Four Skills Musicians Need to Make Money

(photo CC-BY jerik0ne)

If you’ve ever asked the question, “How do I make money from music?” this is for you.

Tens of millions of musicians want to make money from their music. Only one percent ever do. Why?

Ask most musicians how they plan to make money and they all say the same thing: I’m waiting for my music to be discovered. I’m waiting for a good manager, a good booking agent, a good label. I’m waiting for my moment, my big break.

Musicians would not be this passive if making money was the primary reason they made music. Almost all musicians would like to make money from their music, but it’s not why we make it. We make music because we have to. We have to express ourselves. We have to communicate something and connect with people. As Henry Rollins once said, “I’d rather be heard than paid.”

But we can get paid. In fact, we have more opportunities today than ever. But waiting for opportunities to come remains a losing strategy. Opportunities are made — our moment will only come if we create it, and only then if we’ve developed our skills to rise to the occasion.

There is a simple formula to making money in music and many other creative endeavors. The greater your skills, the greater your opportunities. Conversely, more opportunities allow you to further develop your skills. Amplifying this feedback loop is the way to succeed.

So what skills does the musician need to tap into the music economy? They boil down to four broad categories, and it’s no longer enough to be competent in one or two. There are simply too many musicians in the world trying to make money from their music. It used to be you could be a master of one of these skills and that might be enough to get you “discovered” and exploited. Today, we must be competent in all four skills, and masters of at least one or two to truly have a shot at making our own breaks and earning significant revenue from music.


There are more musicians creating more music than ever before in history, and most of history’s recorded music is accessible to anyone with a computer. The bar has never been higher for novelty and originality — it’s the old chestnut of “it’s all been done before.” As we learn more about composition, we realize the challenge is to create an original expression from musical building blocks that seem to have already been combined in every imaginable configuration. And yet out of these seemingly infinite combinations, we put our own spin on the patterns of popular chord progressions, lyrical motifs and song structure that emerge. We create by taking our influences and making something new of them.

Composition is truly an art in and of itself, and too many musicians simply brush it off to focus on performing and recording. Many musicians fail to make money from their music because they are not songwriters. They channel their influences so directly, nothing original emerges. They sell the song short.

The old adage “writers write” applies to composition as well. One must first write songs to write good songs. What album would you rather listen to: the first ten songs a musician wrote, or the best ten songs chosen from the first 15 songs the musician wrote? By the time you are writing great songs, you will have written many.

Composition not just “where the money is” from a copyright perspective, composition is the art of music that gives rise to the other skills: performance, recording and entrepreneurship. You are getting paid for your labor to create something completely intangible, so the profit margin can be enormous. But it’s also highly competitive with a significant “right place at the right time” component. To cut through the noise of more musicians writing songs than ever before, your song needs to be performed, recorded and “shopped” at a professional level.

(photo CC-BY M. Pratter)
(photo CC-BY M. Pratter)


Performance is the Holy Grail of revenue for musicians. It’s always been where the highest profits have been for the musician themselves. This has only become more true in the Digital Age as selling access to recordings has dried up as a primary revenue stream. Post-scarcity music distribution shows that sharing songs is not stealing, and the only thing a musician loses when their song is copied is a single opportunity to charge the listener a fee that most would not pay. In turn, they gain an opportunity to make a fan, which is far more valuable in the long run. In order for this equation to work optimally, the composition has to be great, and performance has to be a part of your plan, because it’s where fans show their most value.

Touring and T-shirts are nothing to scoff at — even though gas is more expensive and ticket prices have not increased by much, the profit margin is usually greater than sales of any recording. When a fan is at your show they are the most charged up on your music than at any previous moment. They want to leave with a T-shirt and talk about how awesome the show was, marketing your band and paying for the opportunity. It takes great performances to put them in that state.

The same advice for composition applies to performance: perform, perform, perform. Book any gig you can find. Performing is a process of “paying your dues”. There will be awful shows and huge mistakes, but eventually so much of performing will come naturally to you.

