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Stan on guitar

what happened to selling my music?

I really don’t need to add to the fray regarding the possible demise of musicians making money by making their music. It’s been covered in so many ways: give your music away, piracy killed independent music, no it didn’t, and The Trichordist’s excellent essay on changes in the structure of payments to musicians for their recordings. Suffice it to say that CD sales appear to be falling and digital music is increasingly expected to be free. Whatever listeners pay for is clearly not padding the pockets of independent musicians.
Here are some suggestions to get the dialogue going — which I am happy to see taken to new heights or torn down because you’ve already tried them and seen them fail.I’m a musician. Stan on guitarAnd like so many musicians, I’m going to play music no matter what happens. So, if I can’t sell my music, how do I pay for groceries? What if I’m really investing my time in my music (and marketing it if I’m an independent) and don’t want to take a day job? Well, bad news. I don’t have a time-tested path for you to take. All I have are some suggestions and a desire to start a dialogue between independents that will allow us to create a community that can help each other with ideas, cooperation and creating new markets that will buoy up the musicians of the coming decade(s) both artistically and economically. I hope you’ll join in the conversation.


As Steve Birkett has already said, add diversity to your musical market. He includes format diversity, build in real world connections, you are more than music, make it community-based, and expand into other audiences. Steve’s insights are excellent. Check the comments on his post as he’s already started the dialogue that I’m looking for. Think about the other skills you’ve developed along the way ranging from digital studio recording engineer to blogging chops.


As we know from Amanda Palmer’s amazing kickstarter return, it is possible to crowd-fund a number of musical products. Your return may vary from Amanda’s, but it’s well worth a look. A few services provide crowd-funding that is musician specific (but note as you try to click through that some are out of business).


As has been popularized by services like ReverbNation, musicians can create a number of items on-demand that can be put up for sale on the web or at gigs. Ranging from CD’s to T-shirts, these can provide a simple way to have pocket cash … at least.


One income avenue if you write lyrics or songs is to license them to other artists, venues and companies. There are too many companies to list that will provide this service to you, but it’s a good idea to be signed up with BMI, ASCAP or another performing rights organization before you start licensing your songs.

Play live!

Yes, I know it may go without saying for some of you: playing live is still an option and some venues or sorts of gigs still pay a decent night’s wages. Weddings, private clubs, etc. almost always pay enough to do more than put strings on your guitar. Build your network in order to get connections at these venues. Don’t know how to build your network? Check out my post of networking tips for live gigs.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Now, it’s your turn? What other ways can independent musicians make a living while maintaining their freelancer approach to livelihood?


22 thoughts on “what happened to selling my music?”

  1. Great article, Stan. Thanks for getting the discussion going. I think that for a lot of musicians, the first step is making peace with the idea that the business of music has changed. It’s tough to see your business model implode in real time but at this point I also think it’s safe to say it’s not going to change.

    Lateral thinking (also annoyingly called “thinking outside the box”) is what’s required now.

    Musicians both indie and pro have always made more money in merchandising than record sales anyway. Having previously been part of a band that signed to Atlantic Records, I can say with great certainty that they (Atlantic) had little interest in my personal bank account. But looking at it as a means to end can be the start of bringing in some real money.

    Using the music as your (free) calling card is a good way to get people through the door. Once you have their attention, you have a lot more options. Things like working with local businesses to help attract attention, organizing festivals, licensing to TV shows and indie films, creating merchandise that can’t be overshadowed by digital downloads, etc will make all the difference.

    1. Thanks, Kevin. Yes, I think you’re right on target on all counts.

      It is difficult to shift our thinking and so the discussion has all the more potential to let musicians be part of creating a new paradigm. Your response again brings my focus to networking (in all its forms) and the significance it can play in giving musicians new avenues in which to create.

    2. Absolutely! Both to the original piece, Stan, and Kevin’s subsequent comment. I completely understand the obsession with getting paid for the music itself…it’s what artists pour their heart and soul into, spend the most money on, and generally the focus of 90% of what you do. BUT… if that’s not where the money is then you need to put some time into the business side and opening up the channels that do get the dollars flowing.

      None of this is easy but musicians aren’t alone. Many people are now finding that freelance skills need to be spread across more endeavors to make ends meet. In the long term, this will be to the benefit of those us seeking out new skills, sources of income, and forging connections to new communities.

