The key for musicians today is to diversify their revenue streams. Most any musician who has been making a living off of their art will tell you that they have multiple streams of income. They’ll also tell you that some streams are more important during specific times of the year or during specific times in their career.
You know the adage, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket“, right? Think of the below list as a bunch of baskets related to making money from your live performance, and determine which ones you want to use. Some of these will be no-brainers, but they’re still on the list as a reminder.
There are lots of ways musicians can use their live show to also make money. Let’s start with a few givens, and then we’ll jump into some other things you may or may not have thought of.
1. Ticket Sales
People still pay for live music. In fact, in an age where everything is becoming automated, the live show is still one of the few things people will pay for. You can’t, you just can’t, substitute anything for the real thing!
But let’s think outside the box on this one. You could slap a $10 charge on your ticket, create an eventbrite link, and leave it at that. But I want to suggest another option: create tiers. Start with $10 and then add a $20 tier…maybe even a $30 tier. What I’ve found is that people will give the bare minimum if you ask them to. But if you give them the opportunity to give more, a certain percentage will. When someone loves what you do (and if they have the means), they will make every attempt to support it.
Take your merch table seriously. From personal experience, I got to a point in my career where 30% of my income per show was coming from merch sales. As CDs began to fade into oblivion, it became obvious to me that if I was going to continue making money off my merch table, I would need to create merch that would never go out of fashion: shirts.
People don’t leave the house naked (well…most people). So clothes will always be a merch table option.
Pro Tip: Put your merch table in the line of vision. It should be the first thing people see as they enter a venue (by the ticketing table). It gets the wheels turning as they watch your show and consider buying something on the way out
Pro Tip: Put a catchy lyric, a funny phrase, or a meaningful phrase on your T-shirts. Make it something that is unique to your band, your music, or your live show experience. This guarantees that even if people don’t know your band or care to rock a shirt with your logo, they can still be a candidate to buy your merch if they can get with the slogan.
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3. Cover Gigs
Some musicians really hate this type of show. I get it: you’re often “wallpaper” - hanging in the back corner of a bar pretending to be a radio. But if you’ve got a repertoire of cover songs you’ve learned over the years, if you love keeping up with the new, and if you’re a quick learner, cover gigs are a great way to subsidize your other shows.
4. Private Events
Think of these as the cash-cows of live performance. Private events are some of the best-paying gigs out there. They’re often corporate events booked by 3rd party agencies on behalf of their clients; and they typically pay better because corporations have bigger budgets. These events vary in type and may include playing soft instrumental music during a dinner party, banquet, or gala; learning and performing special numbers that support a themed event; performing during a cocktail hour as guests arrive; or any number of other things.
Pro Tip: You can find gigs like these through websites like GigSalad and The Bash. They list opportunities offered by private event planners, corporations, couples who need wedding music, and so much more.
5. House concerts
Think of house concerts as the golden egg of live performance. Rarely does a show check all 3 boxes: making money, making fans, making memories. But house concerts do just that. If you need a type of show that requires very little promo but gives a whole lot in return, you should be doing house concerts.
Every now and again, die-hard fans who already come to your shows will host you in their home and share you with their friends and community. These shows are special because you don’t need to do the heavy-lifting of show promo and fans do a much better job selling tickets than venues. What’s more, you get to meet people in an intimate space, have real up close and personal conversations, and hang out in someone’s living room for an evening.
Pro Tip: In most cases, you should communicate with your host on how to go about selling tickets - advance online sales, advance RSVPs, or pass-the-hat. I’ve found that pass-the-hat can often work best (depending on the audience demographic) because people are more generous during a show when they are experiencing music in real time. But it’s also important to offer digital ways to donate (especially for younger audiences) as fewer people carry cash these days.
Pro Tip: Communicate with your host about offering food or doing a potluck! House concerts and food go hand-in-hand and the evening only gets better when everyone’s sharing a meal. Trust me!
6. Busking a.k.a. Street Performance
It might seem old school, but there are ways to do it right! Gone are the days of the dude with his guitar on a street corner. We want to encourage you to think outside the box with this and partner up with a friend who has a different skill set! Find yourself a shameless dancing friend who can add some spice to your set list. It doesn’t have to be cheesy. It just has to be art. Interpretive dancing, hip hop, salsa dancing…get creative.
Street performance will never die. Touristy European countries are proof. You just need to find the right spot, the right day, and the right approach. And if you don’t have dancers, that’s ok! Just get creative. Incorporate poetry or live painting or something else. If you can put effort into a traditional show, you can put effort into this. And the best part is you don’t have to split the money with a venue!
7. The College Circuit
NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) is a big investment, but if your music is college appropriate, it’s totally worth it. Student activity boards reserve a significant amount of funding for midday lunchtime music, and late night coffeehouse programming. One gig alone can cover expenses for an entire tour.
