Why Artists Don’t Make Money

A recent Vice series: The Life Of Business (trailer and episode below) has shed some light on a stunningly consistent phenomenon for the modern day creative: not making any money. This short discussion and commentary by a panel of prominent industry figures explore an important question, “what is the value of creativity?” A sense of self-depreciating humor follows artistic subcultures, painting the picture that being under-compensated and underpaid for artistic work is simply a norm set forth by the continued depreciation of creative expression. When exploring the realities of assigned value for art, particularly in western society, the record shows that the economic hostility of the creative lifestyle is a measurable.

Selling Physical-Copy Merchandise Is Dead


Taylor Swift’s “1989” Was the Only Album to go Platinum (1,000,000 units) in 2014.

As Vice reports, in the year 1989, 18 albums reached that mark. The decline of physical copy albums sales is nothing new. While audio purists will always hold strong to having a physical representation of their favorite soundtracks, CD’s are the least common denominator in a sea of poor substitutes.  The CD was a product of the music industry jumping at an opportunity to create a product that could be mass produced, cheaply manufactured, and maximized margins without considerations to quality, lifespan or the piece of every soul lost to a skipping disk. Granted it was a vast improvement over previous and massively available tape technology. Unfortunately, the industry became complacent and pocketed cash instead of investing in the boom of digital music.  The same pattern follows other massive industries now defunct, such as hard-copy video and game rental markets.

Streaming Revenue Is Not Adding Up

Reportedly, three writers from Avicii’s 2014 hit single “Wake Me Up” were compensated a mere $12,359 each. Streamed 168 million times, it falls only one spot from the most streamed song of all time.
Digital art and internet pioneer Ryder Ripps notes,

This has forced the music industry to reconsider what they are selling.  I’m surprised it took them so long to realize this … they are selling something ephemeral and metaphysical.  The music industry isn’t selling a piece of furniture, an LP, or even a CD.  They are selling the experience of listening to music.

Start Selling An Experience

Duece Ellis (DueceEllisIsACult), a Brooklyn-based artist and creator, sets the record straight in a recent editorial about making money in the music industry, and how it might not be as hard as we think.

Before the “Music Industry” existed, creatives of all sorts have, well, gotten creative when  sourcing income from their craft. Mozart didn’t compose amazing music trying to go platinum, Shakespeare wasn’t writing to be a “New York Times Best-Seller” – by masterful execution of the craft, an experience was created, value perceived, and high demand ensued.

Being a musician is no longer enough to make it in the musical world. It is the artist’s responsibility to create valuable services which create a valuable experience. Successful businesses create sustainable profits over time with consistent value. This is the first generation where artists have the tools and connectivity to craft and build an empire from their keyboard, and it all starts with knowing the what your revenue streams are, and in which ways they work. No amount of management, PR, or representation is going create a magic bullet. Independent artists need to personally understand how to create the most visibility, reach your fans most consistently, and create consistently monetized content.

Streaming Infrastructure Has Failed the Modern Musician

The music industries reluctance to show foresight into the trends of music consumption and discovery has led to its own demise. Music steaming isn’t new and sources back to the early stages of Napster and Rhapsody. Instead of creating assesible infrastructure and monetized services, the industry simply tried to ignore the idea itself for as long as possible. Instead of giving themselves the advantage of being first movers, and being able to create the status-quo, they instead have become just as mercilessly ensnared as today’s artists. The difference is that artists now have the ability to reach their fans directly and create incomes from additional sources such as merchandise and live shows.

The Perception of Value, and the Double Standard

For most people working on salary, as long as you show up 9 – 5 every day and do as expected you’re going to get paid. The client expects the work to be professional, and the outcome is based on a standard of “good enough”. If the work was satisfactory and no errors came to light then you get a passing grade, and it’s on to the next. Your boss isn’t going to look at your work, quickly make an emotional gut reaction on its relevance, compare you to the greatest accountant they have ever known, and pay you whatever compensation they find relative to your value. As an artist or musician, this is what you face daily. Music has no concrete value to our survival, it is subject to taste and conditioning. In the art world, the perception of value is far more valuable than the value itself. The fabric or culture and industry shifts, skews, and molds to the environment in which it is presented.

What Remains Constant

Surviving as an independent creator isn’t what it used to be.  We hope the future holds more certainty for the next generation of creators, but if history is any indication, we won’t be counting on it. Fortunately, the world continues to evolve in ways that create new paths for creative income and leverage.