The Independent Musician’s Guide to Not Going Broke

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Well, yeah. That’s kind of the whole point.

Do you hear that sound?

That’s the sound of thousands of people clicking over to TMZ simultaneously in a futile effort to numb the pain.

Don’t do it. Stick with me.

Step #4: Earn More Money

Once you start developing a smart and sustainable budget, after the initial amazement, optimism and novelty begins to fade, there will come a point when you realize that you just can’t cut your spending any further.

What are you going to do? Start making your own soap? Never buy pants again? Go on the Karen Carpenter diet? (Ouch. Too soon?)

You’re eventually going to start realizing that there are truly important things that you just can’t afford without taking on debt.

How are you going to catch up on savings toward the things that matter to you most? How are you going to take vacations to places other than the roof of your building?

At a certain point, you’re just going to realize that you need to start earning more money.

How to Make More Money by Really, Really, Trying

At first the idea of asking people for more money may seem scary, dirty, daunting, improbable. Especially for someone who works in music at a time when recorded music revenues are down by 60%.

But maybe one of the reasons that we got here in the first place – as an industry – is that we stopped thinking about these things.

Perhaps at some point music professionals, as a group, forgot how to budget and forgot how to ask others to pay us for all the value we offer. Maybe we even forgot that our job is to create things that other people value so much that they desperately want to give us money to keep on doing those things.

Maybe we forgot that part of our function, as an industry, is to ask people to pay us the money so we can keep making the things that they like.

Aren’t artists supposed to help remind regular people of what’s really important?

With that in mind, if we’ve forgotten that one of the most important things in life is to sustain doing the things we love, to create things that other people value, to demand that others respect us and show us what we’re worth, then what the hell good are we?

If we forget to do these things and if we forget to remind people that they, and we, are important, we are by definition failing at our jobs at as artists.

So, what I’m saying is that maybe it’s time we focused on what we can do to earn more money.

If you’re working as an unpaid intern somewhere, ask yourself where that’s supposed to lead. To more unpaid work?

If you’re playing shows only for “exposure”, ask yourself when and where that exposure is supposed to end. Exposure for what, anyway? Another non-paying gig?

If you’re putting out a product and no one seems interested in buying it, maybe ask if you’re taking the right approach or putting your resources in the right place.

If you’re working a dead-end assistant job, ask yourself how long it’s supposed to last. How much more “experience” you need?

And are there new things you can start doing, in that job or in another one, in order to make more money and offer more value to the world than you already are?

How to Ask For More Money: The Creative Employee Version

If you work for someone else, here’s how to get a raise:

Figure out what matters most to the person who’s signing your checks and deciding your salary.

(Is it having more time? Is it making more money? Is it leading a more pleasant day-to-day life or is it earning more prestige?)

Then, figure out how to give them that, and how to make them realize just how much you’re delivering.

That’s it.

If you really do that, any sane person who has the ability to pay you more will pay your more, or they will risk losing you.

If you really do that – if you’re not just telling yourself you’ve done a great job, but can demonstrate that you have done a great and relevant job and can back that up with facts and results – you will have done something that is Incredibly Rare.

Anyone who doesn’t pay you more for that doesn’t deserve you. And if they want to pay you more but can’t afford to? Well, you’ve just focused on solving the wrong problem for them. Focus on the “helping them afford to” part, or find someone who can already afford you.

So, what is your employer or client’s biggest problem?

One way to find out is to guess.

Your boss or client seems concerned about sales? Figure out to improve them. She always seems overworked? Figure out how to take tasks and projects off her plate and execute them flawlessly.

The other way to find out is to ask.

Tell your boss or your client your intentions. Explain that you want to move up in salary and responsibility, and ask what you would have to do in order to get that kind of consideration.

What kind of service would they actually pay another $5, $10, $20 for? What kind of results would they need to justify a pay increase?

Then, deliver, and find a way to prove that you’ve delivered. Show them the numbers. Spell out the results.

If you ask, most good business owners have a few ideas about what’s really important in their business and where they need to make up some ground. Chances are the mere fact that you took any initiative at all to find out what those things are is going to come as a refreshing surprise.

Trust me when I say this is a depressingly rare and unusual thing for people to actually do and follow through on the simple things we’ve just described. But these kinds of actions are the very things that great businesses and booming economies are built on.

But what about if you’re an independent operator who serves clients, customers or fans?

How to Ask For More Money: The Creative Entrepreneur Version

There are essentially two criteria to making money on your own. You’ve got to find people who:

A) Have the ability to pay (ie, they’re not broke) and

B) Are willing to pay. (ie, they actually think that what you’re selling has some kind of rare and useful value in their lives.)

