12 Ways to Lower Your Chances of Starving as a Musician…

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Yes, there are more ways than ever to connect with your potential audience, and it’s never been easier to record and distribute.  But it’s also easier than ever to starve as a musician, thanks to unprecedented levels of media saturation and an extremely hostile environment towards content creators and performers.  Which means success starts at the point where you’re not starving.

And with that, here are ten ways to minimize the chances of starving, and actually surviving as a working musician.

(1) Fire your band and go solo.

Here’s another reason why DJs are making millions: they don’t have to share.  And the overhead is way lower: support staff are paid a salary, and negotiations are made with the individual.  Not only that, you can’t break up with yourself (unless you decide to quit).

That’s not to say there aren’t Arcade Fire-style success stories, but you have to make a lot more money to make it all work.  And even then, there are more dangerous variables and moving parts.


(2) Accept that you’re getting screwed on the recording.

Activists like David Lowery are making critical headway on issues like Google-sponsored piracy and Spotify screwy-ness. But that’s not going to help you right now: instead, artists like Pretty Lights are offering music for free on mass-distribution platforms like BitTorrent, and making it up in monetizable places like touring and premium physical (like double LP vinyl releases and USB drives).


(3) Understand your leverage (you don’t have any).

Thom Yorke can pull his content from Spotify and people will notice.  But sadly, that sort of stand only works for established, massive artists.  Everyone else basically gets ignored.  In the end, Spotify will screw you and you will like it because (a) you need the distribution and (b) you don’t have a choice.

(4) Be unbelievably proficient and skillful.

Yes, even jazz musicians can make money these days, if they’re in the top 0.01% of performers.  There’s always a small sliver getting by, and usually, an even smaller sliver living quite comfortably.


(5) Get really, really, really lucky.

The lucky ones often believe that they willed their success, but the reality is that almost every successful artist is replaceable.  We mythologize our musical heroes, and pretend that we could never adore another.  Nonsense: there are thousands, even hundreds of thousands that are just as good and innovative, and willing to work just as hard or harder.  Yet, fate tossed them into the harsh dustbin of obscurity.

So this boils down to maximizing the chances of good luck: recording as much as possible, practicing as much as possible, taking as many collaborative opportunities as possible, innovating as much as possible, and these days, staying sober (more on that later).


(6) Paying rent and eating = success.

If you think 99.9% of all musicians aren’t making any money, you’re wrong: 99.999999% of all artists aren’t making money.  Which means, if you can pay your rent, pay for clothes, pay for health insurance, or any combination thereof, you are winning this brutal game.


(7) Work a day job.

Even Tim Westergren tells artists to work a day job (yes, he makes $2 million a month, but that’s a separate article entirely).  And as much as it sucks, he’s right.  The reason is that the chaos and complication of having zero money will crowd your ability to be creative, make music, connect with fans and stay on the grid.  And if you can squeak by on touring, you’re winning (see #6).


(8) Consider a major publishing, label, or management deal.

It’s an incredibly difficult decision, but money really, really helps.  Yes, you will lose lots of rights and probably get screwed in the end.  But you will also drastically increase your chances of getting traction and acheiving some degree of fame (which can be worth a huge amount of money).

Remember: Amanda Palmer was initially built by the considerable resources for Warner Music Group – and it’s questionable whether we’d even know her name without that startup investment.


(9) Be a ruthless f**ing asshole.

Fire people that show up late and drag you down.  Fire back at promoters that try to stiff you.  Then, put on a nice smile for your fans.


(10) Prioritize your very precious time.

Every second you’re tweeting is a second you’re not recording, performing, or making money.  That’s not to say you can’t do both (just look at Amanda Palmer), but please consider that there is a limited amount of time in every day.  And your twenties will go very, very quickly.

(11) Have another large source of income.

There’s a funny saying in the venture capital community: “The secret to making a small fortune is to start with a large one.”  And when it boils down to it, music is an expensive hobby that will most likely lose you lots of money (starting immediately).  Just like other things that rich people enjoy, like wineries, yachting, and circumnavigating the globe in a hot air balloon.

So if you have a big inheritance, enjoy it.  If you made $3.2 million off your last startup, use that to do what you love.


(12) Success= stress (and attracts crazy people), so embrace it (and ignore the bulls**t).

