How Do Musicians Make Money? (Part 1/2)

Ian Hellström | 12 February 2017 | 8 min read

For most of human history, music has been composed and performed by amateurs, enslaved individuals, and professionals in direct employment of the nobility. Music as a full-time career option without some form servitude has only been a fairly recent phenomenon. Before we shall dive into the complexities of the music industry and how musicians make money now, let’s go back in time and see how we got here.

Ancient Near East

The earliest known score is on a cuneiform tablet from Nippur (Iraq) and it dates back to approximately 2,000 BCE. Unfortunately, not a lot is known about professional Sumerian musicians. The same can be said about the Hurrians, of whom a few complete clay tables have survived. These tables are from 1,400 BCE and most have their composers inscribed. These hymns comprise of both the lyrics and the accompaniment for a single stringed instrument.

In Babylon professional musicians were slaves. Women from the courts of defeated enemies were trafficked to Mari (Syria) to be trained as musicians and dancers. Male musicians often tried to escape their predicament, which is why some scholars believe that young men were ‘sometimes blinded before being handed over for instruction’. Scenes of folk music and shepherds piping or strumming instruments have been immortalized on Babylonian plaques and seals of the second and third millennium BCE.

Historical records show that guilds of temple singers existed in Egypt and Sumeria. Temple musicians were held in high regard in Egypt. They most likely came from elite families, and the position of temple musician was part-time. Musicians who played at the royal palaces had an equal standing in society. Whether these musicians were actually paid is not clear.

Travelling groups of female musicians, who often had tattoos, also existed in Egypt. They were mainly associated with childbirth rituals.

Evidence for amateur musicians in pharaonic Egypt is extremely scarce. It appears that amateurs did not desire to achieve musical abilities.

Similarly, ‘no mention is ever made of professional musicians’ in ancient Israel.

Classical Antiquity

The epics of Homer were originally accompanied by instruments. Rhapsodes later recited poetry without musical accompaniment.

We know from inscriptions that professional musicians in ancient Greece received prize money and fees for services rendered. Prizes from festivals throughout Greece included precious metals and oil. The best known festival, the Pythian festival at Delphi, held contests from 582 BCE onwards. However, save for a few virtuoso soloists (e.g. Pindar), most professional musicians were slaves or domestic servants. In fact, before the third century BCE, singers were mainly employed to entertain their masters. Female musicians were slaves and often seen at symposia.

Some professional musicians were able able to make music their careers, but they worked as teachers or on triremes for the rowers. Private occasions (e.g. weddings, processions, banquets) and the popularity of drama provided aulos players with additional opportunities for income. Female aulos players often performed nude at all-male booze-ups, where historians believe they also functioned as sex workers.

What is interesting is that musical education in Arcadia and on Crete was compulsory. The Romans were also very supportive of a musical education, and music could be found in many religious ceremonies. Loyal to the Greek traditions, the Romans also competed in music contests.


The Zhou dynasty (1,046-256 BCE) is often seen as the overture to Chinese music of the later dynasties. The first music academy was founded to train professional musicians.

Most educated people and monks could play instruments. Music was viewed as a means of self-cultivation and meditation. These people never performed in public because entertainers had a low social standing.

Court music was performed by professional musicians who depended entirely on their patrons, the emperors. These musicians were appointed as music officers to the court. Although they enjoyed certain privileges, they were never able to attain the same status or freedom as the scholars who played music for their own spiritual enlightenment.

From the tenth century onwards to roughly 1,450 female entertainers, so-called yujo or asobime performed in Japan. These women are often misrepresented as courtesans or even prostitutes. We see a similar distortion of history with geishas in Japan and tawaifs in North India: they were mostly dancers and musicians, not escorts.


In medieval Europe bards, troubadours, and minstrels travelled the lands at different times in history. Most came from the lower and middle classes of society; all female travelling musicians were from the lower social classes. All three groups were retained by patrons, often monarchs or the nobility.

From the Renaissance onwards we see the three main models for performers to make money that have survived until this day:

  1. Patronage
  2. Performance (i.e. touring)
  3. Residence (i.e. tourism)

Employment under a patron often included music education for the patron’s household members too. Interestingly enough, classical musicians (e.g. symphony orchestras and opera societies) are to this day often funded by patrons, often in the form of public grants or endowments by philanthropists.

The difference between the touring and tourism models is that in the former the artist travels to the fans, whereas in the latter the fans go to the artist’s home base. Artists-in-residence are not as common nowadays as touring musicians, but we still see it, for instance in Las Vegas. Notable artists who have set up shop in Las Vegas are Elvis Presley, Barry Manilow, Céline Dion, Cher, and Britney Spears, to name but a few. Musicals, operas, live performances on cruise ships and in bars or theme parks, and to a certain extent buskers can be all placed under the tourism banner too.

