Economists might represent a dismal science but sometimes they have a point. Remember supply and demand? If there’s lots of demand, but not much supply then prices are really high, and vice versa.
So if you’re looking to make money out of music, remember this: there are 49 million musicians, 230 billion bits of music out there and it’s pretty much tough shit – especially in an age where reproduction of music is essentially free.
So while people often claim to be wildly passionate about the music they like, they don’t quite give enough of a shit to funnel that passion to you via their wallet. They’ll buy rip-off merchandise, download pirated tracks and leave buttons in your hat if you’re busking.
Despite all that, you can make money out of being a musician. It’s just not easy.
Become a Working Band
Pubs will pay anything up to £200 and more for a decent live band. Working men’s clubs will pay even more. To do that, you’ll have to compromise your artistic ideals, learn to play properly and have a decent quality of flugelhorn at your disposal.
You can’t just turn up at a pub with a tin whistle and a pair of coconuts. You need to be heard. That means having decent equipment. Guitar strings break, so you might want two guitars in case. You need the vocals to be heard, which means having a PA system and speakers. And possibly a lung transplant.
For a standard kind of line-up with 2 guitars, bass, vocals, crumhorn and drums, you’re collectively going to need thousands of pounds. Without this investment, you’ll never sound good enough or professional enough to get regular, decent paying gigs.
Invest Time (and more money)
If you want to be paid, you’d better be good and play at least some songs that people will recognise. So… rehearse! Unless you’re lucky, you’ll need to buy time at a rehearsal studio – where a 2-3 hour slot will cost £20-£3o (possibly less if you’re not worried about hygiene and fresh air).
Although that cost is split between your band members, that’s still £100 a month to find between you if you rehearse just once a week. It’s also a commitment in terms of time – so unless you lack friends or family, you’ll be compromising your personal life somewhere along the track.
Types of Venue
- Some pubs will let you put your own gigs on. For a fee of anything up to a £100 you can hire a room and do as you like. If you can get 50 people in paying £3 each, you’ve made a profit – albeit not much of one. If you need to hire a PA system as well, that cost could easily top £200 of sunk costs which you then have to recoup. You’d better be popular!
- Some pubs – normally ones tied to a brewery – have an entertainment budget they can use as they see fit. Generally that means anything upward of £150 a night for a decent band – but they expect the band to play for a couple of hours and do “stuff people like”. Your 8 minute concept song about the grey squirrel population won’t wash I’m afraid – but you can still chuck in your own music.
- Working Mens Clubs pay really well – a good, popular act can expect anything up to £500. For this you’ll need serious contacts and a pedigree of playing such places before. You can also forget any ideas about artistic intent – it’s covers all the way. And not just your favourite ‘grunge rock’ tracks or whatever you kids are listening to these days – we’re talking Elvis, Queen, Boney M and Pentangle.
- “Proper music venues” generally don’t pay shit. They either rely on bands to get people through the door and spend money behind the bar (in which case you might get paid in beer) or they have an entrance fee. If the latter, expect to get £1 out of every £3 that’s spent on the door. If you’re lucky. We used to play Joseph’s Well in Leeds a lot under this deal. We’d bring 15 people each paying £3 and by Carpenter’s Third Law of Thieving Doormen end up with £8 between the entire band.
Become a Working Musician
Bands are tricky things. There are egos involved and a thousand conflicting priorities that mean cancelled gigs and lost opportunities. If you can be self sufficient, then you can bypass that shit.
To do this you’ll need to be technically proficient. Very technically proficient. Bands are often based on shared attitudes and a nebulous code of rock ‘n’ roll ethics that place commitment and energy ahead of technical chops. If you want to be a hired gun, you’d better get good - and lose your ego.
And it’s not good enough just to be ace at playing your instrument. You’ll have to understand diverse musical idioms. The hired gun could be playing foxtrots one week and soft rock power ballads the next. People will be prone to phoning up to say “I’m doing a thrash folk gig next week – can you play?” That comes with little or no rehearsal time – so you’ll have to be able to sight-read sheet music or have enough genre understanding to be able to play around the scales effectively.