This is easy to say, harder to do.

Teenage rock bands might be willing to pay for recording services. But are they able to? A wealthy hobbyist might be able to pay for you to mix his recording, but is he willing to? Maybe yes, maybe no. What if he likes the idea of mixing it himself?

You can ask these question about any number of things: Selling records, teaching, consulting, licensing, writing jingles, playing concerts, doing repairs, designing tools, whatever.

Wherever the answers are “yes” and “yes” there is pretty good potential that you can make a living.

When the answers are “maybe,” “sometimes” and “it depends,” know that you will have an uphill battle, but that if you’re dedicated enough, you might just have a chance to eek it out.

When the answer to either of these questions is a definite “no”? Run.

Run far, far, away and never look back.

The Final Calculation

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  • mandalaeyes

    All really good advice–I’m excited to play around with Mint–except that I think if you’ve accumulated ultra-high-interest debt (like on a credit card) that needs to be the #1 priority above all other things, even above starting a retirement account. If you don’t pay off your credit card debt at something like 18% interest, but you’re saving money in an index fund or IRA at 8%, you’ll be losing more money in interest to the credit companies than you’ll be gaining from the investments during that time. So it’s actually a better “investment” to get rid of that debt ASAP. Now a car loan at 4% would be a different story because you could be earning more interest on an investment than you would be losing on the loan. But you get the point.

  • TrustMeI’mAScientist

    Technically true mandala! But I put investing first anyway, for two very specific reasons:

    1 ) It’s a longer road, and the sooner you start the better. And:

    2 ) For a lot of people, there’s a real psychological advantage to seeing your money grow. It can be hard to keep at this when you’re faced with all of the pain and none of the reward.

    I find that when folks start by investing *and* paying down debt, they’re much more likely to keep at it than if they’re just paying down debt alone.

    (Plus: You may have the option of moving any high-interest credit card debt to a lower or zero interest rate account for a while — or at least consolidating all your debt at a slightly better rate.)

    Thanks for weighing in,


  • mandalaeyes

    Ah, I thought you might have considered the psychological advantage. Very valid points Justin. Thanks for your response!

  • headphonomenon

    I am grateful to my father for explaining things almost exactly the same ways very early on. I see now that that was his way of supporting my decision to have a ‘creative’ career – which was otherwise foreign to him.

    All recording arts students should be required to pass a test on this info before getting their certificates/diplomas. It is amazing how few people have been really confronted with info like this. Good job!

  • ladyocti

    Thanks for the article. When you get going the way you described things really do work! And I like what you said about “your path taking you to the places you always wanted to visit.” That’s pretty much it…..

  • Rabbi Goddard

    Great article. I’m glad I thought to do most of this stuff well before I read this post. This did however motivate me to set up a roth IRA. Thanks justin

  • Joel Douek

    Great article!

  • Lindsey Walker

    I made it to the end! I didn’t even abandon this article for TMZ!

    But honestly, thank you Justin for a great ‘kick-in-the-pants’ article. I think it’s time for me to take this whole ‘money thing’ seriously and now I feel a lot more prepared. Thanks again!

  • Tim

    Fantastic article. I have heard excellent things about, but have been too happy with my current budgeting system to move over. I recommend You Need A Budget as a great option for managing finances. For musicians and freelancers who do not always have predictable income streams, the YNAB system is helpful because it prevents you from spending money you don’t have.

  • Regan Music

    Thanks, Person. Very insightful, I upped my savings from 3% to 8% today, because when looking over it, I can easily do that, and I can’t seriously give a reason why I can’t do that. So, sounds great. Thanks for pointing me to those calculators too, they’re great!

  • Roland

    Great article very helpful. I follow Ramit Sethi and have read his book, but the truth is Ramit did not build his wealth by following his own book. He did it by creating his online businesses. The book that needs to be addressed here is Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. Musicians need to learn how to invest in businesses that can create “passive income” not “earned income”. Don’t know the difference? Read Kiyosakis book.

    I want to be able to turn down a gig and not worry about my financial situation, because passive income is coming in every month and covers my basic needs and then some. This article is great for showing how to manage finances but creating wealth I don’t believe this article does justice. I want to create wealth like the 1% not the 99%.

    The 1% invest in their education, businesses and the stock market. But they don’t invest in the stock market like this article shows (the 99%) they invest like the 1% but that’s another lesson. Just watch Shark Tank, and the The Profit. These billionaires invest in businesses to build passive income not earned income.

    Musicians need to learn how to create passive income this is how the 1% think. And if the 1% succeed in that manner then count me in.

  • nice