Reality Check: Can I Make it as a Musician?

Reality Check: Can I Make it as a Musician?

I have two objectives with this post. First, I’d like to share with you some of the gross revenue data that I researched from more than 21,000 current registered artists with Pollstar. If you are not familiar with this website, please check it out at www.pollstar.com It is a great resource, and I highly encourage you to subscribe if you are serious about having a long-term music career. Secondly, I want to give you some specific numbers to help meet your goals.

Can I Survive on a Musician’s Income?

According to CNBC, the average American made $44,569.20 in 2014 while CNN reported the average household income for the same year as $53,657. The 2015 poverty line for a single person in Tennessee (tn.gov) was $11,770 (or roughly $1,000 a month). Many people I’ve spoken with who are here in Nashville pursuing music say that $1,500-1,800 a month is sufficient to live, work, rent an apartment, at least at the most basic level. Obviously, this number will increase for people living in other music cities like New York, Los Angeles, or London.

Shows per month are calculated (Shows per week x 4). These numbers are per individual. For a band, multiply each number by the number of people in the band. Add monthly budget for tour expenses if necessary.

Let’s use an example of a four-piece band performing three nights a week (or 12 shows per month). To live at a career level wage (national average), each person must be paid $232.13 per show. To meet the needs of all four members, the average show must net $928.52. That doesn’t seem unrealistic does it? It’s not. In fact, pollstar.com lists 18,612 separate acts making at least $1,000 per show. Below is a list of the number of acts that make between $1 and $5,000 per show.

All pollstar.com figures are averaged over the last three years so meeting these numbers is not only doable, it’s sustainable. These are all bands that are making a living at this full-time. Let's consider for a moment that a booking agent, a driver, or anyone assisting the band could be considered a "band member" as well. At $44,569 a year, a fair amount of help can be hired. A four-piece band with a tour manager, booking agent, merch manager, driver, and accountant could be calculated simply (perhaps a bit oversimply) by taking that same $232.13 and multiplying it by a factor of 9 (all 9 people involved). This would require the band making $2,089.17 per show. 

I could continue to add many people to this band and many more people to assist the band, but for the purpose of illustrating to you that this is entirely possible, let me show you a couple of more charts.

As you can see, there are plenty of bands out there at all levels, even some of these top earners like Eminem bringing in an average of $7.1 million per show, Garth Brooks at $6.4 million per show, AC/DC at $5 million per show, and even Rammstein bringing in $5 million per show. Wow!

So, let’s get back to how we are going to get paid $1,000 or $5,000 a show.

How do I get paid?

The most common ways to get paid are by tips, by guarantee (or fee), and by ticket sales. Tips agreements are the easiest to obtain, unfortunately producing the least reward. Good guarantees are the hardest to come by, though they are great for stability and knowing exactly how much you are getting paid (guarantees can be great for touring here or abroad). Finally, my personal favorite; ticket sales. While there is risk involved in ticket sales, this can be the most financially rewarding. I am a firm believer that those people who believe in and are willing to invest in their band, their band-mates, and their own talents, are best suited to booking ticketed shows.

TIPS: If you are playing downtown, playing coffeehouses, or busking you are probably familiar with getting paid by tips. People who play for tips are acutely aware that if there is no crowd, there are no tips. I'm a firm believer in tips being part of your total income, but not relying on situations where it's the only source of income.

GUARANTEE: While this is the most reliable way of getting paid, it is not easy to obtain nor is it necessarily the most profitable. Let's say band ABC has a track record (on pollster.com of course) of selling 130 tickets per show. At an average price of $10 per ticket, the band can expect to make about $1,300. However, some shows they may only make $500 and other days they may make $2,000. There is risk involved and everyone knows it; the band, the venue, and the promoter. A third party promoter may look at these numbers and offer the band a chance to play at a venue for $1,000. This is the guarantee. Should the band take it? Only they can decide that. If it's in their home town, absolutely not. But, if they feel it's a new venue with potential, the band may feel more comfortable letting the promoter take the risk in getting people to the show. The promoter is comfortable doing this because if the show grosses above $1,000, the promoter gets the additional profits. Needless to say, if you don't have a provable track record, expect the guarantees to be low or nonexistent.

TICKETS: In a ticketed show, your band is given either the guarantee shown above, or a percentage of ticket as income. If the latter is the case, you are the promoter. There may be fees involved like venue rental, sound, and lighting. Basically, you are paying everyone what they need to make the night work, and it's up to you to get people's butts in the seats...enough people to pay for your expenses, to pay your band, and to cover the percentage that the house takes. These contracts range from awful to fantastic, and it's up to you to know the difference. As I stated before, I am all for ticketed shows.

As you can see, ticket price has a huge impact on income. Selling tickets gets tricky, because you need to know several things:

  1. How many seats does the venue hold?
  2. What fees am I responsible for?
  3. What percentage is the venue taking?
  4. How many tickets do I first have to sell to offset my costs?
  5. What is the natural draw of the venue before I advertise the show?
  6. What are my expectations for the night?

As a final thought, keep in mind that setting up shows is not all about making money. It's about establishing relationships and nurturing those relationships so everyone walks away from the show feeling good; the fans, the band, the venue, and you. If you are offered $1,000 guarantee to fill a room of 300, but can only get 100 people there, don't take it. Yes, you'll get $1,000, but the promoter will not ask you back. It's better to work a ticketed arrangement where a $10 ticket @ 100 people can gross you $1,000. This is the kind of thinking that will get you invited back and keep your schedule booked for years to come.

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