Money from music

When I go and give lectures and seminars, this is by far the most frequently asked question by the musicians in the audience. There are variations on this theme, but essentially it boils down to this very simple question: now that there’s this internet thing, where’s the money and how do I get at it? What’s the best way to sell music online?

I tend to start answering that question by taking a quick poll. It’s a little game I play, and I’ll play it with you now:

Hands up, everyone in this room who considers themselves a professional musician.” Generally speaking the room is full of people with their hands in the air.

Now, keep your hand up if you currently make more than 50% of your income from the sale of recordings.” I counted 3 people. At one of the seminars. Once. They were in the same band.

There’s a presupposition in the question “How can I sell my music online?” — and that is the notion that the way that you make money from music is through the sale of recordings.

It’s one way, sure. It’s an obvious one, too. But it’s not, typically speaking, the way that most musicians make their money outside of the internet — so it strikes me as odd that it seems to be the only thing that they’ll think of to try online.

Selling music online
There’s this weird notion that the internet is a shopping mall — and so if you want to be successful in that environment, you have to open a shop. Every artist and every record label who has a website suddenly wants to go into business as a retailer. The thought would never occur to them in the “real” world – but give them a webpage and they want a cash register.

It’s strange because for most artists and independent music businesses that I come into contact with (even, it has to be said, some of the retailers), the majority of the money does not come from the sale of circular pieces of plastic. And yet, the presence of the internet seems to make them believe that they once did.

And it has always struck me as odd that a group of people who spend more time training for their career than most brain surgeons, and who spend every waking hour of their day creating value from thin air believe that the little slice of time they spend in a darkened room fashioning idealised versions of their songs and turning them into things for sale is the only way through which they can earn a living.

This idea also gets us into problems when people start sharing music for free. If making money from music online is about selling songs, then sharing must therefore be theft. Now, of course I’m aware that there ARE musicians and people in the music industries who make money solely from recordings. My point is that they are in the minority.

So the better question might be: How can the internet help me make money from my music? And the answer, of course, is “it depends“. The internet can offer opportunities for promotion, distribution, business and communication efficiencies – even for the composition and production of music.

The internet is not a shopping mall or a marketplace. It’s a technology that allows for human beings to communicate and for information to be processed and moved around in new and accelerated ways. You can sell music on it, of course – and there are services that will help you do that. I’ll list them when I answer that specific question.

But for now, I just want to plant the seed that there are ways to make money from music. You can use the internet to enhance and expand upon these ways of working. And then you can use the internet to develop new ways of making money from music along the way.

Here’s what I suggest: if you have recorded music you want to sell online, then have a look at a few services and start the process. Either go with a digital aggregator like The Orchard or CD Baby — or submit to some of the bigger online music retailers through a service like TuneCore. Perhaps you could use one of the e-commerce platforms available to sell your music directly from your website. I’ll talk you through that process and make some recommendations later on. But feel free to just get started without me.

But once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to get that ‘how do I sell music?’ question off your mind so you can focus on the more interesting question of ‘how do I make money from music online?’

Because the chances are high that those two questions have quite different answers.