The secret sauce musicians need to earn a living (and no, it’s not constant touring)
By Marina Eckersley
Toronto alternative band USS has garnered millions of streams on Spotify, tens of thousands of Facebook likes and toured much of the world since releasing its first EP in 2008 — all without being signed to a major label.
But despite all its success, the band (officially known as Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker) is one of the many who, since the internet took over the music industry, have been forced to become entrepreneurs with good business sense just to survive.
“There’s no longer the freedom to just be the artist,” said Jason Parsons, USS turntablist and hype man. “Being able to sign into our bank account and see what’s going in and out, it made me appreciate the very papers I wrote in Economics 101.”
Fortunately, Parsons has a business degree from Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., to help him navigate his career as an artist and recognize that earning millions of streams is no way to earn a living. Spotify pays artists just 0.473 cents per stream, according to Digital Music News, and many other services pay even less.
A little business savvy and entrepreneurial ability have always been added bonuses for artists who want to achieve success on their own terms, but they have become even more critical as album sales dry up and touring, while more lucrative, takes its toll.
“It just seems to be the case that in the wake of record sales becoming almost redundant for an artist’s level of success and maintenance, that the main way that you would be able to retain an income … is to play live shows,” Parson said.
Live music revenue in 2030 will total US$38 billion, up from US$26 billion in 2017, according to a recent report by investment banker Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
But USS’s manager, Liam Killeen of Coalition Music, points out touring is hard on bodies and relationships. Artists can’t consistently tour forever, so they always have to be looking for other income opportunities.
Artists can’t consistently tour forever, so they always have to be looking for other income opportunities
Killeen said selling band-related merchandise makes some cash, but it isn’t nearly enough to provide a retirement fund. For one thing, it’s costly to manufacture ethically sourced, good-quality merchandise without pricing your fans out, so it often becomes more of a promotional tool than a money-maker.
However, synchronization licences, which allow for songs to be “synched” to an audio/visual project, have proven to be a good source of income for USS. Killeen said the band can earn the same amount of money from a sync licence that it would from a show in one of its biggest markets.
Diversification is another important contributor. Parsons’ brand as a DJ, Human Kebab, also allows him to keep bringing in income while simultaneously keeping the band in the public eye when USS isn’t touring. He plays live shows and has radio shows in Toronto, Edmonton and Laguna Beach, Calif.
Parsons said when a band is popular, opportunities for the individual members will present themselves.
“And, obviously, if you are savvy enough, you can exploit those opportunities and become this other thing and start to establish your own brand,” he said.
Killeen and Parsons both said they are in contact around the clock, discussing every opportunity presented to management.
“It’s not because I’m trying to annoy him or prove my worth to him; it’s just because that’s the owner of the company — I have to report to him,” Killeen said.
Killeen had a former life as the drummer for Canadian pop-punk band Not By Choice, which released its first album with a major record label in 2002. He was only 19 at the time and admits he relied on management and labels to handle the business end of the relationship.
“At that point in time, when an artist was signed … the manager would dictate your career path,” he said. “You would sort of co-sign it, and then away we go.”
Boston band Big D and the Kids Table, however, was having none of that when it formed in 1996 at Berklee College of Music, where lead singer David McWane double majored in music business, and production and engineering.
“I was never even close to attracted to having people in charge of the thing that I love,” he said.
McWane and his bandmates were able to achieve success with a strong DIY work ethic and without major-label support even before the internet took over. They participated for several years on the Vans Warped Tour, earned tens of thousands of fans while touring much of the rest of the world, and have now had millions of streams on Spotify.
The band was able to build a sustainable career while making the music McWane loves on his own terms, while other artists growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s were signing unfavourable deals and had managers telling them what to do.
McWane said everyone in the band contributes their different talents.
“The bass player was good at recording, so the bass player can utilize recording the demos, organizing them, getting them to a Dropbox, labelling them, well … whatever your strength is … you wanna have a team,” he said.
But a strong DIY work ethic doesn’t blind McWane to the value of artists getting a business education. He studied the music business at Berklee and now teaches at Bay State College in Boston, in addition to writing, recording and touring.
“Even if you don’t wanna be one of the industry people, you have to be able to know how they can steal from you, or know if they are doing enough for you or what they should be doing,” he said. “There’s nothing these people know that you’re sending your material to, none of these people can do something that you can’t do.”
Even if you don’t wanna be one of the industry people, you have to be able to know how they can steal from you
Killeen, who teaches at Canada’s Music Incubator and Ryerson University, both in Toronto, as well as at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont., also recommends artists get some business education.
“I probably would have saved a few hundred hours and several thousand dollars in terms of setting up my business if I had gone and actually … participated in some higher learning,” he said.
This new way of thinking may be born of necessity, but it’s also a big step toward achieving fairness for artists, who can study the business at many institutions, including the ones Killeen and McWane teach at, as well as learn from honest businesspeople within the industry.
But at the end of the day, as Killeen said, “The artist is the driver; the manager is Google maps.”