Musicians’ Teammates and their Effect on Earnings

Posted on April 17th, 2012 by Kristin Thomson in What We're Learning. 4 Comments

On Tuesday, April 10, 2012, Artist Revenue Streams co-director Kristin Thomson delivered a luncheon lecture called “All You Need is Love…(and a manager, an accountant and a web designer). Making it as a Musician in an Increasingly Networked World” hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She was joined by musician and Berkman Fellow Erin McKeown.

The focus of the lecture was examining the question of whether emerging technologies have made it possible for musicians to “do it all themselves”, and the impact that various intermediaries can have on a musician’s career and earning capacity. Below is a copy of the presentation and key slides. You can also view an archive version of the webcast.

We started the presentation by describing the project’s methodology. The research involves three data collection methods: in person interviews with about 80 different US-based musicians and composers, financial case studies based on verifiable bookkeeping data, and a widely distributed online survey.

We also underscored that this study is not about label market share, or consumer spending, or measuring an artists’ social graph. It’s about individual musicians’ earning capacity. It’s about what they end up putting in their pocket, and how it’s changing over time.

Then we narrowed the conversation to focus on one of the most romanticized assumptions about musicians today: that technology has leveled the playing field to the point that musicians can do it all by themselves.  Is it true? Can musicians do it all themselves? During the presentation we referred to some data collected through our survey, as well as our personal experience as musicians and community members.

  1. Musician roles
  2. More team members
  3. Team members for survey respondents
  4. Teammates and their impact on earning capacity

Musician roles

Musicians play different roles, and the distinctions are important to acknowledge. Three of the most common roles are:

  • composer/songwriter
  • recording artist
  • performer

Many musicians play these three roles simultaneously.  So, if I write my own songs, record them, and then play them live at shows, I’d be doing all three of these things.

(In this research we also studied salaried players, session players/freelancers and music teachers, and the money that musicians can make off their brand, but those were excluded from this lecture for brevity.)

Now, you might be wondering, if Erin and other musicians are routinely playing all three roles, why talk about them separately?  It’s because US copyright law and business practice treats these roles differently. There are revenue streams available to songwriters that are not available to recording artists, and vice versa. The distinctions are important in understanding how income flows back to creators.

Musician roles + facilitators

What do these three creators types need to propel their career forward? In the most basic sense:

  • for people who compose music or write lyrics, they need a way to license their compositions
  • for recording artists, they need a way to record, distribute and sell their sound recordings
  • for performers, they need a way to book shows, or arrange performances.

Let’s spend a little bit of time with these three core roles.


Composers and songwriters write music, and they want their compositions to be licensed for use. This means they need to make connections with recording artists, record labels, movie producers, cable TV shows, and other places that might want to record or license their works. This is frequently done via a publisher.

Publishers act as a liaison. They shop the songs around to performers and record labels. They help get them placed in movies and ads. They deal with licensing fees, paperwork and compensation. And for this work, publishing companies get 50% of any licensing deal.

Self-publishing composers

Can composers self-publish? Absolutely. Many songwriters or composers choose to retain control over their publishing. But there are some challenges.

First, a self-published artist will likely never have the same leverage, connections or expertise that an experienced publisher can offer.

And second, being self-published means that someone – the composer, or someone they trust – has to be the designated point person for composition-related requests. If a cable TV show wants to use your music, they’ll need to contact you. As long as you’re cool dealing with requests, and various negotiations, then self-publishing can work.  And it’s much easier now to direct requests to you via simple links on your website for licensing requests, and ensuring that your works are properly registered with one of the PROs. And, if you self-publish, you get to keep 100% of any income earned by your compositions.

Recording artists

Recording artists are musicians who go in the studio and record compositions or songs. They can be their own songs, or they can be covers of songs that other songwriters have written.  What they end up with is a sound recording; songs affixed to tape or hard drive. How do they get them from the studio and into the hands of fans?

Traditionally, this has been the job of a record label. The label takes the sound recording and manufacture the commercial product, whether it’s vinyl or 8-tracks or CDs, then distribute it to retailers. For this the record labels keeps a hefty chunk of wholesale price, and 50% of any deals when the sound recording is licensed.

But that’s not all that record labels do.  In many instances, labels are also a source of cash to record and to tour. They write checks so that artists can go into nice studios and hire good producers. Labels also give recording artists access to producers, to booking agents, and publicists.  They also have a staff that can deal with all the boring stuff like accounting, or sending out promotional mailings. The major labels, especially, also have PR muscle. They can get music played on commercial radio. They can get reviews in big magazines.  If you’re label-less, getting airplay on commercial radio is virtually impossible.

Also, record labels give artists some legitimacy. A label deal means that you’ve piqued the interest enough at a label for them to invest in you. This is a green flag for many other things in the music industry. It raises your profile. It makes it a lot easier to get a good booking agent, who can then get you bigger show payments or guarantees. It can get you on bigger tours. It can get you more prominent management. So, a record label deal can impact a recording artist’s income directly and indirectly.

Record label tradeoffs

All that being said, there are some significant tradeoffs to signing a record label deal. In almost all instances, signing a major label contract means that you transfer your sound recording copyrights to the record label for a long, long time.

Second, the label might give you an advance – an upfront payment for signing with them – but it is very difficult to recoup costs. While you may receive mechanical royalties if you are also the composer, it’s unlikely you would see royalty checks for the sale of your sound recordings in the future. And, history is littered with stories (and legal briefs) about unscrupulous label behavior.

Third, you lose control over many decisions, or more precisely, you are no longer the sole decider about the timing and arc of your career.

Self-releasing sound recordings

So, can musicians self-release their records. Again, absolutely. It happens all the time and, indeed, services like CD Baby and Tunecore make it easier than ever to enter the digital marketplace.

What are the tradeoffs with self-releasing your music? You retain control, but you have a lot of  work to do.  Someone is going to have to deal with manufacturing, promotion, and distribution. This might be a team of folks, or it might be the band itself.

And one more thing: someone has to pay for all of this. There are a lot of options – more today than in the past – but each of these also involves some work; fan funding via sites like Kickstarter or Pledge Music, profit sharing models with indie labels, sponsorship, personal investment, credit cards, or asking family and friends to support the work.


Our third role: performers. This one is the most clear cut, because the performer really just needs to connect with the rights venues and festivals to play.  It sounds easy, of course, but if anyone has tried to book a show before – let alone arrange a string of shows into a tour — you know how hard it can be.

So usually, performers and bands hire a booking agent. This person can help them get shows. The booking agent negotiates the date and details with the venue or promoter. They also negotiate the ticket price, and the amount of money the performer is going to get paid. If the band is going out on tour, they arrange a series of shows, hopefully in some reasonable order.

And for their work, they get 10 to 15 percent of tour grosses.

Self-booking performers

Can musicians book their own shows? Again, yes.

The two biggest challenges: it takes a lot of time, and perseverance, and calls and emails to promoters during their office hours. Plus, very few bands have the same amount of leverage that a good booking agent has. It’s very likely you won’t get paid as much, and you have nobody to defend you or troubleshoot if things get weird.

Teams review

So we’ve quickly described three essential team members:

  • Publishers
  • Record labels
  • Booking agents

…and we’ve said that performers, composers and recording artists can play any or all of these roles themselves if they have the time and the interest.

But there are a few more team roles we should mention…

4 responses to “Musicians’ Teammates and their Effect on Earnings”

  1. […] detailed interviews with musicians and the examination of actual tax filings and conducted by the Future of Music Coalition. The results revealed that those musicians who continue to do it on their own after breaking […]

  2. […] read the research and consider the tips and examples laid out. Your ability to hire and pay for extra help depends on […]

  3. […] via Musicians’ Teammates and their Effect on Earnings | Artist Revenue Streams. […]