To the extent that performance is a challenging skill to learn, working on your show is a fun challenge (unless you have stage freight). What’s more of a challenge are the logistics of putting on a live show that looks and sounds great, not to mention the huge sacrifices that must be made to tour. As the age bracket gets older and older, there are fewer and fewer musicians who find touring manageable. Locked in a traveling vehicle killing time for most of the day, away from family and friends, is not how most people want to spend 200 days of the year. Touring makes it hard to have a normal life, normal relationships, a normal home and job. But performing musicians are not normal, and it’s a big part of why people are so attracted to them. There are plenty of us who feel that hour on stage makes all the sacrifice worth it. And with a properly managed tour, a we can come home with some money in our pockets, having made fans we can count on to support us not just when we come to town, but also in between releases and show dates.

The internet has enabled musicians to book their own shows and tours, but many have not mastered performance. It’s an art in and of itself, a combination of equipment, stage presence, focus, charisma, mystique, emotion, crowd interaction, and a host of other factors. They’re difficult skills to teach, but come naturally as you play more and more shows. To maximize your opportunity to create value from your music, performance is critical to the overall strategy.


By now you probably see the pattern: the internet affords you incredible new opportunities, but they can’t be taken advantage of unless your skills are well-developed. Recording is no different in this sense, but it is very different from composition and performance in how one develops the skills.

That’s because unlike composition and performance, which are accessible to anyone with an instrument and an imagination, not everyone can record whenever they feel like it. To be sure, home recording technology has completely transformed the way musicians record, and more than ever have the ability to record themselves. But it’s a small minority of musicians who can produce, engineer, mix and master their own recording at a level of quality consistent with professional releases. It is getting easier as the tools get better and listeners being appreciating a wider spectrum of audio fidelity.

Today, every musician should have some way to record at least demo-quality recordings at home. A big part of learning the skill of recording is learning how to perform under the magnifying lens of the studio. There is also the task of “getting a sound” in the studio, a process often wholly unique from its analogue in developing the sound of one’s live show. And there’s no better way to get what you want from the studio you’re paying than to play them a rough idea of the sound in your head.

Every musician should have some way to demo songs in order to work out as much of the recording in advance as possible. Even when done at home, recording a song or album is a big production. It only happens once, in the sense that the recording you make is the recording you’re stuck with until the end of time.”

Ultimately, most musicians will find themselves paying a professional to create a professional-level recording. Your closest fans may accept less, but it’s hard to build a substantial audience around music that is recorded poorly. Fans want to listen to your music all the time, the better the recording, the more attractive it is to listen to over and over again. A chance to be heard is a chance to be paid, and you increase your chances with a great recording.


Most musicians intuitively know they need to write and perform great songs, and record a great version of them to win fans. Entrepreneurship is the art and science of building a business around those fans, and the compositions, performances and recordings they want.

It used to be musicians waited to be discovered and signed by a label. The label would provide the business services to run their careers. Nine out of ten failed, and those who succeeded were often ruthlessly exploited, but it was the only game in town until the internet disrupted it all.

Independent labels can still make good partners for bands that grow their businesses beyond several thousand fans, but increasingly musicians are making their own income directly from fans. Though the Digital Age has made this possible and even easier, but it is still not exactly easy.

Entrepreneurship requires waking up every morning ready to tackle the tasks that lead to accomplishing your goal of making money from your music. It requires understanding and development of the skills needed to accomplish your tasks. You must set specific goals that lead to making money.

In the pursuit of making music, composition, performance and recording come naturally. In the pursuit of making money, entrepreneurship must be learned. You will draw on your natural abilities to be social and network with people, and develop those relationship-building skills if you lack them. You will become a master at exchanging value, the fundamental concept that underlies all business. Marketing and PR follow from the skills acquired in building these connections, and are critical for getting people exposed to your compositions, performances and recordings.