      To further the specific dialog that you’re pursuing here, Stan, I’d add services like to the licensing category. It’s more for broader music sites than individual artists, but applying Kevin’s lateral thinking concept to this type of service could result in like-minded communities of artists setting up a website to cover their genre, region, or whatever musical passion binds their interests, to create a high traffic music site for a niche audience. They could shine the spotlight on each other’s work, more obscure new artists, even explore partnerships with local businesses to receive sponsorship, further diversifying sources of income from purely the advertising aspect of ToneFuse (or similar services).

      Hundreds more ideas of this ilk could spring up, were musicians and their supporters to gather together and look to the future, rather than bemoan the loss of a past that isn’t coming back. The beat starts here… 😉

      1. Thanks, Steve. I’m honored that this caught your eye given my debt to your previous posts on the subject (and noted in my post). Given the comments from Kevin and you, I’m looking forward to the rest of the discussion more than ever!

        I’ll definitely check out — thanks for that pointer.

        1. Yes, in all my rambling I neglected to say thank you for the mention. Cheers, much appreciated!

  2. Great post. I think the key to growth as a musician is also understanding music on a deeper cultural, almost scientific, level and exploring opportunities there such as music therapy, film scores, commercial applications and of course, education – especially teaching. Many great musicians completely overlook the teaching option and it is a great source of steady income.

    Because of advancements in home recording technology, music has become so diluted that, as you point out, it is now expected to be free. There is no turning back, I think we as musicians need to explore new ways to understand the value of what we do.

    The most often overlooked option for many musicians is teaching. It is an excellent and steady income source. Teaching music doesn’t have to mean how to play an instrument either, it could mean teaching composition, recording techniques, music theory, music appreciation, music history, or a whole host of yet unidentified subjects.

    Thanks for the great, thought provoking post.

    1. Thanks for your response and encouragement. It’s great to connect with you on the blogosphere!

      These are great additions for things musicians can do that are potential sources of income. Thanks for the reminder that teaching is such a great avenue. (I do it myself. Wonder why I forgot to include it in my post. Hmmm.)

      You rock!

  3. M.J.Murphy started getting into this – People don’t see a song as an object to own or collect anymore. To some it’s just a mood that excites or depresses regardless of the artist. To others it’s an idea and a social symbol. What and who you listen to is how you will be perceived to the world (thank you Spotify).
    But we all know this, and the idea of branding seems simple – yet it’s something that gets easily overlooked in the wake of writing, rehearsing, recording, booking, traveling, lack of funds, all the fun stuff.

    Smart branding can make even your neighbors garage band look like pros when you’ve been churning out masterpieces for years. Obviously the recordings will say differently but guess who’s getting clicked on first…
    Everyone knows the rules of looking like a “real” band (no brick wall photos, try to all look like the same band) but look even further at your associations. Do you post about events/products/news relevant to your fans? Do your color combinations on and off stage accurately represent your sound? Does your gear represent your look?

    Potential fans don’t know it, but they’re processing all of these things and many more into their perception of you before you’re ever heard, and long after. If the drummer for the cute soft-spoken female indie-folk singer shows up with a Ginger Baker Special for a simple kick and snare beat I’m spending my dollars on beer and not a CD.

    That’s my rant…please feel free to add on some branding/associations any good ones you’ve seen. Awful ones would be fun to hear too.

    MJ good looks on the other teaching ideas, I’ll definitely look into expanding my drum lessons to mixing/writing

    1. Thanks, Brian. That seems like the voice of experience and not (just) a rant to me.

      Yeah, branding is an important aspect of all of this and it gets plenty of hype. I wrote about it previously, so I wanted to move on to how musicians (solo or band) can continue to create income in ways other than full-blown day jobs. I can see that you are very progressed in terms of getting your music into the public ear, creating a name and more in terms of your music. Way to go!

      Once the band has started to align itself branding-wise, what do you see as the top options for money-making while music-making?

  4. Hi Stan, I’d also add COLLABORATE to the list of things to do to build a functioning music enterprise.
    We may be “independent” musicians, but we should be putting energy into creating an interdependent community. When you write or perform with someone else do basically open up your circle of supporters to them and visa-versa. It also increases your credibility as an artist the more people work with, the more people trust you with their music.
    Personally, I’m just starting to practice this in my life and it is working very well for me.

    1. I’m with you 100%. Networking and collaboration are essential elements even to the solo independent. It’s so true that there are many benefits to being a collaborator.

