I’ve been a full-time working songwriter for 15 years. In November, one of my songs went viral. The song was “Rich People,” which is a jazzy, jokey song about capitalism. The lyrics describe being bombarded by bad news, and having that news blamed on all the wrong people (black people, Jewish people, immigrants), when the real culprits are the super-rich.
This was my second taste of Internet virality (the first was a tribute I wrote to John Prine when he passed in 2020), and it was a mixed blessing. After spending a few hours gleefully watching the view count climb into the millions, I spent a week deleting comments and banning trolls.
Some of the comments were great (“She’s like Shania Twain meets Rage Against the Machine!”), but many weren’t. Of all the bad-faith, harebrained, and fashy comments, I found this one the funniest:
Take it from me, folks. If you hope to get rich, becoming a musician is an incredibly bad strategy.
I’m 37, and I’ve been working as a musician since I was a teenager. I’m an independent artist, meaning there is no record label funding my work. And I’m an American, meaning there is no public funding, either.
Among working singer-songwriters, I’m fairly successful. Since the late-pandemic return of live music, my band and I have played about 150 shows throughout the United States, United Kingdom, and Ireland. I have 90,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, and about 150,000 followers across various social media platforms.
All of that work, content, and fandom does generate money. But the amount I get to keep is less than you might think, and my business is operating from beneath an ever-growing mountain of debt.
I hear similar stories from other working musicians. Most of us don’t like to talk about money, because it’s embarrassing; we feel fraudulent, disorganized, each nursing a private personal failure.
But really, every person working in the music industry today is attempting to thrive in a hostile environment. Only the very lucky, well-connected, or well-funded survive.
So, for the love of music: Let’s talk about money.
Debt, Trolls, and Rock & Roll
In 2021, my business—which we’ll call Carsie Blanton Industries—generated a little over $240,000 in revenue. (That’s gross revenue, before taxes.)
Carsie Blanton the person made about $31,000. That’s what I put in my personal checking account and spent on my personal life: rent, dog food, Hulu.
Meanwhile, Carsie Blanton Industries operated at a loss, taking on an additional $30,000 of debt, for a grand total of $200,000.
That’s right. Fifteen years into a successful music career, touring the world and living the dream, I am $200,000 in debt.
Luckily, I never went to college, so I like to think of it as the cost of my PhD from the very prestigious School of Hard Knocks.
While I’m in confessional mode: My husband makes more money than I do, and has supported me and my work throughout the years in lots of ways, including financially. Because of him I enjoy luxuries like health insurance, therapy, and access to credit.
I struggled with whether to reveal that last bit (“Privilege!” “Bad feminist!”), but feel it’s worth the risk, because this arrangement appears to be pretty common. Many working musicians have partners or family members who supplement their income with money, credit, a house to live in, or health insurance.
And musicians aren’t the only ones relying on family to bridge those gaps. With 50 million Americans duking it out in the “gig economy,” and a quarter of adults under 34 living with their parents, it’s probably time to retire the trope that success counts only if we have achieved it alone. (That way, at least somebody can retire!)
The “Rich People” trolls were wrong to assume that a viral video would make me rich. (In fact, those 3 million views have made me exactly zero dollars.) In reality, there are three ways I get paid to make music.
1. Releasing albums: My last few albums have cost between $25,000 and $50,000 each to record, mix, and master. Most of that money went to other people: musicians, producers, engineers. Most people, these days, listen on streaming services. Spotify pays me about $.004 per stream. (That’s four-tenths of one cent.) So if a song is streamed a million times, I make $4,000. But to date, only a handful of the hundred-or-so songs I’ve released have made it to a million streams. So if I need 10 million streams to pay off a $40,000 record, but I’m only getting 2 million: My streaming revenue comes up about $32,000 short.
Thankfully, some people still buy CDs and vinyl records (and T-shirts, posters, etc.). And merchandise makes a profit, eventually. But in order to make that profit, you have to sell about half of the merch, and once you sell half of the merch, it’s time to order more merch! Really, merch is more like a revolving loan. Meanwhile, we also have to pay for marketing. Marketing budgets vary widely and can be spent in all sorts of ways (music videos, ads, radio promotion, publicity). I’ve spent between $5,000 and $25,000 to market my albums.
Altogether, my cost to make and release an album falls between $50,000 and $90,000. And while some of that money eventually makes its way back to me from sales and streaming, most of it doesn’t.
