"How Musicians Make Money as Indie Artists" - Acoustic guitar teaching through a video call, waving to laptop

How Musicians Make Money as Indie Artists

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Truthfully, it can be difficult to make money as an indie artist. But, if you’re open to broadening the definition of what you do, it is possible to make money even in the current music landscape. Let’s explore some practical strategies for how musicians make money.

Digital presence and online revenue streams

Streaming and digital sales

In 2023, 84% of total music industry revenue came from streaming. Most of that money goes to the streaming platform and top artists. So, how can independent musicians make money? Income aside, it’s vital to have a presence on the music streaming services for performance royalties, as most people are using them. The services include Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, and Qobuz. It’s also important to maintain a presence on Bandcamp where you can sell physical products and digital downloads.

Promoting your music’s availability on streaming platforms via your social media profiles will help lead to more streams. You’ll also want to get your music on curated editorial playlists, create your own playlists featuring your music, and have fan-based groups on Discord and elsewhere where you can help encourage enthusiasm and keep people informed about your latest news.

Social media and online branding

While it doesn’t directly answer the question of “how do independent artists make money?”, social media is an important tool in the music business for engaging with listeners and building a fan base. The key is consistency. Keeping your fans regularly informed about your happenings will lead to more engagement.

The people who are most successful on social media as a musician keep their visual presentation consistent between platforms and have a two-way conversation with their audience. Aimee Mann posts hand-drawn comics on Instagram and acknowledges every comment, often responding. The band Pavement uses self-deprecating memes to poke fun at themselves and their aging audience, making everyone in their community feel as if they are in on the joke.

Digital merchandising

Selling merchandise is a solid revenue stream and another way how musicians make money. You can sell merch through your own website, Bandcamp, most social media pages, and now even Spotify. Be creative with your merch items! Robyn Hitchcock has sold tea towels, pillows, and socks. Supergrass sold an ironing board cover. Hamell on Trial sells stylized paintings he makes of famous people. Creative choices can boost your merchandise revenue.

Companies like Printful and Café Press allow you to print custom merch that doesn’t have to be ordered in advance. For in-hand items to sell at gigs, sites like MerchDirect and Merchly allow you to order merch in larger quantities.

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Grassroots strategies for local presence

Live performances and tours

Playing live is a tried-and-true method for how to make money with music. Inform your fanbase of your live performance gigs consistently so that people know to come out. If you are a new performing artist, you won’t want to tax your local fanbase too much with too many local performances. Focus on playing in a geographic spiral around your local region, hitting key areas once a month.

When booking gigs, remember to be polite, persistent, and (again) consistent in your efforts. Promote your events to your people with good humor and an attitude of attraction rather than self-promotion; use promotion as another opportunity to entertain your crowd. Resources like Tom Jackson’s Onstage Success can help you develop your live show in something that will keep your fans coming back for more.

Engaging with community

Engaging with your local community by connecting to organizations like social clubs, music-related retailers, charities, and neighborhood collectives will boost your local profile. Playing their events and even volunteering for them will help connect you to this community, and conversely, partnering and/or collaborating with them can benefit them as well. The more connected you are to your community, the more opportunities for income will come your way.

Physical media sales

How can musicians make money? In the past, the best income stream for the indie artist was selling physical products like CDs and vinyl records. It’s still a great option and viable income stream, even if it’s not the be-all end-all that it used to be. Fans love leaving a show with an actual tangible item, especially if it’s signed by the artist. You can also sell USB drives of music, download cards, and even cassettes.

Diverse income streams for indie artists

Teaching and workshops

When figuring out how musicians make money and applying this to yourself, one great option is teaching. There’s always a market for knowledge; people love to learn things. Teaching can take many forms, such as private music lessons, online subscription videos, in-person and online workshops, and writing books. Musician Mike Errico developed a teaching career as a songwriting professor and ended up writing an authoritative book on songwriting.

Licensing and publishing

Licensing your music to film and TV can be a decent source of income for many indie artists and extremely lucrative for some. You’ll need assistance from a licensing agent or company, as reaching music supervisors by yourself is nigh impossible. One thing you can do on your own is work with a digital distributor to make sure your music is available for use in Instagram reels and TikToks. This won’t bring in significant income, but it’s good for getting your music to a larger audience.

Brand partnerships and sponsorships

Collaborating with a brand is one way that musicians make money. Many brands will sponsor tour expenses and even pay for your merchandise manufacturing. Partner with a brand that might appeal to your audience for maximum benefit to you and the brand. For example, a jam band might partner with REI or a metal band might partner with Monster energy drinks.

Crowdfunding and fan support

While not necessarily a direct way to make money, crowdfunding recording projects can help launch your music into the world and thus create money-making opportunities. Kickstarter and its tiered method of fan bonuses is a great vehicle to provide unforgettable fan experiences. Rewards can be wacky, personalized, and often priceless (like custom artwork or private concerts).

Patreon is a solid answer to the question of “how do independent artists make money?” If you don’t know what it is, find out immediately. The possible monthly income can support an indie artist. Be careful, though, as doing it “per creation” can create a huge amount of monthly work for yourself. Getting more subscribers and charging a flat fee generally leads to a better quality of life and doesn’t overwhelm your followers with too much music, but it can be challenging to find the number of subscribers to make viable income that way also. Luckily Patreon is configurable and you can tailor it to what works for you and your audience.

Leveraging physical products

The value of CDs and vinyl in the digital age

When considering your music career and how musicians make money, the time-honored sales of physical products is still one of the best strategies for generating income. Both vinyl and CD sales rose last year. Vinyl has been rising since 2006, and CD sales increased for the first time in 20 years. There are many reasons why people like physical media: nostalgia, sound quality, the unreliability of digital storage, and the fun of it.

Even though sales are down from what they were in the past, the profit margin on physical media is still very high for the indie artist. If you manufacture 1000 CDs at a total cost per unit of $4 apiece (including recording costs) and sell them for $10, you’ll make a profit of $6 per unit when you sell them. Selling online will allow you to reach an audience outside of your touring area, while selling at shows is beneficial financially and helps build your audience.

Merchandising strategies

It can be confusing to know what types of merch you should make. When in doubt, ask for merch ideas from your audience directly at shows, via email, and on social media. Certain products are guaranteed sellers, like T-shirts, mugs, hats, and tote bags. What else you make depends on your audience and genre. Country bands might make beer cozies, jam bands might sell smoking pipes, an emo band could make handkerchiefs, etc.

Offering limited-edition, exclusive items aimed at your superfans is another way how musicians make money. Trent Reznor grossed $750,000 off a box set limited to 2500 copies. Robyn Hitchcock offered his fans an adventure trip to Africa where he performed live music nightly on the veldt. Even if you only have a handful of hardcore fans, offering a boutique item or service at a premium price is something that will interest them and make you money.

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As you can see, there are many ways for independent artists to make money. At Disc Makers, we’re here to ensure you have the best possible options, where it’s low-cost CDs in jackets, a great deal on custom vinyl records, other types of promotional materials.

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Chris Huff

About Chris Huff

Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 25 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and his full-length album, 'bout Time is available on iTunes.

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