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Paying the piper, part 2

by Merja Hottinen

For an artist, art is a means of making a living. But what are the revenue streams of musicians, composers and music makers these days, and how are they distributed among various artists and groups? What are the prospects of continuing to make a living in music in the post-pandemic future?

The music industry has been in a global state of flux for quite some time, first with the crisis and gradual recovery of the recording industry and more recently with the crisis in live music performances caused by the coronavirus pandemic. These were reflected in shifts in the income structure of musicians, composers and music makers. Up until the pandemic, live music was the backbone of the livelihood of many a musician and music maker and an enabler of artistic growth, supplemented by other sources of income. Now that backbone has shown signs of eroding, and a universal search for new prospects is going on.

To be fair, the current uncertainty is nothing new in an industry which has always depended on economic cycles and which has always made some people rich and other people poor. Most just try to earn a decent living. Although some in this field are still able to find salaried vacancies or be awarded grants, many have a portfolio of multiple income sources. Category boundaries become blurred, as artistic creativity is increasingly merged with an entrepreneurial approach and passion becomes part of a livelihood. (Read also Pasi Lyytikäinen’s column about the income sources for composers.)

Wages and fees form the core of income

There are huge differences in the income structure of musicians, artists, music makers and composers according to their genre, age, status and gender, but the common thread for all of them is that they get their income from multiple sources. The Artist Revenue Stream project in the USA, which ended in 2014, identified no fewer than 42 income sources, and that figure can certainly not have decreased since then. The work is fragmented, widespread and occasional. However, research shows that all these trickles do add up to wages that, on average, are reasonably good.

In Finland, artists’ wages have been studied and compiled into statistics for instance by the Centre for Cultural Policy Research (Cupore) and Statistics Finland. In the Statistics Finland occupational category ‘Musicians, singers and composers’, the average income grew slowly but steadily in the pre-coronavirus years, and in 2019 the average monthly pay in the private sector in this category was EUR 3,087, corresponding to an annual income of about EUR 37,000. This figure was slightly higher in the local government sector. However, only a small part of any musician’s work ends up in official statistics – usually the most secure and regular part of it – because statistics only consider monthly salaries and thus do not recognise the huge volume of freelancer work, ‘entrepreneur-light’ activities and part-time work in the field of music.

The statistical averages also conceal the income structure in the field, and this has been explored in Finnish studies specifically concerning the livelihood of artists. It would seem that over the past decade the number of low-income artists has increased while the number of high-income artists has decreased. In the study Taiteilijan asema [Status of the artist] (2014), based on income data from 2010, it was noted that one in five of all musicians earned less than EUR 21,000 per year, while two in five earned more than EUR 40,000. By contrast, in the report Taiteen ja kulttuurin barometri 2019 [Arts and culture barometer] the tables had turned: about two in five of artists in the field of music who responded had an annual income of less than EUR 20,000, while fewer than one in five reported an income of more than EUR 40,000.

Where do these trickles of income come from? According to the ‘Arts and culture barometer 2019’, the most common types of income for Finnish artists in the field of music are wages from employment relationships and fees from gigs and commissions. The barometer also identifies several other income sources typical for the arts, such as expert consultation fees, grants, entrepreneur income and copyright royalties, the latter being received by about two out of three artists in the field of music. (Read more about the Finnish arts funding system in Kare Eskola's article.)

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Unequal distribution of income

The income differences are great, and many international studies on the earnings of musicians show similar findings. The report Artists and Other Cultural Workers in the USA noted that the highest hourly fee earned by musicians was seven times greater than the lowest. The study Making Music Work in Australia specifically points to the very small number of high earners who skew the statistics. In all of the studies referred to above, it was found that very few gained their income solely from artistic work, although the percentage of part-time work varied.

People in different genres, in different sectors and of different genders may have wildly differing incomes. Data from ten years ago in the ‘Status of the artist’ study referred to above indicated that classical musicians in Finland made more money than practitioners of rhythm music, and women only made about 85% of what men made. By 2019, the difference in monthly earnings between women and men had become negligible in the field of music, unlike in other branches of the arts, such as among authors. In the study Making Music Work, income differentials were explained by the stage in which the artists were in their respective careers, not so much by gender or where they lived.

Studies generally do not differentiate between performing and creative musical artists, despite the fact that the revenue streams for these two can be very different. As a result, the studies mainly highlight parameters that are common for all professional musicians, such as the fragmentary nature of their income.

However, we do have some data on the distribution of income from copyright royalties among creators of music – composers, lyricists and arrangers – namely the royalty payouts from Teosto (Finnish copyright association for music creators). In 2020, more than 11,000 rightholders were paid royalties by Teosto, but 77% of these were paid less than EUR 1,000 each. There were just under 250 rightholders who were paid more than EUR 20,000. The number of those receiving the highest payouts has remained fairly stable over the past years, while the number of those receiving small payouts has increased steadily. 

There have been some international studies exploring another important source of income for contemporary composers: commission fees. According to a joint study published by Sound and Music (UK) and the Australian Music Centre in 2015, the average fee for commissioned musical works was about GBP 919 (AUD 1,580), while the Composer Commission Pay Surveypublished in the USA in early 2021 gave the median income from commissions as USD 1,500. The low end of the commission fee scale was zero, but beyond that, variation in fees was due to the scope and length of the commissioned work and the composer’s track record.

