The Times They Are a-Changin' ... Now How Do We Make Money?

"Your old road is rapidly agin', please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand..."

You're right, Mr. Dylan--the times sure are a-changin', for better or for worse.

One of my Instagram friends messaged me with a very interesting question, and I thought I'd dive into it today as I have many thoughts on the subject.

"@maxlikesicecream Wondering how the Napster/iTunes revolution has changed the individual singer/songwriter's perspective re making a living through music and keeping a positive outlook despite the hardships--compared w/ musicians of the '60s through '80s.  In other words, how do YOU do it?"


Thanks for the question Dan!

First off, a brief disclaimer:  I was born in 1989, so I barely have even year of experience in the time period Dan asked about, but as a music fan with an obsession with 60's and 70's music specifically, I've done enough reading to get a--probably skewed--idea of what the changes have brought.  I also don't know how my musical development path compares with many other people, so I can only speak with authority about the experiences that I've had.

As I understand it, before the coming of file-sharing and pirating platforms like Napster, and before the rise of social media, the best way to get heard and to get your music out there and distributed to listeners was to sign with a record label that had the resources and connections to push your music all across the land.  Back then, you couldn't transfer an audio file in seconds over the internet for free--it cost a good chunk of change to transport physical copies of music from one place to another.  So since the labels had the resources and network to be able to distribute music, they had a lot of power.

Enter the internet...

When file-sharing and social media became popular, labels started shaking in their boots.  How were they supposed to protect their assets (the songs that they distributed) when one person could buy the song and share it with thousands, even millions of people for free.  Though a lot of well-established musicians and bands hated that people were sharing their music without paying for it (see Metallica v. Napster), smaller less-established acts saw the opportunity to spread their music to the masses in ways they would have never been able to do before.  Two notable bands that did just that were Dispatch and the Arctic Monkeys.  Both grew their foundational fan-base through file-sharing and essentially giving away their music for free on the internet.

Overall, it is now easier than ever for an unknown singer-songwriter to get their music out there and start to gain a following and be noticed.  Thank you, internet!

But anyways, the other question that I need to address is: how do I do it?  How do I make a living through music?

The truth is...I don't

At least not currently, though I'm working my way there.  I currently work full-time during the day as a data analyst, and play and record music at night.  I'm saving up money to eventually build a recording studio and hopefully be able to support myself solely on the money I make from playing and recording music.

Music has always been my absolute passion, and even though sometimes I wished I could have studied music more in school, I was still able to take steps toward developing a career in music.  Even though I wanted to study music in college, my parents, being very old-school Soviet, pushed me towards a major that would "get me a job".  Though I wasn't too thrilled about this, being about seven years out of college now, I see the benefits of the path my parents pushed me down. I double majored in Economics and Political Science, and after college, landed in a career doing data analytics for several companies, large and small.

I kept music as my nighttime passion and hobby, slowly developing my skills and my gear closet in my free time after work.  Though most of my jobs were very boring corporate nine-to-five office-drone type jobs, they generally afforded me the ability to grow my savings in order to be able to afford the musical expenses I needed as I developed myself as a musician.  I was able to afford hiring several professional producers and studios to record my songs.  I was able to afford professional and reliable gear.  And most importantly, I was able to afford rent and food that kept me sane enough to go to my boring job every day in order to save money to pursue my musical dreams.

I feel like I'm rambling now, but you get the idea.  In general, I focused on making money at a good-paying job and then saving that money to be able to afford my musical development. 

You might be wondering about whether or not I consider studying music in college to be considered good development.  I'm sure it's great, but it's really expensive, and the job market for people with degrees in Songwriting and Performance is a lot smaller than the job market for people with more widely applicable skills.  There is also a TON of free music courses on that you can take without paying a dime.  You can also email professors in music programs at schools and ask them what books they use to teach their students.  Most schools list their faculty's emails on their respective department page.  Buy those books and teach yourself!  It's the best way to learn.

A great Good Will Hunting quote applies here: "You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library."  Don't be the guy he's talking about.

I apologize to to the wide-eyed singer-songwriters out there that believe that their music can completely support them comfortably.  Sure, it's possible, but it's also improbable.  The chances that any one of us is going to become the next Bob Dylan or Neil Young (or Taylor Swift, or Ed Sheeran for the more modern folks) are slim-to-none.  And people that have had major huge success that feed unrealistic expectations of how hard it is to be successful as a full-time singer-songwriter are doing the next generation a disservice.

This has been my lengthiest blog-post to date, so I'll wrap up now and leave you with a funny piece of advice that has some truth in it from my favorite comedian, Bo Burnham.  He makes a great point about how unrealistic some advice from super-successful people can be, especially when those super-successful people are telling others to just follow their dreams.

"Taylor Swift telling you to follow your dreams is like a lottery winner saying, 'Liquidize your assets, buy powerball tickets, it works!'"

Don't do that. 

If you don't already have great experience and contacts in the music industry, with a very clear path towards success and financial stability, pursue a career that will provide you with a stable paycheck that will allow you enough time and money to pursue your less-stable and less-profitable musical dreams on your own time without having to worry about whether or not you make enough money from your music to pay the rent next month.  It's easier to write songs with a roof over your head.



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