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Paying the piper

by Merja Hottinen

Rock star, bohemian, busker, creative genius, contemporary composer, pop singer, session player. Our images of music and musicians are easily associated with images of money and wealth, or the absence of same. Some of these people seem to be filthy rich, while others do not have two pennies to rub together – or simply do not care.

Yet money is not just part of the music myth. It is a very real and necessary thing for those who have chosen music as a career. Only a minority of musicians or composers enjoy a monthly salary or a long-term grant, while others have to find their income where they can. For an artist to live on art alone is a rare achievement, and musicians are no exception.

What does a musician earn?

There are considerable differences in income among musicians and composers in Finland. This was shown in the study Taiteilijan asema (Status of an artist), written by Kaija Rensujeff in 2014. The study was based on a questionnaire exploring the incomes of artists in various branches in 2010. About one fifth of all musicians earned less than €21,000 per year, while two fifths declared their annual income as over €40,000.

The median of musicians’ and composers’ annual income in 2010 was €35,066, which translates to average monthly earnings of about €2,900. As it happens, this is quite close to the average earnings of all Finnish wage earners in the year in question, which was about €35,000. However, in the music sector not all income was generated through artistic activities; earnings also included income from other work, pensions or unemployment benefits. The median of musicians’ and composers’ income from music was €25,000 per year.

These average figures look quite good on paper. Indeed, musicians and composers could even be described as being in a high-income bracket compared to the earnings of Finnish visual artists, which according to the aforementioned study were only €20,220 per year on average, of which only €5,000 came from actual artistic activities. For all artists surveyed, the median of annual income was €27,500, of which €14,200 came from artistic activities.

But averages are not the whole truth, and among musicians huge differences in income may be found, depending on the stage of their career, their popularity, their occupational group or their genre. For instance, Rensujeff’s study showed that musicians in classical music tend to have higher earnings than those in rhythm music, probably largely because of the salaried positions of musicians in symphony orchestras. Gender was also a dividing factor: on average, women only earned 85% of what men earned, but then again, only 27% of the musicians were women.

Rensujeff’s study does not distinguish between performing and creative musicians, but its findings can be juxtaposed with the income survey conducted by the Society of Finnish Composers in the same year, which found that the median annual income for composers of classical music was €28,700 – clearly lower than the median for musicians and composers overall. Income from composing – i.e. commission fees, copyright royalties and grants – constituted the majority of income in only one age group, composers aged 30 to 40; for everyone else, the majority of income came from other sources.

Copyright royalties typically constitute only a small part of the overall earnings of a composer of classical music, albeit an important one in the big picture, the average figure being €2,800 per year. Copyright royalties are typically spread thinly: in 2014, for instance, more than three quarters of the more than 10,000 rightholder members of the Finnish Composers’ Copyright Society Teosto received less than €1,000 in copyright royalties, while only some 200 received more than €20,000.

Freelance income: trickles make a flow

The distribution of copyright royalties illustrates how few people there are who can actually make a living from a single source of income in the music sector. Most freelance artists find their income in any number of sources: salaries, fees, copyright royalties, grants. A decrease in any of the multiple income sources disrupts the balance, leading to fluctuations in liquidity or the necessity to take another job.

In this sense, the situation in Finland would seem to be very near what musicians experience in the USA, extensively researched in recent years by the Future of Music association that represents American musicians. The Artist Revenue Streams research project launched in 2010 identified a total of 42 income sources in the American music industry from which musicians gained their earnings.

In the American study, nearly 70% of the survey respondents earned their income from more than one source or type of income. Many of the income sources cited were new ones. Kristin Thomson, the research project manager, identified changes caused by technology as a cause for the fragmented revenue streams. Traditional sources are drying up, and new ones have to be found. At the same time, a musician’s work is changing, being split up into smaller and smaller areas of expertise, involving more risk-taking and more career management.

There are of course great differences between Finland and the USA, for example in the copyright system, the percentage of salaried musicians or grant systems. However, increased uncertainty is a fact of life everywhere in the increasingly global music industry. Musicians have to find extra employment to secure an income, work is becoming more fragmented, artists find themselves having to take responsibility for more things not directly connected with their art, and their personal risk is increasing.

Heralds of flexible employment

The employment structure of the music sector largely reflects current ideals in society at large. Whereas in the Finland of the 1970s it was a policy goal to establish positions with monthly salaries for musicians in institutionalised orchestras, now it is all about self-employment and entrepreneurship. Freelancing is nothing new in the music sector though; indeed, musicians are often used as examples when discussing the properties of the changing nature of work in general – for example flexibility, mobility and the responsibility of the individual.

But the changing nature of work in general has brought new practices to the music sector too. Increasingly, musicians and composers are entrepreneurs rather than piecework employees hired to play a gig. Rensujeff’s study found that the number of entrepreneurs had increased many times over: by 2010, 17% of all musicians were entrepreneurs, and in a survey conducted by the Association of Finnish Composers and Lyricists (ELVIS) in 2013, the percentage among lyricists and songwriters in the popular music sector was as high as 27%.

