Why should artists be able to make a living off of music?

Does this question make you feel uncomfortable?

If so, allow me to break your music industry bubble for a second.

People outside the music business are often filled with astonishment by the music industry’s prevalent sense of entitlement.

“I made something, so I deserve money.”

Nonsense. What kind of business is that?

To me, the best way to think of yourself as an artist is as an entrepreneur or freelancer.

You have a business to build, an audience to identify & serve, and a competitive landscape to understand.

The landscape is hyper-competitive and choosing to participate in it, especially without identifying a good niche, means there is a good chance you will not be able to make a good living out of it.

If you make good music, appeal to a well-defined audience, and have a good business strategy for monetizing that relationship, whether that’s through gigs, sales, Patreon or something else, then you’ve got a good chance to make a good living.

But you’ve got to keep working hard at it – just like an entrepreneur.

If you build enough, work at it long enough, you might be able to let the reins go and collect money on your past achievements – just like an entrepreneur.

But if you fail to identify your market or risks, you’ll go broke – just like an entrepreneur.

A recent report commissioned by Dutch rights organisations and a labour union for musicians revealed that as much as 19% of Dutch musicians who live with a partner or family are able to make a living from music (PDF). It’s as much as 31% for singles.

Graph: percentage of musicians making a living from music
How cohabiting musicians (left) & single musicians (right) make a living. Green means they live from money generated by music. (Source: Pop, wat levert het op?)

It’s a decent success rate.

If we look at the survival rate of businesses in the US, we can see that half of them die within the first 5 years. The 20 year survival rate is just 20%.

Over 80% of businesses FAIL.

Why should it be different for music?

Let’s take the 20-30% success rate for musicians who can make a living and think about how we can increase that.

First, we need to shatter the sense of entitlement, that has new artists entering the business with false expectations. It sets them up for failure.

We need management companies, record labels, booking agencies and rights societies who stress the importance of hard work and strategy. Who can communicate the necessity of reinventing yourself when your chosen path hits a dead end.

Many artists choose to continue down a dead end path. Becoming wedding DJs or playing covers of classic rock ’n roll tracks at the opening of a friend’s shop in a local mall or something.

“This is the music I play. I should be able to make a living off of it.”

No. Your entrepreneurial pursuit failed. Start over. Do something else. Pivot.

We need music schools to prepare artists for this.

Artists also need room to fail – just like entrepreneurs.

Look at startup accelerators and incubators, look at tax incentives or cuts from governments. Governments, businesses and the existing music industry could do more to give artists some room to breathe while they work on their music & business strategy.

Many initiatives already exist. Every country, and every city, having its own mechanics or ecosystem.

What I’m particularly interested in are collaborations between people from different disciplines. Take artist managers, musicians, developers, tech entrepreneurs, designers, and organisations in music with a lot of data, like ticketing services, event organisers, collection societies, etc. Divide them into groups and give them 48 hours to hack something together.

We need:

  • More data to help artists & management to understand their markets and to develop strategy to address them;
  • More collaboration to make it easier for entrepreneurs to have their products piloted at scale;
  • More applied innovation – we can talk about blockchain, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, but how do you apply it to your strategy?

I’d love to live in a world where everyone who wants to make a living with music is able to do so. It’s just not likely. But let’s expand that 20-30%. Let’s push it to 25-35% and then higher.

Rapid developments in technology means we’ll be able to offer a greater diversity in experience. It’s these developments that has led to a situation where more artists are simultaneously earning some money with music, than ever before.

Technology, combined with human creativity, can expand the market.

And that may be just what we need to help more artists make a living.

Hat tip to Marco Raaphorst for the link to the research report.