Stereotypes of professional musicians tend to stick to one pole or another — they're either a world-famous, arena-touring troubadour with a luxurious lifestyle, or they're down on their luck playing in a dive while forgoing a "normal job."
Take a look at reality and you'll find plenty who are something in between: the independent artist who aims to make their living off of their music and finds a variety of ways to do so.
Not only are more musicians making their way in the business without the aid of a label, but independent musicians are actually the fastest-growing segment of the global recorded music business. A new report from MIDiA Research fielded in partnership with digital music distributor Amuse says independent artists generated more than $643 million in 2018, a 35% jump from the year before.
Diego Farias, the co-founder and CEO at Amuse, said this growing crop of independent musicians signals seismic changes to come in the music industry. With less of an adherence to labels, there will be new key players and new ways of doing business — think fewer managers and more short-term contracts.
"The majors are growing at a sustainable growth rate, but this part of the industry is just exploding," he said. "There's something happening that's going to impact the industry profoundly."
For artists, technological advancements that allow them to share their work with the world fuels their ability to make music and build their career at their own pace, and with their own style. Eighty-three percent of independent artists said it's important for them to retain creative control over their music, compared to 74% of label artists. Artists in both categories say they think artists have more control of their careers than ever before — and that kind of empowerment means that artists no longer see signing to a label as the road to success.
Despite the creative control that artists are retaining, earnings still remain a big obstacle for those who wish to make their living in music — the survey found about eight in 10 musicians do not earn enough from their music careers to not worry about their financial situation. About half of independent and label artists alike say they often have cash flow problems because their income isn't predictable.
The report also speaks to the reality that having a major label deal doesn't guarantee success — 59% of independent artists said they were frequently worried about their financial position, compared to 48% of label artists.
Average income paints a similar picture: independent artists earned an average of $12,860 a year off music, and label artists earned an average of $23,913. About three-quarters of independent artists earned less than $10,000 a year from music, compared to 61% of label artists.
That finding underscores a truth that working musicians already knew: being signed to a label, while it can be beneficial for sales and distribution, doesn't guarantee financial success.
"No matter what your status is, a lot of the artists in the report need additional income to be able to sustain their lives," Farias said.
To that end, Farias' company is trying to find new ways to get money to musicians for their work. Amuse, founded by music and technology experts, functions as a new kind of record label built on top of a free music distribution service. It allows its artists to retain 100% of their royalties and rates. The Amuse team is also working to find new ways to support this growing crop of independent artists: the Fast Forward program sends musicians up to six months of their future royalties based off of projections from the platform's data.
Overall, the industry is thinking about new ways to work with artists, Farias said. Younger musicians are not familiar with the concept of managers who help them skyrocket to success — but they have seen YouTubers or influencers who made millions off distributing their own product. And short-term contracts, as opposed to locking artists in for lengthy deals, are becoming a way to empower artists to be more in charge of their own work.
The MIDiA survey also examined the motivations and mentalities behind what musicians consider success in their chosen field — and there was some variation between independent or label artists. Both groups ranked achieving respect and recognition in their scenes as the top sign of success, but the response was greater among label musicians (87%) compared to independent artists (53%).
Half of independent artists said success looks like building up a fan base of any size, which only 35% of label artists said. Those numbers were almost reversed when musicians were asked if success looks like building a large global fan base —37% of independent artists agreed, compared to 52% of label artists.
Still, fewer than one in five artists said they think signing to a label is a measure of success — as the report puts it, "artists now see labels as simply one more possible means to an end."
These findings indicate that the vision of what it means to be a professional musician is changing. While the dream of a worldwide tour and magazine cover may still reside in the minds of teenagers plugging in an amp for the first time or hopeful singers posting video after video of pop song cover, the artists who choose to make their living in music are not necessarily seeking a traditional path — or even a very luxurious one.
"A lot of people are doing it out of their passion for music, rather than the commercial success," Farias said.