Both creators and performers are paid royalties by streaming services, but in different ways. There are great expectations in respect of streaming revenue, particularly now as live music performances are in crisis, but so far it is a significant income source for only a handful of musicians. In Australia, for instance, a study found that digital music sales only generated income for 20% of the respondents, and even then, the sums were not huge. By contrast, in a study conducted by the research company Midia one year ago it was found that independent artists are a group for whom streaming revenue is genuinely significant: these artists distribute their music with no middlemen, and streaming revenue is their principal income source, accounting for 28% of all their income. According to a recent streaming income report by IPO, many music creators in the UK feel that they should be earning more from their streaming revenues. The fairness of streaming revenue distribution has lately been challenged often, up to and including in a Parliamentary inquiry in the UK. 

There are likewise great expectations for the fan economy. Fan microcommunities have already been tapped into on the Asian music market, but in the West crowdfunding or community funding has not yet properly found its place in the grand scheme of things.


Plurality makes us strong but also makes us vulnerable

A broad and fragmented income palette may lend security in a time of crisis but can also generate problems in systems in our society that have an in-built assumption of employment on a monthly salary. In Finland, the coronavirus crisis has sharply highlighted the problems that freelancers experience with unemployment benefit and social security, many of them having now fallen outside the usual safety nets. Statistics Finland showed an increase of about 50% in the number of unemployed musicians on the previous year, and according to the ‘Arts and culture barometer 2020’, nearly one in four artists in the field of music have considered a change of career since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. While this is slightly less than the corresponding figures in surveys in many other countries, we should note that the Finnish survey did not differentiate between performing musicians and, say, composers, for whom the impact of the pandemic has been very different. 

The Finnish government, like many other governments, has sought to help freelance musicians with facilities such as ‘coronavirus grants’. In the field of music in particular, such grants were applied for by many people who had never applied for any financial support from the Arts Promotion Centre Finland. Public and private grants have become an income source for many professional musicians who used to be able to make a living on a purely commercial basis.

The multiple revenue streams in the music business add up to what is very much an entrepreneur-like income structure, leading to some music professionals actually setting themselves up as private entrepreneurs. This, however, appears to be an opinion divider: according to the Cupore barometer, some artists considered this an important aspect of the profession, while others did not. On the other hand, everyone agreed that business skills were vital, regardless of whether they were willing to become entrepreneurs or not.

Business, work, passion, livelihood...

Public debate on the arts during the coronavirus pandemic has featured the juxtaposition of artistic pursuits as a profession and a livelihood on the one hand and as a passion and a vocation on the other. This dualism also emerges in the ‘Arts and culture barometer’ surveys in Finland: art is seen both as a career like any other and as a calling or a “life choice that is unavoidable”. These images affect what potential society is willing to dedicate to this work and how practitioners are to be compensated if denied being able to work.

Idealism aside, artistic work is a means of livelihood. The ‘Arts and culture barometer 2019’ indicates that whether something is defined as ‘work’ is determined by income: work generates financial value that ensures a livelihood.

For artists, however, this is not the be-all and end-all of their work. Unlike in many other fields, artistic work requires front-loaded investments, such as skills maintenance or rehearsing for a concert; although this time can be considered working hours, it is not self-evidently compensable as in many other occupations.

An artist’s work is exceptionally closely bound up with identity and values. Many researchers now talk about the ‘livelihood’ of artists, not ‘employment’. According to researcher Donna Weston, ‘livelihood’ is not only a financial concept but also encompasses the meaningfulness of the work and the entire career arc, thus subsuming the vocational nature of the musical profession. This value-based dedication helps practitioners tolerate the uncertainty, unpaid work and unequal distribution of working hours in the field to a far greater extent than is the case in many other professions.

Moreover, being an artist has come to be seen as a profession established in society much like that of a doctor or a lawyer, as the authors of the Cupore ‘Arts and culture barometer 2019’ noted: it is expertise of the sort “that society needs and has always needed”.

What is the outlook?

Like many previous studies, the ‘Arts and culture barometer 2019’ prepared immediately before the pandemic reminds us that the situation in the field of music is rather better than in other branches of the arts. Of the music professionals who responded to the survey, 65% felt that there was good potential for making a living with their artistic work, while in visual arts this figure was 40% and even in literature only 48%.

The coronavirus pandemic had a discouraging effect on the outlook of music professionals in Finland, and several surveys in the field have reflected a fear for the future of their careers. In a survey conducted by the Ministry of Education and Culture in spring 2021, 94% of music professionals reported that their livelihood had declined and 67% reported that their artistic work had changed in the year of the coronavirus, 2020. Threats became concrete as the potential for remaining in the profession now and in the future was jeopardised.

Nevertheless, there are also positive views, especially when looking sufficiently far into the future.

For example, researcher Diana Tolmie, who has recently analysed megatrends affecting the work of musicians, predicts that despite the changes required because of the pandemic and climate change, the work of musicians will continue to be based on personal values and community relationships, and there will be no end to the demand for live music. However, advancements in science and technology will have a fundamental impact on work in the future, and new forms of work will continue to proliferate. Despite this, Tolmie proposes that there will be plenty of demand for the skills of music professionals both within and outside the profession. 

Sources and further reading

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi