don’t limit your thinking about where you can perform. Consider booking gigs at venues where live music is traditionally played, like bars, clubs, coffeehouses, colleges and universities, music festivals, and restaurants, as well as private events like weddings, birthdays, and corporate meetings. At-home concerts are another popular option.
Pro tip: Meet and greet your fans at the merch table and selfie line. The first trick to selling T-shirts, CDs, and other paraphernalia is getting people to stop instead of rushing out of the hall.
A Truth about Money.
Whether you’re in the music business or an owner-operator truck driver, an inviolable rule of success is, it takes money to make money. If you need a stake to get started on any of the money makers listed above, try crowdfunding. Your fans may be willing to pitch in to help you record a CD, purchase merchandise, or hire a band. A single super fan or group of them may be willing to help you out.
Pro tip: You never know until you ask.
Stop thinking like a musician and start thinking like a businessperson.
Musicians are givers, not takers. And that’s a good thing. Except when it comes to making money. Every now and then you need to take off your musician hat and put on your businessperson one. Take time to come up with ways to maximize your revenue opportunities with fans, students, and everyone with whom you interact