My Ever-Changing Career as a Musician

When I was in college, I held several part time jobs to make ends meet. One of those part time jobs was playing guitar at a few restaurants every month. Nothing glamorous, but I was happy to be playing guitar. I started keeping track of how much money I made on those gigs to see if I could justify quitting one of the other part time jobs.

It turns out keeping a detailed list of my music income has served me well over the last 10 years. I was eventually able to justify quitting all of my day jobs and become a full time musician, and since being a full time musician, I’m able to keep a finger on the pulse of my various streams of musician income. Just as a shop owner keeps track of her inventory and carries whatever products are in demand, I’ve been able to assess and adjust my inventory of music jobs that keep me in business.

Over the last 10 years the way I make a living has changed dramatically. I’ve never made a lot of money, but I’ve been able to make more each year despite the changes in the music industry and economy in general. Here’s my method and what I’ve learned along the way.

Multiple Streams of Income

One thing I learned early on was to diversify my income. If one stream hits a drought, you can lean on the others to get by. Here’s how I categorize my income:

  1. Non-Union Gigs
  2. Union Gigs
  3. Recorded Music Sales/Streams
  4. Royalties
  5. Miscellaneous

Anything that pays me to be playing guitar falls under one of the gig categories. Performances, rehearsals, recording sessions, etc. Additionally, I separate my gigs between non-union and union, mainly because my accountant tells me to (taxes are withheld from my union paychecks), but it also gives me a good understanding of where I make more money. Currently, that’d be non-union gigs.

My recorded music income is essentially anything I make from my distributor: CD and download sales, streams, ringtones and whatever other formats exist today.

Royalty income is earned through BMI. There are other avenues to earn royalties, but for now, I’m only earning money through BMI. This income is also reported in a separate space on my tax return, so I keep strict records for my accountant.

The miscellaneous category covers a lot of ground, but none of it is significant or regular enough to warrant tracking under it’s own category. Some of this income includes:

  • Licensing
  • Commissions
  • Teaching lessons/masterclasses/clinics
  • Revenue from websites (MusicianWages and my own)
  • Transcriptions/charts
  • Arranging/orchestrating
  • Backend earnings that don’t qualify as royalties

Broad Categories for Musician Income

Dave Hahn and I have often discussed musician income in two broad categories: Active/Passive and Yours/Others. Naturally, I think of my earnings in this way as well.

Active Income / Passive Income

Active Income, also known as Earned Income, is a finite amount of money paid for specific time or services. Everything under the Gig categories and about half of the jobs under Miscellaneous count as Active Income. Every month I try to make sure there are enough jobs that create Active Income to at least cover my expenses.

Passive Income is the money I make from my recorded music, royalties, website revenue, and various other backend percentage agreements. I usually have an idea of about how much Passive Income I’ll earn each month, but experience tells me that you can’t count on the check arriving before rent is due. Nonetheless, this money is vital in rounding out my income, especially when there are holes in my calendar for Active Income jobs.

Your Music / Other People’s Music

This broad category is pretty easy to understand:

Your Music is basically anything you create as an artist or songwriter. If you have your own original band and play shows and sell CDs, then you’re making money from your own music.

Everything else is Other People’s Music. If you work as a sideman, play in a cover band, in a church, in musical theatre, teach, or any other type of musician job we’ve ever discussed on this site that you can’t call your own music, then you’re making money from other people’s music.

How My Streams of Income Have Changed

Creating Passive Income with my Original Music

In 2007 I was working a full time job at a major record label, a job I’d somewhat fallen into through temp work a couple years earlier. Meanwhile I was playing a few times a month with my own jazz trio, performing mostly original music from an album I’d independently released earlier in the year.

The day job helped me cover rent and bills, which freed up most of my music income to be reinvested. In other words, I could use my music income for things like paying my band, saving up to make a new album, or buying new gear–all things I felt would have long term benefits to my career as a musician. I was my own patron, supporting myself as my art developed.

At this time, most of my music income came from music sales, and most of that was through iTunes. You see, for a brief period of time I figured out a way to use iMixes in the iTunes Store to help people discover my music. I started making enough money that in early 2008 I quit my day job and took a pay cut to become a full time musician.

Because I was making most of my money as passive income with my own music, the logical thing to do was create more content–or write and record more music. In 2008 and 2009 I wrote and recorded a new album for my trio while also creating several DIY albums with friends under various monikers. I figured each recording was a new asset that could potentially earn more passive income down the road. And for a time it did.