This ultimately leads to building enough fans to finance your business, either directly through crowdfunding or by attracting a working partner who believes in your business, such as a manager, booking agent, producer or promoter. Do it yourself does not mean do it alone, and entrepreneurship is all about making the personal connections that will sustain your music as a business.

(Note: If you’re into learning these skills, you might like the Band as Business course I co-produced.)

Living Rooms as Music Venues: Interview with Concerts in Your Home Founder Fran Snyder

Your living room was made for music. Fran Snyder’s Concerts in Your Home website was made to do “nothing less than rebuild the touring infrastructure for small touring acts.”

The idea behind Snyder’s website is simple: Hosts sign up to welcome touring artists into their living room. Beneath that simple idea is a complex operation to cultivate a community of musicians and music lovers in a win-win value exchange.

I recently wrote about the living room show trend, and that’s how we got to talking about the triumphs and tribulations he experienced in his years setting up one of the most incredible independent networks of support and camaraderie for musicians and fans alike. I’m thankful to have Snyder’s input for the “living room show” section of my book, but the whole interview was so great I transcribed the best parts here so you could appreciate Snyder’s dedication to supporting music and musicians. Let’s look under the hood of this ambitious and successful operation:

How did Concerts in Your Home start out?

Fran Snyder.

I started as a performer in the early ’90s doing every kind of gig there was: the bars, the beaches, the restaurants, all that kind of stuff. I was continually frustrated by the fact that I was putting myself in situations playing music for people that weren’t really interested, and not liking the idea of having to fight for their attention or to be a human jukebox. Anyway, “woe is me”… that’s what every musician faces when they first start out.

After graduation, I played concert hall opening slots and did the college circuit for many years, traveling around the country. I finally tried a house show with one of my fans and instantly fell in love with it. I realized, “this is why I do music, it’s about connecting.” Obviously I need to make a living, but the idea of fame and fortune were never driving factors. For me, making money is not something you have to reject out of hand, but it’s important to know why you do what you do. House concerts really woke me up to the idea of being intimate with the crowd, talking to people, sharing stores, getting to elaborate a little bit about who I am, the history behind the songs, and the things that make me tick.

It was transformational for me, and at the time in 2006 there really wasn’t a good website to promote the idea of house concerts, so I set about fixing that. I asked myself “How can we inspire people to host shows? How can we help artists connect with these people?”

When I realized how much work it was going to be, I had to figure out a way for it to pay for itself, and that’s how we came up with our business model of helping the hosts for free — they help the artists, and the artists keep us going with a membership fee.

So it all started out with the living rooms you were playing and it spread virally from there?

Yes, there are a couple of cultural hotspots when it comes to house concerts: Texas, California, and places in the southeast and northeast where you have folk festivals. A lot of these folk artists really give access to their fans, and at some point word gets around at the festivals about the house concerts, and people start inviting people.

Part of the growth of our site was finding these people and showing them, “Here’s this resource…. we don’t want you to sign up just so you’re on our list, we want to help you, we want to provide tools and give you a community of like-minded people where you can share ideas and get to know each other. That’s how it has grown.

What motivates a host to put on one of these shows?

We’ve noticed that a lot of our hosts are empty-nesters, so they’ve got a house with space that feels a little empty. They love to entertain, and it’s easy for them to accommodate guests overnight, so they have this perfect space and they have all this new free time that they need to fill with a hobby.

The romantic notion is that a lot of these hosts play an instrument, and have at one time or another dreamed about being an artist. Maybe they got locked into a career too early, had kids too early, and made the decision to go for security instead of art. Now, 20 years later, they’re finding they can bring music back into their lives by supporting the artists that are out there doing it… and not just as a pass through guest. Many times, hosts develop friendships with the artists.

What are the unique challenges that a host faces to host a living room show?

It should come as no surprise the biggest challenge is getting people to show up, getting people to commit in a reasonable amount of time — that is, giving the host an RSVP instead of waiting until the night before to decide to come. People say they’re going to come and then cancel, or don’t show up and don’t even tell you. Those are the two pariahs of this business, and in that sense it is not unlike the clubs. Butts in seats is the most challenging thing.

