ReThink: Teams, Time Allocation and Technology

Posted on April 26th, 2012 by Kristin Thomson in What We're Learning. 1 Comment

On Tuesday, April 24, 2012, Artist Revenue Streams co-director Kristin Thomson took part in the ReThink Music Conference in Boston, MA. She was joined onstage by musician and Berkman Fellow Erin McKeown. Drawing upon Money from Music survey findings and artist interviews, she presented some findings about musicians’ teams, time allocation and technology.

She 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.

She 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.


Last year, we were ReThink describing the Artist Revenue Streams project methodology.  We return this year with data in hand. With over 1,200 pages of interview transcripts, survey data from over 5,000 US based musicians and composers, and detailed financial data from 10 different individual musicians, what have we learned?

Aggregated revenue data

When we look at the aggregated data for all survey respondents, their primary sources of music-related income in the past 12 months were (1) live performance, (2) teaching and (3) being a salaried player, with live performance accounting for the largest percentage of gross income at 28 percent. We have more slides about income from live performance here.


Revenue changes over time

We also asked them what revenue streams have changed.  The chart below shows the survey respondent’s reported changes in gross revenue over the past five years. The picture is mixed. In almost all these categories, the percent of respondents who said their income was increasing (green bars) are about the same as those who said it was staying the same or decreasing (red bars). The only place where there’s significant change for our survey respondents is more folks seeing an increase in teaching income, and more seeing a decrease in income from session work.

This is just a top level snapshot to give you a sense of the data’s scope. One thing that was clear as we started to accumulate this much information was that it would be crazy for us to produce one single 300 page report. Not only would nobody read it, but it would do a disservice to the US music community to try to lump all musicians together into one group. Because the experiences of a jazz composer are different than that of an orchestra player, which are different than a country star who gets played on the radio. Even though those 42 revenue streams encompass almost all the possibilities for US based composers, recording artists, performers and session players – and governed by the same contours of federal copyright law – there are significant differences in how various roles and genres work – differences that should not be diluted just to make it easier to have tweetable results.

That’s why we’ve been releasing data through different lenses. We’ve looked at jazz musicians’ revenue patterns. We’ve looked at the impact of conservatory or music industry training on earning capacity. We’ve looked at the impact of music tech on musicians. We’ve looked at the impact of team members.  We’ve examined the truthiness of such memes as “musicians are all rich” or that they “make all their money off of t-shirt sales”.

And in the next few months we plan to release more data:

  • what it’s like for songwriters and composers
  • what it’s like for session players
  • the value of radio airplay
  • whether location matters

…and more. To be alerted of new data releases, sign up for our mailing list.

Teams, Time Allocation and Technology

Two weeks ago I was in Boston and presented some data at a luncheon organized by Harvard’s Berkman Center, and Erin McKeown was there with me.  We examined a meme that’s really popular – that technology has made it possible for musicians to “do it all themselves”.  We described the roles that team members like labels and publishers have traditionally played, and looked at the question of who’s on an artist’s team and what it means in terms of a musicians’ earning capacity.

Bandmates is at the top of the list, followed by accountant, booking agent, producer and soundperson.  Rankings aside, I think it’s important to note that there are a lot of possible team mates. There are about fifteen on this list, but we also allowed people to type in their own responses, which elicited hundreds of other submissions including spouse, videographer, photographer, personal manager, copyist, board members, and “the public”.

There was a lot more slides and data, including a description of team members for my band and for Erin, which you can see here.

I wanted to take that line of thinking one step further and talk about team members and time allocation. I thought this fit well in the agenda at ReThink, and made a lot of sense after hearing Amanda Palmer speak yesterday, and reading her blog post that cataloged the contents of her inbox.

In a perfect world, team members generate opportunities for musicians. They also increase a musicians’ capacity. Or, they simply do stuff for musicians that they don’t have the expertise or interest in doing themselves.

We wanted to gauge musicians’ creative priorities. On the survey we asked, if money was not an issue, what would musicians and composers do more or less of?

Of the 4,600 musicians who provided answers, the top four things that musicians want to do more of if money wasn’t an issue were:

  • They’d record more
  • They’d play more shows
  • They’d collaborate with others
  • They’d write or compose more.

So they’d spend more time creating. And perhaps that’s to be expected – these are musicians, right?

But I want you look at another part of this chart. If money wasn’t an issue, what would they do less of? (Red bar)

  • Accounting
  • Fundraising
  • Social networking/promotion
  • Career management

We have limited time today, so we will discuss just two of these: fundraising and accounting.


Let’s start with fundraising.  Most creative projects need some money to get them off the ground. If you go way back, there were rich patrons of various composers and performers. But in the 20th century, music creation was typically funded either by the companies that could facilitate their commercial exploitation – record labels, publishers, concert presenters, movie producers, etc – or supported through various nonprofit mechanisms such as grants or commissions from big institutions.

Now, we have all spent many years talking about the internet’s disruptive force on the sale and distribution of music, but we could also talk about how it’s disrupted the investment side as well.

There are lawyers and managers and major label folks in this room who can speak to this better than me, but one of the ancillary impacts of the changes in the music landscape post-Napster has been the availability of money for projects through these conventional routes, such as record labels or publishers.

