A number of people have asked me recently about the possibility of earning a living from ukulele music. I can’t imagine anything I would like to do less for a multitude of reasons, some of which I’ll detail in this blog.
For the sake of 100% clarity let me remind folks “THIS IS A PERSONAL VIEW ONLY” It would bonkers to suggest that nobody should earn a living from music as there would be no seasoned artists! Ok, now that’s cleared up, read on…
I am lucky enough to know a number of professional musicians and there’s a good reason why they call it “the music business” Any profession requires investments of both time and money. Often people have a romantic and quite delusional idea of what its like to be a professional artist. Its a similar situation with authors.
Years ago I had lunch with a friend who had written a biography on George Harrison. He had previously written one on Carlos Santana but was especially pleased with this new piece of work. I said “If its not too impolite, does being an author pay well?” “Yes he replied this one generated a full 9k, but it did take almost a year to write” I said “Is that an annual anticipated earning” “Nope he said, that’s what I expect in total…”
My point is that few writers earn a reasonable living from simply writing and its the same with other artists including musicians. Of course its important to clarify that independent musicians work in a very different manner to signed artists and performers, but either way there’s a lot more work involved than many might imagine! Shows like X Factor and American Idol do little to dampen the illusion of instant fame without developing a craft…
Two good friends of mine have been earning a living from music for 30+ years. The first one I have known since the early 1980s when after being played on the John Peel Show got signed to Sire Records. The band was on an 8% royalty rate which is similar to a book royalty. This was the deal and the band were delighted to be signed. This delight soon subsided when the record company lost interest in promoting the band. Of course every “album advance” was simply a loan against future sales. the record company holds the rights to the master recordings and is keen to protest their business investment.
In recent years I have been quite shocked at the amount of record company advances and how small these can be. I appreciate that “the record company” wants to protect its investment and to have input into what is released and when it is released. They can also in fact refuse to release any material at all. Bruce Springsteen’s excellent autobiography “Born to Run” is a brilliant insight into a lot of what happens in the “music business” and an essential read for any artist.
Robert Fripp released an excellent audio book on his experiences in “the music business” and commented “Every time I hear a band is signed, I think oh dear…” His observations are quite fascinating, especially around record deals.
“I recommend my students not to be professional unless they really have to be. I tell them, ‘If you love music, sell Hoovers or be a plumber. Do something useful with your life.’
“Being a professional musician doesn’t mean you spend 12 hours a day playing music. It means you spend up to 12 hours a day taking care of business, dealing with litigation, with the various characters who’ve stolen your interests, or fending off hostile lawsuits from former members of the band”
Of course this isn’t every artists experience, BUT often from the outside people don’t see how hard it is to maintain consistent regular predictable income in being “a professional musician”
There’s an old saying in show business – “It takes ten years to become an overnight success”
In my other life as “the other Nick” it’s taken that time to develop a unique skill set that means I’m in demand across the globe, BUT it’s taken a massive amount of time and energy. In 2001 I released a spoken word CD called “The Adventures of Well Being Now” I did all the writing, production, artwork and recording myself. The unit cost of a proper glass mastered CD as a pound a unit and I pressed a thousand. I sold them via distributors for between 6.25 and directly to the public for eighteen pounds in CD format. In total I sold over two thousand which I am told was pretty good, my first foray into music.
In niche musical circles including ukulele music, often people can imagine a wonderful life playing gigs and receiving wonderful applause. The reality for most (not all) is of course somewhat different. In recent times I saw a jazz musician selling beloved bass with regret and I have known many artists part with treasured instruments to make ends meet. Those who earn a reasonable living have to mostly tour endlessly and that can be a big strain on relationships.
Many artists have posted on social media requests for couches, advise on whether anyone knows of available part time jobs and many other factors that suggest it’s tough to earn a living in this way. Don’t get me wrong I APPLAUD any performer that decides to go this route, BUT I’ll never do it, even though I have already had a good taste of some financial success from music alone. This is 100% a personal choice NOT a suggestion for all creative artists on planet earth of course.
I am lucky to be able to fund all band recording and rehearsals from my other life. This means we can record how we want and when we want. We can play as much or as little as we want and are not beholding to anybody. Its a wonderful freedom, but it requires an immense amount of unpaid time and energy. I reckon on at least a full day and a half each week dedicated to the band or my own musical education. Its a wonderful life and I have met and continue to meet many extraordinary people.
There’s nothing so fulfilling as being asked on a number of occasions to play overseas and to date to have played a major guitar festival. The invite came form the work done on the band’s online presence. There’s nothing so great to hear your own material played on the radio and to have respected musicians applaud your work. Personally I find it impossible to really take a view on my own work and there always the thought that it all might in fact be a bit shit! For that reason external appreciation and positive feedback is always welcome!
I would never want to solely reply on music for income, sign to a label or “be managed” All of those factors would eat into the absolute joy of doing what I love.