      Glad to hear it’s working for you. Just curious: what form of collaboration (you mention writing and performing) are the most rewarding for you?

      playful blessings,

      1. Thanks for asking, Stan. I just co-wrote a song with a guy I met at my local Christian songwriters association. It was a great experience brainstorming ideas for verses to go with the chorus and chord changes he had written. As a guy who has for the most part written alone for the past 30+ years it was a fantastic opportunity to use the techniques and creative ideas I’ve been wanting to share for decades. Plus the instant objective feedback made for some really intense and dramatic exchanges. Now his friends are becoming my friends and visa-versa. We are planing to perform this song together in the near future.
        As a singer-songwriter, one of the best things I can do is play my fellow singer-songwriters songs. It not only honors the writer, but it also gives them access to a wider fan base and instantly gets me in with their friends…hey, I’m covering their songs…check it out! I’ve noticed this happening on Youtube on an international basis, but I’m just starting to do it locally.
        Also, I have been developing a system for video production that just cries out for people to sing and play in front of the camera and mics I set up, this is a less than satisfying experience when done alone (or with just a camera operator in the room). What I am doing now is opening it up to my fellow players and singers and building a community around these “house Youtube taping parties”.
        As it grows and I post more videos, I’ll keep you in the loop, maybe I can encourage others to do the same type of thing.

  5. Came across your blog while shopping for a new computer> My bulletproof music xpc petium 4 machine is over 10 and ready for some easier work. How about Rain computers?? That’s how I ran into you–any connection–how about advice I need to run Pro Tools–I just had to return a dekk xps 8500-great kittlle computer-except for pro tools–kept loing track of my mbox2. L like the dialogue about paynig for my music habit–now that I am a retired schhol admin–I definitely need to pay for my new gear–I can’t even qualify for the pro tools educator deals any more–it may be time to Mac up since logic 9 is only 200 dollars.

    Keep the ball rolling–I’m out of the loop and info is the only cure.

    Thaks, Curt

    1. Hey, Curt,

      Good luck with the new computer shopping. I am happy to be connected with the team at Rain Computers, but only as a friend. So far, I have not used any of their systems. Based on specifications and reviews, they make fabulous systems. The people there are also awesome. That alone makes them worth considering.

      I can also tell you that ProTools is a great way to go. It’s still getting high marks in everything from small projects to the larger studios. Personally, I run it on a Mac, but have seen it many times on Windows working quite well.

      It sounds like you might want to consider a turnkey system (one where the software is pre-installed for you). That way, it will be fully supported by the vendor(s) involved.

      The most important thing is to get to the point that you can be making music.

      Best wishes,

  6. While I continue to develop a career of my own music, there are other facets that help pay the bills. I teach guitar lessons. I’m a production consultant for a small company that provides sales and marketing expertise to both independent and major labels. I work on jingles with a fellow musician working on her own music. And along with some other musician friends, I record niche oriented albums under different pseudonyms to create different brands (as well as avoid confusion with the brand I’m trying to establish with my music). If I have a slow month in any of these areas, I’m covered by the others.

    1. Sounds like you’re busy. 😉 Well done on the diversification.
      I’m not sure that I understand creating different brands for some of your albums. Seems like that might keep you from having a consistent fan base, but maybe you have a unified mailing list for all brands?

      Anyway, best of luck in all of your pursuits!

  7. Build your email list like your life depends on yourself, others, music related businesss’s,..etc… every email is like a brick in your building. Every additional 1000 e-mail addresses you have,increases your audience.And your ability to advertise and charge for it. Teach your fans how to be musicians. Put up videos of how to play your songs, let them spread the music …..have a session and invite fans to learn how to play a guitar. Have a local music shop sponsor the whole thing…Think if you had been doing this for five years…how many guitars do you think you might help them sell..How many people could say, that this band is the reason I can live, breathe and share music today, as they sing anoyher one of your songs…One last tip on songwriting…..Watch Tv for as long as you like and …skip the channel every sixty seconds, while writing down one sentence from eaach channel… 30 minutes, equals 30 new thoughts, ideas, or stories ….. The front page of almost any newspaper has at least one song title….I also ask people for song ideas, stories, or if they can give me a unique saying that they say among their friends, or an inside joke,…you’d be amazed at what comes back…peple and their stories are the best source for real time engagement…got it, now go write one !!!

    1. Many successful indies say that their email list is what got them what they got. Glad to hear from you verifying this approach!

      I really like your song ideas like pulling from the headlines.

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Jim!

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