You don’t even have to book through NACA. It might take a bit of legwork, but call around to a few college booking agencies and ask them what you can send to be considered for their roster.
Pro Tip: The more versatile you are, the more opportunities there are. If you can do a show, public speaking, poetry, comedy, …etc., you have the potential to fit into a variety of college event programming.
Festivals are one-of-a-kind high-traffic gigs that bring in a lot of heads and require very little promotion. I like to think of them as the cornerstone to fan-building. The opportunity to make new fans is abundant in an atmosphere where you never know who is walking by or where they’ve come from. Bring your A-game when you play a music festival, and be as available as possible after your set to meet people.
Pro Tip: Not only should you have a merch table, but you should talk about it from the stage. So much goes on at a festival and it can be hard for fans to know where to find your setup or meet you after your set. If you want to make money selling merch, this is a good way to do it.
9. Online Concerts
If 2020 showed us anything, it’s that people will pay for an online concert. It’s important for me to stress that your online concert does not need to be anything like your live concert. Here is a completely different medium that you can use to your advantage.
First, take advantage of the fact that you are online. Engage your viewers in the comment section. Have them unmute their microphone and offer comments or answers to questions you ask. Engage, engage, engage. You can’t really do that as freely in a live venue and this will be what sets your stream apart from an in-person show.
To make money from an online show, be sure that donating is as easy as possible. Set up a page on your website that you can direct people to with a single link, and offer your virtual tip jar, Paypal, Cashapp, Venmo, or Zelle there as payment options.
If 2020 showed musicians anything else, it’s that you have to reach people where they are. Plenty of services out there are created specifically for live music performances, but a Zoom link is simple and accessible.
Pro Tip: Keep your streams exclusive. Offer them to 15-20 fan max on any given stream. You can sell an advance ticket or take RSVPs; but the exclusivity will make it feel special to your fans.
Pro Tip: Open the floor for Q&A. This is a unique feature that can lead to an opportunity where your fans really get to know you.
10. Live Performance Royalties
Performance Rights Organizations allow you to earn royalties from your live shows. If you’re someone who plays a lot of gigs, use this to your advantage. Every extra dollar counts!
These can be difficult to secure, but if you use a product - …like, really use a product, a lot - reach out to the company and ask them about sponsorship. Artists do this for all kinds of gear: strings, drum sticks, capos, mics, amps, and even clothing. For gigs at bars/clubs, you can also try to get a sponsorship from an alcohol or energy drink company, which might help you save on costs at the venue or get a better cut of the revenues.
12. Live albums
Many venues are already equipped to help you record a good quality live album. Why not plan to record a live album after your latest studio release, and add a few exclusive new songs to entice your fans to buy it?
You could also record a few new live singles, and add those to your Spotify profile, your website, and any other place you host music. Live songs give you something new to promote on a regular basis, building momentum for your music.
13. Streaming royalties for live recordings
Whether your videos are streaming on YouTube or your music is streaming on Spotify, you are earning royalties. It might not be much (we all know how that conversation goes), but it’s something.
You can earn royalties whenever your videos are played on YouTube. So be sure to upload all of your good quality live videos to your YouTube Channel (you can even use the live songs you recorded), then monetize them.
14. Online stores
To leverage playing live, make sure that your online store is set up with options for fans who may not have been able to purchase merch or music on the spot. The live show is often about connection, and a fan who can’t purchase merch in the moment, or who can’t attend a show, might still want to support you later on.
Mention in your live show if you have music or merch for sale online, especially if it’s related to a song you are playing. And be sure to have your catalogue of music available online for sale as well. You can also try setting your music to pay-what-you-want, so fans can support you as best they can.
Bonus tip: Spend Money
Couldn’t help but end on this. It’s true what they say: it takes money to make money. Spend a few hundred dollars to print T-shirts for your merch table, get a membership to GigSalad, join NACA, ship posters to venues you are playing at, etc. Put a few dollars into everything you do so that it looks good. It will pay off.
Joy Ike is a full-time singer/songwriter and artist coach based out of Philadelphia, PA. In her work through Cultivators, she helps artists grow well by casting vision for the big picture while giving attention to the daily challenges of creating and communicating genuine art. With her background in publicity and marketing, Joy is especially passionate about helping independent artists tell a better story through the way they represent their work in branding, booking, fan-building, and authentically connecting with their audience.
Her writings on music, business, and branding have been shared by ASCAP, BMI, Bandzoogle, Indie on the Move, CD Baby, Hypebot, and several other prominent music industry blogs. She also gives workshops on fanbase-building, tour booking, social media best practices, and turning music into a sustainable living.
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