By the end of 2009, however, it was clear that the decline in music sales that had been decimating record stores since 2001 was finally catching up to the small, independent artist and DIY scene that had gained some footing a few years earlier. Despite having three times as many albums (for a total of nine) available on iTunes and other online stores, my distributor was paying me a quarter of what I had been making on average the year before. It’s even less today, and unless I wanted to get a day job again, I needed to beef up my other streams of income.

Generating Active Income with Other People’s Music

Having worked for a record label, I knew that a decline in my record sales was inevitable. Once I quit my day job, I had a lot more time to start playing with other people. I began networking with other musicians and gradually started playing as a sideman.

Playing other people’s music is a much different gig than playing your own music.

When you write and perform your own music, it’s easy to cater to your strengths. When your job is to play other people’s music, you really can’t have any weaknesses.

To become a well rounded guitarist, I started transcribing players from all genres, especially genres in which I had less experience, like country. Gradually I felt confident copping the styles of many major guitarists. You never know when the person hiring you will ask for a David Gilmour lick in one song and a Vince Gill lick in another. You don’t have to play like every guitarist all the time, but you have to convincingly play like any guitarist some of the time.

I also had to think about earning active income, which meant playing a lot more gigs. One of my goals was to play 100 shows in a year, and doing whatever was necessary to make that happen.

In New York City, original bands play about once a month locally, more if they tour. Cover bands might play once or twice a week. Broadway and Off-Broadway shows run 8 times a week, and as a sub you can usually count on at least a few gigs a month. In order to reach 100 shows, it was clear I needed to play a lot of different gigs as a sideman.

This was a lot easier to do without a day job. Learning music can be a full time job in itself, and for every band you play with you can expect at least one rehearsal each month. Networking also takes time. I spent many late nights going to friends shows trying to meet other musicians.

Eventually I began playing with singer/songwriters, rock bands, pop singers, a bluegrass band, jazz vocalists, and occasionally playing private events and club dates. At first I didn’t ask for much money, but as I got busier it was easier to value my time. I found that if a gig wasn’t paying much, and especially if I wasn’t that into the music, it was best to walk away amicably because a better gig was always around the corner.

In 2012 I’m on pace to play about 125 shows. The active income I’ll earn from playing other people’s music this year will more than make up for passive income I’ve stopped earning with my own music.

Nurturing the Odd Jobs

Along with playing and recording, there are many types of musician jobs to supplement your income. These jobs help round out your days and can often get you through sales droughts and slow months for gigs.

The first job that comes to mind is teaching private lessons. Now, for many musicians, this is actually their main gig. I enjoy teaching motivated students, but for the most part I never have more than a couple weekly students at a time. Most of the time I’ll teach a few lessons to intermediate to advanced level students that want to work on something very specific. I’ve attracted many of my students by posting semi-regular free guitar lessons on my website. Currently I have one Skype student and one local student.

Other services I offer include recording demo tracks for songwriters, writing easy to read charts for bands, and arranging horn or string parts. These are all active income jobs.

Although recorded music sales are dwindling, there is still money to be made from recordings. Licensing your music is an incredibly viable way to keep some passive income flowing. I’ve delivered most of my music to various music libraries and fostered relationships with people in music supervision. The music I’ve recorded so far has been licensed more and more frequently, and I’m also earning quarterly royalty checks through BMI. The big money, however, is in exclusive custom jobs, and I’ve submitted several demos for commercials. I haven’t landed anything yet, but eventually I will.

I also earn some money through my websites. MusicianWages.com was created as a passion, but Dave and I have built it up to a point where we can make a little bit of money each month.

Looking Ahead

There are limitations to the work I’m doing now, and I’m constantly thinking of solutions.

There’s only one Friday and Saturday night a week, and as I get busier I get more calls to play those nights. Eventually some of those bands are going to have to replace me with somebody that’s more available. The only way to make more money is to land gigs that pay more. These gigs are higher pressure and have more competition, so I try to play all of my current gigs as perfectly as possible. You never know who’s listening. I sometimes tell people who ask me about my career that I’m no rockstar, but if a rockstar called and needed me for a tour, I could get the job done.

Another option is to find gigs earlier in the week. Most of these gigs pay less, with the notable exceptions of tours and Broadway gigs. This year I started subbing on a couple shows off Broadway, including the revival of Rent, and I believe I’m well equipped to play more of these highly competitive gigs.

