How Much Does a Professional Musician Make in 2012?

You may remember the shitfight that ensued after the publication of Nitsuh Abebe’s New York magazine cover story earlier this year about Grizzly Bear’s parlous financial state. The article led to much online debate (including an epic comments-section slanging match on Stereogum) as to whether the band members were being courageous in throwing a spotlight on the fact that music is a shitty way to make a living or acting like spoiled, entitled brats for complaining that they couldn’t afford health insurance.

Whatever your take on the Grizzly Bear controversy, it’s notable that while there’s been a great deal of hand-wringing over the last decade or so about the future of the music industry and the impact of the internet and the decline of the CD, much of said angst has ultimately boiled down to the question of how the suits make any money out of music these days. The question of how musicians make any cash is one that’s asked less often, perhaps because they’ve only ever been lapping from what Michael Stipe once called the “trickle-down runoff pool.” Unless you’re Coldplay or Lady Gaga or Kanye, you’re never gonna make a whole lot of money out of music.

All of this explains why we were fascinated to read some actual proper analysis of how much musicians actually make. The analysis in question comes from the Future of Music Coalition (henceforth “FMC” for convenience), and is contained in a blog post they uploaded earlier this week under the title, “Putting Common Assumptions About How Musicians Make Money to the Truthiness Test.” The post is a study of sorts, relying on data gathered via something called the Money from Music survey, which interviewed 5,371 musicians in late 2011.

It’s worth noting that a pretty broad spectrum of musicians were interviewed — apparently only 40% said they spent “36 hours a week or more doing music,” and only 42% said they derived “all their personal income from music,” meaning that there are presumably a fair few amateur musicians diluting the sample of what professional musicians make. Still, it’s not to say that your friend in a band doesn’t also have a job — we can’t all be Grizzly Bear, after all. We’d also like to have seen some sort of location data given, too, but you can’t have everything.

In any case, the results are worth reading. The fact that your average musician isn’t rich isn’t going to surprise anyone, but the fact that they make, on average, a gross $34,455 per year — that’s before the deduction of tax, insurance, expenses, etc. — is a pretty depressing picture, especially if you’re trying to pay the rent in an expensive city like New York. (It may still pay better than journalism, but shit, who are we to complain?) The picture is better for full-time musicians, which the survey defines as those “spending 36+ hrs/wk doing music AND earning 90% or more of personal income from music ” — they clear $62,757 per annum on average, which is a pretty tidy sum, although still not exactly a path to untold riches. (Since this is an average, not a median, the number could also be skewed by a few super-high salaries.)

As a whole, the survey makes for fascinating reading — there are some case studies here, including this one of an “indie rock composer-performer” who “writes, records and performs his own music… has appeared on 14 records as leader, 32 records as band member and 27 as a sideman.” (Answers on a postcard if you’d like to guess who this is.)

There will be more analysis coming on the FMC website over the next few days, and we’ll be reading with interest to see what other data their survey uncovers — we suggest that you do the same.