Seriously, How Do I Make A Living Off of Music?

Joy Ike, founder of Grassrootsy - Pyragraph
Joy Ike, making a living solely off her music.

Guest Blogger Joy Ike is a full-time singer-songwriter based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is also the founder of Grassrootsy, a music marketing blog for independent artists. She believes the greatest tragedy in the world is having a talent and keeping it to yourself. You can find her at, on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter. This post was originally published at Grassrootsy.

Last week I received an email from a singer-songwriter who asked me a question I get asked a lot. The following day I had coffee with another artist who’s sole purpose for meeting up was to ask me the same exact question:

How do you make a living off of music?

I don’t mind answering the same question over and over again. In fact, I love talking about this stuff. It’s literally the only reason why Grassrootsy exists. But I was starting to feel like a broken record last week, so for today’s blog I thought I’d copy/paste (verbatim and with a bit of expounding) the email I sent to this person.

Over the last nine or so years I’ve amassed a little over 8,000 people on my mailing list.

Like I said, I get this question A LOT! More often than any other question I’ve ever been asked on (or off) the Grassrootsy blog. My deepest hope is that this will help all our readers and that everyone out there will understand how much stuff is actually happening behind the scenes and over the course of time. So in the spirit of full disclosure, this is how I, Joy Ike, make a living off of music.

Social Media

So I dunno if I can answer this briefly, but I can try. For me, the most important thing I’ve found to help is online presence. In reality only a tiny percent of people who see my posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube will ever make it out to a show. So I put a lot of weight on my online presence because the that’s where the majority of my fans will find me and where most of them will stay. As much as I’d love for them to make it out to a show eventually, most people just won’t ever become real-life acquaintances. My biggest audience will always be on the internet, so I post daily on my personal Facebook page and music page. I tweet, retweet, tag, and all that stuff that can seem monotonous after a while.

I spend a lot of time online. Probably 75% online and 25% actually playing shows. I hate that it works out that way, but it makes touring and playing shows possible. Of course a large percentage of that online time is also spent sending emails, booking, and other stuff, but a lot of it is social media. (See What Does a Full-Time Artist Do All Day?)


The next important thing to me is my email list. Sometimes I’ll collect a few emails at a show (like 2 or 3), sometimes 20. I try to pass my signup sheet around the crowd as often as I remember. While it might seem like an insignificant thing (especially when I only get one person to sign up), I try to remember that every email address counts. So now over the last nine or so years I’ve amassed a little over 8,000 people on my mailing list.

This is truly my bread and butter. When I send out my monthly newsletter (I use YMLP to do that), it basically serves as a reminder to people that I exist. Sometimes that newsletter prompts people to follow me on Facebook, but for other people it convinces them to come out to a show or send their friends a link to my music. And in the best case scenario, it gets me bookings. So I rely heavily on my newsletter because fans will email me to do house concerts, play at their company’s corporate events, play at their college, or to do parties.

I feel like artists tend to put a lot of weight on online services—things like Concerts In Your Home—but I’ve found out that if you just have a consistently growing newsletter of people who’ve seen you at public shows, house concerts will come naturally. This is why I always stress the importance of having a mailing list signup sheet at shows. (See Getting People to Sign Up For Your Newsletter.)


The other important thing I’ve come to value from a business standpoint is people’s perception of me and the implications that has on my career. Perception is reality. With social media updates about what’s going on with the music, consistent monthly newsletters, and trying to keep things (websites, photos, videos) as professional-looking as possible, it gives people the impression that I have a standard and that I’m worth more than $100 for a 2-hour gig. It allows me to charge what I think I should be paid and it allows me to play fewer shows, but better quality ones.

99% of the time I enforce the No Bar rule because people don’t listen in bars.

Of course I still don’t always get paid what I ask, and I do free gigs here and there, but I try to play the ones that have good return—like new fans, or new exposure. (See How Do You Know if a Show Will Be Worth It?)

No Bars

And lastly, one of the more helpful things is my No Bar policy. I broke that rule recently for a private gig and it sucked! But at least it was paid, so I didn’t stress too much. I also break the rule occasionally for good-paying college gigs. But, 99% of the time I enforce the No Bar rule because people don’t listen in bars. They just talk and get drinks with friends. So not only do I not get paid well, but I don’t make long-lasting fans because no one paid attention, and since no one paid attention, I don’t sell CDs or get people on my newsletter. So altogether the bar gigs hurt my show the night of and they don’t have any future return whatsoever.

I should say that this shouldn’t be a rule for everyone. But my stuff is very lyric-driven and low-key at times. And I don’t do covers. And I often play solo. So considering all those factors, my stuff falls completely flat in bars, especially because people are trying to stay upbeat. So I stick with listening rooms, coffeehouses, house concerts, small theaters, and galleries because people listen, and buy CDs, and sign the newsletter, and pass me on to their friends. The likelihood of making real fans is there and this is probably the unspoken rule that has kept things sustainable for me. (See: Coffeeshop or Club? Pros and Cons of “Nightlife” Booking.)

And of course when it’s all said and done, some months are still very hard. Doing all of the above doesn’t mean I’m rich or anything remotely close to that. It just means I’m making ends meet and I’ve found a few key ingredients to making a music career work.

Photo courtesy of Joy Ike.

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  1. Hi, brett here from the handsome family. We have been making a living from music for about 15 years. Most of our income comes from a serious amount of touring, playing all over the world in clubs, theaters, arts centers. But mainly in bars.

  2. Thanks for the feedback…have you had trouble before? I haven’t in that regard but in other problems with Jetpack commenting. It’s about to be updated so hopefully that’ll fix it.

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