I also see the importance of writing music. All kinds of music. Publishing is still a viable source of income for musicians, and if you have a writer credit on a few successful songs, you can make decent money. I try to write something every day–even if it’s just four bars of melody–and am always open to collaborate with other musicians.

And finally, I’d like to keep developing my own music and create art for the sake of art. After all, that’s the reason I started playing music in the first place!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the music industry, it’s that these days nothing stays the same for long. Multiple streams of income makes it easier to adapt. Owning the rights to my albums means I can exploit them however I see fit in the future. Playing a lot of gigs with a lot of different bands prepares me for bigger, higher paying gigs. If any of these miscellaneous jobs turn into a bigger gig, I’ll be prepared for that, too. I can’t control when opportunity will knock, but I know I’ll be ready.

Half a Million Downloads and 500,000 Dilemmas

Allow me to start at the end:

And in the end, I feel conflicted about the project.  As I continue to build my songwriting career, I feel encouraged by the numbers.  500,000 people downloaded my music (and not the easy way – they had to create a profile on a single clunky website to get the songs).  400,000 people have watched my YouTube videos.

I don’t care what anybody says – you don’t get those numbers with crappy music.  Someday, maybe, people will say, “Man, did you know that Dave Hahn had a million YouTube views before he ever had a hit?”

On the other hand, in the two years I’ve been working on the project, I’ve made $673.02.

$673.02 is about what it costs to live in Manhattan for 4 days.

Intro

This is essentially a story about a side project that took off.  And it’s about the state of the music industry today.  And it’s about fart jokes.  Well, not fart jokes, but whatever the musical equivalent of fart jokes is. Which is:

Ringtones.

Ringtones?

I was bored, maybe. I had been ignoring my songwriting side for too long.  I had spent all my time hustling after gigs on Broadway and no time on music that I really loved (no offense, Broadway).

Songs started coming out. Silly ones at first. Goofy ones. Marginally inappropriate ones. But all catchy. And they were funny – some of them very funny.

So I started recording them and showing my friends on Facebook.  And people liked them! 300 downloads in an hour – that kind of liked them.

It’s fun to make things that people like, so I made more.  They were just 30-second joke songs.  It occurred to me that they’d make great ringtones, so I started writing them with that in mind.  I made about 30 of them in, I think, about 2 weeks.

If you’d like, you can listen to them here.

My friends wanted to know how to get them on their phones – and what could I tell them?  How would I know?  I’m not a phone expert.

The Rush

So I found a site that would let me distribute homemade ringtones – Myxer.com.  I put them up for free and my friends would download them to their phones.  But then everybody seemed to get into it – 2,000 downloads a day, that kind of everybody.

I thought, “Wow, cool. Goofy or not, these are songs I wrote and people really dig them. That’s a really great feeling.”

And also: “There’s a real demand here.  I could start a whole business.  I’ll have my friend make a logo. I’ll make a website.  I’ll start developing an app.”

And finally: “I’ll just charge $1 each. Perhaps I won’t get 2,000 downloads a day, but surely a percentage of these people will pay $1 for these songs.”

But I was wrong.  People wouldn’t pay a dollar.  Downloads fell immediately to maybe six a day, then nothing.  I made the price just $0.50 each – still nothing.  I put it back to free for a day and within a few hours the rush was back. 2,000 a day or more.

Part of the problem was Myxer – they promote free ringtones on their home page and dismiss the premium ringtones to the abyss of invisible content standing dormant in the innards of their site.

And part of the problem was the medium.  You can sell ringtones yourself, but there’s two problems:

  1. There are more than 50 different ringtone file formats used in the world. Which is difficult enough in itself, but then it’s combined with #2…
  2. As I described before, people want to know how to get your ringtone on their 1997 Zach Morris brick phone (or similar), which you don’t know how to do – especially for 2,000 people a day.

I’m sure you can picture the dilemma. I had to use Myxer, but Myxer was no help.

“Ok, fine,” I thought, “I don’t care if people ever hear this music. If somebody wants the ringtone on their phone it costs $1.” It stayed like that for awhile.  I made maybe $0.90 a month.

My Wise Friend

A little while later a songwriter friend came to stay with me. I told him the story, complete with my indignation over the unfairness of Myxer and those fickle ringtone consumers!

He said, “Look, man, you’re a songwriter.  Would you rather have 2,000 people a day hear your music, or 3 people a day?”

And, wisely, “How much money would you pay to have 2,000 people a day listen to your music? Would you pay $0.90?”

