Musicians Making it in the Digital Age

Musicians Making it in the Digital Agethank_you_20130501_jim_odonnell_rs01

(C. Proxmire, April 29, 2013)

Often when people write about the state of the recording industry there is an over-simplified framework of old vs. new.  Images of big corporate executives and slick-tongued managers with connections to a record label or MTV on the prowl for garage bands or street rappers to exploit are compared to a utopian online indie revolution free from the corporate system.

But professionals like Kevin Erickson of The Future of Music Coalition know that the music business is, and always has been, more complex than that.  He and a panel of experts spoke at the National Conference for Media Reform in Denver on April 5, clarifying the subject.

Erickson moderated while musician Chris Adolf of Bad Weather California, Jesse VonDoon of CASH Music, activist musician Cavem Moetevation and Public Enemy beat-maker and Grammy-nominated producer Hank Shocklee discussed the evolution of the music industry.

dinos02sidelogoShocklee explained that regardless of what happens in pop culture, there has always been an independent music movement.  Particularly in hip hop, local stars made music for more than worldwide fame or money.  He compared the grassroots vibe to the drugs, money, and misogyny pimped in today’s pop scene.  “We started out talking about things that had nothing to do with the streets.  We started talking about the oppression.  We didn’t sell billions of billions of records like people do today, but we changed billions of heads,” Shocklee said.

Moetevation pairs hip hop with issues, teaching people in the city to do gardens, to respect the earth and themselves.  His record “The Produce Section” focuses on “Holistic Health, Indigeneity (sic) and Educating Urban Communities on Sustainable Resources, Organic Food Security, Natural Living, and the importance of Food, Shelter and Water through HipHop – Higher Inner Peace, Helping Other People.”

“More independent artists are stepping up their marketing and changing their approach.  Young people who are stuck on Clear Channel don’t realize it’s all to sell…[I teach that] you can be down for the hood if you get down on the ground.  This is how you provide for your hood.”

Shocklee said that “famous” rappers talk about what they are told.  “They’re kicking liquor because those companies throw money at them.  New Harvest Homes NHHThrow money at them abut carrot juice, and they’ll kick carrot juice.”

Most musicians are in it for the love, but understanding the ways musicians make money can put the profession in perspective.

The Future of Music Coalition did a study of 5,000 musicians from a variety of genres to determine how they are making their money. They found that the average income of musicians is $34,455 per year, but that is before considering expenses like equipment, travel, and money paid to helpers.  Of those surveyed, 42% earned all their income through music, meaning that 58% of working musicians also had other jobs or income.

Only 28% of income came from live shows.  About 2% was from merchandising.

Sales of recorded music (generally CDs) varied depending on genre.  Overall this averaged out to 6% of sales.  Rock musicians saw 14% of income from recording.  Hip hop artists massagecame in at 12%.  Country artists had 6%, while jazz and classical artists saw the lowest percentages, 4% and 1% respectively.

So that leaves the big question: how do musicians make money?

The Future of Music Coalition study identifies 42 different revenue streams for working musicians, including fan clubs, grants, corporate sponsorships, fan fundraising, acting, endorsements and website advertising.  Internet sale of music has increased revenue, with 62% of those surveying saying they have gotten paid by selling music online.casestudyAgrossincomepie.039-1024x640

There is no one way to be a musician,” Erickson said.  “The key is to find out how that pie comes together for them.”

After 15 years as a working musician, Adolf is finally earning enough to pay taxes at the end of the year. He is a singer and guitarist from Bad Weather California, a Denver-based band that tours four months out of the year. The biggest obstacle, he said, is standing up to business owners and insisting on being paid for their work.

“As independent artists, we swing our pendulums too far the other way.  We’re sweethearts and we don’t want to go against business owners… But Street Eatzz Adwe have to stand up for ourselves and each other….We have to learn the business and fight just as hard as the businesses.  We have to play their game.”

To put it in perspective, Adolf added “I don’t mind playing for free, but I don’t want other people to make money off me.  There’s a reason people invite musicians into their buildings.  It creates sales, and we should be paid.”

Shocklee shared his advice as well.  “Start thinking differently about how you get your stuff across.  Get someone who knows how to do branding….There’s also opportunity for artists to help small business people.  There are ways to take your art to help your community.”

He shared the example of Illegal Pete’s, a restaurant in Denver that gives food to musicians who are in from out of town.  By becoming the “in” place for musicians, Illegal Pete’s has built their reputation and customer base, while also supporting music.

“We can all make great music, but we need to provide cultural context,” Shocklee said.


For more media-related stories, including those from the National Conference for Media Reform, visit




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