The main sources of income for composers in post-Renaissance Europe were patronage from courts, churches and noblemen and noblewomen, commissions for compositions for special occasions, public and private performances, teaching, and publications of compositions. All except for publication have been around since the earliest recorded history in one form or another. The invention of the printing press (with movable type) and the standardization of musical notation made publication a viable option for professional musicians. Composition and the subsequent publication of printed music is still a viable career option for film scores and increasingly video games too.

If we look beyond performers we also see education and composition as a key source of income for many musicians from from the 1700s onwards. This is a tradition that is of course still alive and kicking. Renowned guitarist Joe Satriani, for example, is known to have started his career by teaching people, such as Kirk Hammett (Metallica) and virtuoso Steve Vai.

The Playback Era

Commercial markets and a mass audience with an appetite for music started to emerge in the nineteenth century. Public houses often acted as music halls until purpose-built venues started popping up in the 1850s.

The music publishing market boomed thanks to parlour music, which also drove up sales for pianos. In less affluent, often rural areas, of the United States, acoustic guitars were the instrument of choice. Tin Pan Alley was one of the prime locations of the music publishing business, and they were known for their use of focus groups to try out and tweak songs with a broad appeal.

The first piano roll appeared in 1883, making ‘mechanical’ home entertainment a reality. However, we enter the modern era of the music ‘industry’ with the invention of the phonograph (1877) and later the gramophone record (1889) and its descendants. Originally, the studios were owned and controlled by record labels who used the music (‘software’) to promote the sale of hardware.

After World War I, radio had become a mass medium. Jingles, or licensing music for product advertisements, and ads-supported revenue models came about in the 1920s. In most countries, playing a song on the radio constitutes a public performance, which means that royalties are paid to the songwriters, performers, and copyright owners. In the US, terrestrial radio stations are exempt from paying public performance rights for sound recordings to anyone but the songwriter(s). The reasoning behind this awkward arrangement is that both artists and record labels benefit from the ‘free’ promotion. As of this writing, the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act of 2015 is still under consideration.

Radio has always been an strange bedfellow for the music industry. On the one hand, radio has been an important tool to increase opportunities for artists to perform live or sell recordings. On the other hand, it was common in the 1950s for DJs and radio executives to receive ‘bribes’ in return for air time. These kickbacks were more commonly known as payola. Even though it was made a misdemeanour in the US in 1959, that did little to deter the practice.

1927 saw two additional disruptive changes for musicians. First, jukeboxes were introduced and because the Copyright Act of 1909 did not include coin-operated music machines as public performances, artists, songwriters, and copyright owners did not receive anything after the initial purchase of the record. Second, sound films ushered in the era of synchronized musical scores. This meant that many theatre musicians who often accompanied silent films lost their jobs and made way for a limited number of studio musicians.

Columbia introduced the LP in 1948. The next wave of innovation in recorded music came with cassette tapes. Initially, cars proved to be the home of tapes, but thanks to sound improvements cassettes became a household item in the seventies, and by 1983 cassettes outsold vinyl in the US. That was the same year the Compact Disc (CD) became available, but it took until 1992 for it to become the most popular format. In 1983, about 8% of each vinyl and 5% of each CD sold went to artists. By 2002, that percentage for compact discs had risen to 10%.

Television sets appeared in people’s homes during the fifties and sixties. Concert films, soundtracks, music for television commercials, theme songs and music for closing credits, have all proven to be viable revenue streams for musicians.

Not so much with MTV, which broadcast the first music video in 1981. They took a different stance, or rather: a very familiar one. Instead of paying artists, MTV only paid the necessary performing right royalties (i.e. the songwriters and publishers) and required labels to allow free use of the music in their shows. The idea was that the exposure would be sufficient for performers. While a free platform to promote sales may work for superstars like Lady Gaga at the Superbowl, it’s not for many aspiring talents.

Live Music

Live performance has always been a core element of most professional musicians. Live shows indeed make up anywhere between 28 and 56% of an artist’s income. Musicians typically receive less than that when various costs have been factored in and promoters have taken their cut. An alternative that is not so obvious and lies somewhere between television and live music are tie-in bands, for instance in talk shows.

Package tours, in which groups of artists are on the road together, became the rage in the 1950s, but by the end of the sixties, artists desired longer sets, and audiences longed for shows from the main act, rather than the supporting acts. The concept of opening acts is of course still alive today. In the 90s there was a revival of package tours, or rather touring festivals, such as Lollapolooza and corporate-sponsored tours. For most performers, their careers start in clubs and bars though, where payment is often nominal or a percentage of the admission fee or bar sales.

The so-called 360° deals (e.g. Robbie Williams and EMI (2002) or Live Nation with Madonna (2007) and Jay-Z (2008)), which include elaborate and expensive tours, are not a new phenomenon. Motown controlled all aspects of their artists’ careers in the sixties. Prior to that, Elvis Presley is known to have handed over half of all income to his manager Colonel Tom Parker for taking care of all business.

Live shows as the main revenue stream for musicians in the new millennium were already mentioned by David Bowie back in 2002:

Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.

He was right about the fact that nothing would ever be the same again. What exactly happened will be the topic of the next part.