How to Make a Living as a Musician

February 11, 2019

What’s the best piece of advice for anyone trying to make a living in the music business? Well, it probably depends on who you ask, but according to guitarist Steve Vai it’s, “Keep your publishing.”  Vai said that this was the advice that he got from Frank Zappa, and he said it’s saved him “millions of dollars” over the years. 


Protecting your publishing probably won’t enable you to earn millions, but the principle still applies. Like it or not, making a living in music is a matter of business. Because of this,  you don’t need to just generate sources of income; you need to protect you income sources. If you’re a songwriter or a composer, protecting your publishing rights could be the difference between having a steady, reliable income and being forced to flip burgers to make ends meet when gigs are sparse. 


One of the reasons that the rock band Kiss was such a massive financial success wasn’t just that they sold tons of records, although that helped, it was because bassist Gene Simmons understood the business side of music, and he was the driving force in leveraging merchandising to cement Kiss’s financial success. Making money in the music business means having a mindset that understands that music isn’t just about being an artist; it’s about being a business person.


You may not have the same head for business that you have for music. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do some basic things to develop your music into a business. Because of this, Vai recommends two basic steps.


 First,  Vai says, “Set Up a Publishing Company.”  This way you own and control everything you write. This might seem like an intimidating step, but Vai says it’s actually very easy. He suggests simply going online and googling “how to set up a music publishing company.” 


Once you’re ready to release your music to the world, be sure you copyright your music. That way not only do you have complete control over how your music is used and distributed, you have legal protection should someone misuse your intellectual property. Registering your music with the U.S. Copyright Office will allow you to take legal action should someone try to misuse or profit from your hard work.


Second, Vai says, “Find Ways to Make Technology Serve You.” Technology has made it possible for musicians to do almost everything they need to get their music to the public independently. Everything from recording to distribution can be done from your living room. You just need to be flexible enough to adapt to the changes in technology, and learn to use them to your advantage.  Via suggests starting a YouTube channel or distributing your music on a digital platform like TuneCore. Some people believe that the Internet has killed the music business, but Vai believes that the Internet has made this one of the best times for musicians to be independent and fully benefit from their intellectual property.


If you want to make your living playing music, and you want to have a steady income, start learning how to make your music a business. 


Be sure to watch this interview with Steve Vai on Rick Beato’s YouTube channel. You don’t have to be a fan of Vai’s music to benefit from what he's learned after nearly forty years in the music business. 












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