Once you’ve reached that pitch, you have a few avenues open to you:
- Tribute acts – among the highest paid acts are bands like Bjorn Again, The Australian Pink Floyd and The Bootleg Beatles. These kinds of band go as far as possible to look and sound like an iconic act – from clothes to hair and instruments. A good, popular tribute band can end up playing venues as big as Sheffield Arena and earning exceptionally good money.
- The West End – playing in a dank pit underneath the footlights of a production of Cats isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but once you’re into that scene you can . The trouble is one of contacts. The tiny number of people who play this kind of scene very much know each other and it is through personal recommendations that most jobs are secured.
- Cruise ships, leisure parks, hotels – regular gigs wearing tuxedos and playing Girl from Ipanema to an audience of slightly squiffy septuagenarians might not sound like artistic nirvana, but it’s regular work and pays reasonably well. Like West End gigs, personal contacts and recommendations are the key to unlocking the door into this mysterious netherworld.
- Be a session musician – the very best musicians get to play under all sorts of circumstances with all kinds of people. Before Jimmy Page hit it big with Led Zep, he played on scores of recordings by artists of the calibre of Val Doonican. Again, you need a break to get that kind of work, and that break normally means knowing someone.
- All of the above – if you’re good enough, versatile enough and have no personal qualms about dabbling in various things, then you can mix it up quite happily. If you do do a lot of different things, you’ll be meeting more people along the way and the more people you meet, the more contacts you’ve got and the more opportunities will come your way.
Be a Songwriter
If you’re already writing songs, chances are that they are limpid ballads about this one girl you really fancied back at school and now you still see with this bloke who’d a bit of an ape and .
Unless you get a record deal (see below) there’s no money in that shit.
But you do have a saleable skill. Advertisers need jingles and TV shows need theme tunes for example. This classic article from Sounds puts it in far better detail than I ever could.
At the other end of the scale you can write for established artists. It’s a little known fact, for example, but Michael Jackson’s epoch-defining Thriller was written by a bloke from Cleethorpes. But of course, he didn’t just send the Prince of Pop a home recording of the song and get lucky. Like most songwriters, he’d had a brief career as a musician in his own right with the band Heatwave, for whom he wrote Boogie Nights.
The contacts made during even the briefest of musical careers can open up the door to songwriting gigs with major artists.
If you’re of a certain vintage, you might remember C’mon and Get my Love – by “D-Mob featuring Cathy Dennis”. You might well be chortling and thinking ‘one hit loser’. Well Cathy Dennis has subsequently gone on to write the following songs – all of which hit the number 1 slot in the UK.
- Cant’ Get You Out of my Head – Kylie Minogue
- I Kissed a Girl – Katy Perry
- About You Now – Sugababes
- Toxic – Britney Spears
- Never Had a Dream Come True – S Club 7
- Anything is Possible – Will Young
And a raft of other songs for the likes of Christina Aquilera, Celine Dion, Ronan Keating and, er, Michelle McManus. If you’re snobbishly looking down your nose at this roster of artists, just remember this: Cathy Dennis’ house is a lot bigger than yours.
Without contacts in the music biz, the songwriter is in the same position as a band – sending off home recordings and begging letters to labels. You might get a break, but it’s hard work and I wouldn’t bother putting down a deposit on Necker Island any time soon.
Get a Record Deal
Short answer: pfft, forget it.
The long answer is so long that I’ve decided to siphon it off into another post – so come back next week or something!
Some Final Thoughts…
A common theme runs through a lot of the things I’ve talked about: contacts. In the world of music, knowing one particular person can make all the difference. If just one person you personally know has any kind of success, the effect for you can be dramatic. Be polite to other musicians you meet… keep a contacts book… make friends on MySpace… answer your emails… hand out your card… don’t snub musicians from unfamiliar genres… and take care to remember names and faces.
Most of all: don’t pin your hopes on money or success. Enjoy your music for what it is and if something comes of it, then great.