Mythbusting: Data Driven Answers to Four Common Assumptions About How Musicians Make Money
Assumption 1. “Musicians are rich”
In the early 2000s, MTV Cribs gave music fans a glimpse at the fabulous life of some pop and hip hop stars who were living in mansions and driving around Ferraris. But this show was just the most extreme example of popular culture’s ongoing fascination with music, fame and fortune. For decades, music fans have read about or witnessed similar excesses. Naturally, the public begins to assume that musicians are rich, based largely on what they see on stage, read about online, or hear on the radio. And even when the musicians aren’t rich, some embrace the stereotype because it adds to their brand’s value.
There are some musicians who are doing very well financially, and we applaud their success. But, just like the US population, there are very few at the top. While there are a handful of musicians who are wealthy, the vast majority of working musicians in the US are middle class earners. Let’s see what our data tells us about musicians’ income.
Data about income from survey respondents
The Money from Music survey, which ran September – October 2011, collected data from US musicians, performers and composers. Some quick facts about the survey population:
• The Money from Music survey was completed by 5,371 US-based musicians, composers and performers
• The survey captured data from musicians working in classical, jazz, rock, hip hop, country, and dozens of other genres
• 40% of survey respondents said they spend 36 hours a week or more doing music
• 42% said they derived all of their personal income from music
• 60% of survey respondents had a music industry or conservatory degree
The average personal gross income for the past twelve months of all survey respondents was $55,561. This number includes income from all sources, which could include other jobs (music related or otherwise), pension payments, investments, and so on. This is slightly higher than the US population.
By multiplying personal gross income by percent of income derived from music, we were able to calculate a gross estimated music income (EMI) for each respondent. When aggregated, the gross EMI of our 5,013 survey respondents was $34,455. This is slightly lower than the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ per capita personal income estimates for 2010, which was $39,945.
The chart below shows the distribution of 5,013 survey respondents’ gross EMI. There were about 320 respondents whose gross EMI was $100,000 or more, but the largest percentage fell between $10,000 and $75,000 a year.
Because we had such a healthy survey completion rate, we could also calculate the gross EMI for specific sub-populations of survey respondents. For instance:
• “Full time” musicians, those spending 36+ hrs/wk doing music AND earning 90% or more of personal income from music (N=1589): $62,757
• Conservatory or music school graduates (N=2650): $41,585
• ASCAP members (N=960): $45,813
• AFM members (N=2493): $48,650
Clearly, gross EMI varies for different populations. We have more deeply examined the impact of various factors such as role, genre, education and membership on earning capacity in other reports.
Could these financial figures be too low? Possibly. Capturing reliable financial information from the musician and composer population is difficult, as we have explained in other posts. There are certainly bands and chart-topping pop stars who are grossing a lot more than our survey respondents, but who did not participate in this survey. But, the population of wealthy artists is very small when compared with the broader music population.
Data about income from interviews
Survey data is not our only source; we also conducted over 80 in-person interviews, and published five financial audits.
During the interviews, we asked non-specific questions about musicians’ total income. While a few musicians and managers mentioned that their band’s financial activity was in the six figures, or that they were part of a multi-million dollar enterprise, the majority of musicians and composers who we interviewed talked generally about a middle class existence, whether it was based on making money on tour, consistently being available for session work, being paid a salary to be part of an ensemble or orchestra, or juggling many musical jobs at once. A few definitely talked about their income declining, and how hard it was to even scrape by. The patterns were very similar to what the survey data indicates; there are a handful of wealthy musicians at the top, a large swath of working musicians in the middle, and a few really struggling to get by.
Data about income from financial case studies
The financial case studies – five of which are published here – can also give us a sense of musicians’ earnings. Having access to musicians’ actual books meant were also able to examine data about their musician-related expenses, from travel, to equipment purchases, to paying sidemen, to manager and booking agent fees.
Here are the gross income and net income figures for five professional musicians/groups. These are successful, busy musicians who spend 100% of their time doing music, and derive 100% of their income from music. We averaged their gross and net income numbers across the number of years of data that they gave us. The orange line below is for comparison against a similar group of “full time” musicians in the Money from Music survey.
In these five instances, the musicians’ income and expenses varied from year to year, and were unique to their own circumstances, but they are each seeing a net positive, and within the expected range. As with the data sets above, even this small sample size suggests a middle class existence.
The qualitative and quantitative data collected suggests that, while there are a handful of musicians who are wealthy, in general, US musicians are part of the working middle class.