Musicians have more ways to self-monetize than ever before, but all too often, it feels like that money is just out of reach. Putting out music yourself is not as hard as it used to be, but making money from that music takes a bit more work and know-how. It’s a minefield most artists still haven’t been able to navigate. The average musician still makes under $25,000 a year, with most of their money coming from live gigs.
There is no perfect guidebook on how to make oodles of cash from your music, but there are some best practices to make sure you get a return for the work you put in. Recently, The Verge hosted a panel at Winter Music Conference with music lawyer Kurosh Nasseri, Amuse CEO Diego Farias, SoundCloud artist relations manager Nick Tsirimokos, and Dubset VP of artist relations Clark Warner to lay out some things DIY artists should do to make more money in music. Here are four takeaways from the discussion.
Think ahead about the boring stuff
Lots of artists get swept up in the creative process, but they don’t think ahead about how titles and percentages will work once a song is finished. If you’re working alone, that’s less of a problem. But if you’re working with other people, Nasseri says it’s essential to have a conversation about who did what. He recommends drawing up a publishing split sheet in the studio, a document that states who wrote what percentage of the song.
“Have one piece of paper,” says Nasseri, “where you say who did what and what percent each person gets. Countless times, I’ve seen misunderstandings of conversations that happen in the room shift to affecting actual payments someone receives. Just have this one piece of paper, make everyone sign it, and take a photo.” Songtrust offers a simple PDF split sheet template, and Sonicbids has instructions for writing up a more robust agreement.
While you’re at it, make sure you’ve read up on how to collect royalties once your music is released. A 2015 Berklee College of Music report said that 20 to 50 percent of music payments don’t make it to their rightful owners. A lot of that is due to musicians not knowing how money flows when their song is played, or what agencies to sign up with so money is collected on their behalf. To start, Royalty Exchange has an easy-to-understand overview of how music royalties work. Singer and songwriter Ari Herstand has also compiled a very detailed list of where to register in order to track all of your royalties.
Know your platforms
Distribution is not marketing. Making sure your music appears everywhere isn’t enough. You have to know how each channel works and decide where it’s worth investing some extra effort.
Succeeding on one platform doesn’t mean you’ll succeed on another, as each favors different strategies. SoundCloud’s algorithm favors commenting and other forms of social engagement, for example, while getting added to curated playlists can be key for exposure on Spotify. Chance the Rapper’s trajectory to success was so tied to SoundCloud that he gave it a shoutout after receiving a Grammy in 2017. Meanwhile, other artists like DJ and producer NGHTMRE see numbers skew heavily toward Spotify. There, his music is currently featured on 32 curated Spotify playlists.
“The strategy to succeed on SoundCloud is not the same as the strategy to succeed on Apple Music or on Spotify,” says Tsirimokos. “We had this one artist who was signed to SoundCloud Premier but was not performing well. When I went to check out her account, I saw she wasn’t interacting with anyone. SoundCloud is big on social interaction. Our algorithm is most informed by commenting. Then, the more you can give the algorithm by tagging tracks or following people, the better it will get at suggesting your SoundCloud to other people who are interested in what you make. If you just sit back and relax, you won’t get the same result. She started making these changes, and her next payout was much higher.”
Outside of the big platforms everyone knows, there are also scores of more niche places where fans of genres are hyper-concentrated. The platform with the most users might not be the best place to market yourself starting out — you could get more exposure elsewhere. “Today, artists have so many possibilities to reach more people without a barrier or a cost,” says Warner. “And where you have impact could be places like Beatport or Mixcloud. What platforms reflect your identity? Smaller, more specific communities are great places to share what you’re about and directly talk to people interested in what you’re doing.”
Also, make sure to claim your accounts where possible. Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora AMP (through Next Big Sound) all have artist interfaces that can help you maximize your efforts through data insights, customizing your profile, and access to marketing tools.
Think about alternate revenue streams
Most DIY artists have multiple revenue streams. The most common way for musicians to make money outside of royalties comes from live performance fees, but that’s only one avenue to pursue. The Future of Music Coalition has identified 42 different revenue streams that are available to US-based musicians, covering things like merchandising, producing music for other acts, and direct payments from fans via subscription platforms like Patreon. The rise of microinfluencers also means that you don’t need a million followers to get opportunities like brand partnerships.
Every addition does take up more time, so Tsirimokos suggests looking at how you can repurpose or get extra mileage out of work you’ve already done. “Sample packs are a smart way to create additional revenue,” he says, as an example. “If you release an album, you’ve already made the sounds. Why not separately release a sample pack with sounds from that album?” Splice and Sounds.com are two popular online marketplaces where you can sell and market sample packs.
Make sure you read your contracts
Not all DIY artists can afford to have a lawyer look over every piece of paperwork that’s put in front of them. If you can, great. If you can’t, our panelists recommend that you at least show contracts to other people that you trust, look up terms that you don’t understand, and ask as many questions as possible before you sign anything. This feels like obvious advice, but as Farias rightly points out: “So many bad contracts have ruined careers.”
Last year, this happened at scale when lots of artists signed up to SoundCloud’s new self-monetization agreement and accepted the terms without reading the deal. Many didn’t realize the contract prevented them from suing the platform and gave SoundCloud the right to change payout rates whenever it wanted. Shortly after The Verge brought this to light, SoundCloud revamped the contract, making it fairer for those who signed up.
“We have more tools, but on the flip side, there is an information disadvantage when you’re a DIY artist,” says Farias. “There’s the creative side, which artists naturally excel at, and the back side, which is all business. You have to take the business side seriously because otherwise, you will run into problems left, right, front, center. I see people accept worse deals than what we offer them because they fundamentally don’t understand the business side of the industry in which they operate.”
Several sites have explainers to contract terms you might encounter, like Sound On Sound and Music Industry Inside Out. There are also resources like Lawyers for the Creative Arts that give pro bono legal assistance to artists. Once you apply and pay the $50 fee, LCA can then advise on anything from contract drafting and negotiation to rights clearance and fair use.