Making money from making music: Is it a distant dream?

A dull hush descends over the room as Peter Hook, of Joy Division and New Order fame,  takes his seat on the stage. All eyes are fixed on him, as the sound of someone gently tapping their foot on the wooden floor interrupts the silence. Hook’s Mancunian drawl fills the air as he recounts good times and bad living at the behest of a tour bus. Most of the questions he enthusiastically answers are punctuated with a familiar sentiment among many musicians, “I still have to make a living, you know.”

Peter Hook at a book signing in Dublin

Peter Hook at the book signing in Dublin

Two books and a semi-successful nightclub later the man affectionately known as Hooky still has to make a living using other means outside of being a touring, recording musician. Some musicians can spend an entire lifetime touring and recording, yet they still have to find other sources of income to make a living.

Recent statistics from the Future of Music Coalition Organisation suggest that most musicians aren’t making any money from music streaming sites; this coupled with a decrease in album sales significantly affects a band’s income. Gone are the days when musicians can dream of being the next Liam Gallagher or Mick Jagger, maybe there isn’t a living to be made in making music after all.

“Nowadays it is a significant achievement if a band breaks even from a release,” says Kieran O’Reilly, lead singer of Dublin band White McKenzie, talking about how bands earn money in the modern music industry. “As an independent artist, you are directly exposed to three main avenues of earnings: live shows, merchandise and record sales. My exposure is confined to a local level on all three.”

Kieran O’Reilly from White McKenzie

Ireland’s independent music scene contains some of the most talented and interesting bands in the industry. Every year the Hard Working Class Heroes festival showcases some of Ireland’s best musical talent, but the issue for many musicians is that their bands’ exposure can be confined to local levels, giving little opportunity for bands hoping to turn making music into a career to grow outside of the Irish music scene.

“In Ireland the only people, other than a couple of major mainstream acts, making full-time careers are people who have started their own labels or have a couple of side projects like ourselves,” says Gavin White, front man of electronic-garage band White Collar Boy. “There is always the point where you need to decide whether to stay in Dublin or to move to somewhere more influential like Berlin or New York.”

Bands often move to larger cities with more vibrant music scenes in a bid to get a bigger profile and to expand their fan base. Similarly to musicians living in Dublin, it seems in other cities bands are struggling just as much to earn a wage. American indie rockers The National all had to maintain days jobs for several years between tours, even as recognition of their band grew. Only when they sold 600,000 copies of their fifth album ‘High Violet’ could they finally make writing, playing and recording music their day job. “Even though we have gigs internationally and we put out records we still have to keep part-time jobs to have a back-up,” says White Collar Boy’s Gavin White.

White Collar Boy

White Collar Boy

Another anonymous band on another anonymous stage. The thud of the drums makes the ground shake, the distorted guitars pierce through the air with ferocity as the singer screams into the microphone. The air is heavy as a throng of people are thrown together with no space to move, all you can do is remain and embrace the music pulsating through the room.

For the people cramped on the tiny stage, making ends meet by following their passion alone may be unlikely, but even if the music industry continues to be in turmoil it’s moments like this that make you realise that for the fans in this room and the musicians on the stage this devotion to and passion for music won’t end because of a lack of pay cheques or low attendance at gigs.

Making a living from making music may be a distant dream for many musicians,  but this hasn’t made their passion wane. Even though 56-year-old Peter Hook highlights how he can’t make a living from making music alone, not even for a brief moment does he look unhappy about this. He works to make music, he doesn’t make music to work, and it seems that this applies to many other passionate musicians too.


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