We interviewed a major label band member who said, despite their good performance, budgets from their major label kept going down:

“As labels are slowly deteriorating, our budgets are slowly deteriorating. This record that we just did our budget was significantly less then the previous…”
– major label rock band guitarist

And many of the musicians who work in the noncommercial sector had similar experiences with accessing grants and commissions. A classical group manager who we interviewed told us how difficult it had become to use her limited time chasing these opportunities:

“The idea of taking on another project—okay we’re going to learn to be grant writers—just…you’re exhausted even imagining it.”
– classical manager

In the absence of funds from traditional sources, some musicians have expanded their horizons. For some genres, grants and commissions are possible. For others, there’s a chance at attracting sponsors to underwrite tours or projects.

“For us, corporate sponsorship of videos has been a total revelation. Video budgets that we would scratch eyeballs out for five years ago are now pretty easy to come by from people who don’t want any creative input or control.”
– rock band guitarist

And for others, technology has made it possible to make direct appeals to fans and supporters alike through systems like Kickstarter or Pledge Music.

I think it’s a really tough call for musicians today is how you pay for things. In our research, we could see that a lot of musicians were simply taking on other jobs. Some worked for years as sidemen or hired guns to generate enough money to self-finance their own creative work.

But none of this is easy. There’s a LOT of competition for scarce resources. It’s no wonder that it’s not a favorite task of many of the musicians who took our survey. Yes, I think the internet in general and sites like Kickstarter and Pledge Music have made it much easier for ambitious musicians to cultivate support amongst their fans, but it’s still a lot of work.


And second, let’s talk about accounting, the cod liver oil of the music conversation.  Maybe it’s a rare person who likes bookkeeping and taxes and stuff, but I can also tell you that, for some musicians who are wearing many hats, accounting could be really complicated.

Let’s just take the basics. Unless you are a salaried player, or a musician on retainer, or a faculty person, it’s most likely you are self-employed. And, by its very nature, self-employed people have to keep track of all of their disparate income and expenses themselves.

And sometimes being self-employed means there’s a lot of hustle. Just to underscore this, here’s a slide one of our financial case studies of a jazz sideman that shows the number of gigs he did.  From 2004 to 2010, this jazz sideman played 369 engagements with 81 different ensembles.

But it’s not just as simple as collecting a pile of 1099s and receipts every year. Remember that copyright law treats musical compositions and sound recordings differently.  So even if you’re a musician like Erin who plays all three roles simultaneously (composer, and the recording artist, and the performer), there are different income streams associated with each of these roles. Erin told the audience that she finds herself stopping to think about the differences in roles: is this a question for my record label, or for my publisher?

So you can see why accounting for musicians can be a really complicated thing.  If you’re a self-employed freelance musician, it might just be the hassle of making sure you’re paid for your work.  But if you’re a songwriter, you need to make sure your songs are properly registered with one of the performance rights organizations. You should have some sense of how those compositions can earn money when they’re licensed for sale or publicly performed, and how that money flows back to you as a songwriter. The same goes with money made by sound recordings. Even if you’re a musician who intends to have a business manager or an accountant or a publisher or a label, it’s important that you understand the basic parameters of copyright law, and have a general sense of what revenue streams are possible for you to engage in so you know what questions to ask and what might be missing.

Erin also reminded the musicians in the audience that they CAN learn it. If you can learn to play world-class saxophone, you can learn the basics of copyright law.

And it’s only going to get more complicated. Musicians of all types, from the jazz composer to the indie rock drummer, find themselves venturing into new territory, whether it’s variable priced downloads via Bandcamp, or bundling merchandise with download codes, or ad revenue generated off via YouTube’s partner program. As the opportunities continue to expand, and as music is used and streamed and performed across the internet, and across the world, the needs for properly tracking, and accounting for all of these uses will continue to grow.

Which brings me to my final point. A couple of weeks ago, I was on a panel at Berklee College of Music with Jim Griffin, and Jim delivered one of his many pearls of wisdom: solve the problems on the edge of the networks, because that’s where the creativity is.  Derek Sivers built CD Baby to solve a problem at the edge of the network – that he and his musician friends wanted an easy, trustworthy way to sell their CDs online and take credit card transactions. Now it serves hundreds of thousands of musicians.  Tunecore helps thousands of musicians who simply wanted an easy way to get their music into the digital services. These are just two examples of services that have solved a problem at the edge of the musical network, where most musicians are working.

The digital distribution challenge is essentially solved — it’s relatively easy for any aspiring musician to get their music into the digital commerce platforms.  Audience building and fan communication is also infinitely easier, now that we all have access to an array of affordable tools and services to build audiences and promote our work. Now, we need to get in the trenches and deal with the back office stuff: The fundraising. The data management. The accurate tracking of disparate music uses. The accounting. Because in this world with ever increasing diffusion of music, these tiny streams will be important.

The power in replication

This is a benchmarking study.  We’re taking a snapshot now of how musicians’ revenue streams are changing, and why.  The real power in understanding the change is repeating this project in a few years.

We encourage you to take a deeper look at the findings, and at our future releases where we will continue the conversation about how musicians and composers’ revenue streams are changing in the 21st century.

One response to “ReThink: Teams, Time Allocation and Technology”

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