How Working Musicians Really Make A Living

#blackmusicians #sustainableart

Written by Brenda Nicole Moorer

I come from a long line of performers. My grandfather and his brothers formed the group The Esquires in the 60s and won two gold records. They toured the world and supported their families. I still hear their songs in the grocery store sometimes. My father was a singer and piano player, and I’ve been carrying on the tradition. So, you can imagine my excitement last year as I planned my album release tour with my band for my 3rd record.  I scoured the internet looking for the best venues to fit my music, for booking contacts, emailed back and forth for two months with different venues, wrote numerous grants, and finally nailed down all the details. We were set for the MARROW east coast tour for August 2020. When March rolled around and the world shut down, I didn't freak out. I listened to the news, stayed inside, rested with my family, enjoyed the momentary break, and was optimistic that in a couple months everything would be under control. Six months later, the pandemic is still roaring, and it’s gotten harder to stay optimistic to say the least. My tour is postponed to March 2020, which I’m hoping can actually happen.


My first cancelled gig came at the very beginning of March. It was actually for a performance in June through a large corporation. Since March, I have lost over $10,000 in revenue from gigs that were already on the books for the year. And likely another $20,000-$30,000 in potential income that could have been by the end of 2020. Let’s break this down, for those that have no idea how musicians and artists make a living.


There are six main ways musicians make money: performing, CD/Merch sales, teaching, studio session work, licensing music, and royalties/streams. Arguably, a musician could focus their efforts on just one of these areas, but generally working indie artists are shooting for them all. Now, we all know streaming pays pennies and you can’t stake a living on that alone. Royalty checks usually come quarterly and depend on how well your music got streamed and played. In 2015, Pharell claimed to make only $2700 from ‘Happy” one of the biggest songs in the world that year. Now, licensing music does happen and when it does, it is glorious; but, most indie artists don’t stake a living on getting their song on a tv show. Studio session work comes and goes usually through industry connects and friends, but isn’t the bulk of most musicians income. Some musicians are good teachers and can make a decent living this wage, but not everyone who can play can teach (it takes a special person). Cd sales and merch get sold a lot actually, to the surprise of most people who think CDs are dead. But, you can only sell CDs and merch, if you can…perform. Performing makes up the vast majority of most working musicians income.

I have a band myself, and I also get hired as a lead singer for other bands. Let’s talk about how I make a living with my own band first. On a good year, my performing, helps to employ 15-20 other artists and musicians. When my band is hired for a performance, and let’s say paid $1500 for a 2 hour show; I don’t get to keep that $1500. As the band leader, I contract and pay the other band members. My being employed for one show, helps 3 or 4 other musicians be employed as well. Sometimes I book gigs on my own, sometimes an agent books gigs for me, and sometimes I’m asked to sing at weddings or other corporate events.

Now, when I am hired as a lead singer, rather than the band leader, I don’t have the expense of paying a band. Usually this means there’s someone else acting as the band leader, and I am the one being hired as a contract worker. So, if I make $500, that’s mine to keep. I get hired for these gigs from word of mouth, experience, other band leaders that I know, corporate bands who need a leader singer, and awesome organizations like ATL Collective, who understand how musicians make a living and help to keep money circulating in the local musician community.

Let’s say, my average pay for one show, wether I’m the band leader or singer for hire, is $300. I would need to play 2-4 gigs every week to make an annual income of $30,000-$60,000. Most musicians I know, do this regularly. We book gigs in advance and we plan out our year. When January rolls around, we should start filling up dates for February, March, April. Usually the goal is to leave no weekend open; all weekends should be filled with work. This is a success and normal for a working musician.

Now, how did musicians lose so much money all at once when covid hit and why are they all freaking out? Most gig bookings are booked months in advance. Festivals, tours, corporate events, weddings, are all booked 6 months to a year in advance of the actual performance date. So, this means not only has all of our gig work for the last 6 months been cancelled since March, but also future gigs have been very difficult to book or plan; since no one knows when it will be safe to have live performances again. This is a year nearly of cancelled work. There are of course local gigs like bars and restaurants that can be booked the month of, but many are still closed and sadly some may never reopen. Churches play a huge part in keeping steady work for musicians to count on each Sunday. With churches closed as well, they have had to cut budgets which means less pay for musicians. Most gigging musicians have been living in a state of suspended belief since March, and for the near future, with little to no income, outside of federal assistance.

What in the world are we supposed to do to make a living then? Well thank God for the internet. Musicians with an audience base (this is important to note because many musicians are side men and don’t have their own following) have been able to pivot and turn to virtual performances as a way to make a performance income. Virtual performances allow you to reach and perform for people anywhere in the world. Keep in mind though, that this is a very expensive pivot. When you are looking at capturing good sound and video, you have to pay a sound engineer and video production, which severely cuts into profit margin. Nevertheless, this is the best alternative for some musicians right now.

Music is such an integral part of a vibrant city. The net weaved by musicians is large and affects so many people. Right now, musicians need support more than any other time. Fans who can donate or pay for virtual performances helps so much. The biggest help was coming from federal assistance which has stopped assisting. So, we look to organizations like ATL Collective with their “With the Band Fund” to help alleviate some of the financial burden and the community of fans and supporters to find new ways to support. Working musicians have families to feed to homes to pay for; it is not a hobby or pretend job. I think a lot of people have this perception that it’s not a real job. Well, it is a very real job when it puts food on your table.

Brenda Nicole Moorer is a performing artist, writer, and founder. You can follow her journey at www.brendanicolemoorer.com

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