It takes a lot less time than most people realize to start making a regular income from music. In this digital age of production, delivery, and access, it is easier than ever to get your songs from the inspiration stage to a monthly bank deposit. It may seem daunting, watching the success of your musical influences and knowing that hundreds of thousands of dollars went into promoting them to cultural relevance, but if you start with a lean budget and use the right channels, you can begin making small profits from music almost immediately. Let’s explore a few of the steps you can follow to take your music from just a bedroom hobby into a legitimate side hustle.
1. Keep your recording and production costs low.
This probably goes without saying, “buy low, sell high!” but it’s amazing to me how many artists think they need a top-of-the-line studio to cut a record. Yes, professional engineers and producers with decades of experience are worth it for the already successful, but ask yourself if your expected sales at your current popularity are going to cover that expense. If they can’t, do the math and find someone within a realistic budget. The reality is that even though having someone’s trained ears on the knobs is beneficial, some of the last decade’s super-hits were made on a MacBook Pro with a decent set of headphones and a USB microphone (Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” for example). Truth be told, the music will shine through no matter how much money went into the production and frankly, a lot of over-the-top production is there to mask the fact that the songwriting isn’t very strong to begin with. Consider that if you don’t carry a large recording or mastering debt into your album’s release, you will start turning a profit sooner, a profit you can save towards stepping your studio game up on the next record.
2. Save the physical configurations for when you can afford it.
Even at the highest volume discounts, CDs and Vinyl are very expensive for folks with a dream and a handful of gigs. Unless you have a distributor that will ship thousands of copies to retail stores across the country or around the world, physical configurations of your album are a money pit. The dream of holding your first album in your hands is real however, and for those purposes you can work with someone like IndiePool and their SMRT (Sustainable Music Reproduction Technology) system. It’s an upfront fee for a very small run of CDs, and then a less expensive reorder per unit price with no minimums. If you really must have physical products, but no pre-existing sales channel, a system like this makes the most sense. Order low quantities when you need them, and don’t end up with thousands of unsellable units in your mom’s basement. They also do vinyl but be sure you have a fan base that will spend a premium price to take home your work in this format because short run vinyl is a hefty investment. That said, if you don’t put your music on a disc of some kind, what else is there?
3. In a digital world, the internet is king.
There are many avenues to getting your music out to the online marketplace and in front of your potential fans. These models vary from up-front pricing to a percentage of sales, and every combination thereof. This is where your first revenue streams will get established, so choose wisely based on your current situation. Be honest with yourself. If there are less than 25,000 views on your last YouTube video nobody is going to be interested in a %-only distribution deal. No matter how fire your mixtape is, without a track record of sales to sink their teeth into you’re going to be paying for access to the marketplace. Again, IndiePool is a great way to get your music up for Streaming (Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music), and Digital Download (iTunes, Amazon and others). If you’re already taking my suggestion on a short run of physical product from them, IndiePool charges a small increase to add digital distribution to your package. Then again, if you are doing digital only there might be an online service that will do the job with more immediate detail and reports you can plan your strategy around. TuneCore is a prime example of such a service. They provide daily sales trends so you can see popularity spikes and plan a tour to support unexpected fan bases. Sell 50 tracks and 10 albums in Albuquerque, NM or discover 100,000 streams in Sweden? Screen capture that report and send it to venues in the area so you can show salability. Actionable information is worth every penny you spend on it and the digital landscape is full of it, most in near real time.
4. I’ve got my music online, now what?
You’ve got your sales and streaming channels established, now how do you drive traffic to those offerings? The answer to this is as complex and numbered as the genres that make up all of recorded music history. But to answer it for yourself think about this: Where do you discover new music? Is it a radio DJ? Podcast? Do you explore playlists on streaming services like Google Play or Apple Music? Do you listen to the New Music Weekly or customized Release Radar on Spotify? The folks who curate these are always looking for new music to feature. If you’ve got your music in an easy place for them to grab it, send them an email or use their online submission tool and pitch your tracks for their next session. CD Baby’s DIY Musician blog covers this in more detail. Getting included in a playlist with hundreds of thousands of subscribers will get you more exposure than being on the road playing bars with 100 person headcounts all year long, and if it’s the right playlist, they will be fans of your style already, easily converted into grassroots promoters of your catalog. Best of all, these avenues are free. If your music is really great, has a good groove with a solid message, you should have no problem accessing a few blogs and playlists to grow your listeners and increase your cash flow.
