September 07

The New Economic Model for Musicians: Keeping Your Day Job

Traditionally, independent musicians think of self-sufficiency as being a milestone on their way to greater recognition. But for musicians who are wanting to get artistic recognition for their work, self-sufficiency may actually be a bad gamble. In fact, you may actually be better off getting recognition as an artist by keeping your day job. Here is the general argument:

Consider that in order to live solely off the money made from music, many musicians simply cut down on living costs in order to be able to make the claim that they are living solely off of their music. I know of at least a few different people giving music business advice that suggest to their audience that they move into more modest living arrangements, just so they can claim they are living solely off of their music. Relatedly, many people I know who are self-sufficient artists are not actually self-sufficient and are instead eating into savings for an indeterminate period of time (whether their own or gifted to them), which is not actually a form of self-sufficiency.

However, the costs for properly releasing a record – essentially the only way to get any significant press for your record – are increasing with every passing year. First, not only is working with a reputable publicist becoming a necessity, but the availability of press opportunities is tightening as music outlets trim costs. As a result, it is becoming more and more difficult for lower-cost publicists to be able to secure good press for their clients. Second, the cost of creating promotional material – primarily music videos – is increasing, especially as wealthier indie musicians are able to put out shinier and more polished promotional content. The increase in production quality is making it harder for low-budget music video to pass the laugh test unfortunately. Finally, there are indications that the “season” for securing publicity for a record is increasing, as at least based on what I am seeing, it is becoming more and more traditional for artists to get press substantially after the release date of a record. This might indicate that musicians may need to pay for publicity services for a longer period of time, or at least put in their own publicity efforts for a longer period of time, as a part of releasing a record.

Given all of this, the ability to do a proper release for a record that gets any attention is moving out of the reach of self-sufficient musicians. I mean, it’s also moving out of the reach of musicians who work another job. But for self-sufficient musicians, the move to become self-sufficient ends up incurring a cost that tends to put them in a worse financial position when it comes time for a record release. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to self-sufficient musicians who basically gave up on the idea of a proper record release once they understood the costs of doing so.

There are of course difficulties with writing and recording an album when you already have a day job. However, my impression is that people who work the self-sufficiency angle are actually working harder for less money, making it more difficult for them to write and release records. As a rule, the self-sufficient musicians that I know for the most part make their money doing music-adjacent work – teaching lessons, doing cover performance gigs, or other forms of one-time independent contract work, which on average pays less than other work. Given this, they have to work more hours in order to make (and hence save) the same amount of money, which means that musicians with day jobs actually may have more time to work on their music.

So, in a weird sense, it appears that, given the current state of the music industry, you are much more likely to get recognition for yourself as an artist if you keep your day job.