Lauren Mayberry bitches about misogynistic commenters and deranged fans.  We should all be so lucky.

So take the advice of William Randolph Hearst, who once said, “if a dog barks at me, I don’t get on all fours and bark back.”  That was true 100 years ago, and it’s true now.


Oh, and… Stay sober.

Sorry, but riding a non-stop high is a very expensive luxury these days.  Because it’s easier to screw a stoned artist, every single time.  And, it makes it a lot harder to meet the very impressive demands that even modest success requires.



31 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    Why all the hate on Lauren Mayberry? It’s completely unnecessary and was a crude way to finish an otherwise great article.

  2. Just Another Voice In The Air

    Finally you recognize Pretty Light’s model, even if only for a brief moment!

      • Just Another Voice In The Air

        I visit your site daily, even though I don’t post comments. I have made several attempts over the last (almost) 2 years to mention the Pretty Lights Bit Torrent case study with the same marketing manager as DJ Shadow, who also tried a similar tactic. To my knowledge, none of the writers have made a significant note of Derek Vincent Smith or his label mates in their attempt to circumvent the current state of affairs in the music industry

        Perhaps you should enlighten your readership on how an artist like him is making a considerable amount of cash, by embracing a tour-friendly fanbase (jamband fans), then seamlessly transitioning to the larger and more lucrative dance music market, both of which are predicated on touring and concert production.

        • Yves Villeneuve

          To do what Pretty Lights does you need to be a successful touring act like they are. How many are as successful as Pretty Lights in the touring business?

          The question is: if Pretty Lights music is that good is there a need to give it away? Can they sell more of their music if they avoided selling t-shirts? I understand selling t-shirts makes the band sound more professional to the average music fan but the band can take a stand against it and focus the fans on their music instead. The fans will respond if your music is good enough.

          In the end, artists like ACDC or Justin Bieber can sell most anything to their fans and so can indie artists.

          • Just Another Voice In The Air

            At this point in his Career, Derek has the opportunity to do both (sell music and merchandise). He originally made sample based hip-hop collages, which would have been costly to clear licenses for, so he gave the music away instead.

            His latest album, “A Color Map of the Sun”, was made from samples he created with sessions musicians. That way, he could sell the hard copies (which sold out within two weeks) and freely distribute downloads for the remainder of his fanbase. In addition to all of that, he is also selling a metric ton of merchandise (not exactly to scale) ;).

            More important than anything else; His shows, both musically and visually, are so compelling that he was able to become one of the most sought after performers in the touring circuit, without help from a major label. His success story is a terrific case study on how to make it in this music climate.

          • FarePlay

            Well there’s a shameless plug, inserted as a comment. Paul, you need to add that to your list.

          • GGG

            Pretty Lights is successful touring BECAUSE he gives his music away, just as much (if not more) than the other way around. It’s not a necessary model, but it can be useful. If people want some low quality MP3s, take it. If you want nice vinyl, pay for it. Not to mention, Derek and people he works with are part of a pretty substantial ring of incredible musicians. That whole Lettuce/Soulive/etc scene with guys like Adam Deitch and Krasno, etc. They actually have talent and do work so they are always working with each other, being hired as session guys, touring guys, production, etc. That’s what being a musician is all about. This idea you can sit at home, release a record every 3 years, never do anything else and make money is ridiculous.

            It’s nice DMN actually touched on the whole doing work aspect of being successful for once.

          • Just Another Voice In The Air

            @Fareplay I’m not a great writer, but that definitely came off as a plug. I just happen to really love his music.

            @GGG, Exactly. I could do another shameless plug about the Bear Creek festival in Live Oak, but I think you get the idea.

          • Yves Villeneuve

            “This idea you can sit at home, release a record every 3 years, never do anything else and make money is ridiculous.”

            What kind of offering would you make if by chance you were proven wrong, assuming you have humility?

          • GGG

            I have no doubt you’ve made money and perhaps even money you are 100% satisfied with. I guess I should change that statement to “and make a living.” If you’re simply a hobbiest, fine. If you want me to believe you’ve made a living from that, show me receipts of at least 100 grand for the what, 6 years you’ve had music out? And that’s on the low end of living. And I’ll gladly eat my hat.