5. Get out evenings and weekends and hustle smart.
Maybe you don’t have full-time hours to dedicate to the promotion of your music, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time and make connections in your off-hours. Check out the music organizations that represent your territory and sign-up for some meet-and-greets. In Canada, CIMA (Canadian Independent Music Association) and SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) have a variety of year-round events to help you connect with folks to assist you in your grind. You don’t need a music publisher, an agent/manager, or even a record label to get your music placed in a Film, TV Show or in advertising, and all of this comes with a placement fee that will help your music turn a profit. CIMA also offers music export missions where you can showcase your art in other countries. If you have worldwide digital distribution already in place, these showcases can help you drive streams and sales in those markets. CIMA requires a membership fee, but SOCAN just requires you to be a member and register your songs so they can collect Performance royalties on your behalf.
6. Wait, what was that? Performance royalties? Can you explain?
Now we’re really getting into it. The area of royalties is where you’re going to see a major difference between hobby and hustle. It takes some work to get everything set up, but once these revenue streams are established, the residual income from your music can flow directly into your pockets. To really understand what your options are here takes years of study, but to summarize quickly here are the types of revenue-generating rights associated with your songs:
- Mechanical Rights – the right to reproduce/use the composition (ie cover your song or include your song in a compilation album)
- Synchronization Rights – the right to use the composition timed to video (ie film/tv/advertising)
- Master Recording Rights – the right to reproduce/use the actual recording you made (also right to sync recording to video)
- Performance Rights – the right to broadcast/play the composition you wrote
- Neighbouring Rights – the right of the recording owner and performers to get paid for broadcast/play of the recording
There are different types of licenses and agreements you can make in regards to these rights, and all are an opportunity for you to make passive income from your already recorded works. Services like YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music will pay out both a master recording royalty and a composition royalty within Canada. The master use comes in your sales reports from your distributor, but the performance royalty gets paid out a little differently. If you’re in Canada, the mechanical royalties for streams and digital downloads get paid by the services through the CMRRA (Canadian Mechanical Reproduction Rights Agency). If you don’t have a publishing deal for your catalog, you can register as your own publisher with CMRRA for free. Once your catalog is included in their database, this side of your royalties begins to show up in your bank account quarterly. If you’re in the United States, the label who released your works (in some cases, you) are responsible for the mechanical royalties. Let me say that again: If you are the songwriter and the label who released your works in the U.S.A., you pay yourself for digital downloads, which is obviously not nearly as lucrative.
To cover all your bases in the royalties sphere as a self-released artist, you can register with SOCAN, CMRRA, and a neighbouring rights organization like MROC (Musician Rights Organization of Canada) or The Recording Artists’ Collecting Society (RACS) a division of ACTRA. This should square you up to get all that is coming to you. The USA equivalents would be BMI or ASCAP, The Harry Fox Agency, and SoundExchange, the UK equivalents are MCPS/PRS for Music and PPL. Realistically you only need to join one of each for the global collection of their particular rights specialty, but remember each country has their own collectors that will take a cut before passing along the rest to your local agency. If you have a significant catalog generating a larger downline, it might be worth registering in each territory separately with a local mandate. For most self-released artists moving from hobbyist to hustler, this is a down-the-road kind of project. Getting registered locally is your first move and will suffice until you start seeing more significant returns.
7. Canadian Government Funding for the Arts
One of the best countries in the world to be an artist is Canada, in part because our deep seeded need to differentiate ourselves from Americans has led to the creation of many government-funded bodies that will give you money to create cultural content. When you’re just starting out, there are the Federal Canada Council for the Arts and FACTOR (The Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings). Both of these organizations help musicians achieve their goals by providing funding. The key here is that you have a goal. The projects that receive the most funding are those with a clear set of objectives, realistic budgets, and a realistic roadmap that is well thought out. If you’re more established, you can also try for The Radio Starmaker Fund, which requires a baseline sales threshold by genre to be met for eligibility. At a provincial level, each territory has its own funding bodies. In Ontario, there is the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC) which administers the Ontario Music Fund (OMF), but there is also the Ontario Arts Council. Then even municipally your city may have some funding available, like the Toronto Arts Council. The most common for artists just starting out is to create an Applicant and Artist profile page with FACTOR and receiving a “general” rating, which allows you to apply for some basic recording, marketing, or artist development expenses.
8. My catalog is available online, registered for royalties, and I’m playing shows or pitching songs whenever possible. Is there anything else I can do?
Now that you’ve got your various revenue streams set up and diversified, the best thing you can do is keep writing new songs. Improve your craft and team up with other songwriters you admire. Continue to get better and remember why you made music to begin with; the love of it! Your business is now established and your products can make it to market, so enjoy yourself and that joy will find an audience. The industry is a hustle, but keep your expenses low and your streams open and you’ll start being cash flow positive to truly go from hobby to hustle in just a few extra hours a week.
Got more to add? Find me on twitter and let me know what I missed to help more good people pursue their passion!