Want to Make a Living With Music? Meet Your New Best Friend…Financial Planning

Guest blog by financial planning expert Kyle Buffo

You’re playing the hip music venue in the town over. Your new material is kickass. You knew you were going to have a good crowd show up, but it's even bigger than expected. Your music comes to life that night as the crowd completely responds and everyone at the club has 100% of their focus on you.

As you come off the stage from the best show of your life, someone from the club says some music guy wants to talk with you. The music guy says, "you've got talent kid" and is ready to offer you a cool half million to record your album with his major record company. They are ready to promote you with a headlining tour.

Then you wake up to someone banging on the back of your van saying it's 10 minutes to show time. You get paid $100 for your cut of the door and go home with a few new emails to add to your MailChimp account.

What about your dream?

I'm the cold hard (formerly) suit wearing finance professional here to tell you your dream probably won't come true. Dozens of years ago? Maybe. Today? No.

Any serious indie artist has heard the sobering tales from Ari Herstand and Dave Kusek about how that is not how the music industry works these days. It is not just about developing a great sound and getting discovered. It is about creating your own mega-fans that will help you grow your audience and are willing to financially support you by buying your stuff. If you do it right, you absolutely can make a very rewarding career out of music. It's just not going to look like any other musician’s career from 10 plus years ago.

Being an indie musician in this new world means having to adapt to these new trends. An often-overlooked issue that has arisen for indie musicians is the effect of financial planning on their music career. I want to share how sound financial preparation can help you make the most of your opportunities, help you get more opportunities by staying in the game, and help you create a long lasting and successful career in music even if you don't get the major label album and headlining tour.

Luck is what Happens when Preparation Meets Opportunity” (Seneca)

I know I just reiterated that big opportunities like playing for a major label rep who will make you a rock god overnight don’t happen much anymore. Nonetheless, you still need to be prepared to take advantage of all the opportunities you can get.

What if you get the chance to go on a small east coast tour as an opening act for a similar sounding group? That could be a phenomenal opportunity to grow your fan base which would increase revenues from future albums, merch, tours, etc.

To be successful, you need to rock your performances and really sell yourself and your music. All the late-night practices and tinkering to perfect your songs are part of the preparation to make the most of this opportunity. Having great music, fan interaction, merchandise, and a funnel to get fans to stay connected with you to get their continued support is necessary.

But all this groundwork could be moot.

How much would it hurt to have to turn this opportunity down because you can’t afford to be away from your day job or home for 4 weeks? Or you can’t afford to buy enough merchandise to bring on the road and miss out on a lot of potential revenue?

Being prepared for any opportunity financially is just as important as having your music polished. Not planning for financially sustainability could force you to turn down great opportunities.

Opportunity is Coming to Knock…Tomorrow

I already mentioned that the industry has changed and successful indie musicians aren’t just waiting to be discovered. They are doing all the grassroots work to build up their audiences themselves. They also make the best of all opportunities presented to them, big or small.

A major factor in getting the opportunities is time. You can put yourself out there for months or years before you meet the right people and get that opening tour spot or a song on a Spotify playlist. Unfortunately, many musicians and bands don’t wait around long enough to get that opportunity because they are lacking Financial Sustainability.

Financial Sustainability is the ability to generate cash flow greater than your expenses continuously. It’s a simple concept for a typical person working their 9-5 job. They keep getting paychecks that fund their personal expenses. The key is to simply keep expenses below their take home pay.

As a creative professional that task gets a lot more difficult. Musicians often must piece together numerous sources of income that are typically inconsistent. Not to mention the fact that they have to pay for all their own business expenses and decide how much additional investments they need to make to have future revenue and fan growth.

If an indie musician can create Financial Sustainability, they will be able to keep playing and promoting their music without having to make the decision to pick up other work or leave their music behind. We know that being a successful indie musician takes a really long time – you need to be confident you have created a financial plan that will allow you to be able to promote your music long enough to reach your goals.

(You can learn more about Financial Sustainability by downloading the Free e-Book “The Financially Successful Musician”)

What is an indie artist without a dream?

Planning for failure sucks. Don’t plan for failure, plan for another way to succeed.

I’ve talked with numerous musicians who are committed to their music and have dedicated themselves to nothing but getting their music in front of as many people as possible in the hopes that their future album sales and tours will bring in enough money to solve all their problems. They turn blind to major financial obstacles that could come in the next few years.

Once indie artists realize that a big cash windfall is extremely unlikely to happen, it can really put a damper on their excitement and could lead to them giving up.

Instead of holding the false dichotomy of enormous success or total failure in an artist’s career, understand there are infinite ways to be a successful musician even if you never get to play in front of thousands of fans that know every word to all your songs.

A 20-something indie musician can simultaneously put the time and money into establishing a fan base the right way (which takes a really long time) and still manage “Income Musician” goals like saving for a house, paying off student debt, and planning for a retirement (See this post for the difference between Income Musicians and a Growth Musicians).

If after 20 years this musician builds a solid audience and then she gets a big break that comes with big financial rewards, that’s great. Staying around that long waiting for the right opportunity is an amazing accomplishment!

But what if it never comes? Over that 20 years, she could still be paying off debt, saving for retirement, and be enjoying a financially stable life. Making a living from music and art is still a remarkable success even if you don’t get the thousands of fans chanting for an encore after your show. To be able to be successful this way requires you to make the decision early on that you are going to plan your finances properly.


Through various discussions with industry professionals, there are 2 major areas indie musicians are always unwilling to devote enough time to: Networking & Financial Planning (I’m not the networking guy).

But what about all the other skills? Songwriting, social media, event organization, PR, recording, etc. Did you already know how to do all of this before becoming a musician? Like most, you probably learned it along the way. Same goes for your finances.

Just like how you don’t spend a huge chunk of time on Twitter and then neglect it for 6-12 months (or longer), you must do the same with your financials. Commit to spending 2-4 hours each month managing your finances. Take care of tasks like monthly expenses, accounting, and tax preparation; but also take some time to think through some bigger projects and ideas, and do some research on how to tackle them. Think back on how you learned your social media strategies: probably by learning from others and reading a ton of blog posts.

Also, utilize outsourcing your financials just as you do other parts of your music business. You may have built your first website and designed your first album cover, but as you grow you realize two amazing things about outsourcing; 1) You can do more important things with your time if someone else is doing the things you don’t like 2) A specialist can manage tasks more efficiently than you and could possibly get you better results than you doing it yourself. Outsourcing can help you leverage other people’s talents in PR, marketing, finance, and other key areas of your business (How to find Financial Advice).

Get your Plan Together

I never heard an indie musician say, “I got started doing this because I really like doing my own accounting and financial planning” or “I love awkward high-pressure networking”. But I have heard musicians saying these things helped them become successful at what they do love: playing music.

Developing a financial strategy for your music may not be fun and exciting, but it is one of the most impactful moves you can make as a creative artist. Implement financial planning into your regular business process and you will be prepared for success, one way or another.

Kyle Buffo writes for Americana Financial Planning, a blog about personal finance for performing artists, unique thinkers, and those of the New Americana. Find him on twitter at @KyleBuffo.

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