I felt like he made a good point.  And what was there to do? By then I’d submitted the songs to all the placement services I knew of at the time – without any responses back.  They’d be great in a cell phone commercial, I imagined, but landing a major corporate placement was a big leap from my little perch in the Broadway scene. I was now selling them on the iTunes Ringtone Store through Tunecore, but marketing options were limited (ie, you can’t link to a ringtone in the iTunes Store – hell, you can’t even see them unless you are looking at iTunes from a mobile device).

So I made them free.

And I promoted them.  I created YouTube videos for them. For awhile I had a whole site for them (now absorbed into Songwriter.fm). I released a 22-track, mastered album (with commissioned album art even!) of these funny ringtones.

Counterintuitively, making the ringtones free and promoting them actually helped grow sales in the iTunes Store (perhaps an important lesson in itself).  These days the Tunecore revenue is around $80-100/month. And the YouTube channel brings in ad revenue – a humble amount I’m not allowed to disclose as part of the standard Adsense contract.

And now they’ve been downloaded to 500,000 cell phones worldwide.  They’ve been viewed on YouTube 400,000 times.

And I’ve made a profit of $673.02.

Conclusion

So, in the end, you already know how I feel. I think I’ve succeeded (in a quirky, farty-joke kind of way) as a songwriter on this project. I wrote songs people like to listen to – songs people share with their friends. That is a difficult thing to do in any format or any genre.

But I didn’t make much money. And maybe that’s just how it goes this time. Maybe that’s what I get for making musical fart jokes. If I’d written an ALBUM (like a NORMAL HUMAN BEING) that was formally downloaded 500k times, I might have a different story to tell.

So maybe that’s what I’ll do.

What would you do?

How I’m Building a Career as a Songwriter

You know what I would have loved? I would have loved to have been part of the Brill Building history between the 1940s and the 1960s – where some of America’s most popular songs were written. If you don’t know the history, check it out on Wikipedia.

Just a taste:

By 1962 the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses: A musician could find a publisher and printer, cut a demo, promote the record and cut a deal with radio promoters, all within this one building.

Or you know what also would be have great? Jingle writing between the 1940s and 1980s. What a sweet time to be a songwriter or a studio musician. Writing songs, recording them, hearing yourself on the radio, collecting big royalty checks – man, that would have been cool.

But, alas, that era was very short-lived and we were not lucky enough to be a part of it. So what do we do?

I’m not satisfied to just throw my hat in and say that it’s too hard to work as a songwriter. There are people out there doing it, and if they can do it so can I.

I’m going for it.

The Goal and Strategy

Let me be clear: I don’t want to be a singer-songwriter. I want to be a songwriter. I want other people to perform my songs. I know full well that I have limited skills as an entertainer, and I know my place.

My goal is to have recording artists cover my songs on their albums, secure film and television placements for my music, and to work professionally as a songwriter and composer. A difficult goal, to be sure.

People don’t know what you want unless you tell them. So that’s what I figured I’d do. I decided I would show people my music, tell them what I want, ask them to help me, and see what happens.

The Tools

Songwriter.fm

I know about how to build a website, so I started there. I searched for the right URL to purchase and, to my complete surprise, I was lucky enough to secure Songwriter.fm. I can’t believe that URL had not already been taken by a Silicon Valley start up, but I’m glad to have it.

I build a site there using WordPress and a $30 theme from ThemeForest.com. The theme has a nice structure featuring a portfolio, a contact form and a blog. I added an “About” page, found some photos to use and set it all up. The website took me about a day to put together.

In the portfolio section I put all of the songs I want to showcase. For many of them I included a free mp3 download, lyrics, chords and even sheet music. I used Soundcloud players for the recordings – and made sure I used the HTML5 players so that they would work on iPads, iPods and iPhones.

Autoresponder Email List

Next I set up an email list through Mailchimp.com.

I want people to listen to my music, but I can’t expect to just put it on a website and have people listen through it one by one. People are busy.

So I set up an “autoresponder” email list that would help. Everyone on the email list is sent a free download of one of my songs – complete with a little description, photo, lyrics, chords and sheet music – once a week.

Everyone on the list gets the songs in the same order, one at a time, once a week. It’s a playlist of songs, but doled out in a way that’s not overwhelming to listeners busy schedules. People may not sit on Songwriter.fm and listen to every one of my songs in an afternoon – but, sure, they’ll listen to one of my songs once a week.

In each email I make sure to reiterate my goal. If the reader likes it – consider covering it on your next album. Would it fit in a film or commercial you’re putting together? Great, hit reply. Know anyone that could help place this song? Pass it on.

