Back in July, Nameless Sound (one of the coolest music organizations in Houston, run by one of the coolest dudes in Houston, David Dove) posted an online letter to the community calling for donations on behalf of Charalambides musician and Houston music advocate, Tom Carter. While on tour with Charalambides in Berlin, Tom was hospitalized for pneumonia and put in a medically induced coma. He is expected to make a full recovery, but the medical bills will be expensive. I’m not sure of the details of Tom’s financial situation but I am well aware that a touring musician, particularly one who plays experimental music, does not have a reliable or high revenue stream, and often times such musicians don’t have health insurance. Reading Tom’s story was a reminder of a lot of things: the lack of respect and public policy that compensates and protects the health and well being of artists; the fragility of our realities; the ways privilege play into conversations about who can and can’t be a musician; etc.
The reality of being a musician is that you’re basically running your own small business in a highly competitive and divided market. In the age of the internet and independent promotion, the idea of an agent or manager or record label or fairy swooping down and cradling you and throwing money at you and your guitar — the “magic discovery myth” — is not a thing, as much as American Idol would have you believe otherwise. That leaves us musicians alone in the wild dealing with the shitty things that we don’t want to think about but slap us in the face. How do you file your taxes as a freelance musician? How, where, and when do you apply for health insurance? What is the difference between a publisher, a manager, and a performance rights organization? What are the benefits of trademarking my band logo, or copyrighting my album? How the fuck do I build a website?
Sadly, the only way to answer these questions is through taking initiative and doing research. While I was at the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival, they arranged for several panels by music industry professionals, filled with some really helpful advice. The one talk that I’ve found myself constantly referring to in conversation and in my personal research has been the panel featuring Jean Cook, director of programs at the Future of Music Coalition. In particular, their awesome Artist Revenue Streams Project. I probably could kill a year of my life studying this website. First of all, they brainstormed 42 different ways that someone could make a living in the field of music, including session work, teaching, producing, arts administration, the list goes on. They also did these FANTASTIC case studies of musicians, filled with handy analyses and pie charts.
For example, the case study of an Indie Rock Composer-Performer: “While he is an active member of four bands in addition to his solo work, 94% of his gross income comes from one Main Band and his own solo work. Certain roles, like salaried, sideman or teaching work (approximately 31% of his income from 2008-2011) have few expenses. The Artist is able to use that income to invest in his own solo work, in lieu of being beholden to a label, publisher, or tour sponsor.”
Or the case study of a Contemporary Chamber Ensemble: “We learn that though their gross income fluctuates from year to year, their net profit is steadily increasing. We also see that while their records are doing very well for classical music and have recouped, the Ensemble does not rely on this income at all (0.1% of their 2002-2010 income is from record royalties paid by a label) and instead treats recordings as marketing for the ensemble.”
Of course, not all of us earn money solely from music. In this great article for NewMusicBox called “Composing a Life, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dollar,” the founder of online arts policy journal Createquity, Ian David Moss, talks about how many composers end up spending more than they earn, running budgets that don’t balance out:
“I was very serious about my work as a composer in those days, but the financial return I earned from that work was negligible, if not downright negative. I was not alone. Less than 10% of the 1347 composers who responded in 2008 to the American Music Center and American Composers Forum’s joint survey of composers, Taking Note, indicated that composing represents their primary income; even relatively wealthy composers who considered themselves professionals earned an average of only one-fifth of their income directly from composition-related activities.”
There is no one right or wrong way to make a living as a musician. The paths are winding and vary vastly. I’m still trying to figure out how I’m going to choose to navigate my career, and I know several other musicians are doing the same. But this post isn’t just directed towards working musicians. I think if the general public of the United States had a more comprehensive understanding of the struggles and complexities that the musicians they love face in their day-to-day financial lives, public policy in the arts would be much more sympathetic to our needs. Including but not limited to more extensive public health care coverage, more government art grants to fund our work, and better retirement plans.
Here are some more resources about the music industry and personal finance. This is an aggregation of things that have literally taken me years to discover, learn and implement.
MUSIC BUSINESS RESOURCES
- Donald Passman’s book All You Need to Know About the Music Business is informative and easy to read.
- Former classical artist manager and director of IMG Artists, Edna Landau, runs a music business blog for Musical America called Ask Edna. Great for contemporary classical composers and performers, or anyone interested in arts administration.
- The Texas Music Office has business guides filled with lots of articles and statistics specific to the state of Texas. Their website literally says to send them an email and request information, “Please send us an email describing the type of project you are working on and what you are trying to accomplish in Texas to music [at] governor.state.tx.us. We will send you links to the information you requested, as well as customized reports, when necessary. Please include your name, company or band name, postal mailing address, email address, genre of music and phone number so we can contact you if we have any additional questions.”
- Local libraries called “Foundation Centers” are great places to start searching for grants and other funding opportunities.
PERSONAL FINANCE RESOURCES
- CNN’s Money 101 is a great place to read about the basics of personal finance.
- I know it’s written specifically for women and the description sounds a bit frilly but Manisha Thakor and Sharon Kedar’s On My Own Two Feet is the best book I know for getting easy to read, hard facts about things like balancing a budget getting insurance, buying a house, etc.
- Khan Academy has some solid videos if you ever want to teach yourself economics.