What we try to do is set each host on an easy path to success, and the way we do that is to start small. We have what we call a “Dinner and Song” or “Dessert and Song” during the week, and just get seven or ten people to show up. Artists are dying for meaningful things to do during the week, and when you throw in the value of a free place to stay, a free meal, and a captive audience, that means they didn’t have to spend ten hours promoting the show. The musician just gets to show up and do what they do best, be friendly and make friends.

So if the host sets a limit and says, “We’re going to have a Dinner and Song and we’re only allowing in ten people, they can sell it out.” They can invite 150 people, and then 40 will respond, and 30 of them will be disappointed they didn’t RSVP soon enough. That’s how you train people that what you’re doing is valuable an in demand. That’s how you create a buzz, right? You can’t create a buzz if you’re not turning people away. That’s how you make someone feel they can be a part of something special before they even show up at the door.

Snyder performing at a house concert.

What motivates musicians to join the Concerts in Your Home community?

I think a lot of them are like me, I think they’re fed up with playing places where they’re not paid attention to, and they’ve got to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

One of the key things for me — even though it’s not explicitly stated — when you play in a bar, the value of what you do is measured by how much alcohol is sold. And I think that’s a shitty way to measure music. I don’t have a problem with people drinking, that doesn’t bother me at all. But if the value of what I deliver to people is measured in alcohol sales, I think it’s a pretty shitty way to measure what I do.

What does the music fan get out of it?

The big attraction both for hosts and fans of house concerts is the pin-drop atmosphere. You don’t have the drunk guy behind you talking while you’re trying to listen to music, so it’s movie theater etiquette. And when artists have everyone’s attention, magical things start to happen. It becomes spiritual, it becomes communal, it takes the show to another level. There’s a sort of unity, a “Kumbaya” thing where we’re all one — that starts to be tangible. I think that’s a big part of the appeal to fans, the house concert high: “We were all there, we were a part of something.”

I think a lot of shows inspire a looser atmosphere too, but anything that’s going on has to do with the show. So, even if you have the performer joking around with the people in the second row, or getting their shoe tied by someone in the front row because they’re so close — it all serves the show as opposed to being a distraction.

What is it about the music climate or the music industry right now that has encouraged this living room trend to gain so much traction and popularity?

There’s a couple ways to look at this. Demographically, kids don’t buy CDs. When I was first starting out, the hot market was the CDs you sold to kids. Everyone was trying to be half their age in terms of material and presentation so they could appeal to 16 year-olds and 19 year-olds because those were the people who bought the music.

Well, these people are now in their 40s and 50s — well, I’m not that old — but these empty-nesters are the ones who grew up with the culture of buying a souvenir after the show. So if you’re going to sell CDs, house concerts are one of the last markets left where there are people that still value taking the music home on an artistic medium rather than a hard drive or thumb drive.

When I play colleges, people come up and say, “You’re awesome!” and I say, “Thanks, do you want to buy a CD?” And they say, “No, we’ll just check you out online.” You hear that enough times, and you say, “Well, shit, why am I making all these CDs? Why am I playing for 22 year-olds who don’t want what I need to sell to live?” That is the demographic answer.

But I think with technology, community starts developing over the Internet — the idea of sharing spaces and sharing experiences is another thing that causes the upswing [in house concerts].

Even more important that that is the idea of embracing small — that’s probably the most important part of why house concerts are surging. Twenty years ago, you pretty much went out to a bar, drank, and listened to bands — that’s what you did on weekends. Now you have video games, groups for every interest under the sun. There are more sports on TV and on the field than ever before. There are so many distractions. So we can’t have 400-500 people at the club every weekend listing to original music. You have to figure out ways where if the shows are going to be smaller, how do you make that work? And house concerts are the best example I’ve seen of making it work.

