Getting Started in “The Biz”: What You Need to Know About Music Publishing Companies, Getting Paid and Earning a Living as a Working Musician

You’ve got talent. Nobody doubts that. You can really play and sing and everybody is sure that you are talented enough to “go pro” and to “really make it.” Here is a truth is better to face now, while you’re still lining up your ducks: talent is only a part of what makes a successful musician. In fact, in most cases, talent is the smallest part of being successful in the music business.

It is important to remember that, at it’s core, the music business is just that: a business. It is finding a way to earn a living from your talent and that means that you need to know how to market and sell yourself just like you would any other commodity or product. That is the first “insider trick” of making it in “the biz:” learn how to separate yourself as a human from yourself as a musician. Your humanity can inform your product, sure–all musicians know this. It cannot, however, be your product.


Insider Tip #1: Compartmentalize

That compartmentalization is the hardest thing that up and coming musicians learn. That’s why it’s mentioned first. Once you learn how to create boundaries between your personal and professional selves and personas, the other insider tricks on this list won’t seem so difficult.

Insider Tip #2: Learn How Licensing Works, Pronto.

You’ve undoubtedly heard of the Verve controversy, when the band was forced to give 100% of the licensing fees, royalties and control over their one hit, Bittersweet Symphony, to Allen Klein because he insisted that they used more than the short Rolling Stones refrain they had purchased from him in their song. That’s how the song ended up being used in a Nike commercial even after the band said no.

This is why it is incredibly important that you learn everything you can about how licenses and copyrights work. Yes, you can work with a music publishing company and allow them to handle all of the administrative stuff, but, as TuneCore points out, knowing the difference between, say mechanical licensing and sync licensing is still important. Never ever sign on a dotted line without understanding the legal ramifications of doing so; especially where your intellectual property is concerned.

Insider Tip #3: Get Really Good at Math and Budgeting Before You Go on Tour

One of the most important parts of being a working musician is taking your show on the road. Touring is a fantastic way to expand your audience and, for many artists, it is where a significant percentage of their income originates. To be able to make a profit when you tour, though, you need to be really organized and you need to be realistic about your numbers. It’s great that Pomplamoose decided that they’d rather end up in debt for the sake of a great show but, when you’re first starting out, you probably don’t have that luxury.

There is also something to be said for being realistic about your expectations here. Every band talks about bootstrapping their first few tours, sleeping in their car or on the couches of friendly fans and venue owners and eating only ramen or fast food dollar menu items for weeks at a stretch. There’s something romantic about the idea of it, but it also wreaks havoc on your body and your ability to put on a solid performance. Angela Webber, one half of the Doubleclicks, wrote a fantastic “how to” about touring over on The Doubleclicks’s website. It’s a far more accurate guide for setting up a tour than the Pomplamoose piece…or any article that tells you you have to sleep in the van (or not sleep at all) to keep your cred.

Insider Tip #4: Sell More Than Music

It’s cliche, but it is still true: you will make more in merch sales than you do in ticket sales. This is partly because you get to keep a larger percentage of your merch sales at a show–some venues will even let you keep all of the profit from your merch sales. It is also partly because you can passively sell merch all the time online, through your own site and through portals like Society6, RedBubble, CafePress, etc, which is a great way to earn some side cash. T-shirts, mugs, bags, buttons, stickers…it all adds up.

It seems counter intuitive to talk about math and logic in an article about turning what you love into a living, we know. Still, if you ever hope to play more than your local open mic, it is important to know how to work with music publishing companies, how to tour, how to sell merch and how to market yourself. Remember: you are your own product here. The sooner you realize that, the easier it will be for you to make a living in this business.


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