How do artists support themselves??


Hi everyone,

I'd really appreciate it if an interviewer would ask the straight up question:

"So, [fill in the name], it's been three years since your last CD release. What have you been doing to put food on the table and keep the lights on?"

Specifically, there are some artists that I listen to quite heavily who put out CDs and MP3s on a regular to semi-regular basis but to my knowledge don't really tour, have not licensed their tracks for commercials or movies, don't seem to offer schwag on their sites for purchase, etc. So how do these folks support themselves? Surely it's not from CD sales, or is it? I'm referring to artists like:

Boards of Canada
Marconi Union
Near the Parenthesis
Johann Johannsson
Julien Neto
Brian McBride
Olafur Arnalds

Do they have day jobs? Teach music? Survive on arts grants? All of the above? I NEVER see anyone discuss this in interviews.

I posted this same question on my blog and in a couple of other forums. I'm hoping to gather good responses and eventually post them to my blog and share them with people. Anyway, if somebody has some insight, please share. Thanks in advance.

(My blog is You can get a better - though not complete - picture of what I listen to here:
I can't speak for everyone on the list, but I used to know Helios online. Not well but we chatted. He did play live, and also had a day job. Lots of the IDM guys do. I remember a story about one artist (I won't name who, he's got bigger since) going to his album launch one night, then going back to work stacking supermarket shelves the next morning.

These guys have significantly lower running cost than say a rock band. A label like Warp will hand out advances comparable to indie rock labels, but the acts don't have to pay studio fees, don't have to book tours and pay for the logistics of doing one... They'll claim their own producer fee, usually 3% of sales (Note: that's not 3% of profit, that's 3% of ALL sales). And there's only one or two guys in the act, so the money is getting split in fewer ways. So maybe they do make a profit from record sales, it's not inconceivable. Don't rule out licensing as well. Boards of Canada probably made more from that Volkswagen commercial that you and all your friends will make in a year. Then there's your fees as a remixer, and the fact that if someone remixes your work, you're owed royalties on that without touching a fader.

It's a different business model, for sure, and you're right, not a lot gets written about it. But it's easy for the more established acts you mention like Boards of Canada, Loscil, NtP, Biosphere to monetise what they do. I guess the real question is getting the finances together to put out that first record.

Boards of Canada I suspect have money behind them from outside of music. They've got their own studio in a very expensive part of the world (the mountains outside Edinburgh, probably the single most expensive rural location in the UK), which they seem to have had even in the Skam days and before. I know both those guys did work in film before making music, and still do music for film under pseudonyms, maybe it comes from there. Maybe they've just got rich parents.
I'd agree with everything AJ has to say. I would just add that there are many different streams to make money from in the music world, so it's possible that these people do other things as well (for example, do sound design for someone like Native Instruments, or for a local composer, etc). I know that one local musician I know took a job trimming orchestral samples for a composer-fairly mind-numbing, but also exacting-and got a fair amount of money for it. So it's possible that they can find ways to make money in this industry, but by "spreading their wings" and taking lots of odd jobs.

Thanks all.

The responses (here and elsewhere) are interesting. On another forum someone suggested that I actually contact some of these folks and just put the question to them.

THAT would be interesting.

"Umm excuse me. You don't know me from Adam, but I'd like to know how you support yourself between releases..."

The guy on the other forum (there are other forums?? :eeek: ) has a point, electronic types are often more open to talk to than you think. I once emailed a member of V/Vm looking for advice on starting a label, and got a pretty detailed response. I know Venetian Snares used to use ICQ to chat to other artists, and would swap business ideas and so on. I'd imagine it's only easier these days, when musicians are supposed to connect with fans directly and so on. I don't fancy your chances getting a response from BoC, or even a contact address, but the "smaller" guys on your list; can't hurt to try!
I have the impression that writing music for other artist is a fairly common source of income. Especially for the more "arty" acts, who then writes hit-type music on the side, which they sell - Usually under a different name, not uncommonly their real one.

Also video-games - I have a pal who has one production company for his band and one (more profitable one) under which he writes music for childrens games. I seem to remember John Foxx also did that sort of thing, back in the eighties or early nineties.
My partner and I are a downtempo duo, Worldwide Groove Corp. and we put out a record of mostly jazz standards retooled into our style of chill. It was definitely a labor of love, self financed, which was relatively cheap since I do all the programming, mixing and tracking. The only thing we paid for was mastering, and the singers, and occasional guitarist. As for making a living, I'm fortunate enough to compose for a music house that does advertising music. I'm very versatile, and that's what has kept me in the music business. I also tour a bit playing keyboards for other artists, and my partner and I also do indie artist production, as well as some remixes, and string arranging as well. So as you can see, as Orren put it, we do a little bit of everything. Personally it's the only way for me to keep it going. I'd love to live off of creating chill music, but it's such a small market, and people think it's ok to steal music, so the odds of that aren't very high. There's my 2 cents for what it's worth.


