Making Money In Music: an email to a friend

Got asked a question around 2008/2009 about whether money can be made doing a band. I sent an email to the dude, he translated it and posted it on a message board in some frostbitten nordic country, and it became briefly popular. It’s a bit of a historical piece, there’s sections about how to go about selling CDs. It’s funny reading back on it, I had some things to say about the future of a few bands…was I correct, or flat-out dead wrong?  Here it is unedited:

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No, there ain’t much to make for most bands, especially extreme metal.
But I’ve worked out how to do it.

1. Your band must be different.

If I walk into a room with my eyes closed while you’re playing, I have to know it’s your band and no-one else. If you are copying someone else 9/10 times your career is short-lived and you’ll be living off the crumbs of whoever invented the style you play. Yeah, Attack Attack are playing Vans Tour and Suicide Silence are touring the world. Their labels are probably funding it which means they’re living off debt to their labels. Let’s see where they are in another 3 years…which brings me to…

2. You need to put in at least 2-5 years of work before you start seeing results.

The exceptions to this are few. But a band – like most businesses – will tend not to make profit during its first few years. If your band can’t stick at playing for this long then you don’t get to starting reaping rewards. Doing a band is like running a long PR marketing campaign, and the longer your campaign runs the more customers/fans you have and the larger your income becomes

3. You either need to get a business mindset and learn the money side of the band, or employ someone you TRUST 100,000% to take care of it for you…and then make them explain everything they do

Labels like nothing better than hearing a band say “we just want to play for the music, man”. Money will be made, but if a band says that then the label and promoters will be happy to take that money off your hands. The more money you have and less financial hardships you encounter the better you can follow step 2. You need to learn about publishing, tax, applying for grants (even metallers can get arts grants! – Coroner and Psycroptic are two that spring to mind) and so on. Never sign a contract – EVER – unless someone super-experienced is reading and advising, or a professional. By super-experienced, I mean someone like my buddy Leon in Mithras who runs a magazine/label/successful band, not some friend who has done a few gigs.

Now I’ve got the mindset out of the way, here’s the practical steps…

4. Tour, tour, tour, tour, tour.

It is still the best way of promotion. Getting a headline show or headline small festival slot puts you on the path to doing a headline tour or headline big festival, where the decent appearance fees lie! And you improve sales of merchandise whenever you play (Berzerker sold 1700 pounds worth of merch at Damnation last year, a band like Cradle of Filth or Carcass do a LOT more). You also shift CDs when on the road, and a large CD sales figure is still the best way to open doors to bigger promotions, appearances, awards, and opportunities. Met with a lot of the big bands at Brutal Assault and they tour 6-18 months straight. That is what you need to do if you want to get to the size

4. when starting off, money comes from merchandise. At the next step, money also starts coming in from decent show fees. And when you get even bigger, THEN you see money from CDs.

Merchandise is important for getting off the first step. Pay SUPER CAREFUL ATTENTION to your merchandise. You want a great design on your shirts. You want a range of goods with a range of prices so not everyone is excluded – cigarette lighters, badges, patches, shirts, hoodies. You want to have a great merch display at every gig so people are attracted to your stand and WANT to buy stuff, and have all of you helping out during peak times so that anyone wanting to buy stuff can. Get hot girls to work your stand, make all your displays colorful and interesting, hang your shirts where everyone can see them, and make sure they’re well lit. Berzerker often outsold all other bands on tour, just because we paid attention to our merch. Skinless had a great tactic of setting up a tv at their stand with a dvd player showing their own DVD, or porn. People would swarm their desk like it was a human buglight and they sold heaps.

CDs are an essential product and the object of being a musician. Be aware though it is a complimentary income stream. Don’t expect an income off them, unless you’re on the road…and even then it will be a smaller income than selling shirts.

5. money from CDs

the only real money you get from CDs when you’re with a label is to own your own publishing and have the rights to ‘mechanicals’ (mechanicals are when a label pays you for every CD of yours printed). If you sign over your publishing and mechanicals when you’re with a label you will not get any money from your CDs, ever. Simple as that. Even when a label owes you money you will have to fight and scream at them for it. You will only make money from actual CD sales when there are shitloads of them and you are either brutal and savvy enough to extract the money from the label, or if you have a GOOD manager. An example of a good manager is Gunter Ford (Morbid Angel, Nile) who loves going into random record stores then calling Earache and screeching at them if his artists aren’t stocked there.

However please be aware that it’s a new world we’re in, what with online sales and so on. It is entirely possible to sell all your CDs yourself. A label can give you good promotion and advance your career extremely quickly…but at the cost of an income. Doing it yourself can give you a steady transparent income with no obligations, but will take longer. It is entirely possible that younger people and bands will adapt to the new playing field and work out more effective ways of getting an income from music than through a label.

Also be aware that publishing is the key. Music can be used on TV, in movies, and especially in GAMES. If you tap that, then there is a great income.

The way I’m doing it now with my bands is to play just a few times a year and not commit to tours. I’m lucky to be part of known bands. That way, I can do my normal job for an income but get a few extra grand doing my other band projects. I could make a fair bit more, probably enough to live on if I did them full time – but I don’t enjoy touring enough for that to be an option and you need to enjoy touring if you want to make a living.

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