Making a Living Out of Music – You Can’t
The title of this article is not meant to discourage, but more to start with an injection of realism. Most of us have been sucked into streaming music at little or no cost to ourselves, so it would be somewhat hypocritical to lay the responsibility for the de-commoditisation of music entirely at the door of those who were previously accustomed to buying it, and those who do not remember when that was the case. However, we have to at least acknowledge that if there is going to be a strong independent music scene, we have to continue to support independent musicians financially in some way.
Music has never been easier for fans to access, and technically it has never been easier and more cost effective for musicians to create. But there is a cost, and it is largely being borne by the musicians themselves. I promise you this is not the start of a gargantuan whinge, but before continuing this piece I thought it would be useful to list as many of the costs as I could think of off the top of my head. Some are directly relevant to making records, some are just essential costs of creating music in the first place, and this is by no means a definitive list:
- Instruments and equipment
- Marketing and promotion
- Live performances
- Accommodation and subsistence
- Book keeping
Yes, time. Few people really consider the time it takes to create the music they listen to. The reality for most musicians is that they are not able to afford to create music without holding down a steady job, or having a second source of income. More often than not it takes a primary source of income to be able to afford to then pursue a life of making music. I am lucky enough to run my own business, and that is what has sustained my music activities since 2014. Music is one of my loves but it is not my living.
It took me a total of 26 months to record my 2018 double album ‘The Breeding Ground Of Vile’. The album comprises 24 tracks. The first songs for the album were written in a holiday cottage in North Wales in the early Spring of 2016 just before the release of my debut album ‘Moorscape’. Later that year I wrote seven songs in a seven day break in the English Lake District. Between those two holidays I was continuously writing, and because some songs didn’t quite meet the album’s theme of protest or its mood, they were set aside for simultaneous EP projects. So Dry The Life was released in January 2017 and The Madness in January 2018.
During those 26 months, my business took me to the USA and Canada, Hong Kong, Kosovo, to Macedonia, Ukraine, Moldova, Mongolia, and Georgia while at the same time managing multiple academic courses in International Trade. I spent most of those months knackered, because when I wasn’t travelling somewhere I was over at HeyGamal’s studio or occasionally driving out into the middle of nowhere with either him or my son Duncan to shoot video footage in interesting places and occasionally to remind ourselves there is also a wonderful life outside of music. But don’t think for one minute that I wasn’t immersed in the making of the album while I was doing all that other stuff. Making records is an all consuming process because you want to represent your art in the best possible way. 26 months means 26 months, even though the actual recording and mixing time during that period was probably only around a month. It never leaves you alone.
One of the true benefits of making music in these last few years is that it has made me better at doing my day job: more focused, more organised, more efficient, and more confident. I have never liked doing things twice and have always operated efficiently because my business is just me, and my reputation and knowledge is what sells my services. However, since 2014 all I have really wanted to spend my life doing is making more music, so I try to work smarter to make sure I can get back to writing or recording. When I’m working, I’m working. When I’m doing music, I’m doing music and the separation of those two parts of my life has helped me to be more efficient with both.
As I write, I have a collection of around 80 sets of song lyrics or completed songs that have not yet seen the light of day. I have a collaborative recording project currently in progress but I also want to get out there and play my songs live, both with and without some or all of The Folded Arms, and to record more of the material I have written. I self-promote, and that always eats up far more time than ever you anticipate. I am burning the candle at both ends because I love what I do.
It is my choice and my preference to be fiercely independent. It’s how I have lived most of my working life. Having run my own business since 2002 I am accustomed to self promotion and that has really helped in putting together the elements that are needed to promote my music as cost effectively as possible. I accepted early on that I may never recover the cost of making my music, so as long as I am working I will be able to afford to do what I do.
I know that crowd funding is one way which musicians have used to afford to carry on, but it has never been a process that fits well with me. I guess I don’t want to be beholding to other people, and to have to return to the same supporters whenever I have a new project, but that’s just a personal preference and how I am made. The roots of that conditioning are based back in the 1980s where I took a job interview with a financial services firm who expected me to sell their products to family and friends. That’s how crowd funding feels to me in its earliest stages, although I know some musicians have found it invaluable and have built a large fan base on the back of it. Good luck to them all!
Now most readers won’t have got this far, so thank you if you did. One of the diseases of modern life is that people no longer seem to give things time. They skim the pages of books, believe newspaper headlines that frequently contradict the body of an article, walk out of a gig if the first impression of the performer is unfavourable, and if a recorded song doesn’t grab within the first few seconds they move on. Now try getting someone to listen intently to a whole album and to buy into its messages.
So here’s my plea. I’m not asking for money. I would just like you to share this article with five other musicians to show they are not alone. It shows what life is like for a musician who CAN afford to make music. Think now about those who have no resource but a huge creative contribution to make. Think about what will happen to music, and what is already happening, if you do not support independent artists in one way or another. Think about all today’s top musicians of whatever genre, how they got to where they are today, and where they started. Most were like you and me. Then think carefully about the alternative to independent music, which is the diet of overproduced, manufactured, industry compliant ‘bland’ that swamps our airwaves, internet and TV advertising. Then realise that while you may not make a bag full of money, you can really make a difference if you stick at your task. Because this is not about the money, it’s about your art….
…and please, LIKE, SHARE, SUBSCRIBE, RECOMMEND, AND BUY music by independent musicians. They are the future of music.