          • Yves Villeneuve

            I don’t get receipts, per se. All I have is online accounts that track revenues. Don’t really have an itch to reveal anything to you specifically, especially when you’re anonymous and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things in regards to my career. However, possible future media speculation could give you some ballpark estimates, if you’re lucky.

          • GGG

            Trust me, I really don’t care. I know 100% you have not made a living selling your music. But I’m sure your guilt-trip and con strategy works on plenty of impressionable people who buy your music and never listen to it ever again.

  3. sampagemusic

    I really enjoyed this article. Thanks for posting it. It feels like a refreshing splash of realism. I’m always a little bewildered by all the negativity in the comments, though.

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  5. seb

    Thanks for the article.
    I don’t agree with “Be a ruthless f**ing asshole.”….what fucked up advice is that? I am a buddhist and will not handle people that way. Musicians, generally speaking, should make this world a better place.

    • Mickey Mac

      I, too, am Buddhist, and while I may disagree with the particular phrase “be a f&$@ing asshole, I’d like to point out that there is a world of difference between being Buddhist and being a doormat. Every time we assert our rights as artists, we make it a little easier for the next artist to do the same. If someone thinks I’m a f&&@ing asshole for doing so, that is their problem, not mine (and they probably think that just because they got caught trying to get over on me anyway!). The phrase has to be read in the context of the rest of the article, not in a vacuum.

  6. DKNY

    This was a cool article. Witty and no BS. I agree with almost all the points above. Would even add “#13. Be Ready to Work Really F*g Hard and Make Sacrifices Constantly.” Especially if you do #7 and take a day job. Leaves with only a little bit of time to make music, tour and promote. So you have to, in essence, work round the clock. At least early on. Ideally, you can create a passive source of income that helps support you while you spend time doing your music. That is the ideal situation. Anyway, I will forward it to some musician friends and as a needed does of reality. I’m all about chasing the dream and expressing the music that is inside of us. At the same time, you have to create income to live. It’s that simple. Good stuff.

  7. Danwriter

    With the exception of “Stay sober,” all of these points would have been valid in 1993, as well.

    • Paul Resnikoff

      There’s actually a debate to be had about sobriety, especially ‘back then’. Strangely, some artists, even many artists of a particular genre or time period, have written their best works stoned. Or, at least during periods of ‘usage’. They become sober, and the music starts going bland.

      It’s the right thing to say, but hey. But nowadays, I’m not sure it can really work: there isn’t a paid staff helping out, you might not survive after getting royally screwed, you have to show up to the gig on time, etc. We live in very different times, especially for musicians.

  8. Data?

    What leads you to post No. 6? In the past few years I’ve seen articles saying that more people than ever are making a living through playing music. Is your knowledge of musician success founded on any real studies and numbers?

    • Paul Resnikoff

      “Seen articles…”
      Says it all. Yes, there’s actually data to show that the ‘middle class artist’ and ‘Long Tail’ are fantasies. Actually, start with a rare diy success stories like Zoe Keating and Imogen Heap to see how ‘comfortably middle class’ their lives are, then wind your way towards average artist earnings figures from companies like Tunecore. Ian Rogers, once a major digital utopianist and former Topspin CEO, undoubtedly has further information about this. I could go on…

  9. News?

    This is not news. A news piece would be something more like, “DMN writer makes list”. News articles are supposed to show data and inform people. I recommend you to go back to school and take a class on journalism, and while you’re there take a class on feminism too because if you still can’t see what’s fucked up about your stance on the Lauren Mayberry thing then you need to find help.

  10. Shane Basye NRG

    You forgot one.

    (13) Find yourself a rockstar loving cougar sugar momma

  11. Anonymous

    “Music, an expensive HOBBY”……..Wow……… What a SAD statement….Smh

  12. notemote

    Here’s one more…Get # (13) your rockstar loving cougar sugar momma to post your up-coming events (which she scheduled) on every online calender.

  13. Minneapolis Musician

    Paul, this fits the exact reality I have seen evolve since 2000.

    When people want to be a pop star (or NBA basketball star, or movie star, or famous writer, etc.) they don’t want to hear the actual impossible odds of that happening…even if you have talent and work hard.

    Ultimately, you have to do it for the enjoyment of making the art. Fame is VERY unlikely. But if you have already gotten your reward with the joy of doing fine work you are proud of…then you have your reward.

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