When dealing with professional musicians who are used to professional venues, is there an attitude adjustment that needs to happen before they feel comfortable performing in a living room?

I think it depends. Ellis Paul, because of what he’s accomplished — because he can still sell out small- to medium-sized venues in 30 or 40 markets — he has a different standard. He’s not going to do a house concert for 30 people — you have to have big house. You have to seat 80-100 people at your house to have Ellis Paul play, and even then, it’s tough to get him. So part of that is just the economics of success. You’re going to go where you’re going to be the most productive.

There are artists that feel they should be at the level of Ellis Paul — or maybe once were and are no longer — that are facing the wake up call of, “Okay, I have to learn to make do with less, I have to learn to enjoy to play for smaller crowds.” Some take to it like a duck to water because of the atmosphere, and for some of them, the economics really still bugs them.

To put a finer point on it: Because we encourage so many hosts to start small, the idea of playing for 12 people in a cozy living room, even on a Wendesday night… there are a lot of artists that say, “I can’t do that, I won’t do that.” And that’s fine. They can go play a club and have 12 people there. And then they have to go find a place to stay. (laughs)

The prima donna stuff does not cut it in our market. Fortunately, there are a lot of really talented artists out there who are nice people with decent expectations, and even when they have odd experiences they can handle it gracefully and move on to the next opportunity and the next day.

This is not a perfect world. We have people who try to host concerts and fail. There are some who will schedule a show and cancel it a few weeks out. We have 20-30 new hosts each month that we train and coach to try and get them on the right foot, and not all of them succeed.

It sounds like you’re very hands-on with the hosts…

Oh yeah, we’re hands on with everybody. Everyone who joins the site has a conversation with us. We don’t have the money for background checks. We try to get a sense of why they’re doing it and make sure they know what they’re getting into and their responsibilities. That slows things down, but we think it’s a really important thing, especially when we have 22-year old women touring by themselves, we don’t want this site to be anonymous.

Where do you want to take living room concerts next?

We started a new website called which basically allows us to tie artists together with charities. The charities help us build an audience and we help them raise money. We connect charities with artists who have an affinity for that cause, so it’s a win-win situation. An artist gets to support a cause they love, and they help the host build an audience.

Listening Room Network is becoming our fan portal. Within the next few months that’s going to really develop in terms of creating a house concert club. If you’re into this experience you’re going to be able to meet people with similar interests and connect with all the house concerts in your area.

Our goal here is to get our community to the point where we have all these hubs that develop organically, where artists can book a tour off of one conversation. They get connected with the right host, who’s connected with the other hosts, and the artist will book five or ten shows with one contact. To me, that’s where this needs to go, because booking is impossible. It’s ridiculously draining, and we have all these artists spending more time booking and doing social media than they are on their music. To me, that is a huge loss. We [musicians] are terrible at booking, we hate it. What I’m trying to do is create a system where the fans are enabled and empowered to make it happen and to do it through community. Everyone else out there is trying to do it through technology, we’re trying to do it through community.

Visit Concerts in Your Home.

The Living Room Tour Trend: Selling Context, Not Content

Last night, veteran musician David Bazan, known for being the man behind the seminal indie/emo group Pedro the Lion, played for a few dozen people in someone’s living room in Lubbock, TX.

Bazan spent almost half the year playing exclusively for people in living rooms. It’s not like he had to — his music career is quite accomplished. Tickets for his November/December tour of real venues are going fast, in part because he’s embracing another recent trend of playing classic albums in their entirety — in this case, honoring the 10th anniversary of Pedro the Lion’s finest concept album, Control.

Bazan clearly is right at home in yours:

Certainly, not every musician has the kind of intimate, almost humble delivery that makes Bazan’s solo performances a perfect fit for living rooms across America. But he is actually part of a long tradition that dates back to the origins of much louder, more aggressive music than his — punk and indie rock in the 70s and 80s.

