The Economics of the Independent Singer-Songwriter

Last month I took my second album, ‘Wolf at the Door’, down from digital distribution. I published the album in February 2017, and to keep the album published on all the distribution services (Google, iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, etc.) has cost me a total of US$70 (around AUS$100).

I published through Reverbnation, and over the next few months will take down my other albums as the annual renewal ($50) comes due. It just isn’t worth the cost.

My total revenue from Wolf at the Door was $9, which was mostly from a single iTunes purchase. Of interest, 203 Spotify streams earned $0.28, Google and iTunes paid similarly minuscule amounts.

It will be more viable to only publish albums on my Reverbnation site, which doesn’t attract an annual fee (just a 17% cut of each sale). I had looked at cdbaby, which charges around $50-$70 per album, but then takes a 10% cut of your revenue forever.

Last year was the first time I made an effort to publicise an album. Zombie Sheep of the Murrumbidgee (still up on stream services until June). I did several radio appearances, on local radio in our small town, and also in the bigger city an hour’s drive away. I performed at several local events for free prior to the launch and then organised a ticketed album launch concert.

I also ran a crowd-funding campaign to try and get the album professionally produced, but the campaign never came close to the $1000 goal (thanks to those who did bring it up to $200).

The Zombie Sheep album opened up some fantastic opportunities for me, playing for the Irish Ambassador in Canberra, being part of the ceremony in Sydney commemorating the Irish Famine Memorial and also participating in the Bush Traditions Gathering.

As a folk singer/songwriter, I feel that this album was definitely a pinnacle in terms of my writing, performing and the relatability of the content. My three previous albums were mostly obscure, self-indulgent, and unlikely to attract broader interest.

Over the past 8 months I would have sold close to 25 physical copies of Zombie Sheep, totalling around $200. I usually sell them for $20, but sold about 10 during the launch concert for $15.

So why have this rant? I need to replace a piece of recording equipment, which is going to cost around $200. As an independent musician, the economics of what we do matters. All of the income from album sales and paid gigs over the past five years probably comes close to half of the cost of equipment (instruments, recording and live sound gear) I have purchased. This got me thinking about whether what I do is a costly and wasteful hobby, or is it creating art that is of value to humanity now and in the future?

David Rovics wrote this great piece on the economic viability of touring as a full time musician. Here is another article written in response to a comment made by fantastic Scottish folk musicians Karine Polwart. The underlying theme, is that you most likely won’t make a good living as a musician with ethics and integrity. If you want to write what you want, and play for an audience that appreciates your work, and maybe even say things that some in power don’t want to hear, then it is going to be a struggle.

The economics aren’t so complicated for me. I’m not trying to feed a family with my musical profession, my main goal is just to break even and get my message out to a few people.

Through a random reddit scroll this weekend I watched this video of a song that Trevor Lucier wrote for his girlfriend. I was struck by the upbeat enthusiasm Trevor had during his intro, something an introvert like me would never try to pull off on-camera. Going through Trevor’s videos, I found this one from just a few months earlier. It is tough to watch, but I suggest that it is worthwhile. It speaks to the economics of America, and many western countries. How we are crushing the spirits of young people through unaffordable housing, unaffordable rent, ridiculous cost of living and unwillingness to pay our artists for the value they give society. Trevor is a talented guy, an accomplished guitar player, a good writer and singer and seems like someone worth having a chat with over a coffee. Maybe instead of having one Ed Sheeran earning a $110 million a year, we could have an Ed Sheeran on every street corner earning $80k a year?

Bringing this closer to home, the local farmers market has been paying musicians $100 to play for around 1.5-2 hours for the last 3-4 years. The spot is circulated between beginner and more professional performers and was a great way to support both the musicians and the atmosphere of the market. This year, under new management, the demand has been that musicians play 3 hours for $50. Writing and performing with an instrument is not flipping burgers. Needless to say, I won’t be playing the market any more.

Last week I had a brief brush with fame when I wrote this song about an issue with the quality of our local water. The song jumped to 4k views on YouTube within a few days and was even played on the local news in Canberra. ABC played the song on the radio and mentioned it several times in their articles. The only cent of revenue I saw was from a local shop owner who wanted to play it in their store and bought the song for $0.99 (I told her to show APRA my text message consenting to play it in public if they come around hassling her).

For any aspiring musicians reading this, my advice, for what it’s worth, is that you have to make each and every sale in person. Your music needs to connect with the person in your audience every time you perform. Not everyone is going to be Mike Rosenberg or Taylor Swift, but just inspiring one person, or touching the heart of one person, makes being a musicians worthwhile. It won’t pay, so get a day job, but don’t stop creating.

About Daniel Kelly

Daniel Kelly is a singer/songwriter from Yass in Australia.
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2 Responses to The Economics of the Independent Singer-Songwriter

  1. Mark Horning says:

    CDBaby didn’t charge me anything to sell my CDs, just their percentage cut. Probably depends who you do your press with. That was, however quite some time ago.

    Discmakers bought CDBaby in 2008, and I did my album in 2009, so I am sure it was a package type deal. I think I have received one check for around $45, and that included about 3-cents from Spotify.

    In person sales are the only way I have really moved any CDs.

  2. Daniel Kelly says:

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for reading, $45 might cover a coffee and taxi to a gig? It definitely isn’t a money making business we are in, you have to do it for the love of music.

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