2. Performing Live: Touring with my band has been one of the most fun and rewarding experiences of my life and has resulted in many of my closest adult friendships. I wouldn’t trade it for $200,000. Apparently.
But I have lost more money touring than on every other part of my business, combined. There was a tour a few years back that cost me $15,000. Imagine you have just done six weeks of grueling, physically and emotionally demanding work. You’ve been sick. You’ve been grabbed. You’ve sat in a Texas parking lot all day, waiting for AAA to come change the tire on your trailer. And at the end, you get a bill for $15,000.
During my mid-pandemic crisis, I made some new rules about touring. Now, I pay the band a living wage, pay myself as a member of the band, cover all our expenses, and break even. If there’s a significant risk of going into the red on a given tour, we stay home.
In the small venues we play, it’s pretty hard to make that happen.
Depending on the number of flights, band members, and shows in a given tour, I need to be paid between $2,500 and $6,500 per show to break even.
It’s difficult to fathom how expensive touring actually is—which is how I lost so much money doing it. I won’t bore you with a real budget, but here are a few of the headlines: My booking agent and manager take a commission off the top (usually 20 percent, combined), and then I pay three or four band members, plus flights, hotel rooms, van and gear rental, and more.
We used to tour on a shoestring budget, and we still probably could. But in addition to the economic risks involved, it turns out that what’s fun in your 20s isn’t always fun in your 30s and 40s. After more than a decade seeing the “romance of the road” together (touring in my station wagon, sleeping on floors, playing for 12 people in Sacramento), the band and I agreed that it was time for a change. As adult professionals, we no longer want to go out on the road to get “life experience.” We want to show up to our job, perform excellently, get a good night’s sleep, and go home with enough money to pay rent.
3. Fans on the Internet: I have about 700 subscribers on Patreon, plus a few thousand fans who preorder my albums or donate to our livestreams. Last year, my fans also covered over $10,000 in lost income due to Covid, canceled flights, and a van break-in. These fine folks are bridging the gap between the money it costs to make music and the money that music makes.
Of course, there are many other sources of income in music (record labels, commercials, corporate events), but all of them come with their own drawbacks. The drawback I chose is this: In exchange for total creative freedom, I have to periodically craft a fundraising pitch, like a public radio station—or a progressive magazine.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that the perks of this job are off the charts.
We get to travel the world, work with our best friends, and experience joy and purpose at our place of work. And despite the financial challenges, we don’t usually feel broke—fans have provided my band and I with lavish meals, empty vacation homes, even a post-show mobile oyster bar.
Even if I die in debt, I wouldn’t trade this for another job. But we are quickly approaching a world where the only people who can afford to be artists are the ones with considerable access to credit. Does that sound like a world you want to live in?
A Service Industry for the Soul
Obviously, I could do all of it cheaper. I could make albums alone in my bedroom, and tour solo. But the less money I spend on albums and tours, the fewer musicians I employ. So while “do it cheaper” may be a good plan for me as an individual, it isn’t a good plan for the industry.
There are hundreds of jobs and hundreds of thousands of people making their living in music. And like many industries, ours has taken hit after hit over the past 20 years (Napster, Spotify, Ticketmaster, Covid), while the opportunity to earn a middle-class income has all but disappeared.
As musicians, our job is to bring meaning and joy to people’s lives. We are, as Roseanne Cash puts it, “the service industry for the heart and soul.” And like most jobs with any social, spiritual, or humanitarian value, this one doesn’t pay very well.
Because there is one insurmountable problem with the music business: Music is not a business. It’s a vocation.
Music, like health, education, and democracy, just doesn’t make a very good commodity. If we want it in our lives, we have to find a way to fund it.
Most countries as wealthy as the United States provide dramatically more public funding for artists. But we can’t trust Congress to provide support, or to stand up to corporations like Spotify and Ticketmaster, without significant “pressure from below.” That means all of us—music workers and music listeners—demanding that they do so, in a strategic and organized way.
Unions like UMAW, ARA, and AFM are challenging corporate streaming rates, and pressuring venues to stop unfair practices like keeping a cut of artists’ merch revenue (#MyMerch). The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) has helped secure pandemic funding for small venues, and the Music Workers’ Alliance (MWA) just won a campaign to include New York musicians in a $200 million Covid relief program. Federal programs like universal health care would help lower the cost of living for everybody, but especially gig workers.
So if you want to help your favorite musician, buy a CD, or subscribe to them on Patreon. But if you want to help music, get involved in the struggle for workers’ rights.