A similar trend may be found in the American study material: a stronger entrepreneurship trend, strategic thinking and a “do it yourself” approach. An artist entrepreneur is responsible not only for the music itself but also, for instance, for sales and publicity. The most successful are assisted in this by good partners such as agents, managers or associations. Kristin Thomson goes so far as to conclude that the most successful musicians are not necessarily those who are the best musicians but those who are the best entrepreneurs.

Combining entrepreneurship with other sources of income commonly drawn on by musicians, such as grants, is not without its problems. A musician in Finland may suddenly run into difficulties if the need arises for unemployment benefits, pensions or parental leave. In such cases, freelance artists are equated with entrepreneurs, for whom social security depends on pension contributions paid by the entrepreneur him/herself. A reform of the pension and social security system for grant recipients was enacted in 2009, but this did not completely correct the situation. While the reform did bring grant recipients under the coverage of the pension insurance system, artists who navigate between multiple income sources may still find themselves high and dry.

Is there enough work to go around?

Statistics show that unemployment is no higher than average in the music sector. Rensujeff’s study shows that the unemployment rate for musicians in the year studied was 11%, very close to the national average. Employment surveys among recent graduates show that music students are reasonably successful in finding further studies or employment after completing their basic qualification or degree.

But unemployment statistics do not tell the whole story. Freelancers and entrepreneurs are generally not entered as unemployed jobseekers in statistics even if they do not earn enough to make a living. Many are concerned about erratic income and fewer work opportunities, as was reflected in the open responses returned in Rensujeff’s study. Not everyone had such problems, however, and this too reflects the polarisation in the sector: for some, 2010 was the best year ever, and for others it was rock bottom.

The employment situation has certainly not improved since the year 2010 analysed by Rensujeff: according to the employment figures published by Statistics Finland, there were about 50% more musicians as unemployed jobseekers in 2014 than there were in 2010. Although the figures are small and there is a lot of annual variation, this trend does say something about the stark changes in the sector in recent years.

Salaried musicians are the best shielded against this structural shift, since their income is governed by a collective agreement. Ahti Vänttinen from the Finnish Musicians’ Union reports that the earnings of salaried orchestral musicians have developed according to the overall national trend, i.e. rather moderately, and that there has been no significant change in the number of salaried musicians. By contrast, the Finnish Musicians’ Union is familiar with the pain of freelance musicians. “Employment prospects among freelance musicians have declined, and fewer musicians can now make a living working only as a musician,” says Ahti Vänttinen.

What if you have a hit?

Yet for all this uncertainty, it is actually possible to strike it rich in music. A good example is Finnish singer-songwriter Anssi Kela, who struck gold with his hit song “Levoton tyttö” (Restless girl) in 2013. According to data published by Kela himself in the Teosto blog, the song was played on various radio stations more than 6,000 times in all, streamed on Spotify about 1.3 million times and downloaded digitally a couple of thousand times. It earned its author and performer more than €75,000 in one year.

This income distribution says something about the revenue logic of making music and gives food for thought as we contemplate the future. The vast majority of the revenue generated by that one song came from radio play, which resulted in €58,713 in copyright royalties. The next largest source was TV broadcasts, which generated over €8,000.

Streaming and downloads yielded €5,331, which is only about 7% of the total. The remainder came from performance royalties for live performances and other royalties paid out by Teosto. The figure does not include Kela’s performance fees or revenue from record sales, although the hit song must have had an impact on those too.

The sum named above may seem like a lot of money, but to place it in context we must realise just how rare such a huge hit is and that in most cases there are several authors sharing in the proceeds. A lot of unpaid tacit work is funded with occasional hits, or even the hope of one. “It is typical for the music industry that success is sudden and brief: for a moment, you’re raking in the cash, and then it’s time for a long silence again,” wrote Kela in the Teosto blog.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Five artists from different genres and occupations were interviewed by Merja Hottinen and journalist and folk singer Amanda Kauranne. Read the interviews here: Verneri Pohjola, Suvi Oskala, Sebastian Hilli, Kaija Kärkinen, Helena Juntunen.

Read also Andrew Mellor’s and Federico Ermirio’s reports on musicians’ earnings in UK and Italy.

Artist Revenue Streams.

Kaija Rensujeff (2014) Taiteilijan asema 2010. Taiteilijakunnan rakenne, työ ja tulonmuodostus. Helsinki: Taiteen edistämiskeskus. (Summary in English at:

Kristin Thomson (2013) “Roles, Revenue, and Responsibilities: The Changing Nature of Being a Working Musician”. Work and Occupations 40(4) 514–525.

Statistics Finland,


Kela, Anssi (4.7.2014) ”Mitä hittibiisillä tienaa?”. Teosto blog.