Soundcloud, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blogging, RSS feeds

Sure, I’m not an entertainer. Hell, I’m not even much of a singer. But unless I sing my songs and get them out in the world – no one’s going to ever know about them.

So guess who’s singing now?

I put my tunes on Soundcloud. I set up a Facebook page. I make videos for YouTube.

When I find a song I like, or a record a new demo of a work-in-progress, I put it up on the Songwriter.fm blog. The blog posts feed to Twitter and Facebook through Twitterfeed.com.

Getting Involved in the Community

The best way to get a gig as a songwriter is to know other people who are gigging as songwriters. I know I need to get involved in the community.

I sang a few weeks ago at the Sunday night singer-songwriter open mic at the Bitter End in NYC. Boy, that made me nervous. For a guy who’s used to performing 8 shows a week on Broadway you’d think I’d be cooler about it, but I was shaking in my boots.

I tried to think of resources that might be helpful to other songwriters. When American Songwriter magazine comes out I like to make a Spotify playlist of all the music mentioned in the issue, then post a link to the playlist on the Songwriter.fm blog.

I put my songwriting friends new songs up on the Songwriter.fm blog – and those posts, too, get sent out through Twitter and Facebook.

Making Quality Recordings

The recordings I have of most of my songs are demo quality. Creating radio quality recordings is much easier today than it was 20 years ago – so much easier that it’s become expected. I know that most of my demos aren’t going to cut it.

So I’ve started reaching out to producers in Chicago, Nashville and New York (to start). I’m hiring them to arrange, produce and record my songs in their studios. I leave the song treatment completely up to them. I tell them only this: Our goal here is to get a film or TV placement. Make me a recording of this song that I can pitch to FTV.

I give them a lump sum upfront and, if the song is placed in FTV, I promise them a higher-than-average percentage of the gross income on the master side. My hope is that it gives the producers a higher-than-average incentive to pitch their recording to their FTV contacts as well.

Submitting Recordings to Placement Services

I’ve submitted music to PumpAudio, YouLicense and similar services. I find the process incredibly tedious and (especially with PumpAudio) painfully slow. It feels a lot like throwing a penny into a well and hoping to one day get your wish.

I have not joined Taxi, and I suspect I never will. Their claims are just too good to be true, and there is too much noise about their service being a complete scam. It’s too expensive of a service to take a chance on. It’s like throwing $300 into the well instead of a penny.

There are better placement services out there, but it will take me some time to garner their attention. I’m hoping that the portfolio I’ve built at Songwriter.fm will help me pitch to them when the time comes.

Submitting to Songwriting Competitions

This is a tough one, because it costs money. Most competitions cost between $15 and $35 to submit a song. It’s difficult to know which songs might work in which competition, so it’s tempting to submit multiple songs to each competition.

This part of the strategy seems like an expensive crap shoot to me. The quality of a song is a really subjective thing, and if I win one of these things it might just be because the gods smiled on me that day. Who knows?

But if I do win…well, that would be great. There’s always a chance – so I do it (sparingly).

A few months ago I submitted a song to the Song of the Year competition. I received the Suggested Artist Award, which I understand puts me in the top 5% of the contest.

But, I ask rhetorically: who cares? Unless you win the top prize on one of these competitions it doesn’t mean much.

Writing for Musical Theatre

Consider this:

  • The movie Titanic, since it’s release in 1997, has grossed $658 million in box office results. Very impressive.
  • The musical Mamma Mia, since it’s opening in Toronto in 2000, has grossed over $2 billion worldwide. Much more impressive.

I’m not saying that I can write the next Mamma Mia or Wicked, all I’m saying is that it’s worth trying. I’d settle for 0.1% of the financial success of Mamma Mia ($2 million, for those of you adding it up in your heads).

I’ve worked in musical theatre a long time. I’ve studied the form and tradition. I’ve conducted shows on Broadway. I write music – why not write a musical?

I have two in the works right now. Why not? The best way to fail at writing a musical would be never to try at all.

Next Steps

Songwriting & composition is what I’ve always wanted to do. Nothing compares to the elevated feeling that accompanies creation, and for me that feeling is strongest when I write music.

Becoming a professional songwriter seems like an impossible challenge, but I think with the plan and tools that I’ve described above will help me start the journey.

I hope you’ll visit Songwriter.fm and let me know what you think. If you are a performer or recording artist I hope you’ll check out my songs. If you are a songwriter I hope you’ll get in touch with me.