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 March 12, 2010

Make music, but don’t quit your day job

How much money do you think heavy-metal band GasHead made recently playing in front of more than 400 people at the Gothic Theatre in Denver?

None.

The Northern Colorado-based band doesn’t make much from live performances, sometimes not even enough to cover the gas money it takes to get to the venues. That’s the way it is for a lot of local bands. And that’s why GasHead’s five members all have day jobs.

“Our goal is not to become full-time musicians. I don’t think we’d put our families through that,´ said 41-year-old Mike Lopez, GasHead’s lead guitarist. “But we do want to be regionally big, like from Northern Colorado to Colorado Springs.”

So how do musicians – the ones who aren’t famous – make enough money in the industry to keep pursuing their dreams, even if only on the side? By thinking of themselves as small business entrepreneurs and taking advantage of the wealth of opportunities available through the Internet to build a fan base.

That’s the advice of Ronnie Phillips, a Colorado State University professor of economics, who has spent the past three years researching and writing a book about entrepreneurship in the music industry.

The yet-to-be-published book, meant to be a “Freakonomics” of music according to Phillips, traces the history of entrepreneurship in music and contains lots of data about bands and artists gathered from Billboard charts. For example, Phillips asked the burning question, “Is dying good for your career?”

Conventional wisdom says yes, but by crunching posthumous sales numbers, Phillips discovered the opposite. But with the value of recorded music going down, Phillips sees things panning out differently in coming years.

“In the future, only dead artists will be able to make money from recordings,” he said.

Musicians as entrepreneurs

Musicians have always been entrepreneurs, but not all of them have had good business minds. One example of a smart entrepreneur is the 1950s rock-n-roll artist Chuck Berry.

“No one knew how to run things like Chuck Berry,” Phillips said. “He always demanded to be paid in cash, and he was a one-man band. He had a great business model.”

There have been dozens of movies about bands that needed only to “be discovered” by a record label to make it big, leaving most non-musicians with the impression that’s what it still takes to break into the industry.

“It used to be, ‘If I can just get with a record company, they’ll take care of everything,'” Phillips said. 

Nowadays, discovery is more likely if a band gets a song on a TV show or a video game.

“If you can get your music on a movie, a commercial or a game, that’s huge,” Phillips said.

For years, radio disc jockeys were the key to bands getting noticed. Now Internet services like Rhapsody and Pandora play that DJ role, Phillips said, while sites like cdbaby.com and bandcamp.com allow artists to post and sell their music and develop a fan base throughout the world.

But the money is not in recording or selling songs or albums online. Recorded music is becoming virtually free with the advent of sites like lala.com, recently bought up by Apple. It costs 10 cents to stream a song on lala.com, which allows you to listen to a track on your computer or iPhone without actually downloading it.

GasHead has used the Internet to promote itself. The band has its songs on bandcamp.com, which generates a certain number of free download codes for its members. GasHead puts those codes – which allow people to get on bandcamp.com and download a GasHead song for free – on its promotional posters and fliers before a show.

“You have to figure out how to give away things for free because it drives people to your music,” Lopez said. “It’s a great way to get people’s attention.”

Making a living

The money today is in touring, merchandising and royalties from songwriting, although the touring part isn’t feasible for those who have to maintain a day job.

Motorhome, a country/bluegrass band based in Northern Colorado, has found success playing in small towns in the mountains such as Estes Park, Breckenridge and Durango, where it’s harder for venues to book good local bands. Motorhome won’t do a gig for less than $300 and makes an average of about $500 a gig.

“The mountain venues actually bring in bands and pay them,´ said Ben Pryctherch, the 29-year-old bassist for Motorhome who also works in retail and as a house painter. “Sometimes we make money, sometimes we lose money, and sometimes we just break even.”

Some artists have made a career for themselves by staying in one place. Mark Sloniker is a jazz artist who plays Wednesday through Saturday nights at Jay’s Bistro in Fort Collins. Throughout his 30-plus year career, he has recorded six albums and had songs make it to national sales charts in Billboard. Songs from one of his CDs were featured on ESPN and ABC. He also teaches private music lessons 15 to 20 hours a week.

“To make a living as a musician, you just have to assemble the things you can do,” Sloniker said.  “You get to where you are still answering your muse but you’re part of the real world, too.”

Ultimately, Phillips said the key to making money in the music industry is to think differently about success.

“It’s the mindset of being a superstar vs. making a living,” he said. “The impact of the Internet is that it’s allowing more people to achieve a higher level of success in making money, but they aren’t superstars. We may not have as big of superstars in the future, but we’ll have more people able to make money in the music industry.”

How much money do you think heavy-metal band GasHead made recently playing in front of more than 400 people at the Gothic Theatre in Denver?

None.

The Northern Colorado-based band doesn’t make much from live performances, sometimes not even enough to cover the gas money it takes to get to the venues. That’s the way it is for a lot of local bands. And that’s why GasHead’s five members all have day jobs.

“Our goal is not to become full-time musicians. I don’t think we’d put our families through that,´ said 41-year-old Mike Lopez, GasHead’s lead guitarist. “But…

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