How do artists make money?

article picture

Making a living from your passion can be one of the most difficult decisions in life. And one of the main reasons is the money. 

Seen from a capitalist point of view, making a living from art requires a large investment in training and unpaid work that is sometimes generously rewarded financially, but most of the time is quite irregular.

Whether or not you are involved in an artistic discipline, there’s a lot you can learn from someone who has successfully moved from being an amateur musician to a professional one. Mario, a 36-year-old Berlin-based musician, told us how he manages his money to make a financially viable living from music. 

Get ready for the leap

Mario wanted to be a musician from the age of 13. Growing up in the Dominican Republic and New York, the competition was very tough. He gave sporadic concerts and was paid very little. It was only two years ago that he felt he was making it on a professional level: "I started to get paid more for playing, and for the first time I thought I could make a living out of it”.

He used to be employed and the money that came in from music was a surplus that he invested in equipment: "It was very important to me because I saw it as a way of gaining independence musically. This way, I can record my own songs and mix them if necessary. I have all kinds of instruments that I need to be able to play different roles in the creation process," he said.

He also saved a bit of money. "I had a system where I put aside €100 from every paycheck. In the end, it was no more than €2,000, more of a 'just in case' because I knew that, eventually, I was going to make the leap." 

Assess your income sources

Mario's main source of income as a musician is live performances

As for making money from recordings, he said: "You need to have a large number of songs registered with GEMA, the entity that collects and manages royalties in Germany. If you don't have a large collection, it's not meaningful”.

So, during the year concert halls have been closed or restricted, what have musicians been living on? Sadly, we know that many are in a very precarious situation: "When I quit my previous job to play music, I didn't expect something like Covid to happen. And if there's one thing that Covid hit hard, it's concerts". 

Diversify to overcome crisis

Mario remained active during these months thanks to being involved in different projects: "I've been lucky because I took into account something that I think is fundamental for every freelancer, which is to look for different options. You have to think about all the things you can do that will allow you, if one door closes, to open another”. 

In his case, he plays several instruments. "Lately, my band didn't have many gigs, only two or three, because we are small, but I also play in bigger bands. I've noticed that for the bigger bands, especially the more pop ones – I play bass and guitar for a pop artist – the activity hasn't stopped in the same way as for other genres. They've been able to adapt better to doing recorded or televised gigs, and that kind of thing tends to be well paid. 

There is also some money coming in from plays on Spotify and royalties on GEMA, but, as we said, it's not much, so he hasn't noticed much of a difference. Mario, like many other musicians, thinks that the payment systems of Spotify and other streaming services don't work. It mainly benefits big mainstream artists, because Spotify has commercial agreements with their labels to have them in its catalogue, which means they can negotiate better profits. 

Prepare for future possibilities

The pandemic has lead to many people rethinking their situation and looking for new opportunities. "I'm lucky that at the beginning of the pandemic I was still receiving unemployment, but I realised that the government, unfortunately, doesn't have your back at the end of the day. There hasn't been much help in the face of Corona. So my plan now is to add another element to my work as a freelance musician, which would be, for example, to work as a sound technician. It's in the same field, but it's a bit outside the artistic part and in a way more practical”.

Organise your expenses

According to Mario, equipment is definitely the biggest expense for a musician. The positive side of this is that it is tax-deductible.

"I organise my money keeping in mind that I have to pay my taxes as a freelancer”. This is extremely important because, as you may know, as a freelancer you have to keep the money to pay your taxes yourself, not your employer. "If I haven't paid them yet, I put the money aside in my account. If I need to buy something with it, I move money back later to keep the balance." 

Promotion is also an important cost, but fortunately, you can ask for support: "Sometimes institutions like Initiative Musik or Musicboard Berlin can give you money for promotion. Last year, for example, they helped a lot of people financially”.

A trick to keep track of your expenses is to use Excel sheets. "In one I have my monthly budget and know exactly what I have to spend. Everything I earn above that is surplus, which I put in another sheet where I have detailed the things I need for the studio. When I have more money, I add it and buy them directly”.

Invest in yourself, but manage the risks

As we said, Mario's investments are mainly in instruments. "Many of them are extremely expensive, but I know that in five or six years they won't devalue. And if I had to sell them, for example in an emergency, I could ask the same price or more. Luckily, I've never had to sell anything". 

In his case, he has never gone into debt to get a project off the ground. Once, he even took out a loan to buy a van so he could go on tour, but he found it too complicated and ended up paying it back. "I tend to be very careful with these things and try not to put myself in a situation where I'm going to need to ask for it. The main problem with freelancing is that you don't know when the money is going to come in. That's why I never overextend”. 

He says that on only one occasion did he buy second-hand equipment worth €2,000 and agreed to pay for it later. "We all have different limits, I just don't go over certain amounts, I don't get into trouble for more than €3,000. Maybe in two or three years, I'll be in a more comfortable situation”.

One last recommendation: Machines by Strand Child, Mario’s band.