Last year, NPR ran a blog post about the re-emerging popularity of living room shows, pointing out the convergence of digital event planning tools like Eventful with the new economic realities for musicians in a world of free or near-free access to recorded music.

Most of today’s unsigned, independent bands that have toured the country with no booking agent and no management have played their share of living rooms. I know I have. But these living rooms are not often the kind of urbane, sitting-down affairs you see Bazan playing for 30-somethings. Rather, the hybrid living room/venue is rooted in “punk houses” where a bunch of high school and college-age music fans get together to hang out, party and host local and touring bands. I can honestly say from personal experience these house shows are some of the most fun and inspiring shows I’ve ever played. Our fans have crowdsurfed into ceiling fans more than once (pictured here). But the reason these shows are so memorable has just as much to do with the performance as it does with the camaraderie of being able to meet and entertain people in their homes.

The real convergence spurring the living room tour revival can be explained by a concept I often use describe the music economy in an era of free music. The record business is no longer about selling content, it’s about selling context.

What I mean by that is, we never really paid for music, we paid for access to it. Now that access is relatively free, we’re paying for the experience of listening to it in a particular context. Besides a heartfelt need to compensate the artist (a sentiment that record labels destroyed through exploitation), pretty much the only reason people pay for music anymore is to have the convenience of accessing it in whatever context they’d like. There are few technological hurdles left in making music freely available this way, but corporate interests in the content industry continue to do everything in their power to prevent us from moving forward culturally. These corporations aren’t protecting the welfare of artists, they’re protecting their own bottom line.

As far as context goes, you can’t beat a live performance. Remember, before the phonograph was invented just over 100 years ago, the entire music industry revolved around live performance. Playing a piece live was the only way to summon music for listening, whether it was a world-renowned opera singer in an ornate hall or a family gathered around the piano in — you guessed it — their living room. With the record, suddenly we could experience music in any context we wanted… provided we paid the price.

But music is going back to the living room, and it’s headed there from two different directions. From the bottom up, more listeners are becoming amateur musicians. When they venture out to perform, they enter a network of home venues ranging from punk squats to the kind of well-kept living rooms Bazan has toured so successfully. Bazan doesn’t come from the bottom up, but nor is it at all accurate to say his career took a dive, requiring him to play living rooms. Rather, Bazan and more professional musicians like him are evolving their touring strategy to embrace modern music listening and consumption habits. He’s essentially an early adopter of a new model for professional music tours, where the idea of crowd sourcing meets a post-recording music industry in which context is the new commodity.

The truth is there’s not a whole lot of difference between the crusty punk squats and their tidier counterparts, dwelled in by young professionals — except, that is, for the money involved. At $20 a head, Bazan is charging a fairly comparable amount to a cover charge at a real venue. But consider that there are no other costs to cover besides food, transportation and lodging (some of which the hosts even provide). The venue gets no cut. The fans don’t have to pay for drinks, and have more money to spend on merch. And Bazan is almost guaranteed to make a killing selling merch because his audiences have a much higher concentration of total fanatics. That he sells out the vast majority of his appearances is a testament to this (although admittedly living rooms fill up pretty quick).

Now, the back-of-the-napkin calculation I come up with is that they’re netting in the low four figures at a sold-out show. A show at a “real venue” might be more lucrative for Bazan, but by what degree? And as a musician, I can tell you there is a certain psychological value in playing for a room full of fanatics instead of the somewhat random lottery of attendees at a “real” venue, not to mention all the business baggage that comes with dealing with promoters.

Bazan has clearly made a decision that these living room shows are the shows he wants to play even if it means taking a slight pay cut. Real musicians make music to celebrate its true meaning and power to move us emotionally, physically and spiritually, and unite us socially. We don’t make music to make money. Most of us simply want a lifestyle in which we can make our music, connect with our fans, and have them support us modestly. As direct musician-to-fan connections become the currency of the music industry, don’t be surprised if more well-known musicians start showing up in your living room.

Do you think today’s living room tours are more of the same, or is there something more there?