Get a Proper Job?

Governments have never really liked musicians. They’re bolshy, difficult and set bad examples for young kids. It’s not really any surprise that Rishi Sunak has kinda sorta said “sorry guys – I can’t do much to save your jobs” from the ravages of The Pestilence. But the thing is – and I hate to say it – he’s kind of right.

But also catastrophically wrong.

Firstly, nobody makes money from their music. If you’re looking to make a living from music, the chances are you won’t. The reason is basic economics, and you can kvetch all you like but if you’re expecting financial gain from music then I’ve got not one, not two, but THREE bridges to sell you.

The first reason is that the music industry is sort of analogous to football. The people who make the headlines – your Rhiannas, Drakes etc – are probably making plenty dollar in the same way that Premiership footballers are. Lots of people like what they do and will pay good money to watch them do it. And because of their success they get the ancillary benefits of sponsorship deals, product tie-ins and all that stuff. Make it big enough and people will buy your perfume brand just so they can smell like you.

But, football isn’t the Premier League, and music isn’t stadium tours and sponsorship deals with Mastercard. Most footballers toil in obscurity for a fleeting number of years, and then that’s it. A pub quiz answer or a YouTube highlight reel at best… and then it’s ending up back in civilian life with the rest of us. In fact, most footballers outside the top couple of tiers of the sport are barely even professional – often supplementing their football income with a day job.

And the story for musicians is even worse.

Firstly, nobody will pay for your music – even if they love you. Streaming has ended that forever. Even back in the day, if you sold a CD for a tenner, you maybe saw two quid of it after management fees, the record company, distribution and costs were taken out. And if you were in a band, you might only have seen a quarter of that! If you sold a million copies of your album you might have had enough to support a decent drug habit for a few years and to fleetingly win the heart of a supermodel.

But the truth is that very very few bands ever shifted that many units. Take a band who were pretty successful – like Shed Seven. They had a few songs you can maybe remember and a few albums that bothered the charts. Their three biggest albums sold over 100,000 copies each. If you do the maths on that at £2 a CD, that tots up to £600,000. But that’s split between the band members. Rick Witter wrote most of their songs, so probably took half the money, leaving the other four members with £300,000 to divvy up between themselves.

Sound good? Sort of? That’s £75,000 each over 4 years. Or under £20k a year. Which you could earn in a normal job even then.

Today, they’d be fucked. To make minimum wage through streaming, you’d have to get approximately 6 million streams a month through Spotify (which is the default platform. Some other services pay more, but Spotify really own the medium – see Damain Keye’s videos for more insights). Shed Seven get around 300,000 plays a month – which equates to about enough for a bag of groceries each.

For more perspective, I get around 24 streams a month. And as it costs me around £40 a year to keep my albums on the platform, I actually make negative amounts of money every year. That’s the kind of financial reward you can realistically expect. Be realistic about it.

So where do people make their money? The answer is live performance. Why are all those bands you grew up on perpetual reunion tours? Well duh. They made nothing the first time round. And then probably struggled to get any job in the real world as their CV read “1992-1997: playing bass for Sleeper.” Your glory days long behind you, stuck working as a mortgage broker. Who would turn down the chance to earn a few hundred a night to go back on the road with your old mates and play songs for people of a certain age who loved you?

The shift is noticeable if you compare bands from two eras. In 7 years, the Beatles made 14 albums – which was entirely typical. The Killers (who I’m told are popular) have made 6 albums in 14 years. Why? Because there’s no money in it! They probably make as much from a single decent sized arena gig and flogging merchandise on the door than they do from a whole year’s worth of streaming revenue. Just go out, play the hits, and refresh your catalogue with something new every few years when you feel like it.

The sad truth is that I did a pub gig last weekend playing acoustic covers of various rock and pop hits from the last forty years and made more money in those two hours than I have from all the music I’ve ever created and recorded. The stuff I pour my heart into? Literally worthless, on the monetary axis.

So Rishi Sunak is right. Chances are you’ll never make money from music. And unless the picture changes really soon, a lot of the pubs and venues that musicians have been scraping a second income from will be gone forever a year from now. New things will arise to take their place, but who knows what shape or form they’ll take? It is probably wise to get a trade, or a degree in counselling.

But, I also said that Rishi was catastrophically wrong. And the reason is this: we don’t do it for money to begin with.

The reason is because music is the place we keep our souls. We write to express things. Love. Fear. Hate. Joy. To keep us sane. Because  sometimes the only way you know how to can talk is through a guitar. It doesn’t matter to me that I’ve made a total of about a grand from music in a quarter of a century. If you told me that I’d never make another penny from it, it wouldn’t stop me. It’s what I do. It’s what all musicians do. We are the singers of the songs. The tellers of the tales. And there are always people who want to listen. Does it matter if they’re not in the same room as you?

Every month I look at my Spotify stats and know that someone in Estonia or Canada or Leicester has heard my music. There is no price you can put on that, and no government edict that can tell you it isn’t worth it.

Music is forever and eternal. And long after Rish Sunak is a footnote in a history textbook, people will still be singing songs of love and laughter.