This past week, Nicki Minaj perfectly summed up how decrepit the music industry has gotten in one Instagram post about her album, The Pink Print: "What happens when your album is streamed 70 million times?...Nothing, that's what." Of course, when an artist like Minaj is hurting from missed money-making opportunities, the situation is only more dire for independent musicians—especially ones left of center. As the profits a band or producer can expect to earn from record sales has dwindled over the past decade, artists have been forced to locate alternative revenue streams to enable them to continue making music. Some examples are well-documented, like Red Bull Music Academy's cultivation of emerging artists, and artists like Christopher Owens accepting modeling jobs with big name fashion houses to facilitate the "budgets to make exciting records."
Likewise, the art world continues to become more intertwined with music, providing new and often collaborative performance opportunities for artists, like MoMA PS1's Warm Up series and MOCA's recent Step and Repeat live arts program. But how much can these recently expanded avenues compensate for a bleak industry climate? How available are they to different musicians? And how hopeful should we be? Here, a handful of artists—Holly Herndon, Helado Negro, Brenmar, TOPS' Jane Penny, and White Mystery—provide a little insight into how they make a music career work for them.
Helado Negro: "My close friend and inspiring creative Michael Kaufmann recently said something about the commerce aspect of art and music that resonated in my mind. He said that experimental economies are maybe the most important development in how to afford making any art. It's where we can create new challenges for personal creativity. Something I've realized that's become so much at my fingertips is being able to sell a digital version of a song directly to people who appreciate the music I make. That's never been available before without being affiliated with another outlet like iTunes or Bandcamp, both of which have amazing benefits and certain built-in infrastructures that are great for long term development. But to be able to put a song up for a week in a limited fashion, while nothing new, can definitely be further explored as a medium, and hopefully develops the idea of music making and sound delivery."
Jane Penny, TOPS: "Most artists and musicians I know in Canada try to get as many grants as they can. They're so great when you get them, but a lot of bands don't—especially new bands—as they're based on a lot of arbitrary statistics about the commercial potential of the artist. We've gotten some tour grants, which really helped because on tour we live on a little more than $10 a day, plus whatever we get at the venue. Right now in Canada the government is cutting a lot of arts funding, so I think in the future grants will continue to be crucial but might be harder to get."
Holly Herndon: "There is a long legacy of patronage in independent music—many of the great avant-garde American composers would simply not have been able to operate without state support from Europe, a university, or private money—and the same climate absolutely exists today but is rarely discussed in the open. I've done a lot of projects with arts institutions, and did a large project with a Swedish design company last year, and honestly really enjoy challenging myself in these new environments. There are so many aspects of my artistic practice that are applicable to other fields, and it is both a matter of intellectual curiosity and financial security that I cast a wide net."
Tip: Art museums like Miami's PAMM often bring music and visual artists together for collaborative performances, which could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
White Mystery: "The cost of making music differs for each artist, but the best way to make a profit is to work hard, look decent, be polite, and live frugal. Working with brands like Levi's and Red Bull allows White Mystery to play shows for bigger audiences and take on creative projects like releasing a double album while remaining a 100% independent band."
Tip: Brand-owned studios, like Converse Rubber Tracks, allow artists to use their recording space for free.
Holly Herndon: "I chose to pursue the academic path, and have been fortunate to receive scholarship money to allow for me to get better at what I do in that supportive environment. I wrote my first album between scholarship supported graduate school and working a day job at a children's museum, and now earn money between teaching commitments at Stanford (where I also attend classes), live shows, and myriad commissions from the art and fashion worlds. I am incredibly grateful for these opportunities, however also cannot remember a single day in the last 5 years where I was not working or concerned about money. You have to make your work your life, and although I love what I do, there is nothing casual about the choices that I have made. I have just begun to lecture a class I co-designed for my program, am often grading papers before soundcheck, and am really interested in pursuing teaching as a compliment to my practice."
Tip: Keep an eye on university job boards for opportunities.
Holly Herndon: "I don't think that it is any surprise that there has been such a stylistic shift back to the club in the advent of the global financial turmoil of the past seven years—as club music is a stable economy with relatively low overheads for the artists involved. The life of a touring club artist can be very stressful, but the numbers work when you are a solo performer with a guaranteed weekend audience at a sizable club that sells drinks at a high markup. Many people can get by working within this system, however the anxiety is always present that you may be dedicating a large portion of your life to a career path that is ultimately trend-based, and may eventually reject you. I think it is incredibly important to be honest about these things, particularly to yourself, as everyone in this field ought to have a plan B in their pocket."
Tip: Many small clubs in Europe work together to book artists on a flight-share basis to keep costs down, so it might be worth reaching out to promoters direct.
Brenmar: "I come from a remix background, I've been 'playing' the sampler since I was 15. The remix has been a blessing for me, a saving grace even. It has opened doors and given me opportunities I didn't even know were an option. Taking something and making it your own is truly a skill in and of itself, and very much a skill that is part of the 21st century. All that being said, I don't think there's actually too much money to be made from remixes. Maybe if you're Zedd or something the majors will give you a few Gs for an official remix but all said and told you have to look a little deeper to find ways to capitalize off of your remixes."
Tip: Gain experience—and crucial feedback on your work—by doing remixes for friends at first.
Brenmar: "If you find yourself with a hot remix that people are playing out then you need to make sure that remix is on Spotify, iTunes, and all official channels of digital music distribution. Upload that baby to YouTube, enable ads and get those streaming pennies because if your remix makes it into the million plays mark (I know...a million!) you might actually see some real dough. Then try and channel any buzz into some live gigs—that's real money in your pocket that month, not six months to a year later as is the case with digital sales/streaming."
Tip: Don't rule out any streaming service, and be prepared to hit the ground running.
Holly Herndon: "It's very hard to support yourself while making music. Cities have become increasingly expensive, and opportunities and attention often gravitate towards impenetrably expensive major cultural centers like New York and London. Finding a day job flexible to the necessity of a touring schedule may require making other professional sacrifices, and with there being no long term financial securities in a career like music it requires a constant hustle.
We live in an era of austerity and precarity, and that requires a pragmatism of sorts. I also think that working outside of your niche may help to foster artwork that is more in tune with the world around it—I want to hear more work about people's daily lives—your personal experience is of great political and cultural importance."
Tip: While temp work can provide flexibility, a part-time position—like a teaching or tech assistant role—can prove stability, regular holidays that are good for touring, and even inspiration.
Jane Penny, TOPS: "I didn't make a ton of money in 2014, just enough to keep going. But I feel good about how I spend my time and I feel things growing—more people at shows—and we are writing and have a lot of touring planned this year already so that's cool. Money buys space and musical equipment, and I'd like to have more of both of those, but all you really need is your own mind at the end of the day. People confuse wealth with value: if something makes money they immediately value it, or at least respect it, but a lot of the most lucrative music is, arguably, pretty shit."
Tip: One of the best ways of dragging yourself out of a downer is exercise. Channel those endorphins into a hit :)
Photo credit: George Marks / Hulton Archive / Getty Images