Thanks for the detailed response Kurt. It's been sometime since I posted this question here and in other forums. I've been pulling together different responses in an on-again off-again effort to write a piece on this. When I finally do pull it together, I'll post some info here. Stay subscribed to the thread, and thanks again!
it's simple: we don't! lol

the music industry Part I, II & III is dead

lets hope Part IV lives up to the hype! lol

Its getting very very hard for people to make ends meet - here in the UK I know of some great British Artists who are now driving vans for local authorities, one amazing singer of note working in the job centre!

its crazy!

I truly believe all of this could have been avoided. The industry has been blaming and scapegoating the internet for the past 10-12 years while in fact it is truly down to chronic mismanagement of the global accountants variety.

Accountants should never be allowed to run labels purely from a mathematical basis. The fact that there are now only 4 major labels in the whole world is a crisis of vested interest proportions.

The majors never got it right fiscally in terms of remuneration for artists - but it has now reached baby-out-with-bathwater proportions.

The Internet promises many things as the new vehicle - unfortunately it has yet to embrace the best of the old structures while nurturing the best of the new.

Thankfully Apple has shown that the model can be used to successfully SELL records - but the amounts that an artist gets are great as a percentage but crap in real terms.

Certainly not enough to feed yourself let alone pay for the recording costs!

There needs to be a concerted industry-wide campaign to sort this out - because otherwise the whole of the industry will be based on hobbyists - and thats not enough.

Nowhere have I seen anyone talking about the chronic decline in the what (along with film) is one of the MAJOR artforms of the 20th century.

The record industry has been THE driving force behind much of the cultural, social, political and financial changes over the past 60 years.

In the UK the Music Industry was the 2nd biggest income generator of money into the country. Yet no Government has really addressed what happens if this declines. Were this to be a car manufacturer the Government would be racing along to deliver funding (when in truth a car manufacturer does not bring in anything like the Music Industry in terms of revenue into the country).

I find this very very very odd.

Certainly this is caught up in notions of jealousy from the 'normaloid' population - an envy born of the idea that for musicians, 'MUSIC WORK' is not a 4 letter word like 'WORK'.

I think most normal people also believe the stoopid hype (STILL!) put out by the industry that they are living it large and rolling in it.

Its insane!

answers on a postcard....


It's possible to get by by having a good booking agent (who will negotiate decent fees for gigs), which you can use to pay for petrol and a sandwich a day. You can doss on people's floors, it just depends how badly the artist wants it.
I was thinking about perhaps doing music for ads. Turns out what you're asked for is doing replicas of famous tracks, balancing on the fine line of being recognizable but still not exactly the same; keep the chords, add a similar melody. I can't believe people actually do this, it's what used to be called Hötorgskonst here in Sweden with painters making and selling copies of famous paintings. Other creative roles are seemingly still able to create more original things but it's like a magic 'someone' decided music always should be recognizable. As I want to create my own things I didn't go further into investigating how to land such 'jobs'. I guess the only chance is really by having a commercial hit track. Maybe, just maybe, that would lead to a phone starting to ring with someone asking something fun just for once. Like, say, the opening music to the sequel of Avatar or so. Hard to swell that just one in-house guy does all of the music for The Sims game series. A zillion dollar to him for that preset-loaded simple garbage.
Sadly, I think that what what a lot of musicians have to do is create things like "hötorgsmusik" (?), to order, to make a living - And then work on the creative, meaningful stuff, separately. Hopefully, you can start making money on that too/instead eventually - But it's tough the way the business works these days.
Great thread, thank you to nk_e four years ago!

Here over in Manila, great music is so abundant...which is why it's so cheap and therefore very difficult to monetise!

The only way to make a living out of music hereabouts is to not think of yourself so highly and so much. So I said goodbye to my recording career five years ago to do music editing, scoring and foley work for other people. My major clients right now are several program managers who produce TV dramas. Once in a while, I'll produce an original song or two...but really, I'd rather just work for you to put food on the table!
I use my studio as a commercial (advertising) Audio Post Studio. I record Voice Overs, Mix spots and corporate audio/video materials, sound design, some audio restoration, more mixing for other musicians, and anything else that requires audio production/post production. I've even done a few decades of location sound. All these help the financial shortcomings of only doing music-for-a living model. Also I help produce other artists. Not a direct cash influx, but it gets the name out and casts a bigger net. Hang in there, use your imagination and make some noise about who you are.